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Michael Pollan has had several bestselling books including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire. His seven books have been quite influential in the ways we view food from global and personal perspectives.

On his podcast, Tim Ferris talked with Pollan about his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. From the title alone, it would seem to be a departure from his other work.

I am just getting started with the book. The general topic is one I have read about in the past, but my firsthand knowledge is very limited.

“Psychedelics” is a term that still has 1960s baggage attached to it, though their use goes back centuries. Psilocybin, mescaline, and others have been in and out of the news. They have been legal and used for medical purposes, and also illegal, controlled and banned depending on the time period.

Pollan set out to research how LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) are being used to provide relief to people suffering from difficult-to-treat conditions such as depression, addiction and anxiety. But apparently the book got more personal than he expected.

He decided to explore himself altered states of consciousness as he was researching the brain science and psychedelic therapies being used today for depression, anxiety, alcohol/nicotine dependence, OCD, PTSD, and others.

From what I have heard and read about the book, he does address the risks of psychedelics too.

Studies into the “entropic brain” are getting serious attention in universities again, though on a limited basis.

Tim Ferris is very much aligned with Pollan’s newest project and is putting a million dollars into the scientific study of psychedelic compounds. This is by far the largest commitment to research and nonprofits I’ve ever made, and if you’d like to join me in supporting this research, please check out.

Pollan’s book has been described as a blend of science, memoir, travel writing, history, medicine and participatory journalism. Though the book is certainly a deep dive into psychedelic drugs, he also explores human consciousness and how we might use the drugs “to be fully present and find meaning in our lives.”

This is an update to my earlier What I Am Listening To post about the podcasts that are currently on my device at the end of 2017. In my case, the device is mostly my phone, but I also load certain podcasts on a flashdrive and leave it plugged in my car for driving (though I could just run my phone through the car’s audio, I like leaving the phone for call and GPS).

A study shows that one in four Americans has listened to a podcast in the past month. That number is up from 9% in 2008. The demographics of listeners shows them to be wealthier than average: 45% say they have an annual household income over $75k, compared with 35% of the general US population. The audience also skews younger, with 51% of monthly podcast listeners under age 34.

I have every day podcasts that I listen to that are mostly news. Then I save others, especially longer ones, to listen when I am walking, working outside or even working on the computer. I use them much like I used to use the radio, except now I do my own programming schedule. Those longer ones I download at home on wi-fi so that I don’t have to stream them using data when I am out in the world.

You can find these in Apple iTunes, on Stitcher’s app, and most of them are also on websites in case you like to listen on a computer.

This list is updated from the earlier post. Some shows have gone away (I am saddened by the loss of garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac and News From Lake Woebegone), some I have just lost interest in, and some are new to my list.

There are ones I listen to almost every day – many of those are short – and then longer ones that might only be released weekly or even less frequently – most of those are longer.

It should be its own post, but I also listen to books on audio, which are a big time commitment.

 

There a few I didn’t add to the list that I did sample but that just didn’t grab me. Like televisions these days, there is so much good competition that I’m a tough critic.  But you might like Pod Save America (political), Risk! (regular folks on stage telling emotional stories), Lore (urban legend weirdness stories), Welcome to Nightvale  (radio broadcasts from a fictional town where the out-of-the-ordinary is ordinary and conspiracy theories abound), two trivia shows: Doug Loves Movies  and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know ( a panel takes trivia from the audience).

 

Short and Daily Regular Listens

  • Up First – NPR’s short take on news to start the day
  • The Daily – a big story for today from The New York Times
  • NPR Hourly News Summary – in less than 5 minutes
  • WSJ Tech News Briefing
  • NPR Business Story of the Day
  • Film Reviews from WSJ with Joe Morgenstern – brief reviews of new films
  • Marketplace Tech 
  • The Poetry Magazine Podcast – looks at what’s in the newest issue of the magazine
  • Brainstuff – five-minute  answers to questions like Why balloons stick to our hair? How do squirrels organize their nuts?

