Brian Williams Returns From Suspension

(August 2015)

“Please welcome our next guest. On Monday night, he returns to the anchor desk at NBC Nightly News after a six-month suspension. He’s one of our favorite guests, and we’ve missed him. Give it up for … Brian Williams!”

(The Roots play “Liar, Liar” as the audience applauds.)

“It’s good to see you, Brian. How are you doing?”

“Fine, Jimmy. Before I do anything else, I just want to thank everybody for their expression of support for me during these difficult times. I especially want to thank the people who started the hashtag #JeSuisBrian.”

“Um, nobody did that, Brian.”

“Gee, I was hoping you would have had me on the show to slow jam the news of my suspension. I could have read the official NBC statement in my news anchor voice while you kept saying things like, ‘Oh…yeah…When Brian lies, it’s a whopper, baby.’”

“The NBC executives said you weren’t allowed to appear on our show during the six months. Besides, under the circumstances, it would be undignified to have you narrate the cratering of your reputation while I coo double-entendres.”

“Yes, I can see your point, Jimmy.”

“But anyway, Brian, tell us what you’ve been doing with your six months off.”

“Glad you asked. First, I talked to my good friend Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, before the Super Bowl, and he said, ‘You know, Brian, we’re a little short in the defensive backfield, but you look in reasonably good shape. You’re smart and I’m sure you can read defensive schemes. Why don’t you suit up?’ I said, ‘Are you sure, Coach?’ He said, ‘With all of the fuss about Deflate Gate, I figure we need someone with an unimpeachable reputation.’”

“Wait, Brian, I don’t think that really …”

“So anyway, it was late in the game. We had a four-point lead but the Seahawks were marching toward the winning touchdown. There were 26 seconds left, they were on the one-yard line, and everybody in the stadium thought they would just give the ball to Marshawn Lynch. But when I saw the Seattle formation, I immediately knew that they were going to run a slant pattern because I had seen this formation in practice. So as soon as the ball was snapped, I raced toward the goal line, cut in front of the receiver, and intercepted the pass, saving the Super Bowl for…”

“Brian, that didn’t happen. It was Malcolm Butler who intercepted the pass.”

“Was it? Oh. I’m sorry. I made a mistake in recalling the events of six months ago and I want to apologize to my audience and to the New England Patriots.”

“I’m glad you’ve seen the error of your ways. What else have you been up to?”

“On the way back from the Super Bowl, I stopped in Alabama to visit my old friend Harper Lee. I told her, ‘I know you value your privacy, Nelle – all of her close friends call her Nelle – but this manuscript you gave me is really good and should be published.’ She told me, ‘Really? I’ve been on the fence about it but your opinion is the most important…”

“Stop it, Brian. That didn’t happen.”

“Anyway, a week later, I’m sitting in the front row at the Grammys. And I hear Prince announce, “The winner of the Grammy for Best Album is … Brian Williams for Morning Phase!” I run up on the stage with a big smile on my face because first, this is a life-long dream to win a Grammy but also because second, it’s my dear friend Prince giving it to me. And just as he hands me the award, I see Kanye West running up on stage and …”

“No, Brian, that didn’t happen. It was Beck that won the award and got bum-rushed by Kanye. Not you.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I want to apologize to Beck for a bungled attempt by me to …”

“OK, we get it. Let’s try something else. Being home for six months must have given you a lot of special time with Mrs. Williams, am I right?”

“I have to be honest, Jimmy. I’ve strayed.”

“No! I’m so sorry to hear that. I can’t believe you’re admitting this on national television.”

“Well, if there is one lesson I’ve learned over the last six months, it’s to be totally honest. What happened was that there was this young man. He was so handsome, I couldn’t resist. Next thing you know, we’re in my kitchen. I have to tell you, it was the most pleasurable experience in my life. I’m standing there with my pants off, and then I bend over the sink, shoving my naked ass in front of him. And then he sticks his face between my butt cheeks, takes his tongue and sticks it in …”

“No, no, Brian, for God’s sake, that did not happen. That was your daughter on an episode of the HBO series Girls. That wasn’t you.”

“Really? Next thing you’re going to tell me is that my daughter flew to Neverland, not me.”

“It was your daughter. She starred in the NBC production of Peter Pan.”

“And Captain Hook didn’t fire an RPG at me?”

“No, Brian. He didn’t. I think I’ve heard enough. Let’s move on. My next guest is the star of the new series Better Call Saul. It’s on AMC every …”

“Hey, Jimmy, did I ever tell you about the time I was stuck out in the New Mexico desert with a crazy meth dealer?”

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Random Assumptions and Admissions

I’m not as smart as I think I am.

I have several opinions that are stupid, based on misinformation, sloppy analysis, or ideological bias. I don’t know which ones. If I did, perhaps I’d adjust or eliminate them. Perhaps I’d cling to them stubbornly, refusing to admit that I’m wrong. Either way, I’m pretty sure that I’ll develop new stupid opinions. Even Einstein was wrong sometimes. I’m not Einstein.

I have supported some of my opinions that aren’t stupid with misquotes, untrue facts, and inaccurate statistics.

I have opinions about some things that nobody needs to hear. There are some things that are not worth having an opinion about.

Some of the actions I advocate will inadvertently make things worse.

Writing instructors urge the authoritative voice. That voice implies certainty. Whenever I assert certainty, I’m usually hiding doubt. If I’m not, I should be.

At least one thing I’m absolutely certain of is dead wrong.

I have at least one belief, shared with much of the human race, which future generations will consider as ignorant as “the sun revolves around the earth.”

Humility seems obsolete. When I see humility, it’s often a strategic pose.

I don’t assume a story is true because it validates my ideological bias, nor do I assume a story is untrue because it doesn’t.

If I were outraged about everything people think I should be outraged about, I wouldn’t have time to eat or sleep. My blood pressure would be through the roof.

If I took a stand every time I was urged to take a stand, my legs and back would give out.

I can count the number of times I’ve changed my mind in the middle of an argument on the fingers of zero hands, yet I’m always annoyed when I can’t convince others to instantly change their minds.

