Hubbard, Hagiography, Hitchens and “Humprey” (Two Lessons of Scientology)

Joseph Smith was a huckster who was making a living using “seer stones” to hunt for buried treasure when he claimed that God had called him to restore the Church of Jesus Christ.  He announced that the Angel Moroni had led him to 1400-year-old golden plates, which he read using magic spectacles and translated (mostly into passages from the King James Bible and from a religious book that he had read a year or two earlier) as the “Book of Mormon.”  He then focused on bedding a string of teenaged girls, which he justified by another vision, in which God revealed to him that men should have multiple wives, and that his existing wife would be “destroyed” if she did not accept it.

Joseph Smith is now revered as a Prophet.  To this day, church members will fervently dispute that he was ever arrested for fraud, forced himself onto a string of child brides, or boasted that he had translated a set of mundane Egyptian parchments into the Book of Abraham.

Elijah Muhammad, after doing away with his predecessor Wallace Fard, grew the flock by announcing that the black race had been formed 74 trillion years ago, and even though a “big head scientist” named Mr. Yakub had created the “devil” white race 6000 years ago, their six-millenium reign over blacks would end in 1984.  He then focused on violently putting down his rivals, diverting millions of dollars intended for the needy to himself, enjoying his private jet and $150,000 jewel-studded fez, and producing at least 13 illegitimate children through at least seven mistresses, many of them young church members.

Prophet Elijah Muhammad now sits exalted at the right hand of God, according to the Nation of Islam.

Despite this well-worn story, the history of Scientology, told in the new book “Going Clear,” is fascinating, and makes me think of hagiography, of Hitchens, and of “Humprey” Bogart.

According to “Going Clear,” L. Ron Hubbard was a born huckster, who lied lavishly and compulsively about his childhood, his war record, his travels, and his accomplishments.  He falsely claimed that he grew up on the Montana ranch of his wealthy cattleman grandfather (actually it was a townhouse, and his grandfather was a working-class veterinarian); that he became a blood brother of the Blackfeet tribe at age six (nope); that he studied nuclear physics while getting his engineering degree (never studied physics, and dropped out of college as a result of poor grades); was one of the country’s most outstanding pilots (actually, he never flew an airplane and qualified only to fly gliders); was a world explorer and adventurer (nope); was a war hero who was wounded repeatedly in combat (actually, he was a substandard serviceman, never saw combat, and was hospitalized for ulcers and conjunctivitis).  And, it goes on and on, including decades of lies about the accomplishments of Scientology, the religion he founded.

Hubbard announced that he had discovered that all humans are inhabited by “thetans,” disembodied spirits that were released 75 million years ago when billions of people were brought to Earth and then blown up with hydrogen bombs by Xenu, the tyrant ruler of the Galactic Confederacy.  Hubbard sold a method to remove these thetans through the use of a sort of self-psychotherapy aided by galvanic skin response machines, which developed into the religion of Scientology.  Ron did not claim to be divine, but he did claim enlightenment and a host of supernatural powers, none of which seemed to have saved him from constant ill health, paranoia, petty vindictiveness, or enormous greed.

File:L-ron-hubbard.jpg

And yet, to this day Scientologists will forge documents, cultivate false witnesses, and persecute anyone who disputes the exalted version of Hubbard’s life story.  To the Church, Hubbard was a child prodigy, a world explorer, pilot, horseman, and adventurer, and a war hero.

Which makes me wonder, is hagiography itself a bad thing?

This is where Humprey comes in.  Prominently on the desk of my former boss is a framed picture of Humphrey Bogart.  He bought it for $1 at a garage sale, believing he’d found gold because the photograph was hand-signed by the star.  It was only later that he noticed that the photo was signed “Humprey” Bogart.  Yet, he loves that little forgery, and I love that he loves it.  I love that he has made the choice to treasure this flawed object, not only despite its flaws, but because of them.

Which reminds me of one of the many low points in my long years of dating.  I was on a first date with a woman who was a religious Jew.  At the time, I was feeling pretty cocky about Biblical history, having read a couple of books that used archaeology, historical records, and logic to show that most of the Bible stories could not have been true, and that the Torah and historical books of the Old Testament were likely written by King Josiah in the 6th Century BCE as a polemic to support his religious reforms (and to show that his tribe, Judah, was favored by God over the tribe of Israel).  Over what should have been a friendly drink, I therefore bull-headedly raised the topic of Jewish faith in light of the “fact” that the Bible stories are untrue.  Before shaking my hand goodbye forever, this poor woman answered me simply: It doesn’t matter if it’s true.  It is what we choose to believe in.  The Bible was her “Humprey” Bogart.

