Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Comedy Is Hard

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

They say comedy is hard, and they’re right, but why? I think it’s because there is no universal understanding of what is funny. Everyone agrees that the death of a child – particularly if it is horrific – is tragic. The loss of a beloved pet or an ill-fated romance (Romeo and Juliet), the undeserved bad outcome for a good woman or the success of a monster: all these are tragic in some way and understood by the vast majority of the population as such.

However, there are fewer examples of universal comedy. Slipping on a banana peel is one of the most obvious; cream pie in the face is another. But even these don’t draw laughs from everybody. A few find the scenes unpleasant or too close to what happened to them in similar situations. Those past experiences make comedy more difficult to appeal to all.

That said, there are three standard methodologies one can employ to derive laughs. First is cruelty: slipping on the banana peel, a football to the groin, a cream pie to the face. Think Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges. Their humor is mostly physical, mostly cruel. What makes it funny for most is that no one is seriously hurt by the torture inflicted, so we can watch it without feeling sadistic.

Second is exaggeration: think of Maxwell Smart eyeing a magnet the size of a house and saying, “That’s the second biggest magnet I ever saw.” Or think of the piano in the Laurel and Hardy film that magically stays on the stairs as it descends back to the street, bouncing and jouncing and ending up where it started.

Third is the unexpected: I recently saw an episode of Will & Grace, where Karen’s maid Rosario dies. Karen is standing next to the casket speaking in a heartfelt way when she notices a spot on the exterior. She rubs at it for a moment, then reaches into the coffin and pulls out a spray bottle. She sprays the spot, replaces the bottle, then reaches into the coffin again and pulls out part of Rosario’s dress to wipe down the area.

Not everyone will find these examples funny, but you get my point. By doing the unexpected, or doing the expected in an exaggerated way, you can impart humor. However, there’s one final element required for comedy, and that’s the ability to see the world in a twisted sort of way.

It derives, often, from twisting anger into humor. You see something stupid and instead of getting mad, you exaggerate or twist it into something funny. This is a gift shared by the best stand-up comedians.

Rodney Dangerfield saying: “I stuck my head out the window and got arrested for indecent exposure.”

This is a gift not all possess. I certainly don’t have it. I occasionally try to write something with a little humor, but for me it’s a struggle. I just don’t see the world that way. When I get angry, I don’t immediately deflect that anger in a way that others find humorous.

It takes work to get there. And sometimes it takes more effort than I’m willing to put into it. So, hats off to those writers, like Christopher Moore and Douglas Adams, who can pull it off. But if you’re not one of those types, like me, then if you want to write something funny, you at least have to know the structure you need to follow.

Now get out of here, I’ve got serious work to do.

Where’s my manuscript? Who stole my manuscript? If somebody destroyed my manuscript, I’m gonna go absolutely … oh, there it is.


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The Fall of Democracy

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Democracy is having problems around the world, under attack by both the left and right fringes as being inefficient and weak at a time when decisive strength is necessary. But that’s the nature of democracy. When the many (instead of the few) lead, when mass consensus is required for change, nothing comes easy.

Totalitarian regimes come with certain advantages – like being able to adjust to a situation instantly. Leaders don’t have to check with their constituents before engaging in some sort of action. Kim Jong Un doesn’t need to feel the pulse of his nation before deciding to test fire a nuclear weapon. Bashar Al-Assad doesn’t need to check with local legislators before deciding to deploy chemical weapons to defeat an insurgency.

These things may be bad for the citizens of the countries at issue, but they’re good (at least in the short term) for their leaders. And in times of crisis, they allow for decisive action without dithering – which our democratic leaders often do in situations that don’t demand rapid solutions.

This is our fault.

We let it happen because we are so divided about what kind of nation we should be. We listen to the voices of extremism that promise we can have it all if we just exert more strength, more insistence on doing things our way. Rigidity of thought becomes the norm.

And with that inflexibility comes the refusal to compromise, which some call appeasement (never mind that the term is incorrect – the people who spout off at the mouth don’t care about that kind of accuracy).

So with the slow decline of prosperity and increasing dissatisfaction with the status quo, we allow ourselves to be seduced by magical thinking, to believe that we can have a stronger defense, no cuts to Social Security or Medicare, and at the same time, massive tax cuts.

We buy into the lies because we want to believe there are easy answers, when we know in our hearts there aren’t. We reject the voices of moderation because they ask us to give something up, while the extremists say, that’s stupid, we can have it all. We can eat our cake and in the morning it will still be there for us to eat again.