Most of my friends agree with me politically. Whenever I spend time socially with people who disagree with my politics, I am always surprised to learn they are not the spawn of Satan. I know people who agree with my politics who make me want to pull my hair out.

Preaching to the choir bores me. I wish I could say that, given a choice between an essay that echoes my opinion and one that challenges it, I often choose the latter. I don’t.

Often, when I read opinions that disagree with mine, I look for the most extreme so I can mock it.

Last week, I read an essay online that I thought was smart. I posted a comment, not to praise the writer, but to mock a negative reader’s comment. I regretted it immediately. I realized that I was only posting it to feel morally superior to someone for a few minutes. That doesn’t seem like something a morally superior person would do.

I have never had a memorable conversation in my life conducted at high volume or with a sneer on my face. I have had conversations at high volume or with a sneer, and I regret them all.

Sometimes conversations at high volume are necessary for progress.

Some stories that are in the news today are untrue or grossly exaggerated. I don’t know which ones. I could make a guess but some of my guesses would be wrong. A couple of the stories that are untrue will be stories that I wish were true.

If I could go back in time, I would learn that our history books are filled with misinformation, both major and minor, because we’ve always been careless about documenting things.

Some of the rumors and allegations I hear will be proven untrue. Even if they will be proven true, there is no need for me to rush to judgment, though sometimes I do.

Some people I was convinced were guilty of heinous crimes were later exonerated. I have not forgotten that I once wanted their heads on a platter.

I have said at least one thing recently that might have offended you. I will say something in the near future that might offend you.

I have laughed at jokes that might have offended you. I will do so again in the future.

At some point, I have had an unkind thought, or uttered a catty remark, about every one of my friends and family. I assume every one of them has had an unkind thought, or uttered a catty remark, about me. I deserved some of them. Even if I didn’t, I forgive them.

If they planted a chip in my brain that converted each of my unfiltered thoughts into a 140-character tweet, I would lose all my friends by the end of the first day.

Sooner rather than later, in an attempt to sound witty or smart, I will say something off the cuff that mangles my meaning and makes me sound like a jerk. When someone points this out, I might respond by calling him a jerk. We might both be right. Or neither.

Years ago, I argued with a girlfriend about a historical fact. I retrieved an almanac to prove her wrong. Not surprisingly, the relationship didn’t last much longer. Nobody likes know-it-alls.

Sometimes I say or do something that contradicts something else I said or did.

Even when I know the right thing to do, sometimes I will do the wrong thing.

I call myself compassionate but sometimes I take pleasure in another’s misfortune.

There are things that have no value for me. That doesn’t mean they have no value for others.

I wrestle with my conscience a lot. I resent writers who presume to wrestle with it for me.

If I am exposed to less snark, I won’t feel culturally deprived.

I will say something snarky today.

If the first paragraph is characterized by contempt and derision, I probably won’t read the second.

I have written first paragraphs characterized by contempt and derision.

I have written blog posts and comments that took a lecturing tone. The number of people whose minds were changed by my lecturing is probably less than one.

The person lecturing me probably has things on his hard drive or search history he wouldn’t want me to see.

When I read a memoir, I assume 25% is untrue or grossly exaggerated. If I ever write my own memoir, you can assume the same.

The other day, I was writing something about a time in my early twenties when I was a major film buff. I included a story, which I’ve told numerous times, about a Saturday afternoon forty years ago when I saw three movies, one after the other, on the same block in Manhattan. I remembered two of the films but it had always bugged me that I couldn’t recall the third. I remembered that The New York Times has old editions scanned on their website, so I got the bright idea to check their movie ads for that week. I discovered that my story was a crock. Not only had I never seen any of the other movies playing on that block then, but one of the two films I did remember was playing in a completely different part of town. It’s a trivial story, but it bothers me that I can’t trust my memory.

It seems that, on the Internet, stories have to be awful or extraordinary to garner attention. Very little of real life is awful or extraordinary.

When I read a story online that seems either awful or extraordinary, I suspect it might be a hoax. I’m right about that a lot.

I read a lot of clickbait stories that can be summarized as, “Hey, look at this asshole!” I assume that some of the subjects of these stories aren’t really assholes.

If anybody cared enough to hack into my emails, they could easily make me look like an asshole.

At least one person will read this and think, “Fuck you, asshole.”

I’m imperfect. I try to remember that everyone else is too. I don’t always succeed.

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My Belated Best of 2014

All of the year-end Ten Best lists leave me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m an inveterate list-maker, I love the arts, and I’m always open to suggestions. On the other hand, I don’t go to the movies often anymore, I don’t watch much TV, and I don’t purchase many new books. The lists just remind me how increasingly out of touch I am with popular culture. This doesn’t fill me with some smug sense of superiority, because I suspect I would enjoy a lot of it – I finally binge-watched Breaking Bad this year and got absorbed by it – but rather that I doubt catching up with Homeland is the best investment of my dwindling time on this planet.

Anyway, here are some things that did give me pleasure last year.


I. I thought Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was extraordinary. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you know the gimmick: the same cast gathered for a few weeks annually for twelve years to show a boy literally grow up in front of your eyes. The film is remarkably low-key; none of the scenes are earth-shattering, just the small ups and downs of life. But the next thing you know, 2 ½ hours have been flown by, you’ve never looked away from the screen, and your eyes have watered.

Since seeing it, I’ve pondered how truly remarkable it is. The odds against the film’s being coherent and moving were long, but so were the odds against it even being completed, considering all the things that could have gone wrong – the kid (Ellar Coltrane) could have lost interest, got sick or died, moved, joined a cult. But that made me realize how remarkable life is; becoming even a moderately successful adult requires sidestepping all the potential pitfalls of growing up.

Rob PeaceII. If you were going to design a young man for an American success story, you’d design Robert Peace. Born on the mean streets of Newark to a mother who worked multiple jobs and to a father who was a drug dealer and convicted murderer, Rob Peace had such a prodigious intelligence that at age three his day-care teachers called him “the Professor.” Graduating with a 3.97 GPA from a private high school, Rob impressed a bank CEO so much that he covered his entire tuition at Yale, where Rob graduated with a degree in molecular biology and physics. Athletic, generous, gentlemanly, with an insatiable curiosity and a strong work ethic, he was by all accounts a loving son and a loyal friend. His future seemed limitless.

