“We Choose Our Truths” (Mad Men – S05E13 | “The Phantom”)

Beauty and the Beast is my favorite Disney cartoon of the cannon.  Of all of the Disney princesses, Belle has always been my favorite.  It bears mentioning, by the way, that when Bagel and I first met, the first movie we ever saw together in theaters was the live-action remake in Bageltopia.  Ah, what a faraway land… it honestly feels like a lifetime ago.  April 1, 2017 was that fateful day.  Good times; good memories. 😊

Watching Mad Men recently, specifically– S05E13:  “The Phantom”B&B appears as a strong motif in the episode.  On Reddit, that episode is one of the most discussed in the series (at least so far) and I thought I’d just take a minute this morning to dash off some quick thoughts.


There are many different ways to read Megan and Don’s relationship in E13, but everyone largely agrees that this is where Don “falls out of love” with Megan and reverts to his “Old Don” ways.  I largely agree with this; but people differ on the exact timing and interpretation of how/why.  And while we’ll obviously never know for certain (likely only Weiner knows, if he even knows) but the key moments:  1) Megan betrays her acting friend and asks for Don for the Butler shoes TV ad spot part for herself.  2) Don watching Megan’s screen test.  3) Don walking away from Megan once she’s landed the TV advertisement spot.

In addition to this, Don obviously brings his own baggage to the table– namely, his abandonment issues.  In E13, Don also meets Peggy at the movie theater (during the workday! Haha 😄) and it’s a nice moment; but they have an exchange about Don “helping people” and then “those people always eventually moving on.” 

So to me, here’s how I (choose to) read E13:  Full disclosure, I’m a Megan-fan so I read her generously and charitably (Bagel is notably not).  While some Redditors feel like Megan’s a manipulative conniving witch from the beginning, that’s not how (I’ve chosen) to interpret her actions.  I feel, if anything, she’s just immature, innocent, and growing– which means losing that innocence (compromising principles and values in the pursuit of a desired outcome).  All her life, she’s dreamed about being an actress and making it big.  Off-Broadway, Broadway, TV shows, the movies. Being famous.  Like all of the other characters in Mad Men, she’s chasing an image.  It’s just unclear if that image is a phantom or not.

(As a quick aside, by the way, the people I really hate/blame are Megan’s toxic parents.  But that’s a separate discussion.)

Megan is chasing a childhood ambition, the dream that never dies.  And while she’d tried and failed before (and resigned herself to being just a secretary), only after being with Don does she obtain the full arsenal to try again (money, power, connections, etc).  This in itself is a huge, fascinating conversation about chasing one’s dreams (Bagel and I had a huge argument about this yesterday!) but in summary: I’m a firm believer that the most ardent among us– the people who try hardest– are those who never quit.  The Hufflepuffs of the world are the ones who never say die.  And this perseverance to never give up can, in a way, can be poisonous. It anchors us to a perpetual past and Hufflepuffs will exhaust every last outlet, including their principles, if it means getting what they want.  Scene 1 where Megan throws away her independence (and innocence) is the place where Don “falls out of love.” 

But.  We pick our truths.  And while Don may have lost all respect (and love) for Megan in that first scene, in the next scene, Scene 2– when he’s watching the reel– I think he chooses to believe another truth.  The idea of Megan being “like the rest of them” hurts him deeply (consciously or unconsciously) so he wants to find/choose another narrative (one that’s more self-serving).  So he adopts the B&B narrative:  He, the great Don Draper, sees talent in his wife.  And he’s going to be the one to “let her go” (before she has a chance to leave him).  Valiantly, he’s going to choose to fall on his sword and “set Megan free.”  He’s been around the block a few times and has likely seen a good number of beautiful women and aspiring models/actresses.  (Eg. Betty.)  So seeing Megan’s tape he probably realizes that Megan has some talent and is definitely gorgeous/has acting potential.  During that scene when Don watches the reel is when he decides he’s going to let Megan go.  Don knows (I believe) that if he gives Megan this break (like he’d done with Peggy back in S1), that she will make it.  And since Megan’s no longer the pure and innocent woman that he fell in love with (she’s ambitious, like everyone else!) and while Don could crush her dreams (like he’d done with Betty; which to be fair, didn’t ultimately work out), this time around, Don’s going to set Megan free, just like the Beast had done.  Hence the final, “walking-away-from-the-fairy-tale-into-the-dimly-lit-bar” sequence.  And doing so, Don’s going to throw himself back into the pits of hell and his “Old Don” ways (Scene 3).  Bye, bye, blissful domesticated life.

