Enough with the links: Original Content Monday on Facebook

Facebook annoys me. I know, I’m not the only one. The constant data mining, the behind-the-scenes manipulation, the mass delusion of the users that they have some say in how they use the site (in reality, they have not much more say than sausage has in how it’s getting stuffed at the Jimmy Dean factory).

Modest proposal for a palace revolt? Let’s start with a small blow for creativity. Henceforth, devote Mondays to original content on FB. No links to Salon or Slate, unless it’s to posts you wrote your own self. No Upworthy, no Huffington Post, no NY Times or Mother Jones or MSNBC or Fox or even the local paper.

Just. Original. Content. Stuff you did yourself. Your own opinions, whether published anywhere else or just for your Friends. Books, magazine articles, blog posts, poems, whatever, as long as it’s yours. You can link to anything you created yourself — music videos, photos (professional or not), portfolios of your sculptures or paintings or dress designs or even, help us all, ad campaigns.

No links to editorials with a short note from you saying “Worth the Read.” No YouTube videos. No stories about that couple married 62 years who died within 22 minutes of each other (only women seem to like posting that one). No photos of puppies, unless they happen to be yours. Deal?

Call it Original Content Monday, which will be universally abbreviated within nine days to #OCM.

Let’s go.

Lisa Gerritsen, Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

Postcard_from_Lisa

Chess in 'My World'

Chess in ‘My World’

Even though I’m not Catholic, the last few days before a fast-approaching birthday seem to me as good a time as any for making a confession, so here’s one for you: Unlike many of my U.S.-raised peers in my generation (sometimes known as Late Boomers or Generation Jones), I have no childhood memories to speak of involving watching The Monkees or The Brady Bunch, nor do I feel much fondness for the likes of Gilligan’s Island or I Dream of Jeannie. Due to a likely combination of personal preference and selective memory, however, I do have strong recollections of many shows that were, to put it gently, not exactly hits. Many of these date from roughly the 1968-70 era, when I was unhappily settled in a strangely quiet, oppressively grassy Long Island suburb after my family had moved from Queens in ’67. Lonely, feeling isolated, and missing the bustling streets of Flushing, I watched a lot of TV to compensate. There was one bonafide hit, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, that firmly planted itself in my memory banks, but also a sitcom called The Good Guys (starring a post-Gilligan Bob Denver and a pre-Golden Girls Herb Edelman, as old buddies running a diner; the theme song is indelibly imprinted in my mind, particularly the phrase “by the teeth of our skin”); an equally undistinguished sitcom, Arnie, starring Herschel Bernardi as a working-class Greek-American promoted from the loading dock to the executive suite (oh, the hijinks and scenery-chewing that ensued); and by far my fondest 1969/70 TV memory of all, My World and Welcome To It.  (Follow that link for a good general outline of the program, including capsule descriptions of all 26 episodes. A DVD of the complete show has been one of my greatest entertainment-based wishes for years, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I myself have to be the one to see that particular project through. Message me if you have ideas.)

Despite general critical acclaim and two Emmy awards in 1970 (for Outstanding Comedy Series, and Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for the star, the late William Windom), it never saw a second season; in his Emmy acceptance speech, Windom, in full sarcastic mode, reportedly thanked NBC for canceling the show. My World was based, loosely at times and more closely at others, on the cartoons and writings of James Thurber, a singular 20th-century humorist. On the off-chance you need an introduction to him, Thurber was a prolific short-story writer, cartoonist, and playwright from Columbus, Ohio who wrote a lot for The New Yorker and whose fate seems to involve having his writings screwed with without compunction by Hollywood, especially his best-known short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” made into two films to date (starring Danny Kaye, 1947, and Ben Stiller, 2013, neither of which I’ve seen, nor particularly care to; in Hollywood’s defense, the story itself takes perhaps 10 minutes to read, as Thurber was neither a novelist nor a big fan of the long-form essay).

My World, however, was a notable exception to the rule, treating Thurber’s cartoons (animated within the show by the good graces of DePatie-Freleng), plots, and a good deal of his prose with respect and intelligence. The milieu was updated to the 1969 present and set in a Connecticut suburb (which contained a few rural hayseeds apparently relocated from the Ozarks for comic effect). To me, the show at its core was about the power of the imagination and its sympathy for both the creative spark and for artistic, dreamy types trapped in the banality of the quotidian, personified by the Thurber analogue, Windom’s brusque suburban knight John Monroe, a cartoonist and writer, and his occasionally sullen but often sweet, smart, inquisitive and forthright tween-age daughter, Lydia. Windom played Monroe with a definite curmudgeonly edge, but the soft, dreamy center was never too far away. Try on this dialogue for size:

Lydia: “Daddy, are people who see things and daydream, are they, well, normal?”

