Tuesday, June 30, 2015


I have been reading a lot of books lately.  Not just on Kindle and “Books-On-Tape”, but actual books that you hold in your hand and you lick your finger and you turn the pages.  I kind of now wish I had been a bigger reader earlier in life.  Take note, younger demographic!... if there is even one of you.

As a kid, I barely read anything at all.  I associated reading with school, and in my free time there was no way you were going to get me to do more reading.  Especially when there was television, which was a demonstrably easier way of assimilating material – like baby food instead of cutting your own meat.

Lemme get right to it.  You know how sometimes, I provide personally selected music for your listening entertainment.  Well, today, I offer personally selected samples of writing, taken from books I have read during the past number of months. 

I have chosen these examples, not because of their literary style, nor because of their content.  I have selected them because of their “voices”, each one different, each one clear and crisp and a bell.  Sorry, I got that backwards.  Each one crisp and clear as a bell.   

Forget about fiction/non-fiction (I offer two examples of each.)  Forget about subject matter.  Forget about depth of intention.  All of these categories are significant.  But just not today. 

Listen to these (snippets of) their stories, and imagine the writer being in the same room with you as they tell them, only they couldn’t make it so they instead distributed a transcribed version in the form of a book. 

These are my most recent favorite “Writers’ Voices”, though they may not hit the bulls-eye for you.  Perhaps you can pass along your own personal examples of the ones who do.

We begin with a hockey player, one of the greatest of all time.  The man never finished High School, but you listen to him talk, and you know in an instant he is a straight shooter and the quintessential “Genuine Article.”

“In the early 1950’s, I played with a rare group of guys who put the team ahead of themselves.  It began with stars like Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay and carried all the way down the roster.  In those years, there’s no question that the Red Wings were stocked with talent, but that wasn’t why they won.  The reasons went beyond our skill on the ice.  We were a close-knit bunch who played for each other as much as anything else.  You never wanted to look down the bench at your buddy and know that you’d let them down.  In the third period, when the game is on the line and you’re dog-tired at the end of a shift, that can be why you dig deeper for the last ounce of energy left in your legs.  Winning a championship takes a whole team willing to pay the same price on every shift. The opposite is also true.  If you don’t care about your teammates, maybe you don’t dig in to get back into position to take away the odd man rush.  Maybe you lose focus and that’s the instant your check slips behind you and tips the puck into the net.  The NHL game moves so quickly that a single mistake can be the difference between winning and losing.”

“Mr. Hockey – Gordie Howe:  My Story.”

I met this sportswriter as this fitness spa that we go to in Mexico.  She wrote a book about NASCAR and she graciously passed along a copy in the mail.  It’s an interesting book.  But more importantly, when I read it, it was like listening to her once again, talking mesmerizingly around the dinner table.

“My first mistake was wearing a dress.  Dresses, I learned, weren’t allowed in the NASCAR garage unless modeled by Miss Winston, Miss Mopar, Miss Mello-Yello, or whatever honorary beauty queen reigned that day, replete with tiara and satin sash across an ample bosom.  But for women not born to ride atop floats, wearing a dress meant you didn’t get in.

“In was the first item on a long list of things I didn’t know about stock-car racing when I was sent to cover my first NASCAR practice in 1991.

“It was a geographical fluke that I drew the assignment, having landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a young sportswriter the previous fall.  And it was a quirk of the era that it later became my beat – an era that saw major newspapers confront the reality of NASCAR, long derided as a fixation of the semiliterate southern fringe, had started commanding TV ratings that warranted broader coverage.  The only thing I knew about NASCAR at the time was that Bruce Springsteen had once mentioned Junior Johnson in a song.  I knew the lyrics to ‘Cadillac Ranch’ cold, but I wasn’t sure if Johnson was real or fiction, dead or alive.”

“One Helluva Ride – How NASCAR Swept The Nation” – Written by Liz Clarke.

Though, I do not read many crime novels, I have come to enjoy Michael Connolly’s Los Angeles-based murder mysteries.  I have primarily read Connolly on “Books-On-Tape”, which makes them harder to excerpt.  So I chose a different writer, whose voice is equally sharp and cryptically intense.

“I need to locate someone.”

“What type of case?” he asks as he lands hard in his oversized executive chair.  The wall behind him is covered with large photos and seminar certificates.

“It’s not really a case.  I just need to find the guy.”

“What will you do after you find him?”

“Talk to him.  That’s all.  There’s no cheating husband or delinquent debtor.  I’m not looking for money or revenge or anything bad.  I just need to meet this guy and find out more about him.”

“Fair enough.”  Frank uncaps his pen and is ready to take notes.  “Tell me about him.”

