Video Fridays: R.I.P., Allan “Sidney Freedman” Arbus

allan-arbusI’m late getting to this, but I’m sad that I’m posting my second obituary in one week.

Following my post on Monday on the loss of Richie Havens, I heard the very next day of the death of actor Allan Arbus, at the age of 95, mostly known for his role as the psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, on the TV show M*A*S*H.

(In a creepy example of the urban myth that celebrities die in groups of three, since I started writing this, I’ve learned of the death of country music legend George Jones at the age of 81. I may or may not be able to post an obit for George later today.)

Anyway, I mentioned once before that I practically grew up on M*A*S*H. In fact, it was such a central experience for me, as well as for many of the people I knew, including my best friends, who would talk about it constantly, reciting our favorite lines, analyzing it’s ups and downs, that it is not unsurprising to me at all that Allan Arbus’ passing would inspire more than just a brief note about how I used to enjoy him on television.

(If you aren’t a TV geek who enjoys exploring the themes of a show, if you are someone who simply likes entertainment, that’s cool, but you might want to skip ahead below, to the video part of this Video Fridays installment, a montage of clips of Allan Arbus from various M*A*S*H episodes.)


Now, the fascinating thing here, for me, is that Allan Arbus and his character, Sidney Freedman, actually represent the epicenter of an aspect of M*A*S*H that divided its fans into two opposing camps:

  1. Those who preferred the earlier seasons of the show, when comedy far outweighed drama, and when the comedy was, as I would argue, of a more sophisticated style.
  2. Those who loved the evolution of the show from mostly comedy toward increasing amounts of drama, and despite the shift in comedic style.

You see, although Arbus only appeared in 12 of the 251 episodes of M*A*S*H, and although his earliest appearances were in Season 2, when the show was still firmly mostly-comedy, I contend that the very fact that Sidney Freedman became a recurring character is symbolic of the evolution of the series towards drama.
Gradually, the show became less and less about the farcical absurdities of war, in the style of, say Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 — the style, incidentally, of the original source material, the novel by Richard Hooker and the film by Robert Altman — and more and more about the emotional, dramatic, traumatic and tragic nature of war.

That said, a convincing argument could be made that, once you delve into the ugliness of war, as would, let’s say, a psychiatrist, digging through the horrible toll it takes on humans and humanity, that it necessarily gets harder and harder to make light of it. A sitcom about war, then, could eventually become shallow or even insulting to those who have faught in, been injured by, or have lossed loved ones to war.

And, nothing underscores Sidney Freedman’s central role in this evolution than his central role in the very last episode of the series, 1983’s Goodbye, Farwell and Amen, M*A*S*H‘s swan song, the show’s last statement on the subject of war, which centered on therapy sessions between Sidney and Alan Alda‘s Hawkeye Pierce, who had suffered a nervous breakdown over a traumatic experience involving a mother who silenced her baby, thereby suffocating and killing it, in order to protect Hawkeye and the other passengers on a bus that was under enemy fire.

Drama indeed. Nothing funny about that.

Now, I should make it clear that, despite my preference for the earlier seasons, I do appreciate the significant achievement of keeping the show on the air for 11 seasons, while maintaining a huge audience and mostly positive reviews. After all, I kept watching and never missed an episode.

Truthfully, my beef with the show wasn’t really with the trend toward drama-over-comedy. Rather, as mentioned above, I found the comedy that did remain to be lacking in sophistication, too often heavily laden with silly puns, slapstick arguments and personality clashes.

Whatever you make of this analysis, regardless of which camp you reside in, I think we can all agree that Allan Arbus was wonderful as Dr. Sidney Freedman. As Alan Alda said, quoted in the Los Angeles Times Arbus obituary, “He was so authentic in the role it was hard to believe that he wasn’t that person.”

R.I.P., Allan Arbus. Thanks for the memories.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: If Baboons Can Do It…

Originally Published: April 11, 2011


I read an absolutely fascinating article in Yes! Magazine today by Robert Sapolsky, loaded with a ton of information that I did not know about primates, full of surprises, by turns disturbing, sweet, sexy (yes, sexy!), sad, scary, and hopeful.

Disturbing

It used to be thought that humans were the only savagely violent primate. That view fell by the wayside in the 1960s as it became clear that some other primates kill their fellows aplenty. Males kill; females kill. Some kill one another’s infants with cold-blooded stratagems worthy of Richard III. Some use their toolmaking skills to fashion bigger and better cudgels. Some other primates even engage in what can only be called warfare—organized, proactive group violence directed at other populations…

Goodall and other chimp researchers have carefully documented an endless stream of murders, cannibalism, and organized group violence among their subjects…

The most disquieting fact about the violent species was the apparent inevitability of their behavior.