John: “No, they’re much better than that. Why, for heaven’s sake, they’re the artists, the poets, the bums, the cream of society. They get a lot more out of life than normal people. For one thing, they’re never lonely or cold or hungry,
because they’ve got their imagination to keep them warm and to keep them company. And, don’t you believe for a minute  that because they see things that you don’t, that those things aren’t there.”

Which brings us to Lisa Gerritsen. Was she my first, and only, TV crush? If I ever had one, I suppose that, yes, she would be it, and I’m far from the only introverted, bookish kid she had this effect on. And, yes, like the esteemed Chicago Tribune columnist who penned this key bit of Gerritsen lore back in 2000 (making the definitive case for leaving her alone into the bargain), I’ve long since moved on.

But when the conversation turns to smart, somewhat geeky but endearing young female characters on TV, this is where Lisa and My World deserve particular mention. Before Mayim Bialik played Blossom (and later, Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory), before Alyson Hannigan portrayed Willow Rosenberg on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before Sara Gilbert embodied Darlene Conner on Roseanne, and even over a decade before young Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker entered Weemawee High School as Patty and Lauren on Square Pegs, there was Lisa Gerritsen as Lydia Monroe on My World and Welcome To It and Bess Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis.

Gerritsen, arguably the most accomplished and least affected child-to-teen TV actor of her generation (which is also mine), excelled at playing smart-but-vulnerable characters. On My World, she held her own with superb performers like Windom and Joan Hotchkis, who played her mother, Ellen, with a fair bit of spark and verve.

Lisa Gerritsen came from a long-established show business family on her mother’s side, stretching back at least as far as her great-great-grandmother, Carro True Boardman, who was an actress and acting teacher in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (here’s a link to a short piece with a photo in the San Francisco Call from 1901, describing Carro as a “well known exponent of elocution, physical culture and dramatic art”).

The moniker “True” recurs again and again in the Boardman family as a first or middle name given to, or adopted by, both males and females (including Lisa herself, who was occasionally billed as Lisa True Gerritsen). It does seem like a fortunate talisman for an actor to carry and a lodestar to sail by; after all, it means “real.” Carro Boardman’s son, William True Boardman (1882-1918), dropped his first name and, as True Boardman, starred in early silent films, as did his wife, the much longer-lived Margaret Shields, who adopted the stage name of Virginia True Boardman. Their son, William True Boardman, Jr., later True Eames Boardman (1909-2003), Lisa’s grandfather, acted alongside Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford as a child, and later had a long career as a scriptwriter for radio and TV, including westerns like The Virginian, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Although I suppose it wasn’t exactly coincidental that Lisa appeared on all three of these shows (per IMDb, she was on Gunsmoke four times between 1968 and ’70, in four different roles), and her grandfather’s connections undoubtedly smoothed her entry into show business to some extent, she wasn’t just another forgettable, two- or three-note child actor. The camera didn’t lie: she came across as remarkably natural and genuine in whichever role she played.

However, Lisa Gerritsen retired from acting over 35 years ago; her last credit on IMDb is for an episode of the religious anthology program Insight which aired in November 1978, shortly before her 21st birthday (TV.com summarizes the plot as “A pregnant young girl finds a friend in her boyfriend’s mother”). I don’t know whether her decision was due in part to her experiences taking Bess Lindstrom into young adulthood (to the point of being married and expecting a baby) in the troubled MTM spinoff Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman in the title role as Lisa’s antiheroine mom (here’s a superb, detailed recounting of that show’s travails), not wanting to be in the public eye anymore, or something else, because she hasn’t granted an interview in decades and from all accounts, doesn’t even like to talk about her years in show business to anyone outside, I suppose, her family and close friends. After hanging up the phone on Bess Lindstrom she went to college, then worked for a couple of software companies, then became (per IMDb and other sources) an independent relocation consultant and facilities project manager. She’s also been married since 2000, and lives a quiet, private, apparently very normal life with her family in a town north of San Francisco (I know which one, but won’t name it here).

A friend of mine once told me that the only thing worse than changing is not changing, which I think is probably as good a definition of the human condition as any. The trick is not only knowing when to close the door on one chapter, but knowing when to refrain from paging through the old chapters (which perhaps explains why so many people find Facebook a stressful experience).

The desire to read about people spillin’ it all will always be with us, but so will the value of silence and privacy. (Even as a journalist, this is something I can appreciate.) Yes, there’s power in a dignified silence and the quiet grace that comes with saying, “This part of my life is now finished. I have moved on and am in a different place now. I’ve let go; maybe you should do the same.” How much better is what Lisa did than the path taken by so many of her acting peers: staying fixated on their childhood in the spotlight for want of anything better, and, drugs and early deaths aside, stumbling from one reality TV show to the next, publishing memoirs and cookbooks ad nauseam, traveling from one fan convention to the next, endlessly pushing the nostalgia cart from one town to another or dancing on a stage in Branson, Missouri, because, let’s face it, ain’t much else going on. How much better to have a life in the now, not condemned to wander the land endlessly because your life peaked at age 12, and everyone you sign an autograph for knows it.

