Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fables for Our Times

I recently finished a book by author David Sedaris: ( called “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk”, subtitled “A Modest Bestiary”. This is an extremely original book by an established author. I have followed Mr. Sedaris in several articles he has written for The New Yorker and always find him humorous and thought-provoking. This book is no exception.

Reviews I read suggested that we have had no real writer of Fables since Aesop, and I wouldn’t disagree with that, although I can only vaguely remember the moral of the “Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Lion and the Mouse”. I do remember that in order to be a fable, a story must be brief, have a moral, and have some anthropomorphized animal or inanimate object as a major character.

My favorite of the “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” collection is “The Faithful Setter”, which I find particularly apropos with all the hoopla surrounding the Royal Wedding. In the story, the Setter, a pure bred, with papers and in demand for breeding, tells about his wife, who has a foul mouth, poor upbringing and is part Spaniel, for God’s sake. And of course she sleeps around. One litter of four looks amazingly like the English Bull Terrier across the street.

“But,” says The Setter, “Everyone is entitled to one mistake.”

The moral of the story appears to me to be how blind we are to our own weaknesses, whichever of the Seven Deadly Sins they are. In the Setter’s case it would be Pride. He regularly sets himself above his mate and is blind to the fact that he seems to be granted largess to act out exactly the criticisms, separations of class, and intolerance, for which he faults his wife.

When her boyfriend attacks a child and is put down for it, he cannot understand why she blames the family (and him) for her loss. When she is taken in for a hysterectomy, he cannot understand why she doesn’t feel cheered when he says, “I understand, and it’s all right.”

Of course we, as readers, understand as Sedaris reveals all these thoughts as post-coital conversations on the Setter's recent breeding adventure.

It gave me pause to think about my own marriage and some of my own weaknesses. Hopefully the moral will make me a more respecting husband.

A good read. One you would most likely enjoy as much as I did.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


The other night I was listening to one of my favorite shows on NPR, Prairie Home Companion. Mary and I have listened on almost a continuous weekly basis since at least 1985 and have followed Garrison Keeler through the many phases of his fantastic, creative life. Besides being besotted with his charm, I always feel he represents the epitome of making what one wants to do in life productive and profitable.

And he populated the entire town of Lake Woebegone! With people who exist only in our imagination.

This week’s show was featuring Shakespearean readings, or adaptations of such in celebration of the Great Bard’s birthday. And perhaps also because in the news this week was publication and production of a long-lost play, attributed to Sir William.

That set me thinking about another piece of literature that I discovered while listening to the show. The presenter was the then Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins:, and the poem was “The Lanyard.” You could (and should) read the entire piece at the link provided, but for the moment I’ll tease you with one line: “She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.” I have decided that I am going to send this to all the Mothers I know who will be celebrating their special day in a week or so. Read and feel free to do likewise.

I wept when I heard it, those years ago, and teared up when I read it today.

Saturday’s show got me remembering another event, this one from my early youth: the listening to stories on old records and on the radio from the show Let’s Pretend. For those of you, who are too young to remember “The Golden Age of Radio”, let me explain. There was a show, I believe it aired on Saturday mornings, where a repertory group of actors would dramatize the timeless stories of youth: “Sleeping Beauty”,” The Arabian Nights”, Beauty and the Beast”, and I think I remember “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel”. The costumes were magnificent, the characters just like they were in the illustrated books, and the voices were absolutely perfect, because they were all completed in the imagination of the listener.

The show went off the air in the mid-1950s but made its creative Director, Nila Mack, award-winning and famous. In 1974 some enterprising recording producer bought the rights and the tapes and distributed them on vinyl. We bought the entire set and played them for our children, who were nine and five at the time.

But, as Thomas Wolfe proclaimed, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”

My children never took to the stories the way Mary and I had. Reasons? Maybe there were more distractions. We encouraged their playing outside and in Southern California you could do that more often and in more comfort than our growing up in Iowa and Wisconsin. But I think the real distraction was the bombardment of visual stimuli from television. We restricted what they watched but their eyes were filling in the blanks that we filled with our memory and minds.