So how did he end up dead at age 30, murdered by a drug dealer?

Jeff Hobbs’s The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace seeks an answer, depicting how Rob always felt like a stranger in a strange land, from his youth in the hood to his years on campus, and tracing the distressing downward arc of his life after graduation. Hobbs, however, seeks the answer not just because it is a compelling human interest story with socioeconomic implications. Rather, he seeks it for a very personal reason: For four years, Jeff Hobbs was Rob Peace’s Yale roommate.

Serial III. Like many people, I was addicted to Serial, the true-crime podcast produced by This American Life, in which reporter Sarah Koenig reinvestigated the 1999 Maryland murder of a high school girl supposedly by her ex-boyfriend, though he has always maintained his innocence. In weekly segments lasting from 30-60 minutes, Koenig revealed new details that added layers to previous details, alternately undermining evidence or making it more ominous. While the show ultimately could not definitively prove or disprove Adnan Syed’s guilt, it did raise significant doubt about the testimony used to convict him (I share Koenig’s conclusion that it should not have been nearly enough to convict) and triggered much-needed conversations on the unfairness of the criminal justice system and the concept of reasonable doubt. (BTW, if you haven’t heard the podcast but saw the recent Saturday Night Live spoof, trust me: they nailed it.)

Serial touched on my current obsession, and the subject of several unfinished essays clogging my hard drive: the elusive nature of truth and our willingness to believe stories that have no factual foundation. It was also the subject of two of my favorite books that I read this year.

Blood Will Out

IV. Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out recounts the author’s friendship with a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but was in fact an imposter and a murderer on the lam. What was even more fascinating than the details of “Rockefeller’s” con was Kirn’s complicity in the con by eagerly embracing and enabling it even when disproof stared him right in the face.

Sybil ExposedV. Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed (released in 2012) debunked the famous 1970s book/TV movie about the woman with multiple personalities. Nathan, who previously debunked the day-care sex-abuse scandals in Satan’s Silence, unraveled the story through the Sybil author’s own papers, which were donated to a New York university. The papers showed the author knowingly fabricating or exaggerating stories, probably to justify the lucrative publishing contract, as well as the psychiatrist’s notes on her dubious and manipulative handling of a suggestive patient.

I should add that I began reading Nathan’s book after it was mentioned in a New York Times Retro Report, a weekly video series that rehashes news stories from the past – recent ones included Ruby Ridge and Three Mile Island – and shows that what we remember is often inaccurate, while new information was revealed after we stopped paying attention. For example, I hadn’t known that the mother in the “dingo ate my baby” case had been completely exonerated by the Australian courts.

VI. One place where the elusive nature of truth is always resolved is in crime novels. I read a lot of them this year. Tara French’s The Secret Place investigates the death of a teenage boy at a Dublin girls’ private school. Although I didn’t enjoy it as much as her previous Broken Harbor, probably because I found the milieu less interesting than a middle-class family torn apart by a depressed economy, French is such a masterful storyteller that I inhaled the 450 pages in two days.

Michael Connelly is one of our most popular crime novelists, but I’d never read him until I picked up Blood Work and The Black Ice. His plots are intricate and compelling, and I’ll be reading more. I read Gillian Flynn’s two novels before Gone Girl; both are excellent, but since they both involve murdered children, I don’t think I’d invite her to be Santa at the office Christmas party. Though I think it could have easily been trimmed, The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first book J.K. Rowling wrote under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, was an enjoyable read and I look forward to the new one. One of my all-time favorite films is Robert Altman’s version of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which I’ve seen so many times that I assumed I had read the original book. When I picked it up a few weeks ago, I was delighted to learn that I hadn’t. Ergo, an early Christmas present.

AxelrodThere is an excellent crime novelist among my blogger friends. Steven Axelrod’s Nantucket Sawbuck is a page-turner, or whatever you call the Kindle equivalent: likable-if-flawed hero, interesting atmosphere, worthy murder victim, several credible suspects, snappy dialogue, unexpected twists and turns – and bonus points for a narrator with good taste in music. He’s releasing a new book in January, and he deserves your support.

MansonI was absorbed by another crime book: Jeff Guinn’s biography, Manson. I hadn’t known the grim details of Charles Manson’s upbringing nor his early criminal history, which demonstrated that his con man skills combined with the naïveté of Haight-Asbury created a marriage made in hell. I also hadn’t known how badly the original murder investigation by the L.A.P.D. had been botched; they were sure the Sharon Tate murders were connected to drugs and that the similar LoBianco murders were unconnected, and the case wasn’t cracked until one of Manson’s women, in jail on another charge, spilled the beans to fellow inmates.

VII. I may write about music at length at another time, but when the music website Odyshape held a year-end vote for ten best albums and ten best songs, I submitted this ballot:


The Old 97s, All Messed Up
Spoon, They Want My Soul
Miranda Lambert, Platinum
Lily Allen, Sheezus
Toni Braxton and Babyface, Love, Marriage and Divorce
Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans
St. Vincent, St. Vincent
Jason Derulo, Talk Dirty
Against Me, Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Jack White, Lazaretto


Kendrick Lamar, “I”
Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
Craig Finn, “Sweetheart Like You”
Lily Allen, “Hard Out Here”
Modern Baseball, “Fine, Great”
New Mendicants, “Cruel Annette”
Pharrell Williams, “Happy”
The Chainsmokers, “#Selfie”
Röyskopp & Robyn, “Do It Again”
Aretha Franklin, “I Will Survive (The Aretha Version)”

If I were to redo the list now, I’d probably add Mac Demarco’s Salad Days to the album list and Leonard Cohen’s “Slow” to the songs. If I listen to it a couple more times, I might regret leaving D’Angelo’s Black Messiah off the list.

FargoVIII. As a fan of the Coen Brothers’ film, I had misgivings before watching the mini-series Fargo. My fears were unfounded. It was great (though I was underwhelmed by the ending), Billie Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman were hoots, and anyone who didn’t fall in love with Allison Tolman as the deputy who breaks the case has a heart colder than Dick Cheney’s.