Longer Shows – weekly or less frequently updated – I choose episodes I’m interested in

  • By the Book – the two hosts live for a few weeks following the suggestions of a self-help book and report back on how life changing or not the plan turned out.
  • Make Me Smart – Molly Wood and Kai Ryssdal talk about the economy, technology and culture and try to get help from listeners and experts about the ones they want to know better.
  • In Our Time – a BBC show that takes on academic topics from Moby Dick to Thomas Beckett to Plato’s Republic, but all in a listenable level although the guests are usually college professors.
  • Hidden Brain – fascinating stories that take science and research and make it interesting to anyone. Hosted by Shankar Vedantam
  • Here’s the Thing – Alec Baldwin is a terrific host/interviewer of people in many different fields
  • Poetry Off the Shelf – poets, poems, poetry topics
  • Fresh Air – one radio program that I have listened to since before podcasting – but podcasts allowed me to catch the shows I was missing. With a superb interviewer, Terry Gross.
  • The Business – is in show business, movies and television, hosted by Kim Masters
  • Slate’s Culture Gabfest – highbrow and pop topics – highbrow and pop hosts
  • How To Be Amazing with Michael Ian Black – not the usual celebrity interviews – very revealing interviews.
  • The Treatment – mostly movies with another great host who seems to have seen and read everything, Elvis Mitchell,
  • Maltin on Movies – as in Leonard Maltin, film critic and human film encyclopedia. Interviews with all kinds of movie folk. Often co-hosted by his daughter, Jessie.
  • To the Best of Our Knowledge – One of my favorites. Big ideas and themes covered in different ways.
  • FT Life of a Song – FT = Financial Times but this UK podcast is all about digging into the origins of songs in all genres.
  • WTF with Marc Maron – Long interviews that travel interesting paths with musicians, actors, writers, comedians and even Barack Obama done in his garage. I sometimes fast forward past the intros that are often promoting his own work, but great interviews.
  • On Being – formerly Speaking of Faith and wisely changed to represent what it actually covers. Krista Tippet is the amazing host.  Excellent website.  www.onbeing.org/
  • Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me – a current events quiz show that’s quite funny
  • The Sporkful – Dan Pashman’s show for eaters
  • Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen – pop culture and the arts. Great host. Special American Icons episodes are great: Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick, Disney Parks, I Love Lucy, Superman, The Outsiders…
  • 99% Invisible – the mostly invisible design of things
  • Revisionist History – Malcolm Gladwell’s series takes unusual views of one topic revisionisthistory.com
  • The Dinner Party Download – cultural oddities and drink recipes based on history
  • You Must Remember This – the first 100 years of Hollywood with host and writer/researcher Karina Longworth. Themes are things like Jane Fonda + Jean Seberg, the Blacklist, Dead Blondes, Boris Karloff + Bela Lugosi, Charles Manson
  • Bookworm – host Michael Silverblatt is a terrific reader and talks to almost everyone important in contemporary writing (fiction, non-fiction, poetry). I haven’t heard of many of the books/writers but all the shows are well done. Huge archive. From KCRW radio. www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/bookworm
  • The Nerdist – long-running show hosted by professional talker Chris Hardwick with a vairiety of interesting people. Interview runs pretty long – about 90 minutes.
  • Katie Couric – She does her interview thing that she has done well for many years in podcast form.
  • Harry Shearer – Le Show – a creative mix of news, commentary, music and original skits and songs.

Still on my list but I listen very selectively when I have time

  • The Paris Review – topics that might appear in the magazine
  • Pop Culture Happy Hour – multiple hosts on movies, books, TV and the rest
  • Radiolab – hard to pin down what it is about – it’s about almost anything
  • Planet Money – the economy explained
  • This Week in Tech TWiT – Leo Laporte and crew. I started listening to this years ago but I’ve fallen off as a listener to his shows as they tend to ramble on for 2 hours or more lately. Also the case for This Week in Google – Leo and Jeff Jarvis with some focus on Google but almost an extension of TWiT.
  • This Week in Law – Another one in the series that I listen to selectively when a topic catches my fancy.
  • On the Media – a good weekly media analysis
  • The World Next Week – a “preview” of world events from the Council on Foreign Relations
  • Triangulation – Leo Laporte (Man of a Thousand Podcasts) talks to smart people in tech. These are more controlled (and shorter) and I select based on the guest.
  • Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty – short doses of language, writing and that scary grammar stuff in an engaging way.
  • Slate’s Audio Book Club – monthly look at new and important books
  • Open Source with Christopher Lydon
  • Science Friday – just that – stories about science for the rest of us.
  • Invisibilia – the invisible forces that control us
  • This American Life – one of the originals. A theme is several acts fill up about an hour.
  • Selected Shorts – short stories read aloud by actors. I tend to select selected episodes but when I just listen to an episode I am inevitably surprised to discover some new or classic story.
  • Freakonomics Radio – an extension of the ideas in the books. Economics (ugh!) but done in a way that is interesting (Hurrah!)
  • The Carson Podcast – interviews with people who guested on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Always touches on Johnny and the show but also digs into the entertainers big and small interviewed.
  • How I Built This – interviews with innovators on how they built whatever they built
  • Stuff You Should Know – grew from the articles on the http://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/ website. Two likeable guys with more information (usually) than you on a very wide variety of topics.  Most shows are about 30 minutes.
  • Things They Don’t Want You to Know – is another offshoot but needs to be seen because they are video (vodcast) and they are full of all those conspiracy theories. Fun.

