Police Stories

Here’s a little story about me and the police.

As an American growing up in a former Soviet republic, the police were not my friend. In the shaky new regime of 1990s Kazakhstan, police held power. They used that power to their benefit, harassing people with threats of outrageous fines or punishments in order to extort bribes. I can’t even count the number of times we were pulled over and asked to pay a cash “fine” directly to officers. Fines for things like “potentially hazardous driving” or “changing lanes to fast”. Or once, we were blatantly told “you didn’t do anything wrong, we just want money to buy lunch.” If we objected, they would threaten worse fines, legal actions, more punishments. So, we paid the fines.

Every American family I knew living in Kazakhstan in the 90s experienced this. We were specifically targeted as foreigners. We were outsiders. We were vulnerable. We had visas and jobs that could easily be revoked. Some of us spoke very little Russian and couldn’t even argue their case. We were easy targets.

As a teenager, I was stopped and frisked twice in my own neighborhood. Kicked out of public parks for making movies with my friends. Harassed and threatened and constantly reminded of who held the power in the relationship between me and the police. I hated law enforcement for being unfair and unjust. I could easily see the system was broken and needed to be fixed.

Then I moved back to the USA to go to college.

And in this different system, on a private university campus, in a white, male-presenting body, I was given the benefit of the doubt by the police.

How much benefit of the doubt? One time, I “allegedly” covered a public space in paint, then threw eggs and fish all over it, then set it on fire. Then covered it in jello. Then maybe set it on fire again. When campus police approached me with questions regarding the “incident”, I was let completely off the hook because “it was my birthday”.

And in that sort of environment, it was harder for me to dislike the police. It was hard to spot the injustice when it worked in my favor. In Kazakhstan, I’d hear weekly stories of teachers detained by police on the way to school. In Texas, I’d hear stories about friends getting away with underage drinking, knowing that their tuition was paying campus police salaries.

In that system, it was easy to overlook how the campus was building a bubble of privileged blissful ignorance, literally hedging out the systemic inequalities of surrounding neighborhoods.

It is easy to sit quietly when you’re not under continual threat. It is easy to look past a broken system if you benefit from it.

The system is broken. American police are killing people and getting away with it. And they have been for their whole history. The movement to defund and abolish the police is drawing from very real experiences of vulnerable communities who have seen the worst of policing in this country.

If all your encounters with police have been friendly campus officers and quiet suburb patrolmen, your perspective has been weighted in their favor. If the thought of reducing the presence of police makes you uncomfortable, consider what it would be like if every encounter with them was the worst part of your day. Consider living under constant threat, fearing you’ll be targeted simply for who you are.

Then consider defunding the police.

 

Food for Thought. Thought for Food.

Here’s the thing about food.

For lunch, I had a fresh Cavatelli pasta with goat cheese, sauteed kale, and toasted almond slices.

For dinner, I scooped tuna fish out of a can with Ritz crackers.

And they were both good.

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This is the photo on the recipe. Mine was decidedly less photogenic.

I’m thinking a lot about food these days. The theater and art and work and projects have stopped. What I have instead is food. So all the tools I have for the creative work are coming down on the process of making food.

Much of what makes a good theater experience isn’t what is seen onstage. The show changes based on who you’re seeing it with, how your day went, whether you hit traffic on the way to the theater, how the show was advertised, whether you got a drink before you went in…

Art is context. And so is food.

I’ve eaten plenty of sourdough before. I’ve thought it was good. But I never thought it was miraculous. Until recently.

I, like so many others, grew my own starter to bake sourdough in quarantine. I had to look into options, pick a technique, compare notes with friends and family. I had to check in on my own little yeast culture in a jar and feed it like a pet. I spent four hours kneading and proving and flipping and proving and baking my loaf of sourdough. And only at the end of all those weeks, when I saw to my surprise that it had worked, did I embrace how cool homemade sourdough is. And I enjoyed the heck out of that bread.

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This was my firstborn sourdough baby. And she was truly beautiful.