Key PeeleIX. I began watching Key & Peele this fall and I love them. It’s not just because their skits have clever concepts and funny lines, but because they are mini-movies with attention to detail that is always spot-on – camera angles, clothing, music – and their commitment to the performances are total.

Finding RootsX. Finally, because I occasionally go down the rabbit hole of family genealogical research, I got a lot from the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. By tracing the family histories of actors, politicians, and even chefs (including Tom Colicchio, who is nominally my daughter’s boss), Dr. Gates found unexpected connections (Jessica Alba and lawyer Alan Dershowitz are related) but demonstrated how our bloodlines intersect with American history. Individual episodes showed the immigration experiences of Jews and Greek-Americans and the mostly unavoidable links between African-Americans and their slave ancestors. The finale, where Dr. Gates joined a family reunion with his white relatives in West Virginia, showed that the concept of race is deceptive and limiting, an especially important point in light of recent events.

Here’s to a better 2015!

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Unpublished Letter to the Editor

I have no plans to discuss the horrible attack in Paris yesterday. Any sensible person supports free speech and opposes terrorism. This morning, however, I remembered something sarcastic I wrote before joining OS about comic strips and offensiveness:


Have you heard? Smoking is bad for you. Apparently, one person didn’t think we’ve heard it enough. She wrote a letter to our local newspaper complaining about the comic strip Curtis, because the title character’s father smokes, and whenever Curtis tries to convince him to stop, the father threatens him with harm. “[The newspaper] has a responsibility,” she wrote, “to review material from syndicators to make sure that it is suitable for their readership. In this instance, a blank spot on the page would have been better than the strip that was published.” I was inspired to write my own letter to the editor:

I was glad to read [name redacted] letter complaining about the pro-smoking message hidden in the comic strip Curtis. It has inspired me to add my own suggestions for cleaning up your comics page.

Please eliminate any Beetle Bailey strip in which Sarge pounds Beetle to a pulp. Violence is no laughing matter. In addition, drop any strip in which Beetle is hiding from duty. This is an insult to our brave fighting men and women.

Please censor any Blondie strip in which Dagwood raids the refrigerator and creates a huge sandwich. Overeating is not funny in a country in which there is so much obesity and heart disease.

And please drop any strip in which Garfield is drinking coffee or eating lasagna. This is a totally inappropriate diet for a cat.

Now, do you have the address for TVLand? I want to complain to them about The Honeymooners. “To the moon, Alice, bang, zoom” – since when is domestic violence funny?

(Surprisingly, the newspaper declined to print my letter.)

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Year-End News Quiz 2014

Have you been paying attention to the news this year? Of course you have. That explains why you’re cowering under your desk. As always, there is no need to keep score with this quiz, since the answer is always the last one, except when it’s obviously all of them.

1. What did not end in 2014?
a. Derek Jeter’s baseball career
b. Microsoft support for Windows XP
c. The Colbert Report
d. Racism

2. Which one of the following received a grand jury indictment?
a. The cop who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson
b. The cop who killed Tamir Rice in Cleveland
c. The cop who killed Eric Garner in New York
d. The guy who filmed the killing of Eric Garner

3. Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned by the NBA in April for making racist remarks. What had he been scheduled to do in May?
a. Become an analyst for Fox News
b. Hire George Zimmerman as his bodyguard
c. Buy an NHL team so he could be around more white people
d. Receive an award from the NAACP

4. Who got married in 2014?
a. Ray Rice
b. Adrian Peterson
c. Charles Manson
d. Yay for traditional marriage!

5. The governors of New York and New Jersey instituted a mandatory quarantine at local airports for anyone who had recent contact with:
a. Bill Cosby
b. The Moreland Commission investigating corruption in the New York state government
c. Anyone investigating the George Washington Bridge closure
d. Ebola patients

6. When Dr. Craig Spencer returned to New York after working with Ebola patients, he alarmed many New Yorkers by taking a subway to a bowling alley shortly before developing symptoms of the disease. What was their biggest concern?
a. What if he held the same subway strap I’m holding on to?
b. What if I stick my fingers in the same ball he used?
c. I just used their urinal. What if he missed and I stepped in his pee?
d. Dude leaves the country for several weeks, and the first thing he wants to do when he returns is go bowling?

7. Complete the quote from an email sent by Chris Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly: “Time for some ___ in Fort Lee.”
a. Fracking
b. Rectal rehydration
c. Cannolis
d. Traffic problems

8. What percentage of the registered voters turned out for the midterm election?
a. Wait, there was an election this year?
b. It wasn’t Presidential, so it couldn’t have been important, right?
c. Oh well, I had to do that thing that day anyway.
d. 36%

9. On Election Day, voters in the red states of Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota approved proposals to do what?
a. Block same-sex marriage
b. Impose further restrictions on abortion
c. Urge the building of the Keystone XL pipeline
d. Increase the minimum wage

10. Newly elected Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, in her campaign ads, argued her ability to cut pork from the Federal budget by touting her skill at what?
a. Managing a household budget
b. Being a CFO at a major corporation
c. Preparing kosher meals
d. Castrating hogs

11. The House Intelligence committee, controlled by Republicans, issued a report on Benghazi that concluded that “there was no intelligence failure” and that the CIA “ensured sufficient security.” What was Sen. Lindsay Graham’s response to the report?
a. “Our attempt to sow distrust of the Obama Administration was misguided and I apologize for any part I played.”
b. “I am relieved that Hillary Clinton can run for President in 2016 without having this incident used against her.”
c. “I can assure you that Congress will never again exploit the deaths of diplomats for partisan political gain.”
d. “The report is full of crap.”

12. Why did CIA Director John O. Brennan apologize to the Senate in July?
a. He didn’t mean to send that drunken text message to Barbara Boxer
b. He really didn’t mean to send that sext to Mitch McConnell
c. He shouldn’t have stepped between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera
d. He admitted spying on Senate staffers who wanted to investigate the CIA’s interrogation program

13. According to the Senate Intelligence report on CIA torture, detainee Hassan Ghul willingly gave his captors a lot of information which helped lead to the location of Osama bin Laden, singing (according to one official) “like a tweetie bird.” What did the CIA do then?
a. They shook his hand and thanked him for the information
b. They put him in a nicer cell with cable and a DVD player
c. They re-read the Geneva Conventions
d. He was transferred to a black site prison, where he was placed in a hanging stress position and deprived of sleep for 59 hours, which resulted in no additional useful information.

