Jun 9, 2011

Mental Health Happy Hour

The title grabbed me when I saw it on the list of newer podcasts at the iTunes store. The description nailed it when it turned out to feature interviews with creative types dealing with mental illness, especially depression. That's me all over, my friend. A musician who's been taking Prozac for years and not shy talking about it, firm in the conviction that depression can be better understood if we don't try to hide it from each other. On the other hand, my more serious bout with mental illness from college days is something I won't write about publicly, but will still discuss with people I get to know pretty well.

Anyway, this was my latest venture into podcasts, the 21st century medium (late 20th, actually, but if you won't tell then I won't) that I find astonishingly fertile. We're talking Inquiring Minds Want to Know here, of course, and major breadcrumb city.

The Mental Health Happy Hour host is Paul Gilmartin, a professional comedian who is not shy about discussing his own adventures with depression, including frank revelations about his early life. Many of the guests are fellow comedians, people he happens to know, but the show is very young and I imagine that as it develops there could be musicians, visual artists, and other people like you and me who work with depression to varying degrees of success and are willing to talk about it.

Some guests also touch on religion and spirituality, although this is not by any means a "Put your hand on the radio and receive the blessing of..." vehicle. There are references to 12-step recovery but it is not an online AA meeting either. There is talk of childhood privation and even abuse, but neither is this a radio shrinkfest, and Paul is careful to disclaim same on his website and on the programs.

If you follow the link at the top of this post you will land on Paul's podcast page. I especially recommend the interview with Adam Carolla for his sensible and practical advice at the end of the hour, and the one with Murph, ex-con, for its frankness in dealing with criminality and violence, and where they may come from. Murph, despite being an Irish hood you might have expected to come from Boston or New York, is like Paul and most of his guests a resident of California.

Look at some other pages, too. Paul's own blog is there and gets some comments. Hundreds of people have taken an anonymous poll and the results are public without any names, of course. The comments and poll answers seem thoughtful and serious, which is really saying something when it comes to online discourse.

If the show title grabs you like it did me, check it out. If you like it, maybe click the PayPal button and send a few bucks. I haven't yet but I will. Keep on truckin', Paul.

May 10, 2011

Hygiene Hypothesis

Breadcrumbs, by which I mean tidbits of information that help me find my way, are coming thick and fast now that I've discovered podcasts. This morning I listened to Science Talk, a half-hour show from Scientific American, on the Hygiene Hypothesis. The title is "Can It Be Bad to Be Too Clean?"

The idea is that we can be too clean, too quick to wipe out microbes, and this change from earlier, dirtier environments has been so fast that the delicate balance of pathogens and our bodily responses has been affected. On the podcast Johns Hopkins researcher Kathleen Barnes mentioned two specific types of immune responses. One is geared toward microbes, and the other toward worms or parasites. It seems that when challenges to one are absent in early childhood, the other one gets out of whack. At least, this was my understanding. You can see the summary on this Scientific American webpage.

Here's an excerpt from www.hygienehypothesis.org :

Eliminating typhoid and cholera has saved millions of lives in the aggregate since sewers and clean drinking water were introduced in North American and Western Europe for instance. But in so doing we contributed to the rise of the modern diseases involving immune dysregulation, like Multiple Sclerosis, Crohn's, Ulcerative Colitis, Graves Disease, Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, Type I Diabetes, Asthma, Allergy, Coeliac Disease, and Sjogren's Syndrome.

I played in the dirt a lot as a kid in the suburbs of Indianapolis. I ate strawberries from the banks of the shallow drainage ditch behind our house, and built mud dams all the time. This was outer suburbia, one house away from working cornfields.

I happen to be completely free of allergies, although my mother had a severe life-threatening allergy to shrimp. By the way, I am diabetic Type 2. Mere anecdotal evidence, of course. Your mileage may vary.

