John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Favorite Things

jyb_musingsFavorite things….

At dinner tonight, No, we weren’t discussing Julie Andrews but were brainstorming for our “Top three” favorite lists in a bunch of different categories. 

It’s fun to play along. Here are some of mine. 

Comedy Series (Cable) — 1) Ali G , 2) Chapelle Show, 3) Curb Your Enthusiasm. 

Drama (Cable) — 1) Sopranos , 2) Six Feet Under (never got the credit it deserved, IMHO , 3 ) Breaking Bad and House of Cards (tie) I know that is cheating by having a “tie.”

TV Series– 1) Columbo 2) Twilight Zone 3) Beverly Hillbillies

Musical Groups — 1) Steely Dan, 2) Traffic, 3) R.E.M./Pearl Jam/RHCP ( 3-way tie). Honorable mention to Black Crows (Totally cheated on this one. I struggle to be succinct.)

Movies — 1) The Twilight Saga (Not really, of course. I joke. But mostly because my favorites don’t seem very congruent. I just like them a lot) Real favorites: 1) Annie Hall, 2) ‘O Lucky Man, 3) About a 10- way tie but am unsure which 10 movies but might include Pulp Fiction, My Dinner with Andre, Little Miss Sunshine, Raging Bull, The “Up” Documentaries, Magnolia, Goodfellas, American Beauty, Casino, and Gandhi. And had an honorable mention category that included Forest Gump and Owning Mahoney. Drugstore Cowboy and American Hustle. (OK. I really, really cheated on that one. But I love movies.)

Classic books: 1) Inferno, Dante. 2) Odyssey, Homer, 3) Huckleberry Finn, Twain. Honorable mention to Candide, Voltaire and Gulliver’s Travels, Swift. (Didn’t cheat very much on that one.)

Modern books: 1) Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell; 2) A New Kind of Mind, Pink 3) World is Flat, Friedman (With not to self to start reading more recent books.)
Honorable Mention: Musings from the Middle I and II. (I mean, c’mon. Whaddaya expect?)

Best kitchen investments: 1) Nespresso 2) Vitamix, 3) Panini Press,

Worst Kitchen investments; 1) Doughnut maker, 2) Fondue, 3) Snow Cone machine.

Lauren Mayer: Make ‘Em Laugh

The past week has been a particularly sharp example of the connection between comedy and tragedy.  Robin Williams’ suicide reminded us that there is often a dark side to funny people, and meanwhile the unrest in Ferguson, Iraq, and the Middle East have many of us exhausted by bad news and craving some comic relief.

Like many humorists, I often struggle with the seeming frivolity of what I do, wondering if my effort would be better spent trying to cure cancer or feed the homeless.  But when I first moved to New York, I was fortunate enough to have a roommate who was getting her degree in oncological social work (counseling families of terminally ill patients).  She brought a group of her colleagues to see me do a comic cabaret show, and they assured me that they couldn’t face the constant tragedy in their line of work without people like me helping them laugh and blow off steam.

Not that I’m equating my weekly songs with the genius of Robin Williams, but I do appreciate getting comments like, “Thanks for helping me laugh at a frustrating subject,” or “Keep the funny songs coming – it really helps!”  (And those are a refreshing change from other comments like “Who told you you could sing, you clueless feminazi libtard?”)

I actually don’t even mind the negative comments, since they are amusingly deficient in grammar & spelling as well as logic.  However, I have to admit, there is one frequent comment that irks me – “Hey, you should send your stuff to Jon Stewart!,” as if that had never occurred to me, and as if all I had to do was take the reader up on that fabulous suggestion and voila, I’d be appearing on The Daily Show.  But since sending my weekly songs to the show’s email & Facebook page doesn’t seem to be working, I decided to try a more direct approach . . . .

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: The Matrix

jyb_musingsI watched the Matrix for the first time last night.

I told my son I had trouble following what….what was happening….and uh…um….what it was about …and meant. But otherwise liked the movie.