14. Who is Jonathan Gruber?
a. The guy who started the Ice Bucket Challenge
b. The Uber executive who proposed investigating reporters who criticized the company
c. The naturalist who was supposed to be eaten alive by an anaconda on a Discovery Channel show
d. One of the architects of the Affordable Care Act caught on tape saying the law’s “lack of transparency” was designed because of “the stupidity of the American voter”

15. What did Ted Cruz call “Obamacare for the Internet”?
a. WebMD
b. All those Dr. Phil books available from Amazon
c. Pornography
d. Net neutrality

16. Which of the following women were harassed on Twitter?
a. The daughter of the late Robin Williams
b. The daughters of Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman
c. Female video game developers
d. Are there women who haven’t been harassed on Twitter?

17. The organization Hollaback released a video in which a young woman was secretly filmed walking through the streets of Manhattan. How many…
a. Ooh, your news quiz is so hot!
b. Hey babe, would it hurt you to smile while you’re writing this?
c. (Walking silently next to me for five minutes.)
d. She was catcalled 107 times in 10 hours.

18. Which one of the following rejected use of the word “feminist”?
a. Beyoncé
b. Emma Watson
c. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
d. Time Magazine, which included it in a list of words that should be banned

19. A Walmart store in Oklahoma asked its employees to:
a. Petition for a higher minimum wage
b. Unionize
c. Take Thanksgiving off
d. Contribute to a food drive for their fellow employees

20. Wait, didn’t you ask that same question last year?
a. Yup. Same shit, different year.

21. Which of the following stories, widely shared on social media, turned out to be almost certainly a hoax?
a. A three-year-old girl was prevented from entering a Kentucky Fried Chicken because she was too disfigured
b. A video of a girl pretending to be drunk being hit on by several men who tried to take her home to sleep with her
c. A woman claimed to have had a third breast surgically implanted
d. All of the above, and we’ll be falling for the next one any minute now, so seriously don’t believe anything you read on the Internet unless it’s from a reputable news site like The New York Times. On the other hand…

22. Because even The New York Times has to report on Kim Kardashian’s ass, a November 22 article on her nude Paper Magazine cover quoted a Kanye West interview in which he said, “My booty is like Michelangelo level, you feel me?” Why did the Times have to issue a subsequent correction?
a. Art critics determined his booty only rose to Winslow Homer levels
b. Kanye was referring to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Michelangelo, not the Italian artist
c. He meant booty as in material goods
d. The “quote” came from the fake news site The Daily Currant.

23. Photographer Georgine Benvenuto suffered an injured nose in a drone attack. Where did this take place?
a. Syria
b. Pakistan
c. Yemen
d. She was hit by a Mobile Mistletoe drone in a Brooklyn TGI Friday’s.

24. What does CNN’s Wolf Blitzer fantasize about?
a. That they find Malaysian Flight 370…
b. And they learn that it was shot down by ISIS…
c. And they discover that everyone on board had Ebola…
d. And it sparks riots in Ferguson.

25. What did not change in 2014?
a. George Clooney’s marital status
b. The number of states that allow same-sex marriage
c. LeBron James’s team
d. The likelihood of peace in the Middle East

26. The Interview, a new film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, is about two journalists sent to assassinate Kim Jung-un. What was the North Korean leader’s reaction to this movie?
a. “Ooh, I love Seth Rogen! James Franco, not so much.”
b. “I plan to see a pirated copy as soon as I recover from ankle surgery.”
c. “Yes, kill me before Dennis Rodman visits me again.”
d. “Making and releasing a film that portrays an attack on our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated.”

27. What is Conestoga Wood?
a. A new national park in Pennsylvania
b. A Weird Al Yankovic parody of “Norwegian Wood”
c. An Amish porn star
d. Co-plaintiff in Hobby Lobby’s suit against the ACA’s contraception mandate

28. Dale Scott became the first major league baseball umpire to do what?
a. Go a whole season without ejecting a manager
b. Fail a steroid test
c. Wear eyeglasses
d. Come out publicly as gay

29. On the heels of his success with Killing Kennedy and Killing Lincoln, Bill O’Reilly’s latest book is titled Killing
a. Obamacare
b. White Privilege
c. Whoever Recorded That Phone Conversation About Loofahs
d. Patton

30. In September, many iTunes users were upset to find what in their Purchased folder, whether they wanted it or not?
a. Hacked nude celebrity photos
b. Instructions on how to bend your iPhone 6
c. A Groupon offer for an Apple Watch
d. The new U2 album

31. Who are Ricky Jackson, Michael Hanline, Henry Lee McCollum, and Leon Brown?
a. The members of the boy band One Direction
b. The defensive backfield for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks
c. The real names of the Guardians of the Galaxy
d. Four men who were exonerated this year after serving more than 30 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit

32. Who is Adele Dazeem?
a. The missing wife in Gone Girl
b. The first Republican African-American woman elected to the House of Representatives
c. The nurse who refused to be quarantined after returning from treating Ebola patients
d. John Travolta’s Oscar mispronunciation of singer Idina Menzel

33. Who probably won’t be exchanging Christmas cards this year?
a. Elizabeth Lauten and the Obama girls
b. Jeff Bezos and Hachette authors
c. Taylor Swift and the CEO of Spotify
d. All of the above

34. The Texas Board of Education approved new social studies textbooks which asserted that the Constitution was inspired by the New Testament. What were some of the changes deleted in the final stages?
a. Promotion of climate change denialism
b. A cartoon comparing beneficiaries of affirmative action to space aliens
c. Stereotypes of Muslims
d. Are you sure this isn’t a news story from The Onion?