I also think most of us civilians (the non-famous, non-showbiz public) have a big problem understanding how people who have been successful, even partially, in creative pursuits like acting and music, can voluntarily give it up at a relatively young age, never looking back, and do something totally different — write software, work as a museum archivist, become a lawyer, teach, sell real estate — and seemingly be happy about their decision, not feeling they owe their old fans an explanation, not feeling they have to get together for a reunion concert every few years, host a retrospective of their old shows on a TV nostalgia channel, get together with the old gang for a “Where Are They Now?” photo spread in People, or write their autobiography, unless they really want to. They had the nerve to want to hang it up and be normal; and so, they did.

Who knows how creative people who give up that life deal with what I sometimes think of as the golden reactor core of creativity — something that can never really be shut down, regardless of whether the public outlet for that creativity still exists or was walled off, voluntarily or otherwise. Do they write songs still, just for themselves and their family? Do they put on plays in their kitchen for five people and the cat? One never knows. More likely, though, is that they live more or less normal lives and are no more or less happy than the rest of us, except for having some special memories and, one hopes, a deep sense of satisfaction for what they were and what they did, even though that time is no more.

And time has, indeed, passed. Lisa Gerritsen is now, believe it or not, 56, a decade older than William Windom was when he played her father on My World. (As for myself, it’s disconcerting to occasionally see the mid-to-late 1970s Windom looking back at me in the mirror these days, though I know I could do a lot worse.) With so much of our lives behind us, we can surely discern the outlines of that far shore looming ever closer, but still, through it all, somehow, we maintain a child’s sense of wonder and optimism, and impulses urging us on to playfulness and love. Our better selves. We live on, and our creativity never really stops, the golden reactor core keeps glowing; it just takes different forms toward different ends. But it’s real; oh, it’s real. Never doubt that.

If Lisa ever reads this, I don’t expect her to answer, but I’d like to say thanks, anyway, for what she gave us in that time, and also for leaving when the time seemed right to her. Lisa, I miss your talent and your presence, but I also understand that you knew better than anyone else when it was time to close that door. You did a real and genuine thing. One might even say, True.

 

Cross-pollination time: Announcing The Odd Interview blog

I’m proud to announce the launch of my new all-interview blog, The Odd Interview. I love interviews — reading them, listening to them, and participating in them, and perfecting the art of the interview (yes, there is one, and I’m still working on it). So I had this lengthy and wide-ranging Q&A with Neil deGrasse Tyson just sitting around doing nothing, and the premiere of Cosmos is happening tonight, and so, I figured, what better time to launch a dedicated blog to serve as a repository for my past interviews and to even put new ones now and then? Thus, here we go.

Yes, as occasional readers of this blog will know, my interview with Dr. Tyson was published in the Austin American-Statesman last December. The Q&A published here, though, is, aside from minimal editing, the complete,  uncut, never-before-seen, peek-behind-the-scenes, DVD-extras, director’s-cut version. Don’t get me wrong: I greatly appreciate newspapers and magazines publishing my work. But all newspapers and magazines have space limitations and house styles, not to mention other writers competing for assignments. I’ve interviewed a lot of prominent people over the course of my career (here’s a CV with a brief summary of my greatest hits, with live links), and most of the time, most of the interview ends up on the virtual cutting-room floor. I understand why this is, but in some cases, you just wish you could have had more of it see the light of day.

I hope you’ll have a look and enjoy the read.

You know you’re an American who’s been in Slovenia a while when…

[This piece first appeared in my original website, http://www.pogoer.org, under the title "You know you're a foreigner who's been in Slovenia too long when..." In retrospect, I don't think there's any such thing as too long, and the list is somewhat American-specific and, yes, a bit dated. So be it, then.]

1. You pepper your conversations (with other English speakers) with expressions like “ah res?” and “v redu!”

2. You think of Wheel of Fortune as your country’s version of Kolo
Sreče.

3. It seems normal to have to visit two cashiers’ windows to (a) pay and obtain a receipt, and (b) present the receipt to the clerk, who carefully wraps, tapes, stickers shut and bags your single 9-volt battery.