Our older son is a recreational reader, but his choice of material trends toward vivid action settings rather than the subtle puzzling mysteries we choose. It is hard to predict what will attract our grandchildren, now six and thirteen. But I am concerned that Sponge Bob and Mario will have filled in too many spaces in their imaginations to allow savoring the development of a Fairy Tale plot.

What is your experience?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Taking Back the Holidays

One of the highlights on my Yahoo Home page this week talked about a revelation that perhaps the portrait of the Last Supper held a clue that it was held on Wednesday instead of Thursday. There are those who would say this is of some importance because, as a practicing Catholic, I often am invited to a commemoration of this event and wouldn’t want to show up on the wrong date, but it got me thinking in a different direction: having a fixed date for holidays, generally a Monday.

It hasn’t been all that long since all our holidays were centered on religion. For Christians there was Easter and Christmas. The Jews had Passover, Yom Kippur and Hanukah. Muslims still celebrate Ramadan. The corollary to holidays centered on religion is holidays centered on seasonality: phases of the moon, harvests, or the end of brutal climate conditions (read winter). Although the religious sometimes ignore that most of these religious holidays were adaptations of pagan celebrations, they hold to the truth that they are seasonal.

Perhaps inspired by the recent French ban on the burka, the Kitchen Sisters featured women who have forsaken the hijab ( ) on their Hidden World of Girls NPR feature. Their point seemed to be that the religious reasons for wearing the hijab were being reassessed as girls became women and sought a communal identity different from their Muslim faith. In not a tremendous leap, we might conclude that reasons to celebrate religious holidays should be reassessed as our civilization grows. But I don’t think so.

Many of the holidays we celebrate in the United States started from a religious or quasi-religious intent, often being celebrated by church attendance. Christmas, Thanksgiving and Memorial Day come to mind. Others like New Years, July 4th, Labor Day, Presidents Day and Martin Luther King Day are more days of reflection or celebration and fit nicely into a planned business schedule that is the same day or date every year.

When Yahoo suggests that we make Easter the same day every year, I think it somehow diminishes the intent of the celebration. For Christians the whole liturgical year is built around Easter and the celebration of a Resurrection. For many it may have deteriorated into egg hunts, brunch, and baskets filled with candy, but for most the significance is still tied to the liturgy. The meals generally are related to celebratory foods and fasting. In our household, for instance hot-cross buns are a tradition, and we usually grill lamb, unless in-law guests have an aversion to the meat.

And I like that! But then, from the title of my recently-published book, “Harnessing a Heritage” you would probably suspect that.

How about you? Would you like to see holidays that don’t come earlier or later from one year to the next?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Soaps Go Down the Drain

The news that two of ABC’s longest-running Daytime shows would be cancelled got me thinking on all sorts of levels. First there was the level reminded by one day when I came home from Mason City High School at lunchtime to find my mother and father sitting at the table, eating lunch and listening to a daytime radio soap opera. They were so involved in the story they hardly noticed me and when I asked what was going on, they launched into a long discussion about the show’s characters as if they were old friends.

And I guess they were. My father routinely left his dental office and travelled the short distance from downtown to our home to have lunch, and share the livee of those radio families. Perhaps that was excitement in a small Iowa city.

What I remember about the show was its theme song, “There’s a Small Hotel”, a Rodgers and Hart composition from the mid-1930s that regained popularity during WWII, probably because of its saccharine romanticism. It became one of my parents shared love songs and I wish I had followed my high school inclination to play it at their funerals. The second memory I have is that the show was introduced by Cliff Arquette; not surprising, in that about that time he was appearing on ten or so radio shows in Chicago. The story is that he commuted one to the next by motorboat on the Chicago River (I don’t know how that worked in the winter).

I was still pretty young when Jack Parr asked in 1959 “What ever happened to Cliff Arquette?” But I remember his appearing on the Parr show shortly after that, there and later on Johnny Carson as Charlie Weaver, a character who introduced us all to Mount Idy and his family who resided there. He carried the character into legacy with The Hollywood Squares, which many of you probably remember.