Sounds pretty bleak, huh?

Sweet

But all along there has been another chimp species, one traditionally ignored…Now known as bonobos, they are recognized as a separate and distinct species that taxonomically and genetically is just as closely related to humans as the standard chimp. And boy, is this ever a different ape…

Male bonobos are not particularly aggressive and lack the massive musculature typical of species that engage in a lot of fighting (such as the standard chimp). Moreover, the bonobo social system is female-dominated, food is often shared, and there are well-developed means for reconciling social tensions.

What’s that I hear? An old song I discovered via the Grateful Dead?

That’s right, the women are smarter
That’s right, the women are smarter
That’s right, the women are smarter
The women are smarter than the men today.

–Norman Span

Sexy

And then there is the sex…

Bonobos have sex in every conceivable position and some seemingly inconceivable ones, in pairs and groups, between genders and within genders, to greet each other and to resolve conflicts, to work off steam after a predator scare, to celebrate finding food or to cajole its sharing, or just because.

You know, I kinda wish I was a bonobo all of a sudden.

Then again, maybe not…

Sad

So—a wondrous species (and one, predictably, teetering on the edge of extinction).

Sometimes I really hate that fucker Charles Darwin.

But, here’s where it gets REALLY interesting.

Sapolsky proceeds to describe two troops of Savannah Baboons he observed over many years, troops that inhabited neighboring territories, troops that were typically aggressive and violent, until one day a tuberculosis outbreak, spread via the garbage from a tourist lodge, wiped out the whole troop nearest the lodge as well as most of the males from the other troop, who made early morning raids into their neighbors’ territory in order to get at the garbage from the lodge as well.

Scary

The results were that Forest Troop was left with males who were less aggressive and more social than average, and the troop now had double its previous female-to-male ratio…

The social consequences of these changes were dramatic. There remained a hierarchy among the Forest Troop males, but it was far looser than before. Aggression was less frequent, particularly against third parties. And rates of affiliative behaviors, such as males and females grooming each other or sitting together, soared. There were even instances, now and then, of adult males grooming each other—a behavior nearly as unprecedented as baboons sprouting wings.

Speaking as a male primate, that is some scary damning evidence that the very testosterone coursing through my veins is the primary cause of so much death and destruction throughout history.

And yet…

Hopeful

Female savanna baboons spend their lives in the troop into which they are born, whereas males leave their birth troop around puberty; a troop’s adult males have thus all grown up elsewhere and immigrated as adolescents. By the early 1990s, none of the original low aggression/high affiliation males of Forest Troop’s tuberculosis period was still alive; all of the group’s adult males had joined after the epidemic. Despite this, the troop’s unique social milieu persisted—as it does to this day, some 20 years [later]…

As defined by both anthropologists and animal behaviorists, “culture” consists of local behavioral variations, occurring for nongenetic and nonecological reasons, that last beyond the time of their originators. Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture…

The first half of the twentieth century was drenched in the blood spilled by German and Japanese aggression, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the 17th century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility….

Is a world of peacefully coexisting human Forest Troops possible? Anyone who says, “No, it is beyond our nature,” knows too little about primates, including ourselves.

Best of Fish & Bicycles: “Late Night War”

Originally Published: January 15, 2010


wordsAdvice I’ve given my son at soccer games:

You gotta fight for the ball!

We all do it. Metaphors and idioms date back to ancient civilizations, and without figurative expression there’d be no good art, literature, or music.

I almost hesitate to add to the din about the Leno-O’Brien-NBC conflict, but I just couldn’t stand to stay silent about how over-the-top the violence metaphors have become in the coverage of this story.

Headline #1:

A war? Really?!

Headline #2, with lede:

    Kimmel slays Leno

    The bloodbath shows no signs of abating — and the breakout supporting star in the Leno-Conan war is shaping up to be Jimmy Kimmel. After doing a viciously dead-on Leno impersonation on his own late-night ABC show earlier this week, Kimmel appeared on Leno last night and really let rip…

The latter article continues:

    It’s one thing to make sport of the other guys on your own turf. But Kimmel, bless him, fired his missiles directly on Leno and his viewers on Leno’s own show. This is the late-night equivalent of wearing a Yankees t-shirt in Fenway Park — a feat of insane heroism.

Again, we all do it. It’s embedded in our language and our competitive culture.

I just find it painful to read this hyperbolic dramatization about something so trivial, when literal wars, and disasters like the Haitian earthquake, have wrought very real death and destruction.

How, I wonder, does the family of a soldier or civilian killed in Iraq or Afghanistan feel when journalists refer to the conflict at NBC as a war? How does a Haitian American feel, who doesn’t know if their relatives in Haiti are dead or alive, a person counting on rescue workers for some real heroism, when a verbal dispute between a bunch of millionaires is referred to as a bloodbath?