4. On trips home, you speak to shop clerks and waitresses in Slovene. Or at least think about it.

5. You stop thinking about how nice it would be to have a clothes dryer again.

6. When asked to spell out your name, you automatically do it pronouncing the letters the Slovene way.

7. You stop converting prices from tolars into your home currency.

8. You start following Slovene politics.

9. You tell friends you’re going on a short trip to Dunaj or Benetke.

10. The words “Jogurt” and “joga” look normal to you in print.

11. Shutters on windows begin to seem like a decadent Western affectation.

12. Your dreams are in English, but with Slovene subtitles.

Star Man: Talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the ultimate big-picture guy, about life, the universe, and everything (including what he learned at UT)

As published...

As published on 12/15/13

Arranging an interview with the well-known astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was not a particularly easy task. After about a month of emails back and forth between me and the good doctor’s various people, a time was arranged and on Nov. 22 I found myself on the phone with him, from his office at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. “Tyson here,” he said, and we were off for about 38 minutes–mostly him speaking and me listening, as it should be. I consider this one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done; although I enjoy my usual beat of interviewing touring comedians and musicians, the chat with Dr. Tyson was a very welcome departure. (The full, minimally edited Q&A, which runs to a bit over 5,000 words, is now available here.)

Deftly demonstrating how he applies the scientific method in daily life, Tyson gently corrected me a few times when he questioned the premise behind a couple of my questions. For example, Carl Sagan was neither a mentor nor a close friend of his; the two men only met four or five times, though Tyson clearly has great respect for Sagan as a scientist and a person. And as a web-only extra of sorts, here’s an excerpt from our conversation that illustrates his thought process rather nicely. [And by way of a timely tie-in: on Feb. 14, 2014, the National Science Foundation released the results of a study of 2,200 people conducted in 2012 in which approximately one out of four stated that the Sun revolves around the Earth; the results were widely reported in the media, including time.com. This was not the first poll to make a statement like this. Tyson explains why, although the state of science education in the US could definitely stand some improvement, you shouldn't believe this particular result, because the question was being asked in totally the wrong way. The moral being, don't believe everything you read, because there's journalism, and then there's science.]

Q: A well-known Gallup poll in July of 1999, that I’m sure you know of, stated that 18 percent of Americans thought the Sun revolves around the Earth. (Sixteen percent of Germans believed the same thing, and 19 percent of the British.)  Do you think the general public’s knowledge of space has increased or decreased in the past 15 years, with the religious right and creationism and so forth?

 Neil deGrasse Tyson:  I’m not convinced that the people who said the Earth goes around the sun, that they fully understood the question as posed. I’ll give you an example— I was told this, I didn’t re-verify it, but it’s intriguing nonetheless—that in one of the U.S. Census forms, it might have been 1990, it asked, in terms of where you’re from, it said, what is your ancestry: is it from Europe, is it from Africa, Asia, Central America, South America? And there was a huge number of people who checked Central America who lived in Kansas, because that’s the center of America, right? [Laughs] So the way you word something can influence whether someone understands what your intent is in asking that question, or not. And just because you get an answer that’s one way, doesn’t mean you asked the right question to probe what it is you need to know about your audience.

So if you sit here, we still say “The sun rises, the sun sets.” It’s in our vocabulary. And so, to say “Does the sun go around the earth,” yeah—it rises, and it sets. But if you said “In space, what would you see?”, I don’t think any of them would say that the sun went around the earth. It depends on how you ask the question.

And so, I don’t believe those statistics. I saw them; I just don’t believe them. I think there’s a flaw in the connection between the intent of the question and the wiring of the mind of the person who answered it.

That’s a very scientific way to look at it.

 No! If you say “‘Draw the solar system,” I don’t think they’re going to draw the sun going around the earth. They’re going to put the sun in the middle. You know they’re going to do this, right? And so, I don’t believe that. But your greater question is still an important one. The science illiteracy that is rampant is real; I just wouldn’t cite “the sun going around the earth” as the best example of it. It’s real, and it’s a problem. But I think there’s more access to science than ever before.

___________________________________________________

Here, then, is the article as published in the Insight section of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013.

_____________________________________

Although Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s official title is director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, his place in our popular culture sits closer to that of Ambassador of the Known Universe to the United States. An articulate, unpretentious educator who understands how to translate arcane scientific concepts into explanations the public can and does lap up, Tyson is the best-known living astrophysicist in America — which is to say, the only one the average person would have a chance of naming at all.

To run down why: There’s Tyson’s established status as the go-to guy for explaining cosmic phenomena on TV news broadcasts, his stack of best-selling books, his own radio talk show-podcast StarTalk (startalkradio.net), his key role in demoting Pluto to dwarf-planet status in 2006 (Tyson’s advice to Plutophiles: “Get over it”), his assorted witty asides to his 1.5 million Twitter followers, and/or his frequent talk-show appearances schooling the likes of Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on everything from the nature of black holes to the importance of funding NASA, not to mention a cameo a few years ago on “The Big Bang Theory.” Lately, Tyson’s visibility to the naked eye seems to be, pun intended, nearly universal.