Archived, Available But Not Current Programs

  • I had listened to the two previous installments of the true story Serial which were good, although neither had a real ending. During this last period, I listened to the third one called S Town about John who despises his Alabama shit town and decides to do something about it. He asks a radio reporter to investigate a murder, but it’s really about John. This one has an ending. Sort of.
  • Missing Richard Simmons – On February 15, 2014, fitness guru Richard Simmons disappeared and the host of this podcast searches for him. Much like serial, some people were disappointed that he didn’t really “find” him (like a Serial ending) but I thought it was a good ending.
  • Esquire Classic Podcast – looks back at classic pieces from the magazine
  • Unretirement – Life after you retire when you still want to do.. something.
  • By the Way, In Conversation with Jeff Garlin – crazy, funny Jeff (Curb Your Enthusiasm) does freeform interviews on stage with folks. On hiatus while he works on his TV show, The Goldbergs which is a kind of The Wonder Years for the 1980s.

Jean Shepherd is best known to his devoted fans as a radio raconteur. I listened to him for about two decades on WOR-AM in New York City. Often I was listening on a transistor radio that was by my bed pillow before I went to sleep. I lived in New Jersey, and Jersey often figured in Shep’s stories, usually as the home of “slob art.”

His nighttime program was a hard-to-define blend of stories, commentary, and occasional oddities of “music” that seemed to go in ten attention-deficit directions until the program’s closing when it all seemed to somehow pull together. Though I learned via interviews and books that it was unscripted, Shep often walked into the studio with an article, letter or general theme for where the show was going to or at least where it would start.

Flick succumbs to a double dog dare to put his tongue
on the frozen pole. Don’t try this at home, kids.

To younger people or those outside of the NY/NJ metro area, he is probably best known for writing the 1983 hit film A Christmas Story. The film is now a perennial Christmas classic that is run and rerun in the way that It’s a Wonderful Life was and sometimes still is run on TV in December. Though I think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a holiday classic, it is also almost film noir and gets quite dark in its second half. But A Christmas Story is pure nostalgia.

The film was based on a half-dozen stories, mostly from his 1966 collection, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash which is my favorite of his books. Those stories, some of which had run in magazines as standalone tales, are connected by the protagonist, Ralphie and his brother and parents and based on Shep’s childhood in Indiana. Though the film has become known as a family or even children’s story, I always viewed the book as more of a coming-of-age book. The stories are tied together by their time and place and connected by a much older Ralphie going back to Indiana.  Jean’s alter-ego character is Ralphie Parker (Shep’s birth name is  Jean Parker Shepherd), a kid growing up in 1930’s Indiana.

I sat down this weekend to write this because I saw that A Christmas Story Live, a stage version of the movie, is on FOX tonight, December 17, at 7 pm ET. It has run on Broadway and across the country. I avoided seeing it because I feared it would ruin the film and book for me. But, it’s free on TV and I can always turn it off and not be upset that I lost a few hundred bucks on a trip to Broadway, soI will watch the show.

This live version has Matthew Broderick playing grownup Ralphie (the narrator). (He was played by Jean Shepherd and ralphie’s old man was played by Darren McGavin in the original movie version.) Maya Rudolph is the mom. (Melinda Dillon played her in the movie.) There is a nice little synchronicity in the casting because Matthews’s father, James Broderick, played Ralphie’s father (billed as “the old man” not Mr. Parker) when Shep did several PBS adaptations of his Indiana stories.