35. Wait, wasn’t there any good news in 2014?
a. Well, we landed a probe on a freakin’ comet!
b. Yeah, but one of the scientists wore a tasteless shirt in an interview so screw them.
c. Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize!
d. Oh, does that mean all Pakistani girls are getting an education now?
e. The unemployment rate is down to 5.8%.
f. That’s great. Can you lend me twenty bucks until payday? Wait, I still don’t have a payday.
g. We brought Bowe Bergdahl home from the Taliban.
h. Wasn’t he a traitor, or a deserter, or a secret Muslim terrorist, or whatever the hell Fox News was saying at the time?
i. GM became the first automaker to hire a female CEO!
j. Yeah, just as they were about to have a massive recall and a PR disaster.
k. An African-American movie won Best Picture!
l. A brutal depiction of slavery. Yup, a feel-good story.
m. The new version of Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, was very popular.
n. So was Sharknado 2.
o. The price of gasoline dropped by a lot.
p. That reminds me, did you ever put those solar panels on your roof?
q. How about that Mo’Ne Davis?!
r. A year from now, most Sports Illustrated readers will go, “Mo’Ne who?”
s. Madison Bumgarner’s performance in the World Series was inspiring.
t. Meh, I was rooting for the Kansas City Royals.
u. Congress passed a law that, um, er, give me a second and I’ll remember something they did …
v. Yeah, I think they named a library in Kalamazoo.
w. Of the 349 days so far this year, 335 had no mass shootings in America.
x. OK, now you’re just getting desperate.
y. Well, aren’t you a ray of sunshine!
z. Just keepin’ it real, bro!

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“Will This Kill Me?”

Good evening. You’re tuned to talk radio 790 WACK. I’m Dr. Mel O. Mann, and welcome to another edition of Will This Kill Me?, the show where you tell me your irrational fears about what you think is going to kill you. Unlike the other hosts on this station, I will try to allay those fears, not stoke them. I’ll try to prove that the world is not as dangerous as you think and that you’re just having Pavlovian reactions to the Internet’s alarmist tendencies. Our sponsor tonight is Valium. “Valium: If you don’t need it, you’re not paying attention.” As always, the phone number is 800-555-PANIC.  Our first caller is Joe from Jersey City. Joe, what do you fear is going to kill you?

Doc, I think I have Ebola.

Joe, you certainly do not have Ebola. Unless you’ve been to West Africa recently, or have handled the bodily fluids of the few known victims in the United States, you have as much chance of getting Ebola as being struck by lightning in the desert. Tell me, Joe, why do you think you have Ebola?

I’ve been vomiting a lot, and I’ve got the shakes.

When did this vomiting and shaking start?

About an hour after I got home from Duffy’s Tavern.

You don’t have Ebola, you’re just hung over.

But before we went to Duffy’s, we were at the Brooklyn bowling alley where the Ebola doctor went. What if I used the same ball as him?

Joe, as every medical expert will tell you, the chance of contracting the disease through casual contact like that is virtually nil. I’d be much more worried about the 500 pairs of feet that used the rented shoes before you. Why don’t you read…?

Well, my girlfriend has been vomiting too, and now she’s bleeding, and I had contact with her blood, and now I’m sure we’re going to die.

I hesitate to ask this, Joe, but what caused your girlfriend to start bleeding?

Well, it’s that time of the month, and …

Joe, you cannot get Ebola from touching your hung over girlfriend’s menstrual blood! I think it’s time to take another call. Wanda from Wisconsin, what do you fear is going to kill you?

Hey, Doc. Yesterday I took my sister to the hospital to get a colonoscopy, and I didn’t want to get Ebola, so I wore a homemade hazmat suit.

A homemade hazmat suit?

Yes. I especially didn’t want to come in contact with the doctor and nurses because you can get it from feces and, you know, they were sticking stuff up her poop chute. Anyway, on the way out, I forgot and took my gloves off to scratch an itch on my nose and then I touched a button on the elevator. So now I’m living in a tent with a Port-a-Potty in my backyard, my husband brings me my meals on paper plates and paper cups, and then I burn all my garbage.

(Sigh.) Listen, Wanda, there are no known Ebola patients anywhere near Wisconsin, so you’re definitely not going to get it from touching an elevator. And if you’re asymptomatic…

Yeah, but my sister’s husband just returned from a business trip to South Africa so…

South Africa doesn’t have Ebola. It is 3,000 miles from the nearest country with Ebola. It’s like the distance between New York and Los Angeles. Listen, while as a nation we should take precautions, you getting Ebola is as unlikely as George W. Bush selling one of his paintings to the Louvre. Let’s take another call, and please, nothing more about Ebola. Vern from Vermont, what’s going to kill you?

Yeah, Doc, I was watching the ISIS videos and now I’m worried they are going to come and behead me. I mean, I’m not afraid of dying for what I believe in, but I’d rather do it with my head still attached, know what I’m saying?

First off, Vern, why would you watch those videos?  They are disturbing as hell, and the only way you could see them is by seeking them out, so that seems morbid. Second, if you are nowhere near Syria or Iraq or Turkey, and are not planning to visit there soon, there is no chance that ISIS is coming to behead you.

But Doc, I wrote a letter to the editor of our local weekly, opposing the imposition of sharia law, and I’m sure I’m now on their enemies list.

Nobody is imposing sharia law in Vermont, Vern, and I’m sure ISIS is not reading your local newspaper. Trust me, they are not coming to the Green Mountain State.

That’s what they want you to think. Anyway, my 16-year-old daughter has stopped speaking to me. I think she’s planning to run off to join ISIS, like those girls in Colorado.

Your 16-year-old daughter is probably not speaking to you because she’s 16 years old. That’s what teenagers often do. Stop thinking that every incident that happens 2,000 miles away applies to you. OK, let’s try a different caller. Steve from New York, what’s going to kill you?

I’m frightened to death, Doc. ISIS terrorists are sneaking across our southern border disguised as Central American children, and they’re carrying the Ebola virus with them in weapons they can fire into village squares. Obama is letting them do it because a pandemic would allow him to impose martial law. We’re all going to die under a totalitarian state.

Steve, Steve, I beg you, for the love of God. Please turn off Fox News. Now.

I can’t. I co-host their morning show.