+Star Man: Talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the ultimate big-picture guy, about life, the universe, and everything (including what he learned at UT) photo
PHOTO: DAVID GAMBLE

Tyson, who earned a master’s degree in astronomy at the University of Texas in 1983, returns to Austin this week, speaking on Tuesday in a sold-out event at the Paramount Theatre. The night before, he’ll be the featured guest at a fundraising dinner for the venue (tickets for that event at http://www.austintheatre.org). “I care about community. I care about the arts,” he says about his participation in the fund-raising event. “And I care about continued enlightenment beyond one’s formal time in school. Not only that, half of my joy of being in graduate school was that UT Austin is in Austin. So I have no trouble passing some of this forward.”

Tyson’s prominence should get an even greater boost this spring when he hosts “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a 13-episode reboot on the Fox Network of the late Carl Sagan’s milestone 1980 PBS documentary series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” Though flattered by the inevitable comparisons, Tyson says he’s not trying to imitate Sagan, whom he met a few times, initially as a high school student considering college options when Sagan invited him up to Cornell University to tour his lab. (Tyson ended up going elsewhere, but never forgot Sagan’s generosity to a teenager.)

“The spirit of the (original) series is there,” Tyson says. “It is unmistakably ‘Cosmos,’ and given that, I am now blended into that frame. I knew that if I tried to be Carl then I would just fail, but I knew I could be a really good version of myself. Or a really full-up version,” he says, with one of his frequent bursts of laughter at reaching a punch line. “So if I fail at that, then I fail, sort of a legitimate failure.”

In conversation by phone from his office, Tyson sounds much the same as his TV or radio self: eloquent yet unaffected, with a friendly, conversational tone that makes astrophysics seem as accessible as Rachael Ray discussing 30-minute recipes. One good way to gauge his extreme enthusiasm for all things space-related is to ask him a question like this:

“If you could travel to witness up close any astronomical phenomenon in the universe, where would you choose to go?”

“Can I go back in time? I would go back and see the formation of the moon, which would just be awesome!” he says, practically singing that last word. “All ideas regarding the formation of the moon tell us that a Mars-sized proto-planet sideswiped Earth, rendering most of Earth molten in this process, scraping off huge chunks of our crust that coalesced in a ring around Earth and then became the moon. That would be quite a spectacle.”

“Fascinating,” you might respond, practically channeling Mr. Spock in spite of yourself.

“Yeah, it takes a couple of months to coalesce and shape up, so you could even watch that happen. Sell tickets to it.”

During his UT years Tyson, a New Yorker born and bred, was a teaching assistant for several semesters in Professor Frank N. Bash’s Intro to Astronomy course. He also busied himself in UT athletics, including wrestling, basketball, crew and competitive dance, and met his wife, Alice, a fellow grad student; she earned her doctorate in physics from UT in 1985. Both of them, he says, retain good friends in Austin.

Despite this, his time at UT was less than ideal. A cover story last year in UT’s alumni magazine, the Alcalde, reported instances of what Tyson considered business-as-usual racial profiling by some faculty and staff (being stopped seven times by campus police on his way into the physics building, for example, but never on his way into the gym), and an ultimately abandoned pursuit of a doctoral dissertation. Tyson described it as “a failed experiment” from which he’s long since moved on, and he did praise some of his UT professors in his 2004 memoir “The Sky Is Not The Limit.”

“Every student who comes to UT as a graduate student (in the sciences) aspires to go on to a Ph.D. A hundred percent of them do that,” says Frank Bash, now a professor emeritus. “I know he left, I know he was unhappy. I notice that at the end of the Alcalde article Neil admits that a lot of what happened was his own fault. But I don’t know the details.” (Bash was not Tyson’s research supervisor and was not on his dissertation committee.)

For his part, Tyson downplays it all, saying, “The article created a rift where there isn’t one. I left UT after my department dissolved my thesis committee. Shortly thereafter I was admitted to Columbia University and earned my Ph.D. in astrophysics there. I’ve been on cordial terms with the UT Department (of Astronomy) the whole time, and they’ve been collegial with me ever since I landed on my feet.”

Tyson always has had kind words for Bash, who chaired the Astronomy Department during his time. “I learned a lot of teaching skills from him,” Tyson says. “He had a way of interacting with the class that helped to inform how I interact with a big group of people in front of me. It’s a respect for the intelligence of who’s in the room and (being) fearless, once you do that, as to where you’re going to take them next. And that way, the audience lands in a place that is beyond where they thought they could have reached.”