Some years at Christmastime, Jean would read a version of the original short story that became the basis for the movie on his WOR-AM radio show (see video below). The main short story for the film appeared in Playboy as  “Duel In The Snow, Or, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” and was reprinted as a chapter in Shepherd’s 1966 book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.

Shep narrates the film and has a brief cameo as an adult also in the line to see Santa at a department store who tells Ralphie to get in the back of the line.

On the air before his NYC radio days.

Jean Shepherd the writer published many magazine stories in Mad magazine and The National Lampoon, The New York Times, Playboy, Mademoiselle, Car and Driver, and Omni. He was one of the early columnists for The Village Voice newspaper in New York City. I believe you can find almost all of the stories collected in his four book collections (see below).

In the 70’s and 80’s he became more interested in TV and film and less interested in radio. He did several pieces for PBS from small bits to television movies including The Phantom of the Open Hearth.

In 1975, he did a popular non-fiction PBS television series titled Jean Shepherd’s America and another series for the New Jersey PBS station entitled Shepherd’s Pie.

Jean Shepherd was born in Chicago, in 1925 and the majority of his written stories and films were set in his childhood years. From his adult life, the most we heard about was from his Army days in the Signal Corps.

The stories he told on-air were always improvised, but he later wrote some of the childhood ones down and he published them in collections like In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters.

Much of Jean Shepherd’s real life is unknown. He made the line between fact and fiction very blurry. Sometimes he said things had happened that others have found did not happen. He rarely talked about his adult life. He was married three times but didn’t talk about his wives. Did he have children? Where did he live?

I had heard that he is the basis for the Jason Robards character in the play and film, A Thousand Clowns, which was written by Shep’s friend, Herb Gardner. I didn’t know that when I saw that film (which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar) but I liked that guy, so some Shep must have come through.

He is supposed to be the inspiration for the Shel Silverstein song made famous by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.” Having the gender neutral name “Jean” wasn’t easy as a kid, and in later life he was often confused with a female country singer with the same name, though Shep has certainly eclipsed her in fame by now.

The Jack Nicholson late-night radio talker in New Jersey in The King of Marvin Gardens seems like he might have been somewhat inspired by Shep.

In the film Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky who was another in Shep’s circle, the main character is a television newscaster who tells his viewers to open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” To a Jean Shepherd listener, that has got to have some basis in Shep’s frequent habit of “hurling an invective.” I remember him telling all of us to yell out the window at the same time, and another time having all of us jump up in the air at the same moment to see if we could knock the Earth a bit off its axis.

Shep once pulled off a publishing hoax by promoting a non-existent book called I, Libertine  by a non-existent author, Frederick R. Ewing. Shep was not happy with the way the best-seller lists were compiled and wanted to prove it was a rigged joke.

He told his listeners to go out and buy the book and they did try. The requests got bookstores asking their distributors for copies and that got at least one publisher (Ballantine Books) interested in creating the title. Ballantine had Shep work up an outline of the story and hired a ghostwriter, Theodore Sturgeon, who was known for science-fictions stories. It was written, published and due to the demand it actually made the best-seller list. Copies of the original paperback are now quite collectible.

Jean also did live shows. I guess it was standup comedy but not in the way that we think of that today. He appeared at Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, and I saw him a half-dozen times at colleges, high schools and other venues. He wasn’t Jerry Seinfeld. He wasn’t obscene like Lenny Bruce or political like Mort Sahl. He was closer to Mark Twain and James Thurber if they had done an hour on stage. Humor and comedy are not the same animal.

In the late 1990s, Shepherd was working on new film projects, but his health was failing. I lost touch with him because he stayed out of  the public eye, and his personal life had always been a mystery in a Bob Dylan way with lots of misinformation and outright lies perpetrated by him.

We do know that his longtime companion, collaborator, and third wife of 21 years, was Leigh Brown. “Little Leigh” always seemed to be in the WOR studio with him and sometimes was referenced in his comments on air. She died in 1998 and Jean died the following year in a hospital near his Sanibel Island, Florida home. I have read that he had no survivors, so his intellectual property is owned by an entertainment group.

