One Second for Every Day of My Life (2019-2020)

Every day for the past 8 years, I’ve been recording one second of video every day of my life and stitching them together to form a document of my life that year. You can see the past versions of some of my videos here.

This year for my 1 Second Everyday video, I decided to try something different: I narrated the entire video so that I could share some reflections about my life and about what’s happened during this very eventful year for all of us. I hope these thoughts can help you as you’re reflecting on how your life has changed too.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and thanks for watching.

Seven pieces that defined the Trump era (for me)

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I’ve spent a lot of time reading these past four years to try to make sense of what’s been happening in America. Much of what I read provides analysis and context on the news, but every now and then I’ll find something that transcends this and taps into some feeling, some emotion, some idea that I think is critical to understanding our current times.

I wanted to share seven articles that have done this for me. Why seven? This entire exercise is arbitrary anyway, so it might as well be seven. (If you want to see every article I’m reading, I tweet them out from this account). Here are five pieces that have defined the Trump era for me, in no particular order:

Headline: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People”
Key excerpt: I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see (do you make anywhere close to the median American salary? Less? Congrats, this tax break is not for you). I cannot have political debates with these people. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.
What it captures: More and more, I’ve realized that disagreements about politics are fundamentally disagreements about whether we as a society should care about fellow humans. Should everyone have the right to vote? Should all have access to healthcare? If people fall on hard times, should they be able to depend on their government or their fellow (wo)man for help? Should parents seeking safety in America have confidence that their children won’t be ripped from them? In general, only one major political party in the United States is for policies like gutting the social safety net, removing people’s access to healthcare, and essentially codifying an “Everyone for themselves” mindset. And if we can’t even agree on whether or not you should give a crap about having compassion for others, it’s hard to find any other middle ground. On that note…

Headline: “The Cruelty Is The Point”
Key excerpt: Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
What it captures:
For quite a while, my mind had a difficult time pretzel-twisting itself into figuring out why people who seemingly have no reason to support Trump would not only vote for him but be proud endorsers. After reading this article, whenever I had difficulty understanding what I was seeing in the news, I’d return to this simple yet strikingly accurate headline: The Cruelty Is The Point. Things don’t need to make more sense that that. There’s a portion of the electorate that not only condones Trump’s attacks on minority groups; they relish it. It doesn’t matter that Trump’s policies would lay waste to their way of life. He makes them feel good and ultimately that’s more important to them than literally anything else.

Headline: “Three Cheers for Socialism”
Key excerpt: Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations, or the histories of the various social movements that have risen and fallen in the past, and they certainly know little or nothing of the complexities and contradictions comprised within words like “socialism” and “capitalism.” Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions. This is at once the most comic and most tragic aspect of the excitable alarm that talk of social democracy or democratic socialism can elicit on these shores. An enormous number of Americans have been persuaded to believe that they are freer in the abstract than, say, Germans or Danes precisely because they possess far fewer freedoms in the concrete. They are far more vulnerable to medical and financial crisis, far more likely to receive inadequate health coverage, far more prone to irreparable insolvency, far more unprotected against predatory creditors, far more subject to income inequality, and so forth, while effectively paying more in tax (when one figures in federal, state, local, and sales taxes, and then compounds those by all the expenditures that in this country, as almost nowhere else, their taxes do not cover). One might think that a people who once rebelled against the mightiest empire on earth on the principle of no taxation without representation would not meekly accept taxation without adequate government services. But we accept what we have become used to, I suppose.
What it
 captures: The past few years have revealed to me that many Americans cannot imagine a better world than the one we live in. One in which a medical event doesn’t have the capacity to be financially ruinous. One in which children don’t have to fear execution due to a crazed school shooter. One in which huge swaths of the population don’t live in constant mortal fear of the police state. One in which the government can play a meaningful role in curbing a pandemic. I hope for the sake of all of us this election, and for the sake of the rest of the world, Americans can imagine a better world in which it doesn’t have to be like this.