Good food isn’t just excellent preparation. It’s connection. Sometimes the food is good because it’s fulfilling a specific nutritional need. Sometimes it’s providing nostalgic comfort. Sometimes it’s supplying a time intensive project. A way to provide for someone else. To spend time with friends. Sometimes it’s a surprising new way to get rid of that weird bag of vegetables from the back of your freezer. Good food changes you from what you experienced along the journey.

Food is just a story that you can eat. Goodnight.

Day 14

Well, it has been 14 days.

And it has become increasingly clear that finding activities to keep you occupied for a two week self-quarantine is not the game.

The game is now sustaining a life and maintaining a measure of serenity while remaining at home for an indefinite period of time.

Learning how to be present.

How to let go when your entire field of work has been cancelled indefinitely.

How to accept that the best you can do is let the people who can help do their jobs, and not create any additional strain on the system.

And… how to throw a really excellent house party for exactly two people.

1/3rd of the planet is actively adapting to a new, more isolated lifestyle. However temporary it may be, it’s what we’re learning to live with right now.

I’ve been talking about entertainment skills, but there’s a lot of new lifestyle lessons I’ve been learning. This is not a lifestyle of fabulous nightlife. It’s a lifestyle of fabulous home organization and kitchen management. It’s about DIY crafts and baking from scratch. It’s about meticulously detailed projects that you’d never otherwise have the time for. It’s about fabulously stylish patience.

Here are some of the new things I’m looking forward to learning in the continuing Lifestyles of the Patiently Isolated and Fabulous.

  • How to make homemade jam
  • How to make ginger beer
  • How to make pie crust, sweet rolls, and biscuits from scratch.
  • How to juggle five objects in a house with low ceilings
  • How to cut my own hair
  • How to produce a digital play from my home office
  • How to create a hand-drawn animation

 

 

Day 11: Coloring books

Remember that time, like 3 years ago, when you bought an adult coloring book and though “Oh, this seems like a fun way to relax sometime in some hypothetical world where I have nothing else going on.”

Now would be that time. This would be that hypothetical world.

Grab your 24-packs of crayons, folks.

(If you somehow have never bought one, don’t worry. The internet has got your back with thousands of downloadable coloring sheets)

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Brought to you by my Swear Word Coloring Book

Day 9: Are we having fun yet?

14 Skills for 14 Days a.k.a. Stay Home, Learn Skills.

I spent a significant portion of my morning sorting an entire jar of loose change to find out if there were any particularly rare coins in there.

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Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?

I discovered that in fact, I have:

Isn’t learning fun?

I was planning on writing about puppets today, but instead, I’m writing about something else. Because after a week and a half of staring at the same three rooms, I’m ready to really mix it up. Break the mold. I mean, do something just absolutely WILD.

So I baked oatmeal raisin cookies.

And I’m not even going to talk about the recipe I used (plot twist – it’s the one on the quaker oats website). No, I’m going to talk about why I made them.

I have not left the house in a week and a half. There are things I love to eat that I’m starting to run low on. Tortilla chips. Fresh salad. Chamomile tea (I clearly live a wild life). But I have a LOT of oatmeal.

Here’s the thing about oatmeal.

It makes sense on paper. It is cheap. It stays good for ages. It’s a great part of a balanced diet. But I just don’t like it.

And because it makes sense on paper, I keep thinking it’s something I need. I’ll be in the grocery store, and think “oh, I haven’t bought oatmeal in a while. I probably need more.” And I’ll buy some. And I’ll get home, and reach up to put it in the cabinet to discover another container of oatmeal is already there, and it has been used exactly once since I bought it four months ago.

On top of that, oatmeal is on every single recommended supply list for if you’re looking at stocking up on groceries. In fact, these lists are stuffed full of items that look good on paper. None of the major lists address the fact that everything you’ve stocked up on for the month appears to be beige and bland. You know what should be on those lists? 32 oz. containers of red pepper flakes. Family size bags of cheetos. Cans of diced hatch green chiles. If you’re holed up inside for a very long time, make sure you also have ingredients that make you WANT to eat.