After five seasons, I’m a big fan of the theory that Man Men is largely about Don –an instinctually bad man (read: a survivor/fighter; one without honor/principles who’s willing to do whatever it takes to survive)– trying to be a good man in the only ways he knows how.  But perpetually failing.  Because at his core, it’s just not who he is.  Man Men is honestly so great though– Can people ever truly voluntarily change?  Or are we simply forced to change (because of environmental circumstances/resource constraints/etc)? And does that then even count? If it’s only the external environment shaping us? (Cue free-will discussion here.) Also: What is love? What is love if setting Belle free means ensuring your own destruction? If Belle is willing to let you remain a beast the rest of your days, does she really love you?  All of the Big Questions, etc.  Anyway, thanks for reading!  Just my two cents for the day! 😀

The Xi’an Coliseum and Chinese Communist Youth League

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 Eight – Passage One

“Banishment to the end of the world is not without its perks,” Jack says to me over a tub of greasy fried chicken.  As the fifth richest man in China, you might have thought that Jack Bao would’ve possessed a more sophisticated palate, a sense of taste more Per Se than KFC.  But nope.  No Michelin stars for Jack here.

The crowd roars as the contestants in the coliseum complete another lap around the track.  I look around from our perch on the stone bleachers and take it all in again.  The tumult is deafening and I marvel at simply how unbelievably gigantic the stadium is.  Back in the day, way back when, the Romans had built a Colosseum for gladiatorial combat too, an effort by the noblemen and chief magistrate to give the plebians some entertainment to help them pass their miserable days.  But the architectural skills of the ancient Romans were nothing compared to the architectural prowess of the modern-day Chinese.  The Colosseum in Rome looks like a Lego play toy compared to what the Chinese have built here in Xi’an.

The Chinese Coliseum is at least four times larger than its Roman counterpart and spans an area of nearly twenty hectares.  I’m uncertain but I’m pretty sure it’s even larger than the Rungrado Stadium in North Korea, which was once the largest stadium in the entire world.  (It briefly crosses my mind that building gigantic venues for entertaining the unwashed and destitute masses appears to be a common autocratic strategy for keeping the peace.)

In Xi’an, after they instituted the “一年不科技程序”1 for all training cadets, the CCP quickly realized that no matter the culture, no matter how obedient, if you coralled tens of thousands of teenagers together for an entire year and didn’t give them a strict regimin of how to spend that time, you’re going to have chaos on your hands.  It’ll simply degenerate into utter and complete pandamonium.  Thus, a strict schooling and training curriculumn had been created.  But additionally, entertainment was necessary.  Even the Chinese people, with their insane study work ethics, couldn’t just hit the books all day.  And thus, the Xi’an Coliseum was born.

In addition to being an architectural wonder, Xi’an Coliseum also hosts Training Contests every weekend.  Tens of thousands of 18-year-olds arrive in Xi’an every year in order to complete their one-year of “no-technology” training.  And upon arrival, like any good training program, they’re divided into teams and expected to perform at athletic competitions every weekend.  The exercise supposedly fosters a sense of comradery and cooperation among the youths, all while instilling in them the many virtues of communism and why the west and its capitalist ways are decadent and lesser.  It’s all part of the intricately planned Communist Youth League program that’s been at the core of China’s Communist Leadership for over 150 years now.

When you have a unitary state, such as Communist China’s, the question of generational turnover and leadership very quickly surface.  Back in the US, I was so accustomed to democracy that political succession honestly never really crossed my mind.  It just seemed obvious to me, back then at least, that every four years America had elections and that’s how we decided our leaders.

But in China, there are no elections.  There is no democracy.  The citizens aren’t allowed to, and do not, vote.  So how does it work exactly?  When I’d asked Alan about this, he’d patiently explained the intricate pipeline of the CCP politburo ascendancy to me.  We’d been waiting in the concessions line at the Coliseum waiting for smoked sausages on sticks (a delicious snack popular among the commoners).