Headline: With Impeachment, America’s Epistemic Crisis Has Arrived”
Key excerpt: As congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein warned in 2012, the GOP as become “an insurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” The machine was primed and waiting for someone like Trump. Now, with his erratic and indefensible conduct, he is accelerating the breach, pushing the right into ever-more cult-like behavior, principles laid aside one after another in service of power. That is what a tribalist like Trump wants: for communication and compromise across tribal lines to become impossible, so that loyalty becomes the only measure and everything is reduced to pure struggle for dominance. If he makes it through impeachment unscathed, he and the right will have learned once and for all that facts and evidence have no hold on them. Both “sides” have free rein to choose the facts and evidence that suit them. Only power matters.
What it captures: One thing that strikes me about the past four years is that it’s become ever more clear that people live in two separate versions of reality. There are no more agreed upon set of facts that undergird our decisions and arguments; there isn’t even an agreement that facts are important. Instead, the GOP is largely driven by tribalism — an unwavering loyalty and belief in their leader, regardless of any decisions or mistakes he makes. It’s a terrifying thought and I’m uncertain if our country as a whole will ever find our way back to the truth.

Headline: “An American Spring of Reckoning”
Key excerpt: Race, to the degree that it represents anything coherent in the United States, is shorthand for a specific set of life probabilities. The inequalities between black and white Americans are documented in rates of morbidity and infant mortality, wealth, and unemployment, which attest that although race may be a biological fiction, its reality is seen in what is likely to happen in our lives. The more than forty million people of African descent who live in the United States recognize this reality, but it’s largely invisible in the lives of white Americans. As with men, who, upon seeing the scroll of #MeToo testimonies, asked their wives, daughters, sisters, and co-workers, “Is it really that bad?,” the shock of revelation that attended the video of Floyd’s death is itself a kind of inequality, a barometer of the extent to which one group of Americans have moved through life largely free from the burden of such terrible knowledge.
What it captures: There has been so much great writing about the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have roiled America in its wake (I’d recommend Ashley Reese’s commentary, this interview with Bryan Stevenson, and Wesley Lowery’s reporting on the matter). But I feel like Jelani Cobb’s piece for The New Yorker elucidates the fundamental reason why Floyd’s death was such an eye-opening moment for many Americans. It kicked over a rock for people and revealed to them what festered underneath: that we are a country in which some people inhabit a different reality than others, and there’s a lot to be done if we’re going to fix that.

Headline: “Human sacrifice and the digital business model”
Key excerpt: And so a pattern emerges that is larger and more consequential than the specifics of the latest political flare-up. It is not the arguments or ideas of any political group, but the structure of the digital platforms that sets the tone of the culture as a whole. And what is the structure? It is an arena for perpetual conflict driven by an accumulation of grievances collected in a mass program of decentralized surveillance. We are incentivized, by the coded logic of the social media platforms where public engagement now takes place, to find reasons to hate each other. The algorithms that encourage and reward particular behaviors on Twitter and Facebook play on our deepest human instincts and desires to create spectacles of symbolic violence and sacrifice. Much of the time, the violence and spectacle has the appearance of a game or a light amusement. To take it too seriously, therefore, is to risk being an alarmist, and likely of the reactionary sort. But it is precisely the gamelike aspect of the platforms that keeps us playing. Playing and paying because the point, finally, is profit.
What it captures: I’ve written about Geoff Shullenberger’s piece in the past, but I continue to think it is incredibly helpful in understanding online behavior today. Social media platforms are currently designed in a way that make us want to destroy each other. In recognizing this fact, perhaps we can attempt to carve out a better future for our online lives.

