An American Robin stands watch atop a house as the sun rises over Racine, Wisconsin.
An American Robin stands watch atop a house as the sun rises over Racine, Wisconsin.

Another Week: Number 18

by | April 29, 2023

My how time flies. Sixteen years ago we built a raised bed in our backyard in which we variously grew tomatoes, flowers, kale, Swiss chard, and herbs over the years.

Eventually, the raised bed crumbled. Last year I dismantled and discarded it.

This year, I have sown grass seed over the resulting bare patch of soil, and now light rain and warmth should be germinating that seed.

Besides covering the dirt, this will also test a belief I have encountered about birds devouring grass seed.

One of our neighbors covers any seeding operation with a thin white gauze for a full month, because “otherwise the birds will eat up every last bit of your grass seed!”

Then this past week, I heard a radio commercial for TruGreen that propagated the same nightmare scenario to any non-professionals who think they can take lawn care into their own hands.

We have plenty of birds flying through our yard. So far, I haven’t seen a single one sampling our grass seed. But it’s only been three days.


Stutz (2022)

I think it was probably through his appearance on WTF with Marc Maron in August of 2017 that I became aware of Phil Stutz, the Hollywood psychotherapist to the stars, and co-author (with Barry Michels) of The Tools, a 2012 New York Times self-help bestseller.

I read that book, and its sequel Coming Alive, and listened to the Coming Alive podcast that Stutz and Michels hosted for a few months, which has mostly disappeared from the internet. It’s all a collection of concepts — or “tools” — like “Active Love,” “The Grateful Flow,” “Part X,”  and so on,  illustrated by cute little line-drawing cartoons.

It’s an interesting framework, but I can’t say it changed my life. Try as I might to connect it to my personal experience, the instructions didn’t all make sense. No big lightbulb came on, and The Tools sort of got shelved alongside various Sharper Image products.

Visiting my mom on Sunday with Amy, I was browsing a list of Netflix documentaries at Esquire, and Jonah Hill’s film Stutz from last year was included, so at my suggestion the three of us gave it a shot.

Actor/writer/filmmaker Jonah Hill is a complete Phil Stutz apostle. He feels tremendously helped by working with Dr. Stutz and made this film to spread the word and Stutz’s transformative concepts.

One snag, however, is that Jonah Hill is not entirely comfortable with revealing his deepest personal glitches on camera to show how the doctor operates, so there’s some awkwardness while they negotiate these straits together.

Meanwhile, we do get a rough sketch of Stutz’s backstory — his childhood in Manhattan, where he served as a mediator early on, between his parents. We hear about his frustration with conventional psychiatry, and how he developed “The Tools” as a therapist working with criminals at Riker’s Island.

Stutz, 75 years old during filming, discusses his long experience with Parkinson’s disease, and his coping strategies.

For his part, Hill adds his mother to one onscreen “session,” and discusses his body image, accompanied by a large cardboard cutout of his previous physique.

The two men joke a lot, express sincere affection, and discuss shared trauma.

Stutz is a warm and easygoing 96-minute visit with a benevolent therapist and his genuine admirer.


Verification in reverse

Sometimes the lightbulb does come on. You might be listening to someone discuss the same thing everyone has been talking about all day when suddenly three simple words jump out at you and you scream, “Eureka! That’s it!

This happened Monday evening, hours after Tucker Carlson Tonight was unexpectedly and unceremoniously shitcanned by Fox News after six and a half years. Sadly, I never got around to watching an episode.

Over on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow began her show with a “seen ’em come, seen ’em go” roundup of right-wing demagogues over the decades, pointing out that the proportionate power of each new iteration never quite matches the last.

Then, introducing her first guest — Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University — Maddow extended her customary and commendable opportunity to challenge or correct any flaws in her preceding monologue.

Instead, Rosen offered a missing piece of the disinformation puzzle: verification in reverse:

Verification is taking something that might be true and trying to nail it down with facts, evidence, expertise.

Verification in reverse is when you take something that’s already been nailed down and you introduce doubt about it — and that releases a lot of energy, causes commotion, leads to controversy. It leads to culture war. And with this energy, you can power your political movement — MAGA.

This is an epiphany.

Think about how journalism works — questioning eyewitnesses, gathering documents, verification through multiple sources, and so on. Think about how science works — hypothesis, testing through controlled experiments, analysis, and external review.

Now throw that all into reverse: News becomes “fake news.” Dr. Fauci is forcing harmful vaccines on us all. FDA approval of mifepristone for the past 23 years is wrong. The 2020 presidential election was stolen. John F. Kennedy Jr. is not only alive — he’s going to be Donald Trump’s running mate.

Damn right, it releases energy. The QAnon scheme took verification in reverse and supercharged it through online crowdsourcing and gamification. Before you knew it, hundreds of people were waiting at Dealey Plaza for the second coming of the son of Jack.

This is how magicians make a living. They take your understanding of a basic fact — “a woman sawed in half has got to be dead” — and they upend it. She’s alive! And the crowd goes wild!

But when people know how the trick is done, the trick loses its power. Even if we don’t understand how each particular trick is done, we all know that “magic” is just an illusion, entirely based on tricks, so most people don’t lose their minds when a cut rope looks like it’s back together again.

That’s the importance of naming verification in reverse.

When Elon Musk tries to release some energy by removing blue check marks from previously verified experts, we can simply recognize it as verification in reverse, and the ploy becomes more of a yawner than Chinese Linking Rings.

When lobbyists and the politicians they own claim that global warming is “actually beneficial,” we can wave them off as verification in reverse and move on.

As a shorthand, we should popularize a “verification in reverse” gesture — something akin to the index finger spinning “cuckoo” at your temple, or the universal jack-off sign. We can use it to salute Tucker Carlson as he moves on to smaller and lesser.


Judy Blume Forever (2023)

Now here’s an uplifting documentary about a real American hero — a woman who gracefully released herself from the straightjacket of 1950s housewifery and gradually became her fully human self while helping countless young people everywhere do the same.

I have never read any of Judy Blume’s books, and Amy told me that Wifey was the first naughty book she owned as we started Judy Blume Forever on Prime Video.

What a rewarding 97 minutes — archival footage, stories, TV clips, testimony from Lena Dunham, Molly Ringwald, Samantha Bee and others, letters from young readers years ago, interviews with those same readers today, confrontations with conservatives, a charming bookstore in Key West … and commenting throughout, the warm and courageous Judy Blume.


In Session: Stevie Ray Vaughan & Albert King

Every now and then, YouTube recommends a real jewel, and this is one of those.

On December 6, 1983, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King performed together live in the studios of CHCH-TV in Hamilton, Ontario for the In Session, “The Original Intimate Music Series.”

This show is jaw-dropping astonishment for blues guitar nerds — just free and loose jamming, visible picking and frets, fingers bending strings, two virtuosos taking turns, upping the ante, and amazing each other with improvised flights of fancy and feats of strength.

If you’re not a blues guitar nerd, maybe you don’t need all 88 minutes. But if you are, maybe you want the remastered album or the book of guitar tab.



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