Monthly Archives: February 2013

4B: A Fireside Chat With My Wife

I began this blog as a substitute for conversations with Barbara, who is now in her second year of grad school, mostly nights and weekends.  As many couples are, we were in the habit of storing up our funny stories, our frustrating experiences, and our ponderings, and sharing them after work or during weekend newspaper-reading marathons.  If B were here now, here is what I would tell her.

First, although I swore I wouldn’t do it any more, I’ve gotten myself into another one of those pointless on-line debates, this time on the folk-music presenter’s listserv “Folkvenu.”  One presenter posted a story about a venue that used a copyrighted photograph on its Web site to promote a concert, which caused the photographer to threaten legal action.  This caused a small howl from the usual suspects on the listserv, whose attitude was “what’s the harm”; and “so now I can never use a musician’s picture to promote a show”; and even one presenter/songwriter who said “It’s great that I’m such small fish that I can just use whatever I want and it’s not worth it for them to stop me.  If they try, I’ll just pretend I didn’t know it was copyrighted, say ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ and walk away smiling.”

Of course, Bee, I jumped in as the contrarian, who believes that musicians and concert promoters should be the last folks to believe that images, and songs, and movies, are somehow as free as the air, to be copied and passed hand to hand, the creator be damned.  I said to the presenter/musician:  Would you feel the same way if someone made ten copies of your CD for her friends, and said it was “great” that she made only ten copies, so it would not be worth it for you to go after her, and if you did, she would just lie and say she thought it was ok, then walk away smiling?  Yeesh.

Second, I still can’t get over how many of my Gruntled Mudgeon blog posts have been mirrored (intentionally copied? that’s hard to believe) by national blogs.   In this November post, I suggested a new theory of sports betting, based on which of the teams’ anthromorphized mascots would win a mascot-on-mascot tussle.  Well, it wasn’t long until NPR followed suit, in a blog with the suspicious URL”  Is “monkeysee” their code word for “we stole this idea from someone else?”  Am I then the “monkey” in this phrase?   GAWKER was not far behind…at least they created this cool graphic to illustrate the Raven vs. 49er tussle:

In January, I wrote this post, exploring the unexpected Internet searches that led to my blog.  Next thing I knew, I was seeing this same blog post everywhere….including posts that were created many years before mine.  OK, so it turned out not to be an original idea.  But, it’s still funny!  Here are some searches that led to this blog recently.  Any one of them would make a great band name:

Shawn Love The Dog Penis

Wounded Knee Ledger Book

Hindhi Film Actors and Plastic Surgerys

Robin Hurricane Carter

Nora Ephron Dopamine Stimulator    (I’m totally naming my band this)

Goo Ha-Ra Sex    (dissapointingly, “Goo Ha-Ra” turns out to be a Korean singer/model/dancer/actress…so rather than a wild and unintelligible cry of passion, this search is just another fevered quest for celebrity skin).

AND SPEAKING OF SEX:  Bee, I’m almost done reading the most bizarre book of this publishing season:  “Full Service.”  Supposedly, this is a tell-all memoir by a fellow who discreetly provided sex partners to the biggest stars in the golden age of Hollywood.  Fun read, no?

As it turns out, though, the book is an outlandish combination of your old uncle Billy’s most laughable fish stories and a the sort of Tijuana Bible where cartoon-strip characters unexpectedly get naughty.

I guess it starts out being almost believable.  Our self-professed hero gets picked up by the director George Cukor, and learns quickly that finding sex partners for the stars is a brisk business.  But then, the fish tales get out of hand.  Our hero procures more than 150 women for Katherine Hepburn (who is actually a lesbian, don’t’cha know, with the Spencer Tracy romance story cooked up by the studios to protect her).  He beds every man and woman in Hollywood, including Tyrone Power, Cole Porter, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, and even your old employer, Alfred A. Knopf himself (wonder if he ever asked what the mysterious “A” stood for).  He  listens to Spencer Tracy complain bitterly about how Hepburn treats him, leading inevitably to the first of many gay romps with “Spence.”  For Desi Arnaz, he procures two or three women a night, several nights each week, until Lucy interrupts a party to scream that he should “stay out of my husband’s life!”

Then, there is no stopping him.  Shortly after Edward VIII abdicates the English throne so he could marry his true love Wallis Simpson, “Eddie” begins a long-standing gay affair with our hero.  When our hero meets J. Edgar Hoover, he watches as the FBI director has his way with his male driver.  When Edith Piaf visits the States, our hero is in bed with her before she even fights off her jet lag; she then mails him constant gifts from Paris.