Headline: “How the Pandemic Defeated America”
Key excerpt: The countries that fared better against COVID‑19 didn’t follow a universal playbook. Many used masks widely; New Zealand didn’t. Many tested extensively; Japan didn’t. Many had science-minded leaders who acted early; Hong Kong didn’t—instead, a grassroots movement compensated for a lax government. Many were small islands; not large and continental Germany. Each nation succeeded because it did enough things right. Meanwhile, the United States underperformed across the board, and its errors compounded. The dearth of tests allowed unconfirmed cases to create still more cases, which flooded the hospitals, which ran out of masks, which are necessary to limit the virus’s spread. Twitter amplified Trump’s misleading messages, which raised fear and anxiety among people, which led them to spend more time scouring for information on Twitter. Even seasoned health experts underestimated these compounded risks.
What it captures: “Each nation succeeded because it did enough things right.” No country was perfect in its handling of the Coronavirus but they did enough things correct that they aren’t living with the reality we are right now in America, where cases are spiking, infections are happening at the rate of about one every second, and where winter looks like an increasingly bleak time. America is unique in its failure in that we couldn’t meet the minimum bar to control this thing. With our underinvestment in public health, the rise of anti-intellectualism, and the specter of minoritarian rule upon us, we are finally reaping what we’ve sown.


I hope these help you to make sense of the world. If you enjoyed this piece, consider supporting me on Patreon. And if you haven’t yet, vote.

The Tobolowsky Files returns

[The following post is long, but here’s the TL;DR: The Tobolowsky Files is back! And we have a new YouTube channel too. Subscribe to them both and enjoy some amazing storytelling.]

“Your stories are so good, and I bet you have many more of them just waiting to get out into the world. Let me know if you want me to help you get them out into the world.”

I spoke these words to legendary character actor Stephen Tobolowsky 11 years ago. At the time, I had recently created The Slashfilmcast podcast. Writer/director Kevin Smith had been one of our first guests. Stephen had also appeared on the show to promote his storytelling film Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party. We had just cracked 1,500 listeners per week. I felt like there was nothing the medium of podcasting couldn’t do.

To my great surprise, Stephen took me up on my offer and The Tobolowsky Files was born. Each week, Stephen told a series of stories from his experiences in Hollywood. How he made Groundhog Day. Working with Mel Gibson Bird on a Wire while his son was being born. What it was like to read the script for Memento the very first time.

Early on in the podcast, Stephen asked me what I thought about him doing stories that weren’t strictly showbiz related. Of course, I said yes. That led to our fourth episode, The Alchemist, a devastating story that Stephen tells about his mother’s passing. To this day, it’s one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling I’ve ever heard. That’s when I knew we had something special.

The podcast grew and took on different forms. A man named Jeff Hansen asked if he could put the podcast on Seattle Public Radio. Adam Zacks invited us to Seattle where we performed our very first live show. In 2017, I directed a movie called The Primary Instinct, a concert movie featuring Stephen’s storytelling. Stephen used his stories to get two book deals with Simon and Schuster.

Stephen’s life and my life also changed. I uprooted my life, moved to Seattle, and eventually ended up working at a small tech startup called Amazon. Stephen started getting more high-profile work and becoming more recognizable. He got major roles in The GoldbergsCalifornication, and eventually, Silicon Valley. He went from “Hey, it’s that guy that I can kind of vaguely recognize!” to someone who was getting swarmed in public places.  Eventually, he joked, he could no longer go to Ralph’s without being recognized — a major imposition.

The podcast’s release schedule started fluctuating dramatically. Each episode consisted of roughly 5,000 words of Stephen’s original writing. Initially, Stephen and I were cranking these episodes out on a weekly basis. In the early days, it felt like the podcast was a hole in the wall of a dam; Stephen had spent so many years writing down notes and shaping narratives, and the podcast finally allowed his words to flow freely as they’d always desired to do. But as time went on and we both got more busy, the time between episodes eventually grew from one week to several weeks to several months to several years.

In June of 2017, we published episode 83 of the podcast, with a promise to come back the following year. That obviously didn’t happen, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. In the time since then, I’ve felt an even greater responsibility to help get Stephen’s stories out into the world in a way that was as impactful as possible.

Over the past few months, Stephen and I have been painstakingly recording and editing more of his stories. We wanted to bank a bunch of them so we could release them weekly. So people would have something to look forward to.

