Tuesday, May 30, 2017


-by susan jacoby
I'm hard-pressed to offer a more perfect and concise critique of this book, than that provided by philip roth - a freshman course on the history of american secularism should be required at every college, and "Freethinkers" should be the text. There's simply no level on which jacoby's work isn't everything you could want: depth of research, clarity of vision, and smoothness of prose. Her main thrust is twofold - honoring the rich history of american freethought, and making it clear how vital the separation of church and state is to democracy...a message that may be more needed now than ever, with fundamentalist revisionists trying to jam religion back into government, and convince everyone that we're a "christian" nation. It takes a staggering level of truth-avoidance to suggest that the founding fathers wouldn't have been appalled by those efforts, but many believers are willing to take that leap. Jacoby helps you understand how easily minorities are disenfranchised by allowing religion into government, even a tiny bit. A world without diversity, or freedom of thought...is that the America to which we should aspire?
"Freethinker" is a word that has long since fallen out of vogue, but it was a noble honorific during the 19th century, when the notion of not being beholden to dogma or superstition was so strong, it was a national movement. Before radio or cinema, the primary social entertainment was lectures, and there was no more prominent 19th-century draw than robert ingersoll, the "Great Agnostic" who almost single-handedly restored the fame and honor of thomas paine, the godfather of american freethought. Would the Revolution have happened without paine? Would the slaves have been freed without william lloyd garrison? Would the feminist movement have happened without elizabeth cady stanton? Would the labor movement have happened without eugene debs? Would the civil rights movement have happened without bob moses? In all cases, the answer is almost certainly yes...but these were the freethinking people who stood up and dedicated their lives to making our murderous, greedy, hypocritical country actually live up to the ideals on which it was based.
The stories jacoby illuminates are fascinating, like how susan b. anthony and margaret sanger furthered the feminist movement by compromising it, making undesirable alliances or backing away from the depth of their beliefs, the way stanton steadfastly refused to do.
Or francis bellamy, who wrote the pledge of allegiance...but most people don't know that he was a minister who was defrocked for railing against the evils of capitalism, and that he would have been appalled by the insertion of the two words "one nation UNDER GOD" sixty years later.
Nor, jacoby admonishes, should we take any humanist victories for granted, for they could disappear in the blink of an eye. An hysterical but frightening example came after the Espionage Act of 1917-18, which criminalized any disloyal language. On that basis, a filmmaker was imprisoned for making a short film about the American Revolution, which cast our then-ally England in a negative light.
I've gone back and forth with labeling myself. Is agnostic too abstract or conciliatory? Is atheist too immodest or confrontational? Is secular humanist too wordy or toothless? In many ways, freethinker is better than any of them. Let's keep the dream alive. Thank you, susan.

Friday, May 26, 2017

"Unbought Songs"

I spent two days in Sarasota last week, sharing laughs and great food, and recording ten songs i wrote. I went in with little more than words and melodies, and the most brilliant musician i've ever known turned that into ten beautiful recordings. Glorified demos, but the fact that he was able to construct fully realized songs (modulate that fucker!) within minutes of hearing my raw material, is impressive...and the fact that i can't hear one thing i'd now change, is astounding. We did story songs, blues ballad, punk rock, folk music, trance music...his name is jim (prosser, if you'd care to know), and he's one of two friends i still have from my teenage years. He's worked as a composer/accompanist all his adult life, mostly at FST (Florida Studio Theater). The professional actors he works with tell him they've never met anyone better. I told him that once i get settled in San Francisco, to be ready for me to book us as a duo in a nightclub. I'll give him top billing in the jim & wrob revue (if you heard him play and sing, you'd do the same). Half the music will be my bizarro creations, and for the other half i'll pick up some bongos and get out of his way.
I've tentatively named the album "Unbought Songs". I'm also considering "Meadow Music" and "Naked Notes", but since most of these songs were written when their home was called Unboughtsoul, the former title may be most appropriate. Here's the track list:
1) Giving Love
2) Penniless Writers
3) Woody & Soon Me
4) Every Child
5) Hippie Man
6) Too Late
7) Cuddly Cunt
8) Bend You Over
9) Whose Ass?
10) The Hurtin'
11) Too Late (alt. take)
I've already learned how to accompany myself on two of them. If you see me with a ukulele case that looks like a guatemalan wallet, make a request - don't worry, you'll regret it. I love you all.

Monday, May 22, 2017


Temporary regressive uber-narcissist misogynist president?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

-by douglas adams
2002 (ultimate edition)
You know how once in a long while, some things of fantastic repute are just as good as advertised?
I feel like a traitorous cad to say this, but douglas adams isn't one of them.
People whose opinions i respect often love adams. Monty pythons, or neil gaiman (who wrote the foreword for this collection), and many others offer devoted testimony. I want to love him, i do. If you're stuck in a cabin in the woods with barely tolerable relatives, and an adams novel is the only book sitting in a basket of Redbook magazines, it sure as hell beats mushroom-hunting with uncle lou...but not by a lot. The best thing about this collection is the aforementioned foreword, actually. Rich, beguiling prose, but gaiman's talk about the transformational power of adams' work mystifies me. And maybe that's okay. Maybe it doesn't mean the devotees are defective, or I'M defective...i should have loved adams, though! It seemed like i was so temperamentally well-suited as a teenager. I was an avid reader, intelligent and already inclined toward sci fi and british humor. The unseen emanations of cultural inclinations pointed me to adams, so i read the first novel, and...nothing special. Maybe i was in a strange mood that week? I meant to read another, but never got around to it. Thirty years later, this collection fell into my lap, and i decided to rectify my probably-faulty initial impression. I read all five novels, and...nothing. Good, but an "heir to twain"? Great googily, not even close. Adams was intelligent and offbeat and imaginative, but with all the buildup that gaiman and others provide, the reality just feels like somebody's slipped you a watered-down substitute, hoping you'll be cowed enough to not mention the naked head of state. And the thought that's most pernicious, is wondering whether adams himself would have been the first to say that his books really are adams-lite.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


-by the Bee Gees
Let me play devil's advocate - what's the only difference between the Bee Gees and the Beatles? Disco! Had the fab four stayed together through the seventies, it's very possible they would have had their disco period, and then been caught in the same blowback that turned the gibbs into a punchline. Preposterous? Listen to paul's "Goodnight Tonight". Ergo, the only reason the Beatles loom larger is because they had the good sense to break up. It's an interesting thought, and not without merit...but probably nonsense. Even if the gibbs had george martin's classical touch, even if they had lyrics that meant anything (and the fact that Bee Gee lyrics are relentlessly about nothing, cannot be denied - even during their folk phase, they were barely socially relevant), even if all that were true, the melodic lyricism of the Beatles probably stands alone. That being said, it also cannot be denied that the Bee Gees have been treated to an historically unjust trashing, one that obscures their relentless brilliance. If you played the Bee Gee and Beatle catalogs for some passing aliens, it might not be clear to them that one is superior.
I'm just saying.
This four-disc box set comes at you from an interesting angle - separating each brother (including andy) into a single disc, to focus on the songs that featured them (or their personal favorites). It's curious to treat a collective unit like solo artists (sort of the artistic flip side of cobbling together a hypothetical Eagles album from don, glenn, joe, and timothy solo songs), but the result is pretty damned enjoyable. What jumps out is the rather sweeping awesomeness of the barry disc. The others are delightful, even surprisingly so in maurice's case, but the barry disc flows over you like a juggernaut. And if you're like me, more than a casual fan but far from an aficionado, you might not have even realized that maurice sang any lead vocals. That was him on "Closer than Close"? Really?? Bang-on, brother mo.
But this approach begs the question (and an online search has failed to provide a single clue), is it credible to separate Bee Gee songs the way one can with the Beatles? "That's a john song, that's a paul song" stands up to a fair amount of scrutiny, but the Bee Gee creative process seems to have been more integrated - they apparently did their writing in the studio, as a team. Is there any extent in which it's fair to say that "Night Fever" is a barry song, and "I Started a Joke" a robin song? I dunno. Regardless, this collection is dandy from start to finish. Some purists claim to dismiss anything they did after the 60s...but that feels like elitist nonsense. Are you really going to argue that they were less talented as writers and musicians in their thirties than they were in their twenties? Because that's a growth curve with which i'm not familiar. And be absolutely truthful...does anyone think that 60s Bee Gee music has aged better? Is there anybody who finds those songs to have conspicuous replay value today? I've got tremendous folk affinities, and i find their 60s work respectable but bland.
To a semi-casual fan like myself, these discs (at least the final three) are loaded with songs you've never heard. Which is great. The standouts? Barry's "Spirits Having Flown", which at first listen may feel like a flaccid choice to lead off a box set, but after a few hearings i rank it as one of their best ever (did you know that after george martin, barry is the most successful pop producer ever?). Robin's "Islands in the Stream", done as a solo, is exquisite. Maurice's "Lay It on Me" is almost inexpressibly delightful, because it's more raunchy and rebellious than anything you've heard them do (but stay away from the last cut on his disc - you've been warned). Andy's disc doesn't have any unheralded standouts, but fares surprisingly well aside the larger outputs his brothers are able to access.
The only flaw in this collection...eighty-one tracks and no "This Is Where I Came In"??
But i quibble.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Pete Rose"

(My Prison Without Bars)
-pete rose, with rick hill
If you've never read a book about sports (and perhaps never wanted to), this might be the exception you should make. And not for any reason that will be obvious to 99% of readers...to most, this will be just another mindless jock book. But if you have a keen eye for the human condition, this book occasionally (and perhaps even unintentionally) touches upon a kind of honesty that not one writer in a hundred comes near. There are moments of self-revelation that are viscerally frightening, perhaps all the more so because it never strays far from the macho attitude.
If i tell you that pete rose is a sociopath, can you understand that i'm not singling him out? That we are all of us in some degree sociopaths, and it is only up close that his breathtaking inhumanity stands out?
Words are manipulations, and pete never strays too far from his primary motivation - to convince you that he's remorseful, that he's served his time (in prison literally), and as his crimes were so much less toxic to baseball than steroids, would we PLEASE allow him into the Hall of Fame already? He's angry about the hypocrisy with which he's been treated, and it's a fair point. He maintains that he never for one second compromised the integrity of the game, and you're inclined to believe him.
To that i say...well, whatever. Awards and honorifics don't mean much to me.
But the visceral part of this book is in how pete genuinely tries to come to terms with his sociopathic side. He never uses that word, but he talks openly of his inability to perceive the feelings of others (or himself). It's obvious he's been in therapy, and the term "oppositional/defiant" is invoked often. You do get the sense that beneath his bravado, a part of him is genuinely ashamed, mostly because his dead father never would have approved of lies. He speaks of his father in heroic terms...and while you want to admire that, you also realize that something in pete's childhood was cripplingly dysfunctional. And again, pete is not unique in that regard. In this culture of fear and alienation, we are all of us irrevocably damaged by the time we're adults.
The final chapters fall back into the self-mythologizing, ain't-it-great-to-be-me nonsense that every other sports memoir offers up. But on the way to that place, there are some detours that are disturbing and...admirable.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

"Barney Miller"

-created by danny arnold, theodore j. flicker
Pretty middle-of-the-road: sometimes intelligent, occasionally a touch hip, but largely guaranteed to offend no one. Its one glowing contribution to cultural progress was its diversity - a squad room with jew, black, wasp, hispanic, and asian all working together, and nobody seeming to notice or care. The pacing (most laid-back cop show ever?) would never make the cut today (would SOMEBODY pick up their cues please??), but that was an acceptable style back then. Like all cop shows pre-HILL STREET BLUES, the characters suffer from two-dimensional distress, but there's enough chemistry to keep things afloat. Hal linden (JACK'S PLACE, OUT TO SEA) was as steady a series lead as you could want. Abe vigoda (FISH, JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO) left pauses so big you could drive sanitation vehicles through them, but was irresistible nonetheless. Max gail (D.C. CAB, 42) was steadfast as wojciehowicz (there, i spelled it...and the evolution of his hair-replacement was fascinating too). Ron glass (THE NEW ODD COUPLE, FIREFLY) mastered the acting style known as "indicating", but still had charm. Steve landesberg (FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, HEAD CASE) never got credit for being actually funnier than the vigoda he replaced, and also being the best character on the show. Jack soo (THE GREEN BERETS, RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN) missed many cues too, but still became adorably iconic. The one-note kvetching of ron carey (SILENT MOVIE, HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART 1) wore a bit thin, but he acceptably endured. The producers backed off appropriately when someone (detective luger, barney's wife) wasn't firing on all cylinders. The gold standard for age-inappropriate casting will always be GOLDEN GIRLS, but BM merits mention. Vigoda (mid-50s) plays a cop facing mandatory retirement. Soo (60s) was playing 40s. Carey plays a youngish cop, but was past 40. Landesberg (40s) played a 29 year-old. My grandfather loved BARNEY MILLER, and i loved my grandfather. If morty were here, this is what we'd watch.
-The Life and Times of Barney Miller (unaired pilot)
What a wild little alternate universe. The plot is a pre-hash of the second pilot, with some of the same actors, but the only leads who matriculated are linden and vigoda. Charles haid (HILL STREET BLUES, ALTERED STATES) and val bisoglio (M*A*S*H, QUINCY M.E.) play detectives, and barney's wife is delightfully played by abby dalton (THE JOEY BISHOP SHOW, FALCON CREST).
-Hash (3)
When the precinct is unknowingly gifted with hash brownies, half the squad get varying degrees of looped. The series' funniest episode, and winkingly subversive.
-Power Failure (3)
During a blackout, barney has a serious flirtation with a psychiatrist. He ultimately retreats back into self-loathing monogamy, but it's nice to see some genuine humanity.
-Jack Soo: A Retrospective (5)
A clip show narrated by the cast after the death of the beloved jack.
-Contempt (7)
For refusing to give up the identity of a snitch, barney goes to jail. This two-parter is as grim as any middle-of-the-road sitcom gets, as the darker moments come close to exposing the inexcusable inhumanity of locking any living being inside a cage.
-Bones (8)
Not quite brilliant, but very touching. A native indian is arrested for stealing back a museum's stolen bones, and he elicits great sympathy while making his undeniable points. The capper on this one is the image of various brown-skinned people inside a cage surrounded by whites (plus harris, but he was one of the whitest black men in TV history).
-Landmark pt. 3 (8)
Parts 1&2 of this series finale are so unambitious that they barely have a pulse, but this one plucks the heartstrings, with appearances by most every recurring character. The worn-out 12th becomes a historical landmark, and everyone is transferred. Barney and levitt are promoted, wojo becomes a Staten Island K-9 cop, dietrich goes to upper Manhattan, and harris retires in protest at being sent to Queens.
FISHATHON (caveat - i've yet to see FISH season 2)
-Experience (1)
Fish finds himself alone in the station with a time bomb about to explode. His physical comedy touches are priceless.
-The Kid (2)
Fish finds himself amazed and uncomfortable to be attracted to the mother of a juvenile delinquent. She's quite smitten as well...
-Fish and Roots (FISH, season 1)
When one of fish's charges (todd bridges - ROOTS, DIFF'RENT STROKES) feels disaffected and alienated over his heritage, an african exchange student (herbert jefferson, jr. - BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, STAR TREK: OF GODS AND MEN) pays a visit. The writing avoids condescension...barely.
-Lady and the Bomb (7)
Fish visits the precinct for the first time in three years. Twenty years before viagra, he uses his sexual impotence to talk a woman out of setting off a bomb (if only he could have worked similar magic with FISH).
HOOKERTHON (no, not t.j.!)
-The Courtesans (1)
Wojo, the most intolerant officer in the station when it comes to prostitutes, has his world turned upside down when he develops feelings for one (nancy dussault - TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT, THE IN-LAWS). The show's attitude toward prostitution leans toward sympathy, and shame over our society's hypocrisy. The first episode to make it clear that the writers aspired to be smart, not just funny.
-Stormy Weather (7)
In the middle of a storm that locks down the city, dietrich has an irresistible flirtation with a deaf mute prostitute (phyllis frelich - SANTA FE, SANTA BARBARA). Levitt steps up with sign language translation. Wojo jumps into the Hudson after a fleeing looter, and nearly drowns.
-Wojo's Girl (5)
In this two-parter intended to launch a spin-off, wojo's lover (and a former prostitute) moves in with him...or tries. The discomfort is poignant and palpable, a compelling commentary on trying to extend carnal intimacy into the domestic arena in a culture of alienation.
Linda lavin (ALICE, ROOM FOR TWO) pops off the screen as novice detective janice wentworth. As a walking advertisement for being a woman in a man's world, she's frustrated, sassy, and sometimes startlingly sexy. Whenever she's onscreen, she makes the other actors look like cardboard cutouts. Had they managed to hold on to her, the show might have been great instead of near-great.
-Ms. Cop (1)
-Heatwave (1)
-Grand Hotel (1)
-Block Party (2)
-Massage Parlor (2)
-Accusation (5)
After dietrich spurns the sexual advance of a lonely woman he treats kindly and escorts home, he is accused of improper sexual conduct. Not quite brilliant, but not nearly as regressive as you might fear, and fascinating in the light of evolving attitudes about harassment.
-Fire (FISH, season 1)
Dietrich visits fish at his new home, as one of phil's wards is suspected of setting fire to an abandoned home.
-Dietrich's Arrest (6)
This two-parter has arthur arrested for attending an anti-nuke protest, violating the department's behavioral policy. Not quite brilliant, but fascinating.
-Resignation (7)
After shooting a suspect in self-defense, arthur's non-violent conscience compels him to resign. The squad convince him that abandoning yet another career may not be the answer.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

"The Brain that Changes Itself"

(Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science)
-by norman doidge, m.d.
For centuries, it has been assumed that the brain is a static construct, never changing (and only diminishing) once adulthood is reached. This book turns that assumption on its head, and my initial skepticism was gradually swept away by the depth of research doidge has given his subject. He details all the pioneers in the field of brain "plasticity" - the brain's ability to reorganize itself, as in the case of debilitating injury to body or head, or to learn new things and grow new neural pathways well into old age. "Localization", the idea that each brain function has a specific biological location which can ONLY happen at that place, is also de-pantsed, as we learn how adjacent brain areas can "take over" functions which have been denied or debilitated. Doidge writes of the role that habit and culture play in brain growth, and how repeated behaviors create "pathways" that become easier the more one uses them. Our unguessed-at flexibility can be both a blessing and a curse, as established pathways can be profoundly hard to undo, should those behaviors or attitudes become undesirable. There is a wealth of information in this book for those dealing with addictive behaviors (and who among us isn't, in one form or another?).
Our plastic brains are capable of far more self-creation than traditionally assumed. The "power of positive thinking" isn't just hyperbole, after all. For instance, i knew that the brain didn't know the difference between fantasy and reality (as in studies that show an athlete's brain has an identical reaction to winning a race, or just imagining winning). But the ability goes much deeper - a study revealed that doing an exercise over a certain period of time results in a 30% muscle increase, but also showed that people who spent just as much time imagining themselves doing that exercise, achieved a 22% muscle increase.
There are now brain exercises that can sharpen perception and memory...the biggest thing to remember with memory loss being the salutary effect new learning has on old memory retention.
Another example of the brain's stunning adaptability is the child who was born with only one brain hemisphere, unbeknownst to the parents for several years. The child's development was abnormal to be sure, but her remaining hemisphere "took over" the missing functions so well that the child is now an adult who holds a job.
The implications for stroke victims is immense - as it turns out, there is a 3-6 month cerebral shock period after a stroke in which rehab has long proven ineffective, but we now know that the same rehab done later can have positive, even dramatic, affects.
The implications for psychiatric therapy are also hard to overstate.
And pain, as it turns out, is not at all as simple as we once thought. A significant part of any pain response is a product of the brain's almost instantaneous anticipation of that pain. Mind control is no joke.
And the differences between brains in different cultures is not just...cultural. Asian people literally have significantly different brains than westerners. Holism vs. analytical object-focus...
The notion of human nature as it relates to evolution is also an area which we can no longer view in the same way. In many ways, the structure of human brains is changing rapidly in the electronic age - shorter attention spans are probably with us to stay. Yet too, doidge admonishes that the danger of becoming too alienated from our biological nature is still very real, and could result in a culture of depressed, neurotic individuals. Sound familiar?
The only chapter which seems at all shaky is the one on sex, where perhaps the author lets his cultural biases flavor some of his conclusions.
But overwhelmingly, a delightful and amazing piece of work.