I’m now at the part of the book where our boy just happens to meet Alfred Kinsey.  What do you know?  Kinsey confides that he’s having trouble finding subjects for his sexual research at the University of Indiana; so our hero rounds up dozens of young-looking Los Angeles party boys and girls to fly to Indiana and pretend to be college students in Kinsey’s films, thus completely queering (pun intended) what the world believes are valid scientific results in the Kinsey Reports.  (And, of course, he also leads Kinsey into sex parties and voyeuristic fun).  In other words, the author weaves a story in which he is a sexual Zelig, literally in bed with every “name” in Hollywood.

I still haven’t gotten to the chapter about Mother Teresa.  But, I’m looking forward to it.

So, Bee….how was YOUR day?

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February 28, 2013 · 7:53 pm

“Amour”….et Mariage

Sex, sex, sex. FBI cell phones used for “sexting”! Roger Clemens’ tragic 15-year-old mistress, who says Roger had bedroom problems from steroid use! This fabulous infographic, “What We Can Learn From 10,000 Porn Stars”!  (Go ahead.  I’ll wait.)

We are intensely curious about other folks’ sex lives.  This is an odd subject for curiosity: Bedroom hi-jinks are generally so straightforward and pedestrian that midgets, puddings, and random buzzing implements are added to give them some variety.  There’s not much to learn from all of our curiosity.

On the other hand, we rarely are particularly curious about other peoples’ marriages.  While we love to spy into bedrooms, we rarely spy into living rooms.  This is equally odd, because marriage is fascinating.  What could be more complex and mysterious than the ways that two people work out a lifelong companionship?  What could be more esoteric and valuable than an understanding of how couples “make marriage work”?

The first fascinating thing about marriage is how such a thing is possible at all…that is, a conscious and satisfying lifetime connection with another person.  Of course, it is not hard for two people to say some vows and then live their lives as two strangers sharing a blanket.  As Gary Shteyngart’s Dr. Girshkin put it, in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook:

Your mother, nu, I picture she’ll be here with me till the end.  We are like one of those many unfortunate corporate mergers they’ve had in the past decade; we are like Yugoslavia.

My touchstone when it comes to the unlikelhood of marriage is the television program “Shipmates,” a reality show produced in 2001-2003 that really should be cited more often by sociologists.  In each episode of “Shipmates,” a single man and a single woman are sent on a three-day-long blind date on a cruise ship.  Typically, the polite veneers of these strangers wear thin quickly as they spend entirely too much time together, burdened by the expectation that they will find chemistry with one another.  This inevitably results in story lines that lie somewhere between Lord of The Flies and Heart of Darkness.  The two ordinarily end up fleeing to opposite ends of the boat, putting on their game faces and dramatically grind-dancing with unwitting other passengers to prove that the failure of the blind date was the other dater’s fault.  Yugoslavia, indeed.

Unhappy marriages are as inevitable and predictable as the weary conflicts on “Shipmates.”  As Billy Joel put it, they are the cold remains of what began with a passionate start.

Successful marriage, on the other hand, is a true mystery.  What makes a marriage work?  There is a book that attempts a methodical description of marriage, Intimate Partners…but that was published in 1986, when couples were still watching Casablanca on Betamax videotape.

Understanding a successful marriage is made even harder by the fact that husbands and wives often spend their first years focused on nest-building.  They get promotions, fix up a house or apartment, raise small children, go to PTA meetings.  emergency rooms, and Home Depots.  They are not unhappily married; their romance is just on unattended auto-pilot.  Divorce often comes when this “Marriage, Incorporated” phase ends.

So, to the Oscar-nominated feature “Amour,” which is on my mind this Academy Awards Sunday.

“Amour” takes place entirely in the Paris apartment of a long-married couple, Georges and Anne, who are in their 80’s.  They are retired music teachers who love the cultural life of Paris.  They go out to recitals and discuss the performance as they make tea in their modest kitchen.  They are too feeble to carry groceries up the stairs to their apartment, and ultimately are too feeble to go out at all.  They have only one another and the daily routines of their shut-in lives.  They do this with patience, kindness, and a tender regard for one another, despite the health problems that make up the narrative of the film.

The producers were smart to title their film “Amour.”  It’s easy to think of love in the Hollywood rom-com way: Fresh-faced and big-spirited couples who meet cute and wisecrack their way into realizing that their concavities and convexities might just fit.  We are satisfied that when Benjamin rides away with Elaine on a bus, she still in her wedding dress, or when Harry and Sally finally kiss at the stroke of New Year’s Day, their story has been fully told.  But, “Amour” asks a bigger question about love: What is it that we call “love” when all that is left of a marriage is the companionship of two lifetime partners, without any of the shared activities, sex, or even conversation, that fill most marriages?  What does it mean to be committed, patient, and supportive when life consists of nothing but the routine of caretaking?

In that very French way, the answer seems to be, there is no question to answer.  There is no question of commitment, patience, or support.  Georges and Anne are married.  They are two parts of a single unit.  They nurture and feed and look out for one another in the same way that a person will look out for himself.  When Anne falls ill, there is no question about whether Georges will continue to care for her, or whether he will honor his promise never to allow her to go back into the hospital.