He said, although it was complicated, he understood most of it. But suggested I “Google it” for an explanation instead of him explaining it to me.

I didn’t tell him but I already had “Googled it” and still didn’t understand it.

My main take away is that Keanu Reeves must really know Kung -Fu to have played the part. And that I would not have found the movie so confusing if there had been more Kung-Fu scenes.

And the final scene, where Reeves character stops the bullets, was cool –whatever it meant. And now I get the reference spoofing that scene in Zoolander.

 

Lauren Mayer: Truth Is Weirder Than Children’s Fiction

 

One of my favorite college classes examined children’s literature through the lens of cultural attitudes towards childhood.  For example, the Brothers Grimm wrote all those dark, scary tales of witches & evil forests because in their day (early 19th century), childhood was just a smaller version of an awful adulthood.  Poorer kids had to work on farms or in factories, even wealthier kids succumbed to disease, and stories had to prepare them for the general dangers of the world.  In the Victorian era (later 19th century), children were viewed as pure and angelic, so their books were supposed to help enhance their innocence.  And by the 20th century childhood really evolved into a separate phase of life, where books could enhance kids’ imagination or teach them valuable lessons.  (And reading all these stories was a welcome change from typical academic fare – I loved sitting in the library, where my classmates were absorbed in Advanced Principles Of Molecular Biology or The Sociolinguistics of Anthropology, and they’d look over to see me enjoying “The Little Engine That Could.”  But I digress . . . )

Sometimes, however, we would run into a classic piece of children’s literature that didn’t fit this historical trend – and in the case of some, like the Lewis Carroll ‘Alice’ books, as college students we naturally concluded his influence was pharmaceutical instead of cultural.   Rabbits with pocket-watches?  Disappearing grinning cats?  Drinks & cakes that changed her perspective? (Okay, you can explain the Mad Hatter by the fact that the chemicals used in hatmaking were so toxic, they caused brain damage, hence the expression ‘mad as a hatter’, but Carroll’s Hatter was still pretty weird.)  And for generations kids have enjoyed the strange, surreal world of Alice, thinking nothing in their lives would ever seem so crazy.

Until lately – the political scene has gone so out of whack, not even Lewis Carroll could have written it . . .

 

John Y. Brown, III: The Maverick

jyb_musingsMavericks can be good guys

So long to James Garner who made us smile more than he made us think– because his characters seemed always to have a short-cut line to the obvious.

Commonsense, plain talk and good-naturedness made Garner’s characters both relateable and admirable to us watching at home. And always, of course, endearing. 

James Garner’s characters never quite rose to the level of charming because charming connotes some degree of manipulation being at play. And whether playing a Maverick or plained clothed Rockford detective, Garner’s characters were always defined by their transparency. They were mischevious, yes; but never covert or manipulative. His characters were certainly known for cracking wise — but the emphasis was always on the wise part rather than the cracking part. He always was, underneath it all, a gentle man playing someone tougher than he was meant to be…but happily playing along.

James Garner always seemed to play the guy you wanted to hang out with but never got the chance to.

And now he’s gone. But it was sure nice knowing him Thanks for all the smiles, Mr Garner, especially the knowing smiles that were your trademark. You will be missed.

And we suspect you have already found something in Heaven that is causing you to smirk to yourself –gently, as always. It’s just too bad we can’t be watching.

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Sunday Morning

jybderby_1Sunday morning.

Eight thirty in the A.M.

A blonde dame, my wife Rebecca, was in the other room.

She was trouble but knew what she wanted –even if she didn’t know why. I was attracted to trouble, especially trouble named Rebecca. I didn’t know what I wanted—but at least I knew why (thanks to a good therapist who cost me some serious cabbage). 

We each had a cup of Joe –mine with sugar and cream; hers with Splenda and skim milk.

Like I said, it was Sunday.

And Sundays can be boring.

jyb_musingsSo I tried to fancy it up with film noir dialogue. Dialogue that was edgy hut as plain and as cheap as a two day old vanilla scone from a coffee shop you’ve never heard of –and will never go back to (after eating the two day old vanilla scone).