We elect politicians and tell them they’d better not surrender even one inch or we’ll find someone even more fanatical to replace them. We win on a few issues and think, if we just dig in harder, we can win on all of them, so we push and push the envelope, growing ever more unwilling to accept that we might not know best.

And our “leaders” follow our example, becoming more and more totalitarian. It’s a recipe for disaster and it’s just about done. We need to step back and find moderates from both parties to run our country. If we don’t, we may not have a country to run.


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The Comfortable Road to Ruin

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We strive for comfort. It might be built into our DNA – something like an instinct for survival. We do what we can to increase our comfort levels, looking for the latest modern conveniences, the newest app to make our homes or appliances work better for us.

We devote a lot of effort into improving our habitats, our little cages, creating better hamster wheels on which to run. With the passage of every year, we find some cool new element that provides us with pleasure, more free time.

As our lives become more stressful, as the demands upon us grow more intense, we seek to ease our burdens where we can. That’s natural. But we need to acknowledge that there’s a price to be paid for doing so.

We fall into habits of consumerism and rigidity of thought. We think the things that make us happy and we buy the products that soothe our restless natures as we resist the ideas that challenge us and the delayed gratification that discomforts us.

Meanwhile serious issues loom.

But we don’t want to be bothered by them. We like doing things the way we’ve always done them. We like to go boating or for an afternoon drive. We like to upgrade our wardrobe or purchase the newest iPhone. What’s so bad about that?

On an individual scale, almost nothing. It makes nearly no difference. One person, more or less, thinking some entrenched thought or buying some product, matters not at all. One man thinking life used to be so much better in the 1960s in an America ruled by white Protestants (where minorities of all sorts were kept in the shadows) isn’t going to harm our society enough to cause concern. One million men wanting to revert to those days – that makes a difference.

Likewise, one new iPhone in the sea of technology is a drop in the proverbial bucket whereas a million new iPhones affect our environment much more drastically. So each of us individually pursuing comfort adds only a minute amount to the long-term instability of our Anthropocene era. Death by a thousand cuts.

It’s our collective pursuit of comfort that propels us toward the tar pits of history. We cannot all live the lifestyle the developed world enjoys today. Not even the developed world can continue to do so, not if we want to preserve the planet for future generations.

Nor can we continue to cling to ideas from the past, to notions that we should be able to do whatever we like because we’re not really harming anyone by our actions. Because we are. Only a tiny fraction, to be sure. But we’re definitely making things more difficult for the generations to come.

We’ll take and take until there’s nothing left. Then we’ll fight over the remnants. That will be a long time hence, probably well past my lifetime. But it will happen. All because we sought comfort in the present, because we couldn’t be bothered to sacrifice a little for the sake of our grandchildren’s grandchildren.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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The Real Second Amendment

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The Second Amendment isn’t exclusively about guns, though most people don’t realize that. Yes, guns are mentioned in the text, and through tortured readings over the decades, courts and advocates have reached the conclusion that the Second Amendment provides everyone a right to own weapons.

But the Second Amendment is actually more about maintaining a militia at a time when the country did not have a standing army. It’s about the understanding that defense of the nation was important to all citizens and that those citizens might be needed if an external or internal enemy decided to attack.

Here’s the full text: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The first words of the amendment are about a militia, not about weapons. That’s the gist of the justification for allowing people to own guns. And arguably, that right disappeared once a standing army was created. Of course, courts (and even original constructionists) haven’t seen it that way. But that’s what was in the minds of the framers when they drafted the Constitution.

Even if we concede that the right still exists, it is not an absolute right. Just as folks can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, just as pornographers can’t peddle filth involving children, there are restrictions inherent in all constitutional rights granted.

What would be so horrible about banning semi-automatic weapons or devices that turn them into fully automatic weapons? What harm would befall society if background checks were required for every gun purchase?

The NRA and its more vocal members, of course, see things differently. They believe we have the right to defend ourselves and there are times, they say, when a plain old shotgun just isn’t enough protection. Well, we may be getting closer to those times now, but that’s because more and more people are buying these military style weapons.

Even in the old West – places like Dodge City and Tombstone – weapons were not allowed. They had to be checked at the edge of town or with the sheriff’s office. Gun laws today are far more lenient. Yet they’re not lenient enough for some. A few prefer that everybody be allowed to carry concealed weapons all the time everywhere.