Ugh. Can we get just one intelligent caller, with a genuine reason to be concerned, like climate change?  Ah, here we go, Barack from D.C. What’s making you tremble with fear, Mr. President?

Well, Doc, I have this security detail that’s supposed to be elite, that’s supposed to take a bullet for me if necessary. But in fact they suck.  Just in the last month, they’ve allowed people to climb over our fence and run around near the Oval Office, and allowed another man with a knife to get on an elevator next to me.

Yes, I read about that. On the bright side, I listened to the Congressional testimony and it’s good to know that, even in these hyper-partisan times, the Republicans are concerned about your health.

Sure, that’s what it was. Anyway, it hasn’t gotten better. This morning, I was taking a bath and an intruder came in and tried to plug in a toaster and throw it in the tub. Good thing Biden peeked in and said, “Hey, can I get a bagel?” or I don’t know what would have happened. I mean, I no longer feel safe here. What should I do?

I’ve got a solution. Get the networks to keep playing the footage of Sarah Palin saying you live at 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue. The intruders will go to the wrong address and you can bathe in peace.

Hey, that’s a good idea, Doc. Would you be interested in being my Surgeon General?

Hell no. Next, let’s hear from Paula from Walla Walla. Paula, what’s your fear?

Wait, Doc, I have a question for you. You’re always taking our calls, trying to talk through our irrational fears with reason and logic. But everyone has irrational fears – snakes, spiders, etc. What’s your irrational fear? What are you afraid is going to kill you?

I’m glad you asked me that, Paula. I do have one strong irrational fear: Heights. I have recurring nightmares where I’m looking over the edge of a very tall building and I wake up in a cold sweat. I understand that the dreams are probably metaphorical – it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever find myself in that position in real life, and I’ve stood at enclosed summits, like the top of the Empire State Building, without any fear.  But if I see a photo or advertisement where a celebrity or model is perched on the roof of a tall building, I imagine myself falling, falling… Wait, I think I’m going to be sick.

You’re afraid of heights?  Ha ha ha, what a loser!

Gee, thanks. Cassie from Tallahassee, what do you fear is going to kill you?

Every day, I’m frightened, Doc. I go online and all I see are posts about war, disease, bigotry, poverty, injustice. It overcomes me and I fear we are nearing the apocalypse. This is the worst time in human history.

Stop it, Cassie. This is not the worst time in human history. I understand your reaction. The Internet has made the world smaller, so you get hit with all the bad things happening in the world immediately, and you’re letting it unduly frighten you. In fact, statistics show that the world is healthier than it’s ever been, more people are escaping poverty, and the world is generally more peaceful than usual. Can you imagine if we had the Internet back in 1944?  War and butchery on every continent, dead bodies floating on Omaha Beach, Jews led to the gas chambers in the concentration camps. Your Facebook feed would have been a nonstop horror show; even cat videos wouldn’t have amused you.  Or how about 1918? Millions dead in World War I, hundreds of thousands dead in a flu epidemic that dwarfs Ebola. The Huffington Post’s front page would have been scarier than all the Stephen King novels put together. Or how about 1863, during the Civil War, with slavery still…

You mean it can get much worse than this?  Aaaahhhhhhhhhhhh… (Drops phone)

OK, that went well. Charlotte from North Carolina, what’s keeping you awake at night?

Well, Doc, it’s guns. People are getting killed for trivial things like playing loud music or texting in a movie theater, there are shootings in high schools, while other people are carrying Uzis into their local Chipotle. It’s like the Wild West out there. I’m worried that I’m going to get hit in the crossfire.

Thank you, Charlotte. Finally someone with a rational concern. The homicide rate in the U.S. is disgracefully high, much higher than any other developed country. But did you know that the homicide rate is exactly half what it was twenty years ago, and keeps dropping? The annual rate was 9.5 per 100,000 in 1994 but it was only 4.7 last year. In fact, a handgun is more likely to be used in a suicide than a homicide. The murder rate is still much too high, of course, but while I certainly cannot guarantee your safety, I can say that, statistically speaking, as an American, you are safer than you have been in decades.

That’s all well and good, Doc, but my dumbass brother just walked into the living room and said he was going to clean his gun now. I asked him to please check first to see if the gun is loaded, but the jackass said, “Why? I know it’s not loaded.”

Charlotte, I’d advise you to get out of the house immediately for your own safety. Recently, a young man in the town next to mine accidentally killed his girlfriend while cleaning his gun. The carelessness of some people is astounding. Now let’s talk to John from Denver. John, you’re on WACK radio. What’s going to kill you?

I’m talking to you on my cell phone while texting my sister. Is this going to kill me?

Don’t be silly. Of course not. No definitive link has ever been established between cell phone use and brain…

Oh, I should have mentioned that I’m talking to you and texting while driving my car down the Thruway at 70 mph after drinking a fifth of vodka.

For God’s sake, man, yes, that might kill someone! Pull over! Pull over to the side of the road right now. Right now! (Waits a moment.) OK, have you pulled over?


Is there anyone else in the car that can drive?

Yeah, my buddy Frank.

Has he been drinking?


Thank goodness. Let him take the wheel.

… He says booze interferes with the buzz he gets from heroin.

No, no! Please stay on the line and talk to my producer and she’ll call you a cab. Oy. Our next caller is Orlando from Florida. Orlando, what’s your irrational fear?

A new neighbor just moved in next door. I think he’s going to kill me.

For heaven’s sake, why would you think your new neighbor would want to kill you?

He’s George Zimmerman.

Oh. Well, I can understand your concern. But let’s look at this logically. Yes, Zimmerman killed a young man and reports about his recent aggressive behavior should give one pause. But I think that if you keep to yourself and avoid confrontations, you won’t be in any danger …

Too late.

What do you mean, too late?

I’m walking my dog and she just ran up and took a dump on his lawn. Now Zimmerman is running this way, screaming obscenities at us while waving his gun. I gotta run!

Yikes. Even I’m starting to feel irrational fears. OK, let’s talk to Anita from, she says, an undisclosed location. Anita, you must be terrified of something very serious if you’re in hiding. What do you think is going to kill you?

An Internet troll.