“Amour,” in this film, is not romance, or nest-building, or “making marriage work,” or even happiness,  It is two people living as if they are one.  If there is any satisfying definition of a true marriage, any window into that most complex and unlikely of miracles, I would say that this is the one.


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February 24, 2013 · 8:47 am

The Revolution Will Not Be Broadcast: Bob Fass, Radio Unnameable, and The Soul of Change

It was fifty years ago that the freeform-radio pioneer Bob Fass, now 79, began his overnight radio show, “Radio Unnameable,” on New York’s WBAI.  There’s a new documentary out about Bob, which has inspired a lot of chatter about his remarkable groundbreaking show and the community that it created.  I was moved by the documentary also, and by the chance to meet Bob at a recent screening.  But, to me, the important lesson of Bob Fass and Radio Unnameable is how one person’s gleeful and unflagging delight in humanity can create change.

But, to come to that end, you’ve got to start at the beginning.

In 1963, Bob Fass was an working actor.  Radio programming at the time was mostly limited to news reports and Top 40 hit songs.  Bob was able to wrangle an announcer’s job at WBAI, which had recently been donated to Pacific Radio with the mission of creating less-commercial programming.  Bob asked to take over the empty hours between midnight and dawn, and his overnight show ran on BAI through the tumult of the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

The phrase “freeform radio” doesn’t begin to describe Bob Fass’s show.  Like other radio announcers, he’d play music.  But, he’d use that music as an ingredient in his own sonic creations:  sometimes playing two songs at the same time, sometimes playing them backwards, often creating portraits with sound effects, spoken word, and music.  If he liked a song, he might play it over and over again for an entire night.  Like other radio announcers, he’d interview guests.  But, these guests often simply showed up at the station, creating a 20th Century version of a literary salon.  Dylan, Paul Krasner, Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary, and scores more would drop by and become a part of the conversation.

Most of all, like other radio hosts, Bob Fass took listener calls.  But, he did not use those calls as a jumping-off point for his own rants.  He did not cut off callers who disagreed with him.  Instead, he acted as the hub – the “neuron,” in his words – for the kibbitzing, the passions, the fears, and the gossip of thousands of sleepless New Yorkers.  He would take long calls, letting his callers have their full say while often bantering with them in a teasing, curious, and warm-hearted way.  Often, he would put several callers on the air at the same time, and let them create their own discussion, either with one another or with the guests who were congregated in the studio.

This is the remarkable part of Radio Unnameable, and of its host.  The soul of Radio Unnameable was Bob Fass’s big-hearted delight in his fellow humans.  To trot out a much-abused but very meaningful term, Bob Fass was and is a humanitarian.

It’s no surprise that Bob Fass’ humanitarianism translated into social activism.  If you truly love people, you don’t want them to suffer.  When thousands of people packed Kennedy Airport to attend a 1966 “fly in” that he orchestrated on his show, Bob realized that he had built a community.  The next year, during the notorious summer garbage workers’ strike, he organized a “sweep in” to clean up one block in the West Village.  When regular guests Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Paul Krassner formed the Yippies, the show became their communications hub, eventually transmitting real-time accounts of the beatings that Yippies suffered during their 1968 “Yip In” at Grand Central Station.


It was natural that Bob Fass’s good will for what he called his “cabal” of listeners would inspire social change.  The Yippies themselves, anarchic and mischievous, created theater more than they created community.  Wavy Gravy (another regular on the show)  relished being the court jester.  Jerry Rubin had not an ounce of authenticity, not when he was a Yippie, not when he took EST, and not when he discovered the upside of pyramid schemes.

Although he was the guy on the air, Bob Fass never seemed to want a spotlight.  He never seemed to yearn to hear his own voice.  When the newspapers wanted his picture, the day after he’d saved a caller who was trying to commit suicide, Bob tried to turn one reporter away, finally passing the reporter a photo of his producer through a crack in the door.  (The picture ran the next day as “Bob Fass, WBAI’s heroic deejay”…Bob told us at the screening that the suicidal caller now is employed answering sex-advice letters for Hustler Magazine).

Soon enough, in the mid-1970’s, WBAI decided that its mission would be to give air time to a wide range of identity-politics programs, ranging from Native American to feminist, gay, and African American niches.  Bob was told that he was “living in the past,” and lost his program.  I listen to some of these programs, and I would be surprised if their strident narrow-casting wins many hearts or loyalties.

Today, we are bombarded by people’s opinions, by skillful attention-grabs and partisan bickering.  We generally are so jaded that no amount of hectoring can persuade us.  But, the message of Bob Fass and Radio Unnameable is that simple humanitarianism – a delight in others and a true concern about their well-being – can be the soul of change.

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