May 6, 2011


When I was writing 30-second radio spots, as much as I wanted to make sparkling little masterpieces, the overriding priority was to crank 'em out and get 'er done. It makes sense, since as often as not I would rip the last page out of the manual typewriter (this was a few years back) and carry my stack of work to the production room where I proceeded to voice, add music, and dub to cartridge as many as a dozen or so, all in the space of an hour. An hour from starting at the typewriter, not from walking into the studio.

Nobody wants to run the same commercial year and in year out, and even if they did, we desperately craved some variety as much as our poor listeners. The alternatives? Rest the advertiser a while, then bring 'em back on. Or - write new spots and keep 'em running. Uh, guess which one always won out?

So if I had to write a fresh new angle every time, well, you can imagine how unrealistic that would be with the kind of crank-'em-out pressure we were under. The goal became to find a concept with "legs," meaning spots that could hammer home the same selling pitch but with enough slight variations to make them easy to churn out, masquerading as fresh, or as the TV networks will trumpet, "All new!" Yeah, right.

The big boys look for the same thing. That's how you get the AFLAC duck. Bookend him with any scene you like, as long as he shouts "AFLAC" at some point, you've got another winner. Easy to write, easy to sell, and not even too irritating for us viewers. The hardest part is coming up with the concept in the first place, but boy is it worth the effort when you find one with "legs."

And now, back to the continuing adventures...In our last blog post, bookworm Ted was wondering why he's lost interest in episodic TV. As we rejoin his confused mental maunderings, let's see if he's made any progress mit zis puzzlement...

Maybe Shakespeare wasn't trying for home run masterpieces when he did all those Henrys and Richards. Maybe he was just trying to earn a living. Maybe Coppola wasn't even trying to make a sequel even more highly regarded than the original (Godfathers I and II), it just happened that way when he was trying to make the best movies he could to put butts in the seats and a (nice) roof over his family's head. Maybe Sue Grafton isn't trying to write D Is for Dostoevsky after all, and the guys who dreamed up The Honeymooners for Gleason and Carney weren't thinking, "How can we put them in a situation in sync with the dramatic arc?" Maybe they were all just looking for concepts with legs.

And my point? As much as I loved MASH and House and Upstairs, Downstairs and Happy Days and Eight Is Enough and all the other silly and wonderful and heartbreaking TV shows I have loved over the years, maybe I have come to prefer the stand-alone work to the concept with legs.

I don't think the Coen brothers have written any recurring characters, nor has Woody Allen. "A" for effort, for doing everything from scratch instead of starting from a mix. Although I must confess a real fondness for Sherlock Holmes, and Sayres' Lord Peter Wimsey, and any number of other recurring characters. Of course, this betrays my preference for reading. Most days I'd rather re-read a favorite novel than try to get interested in any newer TV series.

Yes, I loved seeing Newhart walk off the elevator, and chanting "Hi, Bob" with my dorm buddies and the cast on screen. I loved hearing the Skipper call Gilligan "Little Buddy," and all the other catch phrases built in to these things over the years. I may even come to love them again.

But for now, stand-alone movies and books and TV shows and podcasts are holding my attention even when outstanding work like episode 2 of Game of Thrones leaves me indifferent.

To be fair, some artists produce work along similar lines almost like a series, even when they don't mean to. Novelist Joanne Harris doesn't write a recurring character like Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, but she keeps writing about unusual single women of mystery with daughters, living in small villages. And Richard Russo seems to have a thing with diners. Both great novelists, though, and probably not intentionally setting out to repeat themselves.

Just one more thing. I really am enjoying my newfound appreciation for podcasts. The latest This American Life with Ira Glass is called "Prom." One part of the podcast is an interview with Francine Pascal, author of the Sweet Valley High series of novels for teenagers, some 35 of which involve a high school prom in some way. You think that's a lot of books? Not even close. Wikipedia says there are 183 novels in the first series alone, and several spinoffs have followed.

On the podcast, the author says there are 500 Sweet Valley books out now. Ghostwriters are involved, of course. Do you think any of them rise to the level of Harris's Chocolat or Russo's Empire Falls? Seems doubtful.