Bash remembers Tyson with equal fondness, using words like “extraordinary” and “amazing” to describe his classroom manner. “I’ve had students, or former students, come up to me years later remembering him,” he says, “and asking me about him and how he’s doing. He just was particularly good at relating to the students and understanding their questions, and not making fun of their ignorance, but taking them seriously. (He was) just a very happy, cheerful guy, not the usual kind of scientific nerd. Unfortunately from the UT perspective, he really came into his own afterward. Not that I can claim much responsibility, but I’m really proud of him.”

(During his visit, Tyson will be meeting with UT President Bill Powers and possibly several faculty members and students “I carry high respect for the office of all university presidents,” Tyson says. “I was not going to turn this down. It’s surely the Alcalde cover story that prompted his overture, but as far as I know, there’s no specific agenda for the meeting.”)

Conversing with Tyson, you soon become aware that he not only applies the scientific method to all things in life, taking nothing at face value, but holds a rare, genuine enthusiasm for just about everything, from the planned launch of the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 to the best barbecue found in Austin these days.

Whether watching Tyson on TV or talking one-to-one, it’s infectious to observe how the connections click into place in his brain, then inevitably wedge their way into yours. You also start to appreciate that he can’t help being a human aphorism machine (how ideal for Twitter), with his fans constantly circulating Tysonisms like “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” and “If the world is something you accept rather than interpret, then you’re susceptible to the influence of charismatic idiots.”

Although Tyson’s forte is the ability to reawaken a childlike sense of wonder in his audience, his professional focus has always been adults. “But the way I bring science to the public, it tends to also attract kids, high school down to maybe middle school. If you’re a curious middle-schooler you can follow almost anything I do,” he says. “We have problems in the world because of science illiteracy in the adult population, not because of science illiteracy in the children’s population. What I do know about kids is that they are born curious about their environment. Every kid I’ve ever met is turning over rocks, plucking petals off of flowers, or reaching for things just out of their reach. So the real issue here is not how do you get kids interested in science, it’s how to get out of their way as they express this curiosity that perhaps is inherent in our DNA.”

He does have optimism about the state of science literacy. “I think we are experiencing a shift in the public’s appetite and interest in the frontier of science, and I measure that by a few things,” he says. “First, how else could I possibly have one and a half million Twitter followers? How else could ‘The Big Bang Theory’ be the No. 1 sitcom on television? How else could ‘CSI’ be one of the most fertile franchises on television there ever was, in three incarnations in different cities, when it features scientists solving problems using their expertise in biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, geology and forensics? And how is it that the movie ‘Gravity’ could be a No. 1 film, and people could be blogging about the physics errors a month later, long after Sandra Bullock and George Clooney did the couch circuit with the talk shows?” (Tyson’s own tweets about the film’s errors received wide media coverage, to his astonishment.)

As for his presentation at the Paramount, Tyson says attendees might reasonably expect an animated discourse on the importance of science literacy, the value of having what he calls “a cosmic perspective on who and what we are on earth and in the universe,” plus some news briefs on what he calls “cosmic current events.” Expect a call to action or two.

“I like leaving people with some sort of philosophical outlook that they can debate when they’re at home, or at a bar,” he says. “I love it when people have bar fights over the meaning of the universe!”

____________________________________________

Afterword: I attended Tyson’s talk at the Paramount the evening of December 17, which had been sold out for weeks; it was as delightful as I’d expected, if not more so. After the end of his “official” lecture, with slides and a bit of video, he stayed and did an audience Q&A for nearly another hour (at the beginning of this, about a third of the audience departed; their loss). Tyson answered questions ranging through everything from the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century (he chose the 1957 discovery of the origins of the heavy elements of the universe, known among physicists as the  B2FH paper) to his favorite dance when he participated in competitive dancing at UT (the paso doble).  He then proceeded directly to the Paramount’s lobby and signed books for the better part of an hour. It was a remarkable evening.

When my moment with the man finally came, I introduced myself and told him I’d interviewed him for the Statesman; “Oh, you’re the one!” he said, cordially enough, and we shook hands. My wife, who unfortunately couldn’t attend, had given me her copy of the Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, by the astronomer Jay Pasachoff, for him to autograph; despite my misgivings at probably being the only person giving him a book to autograph that someone else had written, he didn’t miss a beat and inscribed this:
Neil deGrasse Tyson, channeling Jay Pasachoff

From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage

As published in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.

David Bryan, a founding and still active member of Bon Jovi, is more than just the guy who’s been playing keyboards on the likes of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” for the past 30 years. For Bryan, having a second career as a composer for stage musicals is just another side of the same coin.

A pal and bandmate of John Bongiovi Jr. since both were teenagers in late ’70s suburban New Jersey, Bryan is also the composer and co-lyricist of “Memphis,” which opens Tuesday at Bass Concert Hall and plays through Dec. 15 as part of the Broadway In Austin series at Texas Performing Arts.