All that to say, I now have 3 separate containers of oatmeal, and I may very well retire before I finish eating them.

So I did what everyone always does whenever they need to put a dent in their supply of dense, beige, practical-on-paper food. I paired it with something that actually tastes good. Butter. Brown sugar. vanilla.

And we all know that raisins are in the recipe due to the same problems, right? Someone way down the line was like “man, I need to clear out the back of this cabinet. It’s jammed up with 4 mostly full containers of oats, and 17 individual serving size boxes of raisins.” And before you know it, oatmeal raisin cookies were invented. (I’m also convinced the dirty martini was only invented to give everyone a reason to use up that jar of olives in their fridge door.)

But you know what? Once you throw in all of the ingredients for a birthday cake, this healthy survival food isn’t so bad!

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Day 8: Catapults

14 Skills for 14 Days

Day 8: Homemade Catapults

I had a substantial phase where I built catapults. I built them out of anything. LEGOs, K’NEX, matchsticks, pens, pencils… Anything that could take tension or create leverage got co-opted into catapult pieces.

I primarily referenced The Art of the Catapult for blueprints.IMG_8127

This book outlines the development of catapults through the ages. It also comes with handy construction outlines for each model. Sadly, most of the instructions require extensive power-tool usage and advanced hardware.

Fortunately for the safety of everyone in my vicinity, I did not have access to power tools in my teenage years. So everything was pretty much hot glue and ingenuity.

Unless you have access to a handy 50 pound counterweight, the easiest model to go with in your apartment is the Onager, a Roman catapult from around 350 A.D. The Onager throwing arm is powered entirely by twisted cord. For the homemade varietal, the components you need are a frame to hold the cord, a throwing arm to winch up inside the cord, and a block to stop the swing of the catapult arm at its peak.

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Then just load up with the ammunition of your choice (ideally the severed heads of your enemies) and fire away!

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14 Skills for 14 Days Day 8: Homemade catapults

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Day 7: Monologues

14 Skills for 14 Days a.k.a. Stay Home, Learn Skills

Day 7: Monologues

So many actors are suddenly circling back to their monologue and self-tape work. Just stand alone in front of a camera and do theater. Perfect for isolation.

I’ve done a lot of this on both sides of the camera. I’ve helped friends create self-tapes for everyone from scam Craigslist agency ads to Jason Bateman.

Sure, talking to yourself is a notorious sign of going a little bit bananas while you’re isolated. But if it’s for a good cause…

I thought about making a new digital monologue for this post, but honestly nothing tops this gem I made in 2010 in terms of what to do with too much time on your hands.

Day 6: Breakdancing

14 Skills for 14 Days a.k.a. Stay Home, Learn Skills

Day Six: Breakdancing

I can only speak for myself, but when I think about breakdancing, I think about dancers in contact with a hardwood floor swinging their arms and legs around wildly. Most of these maneuvers take a lot of training and/or redbull. For the armchair enthusiast, here are a couple moves that fit that description that can potentially be achieved on your living room carpet after eating half a pizza.

The Coffee Grinder

The Six Step

 

If that’s still too much, you can always stick with some toprocking, the showy on-your-feet stuff where you don’t have to so much as crouch down.

As for that, the only real trick is the attitude. Because if you have the attitude, it doesn’t matter if you have limited mobility. Teeny little arms. An oversized scaly head. All you have to do is have the confidence that you’re the king.

 

Day 5: Stop-Motion

14 Skills for 14 Days a.k.a. Stay Home, Learn Skills

Day 5: Stop-Motion

Stop-motion filmmaking: an activity for sitting confined in a small space while closely tracking the incremental changes in a subject over a very long period of time.

This is what you’ve been training for.

And speaking of trains. I’ve recently acquire two tiny lego trains that I thought would be perfect for a stop-motion exercise. For instruction I referenced the LEGO Make Your Own Movie Book. It is not comprehensive, but it came with a LEGO skateboard, so that’s cool.