The punchline - HBO made a tremendous four-part mini-series from Empire Falls. You could make the case that the novel was too long and complex to fit in just two or three hours. Or you could say that HBO figured they'd found something with legs.

You know that feeling of dread that comes when you hear a great movie has been turned into a series? Sometimes it works out well, like American Graffiti and Happy Days. But even in the best-case scenario, would anyone really argue that catchphrases from the Fonz ("Heyyyy...") measure up to the movie's more considerable weight?

What do you think?

The continuing adventures...

Are we hardwired to like serial narratives? With Rocky 5 and its ilk clogging our cultural bandwidth, why wasn't there a Hamlet 2? But a fellow blogger remembers Richard II and III and Henry IV, V, and VI, so it would seem even ol' Bill was hip to the jive. O erudite reader, point out even earlier serials if ye can.

These thoughts came to mind as I wonder why I have lost my interest in episodic television. I'm hardly a TV snob. I ingested weekly doses of countless half-sitcoms and hour-long dramatic series over the years, from Gilligan's Island to West Wing and House. But a few years ago my serial-attention span dwindled and seems to have gone away for good. Hmm...

Let's see, in the 70s Mash and All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore, check. In the 80s, uh, I'll get back to you but I know I watched a lot of stuff even if I can't bring it as readily to mind. By the 90s I'm still there but getting fragmented. Law and Order, CSI, lots of cops and action but also Picket Fences, Northern Exposure, quirky comedies making my day and my week.

The HBO original series make a better test case even if this will leave behind those who don't subscribe. Maybe the point will come through regardless. Oz was gripping and horrific and I watched it every week even when I thought it would make me sick. Sort of the "horror film" effect, I guess, no regrets. By the time of Six Feet Under I was still riveted by several seasons worth but finally drifted away near the bitter end. This was also pretty hard to take, set in a funeral home with lots of gay love and dysfunctional family stuff, but that's all okay with me. Something else was happening to my viewing radar.

Came the Sopranos and baby, I was there! I agree with those who called it the best thing on television, maybe ever, and despite (or maybe because of) the brutal violence and the psychological suspense I watched it every week. I even loved the bringdown finale.

Then came Big Love. Watched two episodes, recognized yet another series of extremely high quality, and simply tuned out. Boardwalk Empire - only managed three episodes even though I am a huge fan of its star, Steve Buscemi. I've even watched the lesser-known movie in which he directed himself. It's called Trees Lounge, if you'd like to check it out.

The final straw, the newest HBO series, Game of Thrones. Watched the sneak preview, then avidly stayed with the first episode the following Sunday, right to the shocking ending, which I won't spoil here. It appears to be everything I would hope for from another stellar HBO original production...and yet the following week I simply didn't want to see what happens next.

Is this happening to you too? Is it our age? Or the age in which we are living? Thoughts about what the heck is going on in our next installment. So...don't touch that dial!

Apr 20, 2011

Uncle Miltie

Caught the second half of my first podcast this morning, from Skepticality. An expert on human factors engineering mentioned "angry birds," which I learned is a game application. The way that he and the interviewer talked about the game made it plain that to them, it's a cultural reference people would recognize. But it was new to me.

Got me thinking. There was a time when if an American referred to Uncle Miltie, "everyone" knew it meant Milton Berle, host of an incredibly popular TV show dating from 1948. Fast forward to the 70s and shows like All in the Family were just as recognizable.

As cable caught on, audiences gradually went to niche favorites. At the office lunchroom, referring to an MTV video or the latest HBO offering might be met with puzzled looks. Later HBO became more widely viewed, but references to shows seen only on Showtime or another less popular pay channel would be of interest to smaller and smaller segments of the lunchroom crowd.

Now we have Facebook, the biggest online community to date, but even so, far from universally accepted although "everyone" has heard of it by now. Mention Twitter or Skype, especially to an older person, and get the same puzzled look a 1952 Ubangi might have registered with a mention of Uncle Miltie.