I’m pleased to announce that beginning today, there will be a brand new season of The Tobolowsky Files, with new episodes every Monday through the rest of 2020. We are also launching a new YouTube channel, featuring Stephen’s stories told in front of a live theater audience (filmed pre-COVID). The latter project came together through the massive effort of many people who loaned us their time and expertise, including Valentina Vee, Jon Berry, and Tyler Schirado. I hope you enjoy this latest version of the podcast – yet another form for Stephen’s stories.

Stephen and I have kept in touch and our friendship continues. It is one of the most unexpected, rewarding friendships of my lifetime. Stephen’s kindness, understanding, and faith in me has helped me through some challenging times. I hope this new season can help you through the rest of the year.

I’ll close by sharing an email (excerpted) that we received from a listener who I’ll refer to as K from India. K shares their love of the podcast in powerful terms.

**

Dear Stephen,

I can’t express in words just how much listening to your stories has changed my life, but I’m going to try.

I began listening to the tobolowsky files podcast when it first came out. I revisited each and every episode this month and I’m quickly making my way through them since you’re such a compelling storyteller.

I have been heartbroken the past year and these wonderful stories have helped me get through this incredibly difficult time. The way I see it, your stories are about being lost and found, and I hope that one day I will also be found just like you were.

I love how you derive meaning out of everything that happens to you, connecting them to literature, philosophy, science….you transform the ordinary into the extraordinary, Stephen. I don’t know anyone even in my real life who is able to do that…

Your stories are a source of guidance for me. It has been the reason why I want to get out of bed. Being heartbroken can really crush you, as you can imagine. They’ve given me a sense of purpose, and I can’t thank you enough for that. They make me feel like….like life matters.

❤️ Sending you lots of love.

Warmly,
K

**

The beautiful thing about stories is they can bring us together. They can help us find universality in the specific. And maybe, just maybe, they can make the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Stay safe and happy listening.

‘The Devil All The Time’ Movie Review

I hope everyone is having an okay weekend dealing with the sheer tonnage of news that’s occurred the past week (most of it bad).

Since I hate myself, I spent some time this week watching Antonio Campos’ new film, The Devil All The Time. This film’s cast is incredible, but do not watch this movie if you are looking for something to pick you up and make you feel better!

That said, it’s one of the top 10 movies on Netflix so most of you probably watched it. What did you think? Did you find it illuminating about the nature of evil and humanity? Or a bit too over the top, as I thought it was in my video review above?

What is happening in ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’? – a plot summary, analysis, and the ending explained

Charlie Kaufman’s latest film I’m Thinking of Ending Things is arguably his most inaccessible work yet. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about it, reading about it, and dissecting it. Here’s the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with (Note: Spoilers, obviously).

It’s been a long time since I’ve made a video essay as researched as this one, and it’ll probably be a long time until I do one again. It’s just too much work to do on top of my full time job to become a regular thing, but this movie was so compelling (plus I had a brief opening with the holiday weekend) that I pushed through to make it happen. I hope enjoy it.

This one is for all the marbles

There’s a tweet thread I haven’t been able to get out of my head recently. It comes from Brynn Tannehill, who recently expanded her viral thread into an entire article for Dame magazine. You can read the whole thread here but I’ve also reproduced some of the text below:

The more I write about this, the more it becomes plain: if Biden loses, 2020 will be the last remotely free and fair election we have for decades, and certainly my lifetime.

We are in the middle of an autocratic attempt, and it looks so much like Hungary’s. The courts are being packed with loyalists. Most state legislatures in swing states are gerrymandered beyond belief. The executive branch is gaining unitary power. The Dept of Justice is blatantly selectively applying the law to favor the autocrat. IGs are being destroyed. AGs are being replaced. Congress is no longer a check on corruption, as the Senate has been captured by Trump loyalists. RBG is in bad shape. Ditto Breyer. Hybrid regimes (competitive authoritarianism) are remarkably stable. This is why 2020 is for all the marbles.

This is why I have no use for people who whinge about Biden/Harris not being far enough left for their tastes. They are under the mistaken belief that if Biden loses, they will have another chance to elect people that are far enough left for their liking.

