The Virtue of Television Shows as Empathy-Building Vehicles

Anyone who’s ever been in the trenches will agree:  A healthy relationship is one in which both partners really get to know each other.  And to this end, watching television shows and discussing them is the ultimate cheat code, especially if they are fictional (ie. not documentaries) as they’re vehicles of communication to facilitate this interaction.  When you are in school, especially in a liberal arts class, it’s easy:  The professor can pose some open-ended topic (eg.  “What is Justice?”) and then you and your classmates can really go to down having those 2am bull-sessions that run ’til dawn, with everyone pontificating away on their pedestals.

This mode of interaction isn’t only training critical thinking, receive-and-respond, debate skills, gauging-of-social-currency, but is also allowing you a window into the lives of others.  To really know the other is to know what and how they think.  Their beliefs and value systems.  But there needs to be a medium for this discussion.

So why TV shows?  It’s easy and something people in a relationship can jointly do together.  The joint experience is important– a communal and collective feeling of togetherness.  Reading is great but it’s a solitary endeavor.  Watching a television show can be done snuggled together on sofas and in front of laptops.  You don’t even need televisions or cable nowadays.

For example, recently Bagel and I have been watching Mad Men and that show has really brought us so much closer.  When I was younger, other than the Sorkin shows, I never really watched television shows because I was always haughty and felt them lowly.  Yes, sometimes I’d indulge in a Spartacus or a Strike Back, but it was always when I was eating and wanted to burn through 10 or 15 minutes (and not watch YouTube).

But back when I was younger, I was single.

To be clear, Mad Men is definitely not a show I would ever watch on my own.  It’s often uncomfortable and hard-to-watch.  And definitely not a solo leisure activity.

But as a couple-activity, at least for us, it’s perfect.  It’s characters are richly developed and Bagel and I both find the subject matter endlessly entertaining and educational.  Neither of us were there for the 1960s.  But all of the period details– the mores, music, fashion, gender/race dynamics, is fascinating.  Matthew Weiner really deserves a Nobel for putting that work in the world!  What a genius!

By virtue of being a fictional show, we’re also able to discuss its subject matter with fellow friends as well.  And what I’ve found, anecdotally at least, is that the advantage here is that, broadly speaking, the temperature of conversation is much lower when you’re discussing something fictional and imaginary as opposed to a real-life event (say, Black Lives Matter).  I’ve mostly found people more generally willing to engage with different perspectives and more empathic when it’s not real people’s lives on the line.  We’re talking about Don, Peter, Peggy, Joan, Roger, etc.  Figments of the imagination! And that distance gives everyone some remove and breathing space to entertain and debate ideas that they normally may not in a real-world setting.

Bagel and I are currently nearing the end of Season Five where a gruesome turn in the storyline has just occurred.  Obviously, I won’t ruin anything here, but that incident has sparked so much discussion for us.  Cultural differences and the pernicious effects (and pressure!  Omg, the unimaginable pressure) of having to constantly maintain an image as opposed to just being authentic and genuine.  How something small can slowly snowball into something catastrophic.  The price of deception and how it slowly chips away at the soul.

For us, Mad Men is a springboard into discussion.  It raises moral conundrums and presents a properly complex world with complicated characters.  Even when we disagree with specific decisions that Peggy or Joan may have made, it’s easy to see “their sides” and empathize.  More largely, this is honestly, I guess, a piece today about the merits of fiction as a vehicle for building empathy and understanding.  The truth is we often don’t know our values, what we truly stand for, until we’re tested.  And Real Talk for a moment:  In real life, we (thankfully) aren’t often tested.  In quotidian life, you’re virtually never dropped into these impossible situations of monumental consequence.

And to be fair– while talk is just talk, and we don’t really know how we’ll act until we’re actually in it— watching and discussing these subjects ahead of time at least sparks the conversation so it’s somewhere on your radar.  How helpful, I guess, is up to you and how honest you are with yourself.  My humble suggestion is simply to not think yourself so great, smart, noble, or moral.  The higher the horse, the greater distance the tumble.