A greater legacy was his family, and the third generation. His son, Lewis, Played J.D. Picket on the TV series, "The Waltons" and managed Chicago’s Second City for several years. Several of Lewis’ children’s careers intersected with my life. His daughter, Rosanna, starred on several television shows and films, including "Desperately Seeking Susan" but eventually moved to Europe where she starred in my personal favorite, "The Big Blue", a favorite because it also featured an American actor, Paul Shenar, who was in my wedding party and "Scarface" before his death from AIDS a year after he filmed with Rosanna.

His other daughter, Patricia starred in the television series "The Medium" and won a CableACE award for her characterization in "Wildflower". But my favorite role for her was the movie "Holes", a film I consider a cult classic. Lewis had three sons: Richmond, who has been continuously working since 1993, David, whose claims to fame include starring in the "Scream" series and a brief claim to the WCW World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship, and finally Robert, who became Alexis sixteen years after playing a transvestite in "Last Exit to Brooklyn".

The Arquette story highlights some of the complexities that surround the media in Southern California. There was a trivia game a few years back that challenged one to find anyone in the trades who was more than six-degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. As improbable as it may seem, it was almost impossible to find such a person.

My own “six-degrees” story came last Saturday when I broke a standing rule and travelled to a casting workshop in Sherman Oaks. The reason I normally do not do that was evidenced by the two-hour drive up, the three-hour wait while others in the class did their readings before the casting director, and the 1 ½ hour return drive. But the session was worth the trip, providing excellent direction from Lindsay Baldasare and good contact with fellow class members, one of the better reasons for the workshops.

The story however, is that Lindsay commented that she also had a long drive, from Orange County. Where in Orange County? It turns out that she lives less than a block away from my house. And in the trades, being a block away from a successful casting director may just turn out to be that break you hoped for!

A good thing too, because with Soaps going away, an entry vehicle, which has worked for stars like Meg Ryan, Julianne Moore and the above-mentioned Kevin Bacon, is no longer there. Whatever the reason, the effect is fewer entry-level opportunities for actors.

Honestly, the need for that companionship from soap operas may no longer exist. If Justin Bieber can have millions of friends tweet him in a week, what need does he have for a fictional family? And that’s probably true today for that dentist in Mason City Iowa

Friday, April 15, 2011


The other evening I saw a TV commercial where a mother and son were fascinated by sparks of light. I believe the mother was carrying a jar, but that may have been my memory, because I was remembering spring in Iowa many years ago when we would chase, catch, and make necklaces of fireflies. When I asked my wife of fifty years if she had similar memories I was astounded to hear that she did not.

Ray Bradbury, who lives his later years in or near Laguna Beach, and whom I heard on two separate occasions, one not that long ago, wrote lovingly about his growing up in Midwestern Illinois. He is a little older than I am, actually a lot older as he will hopefully celebrate his ninety-first birthday this summer. In addition to reading several of his short stories, which remain timelessly relevant, I was impressed greatly by his ability to involve an audience in a story as he spoke, his voice distorted by an earlier stroke.

I never heard him talk about catching fireflies, but the process, which he describes in “Dandelion Wine”, captures so well those elements of childhood and discovery: the mystery of the light and where does it come from, the power of capturing something that is free to fly (something you are unable to do), the lessons of responsibility that go with that power, and the creativity of what to do with this new found prize.

These are valuable lessons and I am sure (having lived with her these many years) that my wife found ways to learn them that were just different than mine. Or some may have been the same. There was a book several years ago titled “Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing” that marveled at how as children we learned to play evening games like Kick the Can, or I’ll Draw the Frying Pan, or in the Eastern cities, Stickball, with no adult teaching us the rules, and no umpires or referees. The process of growing up responsibly requires developing these skills.