I didn’t create this problem of facing long Sundays with no plans. But I was going to have to solve it.

It’s what I do.

I don’t know why it’s what I do. But I do know why I don’t know why. (See above about having a good therapist.)

It wasn’t the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It was the middle of a beautiful marriage. That line may not be as catchy as the one from Casablanca, but it’s more than Bogie and Ingrid Bergman ever had. And it’s in color, see?

Maybe the middle of beautiful marriages isn’t supposed to make you think of film noir—of dark alleyways, danger and surprise lurking, guns with fingers twitching and bad dialogue around ever corner. I guess they are more like a relaxing Sunday morning. But still with a cup of Joe. And preferably fresh scones, from the coffee shop you know always go to.

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: American Idol

10353579_10154263975915515_4282905237645892781_nSuper Proud Dad!!

Maggie made the cut to go to the Producer’s round at Disney’s American Idol.

And then she made the semi-finals round

And then Maggie won the semi-finals in front of an audience of several hundred –and was one of five to make it to the finals.

And performed in the finals that evening –just having turned 16 (too young to compete for American Idol) and about half the average age of the other four competitors.

Just incredible…and got reviewed by the judges as “Taylor Swift like” and ” a music producer and marketer’s dream” 

===

Like daughter like father

jyb_musingsThat was the thought today when Maggie persuaded me this morning to try out for Disney’s American Idol–after her great success making it all the way to the finals.

I was alone in a small room with an affable Disney female judge and with my daughter Maggie sitting in the corner grinning with anticipation. 

Judge: Can I get your name and is this your daughter?

Me: John Brown and, yes, this is my daughter Maggie and she made the finals at Disney’s American Idol yesterday. (Hoping to score a few points for myself with this fact.)

Judge (to Maggie): Oh my goodness! Congratulations!! I see up to 50 contestants a day and send maybe 1 to the producer who decides if that person goes to semi finals. You must be very proud, Dad.

Me: Yes, very proud for sure!

Judge: Tell me about your singing.

Me: (looking confused)

Judge: Where do you sing? Are you trained?

Me: Oh. No training. Just sing in the shower. Sometimes.

Judge: Ok. Well…great. Go right ahead.

Me: (Fumbling with phone to read lyrics and starting off with voice quavering. I sing 30 seconds of James Taylor and know I bombed except for 2-3 seconds where I really nailed it.)

Judge: Wow. That was nice. Really nice (Saying it the way someone would who says that exact same thing about 49 times a day would say it.)

Me: (Smiling stupidly and thinking to myself if she focuses on only the 2-3 seconds I nailed it and nothing else, I might get to next round….but knowing that isn’t happening)

Judge: If you could get some training in voice and practice singing and really commit to it, etc, etc.

Me: (Before she drops the “Congratulations for trying” bomb, I interupt) That is great and I really appreciate it but I need to let you know that for the finals competition (I look at my daughter), I am really busy this afternoon and can’t make it then. But I can do the finals competition later this afternoon or early evening –but it would have to be after 5pm. Sorry. But I have some.work commitments I really need to….

Judge: (Most awkward smile I have seen in a long time) Ok, Mr Brown. Let me explain how this process works.

Me: (interrupting) I am just kidding. I know I didn’t make it.

Judge: Phew! OK. Wow! You had me worried there for a minute.

Me: Yeah. No need to tell me how close I was. I think the key was I needed a Valium. Then my voice wouldn’t have quavered.

Judge (laughs) Well…

Me: And if I had brought an extra Valium for you, too, I think I could have made it to the next round.

Judge: You are funny. If you develop your voice, you would be really good with the audience. (Then she wrapped it up like she does about 49 times a day so feelings don’t get hurt– and, mostly, to avoid losing contestants snapping and having a total melt down.)

I didn’t have a meltdown and my feelings weren’t hurt either. I shook the judge’s hand and left. I was disappointed I didn’t make the cut but glad I tried — and really glad I wouldn’t have to come up with several hundred Valium for the audience if I had made it to the next round.