Ron Hubbard’s lifetime of whoppers, then, do not sour me on Scientology.  Followers believe in a different Ron Hubbard, one who walked this Earth in big boots, swashbuckling and healing and uplifting.  Does it really matter that this Ron Hubbard never existed?

However, the rest of Scientology, as described in “Going Clear,” is not so excusable.  As Hubbard notoriously said, “If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion.”  He (and his successor, David Miscavige) lived in unspeakable luxury while squirreling hundreds of millions of dollars into personal overseas bank accounts.  Control of church members was paramount, with followers being belittled, beaten, imprisoned, forced to undergo abortions and to cut off ties to nonbelievers, and to relinquish their worldly goods to the church.  Deserters were hunted down, and there is at least the suggestion that some were murdered.  To protect their power, church elders tirelessly persecuted all critics, including journalists, government officials, and former members who spoke out against the church.  Scientology’s practice was to file thousands of frivolous lawsuits against its opponents, and to burglarize government offices to remove files relating to investigations of the church.  Insiders lived in fear of being demoted, punished by solitary confinement, and (particularly during the reign of the rage-filled and mercurial Miscavige) beaten.

This brings me to Hitchens.  I’ve written before about “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” which I consider to be a delightful lark by a brilliant polemicist who knew full well that he was just toying with ideas about religion.  The story of L. Ron Hubbard (as well as the stories of Joseph Smith, Elijah Muhammad, the Catholic church, radical Islam, and so many other religions and religious leaders) proves again that Hitchens had it backward.  It is not the case that “Religion Poisons Everything.”  The fact is that humans poison religion.  From the Salem Witch Trials, to “religious” tribal/class wars as in Northern Ireland and Sudan, to religious despots like Ron Hubbard, human greed, lust for power, misogyny, and tribalism tend to corrupt religious leaders and the religions they lead.  It is unfortunate that those very human flaws tend to overpower actual religious values, and that people who are hungry for religious experience and community can be so easily misled by those very flawed humans.

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The Essex County Asylum For The Insane

Although it’s only three miles from home, until today I hadn’t visited the spooky former Overbrook Asylum in Cedar Grove, NJ.  Not surprisingly, the long-closed mental hospital is considered haunted, and has been featured in the television shows Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters.

The hospital was built in around 1896,  and grew over time to include extensive fruit and vegetable gardens, a laundromat, and a theater.  It was closed almost forty years ago and has been vacant since then.

Courtyard

The Essex County Sheriff’s Office announced some years ago that the site would be under constant surveillance and any trespassers would be “apprehended and prosecuted.”  Some early accounts do mention “playing chickie with the cops”; but in these days of small county budgets, there are neither police nor even “no trespassing” signs.

Building 3

Most of the interior has been trashed by 40 years of thrill-seekers and vandals.

Chldren's Ward

The Children’s Ward still features Good Ol’ Charlie Brown, as well as other types of wall art.

Hall To Reception Building

This would have been the inmates’ view out of the ward doors toward the Reception Building.

Doctors Only

There’s no longer much competition to park in the Doctors Only lot.

Building 1

Ward 25

Ward 41

Visitors over the past 40 years have reported finding a network of tunnels under the buildings, as well as rooms in which sterilizations, shock treatments, and other “tortures” took place.  Stories are told of as many as 150 escaped patients every year, including one who is said to have threatened a local woman with a hammer and carving knife he found in her home. And, of course, there are reports of ghosts and of former inmates still trapped in the closed wards.  I did have one sighting…of a ground hog, which scurried under the building as I approached.

The complex was set to be sold to developers in the go-go mid-2000’s; but that deal fell through and the area is now slated to be developed into a 90-acre public park.  Let’s hope the ghosts continue to stick around.

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April 21, 2013 · 9:55 pm

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 www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee.”  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.

yippies

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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“Wallace Shawn’s Penis,” And Other Curious Internet Searches That Led To My Blog

From “Wallace Shawn’s Penis” to “Was Elvis A Mudgeon?“,  the search terms that have led Internet surfers to this blog are an entertaining and often puzzling collection.  Here are my Top Ten (a full list is at the end).

