Book Review: “Life’s Operating Manual” by Tom Shadyac

Disclosure: I was sent a free copy of “Life’s Operating Manual” by Hay House Publishing for the purpose of this review

If you haven’t heard of Tom Shadyac, you probably have heard of his movies. Beginning in the 90s, he teamed with Jim Carrey to direct three of the star’s biggest comedies. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar and, in 2003, Bruce Almighty. Along the way he worked with Robin Williams in Patch Adams and Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor.

shadyacbookWhile Shadyac may have a knack for showcasing comedic performances, I’m not so sure that this spiritual stuff is his forte.

His book, “Life’s Operating Manual,” was born out of a documentary he produced called I AM. The book, much like the film, is Shadyac’s attempt to figure out how we have gone so wrong. He looks at war, poverty, environmental destruction and other societal ills not so much as problems in and of themselves, but as symptoms of a larger sickness. And it is only by following the directions of, yes, an “operation manual” for life, that we can begin to find out who we truly are and start to heal the world.

It’s a noble goal, and I believe Shadyac is sincere in his desire. This, after all, is a guy who, at one time, lived in a mansion and flew on private jets. After a bicycle accident and its related series of lingering injuries led him to believe he was dying, he gave away much of his money, moved into a mobile home (in Malibu, but still…) and began to teach college.

Shadyac begins to make his case by the use of line graphs, like on page 23, that show population growth, technological advancement and environmental issues, such as global warming, correlating with each other by aggregating it all into a single line. The same graph also charts morality with a second line, but it is not exactly clear how he quantifies any this data. Without knowing that, it is difficult to understand his conclusions.

graph

He defines ethical progress as laws being codified, the legal abolishment of slavery, and discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation and gender drifting away; claiming this all began around 2,000 BC. But the same chart shows that our degree of morality, while going through ups and downs, was the same in 50,000 BC as it is today. What?!? How is this possible when he just wrote that our ethical progress began 4000 years ago? I could be accused of a dim view of human nature at times, but I give us a bit more credit for our advancement. Either way, the case isn’t made one way or the other, so we are left to just kind of take his word for it. But if it is true, as the graph shows, that we are on an uptick of moral progress, why just a few pages later do we need a “true revolution;” one that will “turn things completely around”?

Scattered throughout the book are dialogues that Shadyac has had with himself, as aspects of his personality called “Fear” and “Truth” duke it out with one other. My problem is that far too often they are New Age tautology that don’t seem to say a whole lot. Take this passage, one of the book’s earliest, from page 11:

TRUTH: People are not fallen. They have forgotten.
FEAR: Forgotten? Forgotten what?
TRUTH: Who they are.
FEAR: That again! Are there no other questions to ask? Fine, write your book. I won’t remain silent, you know. I will speak my mind.
TRUTH: You will speak from the mind, certainly.
FEAR: And what’s wrong with that? Our minds are what make us different. Descartes said, I think therefore I am.
TRUTH: And I say, I AM, therefore I think.
FEAR: You confuse me. What is it you want to accomplish here?
TRUTH: Nothing. It is already accomplished.

Great. So what am I reading this book for?

tomshadyacYou may have noticed the examples I have used are very early in the book. That is because I couldn’t quite make it halfway through before I put it down. I’m just not predisposed for the metaphysical, New Age-style “Truth,” I guess. If you are, you may enjoy it more than I did. Perhaps I’ll pick it up another time and try again, but I’m afraid not much changes.

The late Roger Ebert reviewed the movie I AM that this book was borne out of. He describes scenes in which Shadyac demonstrates belief that yogurt can read our minds, that our brain and heart can tell the future, and that we are all connected at the quantum level. It’s flapdoodle of the variety that was pushed on a credulous public in movies like “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” six years prior and debunked soon thereafter by a variety of people. Ebert chides Shadyac for not asking questions or being skeptical.

If this is the type of thing I missed by not reading the rest of the book, I don’t feel as if I missed out. Instead, I’ll be happy to stuff this book in a random drawer which, come to think of it, is probably where a variety of other operating manuals I’ve accumulated over the years are.