Cultural references are always limiting. A sports fan who learns how narrowly sports fandom is actually distributed will be astonished, considering the attention given to sports by media and in small talk. A Greek scholar is not surprised to find a reference to Euripedes drawing blanks, and a sophisticate may well revel in the insularity of New Yorker magazine, getting considerable satisfaction from the idea that the yokels in the heartland simply have no clue as to what's going on. There's a lot of middle ground, and considerate people are careful not to indulge in snobbery when they use references that may be niche rather than for "everyone." Snobs, of course, love to beat us with their superiority. "You MUST have heard of Dolce and Gabbana!" A high-end brand of handbags...I think.

After I introduced my friend Dave (aka Also Ted) to the writings of S.J. Perelman, he mentioned how much he enjoyed sorting out cultural references from the circle of sophisticates that Perelman catered to, and to which he belonged. Inside jokes abound, and like my friend, I enjoyed deciphering the offhand references as a kind of code of belonging.

I'm not old enough to have watched Uncle Miltie, but I'm old enough to know about him. No one living is old enough to have heard Euripedes speak, but plenty of people may have read about him. Not enough to put him in same recognition class as MTV or Facebook, of course, but somewhere out in front of true esoterica.

For example, the proper term for a shrunken head from the Amazon is tsantsa. Instead of "How 'bout those Mets?" at the lunch table, imagine the reaction you might get from saying "Saw a fascinating tsantsa at the British Museum on my last visit." Pedantry, anyone?

Getting back to the podcast, it was reasonable for a couple of hipsters to mention "angry birds" without explanation. As a hipster wannabe, I was able to decipher the code just as I deciphered Perelman's references to the Algonquin Round Table.

But I think the age of more universal cultural references is over. Most of us live in niches now. Even the Super Bowl and the Oscars show don't really reach "everyone" any more. Pretty much everyone has heard of the Apple iPhone, but lots and lots of people either can't afford it or choose to ignore it. Compare to Milton Berle or Archie Bunker, which people could get for free. I doubt we'll ever see the like again.

And we didn't even get to pop music. Free radio broadcasts made Harry James and the Beatles household words. I tried to keep up for many years with subscriptions to Rolling Stone and Billboard, which is really expensive, and finally gave up. I accepted the fact I would not and could not remain forever hip (assuming I ever was!) and moved on. So when I read that Jay-Z is virtually a cultural icon now, it doesn't bother me in the least to ask, "Who?"

Apr 19, 2011


Every time I think I've reached my limit, that at my age I just don't have the energy to follow yet another of the endlessly bifurcating trails of breadcrumbs that technology keeps throwing at me, I summon a little courage and try something new.

I heard about podcasts a long time ago but had always relegated them to "things too new and complicated for me to try." With a new vehicle and the decision whether to spend money to install my fancy radio with XM, I wondered if playing podcasts on my iPod might be a no-cost alternative to the $12 a month or so I've been paying XM for eight years.

Started with Google and proceeded to the Wikipedia page, which told me pretty much everything I needed to know. The easiest way for fearful folk like me is to open iTunes, click Podcasts on the top bar, and go shopping. I stuck with free ones, which abound. Downloaded two past shows from This American Life, which I always enjoyed on XM, and subscribed to receive auto-downloads weekly. Also grabbed shows from Skepticality and The Partially Examined Life, two titles I found intriguing.

Next I saved links to some other podcast sources listed by Google such as Podbean and fluctu8 for future investigation. Finally I visited XMPR, knowing I would find the free weekend podcast of the Bob Edwards Show. I downloaded eleven past shows and subscribed to this one too. I was delighted to see the site let me choose iPod-ready versions. Talk about painless.

Yesterday I plugged my iPod into my new car's aux input, ready to enjoy something thought-provoking on my half-hour commute. The darned thing was frozen, technology refusing to play ball. I shrugged it off and last night after plugging and unplugging it to my USB port a few times, it played fine.

Drum roll, please...