Well, Anita, I know Internet trolls can be disgusting but I really doubt that…

Have you ever gotten a death threat from one of them? Or had one of them threaten to rape you?

Well, no, but…

Well, I have. And so have many other women I know. Have you been following GamerGate?

Yeah, a little. Male gamers have been harassing women game developers who have criticized the culture’s sexism.

Yes. Then these asswipes threatened us with vile comments on Twitter, in Internet threads. They published our home addresses and phone numbers, with messages that they are outside our front doors with guns, and several of us have had to stay away from our homes out of fear. If someone who knew your home address threatened you, wouldn’t you be frightened?

Absolutely. Have you contacted the authorities?

Yeah. And I’m sure they’ll get right on that, about the same time I track down Bigfoot. A couple of weeks ago, I was supposed to give a speech at Utah State but I received a death threat. I checked with the security people there and they told me that state open carry laws prevented them from stopping attendees from bringing guns because, you know, freedom, yay America. I had to cancel my speech. Listen, I know they are just a small subset of the gaming community and that it’s unlikely one of these gutless twerps will take a shot at me but why should I take that chance? 

I think you are right to be afraid. Thanks for your call. It’s a reminder that for all the threats we face, real or imagined, the worst one is the bigotry, ignorance, and aggression of our fellow man. It’s also a reminder that while the Internet can exaggerate public threats, it allows others to deliver private threats directly. As always, it pays to be vigilant. I have time for one last caller. Fred from Flushing, you’re on WACK radio. What’s going to kill you?

Actually, Doc, I expect to die of natural causes.

Really?  It’s great, Fred, that you’re so rational and….

Nah, just kidding.  The zombie apocalypse is coming and…

Yeah, okay. Well, that’s all the time we have for this edition of Will This Kill Me? I’ll be back tomorrow night to discuss more irrational fears. In the meantime, I’m going home where there is a bottle of wine with my name on it. Please stay tuned for Who Needs Science?  Oh, and get a flu shot.

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Bad Times, Good Times

I rarely discuss my family in public, either in this blog or on social media. Much of what I do say or write is invented or exaggerated for comic effect, which has led some readers to tell me, “Your wife is so funny!” (Trust me, she isn’t.) I have no trouble discussing my own life in detail – battles with depression and writer’s block, for example – but I consider their privacy to be sacrosanct. My wife jokes that if she died, I probably wouldn’t tell any of my virtual friends, which I think is nonsense…. no wait, she’s probably right.

Today, however, I make an exception. This past weekend was notable for two reasons. It was the anniversary of an event that has had awful consequences for our family; and it was the date of an event that made us gloriously happy.

First the bad. It was two years ago yesterday that my wife lost her job with a Fortune 500 company. She hasn’t worked a day since. She had worked full-time from the mid-1970s and had experienced only three months of unemployment in all that time, but now that she is in her sixties, she has trouble even getting an interview. After many starts and stops, I’ve finally hunkered down to write an e-book about age discrimination and her long-term unemployment – finally finished a first draft, yay me – so I’m saving the details for that. Suffice it to say that it has been a difficult time for us financially and, especially for her, emotionally.

But if my wife’s future – and mine – are looking a little dim, my daughter Nicole’s is looking very bright. Friday was the day she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.

Like many high school graduates, Nicole went off to college with only a vague idea of what she wanted to do with her life, and one year at Boston University did nothing to clarify it. She had long been interested in baking, especially desserts, and after repeatedly filling our DVR with shows from the Food Network, she realized it was her true passion. She applied to, and was accepted by, the Culinary Institute but before starting there, she spent a couple of years working, including stints at two different bakeries that went out of business, saving money for tuition.

(Nicole and her friend meet Food Network's Alton Brown)

(Nicole and her friend meet Food Network’s Alton Brown)

The Culinary Institute, a beautiful campus along the Hudson River in Hyde Park, just a mile south of the FDR estate, is not like other colleges. Its curriculum is not the usual “Math class at 9, spend an hour lazing on the quad, American Literature at 11.” Rather, it is broken up into three-week segments, each with one intensive class on some aspect of the business. They have a new entering class every three weeks, with the majority entering the Culinary Arts program (the path that leads to being a chef), with a lesser number joining the Baking and Pastry Arts program (Nicole was one of about 20 in her group). You have the same classmates in each class; it’s like Army enlistees going through basic training together. Nicole herself said it’s like a military operation, and the expectation for co-operation and hard work is high; the easy A’s and grade inflation that occur at other schools does not exist here.

Since many of the classes include work at some of the campus restaurants, students are often required to be up before the crack of dawn. The program also requires a four-month internship at a food business; Nicole spent last winter working at King Arthur Flour in Vermont, which required the girl who used to hate rising before noon to be at work at 4 a.m. five days a week, often in sub-zero temperatures. The difficulty of the program weeds out the students who aren’t serious.

Nicole was serious. Which is why, on Friday, the school gave her the Katherine Angell Academic Achievement Award for having the highest GPA of her graduating Baking class (she was the only one above 3.5; only one of the Culinary students had higher).

N CIA graduate_2

After a ceremony which included the singing of the only alma mater to rhyme “our own way” with “Escoffier,” graduates and their families celebrated at a buffet with hors d’oeuvres created by the current students, who showed off their skills and precision. Honestly, I didn’t know what half of the dishes were, but I sampled as many as I could. All of them were beautifully presented; my favorite was a lemon meringue in the shape of a tulip.

As I write this, Nicole is somewhere in northern California, probably sitting in a bakery or restaurant. The day after graduation, she boarded a flight to San Francisco with two of her classmates, one of whom lives in Napa Valley, for a well-earned ten-day vacation, eating their way up and down the California coast. They had a long list of places to try, to which some of my California friends on Facebook kindly added. A week after she returns home, she will begin working in the kitchen of an upscale restaurant near Union Square in Manhattan. It will be hard for her – the starting pay isn’t great and the commuting costs and time will be extensive. (Heck, it will hard for me – I’ll have to pick her up at the train station after midnight five times a week.) But she has a plan, she has dedication, and her future promises to be quite a feast, to which I say: Mangia!

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