1.  “Pat Benetar Teeth”  (Blog is not in top 75 results on Google)
Wow.  This apparently is quite a hot topic, especially given “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” came out almost 35 years ago.  Three different searchers came to the blog by entering this search; and there are hundreds of search results in Google.  Here are some excerpts from the Google search results on this topic:
  • Comment on TMZ.com“You’d think she’d have had enough dough all these years to get those  rabbit/chipmunk teeth fixed. Godawful ugly woman.”
  • Bio on Rhapsody.com“Pat Benatar hit the late ’70s rock scene like a teeth-and-spandex tornado.”
  • On-Line Poll:  Who Would Win A Cage Match, Debbie Harry or Pat Benatar“Pat Benatar.  Those front teeth look like lethal weapons.” (BTW, the final vote was Debbie Harry 55%, Pat Benatar 26%, and No Opinion 19%.  I am dumbfounded that one out of five people who responded to this intriguing thought-exercise did so only to register “No Opinion”).
  • THIS.

2.  “Wallace Shawn’s Penis” (#14 search result on Google)

Maybe this searcher was looking for a mental image to use to prolong sex, in the same way that some men feverishly imagine the Russian Roulette scene from “The Deer Hunter” or scroll mentally through the batting order of the ’78 Expos.  I pondered if the searcher meant the New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn or his lovable son, the actor Wally Shawn….until I saw a second search request, which read “My Dinner With Andre Sex.”

TV Teachers Wallace Shawn From Clueless Then

There are no Web sites that provide My Dinner With Andre Sex.  So, as a public service for those in search of that singular bit of slap and tickle,  here are some classic lines from “My Dinner With Andre,” using the old fortune-cookie trick of adding the phrase “in bed”:

advertisement[Upon entering the restaurant] Wally: I was beginning to realize that the only way to make this evening bearable, would be to ask Andre a few questions IN BED.
Andre: So I said, well if you could give me 40 Jewish women who speak neither English nor French, either women who’d been in the theater for a long time and want to leave it but don’t know why, or young women who love theater but had never seen a theater they could love. And if these women could play the trumpet or the harp, and if I could work in a forest, I’d come…IN BED.
Wally: There’s nothing better than getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning.  And no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight.  I mean, I just can’t imagine how anybody could enjoy something else any more than that IN BED.
Andre:  Yes, we are bored.  We’re all bored now. And somebody who’s bored is asleep, and somebody who’s asleep will not say no IN BED.
You’re welcome.
3.  “Bangkok Strippers Ping Pong” (Blog is #3 Google search result)
Perhaps, in this Super Bowl week, the searcher is interested in combining play and pulchritude, along the lines of Beach Blanket Bingo or The Lingerie Bowl.  More likely, of course, the searcher was looking for that quaint entertainment found in Bangkok strip clubs, in which the entertainers demonstrate how to serve a ping pong ball without the use of hands or a paddle.  Given that, as the Avenue Q puppets put it, “The Internet Is For Porn,” I just wonder how this Blog could possibly be the #3 search result for this phrase. 

4.  “How Is The Nucleus Like The Godfather”  (Blog is #3 result for this search on Google)

This is a true moment of Zen….or maybe it’s one of those head-scratching SAT Test “Analogy” questions.  But, I can see some similarities between the Nucleus and The Godfather.  According to this Web site, “The cell nucleus acts like the brain of the cell. If it happens in a cell, chances are the nucleus knows about it. The nucleus is not always in the center of the cell. You probably won’t find it near the edge of a cell because that might be a dangerous place for the nucleus to be.”  And, really, isn’t The Godfather also the brains of his operation, knowing everything that happens while keeping away from dangerous places for him to be?  Indeed, don’t Godfathers usually end up in a cell?

