10.15.2017

what i'm reading: turtles all the way down, the new book by john green

I don't usually write about a book while I'm still under its spell, but there are always exceptions. John Green's Turtles All the Way Down is an exceptional book.

One reason Green's writing is so powerful is that he conjures both the specific and the universal at the same time.

The Fault in Our Stars, for example, is about two teens who have cancer, and how they fall in love and have a relationship, even with the awareness of their own looming mortality.

The Fault in Our Stars is also about how we all love, even with the awareness of our own mortality always looming, be it far or near. We humans must love and be loved, and we must lose our loves, and they us. That is the paradox of homo sapiens sapiens, the animal who knows it knows. TFIOS is about nothing less than the human condition.

Green masters both of these, at the same time, and wraps it in an accessible package that is easy to read, to understand, and to love. The specific lives are vibrant and authentic, and the universal truths are recognizable and powerful.

Green brings that same duality to his long-awaited new youth novel. Turtles All the Way Down is a book about a girl, Aza Holmes -- her struggles to cope with her mental illness, while trying to be a good friend, find love, and cope with life after the sudden death of her father some years back.

And it is also a book about mental illness -- how it might feel, what it might make us do, how it might be survived, how our society frames it, how it impacts everyone in its sphere.

And it is a book about all of us -- our doubts, our fears, our self-hate and, we hope, our acceptance of ourselves. Aza wants to know how anyone will ever love her, given her limitations. Don't we all.

When I count the people in my life, over the course of my lifetime, who have been affected by mental illness, it becomes a long list. I think most people could say the same. We are only just beginning to recognize the prevalence and reduce the stigma of mental illness. Turtles All the Way Down will stand as soldier in that important and necessary battle.

You'll notice I haven't written at all about the plot of this book, only the themes. The plot is excellent -- strange enough to be unique and unpredictable, and authentic enough to be convincing. You should read it to find out.

10.14.2017

update: the gay cop on barney miller comes out, plus an adorable child sex worker

About a month ago, I wrote about an episode from the late 1970s-early 1980s sitcom "Barney Miller", in which the squad discovers that an officer from their precinct is gay. To my surprise, Officer Zatelli returned to Barney Miller -- and he came out, right there in the squad room.

That's Zatelli (Dino Natali)
on the right, blurting out: "I'm gay!"
In this follow-up episode, gay couple Marty and Mr. Driscoll return to the squad room after a long absence. Driscoll's ex-wife is trying to prevent him from seeing his son, and the couple comes to the 12th Precinct for help. When they find none, Driscoll collects his son anyway, and the ex-wife is pressing charges; Officer Zatelli happens to be there.

While the plot device bringing these characters together was a bit clunky and obvious, the episode, which aired one year after the first gay-cop episode, demonstrates a bit of social progress. When the mincing Marty makes a sarcastic comment about the squad room decor, his partner Driscoll says, "Can we stop perpetuating the stereotype for a moment and get on with this?" Wojo's homophobia is on display again, but this time it is even more isolated, as no one else has a problem. Even the plot line is progressive, acknowledging Driscoll as a loving and positive influence in his son's life.

And then it happens. When the ex-wife goes on bigoted rant about "those people" and their "degrading, unnatural lifestyle," Zatelli tries to ignore it, then suddenly blurts out, "I'm gay!" It was a funny and poignant episode. It marks Marty and Driscoll's final appearance on the show.

* * * *

In my earlier Barney Miller post, I mentioned that the show re-used actors for multiple characters. In Seasons 6, 7, and 8 (the final season), this became completely ridiculous. The same actors show up repeatedly, playing different complaining citizens and arrestees. A criminal from one episode even turns up as a new detective in the 12th, which -- with the "retirement" of Fish (Abe Vigoda), the disappearance of any female detective, and the death of actor Jack Soo -- had gotten a bit empty.

If you go to the "full cast" link on the Barney Miller imdb page, beginning with John Dullaghan, look how many times those actors were all used! In that entire list from Dullaghan down, all but a few recurring roles have multiple character names listed for each actor -- many as many as 5, 6, or 7 roles!

In a show that sometimes had recurring characters, this became downright confusing. I can't imagine a TV show doing this now.

* * * *

The Barney Miller marital rape episode was puzzling, but, as it turns out, not uniquely strange: how about an episode featuring a child prostitute, played for laughs?

In "Call Girl," from Season 6, young Tasha Zemrus plays Rhonda Haleck, a sex worker so young and innocent that when asked for her age, replies "Fifteen and a half." She is a bit tough and wise-cracking, but appears squeaky-clean, well dressed, and well fed, in a way that a teenage street-walker would not.

Young Rhonda, sex worker, getting schooled by
Sassy Black Prostitute, sitcom edition.
Rhonda lives at a group home, and Detective Dorsey (played by Paul Lieber, the above-mentioned sometimes criminal, sometimes detective) uncovers the odd "coincidence" that numerous underage residents of the home have been arrested on similar charges. He accuses the avuncular adult who runs the home of pimping, and vows to watch him closely. (You can watch the episode here.)

Yet despite this suspicious revelation, Rhonda is sent home with the older man, and everyone has a good laugh at her cute little jokes.

Can you imagine a sitcom today playing child prostitution for laughs? Sex workers are a regular part of Barney Miller. They are always clean, well-dressed, and sassy. Some readers may remember Mary Tyler Moore's character Mary Richards getting arrested with a bunch of sex workers. They were also clean, well-dressed, and sassy. I guess that was the 1970s sitcom version of prostitution, more Neil Simon than Charles Dickens.

10.05.2017

alds begins today

This Red Sox team has been driving me crazy, seesawing between amazing and horrendous. I don't have a lot of optimism right now, especially after our dismal showing against Houston ... the team we meet in the first round of playoffs.


Dear Red Sox,

Please be amazing.

Love always,

A fan with no expectations

10.04.2017

thoughts on the latest u.s. gun massacre

As part of my continuing efforts to post here rather than -- or at least in addition to -- Facebook, here are some thoughts on the latest horrific massacre in the US, the country music festival in Las Vegas.

First, the inevitability of recurrence. When hearing about mass shootings in the United States, the worst part -- the most tragic, the most outrageous part -- is the certainty of knowing that nothing will change. That it will happen again, and again, and again.

A solution is known, of course. We won't end the culture of violence that permeates the US, but we can end access to large numbers of deadly weapons. The fact that the vice grip of a deadly special interest group outweighs the basic human rights of life and safety speaks volumes about the US political system. The congressmembers and senators who are bought and paid for by the NRA can never wash the blood off their hands.

Second, the true body count. Allan and I were talking about what it might have been like to be there. I admit I don't usually do this. I usually think about these massacres on a social and political level, somewhat removed from true empathy. But thinking a lot about the survivors, I know that every one of them will have PTSD. Many of them may never recover a fully healthy mental state.

Given the cost of mental health resources, the lack or absence of public mental health support, the survivors may or may not find help for this condition.

However high the final number of dead and wounded, the true numbers will never be known.

10.03.2017

rip tom petty

The death of Tom Petty is terrible, shocking, dare I say heartbreaking news. From the moment I heard those unmistakeable first notes of "American Girl," I was hooked. I was a teenager when Petty first fought the battle to hold down the price of records. (Archival story about that here.) It would be the first of many battles for him, and he was always on the side of the good -- musicians and fans.

I didn't like all his music, and disliked some of his biggest hits, but once you saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live, you never forgot them. They were a bar band, writ large -- pared down, straightforward, bash, pop, and plenty of swing. I loved Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, and the energy between all the performers was electrifying.

This is a really sad and unexpected loss. The teenage American girl inside me is devastated.