+From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage photo
LINDA ROWE

David Bryan is the longtime keyboard player for Bon Jovi and composer of musicals, including “Memphis.”

Strictly speaking, “Memphis” isn’t a jukebox musical, because the songs are original to Bryan and his writing partner, fellow New Jerseyan Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). “Memphis,” which deals with segregation and an interracial romance against the backdrop of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’50s, was first staged in California in 2002, but it took another seven years to hit Broadway. In 2010 the show won four Tony awards, including best musical, best original score and best book.

Bryan and DiPietro have since collaborated on another musical, “The Toxic Avenger,” based on the ’80s cult horror film satire, and are developing a third, “Chasing the Song,” set in the world of the early ’60s pop-song hit factories.

We caught up with Bryan, 51, over the phone during a short home break before the last leg of the current Bon Jovi tour. “I got two more Japans and seven Australias,” he says with the matter-of-fact cadence of a veteran of the rock wars. “We’ve already done 95 shows in 48 countries in the last nine months, so I understand when our touring company tours. I go, ‘I get it.’”

+From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage photo
JEREMY DANIEL

Jasmine Richardson stars as Felicia and Joey Elrose as Huey in the touring production of “Memphis,” a musical about an interracial … Read More

American-Statesman: How do you get from Bon Jovi to writing the music for ‘Memphis,’ and do you use a different set of songwriting muscles when you’re writing for a stage musical as opposed to a rock band?

David Bryan: “Memphis” was one of the first things that I did in the theater world. I got a script from an agent and I connected with it, and I just knew every one of those songs. One of my first bands with Jon, when we were 17, we had a horn band that played Springsteen and the (Asbury) Jukes and blue-eyed soul, so I knew about horns and I knew what it sounded like. What you see today on stage, when I demo’d it way back when, that’s what it’s based on.

What kinds of changes were made to the show before it finally made it to Broadway?

I got the script in ’01, we put it up in 2002 and ’03, then we were on the shelf for three years. Contractually we couldn’t do anything, and it never went past that. And then we put a whole new team together, did it in La Jolla and up in Seattle, then came into Broadway. You don’t tell a musical when it’s done and how it’s going; it tells you. The advantage, I think, for us is even though it was a longer than usual road, we were lucky enough to have four full productions, and you learn. By the time we presented on Broadway, we were completely confident.

Why do you think the show is so popular?

It’s just a universal story. It’s not entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It has a message, and that’s what really drew it to me. It’s the birth of civil rights; it gives kudos to where rock ‘n’ roll came from. It shows an American story, but (also) shows a human story. And it shows how the arts have lifted mankind beyond beating each other with bones. It’s art. It’s the first time the caveman drew on the wall.

The show carries a message; it’s also primarily entertainment. How did you and Joe balance the two?

I think you let your audience figure it out, instead of pointing a finger and telling them. It is a subtle component to our show that I’m proud of. Instead of, you know, “You shouldn’t be racist,” it shows what it is, and we let people discover. It’s also not a dirge; for me, it can’t be such a heavy thing that you’re not also being entertained.

Currently, you and Joe are working on the musical ‘Chasing the Song,’ which is about the early ’60s, the Brill Building …

That’s still in development. Hopefully, it will be coming to Broadway next year or the year after. It’s about the first woman (music) publisher, so it’s like the female Don Kirshner, which, reality-wise, there was no such thing. We’re championing what women’s rights were in 1960, where a woman got out of the house and started a publishing company. It’s a fictional view of facts, so we get to twist our stories. I think for Joe and I, there has to be some moral fiber instead of just entertainment.

Does it come very naturally to you to write in older styles of music, or is that something you have to work at a little bit differently?

It’s funny, on Broadway everybody talks about that. Everybody does research and they try to be exact in that time period. I don’t come from that world and I don’t write from that world. I write from what I think the character does and how that character sings. In your dialogue, you have to have enough emotion so it boils over where you actually sing a song, because in real life you don’t burst into song.

It’s modernized, looking back on time. It’s not just a history lesson. So that’s why it feels more contemporary, that’s why it’s not just, “Wow, that’s a ’50s show.” That’s the beauty of writing something original. It celebrates what brings us together, not what separates us. And hopefully, you’ll walk out singing my songs.


The year-end review in review: once again it’s all about me, I mean you

My card.

My card.