Fear consumes these people. They see potential danger in every situation and they think that having a gun will protect them. I’m sure they’re right – nearly one percent of the time. But mostly, having guns just leads to an increased risk of gun violence: suicides, accidental shootings, sudden impulses of tragic rage.

I’m not advocating for eliminating guns – just common sense restrictions. But the NRA thinks any restrictions are too many. And that’s a tragedy that will lead to further tragedies.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Our Necessary Government

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We criticize our government often. That’s inevitable. Every action taken or not taken by our elected officials is going to yield a negative reaction from someone.

For example, if a citizen has a property full of broken-down washing machines or cars, his neighbors want that property cleaned up. They see it as a blight. The citizen, however, sees those items as salvageable, just waiting to be fixed and sold perhaps. He feels he can do whatever he likes with his property because he’s not hurting anyone.

If the city forces him to clean up the property, it pleases his neighbors while angering him – as well as some libertarians who consider the city’s actions to be overreach. If the city does nothing, the neighbors get mad at it for not doing its job. No matter which action is taken, someone gets mad.

This dynamic holds true for every action at every level of government. At the federal level, most of us don’t want to pay higher taxes. In fact, we want taxes to be cut. But we also want a strong military and Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. As our population ages, those who contribute financially to the government decline in number, while those who demand assistance increase.

We’re currently recovering from three hurricanes, requiring a vast amount of federal aid. What’s interesting about it from an academic standpoint, particularly with respect to Texas, is that its two senators voted against relief for Superstorm Sandy. Now they insist that people bail out their state.

Hypocrisy? Absolutely! But not much different than the hypocrisy of us voters, who say we’re taxed enough. We say the government should do away with some program or other so that we can get tax breaks or at least not pay any more. However, Carol wants to cut military spending while Ted wants to cut Medicaid, and Julia wants to means test for Social Security, while Bob wants to eliminate welfare and unemployment benefits.

Whenever there’s a surplus in my state (MN), Democrats generally want to spend it on education and infrastructure while Republicans generally want to spend it on tax cuts. Neither side cares a whit about the long-term fiscal health of the government. Both sides assume growth will continue at the same rate that produced the surplus despite the many recessions we’ve experienced over the past 150 years.

We are walking, talking paradoxes. So yes, government is bad because it’s wasteful. And yes, government is good because it helps us in times of need. And as long as people are running it, it’s going to continue to be both bad and good.

Does that mean we should just accept it as it is? Certainly not. But until we agree on what kind of country we want to be, what kind of government we want to have, we won’t be able to install a government that does what it’s supposed to do. And because we’re human, I don’t expect us to figure that out anytime soon.

Sorry to be a buzzkill.


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Color Me Human

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We are fascinated with ourselves. For ages, we’ve traveled to remote areas to examine relics of our past, to dig up our collective history in order to ascertain how we became the dominant species on the planet.

We study the ancients in our quest to determine who we are. Egyptians built their pyramids as tombs for their Pharaohs; Stonehenge was used for religious purposes; cave paintings around the world were done to tell stories and differentiate ourselves from the lower orders.

We conduct experiments on our brains and bodies, pursuing more and more information about every aspect of our lives. From concussions to cancer, from free will to determinism, from the limits of endurance to the possibilities of increased strength. Our focus remains largely on human endeavors.

And perhaps that’s how it should be. After all, we’re human. It makes sense for us to study ourselves, to learn our limitations and potentialities. It’s not like that’s all we study. We sent Cassini to Saturn and Deepsea Challenger to the bottom of the ocean. We found 91 volcanoes under Antarctica and a 110-million-year-old nodosaur in Canada.

So we are capable of study outside ourselves. But even when we do that kind of exploration, we generally bring it back to how it impacts us humans, which makes me wonder sometimes if our study of self makes us too introspective collectively, if we attach too much importance to human actions and events.

Everything we witness, we witness through the lens of humanity. Global warming, for example, becomes charged with the emotions of people on one side or the other rather than a purely unemotional assessment of the facts.

Some of us want global warming to be a hoax, so we find fault with the “facts” presented to us. Some of us want vaccinations to be eliminated, so we ascribe diseases and conditions to them that bear no resemblance to reality.

All our understandings become colored with the desires we unleash upon the world. Nothing is just itself. Rather, it is itself plus our perception of it. The combination of “thing” and its perception affects us in ways we cannot completely understand. Total accuracy seems like an impossibility because every observation, every notation bears the imprint of humanity.

I concede that total objectivity may not be possible. It may not even be desirable. But I wonder if our fixation on ourselves and our place in the universe limits our ability to grasp that which is outside of us, making at least some of the unknown unknowable.