“So China is big, right?” Alan says gesturing with his hands to indicate the immensity of the country.  “It essentially occupies most of Asia, the way the US occupies most of America.”

“Sure,” I say, “assuming you discount the entirety of Canada and Mexico.  But okay, let’s roll with it.”

“So we may not have states like you Americans,” says Alan, “but China has provinces, which for all intents and purposes, function in a similar fashion.  While everyone obviously ultimately answers to the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, realistically, seven people are not going to govern the entirety of China’s 1.4 billion citizens.”

“Obviously.  Doesn’t exactly take a super-genius to conclude that.”

“Patience, grasshopper.  So, what you’ve got instead are 34 different provinces in China, each with its own provincial committee, committee secretary, and governor.  The province’s governor is the local authority on the ground in the region.  And the committee secretary is the interface between the CCP’s politburo and the governor.  All are appointed positions.  Following so far?”

Our smoked sausage line inches forward and I nod my head.  “I think so.”

“So, I guess, crudely, you could call the system a Laboratory of Communism,” Alan says, “for lack of better words.  Starting with the Communist Youth League, CCP leadership identifies promising youths who may one day transition to a higher seat within the party.  To this day, that entire process remains fraught.”


“So we may not have formal political parties like you guys do in America.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have factionalism.”  Alan looks around to make sure no one is listening and then says more quietly, “the current CCP power structure has been divided between two major coalitions for the past 150 years– the Princelings and the Populists.”

I nod.  This makes sense, actually.  In the west, whether it be the Chinse Communist Party, or the USSR before that, communism was always portrayed as some all-mighty, unitary, monolithic entity.  But that of course would be overly reductive and simplified.  The CCP, like any governmental bureaucracy was rife with warring factions, each with their own political ideologies, heroes, and villains.  How else did you expect a government of 1.4 billion to function?

“The Princelings,” Alan explains, “are your typical heredity successionists.  The current crop alongside Xi dates back to people who were at Mao’s side back in the 1930 when Mao’s Red Party first rose and seized power.  Xi’s grandfather, Xi Zhongxun was literally at Mao’s side 1949 when Mao first declared the People Republic of China its own independent nation state having defeated Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT party for control over the country.”

“And on the other side?”

“Well, you’ve got the populists.  It’s your usual story– people who believe political power isn’t the sole right of some royal bloodline.”

There is something inordinately absurd to me that one of the CCP’s main political factions is essentially an elitist, hereditary bloodline but I don’t say anything.  I’m curious to see how deep this rabbit hole goes.

  1. Roughly translated: “One-Year-Without-Technology Program”


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 Nine

“Bitches!  The both of you!  Shut up and listen.”  Katherine slams her hands down against the cafeteria folding table and leaps to her feet.  Some of the broth in my half-eaten Korean hotpot slops out of its clay bowl.  Coleman and I both just look up at her, surprised.

Katherine points her finger at me.  “You’re rich, white, and male.  None of those traits are specifically your fault, per se.  But they disqualify you from having a voice in this conversation.  If that seems unfair, tough.  Welcome to the club.  About time you got a taste of the feeling, anyway.”

“But I haven’t said–“

“Shut up!  You get to just sit there and be silent.  That’s your sole prerogative at the moment.”

I open my mouth.  And then close it again.  I decide to just sit quietly.  The woman’s got a mean, death stare going and looks like she’s in full-throttle rage mode.

Katherine then turns to Coleman and points her finger at him.

“And you need to stop whining about ‘unfairness’ and ‘discrimination’– look around you!  Do you see plantations anywhere?  Legions of black slaves plowing the fields and working cotton gins?  Do you?”


“No!  You do not!  Because we’re in China.  In the year 2045! Whatever nonsense you faced back home in that dysfunctional dumpster fire you call a country doesn’t apply here!  Why are you even wasting our lives right now talking about this?  It’s neither the place nor time.  You know what’s unfair?  On my Meemaw’s side, we’re Ashkenazi Jews.  As a small girl she was marched across Poland, on foot, at gunpoint.  And then she saw her siblings and parents tossed into human ovens and incinerated alive.  All while the rest of the ‘civilized world’ sat idly by, twiddling their thumbs, doing nothing.

“But all these grievances,” Katherine continues, “as legit as they may be, have nothing to do with anything hereWe are here in China now.  Not the 1940s.  And certainly, not back in 1619 or 1776 or whenever.  We’re hereIn China.  Now.