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A whopping 58 pages of rudimentary instructions

I also downloaded the app Onion Cam2, which allows you to do stop-motion right on your smartphone (for free!) It’s super fun, but I also learned that the lack of storage space on my phone means I’m limited to making very short movies. The constraints of no-budget film.

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I set up a tear-out backdrop from the book, lit with a desk lamp, and clipped my iPhone to a tripod. The app allows you to onion-skin, showing a transparency of the previous frame so you can judge how far to move each subject between frames. It’ll also export anywhere between 12 and 24 frames per second, depending on how much patience (or phone memory) you have.

The trains are great because, well, they don’t have limbs. So there’s very little you have to move between takes. All that to say is, this is not my most exhaustively detailed film.

But I still stand by it.

 

 

Day 4: Unicycling

14 Skills for 14 Days a.k.a. Stay Home, Learn Skills

Day 4: Unicycling

It might sound like a bad idea – learning a skill that might send you to the hospital while staying indoors to help create less work for the hospital system.

But let’s face it. I don’t currently own a unicycle. I’m guessing you also don’t currently own a unicycle. So for all intents and purposes, today we are learning how to ride a theoretical unicycle.

Theoretical unicycling, like theoretical physics, is completely harmless.

I learned how to ride a unicycle from the book: How to Ride a Unicycle

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Which I realize as I look at this book again, is really not a very good book. But somehow I still figured it out. I guess if I can learn to ride an actual unicycle from a mediocre book, it’s plausible you can learn to ride a theoretical unicycle from this post?

If you’re wondering if I can actually ride a unicycle, here is the most recent digital evidence I have.

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Proof both that I can ride the wobble-machine, and that it’s possible to ride one and not die. Theoretically.

According to the book, it takes 7 to 15 hours to learn how to ride one of these. Which is troubling. Imagine getting on a flight (back when we still took flights) and being told your travel time would be 7 to 15 hours. What’s happening in those eight maybe-hours?

Honestly, in both cases, a lot of discomfort.

There are two tricks to riding a unicycle. Getting on top of it. And staying on top of it.

You need to start off with something sturdy to cling onto for dear life. In my case, it was the back of the sofa in our living room. Hence the indoor-learning

Based on my experience, you put your foot on the lower pedal, the seat between your legs, and kick up onto it. Hey, that wasn’t so ha–

Then it shoots out like a rocket from between your legs and puts a tire print on your attic door that stays there for the next five years.

So you practice that mount up again and again while listening to audiobooks until it stops rocketing away and stays put. Now you can sit uncomfortably on top of this thing while you cling desperately to your sofa. Progress.

Then comes the finessing of the pedals. Your first pedaling is clumsy, jerky. Each one veers the solo wheel to the right, and then back to the left. Your thighs squeeze the seat like a vice. You clutch wildly at anything for support. You’re very glad no one is watching this.

Over time, it smooths out. Once you’re comfortable enough that you can keep your center of gravity above the wheel, instead of mostly on the back of the sofa, you find a lot more progress. Soon you can hold yourself up in a doorway. Then against a wall. You can’t quite go on your own yet, but you can move to practicing outside on a sidewalk.

Note: as soon as you switch to practicing on concrete, buy a lot of protective gear. Or really good health insurance. If you’re in the US, you’ll find the protective gear to be much cheaper than the insurance.

Once you’ve got the hang of it. You can ride free with no support. First just a few feet, then a few yards. Then you’re circling around the block!

You’ll find uneven surfaces to be painful, dropoffs incredibly jarring, and hills to be an absolute nightmare. (There’s a reason I don’t unicycle in Pittsburgh.) But don’t let that stop you. For every obstacle, there’s a dozen more overly persistent athletes out there determined to overcome it. If you’re really up for some armchair unicycle adventuring, you can watch through Ed Pratt’s entire unicycle tour of the United States.

And maybe that’s the best of all worlds here. Learning about a wildly unsafe activity with all of the best cinematography and none of the personal risks.