I have discovered a good number of Shep fans over the years, from people my age who lived in the tri-state area of WOR and listened, to young people who discovered him through the film and traced their way back in his career, to other humorists influenced by him like Harry Shearer.

A good free collection of Shepherd radio show audio online is The Shep Archives. All you have to do is register and you can listen and download mp3 files of old WOR shows, interviews, and audio from some of the television shows.

There are other sites too because many devoted fans back in the day recorded the show on their reel-to-reel or cassette recorders. I’m glad they did because the radio station certainly didn’t care enough to archive shows. The Brass Figlagee podcast has 300 show files and some are on also available free at archive.org.

Bob Kaye’s Jean Shepherd Page is a nice site, and Jim Clavin has a good fan site called Flick Lives! that includes links to places where you can hear some of Shep’s old broadcasts.

“Flick Lives” is a reference to a character in many Shepherd tales from his Indiana days. Flick is the kid who gets his tongue frozen to a pole in A Christmas Story.  Fans used to write “FLICK LIVES” as graffiti in the way that soldiers once wrote “Kilroy was here.”  We marked our turf and showed that we followed Shep with those two words.  And yes, people used to often join the L and I in Flick to create a totally different message to the world.

Books


Christmas Eve 1974 – Shepherd reads the story on air at WOR-AM in NY
that would later become the movie, A Christmas Story.

 

 “Beer” from Jean Shepherd’s America

 

Opening from an episode of Shepherds’s Pie (not great audio/video quality)

A self-help book is one that is written with the intention to instruct its readers on solving personal problems. If you can still find a local bookstore, there is a good chance that a shelf or wall is devoted to books of this genre.

These books take their name from a book actually titled Self-Help. It was a 1859 best-seller by Samuel Smiles. That name and author is for real. Samuel Smiles (1812 – 1904), was a Scottish author and government reformer, and his book promoted thrift and claimed that poverty was caused largely by irresponsible habits. The book has been called “the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism” and made him quite a celebrity.

Well before that, a book of manners published in 1558 suggests: ‘It is also an unpleasant habit to lift another person’s wine or his food to your nose and smell it’.”  I agree.

But guides to how to live your life are even older. It could be argued that the ancient Egyptian “Codes” of conduct and the Bible were self-help or at least partially intended for self-improvement.

I have very strong memories of Charles Atlas who ran ads in almost every comic book I read as a kid. As a weakling 12-year-old reading a Superman comic, the idea of using  “dynamic tension”  to become really strong and avoid bullies “kicking sand in your face” was very appealing. Charles Atlas was a bodybuilder who came up with a system of physical exercise back in the 1920s, but the ads were running strong in the 1960s. (“Dynamic Tension” is a registered trademark of Charles Atlas, Ltd and their website still looks a lot like those ads from almost a 100 years ago.)

The Charles Atlas method was all about putting muscle against muscle. No weights or equipment needed. That was very appealing to a kid with only a weekly allowance. We even did a variation of this in our school gym classes that the teachers called “isometrics.” I recall a gym teacher telling us, “Look at lions and tigers. They don’t use any equipment. they stretch and push muscle against muscle.” it made sense to me.

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was probably the first book I ever encountered on a bookshelf that was clearly “self-help.” It is one of the first best-selling self-help books and was first published in 1936. It is also still around. (Self-help books have legs!) It has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. It even made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books.

Like Charles Atlas, Carnegie’s self-help promises sound really tempting: make people like you; win people to your way of thinking; change people without arousing resentment.

One topic that has perennial appeal is love. In the Middle Ages, there were “Conduir-amour” – guides in love matters – published.  In classical Rome, Cicero’s On Friendship and On Duties and Ovid’s Art of Love even produced a sequel – Remedy of Love. They are the forerunners of the many volumes published about where to go to meet mates (most of them are intended for male readers), how to start a conversation, keep them interested, and ultimately how to have the best sex.

I think there is probably some good advice in all these self-help books. But I, like most of you, am lazy. We want really fast and easy ways to solve our problems.  10-Minute Mindfulness: 71 Habits for Living in the Present Moment sure sounds easier than easier than going away for a Zen retreat weekend and sitting uncomfortably for hours. Remember those 1-minute manager books? Yeah, I’ve got a minute. Change my life.

Sometimes we need help but part of the help we need is to be motivated to read a book that will help us.

By the BookAnd so, as I have posted a few times about podcasts I currently enjoy, I must recommend one for all of us lazy types that need help. It is By the Book, a self-help book podcast in which the hosts – comedian Jolenta Greenberg and serious skeptic Kristen Meinzer – test out self-help books for us.

In each episode, they live by the rules of a different self-help book for two weeks and report back on what worked and what didn’t. You can grab the nuggets of wisdom from each book without having to buy it or read it.

Of course, there is the possibility that a book might actually be life-changing.

I first knew of Kristen by going on many Movie Date[s] with her. She was the co-host of the much-missed Movie Date podcast where Rafer Guzman weekly pretended that he was on the date with Kristen. (She has since married and so our movie dates ended.) But now I have By the Book, which just finished its first season, and it is funny, irreverent, thoughtful, highly personal and a great listen. And it is free. You can’t lose. Money-back guarantee.

The show also has a nice community on Facebook where I seem to be one of the few (perhaps the only) male participant. What’s up with that? Are guys not even able to admit to needing help?

I got to thinking that maybe the ladies should test out a self-help book for guys (their husbands show up in the podcasts, so they might help). I did a search on self-help books for men about love and the  search results were frightening – almost all books for women about men. They ranged from how to get a guy – The Power of the Pussy: Get What You Want From Men: Love, Respect, Commitment and More! through How to Get & Keep The Man of Your Dreams: by Staying True to Your Core Self  – all the way to the land of F*CK Him! – Nice Girls Always Finish Single – “A guide for sassy women who want to get back in control of their love life” (The Truth about his weird behavior, … of commitment and sudden loss of interest). Long titles are clearly key to self-help success.

I did not buy any of those titles for my wife.  Instead, maybe I will read 100 Ways to Love Your Wife: A Life-long Journey of Learning to Love Each Other. It was written by a guy, but it probably would have been better if it was written by a woman. As a pre-teen, I used to read my sister’s copies of Seventeen, Teen, Cosmopolitan et al because I figured those articles on “5 Ways to Get That Guy” would give me tips on how to get a girl or at least warn me about what they were plotting.

I didn’t buy the 100 Ways book. Maybe Kristen and Jolenta will read it and pick out 7 ways that are really good and I can use them for the week before our anniversary.


Want to browse the many opportunities you have for helping improve yourself?  Try this link.

 

 

 

I’m not a Buddhist. At least, I don’t think I follow Buddhism closely enough these days to qualify for the title. I have studied the religion which is now represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha  as a religion and also use it as a philosophy.

A very simplified description of the teaching of Buddha is that life is permeated with suffering which is caused by desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. Enlightenment is obtained through right conduct. Wisdom and meditation releases one from desire and therefore, suffering.

I would contend that the path I followed through reading, meditation and even formal study at a Zen monastery was a path of philosophy rather than religion. I never accepted things like reincarnation. I like desire too much.  I consider my path to be a kind of American Buddhism. Some might say it is Western Buddhism.

I don’t use American Buddhism as a negative term, though some genuine Buddhists might see it as such. There are many uses of the word “Zen” attached to everything from playing tennis to the “Zen” of dogs and cats – that seem very wrong applications of Buddhism.  If you were really critical of American Buddhism, it would probably be because you consider it just a kind of self-help program to reduce stress.

It is difficult to define these things. What is Zen Buddhism? On zen-buddhism.net they say that “Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.”

Nevertheless, I will say that Zen Buddhism was an outgrowth of Mahayana, the “meditation” sect of Buddhism. It developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart. It also divided into two branches.

Binzai is the more austere and aristocratie monasticism that emphasizes meditation on the paradoxes that people may know as koans. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

The other branch is Sōtō which is probably the more popular following. It emphasizes ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination.

The Buddhism that seemed to appeal to the American mind offered escape and engagement – two things that may seem to be in opposition. The idea of “10 minute mindfulness” should seem impossibly simplistic and unrealistic to anyone, but the concept sells books and fills workshops.

The latest book I have read related to Buddhism is by Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright uses biology, psychology and philosophy to show how meditation can lead to a spiritual life in a secular age.