“So the only thing that really matters, at this moment right here, is what we do in the present and future.  If you reach back far enough, you can always find that someone’s ancestor wronged someone else’s.  That’s a merry-go-round that just goes and goes and goes.”

Katherine looks at the rest of us, her voice a little softer.  “Guys, I think we have a chance here to do something meaningful.  And besides, like Shu said, if we don’t do it, you know they’re just going to bring in another team who’ll run the project.  But it can be us.  We could really make a difference here.  It’s a real opportunity.  What do you all say?”

Breakfast the Next Morning

Breakfast the next morning is a sizzling platter of crispy maple bacon, sautéed scrambled eggs, and a generous dollop of hollandaise sauce on the side.  The coffee is steaming and rich, a dark Colombian roast that instills life into anything it touches, myself included.  I may have sold my soul to be here, but at this very moment, it feels so incredibly worth it. Never underestimate what man will do on an empty stomach. And never doubt what man can accomplish on a full one.

I’m starting in on my second plate (the waiter is extraordinarily attentive and constantly placing food in front of me; the moment I finish one plate, another will materialize as if from thin air) when a young Chinese woman sits down at my table across from me.  She has shoulder-length black hair that is dyed with streaks of auburn and is wearing a dark blue business suit with giant golden hoop earrings.  It is clear from her demeanor and the way she sits that she knows exactly who I am.

“Mr. Dexter Fletcher?” says the woman.

“In the flesh and blood,” I say.

“My name is Charlotte Xu,” she says crisply, “I understand you arrived here in Shanghai last night.”

“That I did,” I say and I take a drink of my coffee.

She eyes the three empty sides of bacon, two English biscuits, and fruit bowl that I’ve put away.  “I hope you are enjoying your accommodations.  We do hope they are sufficient.”

“They are quite sufficient,” I say.  I polish off the rest of the bacon and then turn to give her my full attention.  “How can I help you today, Ms. Xu?”

She pulls a manila folder from her briefcase which she’d brought with her.

“We’ve gathered from our assessment, Mr. Fletcher, that you possess a certain set of skills which we consider useful.  If used properly, we think you would be able to help contribute to our project here on the mainland.”

“I’m listening.”

“But before continuing, I suppose, let me ask you this,” says Charlotte.  “How have you found your visit to Shanghai so far?”

“Well, truth be told,” I say carefully, “I’ve only seen the airport and this hotel ’til now.  But if they’re any indication, Shanghai has struck me to be far more modern and shiny than I think I’d expected.  Using one’s mobile for literally everything –identification to boarding pass to payment to hotel key– is quite impressive, if somewhat concerning.”

Charlotte smiles.  “Westerners are often both impressed and somewhat weary with the ubiquity of our technology.”  She makes a small wave at the surroundings.  “The truth is, everything that you see here, Mr. Fletcher, the gleaming steel and glass, the modern furnishings and appointments– it is all veneer, a shiny gloss that obscures a far uglier and disordered reality.”

I nod.  What Charlotte is telling me isn’t exactly a secret.  Back in the west, not a week would pass without some American newspaper or media outlet running a breathless article or op-ed about grotesque human right abuses in China.  Whether it be suppression of the Uighur minorities in the western provinces or the forced detention and reeducation camps in Tibetan south, there was always some new atrocity apparently occurring within China’s borders.

Bruce Wayne: The Batman – The Epitome of the Human Struggle

Bruce Wayne: Epitome of the Human Struggle

Bruce Wayne was one of my all-time heroes growing up.  I remember as a kid, I absolutely worshiped the Batman.  To the 11-year-old me, there was something magnetic about Batman, an attractiveness that none of the other characters or superheroes possessed.  What set Batman a step above, in my preadolescent brain at the time, was the simple fact that he was a superhero despite having no superpowers.  He wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider or from an alien super planet that gave him super-strength and super-speed.  Instead, he was just a regular guy.  And that’s what made Bruce Wayne fascinating to young-me: Despite being so insanely rich, Bruce Wayne still chose a life of fighting crime under the guise of a secret identity.  For whatever reason, this nobility and dedication just absolutely blew me away.  Here was a guy so obscenely wealthy that he could buy his own island nation state to live on for the rest of his years.  But instead, Bruce Wayne chose to run around in a cowl and cape, catching bad guys at night as the masked, vigilante caped crusader.  As a child, I’d just found this on an indescribable level of awesome. 