Again though, even if you are uninterested in “knowing thyself,” just being able to discuss these questions and topics with your SO is so worth it.  We know and understand each other when we talk with each other.  And with couples, after you’ve known each other for a good chunk of time, the constant fear is that both individuals eventually drift into their own isolated orbits.  Especially if both of you are professionals in different career spaces.  Taking trips together certainly helps.  But on those long car drives and plane flights, you still need to talk about something material and substantive.  It’s easy for relationships to calcify and lose that spark.  Before long, you might feel like you’re a mechanic or a logistics officer simply negotiating supply chain details (“pick up the kids at X; dinner ready by Y; what are we getting the Millers for Christmas this year?”), etc.  But your SO is not your fellow mechanic! She’s your SO!

Finally, on a parting note– watching and discussing fiction shows, especially one as good as Mad Men, possesses the additional benefit of giving us a barometer to track change over time.  It’s interesting to both Bagel and me how both of our opinions about Don has evolved over the five seasons so far.  And it’s enormously fascinating to me to track how Bagel’s opinions of certain situations has evolved.  Ideally, we’ll revisit Mad Men again in a few years to have these same discussions, but just even in the month of watching so far, I’ve found her opinions rapidly change as she’s increasingly connected the events of the show–especially the office politics element– with her own work experience.  One great example:  Honest to God, for four seasons, we both could not understand for the life of us what Roger actually did at Sterling Cooper.  But after Lee Jr. comes to visit for that Christmas party in S4, and then in S5, we’ve both turned into the most ardent Roger fans.  In Bagel’s own work experience, she’s known as least one “Roger” whom she’d constantly complained about and despised.  But being able to see “the story” from Roger’s perspective has really shed new light on a whole new POV that she’d never even considered.  As I’d often told her– if her “Roger” had managed to stick around at the company for so long, there must have at least some value –in some way, shape, or form– that he was delivering, even if it was invisible to her (and the rest of rank-and-file storm troopers).

Anyway, those are my two cents for the day.  In other news: 2021 is here!  Hooray!  🎉🎆 Very excited about the New Year– blessings and good tidings to everyone!  Let’s make this next year the best one yet! 😀

The Yun Bao Story

NOTE: This is an ongoing original fiction story that I’m currently writing. I started writing this fictional story back on October 2, 2020 and contribute ~1,000 words to it every day on this blog. I didn’t outline the story at all going into it but it’s slowly evolved into a tale about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang. In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project. My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security. If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Seven – Passage Six

“After Jack left the company last year,” Li says as she slices come carrots, “he really hasn’t been the same since then.  It was a big blow being so publicly ousted from the very company his own father had built.  They didn’t share much else but the company was one of the few things that was solely and truly theirs.”

“Was Jack and his father not close?” I ask.  “I thought Weibook was a tightly controlled family affair.”

Li chuckles.  “Weibook was a tightly controlled Yun Bao affair.  Jack’s father had, let’s say, a very strong sense of direction of what Weibook should be and where it was destined to go.”  Li finishes with the carrots and moves on to the onions.  In the skillet, I smell the eggs and spinach already beginning to sizzle.

“You know,” Li continues, “while I know it was always reported in the media that the CCP wrested control of the company from Jack.  But that’s not exactly how it happened.  If Yun hadn’t set up the line of succession the way he had, Jack would’ve never lost control the way he had.”


“Despite all of his tussles with the communist regime over the years, Yun Bao was very much a man traditionally molded in the way of the old guard.  A typical story of poor boy from a fisherman’s family in the rural provinces who rose from nothing to obtain everything.”

I chew on some butter toast and mull over what I’m hearing.  Of course, I knew the broad strokes of the legendary Yun Bao story.  Any technologist worth his salt knew at least the general outline.  It was very much your typical rags to riches tale.