Although we don’t have to deal with end-of-the-Mayan-calendar apocalypse nonsense this year, we unfortunately still have an endless number of year-end recaps, highlights, and best-of lists coming out this month, which, as far as I’m concerned, are much worse. I dread all this rehashing, and if you would ask me why I mind the annual ritual so much (it’s all about the media wanting to sell a few tickets to the show, after all, so what else is new), I suppose I’d mention something about the predictability and the sameness of the whole business, the substitution of reflective listmaking for more complex thoughts on our times and the Meaning Of It All, and the general Internet-ready soup mix (microwaved for only 45 seconds, in its own cup) of all these lists and recaps that I find so inevitably depressing.

That, and the another-year-gone stuff on top of it. That, and the fact that nothing much seems to change from one year to another, except that everything gets slightly worse in subtle ways. That, and also because so many people I know on Facebook say the same thing at the end of every December: “This year sucked. I hope next year will be better.” And everyone says Amen, and then the new year ends up sucking just as badly because it’s not really a new year, it’s the same old world continuing as always. And everyone knows this, and yet we still count down the seconds and drink the champagne and hope against hope that this time, it’ll be different.

The thing is, we follow the prompts. In the shops we witness and respond to one holiday following the next, LaborDayBackToSchool then Halloween then ThanksgivingChristmasHanukkahNewYear’s then Valentine’s Day and so on,  with not as much as a day’s break of normalcy in the interstices, any downtime begrudged and in danger of vanishing thanks to the corporate overlords serving us up one bowl of marketing cheer after another.  The round of the year; the wheels clicking into place once again. Buy your greeting cards early.

Then there’s the world of social media, which this year did get noticeably worse. There were fake Twitter feuds with fake enemies, invented by this or that media-savvy trickster to prank everyone, including his fellow media sophisticates (it was funny when Andy Kaufman did it, but somehow this year, it wasn’t). There was much fuss made about cynical waitresses posting restaurant receipts with homophobic insults, since admitted to be fabricated, after thousands of dollars came in to PayPal.  Oh, and whenever a celebrity under the age of 96 dies, it’s a hoax, then it’s not a hoax but it was a hoax two weeks ago, but this time it’s not a hoax and the celebrity isn’t coming back from the dead this time, unless the celebrity is a cartoon character.

To quote an ecard I wrote for Someecards.com some time ago:  I don’t believe anything I read on Facebook, including my own status updates.

I suppose it’s just old human nature in new social media clothes. Social media facilitates our worst instincts along with our best, and maybe it’s just that the worst of it attracts more attention. At least I hope that’s the case. But oh, the narcissism of our age, where everybody is a star, at least on their own page or their own blog (hey, I never claimed to be different, I’m just self-aware).

Kudos to a fellow in Seattle named Marty Perlman, who nearly three years ago wrote the following succinct post in his blog, “Thinking Out Loud,” so I wouldn’t have to:

<<Does anyone remember a classic National Lampoon satire from the ’70s called “Me, the ultimate specialty magazine,” which features the tepid life and mundane times of Walter J. Arnholt of Elkhart, Indiana?
<<EVERYTHING is by and about Walter, including his favorite recipe “Franks and Beans a la Arnholt.” “The secret is the mustard I add to the franks’ water.” His hobby? Growing his matchbook collection. The section’s crossword puzzle, naturally, includes only clues that pertain to Walter and his family.
<<Q: Did National Lampoon anticipate Facebook by 30+ years?>>
 I guess we all know the answer to that one. With the old year fast winding down, and that ubiquitous social media site urging its teeming millions to share their “20 biggest moments on Facebook” for their “Year in Review,” it’s clear that everyone has indeed become the subject of his or her own very own magazine, and no matter how many Facebook friends, or “friends,” one has, the target audience remains one. Or rather, I suspect that we have become, instead, the targets of marketing. Nothing else seems to be new except the sophistication of the marketers, who grow more slick and seamless every year in getting us to give up our souls for a bit of false, easy ego gratification.
I’ve lately been wondering if the demand for superhero movies has a direct relationship to the average person’s own feeling of powerlessness — that is, the less you feel in control of your own destiny, the greater your desire to escape into a fantasy of becoming an all-powerful being with magical powers beyond the laws of physics, whether your choice is Superman, a witch, a vampire, or an alien. And you need go no farther than a Disney Princess or Iron Man Halloween costume or Justin Bieber’s face on your kid’s Christmas stocking to know how early it starts.
But does all this make us happy? Content? If some of us are, I think it’s in spite of all the official Calls To Be Happy All The Time, not, need I say, because of them, because their purpose is not making us, finally, content, but making us believe that we need this new gadget or version or add-on to make us so. I believe you know how the rest of that goes.
Is it still possible for us to imagine a world in which it would not be necessary to dread the day when you have to break the news to your growing children that things are not, indeed, much worse than they’ve been led to believe?
I hope we can all do some serious creative thinking in the weeks to come. And I hope it will all lead to something that can justify us all to really say, happy new something, and mean it.