It wasn’t until I was well into my adult years did I come to realize how demented and deranged that Bruce Wayne must be to exist as a character.  Traumatized by his parents’ gruesome murder, the man’s only friend is his manservant, Alfred.  He lives alone with no wife or family.  Instead, he just pours all of his free time into tinkering with his gizmos and gadgets in the bat cave, in his underground lair.

As I grow older, I find the fixtures of my youth quite strange and bewildering.  Why did I admire what and whom I’d admired?  Those values and lifestyles, at one point in my life did seem desirable and cool.  But now, as an adult, just seem sad, juvenile, and wholly out of touch with reality.  Actually, it’s even worse than that– in Batman’s case, I now see his specific lifestyle for what it truly is: Enormously unhealthy and downright awful.

Though, in the case of the Zack Snyder movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I can firmly say that movie is still one of my all-time favorites.  The cinematography is all-out gorgeous.  But even more than that, I really appreciate Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne training like crazy (like pushing that resistance sled and doing all of those pullups) in preparation of fighting Superman, a supreme being so mighty that he’s essentially an alien god.  There is something about the complete and utter futility of that matchup:  Middle-aged, rich white guy vs all-powerful supreme deity who shoots laser beams from his eyeballs which captures the essence of the human struggle and what it means to be alive and exist in the world as a Homo sapien.  Snyder really knocked it out of the park with this one.

Ben Affleck

This DVD commentary is the stuff of legend, I kid you not.

Ben Affleck, I consider, one of the finer actor/directors of our generation. This is a hill I’m ready to die on. At the tender age of 25, Affleck won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for writing Good Will Hunting (with his childhood friend, Matt Damon!) and then later directed the Best Picture winner, Argo.  But forget all that.  This is the man who starred in Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and portrayed Bruce Wayne in Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeThe Batfleck!

I still remember when the casting decision was announced for Snyder’s movie– the internet went positively ballistic hearing the news.  People were hysterical and completely beside themselves.  I still remember all of the memes which plentifully abounded.

Honestly, I’ve never fully understood all of the Ben Affleck hate.  Sure, he was in his fair share of Michael Bay summer blockbusters (two).  But is that such a crime?  Later in life, he did smaller, more intimate movies like The Town, Triple Frontier, and The Way Back.  Moreover, his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone was highly acclaimed and he was also the same guy in Shakespeare in Love which I remember won tons of awards!  So this morning, I explored this topic.  (Sometimes I’m curious about the grand mysteries; some other days, the more mundane.)

So it turns out, after a two-minute Google investigation, the consensus seems to be that Ben Affleck gets a lot of hate because of his off-screen tabloid life.  I don’t remember this, but apparently “Bennifer” was a thing when he dated Jennifer Lopez decades ago and that material became tabloid fodder.  Also, he eventually married and divorced Jennifer Garner and people seem upset with that.  Again, I obviously know nothing of the details.  But as David Plotz remarked on this past week’s SPG episode, “Every couple’s marriage is a foreign country.”  We honestly have no idea what is going on there.  Zero.  It bewilders me and strikes me extremely irresponsible for people to even speculate on the innerworkings of the marriages of others.  Totally ridiculous.

Other than cursory searches, I really don’t know anything specific about Ben Affleck– his Wikipedia page does state that he and several family members (two grandparents) have long suffered from a history of addiction problems.  Both grandparents died by eventual suicide.

Man, I learned more about Ben Affleck this morning than I ever knew.  I simply knew him from his movies; I certainly don’t know him as a person.  But I’ve enjoyed much of his work which has brought me great joy in my own life.  Ben Affleck, wherever you are, I wish you well and hope you are happy.

Trump’s Master Plan

By December, nearly 300,000 Americans could die from Covid-19. That’s the latest possible projection that CNN is reporting (as of August 6). The good news is that number is significantly lower if we wear masks. The bad news is that there are still many holdouts who won’t.

A friend and I recently discussed how it was possible that America, planet earth’s richest country, is leading the world in coronavirus infections in deaths. So I dug into it and found this CNN report (June 30, 2020):

Continue reading “Trump’s Master Plan”