“But what you don’t hear in the oft-repeated tale,” explains Li, “is that in China, without the right help form the right people at the right time, Yun would’ve and could’ve never done it.  Sure, part of it was luck.  But it was also partially that he fit the right profile.  Weibook happened at a time when the Chinese economy was finally beginning to slow.  Having relied on rock-bottom wage labor to propel its massive double-digit rise in GDP year over year was unsustainable.  If Xi was going to take China to the next level to the next level of economic prosperity, he could no longer do it on the back of knitting together Nike soccer balls and Abercrombie sweaters on the backs of, essentially, slave labor.”

I slowly put the pieces together in my head.  In all fairness, if I hadn’t been feeling like a puddle of garbage run over by a cement truck at that moment, I probably would’ve been a bit sharper on my feet.

“So you’re saying,” I manage slowly, “that Jack had different ideas then.  About cooperating with the CCP.  And that was the source of the rift?”

Li pours the bowl of diced carrots and onions into the skillet and stirs around the egg yolk.  The entire omelet slowly congeals, looking and smelling delicious.  I get the feeling that she’s choosing her words carefully.

“Sure, Yun was certainly determined and possessed a tremendous work ethic,” Li finally says slowly,  “there is no doubt about that.  But he also caught China at an inflection point.  Xi wished to shed China of its image as a predominantly manufacturing economy.  The joke for generations had been that ‘Made in China’ was a sign of cheapness–” 

“–Value,” I interject.  “Let’s be gracious here.”

“Sure,” Li says.  And while her expression remains unchanged, I can literally hear the eyerolling in her voice across the kitchen island from where I sit.  “Value, let’s call it.  And sure, poor people in developed countries who shopped in your bargain basement stores may have loved China for its value.  But Xi dreamed big.  He wanted China to be a country known for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany’s.  Not as the choice, go-to supplier of cheap goods sold to impoverished masses the world over.”

I thought about my own story growing up.  With Devana when we were little, my mother would always take us shopping at the local Walmart in Ressler, the small rustbelt town we’d grown up in.  When that Walmart Supercenter had arrived, it’d positively steamrolled everything in its path and within a year, all of the smaller mom and pop shops had been absolutely devastated leaving that single Walmart Supercenter as the sole shining beacon of hope in Ressler.  As children, Devana and I had adored Walmart though.  Everything was cheap!  And because we often went in the evening, after mother had finished her second shift, the nice Spanish grandma, Louisa, who worked the hot bar always gave Devana and I extra-large helpings of the mashed potatoes and corn sides when we’d get our dinner there.  (Which was literally every time we went.)  Bless her heart, Louisa may have spoken maybe only five words of heavily-accented English but she was always so kind to us.

“And so Jack doesn’t want China to move up in the world?” I ask.  “I’m still not seeing where the conflict happened.”

“So you’re skipping ahead a bit,” Li says.  She serves me the now-finished omelet on a blue porcelain plate and I dig in.  It’s delicious.  “First, before you can persuade billions of Chinese citizens that luxury brands are actually something that they want, you need to convince them that paying four times for essentially the same thing is actually worth it.”

“Ah,” I say.  “So therein lies the rub.”

“Exactly,” Li says.  “There’s currently a giant wealth divide in China.  The well-to-do are all westernized carrying around their $1,000 handbags and wearing their $2,000 wristwatches, in particular in the big cities.  But the rest of China in their rural towns are plenty happy with their $10 Timex watches.  And so there’s currently a battle over the soul of the country.

“Yun Bao was aligned with CCP in trying to move China towards a wealthier cultural attitude.  But Jack disagrees.  He thinks that China’s identity is rooted in its ‘everyday-ness’– the very quotidian nature of the average Chinese citizen may be modest.  But he believes that China should embrace it instead of fleeing from it.”