5.  “I Am Old”  (Blog is not in top 75 results on Google)
It’s not clear what Dear Searcher was hoping to find by this search (perhaps a reassuring, “Oh, no, dear.  You’re just ‘experienced'”?).  But, if you type in “I Am Old,” the Google search engine helpfully suggests other, more meaningful searches, including:
  • How Old Am I Quiz and How Old Am I Calculator:  Apparently, these are on-line tools for those who need a little extra help in figuring out their own age.
  • How Old Am I Really:  For those who are not satisfied with the answers from the above quiz or calculator.
  • How Old Am I In Dog Years:  For those who would prefer to think of themselves as seven times their actual age, but are having trouble with the math.  (Yes, there are entire Web sites that calculate this for you).
6. “Was Elvis A Mudgeon?” (Blog is #1, #2 and #3 Google search result)
Not surprisingly, none of the Google results for this search addresses this question.  So, Dear Searcher, allow me to respond from my own experience.  I missed out on the Elvis years; so until I visited Graceland I thought Elvis was a cartoonish Las Vegas lounge singer in a sausage-casing jumpsuit studded with rhinestones.  However, when I went to Gracelend I honestly (no, this is not post-modern irony) was moved by this modest and big-hearted kid who was so generous with his family, his fans, and local charities.  So, I would say no, Elvis was not a Mudgeon.
Unless, of course, the searcher meant Elvis Costello.
7.  “Mr. Obama Please Let Leonard Peltier Freezer” (#1 search result on Google)
Proof, I assume, that the Auto-Complete function on “smart” phones can create some wicked good poetry.
8.  “Superhuman Powers Betting Sports”  (Blog is #1 search result on Google)
I am pleased that the blog is the #1 Google result for this search, but I have the feeling that Dear Searcher’s information need was not satisfied by my blog post regarding betting on sporting events based on which team mascot would win in a mascot-on-mascot throwdown.
9.  “Family Lessons Sex”  (Blog is #11 search result on Google)
Dozens of searches for combinations of these three words led family-(sex)-minded searchers to this blog.  It’s refreshing to know that the basic impulse that drove readers to Tijuana Bibles has carried forward to the Digital Age.
10.  “Will He Love Me Like Calvin Loves Alice”  (Blog is #10 search result on Google)
Finally, I am truly tickled that this blog came up in more than fifty searches for the love story of Calvin and Alice Trillin.  I purloined their story in my post about my own marriage, which I called “Calvin Trillin, Alice, Barbara and Me: A Love Story.”  It’s heartening to see that so many other people know the Calvin and Alice story, want to hear more about it, and wonder wistfully, “Will He Love Me Like Calvin Loves Alice?”
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2 Comments

January 27, 2013 · 1:39 pm

It’s The Stupidity, Stupid: The Real Reason Newspapers Are Failing

My early childhood was prodigious, in two humdrum ways.  First, I began to read when I was about 18 months old.  As a toddler I could be found every morning, as if in an embarrassingly cute Hallmark card, perusing a morning newspaper that was three times my size.

Second, I ate like a toddler-sized trencherman, starting the day with about a pound of cereal poured into a good-sized mixing bowl.  Happily, these two hobbies came together every morning, when I read the Newark Star-Ledger while blankly shoveling mountains of Froot Loops into my craw.

Although I’ve since sworn off Froot Loops, along with most everything else that tastes good, I continue to subscribe to the Ledger.  And, during the first Clinton election campaign, when I discovered the partisan pleasure of a morning’s dose of good-news-for-the-home-team, I added The Times as well.   At Stupid O’Clock A.M., newspapers wrapped in plastic baggies are thrown on our lawn from the windows of dark, slow-moving sedans like a middle-class version of a drive-by shooting.  On weekends, Barbara and I savor the news together, joking and interrupting and you-must-read-this’ing for hours.

Last week, the Star Ledger announced that it will be laying off dozens of its  editorial staff; the latest victims of hard times for the newspaper business.  On our “hyperlocal blog,” the anonymous wags with clever screen names circled like turkey vultures: “I have bad news for you – old school Journalism is dead. Of course, you already know that,” snarked one know-it-all.  We don’t need local newspapers, another bloviated:  “For local news, hyper-local blogs will suffice.  Couple that with a few enterprising blogger/journalists (many former newsroom folk) and you’ll have your local covered. For national news, the NYTimes model– some delivery along with a digital subscription– will be the norm.”  In no time at all, the polemic on this issue devolved to schoolyard name-calling between haters of “libs” and haters of “tea-baggers.”  Eee-yawn, as usual.

Lord knows, we have heard the arguments against newspapers for years now.  The lead argument seems to be that there is no purpose to newspapers when the latest news is all around us, seemingly instantaneously.  As for commentary, insight, and opinion (what I call “features”), there are hundreds of bloggers and digital magazines that provide such things…not to mention John Stewart and The Daily Show.  All that is required to be informed and enlightened, say the wags, is to surf the Internet and watch Comedy Central.

Perhaps the most brilliant and concise refutation of this dumbed-down argument was made by Times media writer David Carr, in the documentary “Page One.”  Carr was on a “new media” panel with Michael Wolff, the founder of Newser.com, which is a Web site and mobile app that aggregates the day’s headlines into a one-page photo grid.  “Nice-looking Web site,” Carr begins drily, holding up a poster-sized print of the Newser grid.  “But here’s what it would look without newspaper journalists,” he continues, holding up a lace-doily version of the grid with every square cut out.

