Monthly Archives: April 2013

Newsletter – April 2013






   “I’ve just been fakin’ it, fakin’ it
    Not really makin’ it
    This feeling of fakin’ it
    I still haven’t shaken it…”



April Greetings, Dear Friends…

Recently Father William has attracted the emotional energy of his loving spouse, Donna, by spilling two glasses of red wine on our light gray carpet which has never heard of stain-proofing. To add the pièce de résistance, as I was clearing the table after another one of Donna’s scrumptious meals, I knocked over the plastic squeeze bottle of her healthy soy sauce and, while making a fabulous catch, squeezed the sides and squirted dark brown muck over the window seat cushions she had so carefully sewn herself and the white pillows on top of them. As a result, we have both become very focused on the reduction in my spatial coordination.

Let me explain what I mean by “spatial coordination.” All my life I’ve possessed a natural coordination that has allowed me to know where things are without directly looking at them. This is a skill I can no longer take for granted. I now need to look at the glass, cup, bottle I wish to engage and keep looking until I am finished either picking it up or putting it down. As long as I will do this, my spillage and clumsiness difficulties fall back within very acceptable grounds.

But what a challenge to break the habit of “moving on to the next” before finishing with what I’m already doing! To perform as an adequate human being all I need to do is keep my attention focused on my current action until I complete it. This wouldn’t seem like such a difficult thing to do, now would it? But in my case it hovers near the realm of impossibility.

Try as I might, I continue to move my attention on to “the next thing” before I’ve completed the last. As soon as I phrased the problem this way, “The West Wing” with Jed Bartlett saying “What’s next?” began to replay over and over on my internal LED screen. I remembered how much I admired Martin Sheen in this role – and especially his demanding that everybody continually move on to “the next thing.”

Suddenly I saw that all my life I’ve been “moving on to the next thing” before I’d completed the last one, two or ?? actions, projects or relationships I already had up in the air. There are many reasons for my being conditioned to believe this was not only a reasonable but the right way to create a most admirable life.

And now I was losing that cherished ability in my 75th year! My first thoughts were something like “This is the beginning of the end…” and “How can I fake it so people won’t really see the deterioration in my heretofore very reliable physical abilities?” But the latter brought immediately to mind Simon and Garfunkel’s “Fakin’ it”…

   I’m such a dubious soul
   And a walk in the garden wears me down
   Tangled in the fallen vines
   Pickin’ up the punch lines

   I’ve just been fakin’ it, fakin’ it
   Not really makin’ it
   This feeling of fakin’ it
   I still haven’t shaken it…

I remember listening to that song over and over in the summer of 1967 and knowing it was about me. But instead of using the pain to give up “faking’ it”, I just covered my insecurities with anger at the Nixon administration and a lot of bullying masquerading as truth-telling. It was, after all, a time for anger and truth-telling, but I think even then I knew it was my way of hiding my “fakin’ it.”

 Forty-six years later I’m not interested in using the “fakin’ it” strategy any more. So what are our options as the inevitable decline in our physical abilities occurs?

 Surprise, surprise – Old FW has a theory! Remember when we were very little and couldn’t even stand up? We got help by using things to hold onto and this worked well enough for a while (even if the “grups” had moved all the good stuff out of reach). The same kinds of strategies were used for learning to talk, to use the toilet, to do fractions and even to actually talk to girls (or boys). In other words, we’ve all dealt with physical, intellectual and emotional shortcomings for our whole history. With all we’ve learned through all those years, why should it be a problem to manage a few physical and mental blips as we age?

 There is an answer to this aging quandry. One of the most wonderful things about Third Age is that we are ready to be beyond embarrassment. Isn’t that a wonderful place to be? And we couldn’t possibly be here if we hadn’t already done all the being embarrassed we could possibly need to do in First and Second Ages! Thank God that’s all over with!

 Or is it?

 While those previous ages had a great deal to offer, one of their liabilities, maybe the major one, was the pressure they put on us to “look good.” That, of course, is why we all developed our own “fakin’ it” strategies that then became our way of being for a long time. Changing these no longer functional patterns – no longer functional because we just don’t need to be embarrassed any more – can take quite a bit of work and reprogramming of our emotional triggers, but that’s one of the delightful things Third Age is for!

It’s hard to overestimate how deeply our “embarrassment triggers” are unconsciously imprinted – and how much disciplined focus it takes to let them go. What works for me is a combination of awareness, owning up and humor. First, I have to make the embarrassed feeling conscious so its absurdity becomes clearly apparent. Second, I and my unconscious, seeing our obvious absurdity, can now own up to how unhelpful, unkind even, and stupid it is to feel ashamed of being ourselves. And, third, when we do this well, we both see how silly we are and laugh together at ourselves. There’s nothing like a good laugh to relax an unconscious and its “embarrassment triggers”!

 Another thing that’s helped enormously is friends who don’t have the same

imprinting of embarrassment triggers I did. I was early on imprinted that all things having to do with the normal bodily functions of excretion were so awful as to never be mentioned or referred to. My mother insisted I call peeing a “swish”, and I did until age 10 when our move to DC confronted me with less inhibited friends. How absurd to be embarrassed by perfectly normal patterns everyone lives every day!

 Of course, sex and aging were also strongly imprinted as embarrassing, and, while my generation is still recovering from those woundings, I’m very glad to see my children and grandchildren seem much more at ease with excretion and sex – just compare “Happy Days” with “Girls.”

 But not with aging. If anything, aging has become even more awful in the last fifty years. I still sting from the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” that was in vogue when I hit that marker in 1968. And today Botox “is the most common cosmetic operation, with 4.6 million procedures in the United States, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.” That’s a lot of money and resources spent on “fakin’” instead of aging.

 What a waste this is for the generations that used to be known as elders! It’s time we Third Agers stopped allowing this self-and-society-destroying nonsense, and one of the ways to do this is by seeing, recognizing and laughing with our “embarrassment triggers”…

 Much love, FW

 PS: We’re getting some great help from new films like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

 PPS: Thought you might enjoy this range of thoughts on our grandchildren’s college experience in 2013:


 These last two are more nostalgic:





The best part of the rise of online education is that it forces us to ask: What is a university for?

Are universities mostly sorting devices to separate smart and hard-working high school students from their less-able fellows so that employers can more easily identify them? Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time?

My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task — the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do, the biological knowledge you need to grasp the basics of what nurses do.

Technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done. It is reducible to rules and directions. It’s the sort of knowledge that can be captured in lectures and bullet points and memorized by rote

Right now, online and hybrid offerings seem to be as good as standard lectures at transmitting this kind of knowledge, and, in the years ahead, they are bound to get better — more imaginatively curated, more interactive and with better assessments.

The problem is that as online education becomes more pervasive, universities can no longer primarily be in the business of transmitting technical knowledge. Online offerings from distant, star professors will just be too efficient. As Ben Nelson of Minerva University points out, a school cannot charge students $40,000 and then turn around and offer them online courses that they can get free or nearly free. That business model simply does not work. There will be no such thing as a MOOC university.

Nelson believes that universities will end up effectively telling students: “Take the following online courses over the summer or over a certain period, and then, when you’re done, you will come to campus and that’s when our job will begin.” If Nelson is right, then universities in the future will spend much less time transmitting technical knowledge and much more time transmitting practical knowledge.

Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it. It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.

Now I could give you a theory about how universities can transmit this sort of practical moral wisdom, but let’s save that. Let’s focus on practical wisdom in the modern workplace.

Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

These skills are practical knowledge. Anybody who works in a modern office knows that they are surprisingly rare. But students can learn these skills at a university, through student activities, through the living examples of their professors and also in seminars.

Nelson’s venture, Minerva, uses technology to double down on seminars. Minerva is a well-financed, audacious effort to use technological advances to create an elite university at a much lower cost. I don’t know if Minerva will work or not, but Nelson is surely right to focus on the marriage of technology and seminars.

The problem with the current seminars is that it’s really hard to know what anybody gets out of them. The conversations might be lively, but they flow by so fast you feel as if you’re missing important points and exchanges.

The goal should be to use technology to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar (I’m borrowing Anders Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice). Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.

So far, most of the talk about online education has been on technology and lectures, but the important challenge is technology and seminars. So far, the discussion is mostly about technical knowledge, but the future of the universities is in practical knowledge.




 According to a new book, casual sex in college is plentiful, mandatory, and unfulfilling, leading to an epidemic of bad sex.

 Colleges these days are hotbeds of casual sexual activity, says Donna Freitas in a new book, The End of Sex. And if that sounds sexy, well it’s kind of the opposite. As the rest of her title — How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy — suggests, Freitas doesn’t think much of how college students today are apparently trading intimacy for explicitly no-strings-attached sexual encounters.

 It’s not that Freitas is against college as a place for sexual experimentation, she says in The Washington Post. But after eight years of on-campus research, talking to more than 1,000 students, faculty members, and university administrators, the religion and sexuality scholar has concluded that hookup sex is so prevalent as to feel almost obligatory, and thus “can be just as oppressive as a mandate for abstinence.”

 When students are expected to hook up
with lots of people, doing so becomes dutiful, not daring. Older ideas of sexual exploration — be it same-sex encounters or one-night stands — have become a basic expectation. [Washington Post]

 Not everyone agrees with Freitas, of course. Here are six ways of looking at America’s collegiate hookup culture:


 “The guiding commandment of hookup culture,” says Freitas in The Washington Post, is: “Thou shalt not become attached to your partner.” In theory, this should be liberating, allowing “both parties to walk away unscathed” from a sexual encounter. But it ends up being numbing, empty, even boring. “When students are expected to hook up with lots of people, doing so becomes dutiful, not daring,” reducing sex to an activity that “has a lot less to do with excitement or attraction than with checking a box on a list of tasks, like homework or laundry.” There has to be a better way.

What about abstinence? When young people are expected to be regularly sexually active, true experimentation can lie in refusing sex altogether…. In today’s college culture, it seems that taking a break from carefree sex, or even embracing dating, are a lot like having premarital sex in the 1960s…. Today, sexual experimentation might be getting to know someone before having sex, holding out for dates and courtship focused on romance rather than sex. From where I sit, meeting a student confident enough to say she’s not hooking up and is proud about that is as experimental as it gets. [Washington Post]


 “Freitas’ argument is well-researched and well-grounded,” says David Masciotra at The Atlantic, “and she is sharp enough to condemn hookup culture on sexual grounds, rather than ethical grounds.” Hookups lead to bad sex, and sex shouldn’t be tedious. Still, while her indictment is spot-on, her solutions are “rather weak and unpromising.” Undergrads won’t take dating advice (or rather, advice to date) from their parents, or even professors. No, “pop culture is in the best position to reframe the romantic approach of teenagers and 20-somethings.”

 Freitas convincingly demonstrates how Sex and The City, despite its flaws, depicted sex as fun, exciting, and pleasurable, while Girls equates sex with misery and boredom. It is difficult to determine how much pop culture influences the lives of young people or how much the lives of young people influence pop culture, but a rescue from the mechanical tedium of the hookup seems most likely to arrive on the television, movie screen, or in song, if it ever arrives at all. [The Atlantic]


 Freitas is sticking to her story, but other research suggests that “students on college campuses aren’t actually hooking up that much,” says Amanda Hess at Slate. Sociologist and hookup- culture researcher Lisa Wade, for example, has found that while most university students “hook up” at some point during college, about a third of college hookups end with kissing, and 80 percent of students who did hook up did so nine times or fewer, total. If “less than 15 percent of college students are engaging in some form of physical contact more than twice a year,” it seems “unlikely that the solution is for students to have even less casual sex.”

 Freitas isn’t the only one who falsely believes that casual sex is “obligatory” in college. Students themselves routinely overestimate the number of hookups their peers are having…. The environment described by these studies is not a “hookup culture.” It’s a culture of negativity around sex and relationships generally. Instead of taking the “radical” step of keeping it in their pants, college students should tackle the problem at the source: Make out, but respect the person you kiss. Ask them out, but respect when they don’t want to date you anymore. Or just don’t have sex, but respect the people who do. [Slate]


 Hookup culture is real, but “recent findings suggest that it may exist on a continuum from normal exploration to harmful and even addictive sexual behavior,” says psychologist Linda Hatch at Psych Central. And the negative end of the spectrum is worth worrying about. Especially in women, casual sex is linked with regret, depression, and low self-esteem, and “by far the majority of unwanted or non-consensual sex occurred in the context of a hookup.”

 Add to that the fact that having hookups correlates with alcohol use, with having multiple concurrent partners, with a drug abuse–related gene, and with non-consensual sexual experiences and you begin to see a pattern that suggests that hookups are being used, at least by some people, as a drug…. Although sexual freedom to explore and experiment is generally accepted as healthy for young people, the hookup scenario seems to have developed a life of its own, exhibiting many of the dangers we have come to associate with intimacy disorder and addiction. [Psych Central]


 Hanna Rosin and other “researchers who actually bothered to spend time with students on college campuses have discovered that the traditional narratives about the ‘hookup culture’ have it all wrong,” says Amanda Marcotte at Slate. Instead of casual sex being “something imposed by wily young men on young women too dumb to hold out for a ring,” it’s more often “a strategy young women use to delay commitments that they perceive as obstacles to their personal and career goal.”

 It’s not just Freitas that makes that mistake — college men do, too, says Gigi Dejoy at University of Richmond’s The Collegian. And it’s infuriating.

 The concern of “using” a woman who freely and rationally chooses to hook up with you is inextricably tied to the assumption that men want (and get) something from hook-ups that women do not. It segregates male and female sexualities into active “needs” versus passive… what? Getting picked up? Being won over? Even our language about hooking up trivializes women’s sexuality, engaging with this vaguely formed concept that women are never really hooking up just because they want to; it says that men are fulfilling this presumed evolutionary instinct, while women always have an ulterior motive. Needless to say, this whole thing does not lead to the most rewarding hook-ups for either party. [The Collegian]


 Hookup culture is nothing new, nor something particularly American, says Emma Teitel at Canada’s Maclean’s. The anthropologist Margaret Mead went to the tiny island of Tau, in eastern Samoa, in 1925 to study the teenage girls there, and she found — mostly favorably — that the free-loving Samoans “laugh at stories of romantic love, scoff at fidelity to a long-absent wife or mistress, believe explicitly that one love will quickly cure another.” That’s not to say that Freitas is wrong: “It’s clear from her research that young adults are suffering when they needn’t be” from the “harmful and vacuous” hookup culture. But so what?

 Casual sex may grate on the soul, but university is not group therapy. Its sole purpose, I think, beyond higher learning, should be to solidify the world’s indifference to you. If you do that keg stand, you will vomit. If you drink that coagulated milk, you will vomit. If you have empty, meaningless sex throughout college, you’ll become an emotional cripple, contract gonorrhea and, most likely, vomit. These are lessons learned through experience, not indoctrination. (If you don’t believe me, try convincing any college-aged person not to do any of the things above.) When you’re 19, freedom of choice is usually a bad idea, but unfortunately, it’s still preferable to the alternative. [Maclean’s]




SUSAN PATTON, the Princeton alumna who became famous for her letter urging Ivy League women to use their college years to find a mate, has been denounced as a traitor to feminism, to coeducation, to the university ideal. But really she’s something much more interesting: a traitor to her class.

Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that’s formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it’s even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.

Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.

The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms — but it’s an enormously important one. The outraged reaction to her comments notwithstanding, Patton wasn’t telling Princetonians anything they didn’t already understand. Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites — yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females — have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?

That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!

Why, it would be like telling elite collegians that they should all move to similar cities and neighborhoods, surround themselves with their kinds of people and gradually price everybody else out of the places where social capital is built, influence exerted and great careers made. No need — that’s what we’re already doing! (What Richard Florida called “the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated and highly paid Americans to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places” is one of the striking social facts of the modern meritocratic era.) We don’t need well-meaning parents lecturing us about the advantages of elite self-segregation, and giving the game away to everybody else. …

Or it would be like telling admissions offices at elite schools that they should seek a form of student-body “diversity” that’s mostly cosmetic, designed to flatter multicultural sensibilities without threatening existing hierarchies all that much. They don’t need to be told — that’s how the system already works! The “holistic” approach to admissions, which privileges résumé-padding and extracurriculars over raw test scores or G.P.A.’s, has two major consequences: It enforces what looks suspiciously like de facto discrimination against Asian applicants with high SAT scores, while disadvantaging talented kids — often white and working class and geographically dispersed — who don’t grow up in elite enclaves with parents and friends who understand the system. The result is an upper class that looks superficially like America, but mostly reproduces the previous generation’s elite.

But don’t come out and say it! Next people will start wondering why the names in the U.S. News rankings change so little from decade to decade. Or why the American population gets bigger and bigger, but our richest universities admit the same size classes every year, Or why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can’t seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t have a Harvard or Yale degree.

No, it’s better for everyone when these questions aren’t asked too loudly. The days of noblesse oblige are long behind us, so our elite’s entire claim to legitimacy rests on theories of equal opportunity and upward mobility, and the promise that “merit” correlates with talents and deserts.

That the actual practice of meritocracy mostly involves a strenuous quest to avoid any kind of downward mobility, for oneself or for one’s kids, is something every upper-class American understands deep in his or her highly educated bones.

But really, Susan Patton, do we have to talk about it?

I invite you to follow me on Twitter at




Twelve years ago, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic, called “The Organization Kid,” about the smart, hard-working, pleasant-but-cautious achievatrons who thrive in elite universities. Occasionally, somebody asks me how students have changed since then. I haven’t been perceptive enough to give a good answer.

But, this year, I’m teaching at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, and one terrifically observant senior, Victoria Buhler, wrote a paper trying to capture how it feels to be in at least a segment of her age cohort. She’s given me permission to quote from it.

Buhler points out that the college students of 12 years ago grew up with 1990s prosperity at home, and the democratic triumph in the cold war abroad. They naturally had a tendency to believe deeply “in the American model of democratic capitalism, which created all men equal but allowed some to rise above others through competition.”

Then came Sept. 11. That was followed by the highly moralistic language of George W. Bush’s war on terror: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

But Bush’s effort to replicate the Reagan war on an evil empire lead to humiliation, not triumph. Americans, Buhler writes, “emerged from the experience both dismissive of foreign intervention as a tool of statecraft as well as wary of the moral language used to justify it.”

Then came the financial crisis, the other formative event for today’s students. The root of the crisis was in the financial world. But the pain was felt outside that world. “The capitalist system, with its promise of positive-sum gains for all, appeared brutal and unpredictable.”

Moreover, today’s students harbor the anxiety that in the race for global accomplishment, they may no longer be the best competitors. Chinese students spend 12-hour days in school, while American scores are middle of the pack.

In sum, today’s graduates enter a harsher landscape. Immediate postgrad life, Buhler writes, will probably bear a depressing resemblance to Hannah Horvath’s world on “Girls.” The hit song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis “is less a fashion statement, more a looming financial reality.”

Buhler argues that the group she calls Cynic Kids “don’t like the system — however, they are wary of other alternatives as well as dismissive of their ability to actually achieve the desired modifications. As such, the generation is very conservative in its appetite for change. Broadly speaking, Cynic Kids distrust the link between action and result.”

A Brookings Institution survey found that only 10 percent of young people agree with the statement, “America should be more globally proactive.” The Occupy movement, Buhler notes, “launched more traffic jams than legislation.” The Arab Spring seemed like a popular awakening but has not fulfilled its promise.

In what I think is an especially trenchant observation, Buhler suggests that these disillusioning events have led to a different epistemological framework. “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

Maybe this empirical mind-set is a sign of maturity, but Buhler acknowledges that the “yearning for definitive ‘evidence’ … can retard action. … The multiplicity of options invites relativism as a response to the insurmountable complexity. Ever the policy buffs, we know we are unable to scientifically appraise different options, and so, given the information constraints, we stick with the evil we know.”

She suggests calling this state of mind the Tinder Effect, referring to the app that lets you scroll through hundreds of potential romantic partners, but that rarely leads to a real-life encounter.

Buhler’s most comprehensive disquiet is with the meritocratic system itself. It rewards an obsessive focus on individual improvement: “Time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage as compared to others who maintained the priority of self.”

She wonders if the educated class is beginning to look at the less-educated class — portrayed on TV in shows like “Teen Mom 2” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” — as a distant, dysfunctional spectacle. She also wonders if the mathematization of public policy performs a gatekeeper function; only the elite can understand the formulas that govern most people’s lives.

I had many reactions to Buhler’s dazzling paper, but I’d like to highlight one: that the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like “data analysis,” “opportunity costs” and “replicability,” and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable. After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.

And, yes, I gave her an A.




My father’s laughter introduced me to the comedy of Jonathan Winters. My dad was a sweet man, but not an easy laugh. We were watching Jack Paar on “The Tonight Show” on our black-and-white television, and on came Jonathan in a pith helmet.

“Who are you?” Paar asked.

“I’m a great white hunter,” Jonathan said in an effete voice. “I hunt mainly squirrels.”

“How do you do that?”

“I aim for their little nuts.”

My dad and I lost it. Seeing my father laugh like that made me think, “Who is this guy and what’s he on?”

A short time later, Jonathan was on Paar again. This time Jack handed him a stick, and what happened next was extraordinary. Jon did a four-minute freestyle riff in which that stick became a fishing rod, a spear, a giant beetle antenna, even Bing Crosby’s golf club complete with song. Each transformation was a cameo with characters and sound effects. He was performing comedic alchemy. The world was his laboratory. I was hooked.

Not only was Jonathan funny on TV, but his comedy albums are also auditory bliss. One of my favorite routines involved a mad scientist who sounded like Boris Karloff. But instead of creating a Frankenstein, he made thousands of little men that he unleashed on the world. His shocked assistant cried out, “What are they looking for?”

The professor replied, “Little women, you fool.”

He also created comic characters like Maude Frickert and the overgrown child Chester Honeyhugger. In one classic pre-P.C.-era routine, he had Maude being molested by a huge farmhand. She protested, “Stop, I’m church people.” After he had his way, he was off to do his chores, and she called out, “Don’t be long.”

Mort Sahl said Jonathan was seen as a great improviser, but to him he was just being himself. He was a rebel without a pause, whether he was portraying the WASP who couldn’t get a decent martini in Mombasa or the cowboy who couldn’t ride a horse and backed out of frame. Jonathan’s wife, Eileen, maybe had the best quote. She said that Jonathan went through his terrible 2’s but that they lasted 20 years.

In 1981, my sitcom “Mork & Mindy” was about to enter its fourth and final season. The show had run its course and we wanted to go out swinging. The producers suggested hiring Jonathan to play my son, who ages backward. That woke me out of a two-year slump. The cavalry was on the way.

Jonathan’s improvs on “Mork & Mindy” were legendary. People on the Paramount lot would pack the soundstage on the nights we filmed him. He once did a World War I parody in which he portrayed upper-class English generals, Cockney infantrymen, a Scottish sergeant no one could understand and a Zulu who was in the wrong war. The bit went on so long that all three cameras ran out of film. Sometimes I would join in, but I felt like a kazoo player sitting in with Coltrane.

On one of his first days on the show, a young man asked Jonathan how to get into show business. He said: “You know how movie studios have a front gate? You get a Camaro with a steel grill, drive it through the gate, and once you’re on the lot, you’re in showbiz.”

No audience was too small for Jonathan. I once saw him do a hissing cat for a lone beagle.

His comedy sometimes had an edge. Once, at a gun show, Jon was looking at antique pistols and a man asked if he was a gun proponent. He said: “No, I prefer grenades. They’re more effective.”

Earlier in his life, he had a breakdown and spent some time in a mental institution. He joked that the head doctor told him: “You can get out of here. All you need is 57 keys.” He also hinted that Eileen wanted him to stay there at least until Christmas because he made great ornaments.

Even in his later years, he exorcised his demons in public. His car had handicap plates. He once parked in a blue lane and a woman approached him and said, “You don’t look handicapped to me.”

Jonathan said, “Madam, can you see inside my mind?”

If you wanted a visual representation of Jonathan’s mind, you’d have to go to his house. It is awe-inspiring. There are his paintings (a combination of Miró and Navajo); baseball memorabilia; Civil War pistols and swords; model airplanes, trains, and tin trucks from the ’20s; miniature cowboys and Indians; and toys of all kinds.

We shared a love of painted military miniatures. He once sent me four tiny Napoleonic hookers in various states of undress with a note that read, “For zee troops!”

But the toys were a manifestation of a dark time in his life. Jonathan was a Marine who fought in the Pacific in World War II. When he came home from the war, he went to his old bedroom and discovered that his prized tin trucks were gone.

He asked his mother what she did with his stuff.

“I gave them to the mission,” she said.

“Why did you do that?”

“I didn’t think you were coming back,” she replied.

Jonathan has shuffled off this mortal coil. So here’s to Jonny Winters, the cherubic madman with a stick who touched so many. Damn, am I going to miss you!

Robin Williams is an Oscar-, Emmy-  and Grammy-winning actor and comedian.  He recently completed filming “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn” and is in production on “A Friggin’ Christmas Miracle.”  




Robert Redford, the Sundance Kid, grows old with style as he reinvents himself for film festival.

Robert Redford‘s new film sees the Hollywood liberal play a craggy radical, hiding away from a criminally subversive past under an assumed name. Once the FBI rumbles him, the agents on his trail spend some time comparing the image of his lined face to that of his much younger, 1970s, moustachioed self.

Cinema audiences across the world have travelled down that same long, ageing trail with Redford too, watching as his luminous youth in the role of Bubber in the 1966 film The Chase was gradually replaced, first by the poised cynicism of The Candidate and then by the stately leading man in Out of Africa or the worn-out sleaze of his Indecent Proposal to Demi Moore. Yet, as a man, Redford’s radical zeal remains undimmed

The Company You Keep, which the 76-year-old also directed, tells the story of an anti-Vietnam war activist who has been forced to reinvent himself. It is a notion familiar to the actor in real life, who has a habit of “returning to zero” to refresh himself and look at things again.

“It gives you a kind of energy,” Redford has said. “It’s recharging, and it allows you to keep taking chances rather than getting safe with the ones you’ve taken.”

This spring the man with the solar-powered smile has returned to public life with just this sort of renewed vigour. On Wednesday he will be in London’s O2 venue to launch Sundance London, a three-day independent film festival that sprang from the non-profit event he set up in 1981 in Utah and named after his role in the western that made him a household name in 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Earlier this month Redford revealed that he is to make and narrate a television documentary about the real events behind another of his totemic film roles – as the journalist Bob Woodward in All The President’s Men. Director Alan J Pakula’s 1976 Oscar-winner told the story of the Washington Post reporters who helped uncover the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon.

Of all Hollywood’s veteran stars, Redford has perhaps shown the most unyielding attitude to the fripperies of the town. Maybe because he was born there, in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica in 1936, he has little trouble rejecting its values or its celebrity guff. When Paris Hilton jetted into Utah for his festival in January, he spoke out angrily against her presence.

“What movie is she in?” he asked at a press conference. “She and her hard-partying, swag-grabbing cohorts have made the festival not much fun. There are too many people who come to the festival to leverage their own self-interest.”

Redford is aligned with the anti-gun lobby in Hollywood, questioning the level of violence in entertainment, and he is even prepared to doubt the validity of his own festival, admitting earlier this year that he would “probably not” set up Sundance now. “There are too many festivals,” he explained, although his own brand is now an established source of fresh offerings, such as last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. The London festival will feature Michael Winterbottom’s racy new film about Paul Raymond, The Look of Love, and a dark British rural thriller, In Fear.

In contrast, Redford’s own direction is sometimes criticised as plodding and safe. In 1980, however, he won an Oscar for directing Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. The film now looks tame, but at the time it daringly lifted the lid on a disintegrating upper-class US family.

The Company You Keep, based on the novel by Neil Gordon, has so far won two awards from the Venice Film Festival and is a hard look back at the radical era that made Redford. As a young actor in the late 1960s, he followed the leftwing organisation Weather Underground, founded on the University of Michigan campus with the express aim of overthrowing the American government.

“I supported their cause because I also thought the Vietnam war, just like the Iraq war, was built and sold on a faulty premise,” Redford has said. He saw the risks members took and watched the movement destroy itself. “I thought, ‘Gee, there’s quite a story in this. I don’t think it’s a story I want to tell right now’,” he has recalled. Now, with the help of stars Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins and Julie Christie, who are working for low rates, the time is right. Despite his illustrious cast, Redford feels he has joined the ranks of the struggling independent film-makers.

“I’ve got skin in the game,” he said at Sundance. “I am now living in the same stream as the film-makers we support.”

Most recently he has spoken out against the sale of 70 Hopi tribal masks at auction in Paris this month, dubbing it “sacrilege”, while last year he made an agitprop film, Watershed, about scarce water resources, supplying free copies of the film to anyone hosting a screening.

“Films like Watershed are a necessary part of the solution. Raising awareness of the problem is a first step. Engaging the masses in taking action comes next, and in this case action means conservation,” Redford said. But earnest campaigning has always gone hand in hand with sex appeal for Redford. His fellow liberal, “Hanoi Jane” Fonda, with whom he co-starred in The Chase, Barefoot in the Park and The Electric Horseman, was recently asked by Oprah Winfrey for a word to sum Redford up. She said, “sexy”. Before Robert Pattinson, before Leonardo DiCaprio (now taking on Redford’s screen role of Jay Gatsby), and before Tom Cruise, Redford was the go-to goodlooker. The actor swears he does not like his own face, though, and finds it hard to direct himself because he does not like looking at it.

Redford’s career has been littered with happy screen partnerships. At first came Paul Newman, who was Butch to his Sundance and then starred with him in the stylish con movie, The Sting. Redford has spoken of his regret about not making the Bill Bryson walking movie with Newman before he retired. He will now walk those Appalachian paths with Nick Nolte for director Richard Linklater later this year.

“A Walk in the Woods is the kind of movie that has something to say but can also be really commercial because it’s just so funny,” Redford said. “It will be nice to get back to doing a comedy.”

The actor has also memorably played opposite Barbra Streisand, in The Way We Were, and Dustin Hoffman, who played reporter Carl Bernstein to his Woodward. Redford’s new documentary about the Watergate investigation was celebrated this month with an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot at the Washington newspaper offices. Hoffman was absent, but Redford joined former editor Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards in the film, and the two real life reporters. His two-hour special, All The President’s Men Revisited, comes to the Discovery Channel later in the year and heralds a series of new Sundance Productions that Redford hopes will “address critical stories across a multitude of relevant platforms”. Speaking to the BBC, he said he had lost faith in newspapers and believed documentaries had replaced them as a main source of investigative journalism.

An Obama supporter at first, Redford has also lost faith there too, particularly with Congress’s progress on future fuel sources. He frequently bemoans government’s tendency “to think short, short term, and therefore apply short-term solutions to longer-term problems”.

At school in California young Redford was bored and a poor student. “My eyes were always out the window,” he has said, so he travelled through Europe and returned in the 1950s to find his country “full of propaganda about how great we were and how we won the war”.

Back in New York, struggling as an actor, he married a mormon college student and neighbour, Lola Van Wagenen, and the couple had four children. Their first, Scott, died of sudden infant death syndrome at two months. The couple stayed together for 30 years and, even after their divorce, were united in their fight to support their son Jamie through a critical transplant operation.

Since 2009, Redford has been married to the German-born Sybelle Szaggers. The couple met at Sundance and now split their time between Utah and a home in Arizona. Redford claims he must spend as much time “in nature” as he does working.

Despite being mocked for what one critic of The Company You Keep has called his “camp-counsellor manner” on screen, Redford still represents America’s brave but ailing self-confidence. If Clint Eastwood is forever the unspeaking, vengeful cowboy, then Redford is a disillusioned, hopeful counterpoint.

He admits to some optimism in the face of all his foes: “I watch younger people, and there seems to be a lot of attention paid to child rearing, putting in time with the kids, expressing a lot of love and being really smart about it. Maybe I’m looking at a very small segment of society, but this generation of babies, they’re going to grow up with a whole lot more of love that’s been expressed. And some day they’ll be out there making decisions with a value system that might help turn around some things that have been so devalued in our society.”  








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