And besides, my daughter rocked the finals competiton two nights before.

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: The News

jyb_musingsIf you listen carefully to the news every morning you can’t help but notice it sounds about the same every day.

Some sports scores, somebody goes to jail, a corporate acquisition, some political races, an overcast outlook with temperatures going up and then down, an odd fact and a human interest story about someone we don’t know getting a nice break. 

I don’t even need to listen. 

If we can put a man on the moon, you would think the people making our daily news could mix it up a little with what they do each day that is newsworthy.

Lauren Mayer: The Music of Science

Music & science may seem to be strange bedfellows – the only songs I could think of were Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” from the ’80s (and if you’re not old enough to remember that era and its fabulous goofy technopop, check out Devo while you’re at it), and “I Sing The Body Electric” from Fame (from the ’70s, which is making me feel really old . . . but I digress)

Generally they would seem to be polar opposites – science is about concrete data and provable facts, where music is emotional and subjective. Sure, you can give a scientific description of sound waves, but that doesn’t explain why some pieces of music affect us so emotionally. (For example, I get goosebumps when I hear the french horn entrance toward the end of the 4th movement of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony; I also start giggling every time I hear the intro to Spike Jones’ version of Hawaiian War Chant . . . ) Besides, trying to analyze the beauty of music reminds me of E. B. White’s comment about why analyzing humor was like dissecting a frog – “Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

However, there is concrete scientific data on music’s value in aiding retention of information – it connects with the brain on multiple levels, which is why we teach kids the ABC song, or why anyone who ever learned the “50 Nifty” tune has no trouble remembering all 50 states in alphabetical order. (This multi-layer connection also explains “ear worms,” which is a disgustingly appropriate term for a tune that you can’t get out of your head. Often a TV theme or a commercial jingle . . . anyone old enough to remember “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is?”)

Science is getting a bad rap these days from people who deny climate change – an affliction common among right wing politicians and media pundits. Cosmos host Neil DeGrasse Tyson is doing his best to combat this willful ignorance, including his wonderful quote, “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.” I don’t have Tyson’s scientific expertise (or a TV show), but I can do my part by using music to help make the same point. (And to tie this all together, I’ve borrowed an ear-worm-ish ’80s TV theme . . . )

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Straight Time

jyb_musingsAt lunch today we discussed the study of criminology with my niece, Meg Talley

The discussion –which eventually led to the topic of the criminal mind –reminded me of one of the great sleeper movies I have ever seen: Straight Time starring Dustin Hoffman.

The movie was released in the late 1970s and, in my view, is a classic study of the criminal mind.

Too often film and television celebrate and glorify the cleverness or boldness of criminal characters. But that depiction rarely seems to ring true to me.

The reason I believe Straight Time is such a powerful and insightful film is that it captures the mind of a criminal in a more credible and convincing manner–in its pettiness and mundaneness. Hoffman plays a common criminal who is endearing but uncomfortable outside of his criminal survival inclinations which, for him, have become instinctive. There is little to nothing about him to glamorize — or demonize, for that matter.

He is a common hustler and con man. Like most hustlers and con men, he is on the surface likable and even endearing. But underneath there is only a calculated instinct to take from others who seem only to exist as props in a never-ending slow motion heist. He tries to connect with others but can’t. Every interaction is just a step toward the next “job.” It’s business, not personal. And criminal not legit.

Hoffman’s character is pitiable at times and despicable at times. But mostly he is just an ordinary little man who approaches life day-by-day in a small and unimaginative manner to get by in a world that isn’t as complicated as he thinks it is yet is convinced he is destined to outsmart it.

But the criminal character in this film seems more real than usual and isn’t defined by bold or clever gestures that somehow seem heroic— but rather is defined by gestures that are crude and futile and essentially remorseless. He lives a criminal life that is noteworthy not for its tortured depth or unpredictable drama but rather is noteworthy merely for it’s shallowness, vapidness and painful predictability.

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