The point, of course, is that those headlines and features don’t exist unless it is worthwhile for someone to create them.  Our aforementioned hyperlocal blog gets most of its content from the town newspaper, from the Ledger, and from second-hand national news.  Those local newspapers in turn buy much of their content from wire and syndication services.  The Daily Show doesn’t gather the news:  It replays, excerpts, and comments on news from traditional news sources.  Believing that journalism will continue to exist if newspapers die is like believing that great movies will continue to be made without movie studios.

 

Here is where I feel like Samuel Johnson.  Famously, when discussing Bishop Berkeley’s theory that there is no physical reality, but only a world of ideas, he kicked a large stone and said, “I refute Berkeley THUS!”  Let me kick a pile of newsprint, and point out as follows.

First, the critics of newspapers say that we can get all of the “news” reporting we need from the Internet, instantly, so we don’t need newspapers.  The first response to this, of course, is that the news on the Internet comes from mainstream news sources.  Today’s Daily Beast Cheat Sheet  (itself a digital outgrowth of Newsweek Magazine) consists of barely-literate summaries of stories from the Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Al Jazeera.

The second response is that even these headline aggregation sites can be useless.  The Cheat Sheet, though one of the more high-toned sites, prefaces its news squibs with cutesy (and often ungrammatical) tag lines like today’s “No Bay Area, you’re not dreaming” and “Spoken like a true prince? Harry, Prince of Wales, admitted today that...”  These squibs are then followed by hundreds of user comments.  Rather than hunt for examples, I decided to take the very first comment on the first of Cheat Sheet’s stories, the presidential inauguration:

Heironymo
I was struck by how much Sasha, as she matures, is looking more and more like Van Jones.
teabaggingforjesus_1
teabaggingforjesus 
Sleep with Van Jones already, we do not need to hear more about your fetish.
Fordprefect
Fordprefect
Van Jones is hot, no doubt about t.
leftistmenace_1
leftistmenace 
I’d hit that hard.
Allrighty then.  Second, critics of newspapers argue that we can get all of the analysis, opinion, and commentary we need by reading blogs.  OK; there are now millions of blogs, so the first problem is that this source of commentary necessarily involves considerable hunting, pecking, and spitting out.  But, I follow a bunch of favored blogs, so let’s have a look.  One is devoted today to the blogger’s feelings about the “Inaugoration.”  Skip.  Another features a repeating loop of Michelle Obama glancing dismissively at John Boehner.  Huh?  A third fills us in on this question that was asked by a “maybe-British person” on Fox News: “Downton Abbey poses a threat to the left, does it not, Brian? The left says we got to hate these people, but popular America watches a show that says ‘These people are okay!’”  All of these are of course followed by hundreds of reader comments, such as this regarding Michelle Obama: “She is living proof that you simply cannot polish a turd.”  I am not making this up.  This is what passes for commentary on sites like Gawker and The New York Observer
Watch Michelle Obama Throw World-Historical Shade at John Boehner
PLEASE, for the love of all that is holy; leave me in peace with my newspapers.  I don’t want to rely on a top-ten list of headlines at a news-aggregator site.  I don’t want to pore through dozens of blogs and tweets and viral Facebook posts to get smart opinions and commentary. Here’s what I saw in the Times this Sunday:  A fabulous profile of the elegant fellow who runs the Strand Bookstore’s fiction section.  A great long-form feature on the building of Grand Central Station.  A publishing CEO commenting on why “Obama Is A Lousy Manager.”  And, a sweet story of an ugly duckling from Palos Verdes who became a fashion icon. 
So, here’s the thing.  The Internet, at least the part of the Internet that is created by unpaid bloggers and commentators, is a hotbed of stupidity and anonymous snarkiness.  One thousand blogging monkeys at one thousand simian computer keyboards will never consistently create, curate, edit, fact-check, and present the sort of you-gotta-read-this brilliance that is created every day of the week by paid journalists at newspapers and magazines.  So, enough already of this “Journalism is dead” nonsense.  If we keep up at this pace, we will be exactly the opposite of Henry Bemis in the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last”:  We’ll be able to read everything there is to read, but we won’t want to read any of it.

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January 21, 2013 · 5:14 pm