There is an upcoming movie adaptation of a book Mary and I consider one of the best ever written: “Carrying Water for Elephants”. It will be released this summer and promises to be a “must see”. The interesting part of the book is that the reader follows two separate storylines simultaneously; the protagonist as a young college boy and as an octogenarian. So much of the dialog is spot on with memories I have of both stages of life (not quite an octogenarian, but I can see it from here), that I could almost see this as film while I was listening to the prose.

There are a few books that I think are better listened to than read. Among these are several favorites: Alexander McCall Smith’s “Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency”, which captures the Botswana dialect in a way a reader unacquainted with the region could never do, “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”, written by Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) and read by Anne Heche, and another favorite young adult book, “The Painted House” a reflection of possibly autobiographical memories of John Grisham.

I haven’t seen a firefly in years, much less captured them in a jar. I am tempted to ask some of my relatives, who have grandchildren of an age when I embarked on this twilight game, and who live in rural Wisconsin, if children still do that. Perhaps because California is California and we have few “grass and tree backyards”, and virtually no hibernating season for these nocturnal beetles to get their breeding clocks set, explains why my own grandchildren will miss this experience. Perhaps more sadly, it is because they are not allowed individual adult-free play in the evening, before the evening meal or bedtime.

I’ll have to ask my son how they are learning life’s valuable lessons.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mobiles and Other Cool Stuff

Last week Mary and I attended a member’s reception for a new exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art. We usually go to one or more of these informal gatherings a year, choosing our selection principally for the exhibit itself. Last week’s was a display of major pieces from Alexander Calder.

Calder is generally credited as inventing the mobile in the 1950’s. Our first experience with the art form, as for many couples, was choosing the correct one for our first child’s crib. Not that we were totally unaware of the kinetic art scene. We had read Tom Wolfe’s "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers" and were closely following my sister’s life on the art-Beat scene of North Beach, San Francisco, which I chronicle in my book “Harnessing a Heritage”. (You can read the first chapter at my website:

I asked my older son if he had any memory of mobiles. He answered that he did: a memory of the one they bought for his son, now thirteen. It was based on Winnie the Pooh characters, which could be detached for Ryan to play with in his crib. I don’t remember what we chose for Sean. I'm sure it was less practical. When I asked his brother about mobiles, his response was, “Isn’t that a city in Alabama?”

Probably one of the most interesting artists in the kinetic art field was Christo Javacheff, who made the cover of Time magazine with his outdoor colorful banners that stretched through Northern California. Mary and I saw some of these in Marin County. That project was called “Running Fence” and he and his companion Jeanne-Claude had a companion piece called “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park. Both of those demonstrated one of the common characteristics of the medium. Size!

The exhibit we saw at OCMA had some huge pieces. Several of the rooms housed three or fewer pieces. In addition to size, I was struck by the utility of the materials used in the constructions. It was as if Calder and the seven contemporary artists displayed, were at the cutting edge of “green”. One project in particular used a lunch box and old cans to make a bird. The whimsy almost makes one laugh out loud. Some examples are displayed on the OCMA website:

We shared a glass of wine with a young couple who were there to support their friend, Kristi Lippire, who lives in Los Angeles. It was interesting to hear about her art career and how little money she makes from her craft. It certainly emphasizes that the artist must have a passion for what they do, because no one would do it for the money.

And that, of course, provides inspiration for me to pursue my passions, without regard for financial gain. And that’s what life is really all about.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along

The other morning I saw a Robin outside my window. Not an uncommon sight in spring, in Wisconsin, but a little more unusual in Southern California. Particularly in my yard, which is mostly planted in drought-resistant plants, rather than grass. And, where an earthworm would be unlikely to find a friend with whom to hookup. But there was this Robin, and it got me thinking about birds and spring.

My Green Bay sister-in-law writing in her weekly email to family and friends, talked about painting and cleaning the Martin house because a neighbor had spotted the first Purple Martin of the tear. California birds are much less migratory than the Midwest or the East and Southeast, but we do see more activity in the spring. When I golfed this week I noticed the Bluebirds, who have become much more prevalent over the last year.