Addressing a Systemic and Perpetual Racism

NOTE: This is a fictional entry in an ongoing story that I’m currently writing.  I started writing this fiction story back at the beginning of October 2020 and contribute ~400 words to it every day on this blog.  I didn’t outline the story at all going into it, but after four weeks, it’s about a data scientist in his mid-thirties from America who finds himself summoned to China where’s he’s been offered a job to work for the Chinese Communist Party on a project monitoring the Uyghurs in the Chinese “autonomous region” of Xinjiang.  In China, the story’s protagonist, Dexter Fletcher, meets other professionals who’ve also been brought in from abroad to help consult on the project.  My story takes place several decades in the future and explores human rights, privacy in an age of ever-increasing state-surveillance, and differences between competing dichotomies: democracy vs communism, eastern vs western political philosophies, and individual liberties vs collective security.  If this sounds interesting and you’d like to read more, my fiction story starts here.

Chapter Four – Passage Eight

Addressing a systemic and perpetual racism that’s been endemic to America since even before its founding is not a particular battle I’m currently in the mood of waging so I’m eager to change the subject.  Also, speaking from personal experience, I’ve found that this particular conversation– a well-off, privileged white male who’s been spoiled and sheltered his whole life (me) speaking to an aggrieved black person who’s probably faced implicit bias his entire life and likely at least a few bouts of outright discrimination growing up (Coleman) is, in all likelihood all my lived life experience would empirically suggest, not a winning argument for me.

In Coleman’s defense, my white ancestors way back when who arrived on the Mayflower or whatever weren’t exactly model citizens by 21st century standards.  Slavery in America got its start in 1619 in Jamestown and chances are you’ll find one of my ancestors of the ancient Fletcher name among the ranks if you reach back far enough.  Put succinctly, we’re certainly not proud of the human trafficking and whip-cracking that Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Fletcher most definitely engaged in on those slave ships crossing the Atlantic during the early 1600s.  Let’s just say it wasn’t a topic of conversation around the dinner table when Devana and I were children at home growing up.

But, to be fair, in my defense, Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Fletcher was five generations ago! That’s literally, I kid you not, nearly half a millennia! I’ve never met the guy!  And I most cateorically, unequivocally in the strongest language possible, don’t condone any of the many crimes against humanity and outright contraventions of the Geneva Convention (which obviously didn’t exist back then) that he partook in!  In my experience, I’ve only met black people at college and at work.  The only black folks I’ve ever known were either fellow engineering classmates back at university or were fellow data scientists on consulting gigs that I’ve worked at.  They were all super-smart, well-spoken, competent, and highly professional.  Honestly, really, the only generalizable observation in my own personal experience that I can make about black people is that they –at least the folks I’ve met– do speak with a very specific cadence and lilt in their speech that seems to be uniquely black (similar to how many American southern folks speak with a distinctive twang and regional accent in their voices).

Anyway, nothing I say at the moment is going to placate Coleman.  So my best move now is to find a way to extricate myself from this deepening conversational sinkhole that I’ve suddenly found myself in. 

Luckily for me, Katherine saves the day.

Anonymous & Public

A few years back, the notion of “safe spaces” took the world by storm.  And while I definitely don’t support “intellectual safe spaces” at a place like the college campus (it’s literally called higher education; the young minds of tomorrow are supposed to grapple with difficult and challenging ideas at a school— that’s the entire point), I do support the idea of a kind of “safe space” that a public and anonymous blog occupies on the internet.  Ie. What you’re reading now.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the entire process of writing is a kind of “scratch space” in which I play around with different opinions and ideas that I may be entertaining on a particular subject.  These thoughts are usually inchoate or minimally at various stages of development; only through the process of writing and putting down my thinking into concrete, discrete and concrete units of meaning on paper do I slowly tease out my true feelings and positions.  This process, like any other process of discovery and formulation, will be full of dead ends, incomplete thoughts, and illogical/circular/nonsensical reasonings.   That is simply the nature of thinking.