“His name is Nathan Cooley.  I think he also goes by Nat, too.  Thirty years old, single, I think.  He’s from a small town called Willow Gap.”

“I’ve been through Willow Gap.”

“Last I knew, his mother still lives there, but I’m not sure where Cooley is now.  A few years back, he got busted for a meth sting – “

“What a surprise.”

“And spent a few years in federal prison.  His older brother was killed in a shoot-out with the police.”

Frank is scribbling away.  “And how do you know this guy?”

“Let’s say we go way back.”

“Fair enough.”  He knows when to ask questions and when to let them pass.  “What am I supposed to do?” 

“Look, Mr. Beebe –“

“It’s Frank.”

“Okay, Frank.  I doubt there are many black folks in and around Willow Gap.  That, plus I’m from Miami, and I have Florida tags on my little foreign car.  If I show up and start poking around, asking questions, I probably won’t get too far.”

“You’d probably get shot.”

“I’d like to avoid that.”

“The Racketeer” – Written by John Grisham.  

This last one, I read in preparation to our recent trip to Turkey.  Reflecting a country dangling uncomfortably between two cultures, it is a comic novel concerning the rise and fall of an institution that, although powerful and pervasive, has essentially no practical function whatsoever.

The following response is delivered by a manipulative “visionary” to a complaint by a congenitally reasonable character that a couple, which includes the complainer’s own daughter, having thrown themselves ecstatically into a traditional, dervish-like folk dance, have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

“The same old story.  Rather, the same old stories.  My dear friend, you are an incurable
malcontent.  Knowledge is secondary in such matters.  Action, action, and action alone!”  Then, as if talking to himself, he added:

“Knowledge holds us back.  Indeed it offers neither an end nor an aim.  The main thing to do, to create.  ‘If they only knew, if they only knew…’  But if they knew, they wouldn’t be doing it.  They’d never achieve the same innovation, the same excitement at spontaneous discovery.  Knowledge would stifle it all.  Your daughter has made the evening.  With what?  With her ability to create.  For creation is life.  We are living individuals.  We are people who choose life.  You can scowl at us all you like.”

“I’m not scowling.  I’m simply speaking my mind.”

“Keep your thoughts to yourself, and feast your eyes on this magnificent spectacle!” 

“The Time Regulation Institute” – Written by Ahmet-Hamdi Tanpinar.

And there you have it.

Four writers. 

Four uniquely distinct voices.

Reading their books, I felt like I had made four very interesting new friends.

Monday, June 29, 2015

"A (Curiously) Unasked And Possibly Unanswerable Question Which May Explain Why It is Unasked Though That Does Not Mean It Should Necessarily Remain Unasked And I am Asking It Today"

My latest candidate for “Longest Title.”  Thirty-one words, including the one in brackets.  (And why shouldn’t we include the one in brackets?”)

In his recent column in the Sunday New York Times, Frank Bruni challenges a style of argument is which a certain behavior is justified – or at least deemed acceptable – because of a contrasting example wherein the behavior is significantly worse. 

Examples from Bruni’s column:

"Sure, the Roman Catholic Church has not done right by women.  But those Mormons have more to answer for!”

“Yes, there are college presidents with excessive salaries.  But next to football and basketball coaches on many campuses, they’re practically monks!”

And, by far, the pukiest example offered by Bruni:

Arkansas senator Tom Cotton insisting on “perspective” for a “Religious Freedom Bill” allowing the state’s merchants to deny services to people based on their sexual orientation, offering the comparison that

“In Iran, they hang you for the crime of being gay.”

Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it? 

“We don’t hang gays.”

(IRANIAN GAY PERSON:  I’d take that any day.  But I know what you’re talking about.”)

“They do it more!” exemplifies of a cluster of justifications that originate in the Fourth Grade schoolyard, and are perpetuated, with a surprising lack of embarrassment, by adults.

Do these sound familiar from Elementary or Middle School?

“They did it first!”  (AKA:  “They started it!”  Justifying “finishing it” as brutally as they want to.)

“They do it too!”  (Regularly argued by someone who also does it but considerably more often and inevitably more severely.)

“They do it more!”  (AKA – Bruni’s point in his article:  Their behavior is worse!”  As in, “So we lop off a finger.  They lop off your entire head!  Would you rather have that?  Huh?  Huh?”)

What we’re seeing with these arguments is a deliberate smokescreen, serving to exonerate – their supporters would call it “contextualize” – unacceptable behavior. Bruni concludes his observations with a remindering “Reality Check”:

“There are standards to which government, religion and higher education should be held… There’s right and wrong, not just better and worse.”