The truth is, if Biden/Harris lose, there isn’t going to be an opportunity to elect someone they like in their lifetime. Not without secession of blue states. That’s the only plausible scenario I can come up with after the autocratic breakthrough. The people who study autocracy are all singing the same tune: American Democracy is not strong enough to survive another 4 years. The guardrails are already almost completely down. This is entirely consistent with how others have fallen in the post-Cold War period. […]

Beware, be warned, or don’t. Because once this election comes and goes, if Donald J. Trump is still President on January 21st, 2021, We’re Fucked. Democracy in America is not coming back. In most states, your vote no longer matters. We are rapidly approaching it at a federal level.

The thread does a great job of summarizing the direness of the situation but also pointing out the bizarre delusion that many people seem to be laboring under: That being dissatisfied with Biden and holding out for a better candidate in the future is a viable option to effect change.

The truth of the matter is that America is already operating under minoritarian rule. Increasingly, the makeup of our government no longer represents the will of the people, as gerrymandering and the electoral college continue to entrench the GOP despite the fact that Democrats have won the popular vote and lost twice in the last five elections. Soon, the work of these institutions will be complete.

Over at Eudaimonia, Umair Haque makes a similar case in his ominously titled piece, “We Don’t Know How to Warn You Any Harder. America is Dying.” Haque warns that all the signs of authoritarianism we’ve witnessed in other countries are happening right here in the U.S. We just don’t have experience in recognizing them:

America already has an ISIS, a Taliban, an SS waiting to be born. A group of young men willing to do violence at the drop of a hat, because they’ve been brainwashed into hating. The demagogue has blamed hated minorities and advocates of democracy and peace for those young men’s stunted life chances, and they believe him. That’s exactly what an ISIS is, what a Taliban is, what an SS is. The only thing left to do by an authoritarian is to formalize it.

But when radicalized young men are killing people they have been taught to hate by demagogues right in the open, on the streets — a society has reached the beginnings of sectarian violence, the kind familiar in the Islamic world, and is at the end of democracy’s road.

On Instagram, filmmaker Ava Duvernay wrote an excellent summation of the situation on the occasion of Kamala Harris’s nomination to the Democratic ticket:

There is no debate anymore. There’s no room for it in my book. We either make this happen. Or literally, more of us perish. People are dying. Someone I love died. This virus is real. If it hasn’t visited your doorstep, it will. Oh but, Kamala did this or she didn’t do that. I hear you. I know. And I don’t care. Because what she DIDN’T DO is abandon citizens in a pandemic, rip babies from their mother’s arms at the border, send federal troops to terrorize protestors, manufacture new ways to suppress Black and Brown votes, actively disrespect Indigenous people and land, traffic in white supremacist rhetoric in an effort to stir racist violence at every turn, attempt to dismantle most American democratic systems of checks and balance, degrade women all day everyday, infect the Supreme Court with another misogynist hack, demolish America’s standing on climate, actively cultivate and further white supremacist structures and systems across all aspects of American daily life. I mean, that’s what she DIDN’T do.

So I don’t wanna hear anything bad about her. It doesn’t matter to me. Vote them in and then let’s hold them accountable. Anything other than that is insanity. It’s ego. It’s against our own interests. It’s selfish. It’s disrespectful to our elders. It’s nonsense. It’s talking to hear yourself talk. This is a matter of life or death. We need all our energy focused. This is a fight for more than can be expressed here. There is no debate anymore. Not for me anyway.

Some citizens believe that one’s vote is a sacred thing. That one most vote for a candidate that represents one’s true beliefs and that it’s a violation of one’s obligations to compromise in any way.

It’s a perfectly valid way of approaching voting but it’s not one I subscribe to. I think you should vote to effect a specific outcome. And all the available evidence we have indicates that voting for Biden offers us the best opportunity to continue our democracy and achieve an outcome that’s closest to what progressives actually desire.

I hope everyone who’s undecided will wake up and decide the same thing. This one is for all the marbles.


A few things I’ve made recently:

Some other things worth checking out on the internet: