Monday, September 25, 2017

"My Friend, Or Is It My 'Friend' Is Ruining My Life"

Origin Of This Title:  Since I watched tons of TV growing up as opposed to engaging in what was adjudged to be “natural human interaction”, my worrying mother would anxiously assert, “The television is not your friend! 

If friends help you attain your objectives and facilitate receiving wished-for joys and satisfactions, my personal biography, at least, suggests she was wrong.  But, taking the long view, I am beginning, belatedly, to have doubts. 

Does that sufficiently whet your appetite?  It most certainly whets mine.  I can’t wait to see where this goes.

Okay, now.  Let’s ride!

We took a recent trip to Santa… something… oh, yeah, Santa Cruz – there are a lot of “Santas” in this state – where great friends invited us to share a weekend at their comfortable, beachside rented cabin.

Aside from their incomparable company, some memorable cuisine and the excursion-sighting of a whale (whose tail I saw flapping above the waterline – whereas normally, when somebody shouts, “Whale!” my traditional reaction is, “Where?” and after much frustrated pointing I miss seeing it entirely – I also enjoyed on this vacation a couple of intriguing “Reprints” I’d packed along I was unable to get to at home.  (Exciting Clarifying Explanation:  To Come.)

So between energizing hikes to a lush redwood forest and an arranged boat trip where I actually sighted a frolicking mammal when I expected to go, “Where?”, I was able to read two published articles Dr. M had brought to my attention – because she knows what I like reading, and, I gratefully acknowledge, she hit the bull’s eye both times.  Or two differing bull’s eyes once.  Whichever you find the more accurate description.  Though I may be unnecessarily splitting arrowheads here.)

One article was a New York Times commentary from August 6, 2011, entitled “What Happened to Obama?” by Drew Westen, whom I have mentioned here before.  Drew Westen, a professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, wrote the book The Political Brain, where he asserts – from observing the brain’s “Response System” in action – that our political decisions are fundamentally emotional in nature, reasoned “appeals to the intellect” being detectably less effective with the bulk of the electorate.  (We pause a moment for an exhaling, “You got that right, Mister.”)

Westen’s thesis in this commentary is that Barack Obama, though evocatively eloquent on certain occasions, had inherent impulses to be a conciliator and a revolutionary.  Being both, however, he succeeded neither at conciliating – we grew further apart than closer together – nor at bringing about radical change – we got a compromised health care plan whose imperfect elements were inevitably easy to pick off.)

I will not reveal his thoughts further, as that is not ultimately what this is about.  (Adding only that I truly admired the previous president and I am annoyed when people criticize him.  Even when they’re right.  Especially when they’re right.)

The other article, emanating from The American Psychologist, 2017, is entitled – get ready ‘cause it’s long – Attitude Roots and Jiu Jitsu Persuasion:  Understanding and Overcoming the Motivated Rejection of Science, written by Matthew J. Hornsey and Kelly S. Fielding from the University of Queensland in Australia.

The article lays out the problem of getting people who are adamantly opposed to them to believe in proven scientific assertions, including examples like climate change – that a cohort of the Right dismissingly rejects – and childhood inoculation – to which a sliver of Lefty Moms are stubbornly against.)

You probably know about this; it’s become “Conventional Wisdom”:  The more you try and convince someone something is true, despite the supporting scientific evidence, the opponents of that position dig their heels in even further, your “persuasive argument” thus producing the exact opposite of its intended effect.  The paper’s suggested strategy for confronting such irrational opposition did not overly impress me.  Besides, that, again, is not what this is about.

So what is this about?  And I better hurry, because I am rapidly running out of time.  (And even so, interestingly, I took the time to go back to include the word “rapidly.”  And took the additional time to acknowledge I went back.  And then to… okay, never mind.)

Here’s the thing.

Although these two articles were right up my curiousital alley, I was unable to read either of them at home.  Why?

Because my friend television won’t let me.

My friend television, you see, is inordinately jealous and highly proprietary of my time.

“Don’t read books and articles.  Watch me!  And remember – not meaning to “guilt-trip” you or anything,

I made you everything you are.”

Setting aside my personal “baggage”, for not everyone but close – television is vanquishing competition to everything harder, such as reading and internalizing challenging material. 

Part of having difficulty reading involves the contemporary available options.  In the pre-electronical era, people read more because, back then, the only alternative pastime was looking out the window.

“Oh, look! – a woodpecker” is no challenging competition for obsessively pursuing the Great White Whale.

“Pursuing the Great White Whale” –“Oh, look! – a woodpecker.”  “Pursuing the Great White Whale” – “Oh, look! – a woodpecker.” 

You see what I’m talking about?

Another thing, or two, or three.

TV programming is dominatingly hypnotic.  (I shall exclude the argument “TV is worth watching,” although it not infrequently is.  The thing is, even when it isn’t, like when I am watching the same Law & Order rerun for the fifteenth time… I still watch it.  

If reading is eating a meal, TV is an informational “feeding tube” – you just sit there as it delivers – not particularly nutrient-laced – nourishment.  Plus, something is irresistibly compelling about those flickering flashes of visual stimulation.  You can turn away from a book and simply look around the room.  You are virtually unable to take your eyes off watching television.  Even the commercials for the diseases you, at least currently, don’t have.

Throw in the “You owe me for everything” component, and I am literally enthralled, a powerless slave to the mesmerizing medium.  Unless I am liberated – by occasional travel – from this umbilical addiction when, relaxed and ready, I can read anything I find interesting.

When we return home home, however, like some scary Stephen King confection,
TV calls me seductively calls from the next room.

“Where aaaaare you?  I’m wai…ai…ai…ai…ting.”

And then, hard as I try to resist it, I am sunk.

You know that song “You really got a hold on me”?

For me, that’s TV. 

I am unable to escape its control.

Hold on. 

Is that a posthumous matriarch lamenting, “The kids today; they never listen”?


(Helpful suggestions for a rescuing “Escape Plan” appreciatively accepted.  There are so many great things to read.  And a diminishing window for me to get to them.)

Friday, September 22, 2017

"Last Bite"

When I was a kid, my mother, feeding a congenitally fussy eater, would say to me, “Last is best”, although never about anything I enjoyed and was happy to have a last bite of.  It was more, “Sweetheart, I know you hate tinned prunes, but forget your culinary predilections for a moment and consider the magical properties of this final bite.”  That wasn’t exactly what she said to me – I was four – but that was substantially the gist.  I used to force the stuff down just to get her to stop talking.  Her maternal credibility was on the line and she was blowing it on tinned prunes.  To me, “last” was only “best” because after that, I was finished eating the stuff.

And yet, here I am, going back a number of weeks to a post I thought was completed but like the last bite of steak found under the spinach I discovered later was not.  There was one more thing to tell you, but, somehow, I didn’t.  Just in case last is indeed best, however, I did not want you to miss out.  Though I remain skeptical of the entire “last is best” proposition.  Still, just in case.

Okay.

I wrote a post, in response to a reader’s comment concerning the unnecessary use of bad language and my momentary lapse into that hellacious abyss.  Though my retroactive evaluation leaned heavily in the commenter’s direction, my position was – and remains – that I maintain the right to break out the “potty mouth” when  deemed unavoidably necessary.

In that regard, I adhere to the dictum of the child-rearing professional who, on the issue of spanking, opined, “If you make the decision never to spank your children you will spank them exactly the right amount.”

Ditto for me and curse words.  No need to gratuitously throw ‘em around, but on rare occasions, they are still going to slip out.  Otherwise, when the missiles come rocketing in from North Korea, I will have nothing available to me but “Oh, Fudge!

Lenny Bruce made his bones promoting a contrary belief.  Lenny frequently got arrested for “obscenity”, making the point through his behavior that it is ridiculous to waste police and the court’s time and money, wrangling transgressions of language.  (Especially with that pesky First Amendment of the constitution on the books.)

Lenny Bruce argued comedically that words are just words, promoting the idea that rather than refraining assiduously from uttering them, if we repeated those “dirty” words over and over again ad nauseum, they would be released of their odious aroma and eventually no one would bat a judgmental eyelash when they emerged.

He then proceeded to say (INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE) again and again until he got arrested, his acted-out underlying philosophy,

“If words became harmless, the cops could spend more time arresting drug dealers.  Oh, wait.  Not drug dealers.  I meant crooked politicians.”  (Historical Note:  Because Lenny Bruce took drugs.)

Imagine Lenny Bruce’s comedy act as a game of “Mad Libs”, but using the same word in all the spaces, sometimes as a noun, sometimes as an adjective.  He would be telling a story,

“I was on stage here last night, doing my innocuous comedy act, and the (INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE, AS AN ADJECTIVE) cops come in and those (INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE, AS A NOUN) drag me off the (INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE, AS AN ADJECTIVE) stage, and the whole time they are carting me off to the “Paddy Wagon”, I’m going, “(INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE, AS A NOUN… INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE, AS A NOUN… INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE, AS A NOUN… INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE, AS A NOUN… INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE, AS A BUTTONING INTERJECTION!)”

Note:  I believe that would have been funnier using the actual curse word, but I am working with certain parameters here.  The point is, Lenny Bruce was literally performing his thesis.  He repeated a socially unacceptable word onstage until it, in his mind at least, inevitably lost its meaning, and, therefore, power to offend.

That was Lenny Bruce’s message.  And this is my belated “last bite” observation.

If all the curse words that Lenny Bruce used in his act, words that brought him money, notoriety, fame and attention as America’s foremost comedian/slash truth- teller…

If those words became a commonly used part of our everyday patois, no longer special, no longer provocative of a negative response…

Lenny Bruce would be out of a career.

Lenny Bruce needed those curse words.  (INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE) was his reliable meal ticket.  “Normalize” that word and its salacious co-conpirators and he’s out of a job, and I’m out of parentheses.

“Hi, I’m the guy who says (INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE).”

“Thanks to you, we all say (INSERT OFFENSIVE EXPLETIVE HERE).  So take a hike.”

How come nobody ever did that joke? 

“I made my point, but I put myself out of business.  Motherf…!  Aaaah, nobody cares anymore.”

Anyway, I just thought I would deliver that last bite.

It was a pretty good bite.


Though I cannot say it was the best one.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"A Break In The Action"

An old-time comedian named Jackie Vernon had this joke:

“My friend Sig Sakowitz is an atheist.  But he gave it up… ‘cause there were no holidays.”

Today marks the Jewish New Year.  It’s 5778.  For the “Lunar Calendar” people scoring at home.  Seems like just yesterday we were crossing over from B.C. into A.D.  (“Wait.  Now we count up?  Think about it.)  Looking ahead, if I make it to the sextennium, I will be 94 four-and-a-half-years old.  And the Leafs will likely still not have won the Stanley Cup.

I am sitting in the synagogue.  (Or imagining I am, because I am writing this beforehand.)  As usual, I am not sure what I am doing there.  I am not recognizably religious.  I can barely read Hebrew.  And after six or more decades of this I’m getting really tired of standing up and sitting down.  Especially standing up.

So why am I here?

I once asked my mother, “Why do you go to synagogue on the High Holidays?”  Her uncluttered response:

“Because that’s where the Jews are.”

I really “get” that.

Venn Diagram:

Jews are in synagogue on the High Holidays.

Early P. is a Jew.

Early P. is in synagogue on the High Holidays.

But that is hardly a perfect paradigm.  A perfect paradigm would begin:

All Jews are in synagogue on the High Holidays.

And they’re not.  A lot of them are playing golf.

Taking us back to the original question, worded slightly differently:

How come I’m there?

(And how come I felt a detectable “rush” when I received a letter to ”Non-Synagogue Members” – which is what I am – saying it was time to put in our requests for our High Holiday tickets?  Strange, but reportorially accurate.)

The experience is virtually the same every year.  (The previous sentence can be read two ways: the “Not again!” way, and the “Great, again!” way.  Mark me, seventy percent in the direction of the second one.)

I ask for the same seats every year.  At the end of the row, near the back of the sanctuary, both positions offering easy and unobtrusive egress when the spirit hits me – or when the spirit leaves me, I am not exactly sure which – and I get up and head for the door.  (Based on a helpful spousal illumination:  “You do not have to stay to the end.”  Nobody ever told me that before.)

Arriving at the synagogue, a Security Guard pats down congregants’ “Prayer Bags”, searching for telltale signs of exploding talises.  (Prayer shawls.)

I am regularly seated in the same row as an orthodontist Anna once went to but quit because she hated him.  In deference to my daughter, I do not talk to that family.  (Updating Note:  Last year, I discovered that we had made a mistake and the “Hated Man” in my row was actually somebody else.  I still do not talk to them.  In respect to a {family} High Holiday tradition.)

Across the aisle and one row back, an older man – which could mean three years older than I am – looks uncannily like my grandfather.  Except he’s black.  He probably thinks keep “sneak-peeking” him because he’s black.  It’s not.  I should probably explain that to him.  “It’s not that you’re a black guy, sitting in a synagogue on the High Holidays.  The thing is, you look exactly like my ‘Zaidy’ Peter.  And you dress just as stylishly as he did.”  I have never trusted myself to get those words comfortably out of my mouth.  So I stick with “secret glances” and hope, in keeping with the spirit of the holiday, that he forgives me. 

Topping off the experience is that, along the fact that I can barely understand Hebrew, the synagogue’s “no frills” sound system is so audially inadequate, I can barely make out the words I can barely understand.  As well as the rabbi’s sermon, delivered in English, but equally indecipherable.

And still, I am there. 

Finishing today’s post with a bracketing joke, old-time comedian Myron Cohen spoke of a man who, discovering an acquaintance in an incongruous (and likely compromising, though I no longer recall the specifics) position, inquires,

“Sydney, what are you doing here?”

To which Sydney sheepishly replies,

Everyone’s got to be someplace.”

With nothing better to offer, I guess I’ll just settle for that. 

And remain firmly in my seat… till I am ready to go home.

Happy New Year.

To believers, non-believers, and to everyone in between.

Le shana tova…


And I hope you get written in the Book.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"The Other, Less Recognized, 'Suspension'"

Theoretically, in a movie, anyone can die.

There are, of course, cases where the provisional “can” is not a consideration.  They have to die.  Why?  Because they died in actual life.  I mean, a Nathan Hale movie, the guy proclaims,

“I regret I have but one life to give for my country.”

His captors go, “Nah, we’ll let you go.”

You can’t do that.  The man has to die.  As does everyone at the Alamo. 

ALAMO DEFENDER:  “You mind if I just slip out?”

MEXICAN OFFICER:  “Okay.”  

That’s not going to happen.

A woman dying of cancer finds redemption in the waning moments of her life.

“There was a spot on the x-ray.  You’re fine.”

No. 

Those are all guaranteed goners.  That’s why I assiduously avoid such movies.  I prefer films where the protagonists – and I – have at least a chance of escaping their harrowing experience “death-free.”  The thing about movies is, there is always the possibility

… they won’t make it. 

That doesn’t happen in television.  With the startling exception of M*A*S*H, in which a departing Henry Blake’s helicopter is shot down, eliciting the only astonished gasp in my numerous decades of television viewership, a gasp I never experienced watching television, before or since. 

And that was a comedy!

In TV, you do not “dispatch” series “regulars.”  Including “regulars”, leaving the series.  They did not kill off the first “Darren” in Bewitched; they simply replaced him the following season.  (Unless he actually died during the summer hiatus and “Samantha” married another guy named Darren and they proceeded with the series as if nothing otherwise was different.  I do not believe that was what happened.)  

(Writer’s Note:  As I am not sure which way to go here, being lazy and indecisive, I have decided to go both ways.  Trust a professional.  The blogatorial “hodge-podge” is egregiously underrated.)

I am talking, as a canopying “umbrella”, about predictability.  In the context of “character death expectations”, I prefer predictability the same way I prefer – and appreciate – boundaries.  (See:  Yesterday’s post.)  Anything that makes me feel safe, I’m for it, living in a world I believe to be demonstrably the opposite.  The world is, in fact, in my view, so unsafe we need to continually lie to ourselves so we won’t feel too frightened.  “The constitution will protect us from tyrants.”  Time will tell about that one, won’t it.

Up till the mid-sixties – with the exception of the characters who perished on real life, including passengers on the Titanic – “We got them all back.” – No, you didn’t – movies, from the perspective of the survival of the lead character, were as reliably predictable as television.

How reliably predictable is that?

In the long-running series Gunsmoke, Matt Dillon was shot numerous times, but when he lay on the operating table, and an anxiety-filled Chester inquired, “Will he pull through, Doc?” and the chin-rubbing Doc replied, “I don’t know, Chester” – I knew.  Of course he would pull through; there was no chance they’d rename the series Chester Goode and continue from there.  As the show’s pivotal character, Matt Dillon would recover so swiftly and totally you’d be hard-pressed to believe he’d been shot four times in the episode before.

More recently, in Blue Bloods, in which the backstory includes the murder of a Reagan-family police detective in the line of duty, there is no chance of any other Reagan family member getting bumped off.  It was like the first dead Reagan was an inoculation, immunizing the others from a similar terminal outcome.  They can get wounded – like Matt Dillon – but one “dead Reagan” is the fully allotted Blue Bloods quota.  Leaving everyone else conspicuously in the clear.  

What this means is that anyone can watch series like Blue Bloods with the comforting certainty of, yes, harrowing jeopardy, but no chance whatsoever of a heartbreaking funeral.  A Reagan youngster’s in a coma – forget the “Prayer Circle” – he’s fine.

Ping-ponging back now to movies, up till the sixties, the hero, although threatened with extinction, never ever got killed.  In a reliable template, not once was the “Good Guy” dead at the end of the picture.  Which, since the hero was also an unwavering “Champion of Justice”, taught the bolstering lesson that if I assiduously did the right thing I was never going to die. 

Didn’t it?

Forget it.  I felt that connection, and that’s all that matters.

What is today’s quasi-nonsense ultimately about?

It’s about this.

We have all heard, in the arena of entertainment, about “the willing suspension of disbelief.”  Jason Bourne leaps from a building, experiencing less physical damage than I receive, climbing down from a stepladder (and painfully turning my ankle.) 

The magician sawing his lovely “assistant” in half?  That too is “suspension of disbelief.”  (Otherwise, “That’s murder, isn’t it?”)  In this recognized process, we realistically don’t buy it, but we deliberately switch off our “No way! 

There is also, however, the unjustly less publicized (and less mellifluous) “Suspension of Belief.”

Which functions successfully thusly.

We are aware the lead characters in (network) TV shows and old movies are safely protected from “termination.”  But, while we are watching, we pretend complicitly that they aren’t.  In that way, we enjoy the “thrill ride” of danger with the secret certainty that there actually isn’t any.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoy television more than I like movies.  Nobody you’re rooting for dies on a TV series.  (Not counting the “streaming” series I don’t watch.)  But there is an ingrained ambiguity as to whether they will in the movies.  A predicament sure to elevate my already borderline-high blood pressure.

In films, the character walks down a dark alley and, at least figuratively, the frightened ticket buyer stands perilously by their side.

What if they kill me by mistake?

Some people enjoy the bracing relief of Disneyland’s “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad” ride after its over. 

Others judiciously pass on the “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad” experience, preferring the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” ride instead.

In the end, it’s about what you can handle.

Which, frankly for some of us, includes…

Nothing.