Which brings me, finally, to my question.

I am currently reading – on Kindle, and I am a whiz on Kindle, Yay! – a book called The Heart of Everything That Is – The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, written by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.

Red Cloud was an Oglala Lakota Sioux warrior chief who, after rising to the top due to his victorious exploits against rival Indians, was (at least temporarily) successful in defeating the American forces marshaled against him, and in therefore slowing down the expansionism of the migrating settlers from the East. 

NOTE:  The issue of “Treatment of the Indians” is an ideological minefield.  You cannot use a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb that somebody with an opposing perspective will not find objectionable, or at least biased, and then yell at you for using it.  Let it be on the record that, like most people, although perhaps a little more so because of the ubiquitous “Jew Thing”, I condemn any policy in the direction of genocide.

Putting my folk art-buying dollars where my mouth is, my identification with American Indians is recognizably reflected in our living-room, adorned as it is with Indian photographs, paintings, pottery, and artifacts of various types, including a “Kachina Doll” and a small, metal “paint box” containing wrapped sachets of Indian “medicine” – I rub “Soar Joint Medicine” purchased at an Indian “Pow-Wow” on my barking thumb joints every morning.  I am unequivocally “All in” with the Indians. 

And yet I am still troubled by this question.        

Let’s be grown-ups about this.  Meaning, no “They did it too!”, “They did it first!” and “They did it more!”  We are looking for answers, and those perspectives are not helpful.

Frank Bruni reminds us that, in certain institutional contexts at least,

"There's right and there's wrong."

Acknowledging the unforgivable behavior exhibited by the more recent arrivals to this country in their interactions with the people who were already there, setting aside all blaming and recrimination…

What exactly would have been the “right” way to handle things?

Maybe you can tell me.

As I am at a loss for a workable solution.

(Which in no way exonerates what we did.)

Friday, June 26, 2015

"Language Depletion"

This may be the same post I wrote recently but with different words.  In the previous post, the issue was “Telling the Truth in Comedy” – which, for some recent practitioners means “Telling the Most Punishing Truth You Can Imagine In Comedy”, because anything less is construed as disingenuously pulling your punches.  This post investigates a paralleling “end-game.”   

Let me start with an incendiary pronouncement, so at least readers will be able to say, “It’s the same.  But he never said that!

Okay, here it is.


A little background.

Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) is the “Patron Saint of Truth-Telling Comedians”, breaking language and content barriers in his provocative comedy routines:

Random Examples:

“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”

“The only anonymous donor is the one who knocked up your daughter.”

Bruce paid for his deliberate outspokenness, suffering the legal consequences of the era, which are no longer in force substantially because of his courageous battles against them, thus paving the way for Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Louis Black, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, whoever takes comedy to the “Acceptability Limit” – quoting “Buzz Lightyear” –

… and beyond.

Here, belatedly, is my incendiary pronouncement:

Lenny Bruce destroyed obscenity.

Which, in fact, was precisely what he had in mind0.  It was Bruce’s contention that the words themselves are entirely harmless, and that if you repeated those identifiable curse words often enough, they would inevitably lose their power to offend, they would eventually become common parlance, and you would consequently not be arrested for uttering them on stage, which he invariably was. 

Handing Bruce a tailor-made hunk of material concerning free speech. 

A propos of the preceding sentence, years ago, a colleague persuasively argued that all comedians are conservative.  His rationale for this improbable assertion?  Both comedians – especially the issue-oriented variety – and conservatives are disappointed that America is not keeping its legal and constitutional promises.  Though they are, admittedly, rarely the same promises. 

“Hey!  States’ Rights!”

That’s not one comedians usually bring up, but some people insist that that promise was not entirely lived up to, due to the pesky demand for civil liberties.  A promise simultaneously made to a different group, who had been disappointed for quite a while.


By de-stigmatizing curse words, obscenity becomes, to the delight of Lenny Bruce and his adherents, happily inoffensive.  Or at least nobody called the police.

My question, reiterating the point concerning the trend of the “Comedy of Pain” becoming inevitably more painful…

Then what?

I mean, sometimes you need to swear a little.  Blow off some obscenatorial steam.

You strike your thumbnail with a hammer. 

You are betrayed by a loved one, or a trusted friend.

You lose your life’s savings because some geniuses on Wall Street tried something tricky and it blew up in their faces.

How do you appropriately convey the agony, outrage and intensity,

When the profanity of the past has been effectively neutered? 

(Thanks, essentially, to Lenny Bruce.)

We deride the goody-goody who says, “Darn it!”  But since former expletives have turned into conversational punctuation, what have any of us got left to curse with? 