This morning I plugged it in and everything worked as promised. I listened to the first half of an hour show from Skepticality magazine. Breadcrumbs a-plenty poured from the factory radio's cheap speakers as this cheap listener enjoyed the same kind of intellectual stimulation that paid XM had been providing over the years. What a trip! to use the language of my semi-greatest generation.

And what a long strange trip it's been. Gutenberg and books, Hollywood and movies, Edison and the phonograph, then cassettes, CDs, MP3s, and now the MP3 incarnation of the talk show, the podcast. And all I had to do was give it a try, not so hard after all.

Feb 16, 2011

A job is a job

Repo Men, the 2010 movie with Jude Law and Forrest Whittaker, gives a chilling meaning to the common phrase "a job is a job." Their job is to track down organ recipients behind on the payments and repossess said organs. It's a Taser job, quick but far from painless, and Law's character Remy is the best repo man there is until he unwittingly gets a new heart (and a massive debt) of his own.

Along with the literal heart comes something strange to him, an inability to do at all what he had been doing unflinchingly before. It's a compassionate "heart" he finds, and Whittaker's character grows impatient with Remy's complete loss of the attitude that repo men need, that a job is a job.

I can't remember the exact quote but at one point Remy corrects his partner by saying something to the effect that a job is not just a job, that what you do is what you are. Although the movie has been panned as awful, I got a lot out of this particular pearl of wisdom. I came away determined to remind myself that even though what I do is defined not by my Joe-job but rather what I choose to do when I can, what my Joe-job has me do does in fact matter.

By the way, Joe-job is a wonderful phrase I picked up either from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure or from Wayne's World, I forget which movie. Clearly I am not just into touchy-feely sensitive flicks, but I usually find stuff to think about in even the flimsiest fodder.

Would I execute people for a living? Would I be a prison guard? Would I deny coverage to people with health insurance? I won't condemn those who do these things, but I can choose not to do those things myself. Should I keep doing what I do now for my Joe-job, or should I pursue a job with more social relevance? Should I be willing to work for less, not that I'm making all that much now, to make a change in that direction?

To be continued.

Belief and irony

In 1951, the year I was born, Edward R. Murrow brought a new program to the radio airwaves. This I Believe aired weekly audio essays by prominent and respected people who talked frankly about their deepest and most cherished beliefs.

Years later, Bob Edwards began airing the original segments at the end of each Friday broadcast on his public radio program. For example, noted anthroplogist Margaret Mead's original talk aired July 17, 2009 on XMPR.

I started making a point of listening Fridays around 8:45. Then one week instead of a historic essay I heard a modern-day effort, not by a celebrity but by regular folks who submit their work. These are not always as long as the early ones, but then less is often more. They are all heartfelt, however, and often deeply moving.

The work continues under the guidance of distinguished public radio producer Dan Gediman. The website offers books for sale and a chance to support the project using PayPal.

There might have been a time when most everyone agreed on the value of cherished beliefs, but that time seems to have passed. Although satire dates from Mark Twain in the 1800s and Swift's Gulliver's Travels in the 1700s (if not back to ancient Greece), somewhere along the way it became fashionable to express rampant disbelief with ironic humor.

David Letterman could be the poster child for this attitude, even though I suspect his on-air persona is as much pose as personality. The Onion could be the "newspaper" for the ironic generation, who I would dub postmoderns. The Satire category in the Open Directory Project has collected dozens of links amounting to a fairly complete course in modern satire.

People strive to be cool to short-circuit rejection. I think we adopt an ironic pose from a similar fear of admitting to beliefs only to have them belittled. The most ironic person "wins" this game of one-upmanship, although society may well be the loser.

Have you seen TV ads for ethical behavior? You know, the ones showing people being kind or considerate, and how much it can mean to someone? I've seen billboards and bus stop signs asking us to stop the violence, and we've all heard talk about the need to return to civility in public discourse.

Choosing sincerity over irony seems like a step in that direction and it's something anyone can do. Sincerity can become a habit as surely as the sarcasm it should replace. Listening to This I Believe can prime the pump, and who knows, maybe you or I will write and record a This I Believe of our own.