You might not know that evolutionary psychology is a field of study. Wright combines it with neuroscience to show why he believes Buddhism is true, and how it can free us of delusions and save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

In a earlier book, The Moral Animal, he wrote about how evolution shaped the human brain. Our mind is designed to sometimes delude us about ourselves and about the world in order to survive. Unfortunately, this leads to much unhappiness.

Some of this comes from natural selection which he says makes animals in general “recurrently dissatisfied.” It leads us to anxiety, depression, anger, and greed. Wright believes Buddhism was a kind of answer to natural selection.

If human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly, meditation can clarify that seeing and so will make us better, happier people.

I was first introduced to his new book through an interview with him on Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross asked Wright about how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting:

“This was in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it’s true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It’s a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as “unsatisfactoryness.”

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you’d feel blissed out, you’d never eat again. You’d have sex, you’d, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that’s not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it’s central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

An earlier book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, was what get me thinking a lot more about mindfulness.  He worked to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society and was the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The practice of “mindfulness” is a more than 2000-year-old Buddhist method of living fully in the present, observing ourselves, our feeling, others and our surroundings without judging them.

I read his book Wherever You Go There You Are when it wa first published during a time when I was more into formal study of Zen and meditation.

I liked that it treated meditation as a natural activity that can be practiced anytime and anywhere. No joining a group, no props or special cushions.

Mindfulness and living in the moment can be improved with techniques such as “non-doing” and concentration.

Like defining Buddhism, these terms are simple but complex. Non-doing is very different from doing nothing. We live very much in a “doer” culture, and in such a place non-doing is a big change. Sitting down to meditate, even for a short time, is a time for non-doing, but it means you will be “working” at consciousness and intention. Anyone who has ever tried to “empty their mind” knows how very difficult that can be.

There are several chapters in the book on parenting as a form of meditation – and children as “live-in Zen masters.”

I think Kabat-Zinn would agree with Wright on how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull we have toward dissatisfaction:

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. … By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that’s just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That’s an amazing thing — that it can work.


More

Listen to the interview with Wright on npr.org

Read “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t” by Adam Gopnik – The New Yorker

Brian Wilson behind the mixing board of Brother Studios, circa 1976.

I was a Beach Boys fan from the start when they and I both loved surf culture more than we loved surfing. (Dennis Wilson was the only real surfer in the band.)  I loved the harmonies. But it was all about Brian.

Brian had lots of issues – drugs, bogus psychiatry, bad management and fears about touring. 1964 – 1977 is a sad but fascinating period in Brian and the band’s history. I wrote earlier about my own brush against Brian’s problems, but the music has always helped me, and I think it saved Brian.

Brian had a panic attack on a flight from L.A. to Houston in late 1964 and stopped performing live with the group. Like The Beatles in later years, he wanted to concentrate on songwriting  and studio production.

The band continued touring with Glen Campbell and then Bruce Johnston as Brian’s substitute for live performances. Back in L.A., Brian was introduced to marijuana by a friend who thought it would de-stress him and aid his creativity. It worked, and in a month he completed the Beach Boys’ Today! album and started on the next one, Summer Days.

The next spring, Brian tried LSD for the first time and that acid trip also inspired him. You might think it would inspire some “acid-rock” but what came from that experience was the music for “California Girls.” That Top-10 pop single was great for the band, but the acid trip also led to auditory hallucinations which have plagued him throughout his life.

In late 1965, he started working on material for what would become Pet Sounds. It ended up being pretty much a Brian Wilson solo album.

Brian wrote, produced, and sang on it and the album’s instrumentation was done by the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Brian used them throughout the mid-1960s, on “Help Me, Rhonda”, “California Girls”, “Good Vibrations” as well as Pet Sounds and the original sessions for Smile.

When the band returned from a tour in Japan, all that was left to do was record their vocal overdubs. That didn’t go over well with the band, especially Mike Love. Despite their feelings that this was not a Beach Boys album in its creation and sound, it was released in May 1966. It had modest sales figures at the time, but since then it has become critically acclaimed, even arguably (no argument from me) being cited among the all-time greatest albums.

“Good Vibrations” hit number one and Brian started on Smile, which he once described as a “teenage symphony to God.” Like “Good Vibrations,” the album would be recorded in separately written modular sections that would be divided into tracks and spliced together. The standard live-to-tape linear performances that The Beach Boys and most bands were using fell away. Brian wrote with Van Dyke Parks.