Free speech is essential.  But the liberalization of language has transformed – with apologies – “Fuck!” into “Darn it!”

I do not underestimate the human capacity for continuing invention.  But how do you come up with new curse words?   There are only so many sexual body parts and unacceptable activities between immediate relatives you can appropriate.  After that, you are relegated to shaking your fist and sputtering…


I realize that there are more important things to worry about than “We have no words left to curse with.”  Nor am I advocating a return to censorship, which in any case is not going to happen, because, like the progression in comedy, you can never go backwards.  It’s just that I’m a “Words Guy”, and, as a result of their regularized usage, I am without some of the more colorful possibilities on my expressionarial palette.   

Maybe you can suggest some replacements.  Because we definitely need some.

I mean, when “hell” delivers the punchlessness of “heck”,

What the hell is the new “hell”?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Three Movies - One Somewhat Extended Observation And Two Shorties"

Dr. M went to Chicago for a family “simcha” (celebration) that I skipped.  I took the opportunity of her absence to see three movies she would most likely have nixed. 

The following, therefore, is entirely my fault.

Love & Mercy – Winston Churchill once said about democracy that it was the worst form of government except for all the other ones.  In other words, democracy could legitimately boast of being the acknowledged least terrible form of government.

In a similar fashion, Love & Mercy is the least terrible “bio-pic” of a musical genius I have ever seen.

And that’s it.

They go deeper.  But do they get any closer to explaining “The Miracle of Creation”?

It did not appear to me that they did.

In their defense, it is very difficult to portray “The Creative Process” on the screen.  Wait.  Being more accurate:

It is impossible to portray “The Creative Process” on the screen. 

‘The Creative Process” is simply “doing stuff.”  If you’re a musical genius – or an artistic genius of any kind – you just do it better.

A person’s painting a fence.  Picasso’s painting a fence.  They both finish.  You say to the first person, “Nice job.”  You look at Picasso’s fence and you can’t take your eyes off of it.

In terms of behavior, however – what is up there on the screen – it’s just two people, painting a fence.

Still, as impossible as the creative process is to portray, moviemakers continue to make efforts to portray it.  And they invariably get to.


The superficial explanation:

FILMMAKER:  “I want to make a movie about Brian Wilson and ‘The Beach Boys.’”

STUDIO BOSS:  “Will it have that spectacular ‘Beach Boys’ music in it?”

FIILMMAKER:  “Vo’ den?”  (A Yiddish colloquialism for “Of course!”)

STUDIO BOSS:  “Green light!”

(Meaning, “I am approving the making of this movie.”)

Substantially because of the built-in marketing advantage of the music.

This explanation, however, excludes the always-popular “tortured artist” component of the movie.  To whom is it “always popular”?  I am getting ahead of myself here, but, for me, this is the real explanation for why filmmakers are inexorably drawn to “creative process/slash/tortured artist” genre of movie.

Listen to this.  This is a great line.

In the movie Charlie Bubbles (1967), a successful but troubled writer runs into a working class acquaintance of his father’s, who asks him,

“Are you still working, Sir, or do you just do the writing now?”

This is the unspoken agony of all “creatives.”  That the world at large does not actually believe that they do anything.  At least not anything that is demonstrably worthwhile.

As a “creative” him or her self, the filmmaker harbors this torturous concern.  And what is their proactive response?  They make movies demonstrating how uniquely difficult “The Creative Process” is, including the price, in terms of personal carnage, that is paid by the participants.

FAKE PSYCHOANALYST EARL:  Hungry for their approval, the filmmakers are subliminally telling their fathers,

I work hard too!”

To make it palatable, they channel their filial plea for acceptance through a paralleling third party which, in this case, is Brian Wilson.

Love & Mercy may not hit the bulls-eye, but it comes closer than other “tortured artist” movies I have been required to sit through. 

And as a bonus, you get to hear some really memorable “Beach Boys” tunes.
AlohaA word that now has three meanings – “Hello.”  “Goodbye.”  And “An agonizing mess of a movie by a formerly admirable writer-director who seems to have unfortunately lost his way.”  When a movie with “A-List” aspirations has a “Running Time” of just a hundred-and-five minutes, you get the feeling that large chunks of it have been strategically cut out, causing you to leave the theater unhappy about the movie, but yet grateful that you were not subjected to the longer version.
SpyExtremely popular with the audience I saw it with, but not with me.  Lemme ask you something.

Why is it that “crudeness” demonstrated by men becomes “empowerment” when demonstrated by women?
Dr. M is returning home today.  The woman has “Movie Taste.” 

Now things will definitely pick up.