The more interesting bird at the course wasn’t at his usual haunt, at the tee-box of hole 14. He is a Sandpiper, whose more unusual habit is calling out to the golfers as they swing. The kicker of that trait is that there is also a domesticated Parrot down the hill from the tee-box. The Parrot has learned to mimic the Sandpiper and they actually have conversations. Always good for a chuckle, unless you are the one trying to hit the ball. This week I received what was advertised as the first new Roadrunner cartoon in years. The link to it, in case you want to watch Wylie Coyote is:

I have a bird feeder off my deck. And a fountain that occasionally attracts a bird for a drink or a bath. For the first few years the only birds I got were house finches until I learned that there were dozens of goldfinches in the area who were just waiting for me to discover Niger. This small, black, and expensive seed lends itself to being approached with a small beak while hanging on a vertical feeder. Now I have all sorts of finches and Chickadees, an occasional thrush, some deck-feeding doves, lots of hummingbirds and, a few days ago, a Robin.

I started watching birds when we lived in a rural area of Rhode Island. Like God, we named the birds. There were the “red-booted doves”, the "upside-down feeding black and white birdies” and beautiful Blue Jays. East Coast birds are more colorful than West Coast birds, and this is particularly true with the Blue Jay. Since it is the male who generally has the color, and since the reason for distinction is to attract the female, I’ll leave it to you to draw whatever analogy you want about the difference in color on the coasts.

I’ve heard that there are only three times when a person can do absolutely nothing and not be considered lazy: one can watch a fire, one can watch the waves break on the beach, or one can watch birds, feeding and flying to and from a feeder.

I choose the latter, on a regular basis. Are there any other bird watchers out there?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Traffic Sense and Sensibility

With apologies to Jane Austen, I found myself trying to make sense out of California’s current campaign to put real teeth into converting drivers to give up a passion for what many consider an entitlement: cellphone use while driving. Monday night’s news reported a full-court press on the issue rivaling the defense of UConn, which held poor Butler to under 19% shooting and a 41 point total offense for the National NCAA Basketball title.

This, after a report that fines for cellphone use, either by calls or texting, accounted for almost a $200,000 increase in revenues from traffic tickets in 2010. Yesterday, as I was on my way home from an audition, I tried to call home. I have a voice-activated Bluetooth connection in my car, so my attempt was perfectly legal. As was my intention; I was going to ask if Mary wanted me to pick up some potato salad to go with the Sloppy Joes I would prepare when I got home. But the call failed. Twice!

Having had a Bluetooth connection for about seven years in my cars, I was pretty sure that I just needed to reconnect the devise to make it work. But the feature that allows reconnection is disabled when the car is moving (good idea, that!) Did I pull off the road and reconnect? No. Luckily in California, during Rush Hour (in other words during sixteen hours of the day and night) traffic will accommodate you if you are patient, by coming to a complete halt for 30 seconds or so. If you can tolerate the blaring horn of the cars behind you, you can stretch that to a long enough period to make the connection, which I did.

Reconnected, I made the call and got the answer (yes!) before I made the final turn that would bypass the market. Reflecting on this, I felt that I was guilty of a nudge toward lawlessness, if only by intention.

I have a Radiologist friend who routinely drives solo in the carpool lane during his trip to work if it seems necessary. He feels he can afford the fine (A comment applied to my lighting a cigarette in the NYC Abercrombie & Fitch store fifty years ago. The clerk said, “We feel our customers can afford the fine.”) And that got me thinking that maybe the problem is that the punishment doesn’t properly fit the crime.

Some time ago, my son was broadsided by a moving auto while looking for a parking place in that same market where I bought the potato salad. At the time he had no cellphone and had to borrow one to inform me of the accident. Ironically, he borrowed it from the owner of the car that hit him, who had been summoned by the driver, who spoke no English. BTW a passenger had bailed from the scene by the time I arrived and well before the officer who responded to the call arrived, presumably in fear of the INS. The officer, my son and I had plenty of time to chat while waiting for the Accident Control staff, and the officer made three relevant points: first, my son was probably the only person in Southern California without a cellphone. Second, the most common traffic accident is in mall parking lots, and third, almost all involve the use of a cellphone.