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Immigrants Accelerate Change

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Immigrants came here to start over, to build a new life away from gangs and drug violence and corrupt governments. They brought their children, or just sent their children in their place, sacrificing themselves for the sake of the next generation. It’s the kind of thing most parents would do – make life better for their progeny.

For years, we’ve struggled with how to address the “problem” of child immigrants. President Obama, frustrated with Congress’ inability to pass DREAMER legislation protecting these kids, created DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), an executive order allowing undocumented immigrants who came here as children prior to June 2007 and under the age of 16 when they arrived.

President Trump promised to eliminate DACA and now has done so. Okay. Now what? He passed responsibility to Congress, which should have addressed the matter while Obama was President, if not before.

The hardliners say, “Keep the immigrants out. They’re taking our jobs and threatening our culture.” But what they fail to understand is that these children/young adults are necessary for the healthy growth of our country. They study and work, learning our language and culture, eventually getting the opportunity to apply for citizenship. They’re people committed to our nation. And now they’re being discarded or at least played for political purposes.

What the Dreamers are really doing is assimilating into our culture, creating a fusion of their homeland and our country, blending together the best parts of both into a mixture that has more flavor, more strength than the homogenous white Protestant culture their opponents wish to continue.

By trying to strengthen our country, these anti-immigrant forces are actually weakening it, exposing its character flaws, its insecurities. The folks who want to keep out the foreigners are descended from foreigners themselves – Irish or German or English or Austrian or Polish or Norwegian or French.

All those immigrants eventually blended into our country, just as these new immigrants are doing. But fear rules. Change hits some of us harder than others. With every major change there are winners and losers. So yes, some people will lose their jobs. And yes, our culture will change, at least a little.

But that’s the natural order. Change is inevitable. The more we fight it, the more it will hurt when it arrives.

book 3 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 3 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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The Loneliest Days

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I live alone. I’ve done so for most of my life. And I enjoy the solitude – most of the time. There’s freedom in eating breakfast cereal for dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon, watching whatever I want on TV or turning off the show after twenty minutes if it’s not to my taste.

A lot of people speculate that it must get lonely living by oneself all the time. No one to talk to or snuggle up against or just exist with in the same room so that you can look up and see them reading or scrapbooking or perusing Facebook and know that there’s someone bound to you in some way.

They ask, “Doesn’t it get lonely?”

And for the most part, I have to say no. Of course I’ve felt loneliness, many times, but most of those times have occurred when I’m in a group of people who feel a certain way or express themselves in a ritualistic manner outside the parameters of what I believe, or display affection for a partner when I don’t have that kind of outlet.

So those times can be lonely. But they’re fleeting. A wedding reception, a funeral, a party. None of these last long – a few hours at most. Then it’s off to home, whatever home is, and into the routines and habits that we all partake in. The loneliness we experienced dissipates into the daily conventions that define our day-to-day reality.

But there are times, when I’m with extended family for an extended period, that my battle with loneliness seems impossibly tough. As I’m driving away, having witnessed and engaged in hugs and other demonstrations of affection, having connected, I feel a hollowness that lingers for hours, sometimes days.

Eventually, that sadness falls away and I return to the insular self I chose to be. Occasionally, after one of those events, I’ve even asked myself whether I might not be better off staying away from such future vacations. Don’t take the good, and you won’t have to take the bad.

But that’s a harsh punishment. I would rather become part of something larger than myself and endure the pangs of loneliness afterwards than shun the joy of togetherness for the sake of a steady level of emotionality.

What it makes me appreciate is that not everyone is like me. Most people need that connection on a more regular basis. I’m either fortunate enough or unfortunate enough not to need or want that sense of community on a day-to-day basis.

Yet I recognize its value. Connections, however infrequent, must be maintained or we begin to rot in isolation. As a natural introvert, I often have to force myself to spend time with others, and I rarely enjoy social gatherings as much as my more extroverted friends. We are all in this bubble together, so we need to understand how our fellow humans think. Extroverts are loneliest when they’re alone. Introverts are loneliest when they’re in a crowd.

I’m loneliest when I see what might have been, the life I could have chosen. Regret haunts me then, if only for a short time. After it dissipates, I look back on the memories I’ve accumulated and smile.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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Who Cares About Truth?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

A small lie can lead to war. Not by itself, but by the slow build-up of hateful rhetoric. One person makes an unsubstantiated assertion – for example, that a pizza parlor in Washington, DC is housing a pedophile operation run by a candidate for the US presidency. The lie spreads.