The album was scheduled to be released in January 1967 but that was bumped so many times that by May the whole project was cancelled.

Beach Boys recording relocated to a studio situated in Brian’s mansion living room where he had installed his grand piano in a giant sandbox and built a tent. Things were strange.

The rest of the year they produced a few heavily orchestrated tracks (“Can’t Wait Too Long” and “Time to Get Alone”). Brian asked his brother Carl to take on the recording sessions. It was all too much.

After the collapse of Smile, financial issues and more drug use (cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana, and psychedelics) and the birth of his first child (Carnie  in 1968), Brian ended up in psychiatric hospital. he received a whirlwind of treatments (talk therapy, Lithium and electroconvulsive therapy).

The Wilson boys’ father had been managing the band since the start but had many issues with Brian over music and contracts. Murry Wilson sold their Sea of Tunes publishing company to A&M Records’ publishing division for only $700,000. Brian lost most of his music and this renewed the feuding between him and his father.

But Brian gained some stability and even toured briefly in 1970 when Mike Love was ill. e went back to writing and recording with the Beach Boys. He wrote or co-wrote 7 of the 12 tracks on Sunflower. A decent album, it was a commercial flop. The Beach Boys were viewed as a nostalgia act.

It was a period when their albums had terrible titles (15 Big Ones, an album of covers) and weak sales. Brain managed to write most of Wild Honey (1967) and Friends (1968) but his studio participation was far less than in the past.

Carl and the band cobbled together tracks for an album called 20/20. I bought that in 1969 and had no idea that it was Smile outtakes (“Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer”) along with older songs like “Time to Get Alone.” Those tracks sit a bit oddly next to the more surf-sounding single “Do It Again.” But that classic single-sound made it a hit on the US charts in 1968 (plus number 1 in the UK and Australia). “Break Away” became the band’s final single for Capitol Records.

In 1971, Surf’s Up became their 17th studio album and got good reviews and reached number 29 on US record charts and #15 in the UK. It was their best performing album in years. The title echoes the band’s past, but the music was not surf rock at all. The title track was from the Wilson/Van Dyke Parks sessions for Smile. Like Pet Sounds, the album had legs and was voted to several “Best Of” album lists later.

Carl and the Passions  (the name of the Wilson boys high school band) “So Tough” was the next album (1972), a moderate commercial success upon release, but one in which Brian had minimal involvement. reaching number 25 in the UK and number 50 in the US.

The band was still releasing an album each year and in 1973 it was Holland. It was produced by the band and mostly recorded in Baambrugge, Netherlands. Two Brian Wilson tracks were recorded in Los Angeles and added to the album at the last minute. The two singles were “Sail On, Sailor” and “California Saga.”

The end, or turning point, of this troubled period is the album Love You  in 1977.

This 21st studio album, Love You, is not a great album, but  it marked the return of Brian Wilson at the helm of Beach Boys ship.

He gets credited with writing and arranging all the songs. He also plays every instrument. But there are some Beach Boys vocals.

Brian says he was more concerned with lyrics on this project.Some of the song topics are odd –  Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show – and stories about his writing at this time have him sitting down and improvising a new song in 20 minutes.

Some tracks, like “The Night Was So Young” and “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” have the old construction and harmonies, but the album heavily uses synthesizers. “Good Time” was a 7-year-old Sunflower outtake.

Brian had planned this as a solo record and the working title was Brian Loves You. It peaked at number 53 on US record charts and was received very mixed reviews from both fans and critics. There was one single – “Honkin’ Down the Highway”/”Solar System.”

Carl Wilson remixed the “finished” album in January 1977 and added guitar and percussion tracks and is credited as the album’s mixdown producer.

The album was done while Brian was in mental and drug rehabilitation. It was the last album written and produced by Wilson for the next 11 years. The week after he finished, he began Adult/Child, but it was never released.

Brother Dennis Wilson died in 1983. Brian’s first true solo album, the eponymous Brian Wilson in 1988, was his return to recording and performing. Carl Wilson died in 1998.

Brian would finally get to release Smile in 2004.

There are 385 versions of albums by The Beach Boys currently on Amazon.

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