Active thinking, on a particular subject —any subject— is a habit I wholly encourage folks to do more of.  Nowadays, I know it’s immensely easy to fall into “passive consumerist mode.”  When we have a free twenty minutes, it may be tempting to just flip on The YouTube and waste an hour entertaining ourselves with cute squirrel videos or whatever.

But instead:  I urge people to stretch their brains and form an opinion about something, anything.  Read up on a subject that interests you, think about it critically from multiple angles, weigh the pros and cons, and write about it.

For me, a public and anonymous blog serves as an ideal medium for this process.  By being public, it allows me to share my nascent ideas with select individuals (and the world writ large); by being anonymous, it affords me a measure of security in being able to write freely and without fear of backlash or reprimand.  There are other logistical benefits of keeping a public blog too– chief of which is that I leave behind a concrete, very real body of work, which I can easily look back on and trace the trajectory of my own growth and thinking.  And finally:  For whatever reason, for me at least, a public blog on which I publish articles gives me a personal feeling of responsibility and accountability to write every day.  For many years, I journaled privately.  But since transitioning to a public writing habit this summer, I can definitively say –for me at least– this public facet matters.  It makes me take the entire enterprise more seriously.  Even if I had zero online readers, just by nature of its publicness, it feels like there’s a legitimacy to the project that makes me write (and hold to a schedule) more seriously.

Total Surveillance State

A little after one o’clock in the morning, we reach the hotel and I walk across the tall, handsome atrium of marble and glass in order to check in.  A giant, glittering chandelier hangs overheard that likely costs the amount of a small house.  As I’d done so at the airport at Customs, all I needed to do was swipe my phone and verify my thumbprint on the biometric pad at the counter to complete the check-in process.  After a brief moment, there’s a ding! that confirms my identity has been successfully verified.

“Welcome to Shanghai, Mr. Fletcher,” the receptionist says to me, smiling.  “If there is anything you require, at any hour, please do not hesitate to call us here in Concierge.  For the duration of your stay, please use your phone to swipe in and out of your room and note that breakfast is served starting at seven o’clock, running until ten.  You can likewise swipe in on either of our dining floors, the 13th or the 47th, for entry into the dining area.”

“Thank you,” I say and give a small smile back.  The receptionist is attractive but as I look around the lobby, I notice that the receptionists actually all look quite eerily similar in appearance– the same raven-black hair, high cheekbones, and red lipstick; the same sleeveless, silk crimson uniforms.  It’s a bit unnerving.

Inside the elevator, I need to swipe my phone again, which automatically directs the elevator carriage to the 43rd floor, where my room is located.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government had built an entire surveillance state predicated on tracking every single citizen electronically.  From your birth, every Chinese citizen is assigned a “National Identification Number,” very similar to the “Social Security Number” that all Americans receive.  But for the Chinese, the NIN is literally your digital key to your entire life.  You need an NIN to open a bank account.  You submit you NIN when you apply for a job or home loan.  And if you ever run into trouble with the law, your criminal record is likewise forever attached to your NIN.

What exists in China, which doesn’t exist in America, is a National Citizenry Registry that is all-knowing and comprehensive.  Every apartment you’ve ever rented, every house you’ve ever lived in, and every job you’ve ever held.  The elementary, high school, and college that you attended.  Every time you’ve departed and entered the country by boat, train, or plane.

All of this is child’s play though, basic information that any authoritarian regime would wish to know about its citizens.  Where the Chinese NCR system really shines is its granular tracking of all consumer transaction history.  The key thing to understand about China, especially if you’re visiting from the west, is that beginning in 2037, the country went entirely cashless.  There is literally no longer any physical currency.  No coins, no bills; it’s all now virtual. You swipe to pay for everything and the debit is automatically deducted from your bank account.

Now that I’d used my phone to land in Shanghai and to check into the hotel, the Chinese government would know exactly where I was and when I’d arrived. In fact, as I headed to my room now, on the 43rd floor, the CCP –if it so cared– even knew about that too.