A lot of people, especially politicians, like to say that 9/11 changed America, and in many ways it has. But you’d think that when unspeakable murder and destruction hit home on that day, we might, as a nation, from that day forward, think it odd when the same language used to describe 9/11 is used to describe TV trivialities.

TED Talks: Peter van Uhm: Why I chose a gun

I’m continually surprised by how many times I’ve recommended TED Talks — those incredibly thought-provoking, inspiring, often moving products of the various TED conferences held around the world — to people who have never heard of them, for I find them so thoroughly accessible, with each talk lasting no more than 18-20 minutes.

I mean, we can all find time for a few of these a day, or more scattered throughout the week. Right?

Well, it’s been a while since I last posted a TED Talks video, and today I’ve got a juicy one for you.

This was a challenging video for me, as I suspect it would be for most of my fellow peaceniks. The assertion made by Peter van Uhm, Chief of Defense for The Netherlands, that guns and armies are necessary tools for peace, rubs me the wrong way. And yet, having been raised Jewish, I carry the inherited trauma of the Holocaust, and I’ve struggled my whole life with the question of whether or not violent military action is justifiable in order to save people from oppression or genocide.

Now, I don’t agree with everything that Mr. van Uhm says, but I admire the TED organization for inviting him to speak and present his case, and he does so eloquently, with great sensitivity, and with great respect for his fellow TED presenters and attendees, who are trying to make the world a better, more peaceful place via a variety of other means.

Of Bake Sales & Barbarians

The next time you hear from politicians or 1%ers that the budget deficit is SO critical, that since there’s such a shortage of money they have no choice but to cut funding for programs that help the poor, working, and middle classes, funding for programs that protect the environment, funding for programs that fix the roads and bridges we all depend on for our safety, funding for education, law enforcement, prisons, etc., we should all respond:

SHAME. ON. YOU!!!

Forget for a moment that the 1% alone is bilking the country of billions and billions of dollars in evaded taxes every year, and consider this obscenity (via Wired):

The most expensive weapons program in U.S. history is about to get a lot pricier.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, meant to replace nearly every tactical warplane in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, was already expected to cost $1 trillion dollars for development, production and maintenance over the next 50 years. Now that cost is expected to grow, owing to 13 different design flaws uncovered in the last two months by a hush-hush panel of five Pentagon experts. It could cost up to a billion dollars to fix the flaws on copies of the jet already in production, to say nothing of those yet to come.

Sickening that we prioritize preparing for and fighting wars above taking care of the poor, universal health car, educating our kids, securing retiree benefits, etc. It’s downright barbaric!

The world’s top 7 largest military budgets in 2010:

I mean, come on! Who, exactly, are we afraid of?!

I ask, because we’re constantly told that we have enemies who would like to destroy us and everything we stand for, and yet the next largest military nation, WHOM WE DWARF, is our second largest trade partner, and the other big bad enemy that we hear about most often these days, Iran, spends a meager $7billion annually compared to our whopping $687 billion.

Sadly, I’m reminded of this classic and just how relevant it still is:

Competing Responses To U.S. Military’s Sustainability Efforts

I came across two stories today related to U.S. military sustainability efforts, to which I had two competing reactions, and initially, as a blogger, I found myself stuck as to which direction to go in.

And so, here’s the result of having not been able to decide between the two.

The Two Stories

1. The Navy has purchased 450,000 gallons of biofuel, to be used in jets, a destroyer, and a cruiser. The fuel cost $12 billion, 8 times what it would cost for the same amount of oil.

2. The Army and the Environmental Protection Agency have teamed up for a new program called “Net Zero”, the goal of which is to, “implement technologies for resource conservation, renewable energy and energy self-sufficiency on Army bases.”

The Two Reactions

Glass Half-Full: Just as the military developed the Internet and transformed the world, perhaps it’s best that we once again take advantage of our country’s enormous defense budget and use some of their money and expertise to develop actually viable alternative, renewable energy. After all, climate change is a threat to national security, so it’s fitting that the Department of Defense should be tasked with defending us from this threat. Right?

Glass Half-Empty: There’s just something so disturbingly ironic about the idea of the military taking a leadership role in the use of alternative fuels. As I wrote back in October 2010 (scroll to last three paragraphs), it’s classic zero-sum: save some lives by contributing less to global climate change, so that we can more effectively wipe out lives on the battlefield.

Conclusion?

While my heart says that war and sustainability are antithetical and mutually exclusive, given that the U.S. will not be abandoning its military-industrial complex anytime soon, if these forays into conservation and alternative fuels can possibly expedite our country’s move toward more sustainable consumption and energy, perhaps this should be seen as a silver lining.

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