The most interesting point to me though was how common it is to have a non-English speaking driver, who is driving someone else’s car, usually uninsured involved in an accident. Routine policy says that in these instances, the car is impounded. Impounded, with an initial cost to the claimant of $100+ a day plus towing charges and any relevant fines. Few cars are claimed and after 30-days are placed at auction. If this punishment does not serve as a deterrent, maybe we should find a better punishment. I think in the case of my friend, impounding his Mercedes would be a better deterrent than the $346 fine. I think an action against the license of the owner of a borrowed vehicle would be a deterrent of sorts against loaning your automobile, insured or not.

And I think there should be some way to more directly affect cellphone violators. That same accident-victim son teaches in a parochial elementary school where cellphones are confiscated if used during school hours. They are returned only after a parent comes in for counseling.

A few years ago, shortly after then-Governor Schwarzenegger signed the bill making cellphone usage illegal while driving, paparazzi took several pictures of the governor’s wife, Maria Shriver, breaking the law. What kind of punishment might serve as a deterrent for our California drivers? And how could private citizens be part of the solution to the problem? Any thoughts or suggestions?

It’s a shame we can’t take a picture with our cellphone while we are driving.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Freedom or Security

I recently attended a two-day seminar put on by the staff of the Naval War College. The college, which is in Newport, Rhode Island, brings a team to the San Francisco area almost every year to speak to a few hundred interested parties: Reserve Navy, Marine and Coast Guard personnel, Navy League supporters and some who have a general interest in the United States Maritime activities. While it is impossible to capture the mood and message of the weekend, I want to try to convey one lesson learned.

This year’s theme was “The Challenges of a Leaderless World” and the topic offered some insightful debate as well as establishing a perspective on what the United States did and did not do in Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently Libya.

Libya was of particular interest for several reasons: It was current, with matters changing virtually by the hour; it involved the navy, with two carriers providing the resources to establish a “no-fly” zone; and most importantly, it is a reminder of Thomas Jefferson, establishment of the U.S. Naval Maritime Force, Stephen Decatur, the U.S. Marines and the Shores of Tripoli (yes, that is the same Tripoli). It was virtually impossible not to compare President Jefferson and President Obama, which comparison was itself an interesting debate.

If I were to sum up the two days, I would choose a comparison brought to our attention by reminding us that the United States had been given the mantle, “Leader of the Free World.” We were reminded that the entire world is not free, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which defined the free from non-free the time we were givven the title What was most interesting was the present opposite of free, which NWC staff defined as “secure”. “Freedom is not as important to some, as security.”

I was reminded that I had a conversation some months back with a businessman from Denmark. When I asked what brought him to the United States, he told me that his father was unable to get the medical care he wanted in Denmark, in spite of the fact that Denmark has cradle-to-grave healthcare and many other elements of a secure life, for which they gather 70% taxes on all income. So, the father decided to exercise a freedom to come to the United States where we have freedom of choice in what healthcare we receive if we have the wherewithal to purchase it.

Denmark is not alone in putting security before freedom. France recently had a general strike because its populace wanted to maintain the security of an early retirement. The Middle East is boiling over with concern that their presently secure power, water, and commerce may not be worth the tradeoff of denial of personal freedom and a voice in how things are run.

The conclusion of the conference was that the U.S. can and will remain leader of the free world, with the boundaries of the free world in a state of flux and definition.

Of greater concern to me was how the United States is defining its own balance between security and freedom. I worry that the balance that has allowed us to build an infrastructure of social justice in a free environment may be switching to a defense of entitlement, without concern of the greater good that comes from an uncertain free society.

If the Teacher’s Union issues in Wisconsin, the political standoff in California, where 50% of the taxpayers pay ALL of the income tax, the budget crisis in Washington, D.C. where inaction threatens to shut down the government, if these and other domestic crises cannot be resolved by reasonable compromise, I worry that the majority of our country may abrogate their present freedom and choose instead to have security, with no concern for who is governing or how.

What do you think?