Adventure in the Great Wide Somewhere

Adventure is required.  In this short life we lead, we all have different requirements.  Everyone needs the minimal basics:  Food, water, love.  But beyond that, we all make it varying levels up Maslow’s Pyramid.  For some of us, finding a stable job and raising a happy family is sufficient.  For others, we need to travel the world, visit different cultures, and try different foods.  Yet others will need to start their own businesses, attempt to build an empire, or write that great book or song.  Concretely, the manifestation of what we each all individually require may differ.  But the through-line is there, plain as day:  Adventure.

Adventure is pushing forth into the unknown and coupled tightly with its younger sibling, Hope.  Those are the two aspects in life we need most because they keep things fresh and challenging.  They keep us going, curious about what the future holds but is not yet known.  There needs to always be one new challenge around the corner, one new monster to defeat.  Else, what is it all for?

Existing is not living.  Existing is trudging through every day in a small provincial town with only a single bookshop.  It’s working in the cubicle farm, day-in and day-out with soulless eyes and a thousand-yard stare, punching the clock where every minute feels like an hour.  Where your heart should be… only a void; you think, but you do not feel.  You are clever, but you are not kind.  But as the great Charlie Chaplin once reminded us, “You are not cattle!  You are men!  You have the love of humanity in your hearts!”  Humans are not meant to sit on our asses for nine hours a day in small enclosed spaces!  To stare at little glowing screens!  We are not machines!  We are men!

“Earth’s Darkest Day Will Be Man’s Finest Hour.”

Also, can we please appreciate for a moment the sheer lunacy of Michael Bay’s genius? This movie was already hitting on all cylinders for me but when Ben Affleck engages the Gatling machine guns on the Armadillo (which for some reason they lugged into outer space, onto the asteroid) and shoots his way outta the shuttle, I just completely lost it. This is unquestionably the greatest film in the history of cinema. Unquestionably.

The Armadillo at Disneyland Paris back in 2011!

Wesley Morris

As part of my mission this month to write every day, part of this project has also entailed finding and discovering new writers whom I really like as well as further reading up on other writers that I’ve admired over the years. One writer in particular, whom I’ve followed and greatly respected from afar, is Wesley Morris– formerly of The Boston Globe and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize recipient in Criticism. Man, this guy can really write.

Morris first caught my eye back in 2011 with his piece, “Fast Forward”– a celebration of The Fast and Furious franchise. Morris wrote (emphasis, mine):

…the most progressive force in Hollywood today is the “Fast and Furious” movies. They’re loud, ludicrous, and visually incoherent. They’re also the last bunch of movies you’d expect to see in the same sentence as “incredibly important.” But they are—if only because they feature race as a fact of life as opposed to a social problem or an occasion for self-congratulation.

Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe (April 24, 2011)

In the piece, Morris cites F&F as “the most progressive force in American cinema.” Finally. I’d been saying that for years (well, maybe something more like “F&F is the (second) greatest cinematic achievement in the history of American filmmaking,” but close enough) so it was enormously satisfying to see an actual professional critic, someone who gets paid to have opinions and write, opine similar sentiments.

To Morris’s point, I honestly feel that there should be a sort of “Bechdel Test” for race in books or movies. (Edit: Oh wait. There is!) The Blind Side and 12 Years a Slave are great but to get past racism, we need to ultimately stop making such a big deal of racial differences. We need to all be more like Dom and the family in the F&F franchise. Others, like Joss Whedon and Morgan Freeman, have made similar points and I think they’re valid. The Utopian dream is in the future we no longer need to have “International Women’s Day” or “Black History Month.” When that glorious day at last arrives, then we’ll finally have achieved equality and moved into a post-race, post-sex society!

Morris has a number of other terrific pieces and I always enjoy his takes because they combine a sharp insight, rich vocabulary (I never fail to learn a new word when I read him), and penetrating horizontal intellect with mass commercial fare. Wesley Morris, my goal is to one day write like you!