John Berman. Note Cuisine Publications, $19.95.
In this spectrum of emotion, ranging from amusing to hilarious (with a heavy weighting toward hilarious) and also encompassing the tragic, wistful and whimsical, is a multimedia autobiography of a “Unitarian kid” who, for years, "hadn’t a clue what that meant but there were some interesting chicks at church" until he "found out that no one at church knew what it meant, either."
And who, at age 4, was called a “dirty Jew” by a disembodied voice that he did know was from a particular kid, older and hiding behind trees in the woods. Berman, who "didn’t know or care what it meant," gave "a callow and unknowing response" that was — like his answers years later in 7th grade on the witness stand when he was actually an expert witness at a trial in a D.C. courtroom and the jury broke into laughter (the judge called a recess but chuckled too) — was weighted to the funny side. Funny side, “by a reasonable statistical margin and always with error,” as Berman says. The case itself wasn’t funny, though, and the judge talked with him and the lawyers privately. Berman "wasn’t trying to be funny, but the truth is sometimes funny, like that cartoon," he told them; he had mentioned a cartoon on the stand. Cartoons figure heavily in BALONEY. And his "homeroom teacher was excited that she could mark 'court summons' for the first time on an attendance sheet.”
And later in junior high, the Catholic Church "delivered" Berman "from a couple of more-or-less bullies, and that," he concluded, "made Catholicism good enough for me to want to convert, if Unitarianism were actually something I could convert from.” Separately, “along with a half-dozen other 11 and 12 year olds,” he was “technically molested, in a group, with no contact whatsoever or proximity less than six feet,” at a summer camp one night. And now, in a letter to the Pope, he inquires "about the excommunication of a certain Catholic judge, who ruled on a completely different matter decades later, having nothing to do with the molester." But Berman made, in a legal filing, that "past molestation legitimately relevant to that present-day case." The judge “failed Berman’s test, F- style, which is worse than a lot of the court system, but not by a whole lot.” "Everything's a test, and Pope and the Church have a final grade, too," Berman writes and harkens back to junior high and before, with often side-splitting anecdotes of timeless relevance.
Berman is a "hardsci type" — scientist and engineer — not "one of the polisci types, who do their homework in a bar" and has been "testing the system for some years now, involuntarily-so on my part, but it’s no less a test for the system," he writes. You won’t get "so-called criminal justice reform, given this stuff for a civil justice system,” is one of his points. And Berman was also falsely accused, a judge flatly determined: "I still don't think that this is a domestic violence restraining order case," wrote the judge. And then later, Berman was arrested, and BALONEY allows "you, the reader, to decide for yourself," with multimedia displays of the body cam video and police report, "what was false in the police report...like the charge, evennn, says Snagglepuss." Berman writes that "most of the legal system, and life too, can be summed-up with 60's cartoons or Julie Andrews or Shirley Jones movies...and Pooh, of course." The case was dismissed, and the "judge struck the most outlandish words from the charge, even though that was unnecessary after dismissal." So Berman knows "a tiny bit about bad cops and the criminal justice system."
Is Berman shy or embarrassed about any of this? "When by all rights you should be dead, and then you wake up in excruciating pain and unable to take care of your basic needs for several months, embarrassment vanishes." And then you "struggle to relearn to walk down the nursing home corridor, and amputees and those even worse off are giving you encouraging words — that changes you forever." Berman survived a high-speed plane crash that I'll describe shortly.
Berman pins the “engineering root cause, of many more problems than you might think, on the polisci-JD types.” "Polisci generically-speaking," he adds. "But they're all over the place, politics, TV, radio, everywhere." BALONEY takes a cartooning approach throughout the book, starting early on with a 1787 constitutional convention where physicists and engineers are lecturing.
Though Berman didn’t know it when his uncle died in 1968, his uncle, by marriage, had been “Mr. X” in the mysterious folder in the hand of Joe McCarthy in 1950. Don’t jump to conclusions either way about Berman’s view on this. Berman’s hardsci analysis places a premium on unflinching, actually-objective analysis, something a "large majority of lawyers and judges either don’t begin to understand or don’t care about or even snicker at, especially the actual meaning of ‘personal knowledge.’” Berman’s “personal knowledge” about his uncle was only that he was “an emotional Russian Jew (an obvious redundancy) turned Unitarian, who apparently dissolved into tears” according to Berman’s parents’ description, the year before he died, while 4th grader Berman "on the upright piano, around the corner in the other room, played my modified version of an elementary jazz study." Berman then "showed Uncle Ed how I had modified it with chords I had figured out from a big book" that included “Up Up and Away by this Jimmy Webb guy.” Berman writes that he "still has trouble getting through Galveston without his throat choking up on the 'seabirds' line."
Don’t think that BALONEY is some Jewish or other mainline religious perspective piece. Berman has been “a religious outsider all my life, though praying for the rescue lights, in bitter cold and wind, with a broken neck, back and shattered legs, gets you right next to who, or what, matters." Among those who mattered, were several highly-coordinated rescue teams, and even air traffic controllers, who went out that night to search for him. A significant portion of bottom-line profit, if any, from BALONEY is dedicated to a "very special but broadly-targeted charity." Some of Berman's original songs in this multi-media electronic book reflect that dedication.
Uncle Ed was responsible for Berman’s enrollment, at age 10, in a local university’s music department in piano and music theory. A few years later, Berman’s mom somehow got him studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Berman didn’t know who she was, and at the time, he “just wanted to study the French chicks I saw and heard singing at the conservatory.”
Berman's mom was “connected with everybody because she was everybody’s mom,” his college roommates used to say. "She was convinced Harold Arlen was her uncle, or something a few times removed, related through her dermatologist cousin in Elkhart, Indiana. The names (before some changing by immigration officers and such) were similar enough if not the same via a typo," Berman writes. She finally decided Berman "should meet him and found Arlen’s address and insisted on it." An amusing read there, too.
She died in 2017, three months before Berman got caught at 9000 feet in a cloud that put ice all over his plane and pitched him into a steep dive with mountaintops only 1500 feet below. He recovered from the dive with his “hands working the controls faster than …” — let’s just say, faster than you can believe. But he felt himself slowly… “as when Mickey Dolenz finished with the gibberish; and all you understood was, 'Goin’ Down.'" Berman was "sinking slowly at about a hundred feet a minute, despite full power," when he "declared 'icing emergency’ to air traffic control.” Rock and roll was there, too, when Berman first saw “ice suddenly covering the windscreen, I knew the music was over and I’d broken through to the other side.” “That’s a feeling that you remember every day, at least briefly,” said a vet who was a nurse and also counseled on PTSD. Music, and rock and roll in particular, had defined Berman’s life… "and defines my new life too," he writes. Soon after declaring the emergency, he hit the rough terrain in the dark at 150 mph, according to the radar track and the rescuers, an impact he doesn’t remember. He rocked quite a distance but did not roll, due to at least one guardian angel watching over him, according to the rescuers.
Berman’s now a “'paraplegic plus,' depending on how you weight the functional importance of limbs,” he writes. He can still play guitar, but violin is out unless he goes for bionic implants in his bow hand, which he is considering. In emails with the chief rescuer, Berman describes what it was like, not feeling cold but "only immobile and suspended in darkness" and "praying with all my might that the rescue lights would reappear."
His mom’s death and his accident began the latest phase of Berman's "legal nightmare — the ending of her living trust." Berman writes that, "it is safe to say that I have considerable skepticism about and disagreement with Congresswoman Cortez." However, the comment attributed to her — "She witnessed firsthand how attorneys appointed by the court to administer an estate can enrich themselves..." — "reflects insight on which she should refocus. If she thought in terms of root cause, she could see deep ramifications from the legal monopoly for causes Cortez states she espouses." "She might also see an actual solution, instead of her full time enrollment in the decibel school of argument." Berman is "not opposed to decibels when necessary, only to the nonstop full-strength stuff, i.e. proof by 200 proof...or its effective equivalent."
Berman’s life — prior to his "second life as a 1928 Porter bucket of titanium rods and bolts in his spine and legs" referring to the 1966 Jerry Van Dyke award-winning sitcom among 3rd graders — included his dad, who was stricken with polio at age two and later "swung around by kids on the streets of Philly, the kids hanging on to his withered 2/3 of an arm." That was not something about which Berman had "personal knowledge," as he's "careful to sort through evidence, as any decent scientist is." His "personal knowledge was only of the literal skin and bone of dad's shoulder, horribly scarred by a circa 1920 surgery on distorted bones, resulting in zero muscle, as his desperate mother had searched for any solution for her little boy." Berman has "witnessed, in person, a few oppressive ordeals" and has "little tolerance for bullies abusing their power…oh, correction, ‘discretion,’” he writes. So it’s Berman’s "nightmare with a purpose... regarding the court system," he’s decided.
Berman went back a year after his accident to thank the rescuers. He "met with a dozen of the hundred who were out in the worst cold, wind, and icy rain in 50 years at 6600 feet in Santa Fe," they said. One told him he’d "been a first responder for 46 years, and no one had ever come back to say thanks." Many years before, Berman had "sung Ave Maria at a Ukrainian wedding of a friend in Yonkers." He "screwed up the first 'gratia plena' by forgetting the 'z' sound, and was worried," while he continued to sing, if he "might have just sung au gratin and plenty of cheese." Since then, Berman has "done fairly well at remembering that the 'z' at the end of life's alphabet should come after lots of thanks and grace, in addition to plenty of cheesy jokes.”
I think BALONEY, respectfully will bring you a bit of grace, by a reasonable statistical margin. -R. Wilson
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