Someone on the other side believes it and decides to act, so he shows up with a gun to save the innocent children and fires a shot or two before realizing that he was wrong. A congressional candidate in Wisconsin (running against Paul Ryan) still believes this idiocy.

A candidate turned president lies about seemingly everything, calling Hispanic immigrants rapists and drug dealers. He pushes the idea that his predecessor was born in Africa and therefore not a legitimate president, buttressing his followers’ beliefs that the system is rigged against them.

He continues to assert that 5 million illegal votes were cast – all against him – despite zero evidence, because his ego demands feeding. Both his words and his actions suggest that women are less than human, objects to be desired or reviled, not equal to men of import, except perhaps his darling eldest daughter.

On the other side, a candidate says that you can put half her opponent’s supporters in a basket of deplorables, further entrenching those deplorables’ viewpoints that they’re under assault, and instilling in her supporters the notion that his followers had something wrong with them. Everyone who voted for him must be a racist, misogynist bully. It can’t be that they just didn’t trust her.

Both sides feel like they’re being attacked, like their very way of life is eroding. And it doesn’t help that we now have essentially instantaneous communication. So whenever a hateful comment gets posted, and then re-posted, it zooms around the world quickly.

Lies spread, especially when they seem believable, when they promote the idea that we are right, that our tribe is in fact under attack by those others, those lesser human beings, whether they be black or white or male or female or Muslim or Jew or gay or whatever.

So we fight back.

Fewer good jobs? Somebody says it must be the fault of foreigners coming in to take them away. It can’t be the system because the system worked for generations. It must be immigrants. And people latch onto that myth because it has the feel of truth even though it isn’t true for 95+ percent of the population.

There’s a certain freedom in spewing certitudes with your phone or tablet. And if someone calls you out for lying, you just scream louder, repeating yourself over and over until the other side gives up trying to reason with you, at which point you claim you’ve won because they surrendered. So take that.

Truth is what we believe it is, what we say it is. Facts can be twisted, subverted. We don’t play that game anymore of falling victim to elitist facts. We decide what truth is, and if you don’t like it, get the hell out of our city, county, state, country.

Compromise becomes a dirty word. Never surrender becomes the battle cry of all. And we swirl around the bowl, slowly sinking into the waste of hatred, riding the log of pride into the sewer.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Comfort vs. Growth

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We all like to feel comfortable. At the end of a long day, we want nothing more than to settle into the sofa and turn on the TV or pick up the smart phone and relax. Scroll through viewing or listening options and shut down the bombardments that have hammered us for the past 9 or 12 hours.

The last thing we want to do is tax our brains. They’ve been taxed already, ordered to comply with the dictates of our bosses or children or customers or teachers. So we just want to veg out. Chill. Maybe take the edge off with a glass of wine.

Hard to blame us. It’s been a long day. As was yesterday, and the day before.

There’s nothing wrong with that either, most of the time. Well, some of the time. But we can’t do it all the time, not every day, not if we want to improve our lives and the lives of those we care about.

When we sit in front of the idiot box for a few hours, our minds begin to get a little mushy. We start to think what we’re watching is not that bad, not absolute dreck. On rare occasions, we’re right. But so much of what we’re seeing offers nothing of substance. Yet we still watch.

Think of your grandparents and how they spend/spent their evenings. Were they glued to the television for hours after dinner? Unlikely. Sure, they didn’t have the number of options we have for escaping the world’s troubles. But that’s kind of the point.

With cable and satellite, with YouTube and Facebook and Instagram, we get pretty much any diversion we want. And when we succumb to those temptations, we surrender a tiny bit more of ourselves to the onrushing banalities that flood our senses.

Every day we demand a little less and every day we get a little less.

When I watch TV for more than an hour or two, I find myself growing restless. I stand and walk to the window, staring out at trees and houses, at birds and squirrels, at people walking past with dogs or babies, and occasionally I step outside to join them, to wander the neighborhood for a half hour rather than plopping back down to absorb the latest drivel.

But it takes effort. It’s so easy to just give in, to say I’ll walk or read tomorrow evening. Today I want to numb my brain. Yet every today’s procrastination becomes yesterday lost. Engaging with the world, however fleetingly, elevates us, and soon we find we would rather walk than sit. We’d rather wave at the neighbors as we stroll down the avenue than huddle in our dens of solitude, glowing lightwaves bouncing off our slack faces.



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