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Book Review: “An Atheist in the FOXhole” by Joe Muto

In April of 2012, Joe Muto made headlines around the world as the anonymous “Fox Mole,” a staffer at the cable news giant who was surreptitiously feeding Gawker.com embarrassing unaired video of political candidates, as well as dishing dirt from inside the newsroom about the network’s biggest stars. It lasted all of about two days before he was found out and summarily dismissed. He went on to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of attempted theft and computer tampering, perform some community service and, ultimately, sign a low six-figure book deal from Dutton.

foxholeThat book, “An Atheist in the FOXhole,” is deceptive in a couple of different ways. The title, which as an atheist myself I love, may possibly mislead some into thinking it is a manifesto of godlessness. That would be an unfortunate presumption as Muto mentions his own non-belief a grand total or maybe three times, if that, and the book in no way travels down a road of secularism or anti-religious ramblings. Not that it would have been a bad thing from my perspective, but that is simply not what the book is about. Secondly, the marketing of the book itself as merely an insider’s trashing of Fox News belies what I feel is a more broad and satisfying story; one in which the ethical dilemma of hiding your personal beliefs in exchange for professional gain is explored, as well as how working in the hectic television news industry can take a toll on personal relationships.

But, of course, while all that may be a welcome addition, it’s likely not why many people will want to read this book. They want the dirt! And that’s okay, too, because there’s plenty of it.

Bill O’Reilly, the highly rated host of “The O’Reilly Factor,” makes many appearances. While his gruff demeanor is on full display as he belittles and downgrades Muto and his other underlings during pitch meetings, it’s the stories about his dustups with upper management, as well as other Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity (they can’t stand each other) that make for even more entertaining reading. You read other funny tidbits as well; from Bill’s inability to understand the concept of wireless printing, thus forcing his staff to simply tell him they are “faxing” him documents, to the story behind the legendary “Jack Mehoffer” email. Most any story involving O’Reilly is funny because Muto successfully captures his immense presence. You can see and hear the tirades playing out in your mind.

Then again, some Bill-O moments are less comical than they are downright embarrassing. Here I am speaking of the sexual harassment debacle involving Andrea Mackris and O’Reilly’s odd, yet extraordinarily detailed, sexual fantasies involving a loofah mitt and falafel. Bill’s “Factor” staff were basically forced to walk on eggshells around him more than usual, while also having to tread very carefully when ordering Middle Eastern lunch items, lest he believe they were making fun of him.

mutoBut Muto is wise in including a softer, more human side of Papa Bear, too, explaining that despite all the grief O’Reilly put him through, there is a latent affection still present. He details Bill’s fondness for his children, which leads him to keep incredibly short office hours in order to spend as much time as possible with them. His love of a free buffet, in which he is found bull-rushing his way to the front of the line for a hot dog, despite the millions in salary he pulls down each year. And how the sizable proceeds of the corny merchandise Bill promotes at the end of each episode of “The Factor” go directly to charity.

But that’s really just one part of the story. He explains why he went undercover for Gawker in the first place, and the method by which he was found out. You’ll also learn plenty about the inner workings of the Fox right-wing empire, including surprising revelations about whether or not the talent truly receive “marching orders,” the archaic video playback system that always seemed on the verge of breaking down, and the curious peccadillos of a variety of on-air personalities that manifest during off-camera moments.

What’s next for Joe Muto is unknown. It is a strong possibility that his actions as the “Fox News Mole” have cost him any opportunity of finding work in television news again. CNN and MSNBC, for instance, may simply find him untrustworthy. But he has produced here an enlightening tale about the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of Fox News, and one that I found a great deal of enjoyment in reading. I am pleased to recommend it to you.

On a related note, this past Sunday on Strange Frequencies Radio, myself and my friend/co-host Bobby Nelson spoke to Mr. Muto about this book and his time at Fox News. Click here to find out more information about the episode, which is available as a download, or on iTunes and Stitcher in podcast form.

Dirk Manning Delivers a WRITE OR WRONG Guide to Creating Comics

I have a confession to make:  I may not be the world’s biggest fan of comic books.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do read them and I certainly enjoy them.  There’s no other storytelling medium quite like it.  I have a big box of ’em I collected from grade school during weekly visits to my local comic shop, and I have a few dozen more volumes of great stuff balanced precariously on the headboard of my bed.  What I mean is that I’m not an active collector and, to be completely honest, I don’t know that I’ll be attempting to create my own comic in the near future.

WOWCoverSo, why in hell am I reviewing this book by Dirk Manning?  A few reasons.  One, I genuinely like Dirk a lot.  He’s local to my area, he’s been kind enough to do print and internet radio interviews with me before, and he’s very generous with his time.  Two, I dig his work.  He’s creative, funny and, yes, has a great sense of creating drama and intriguing stories through his chosen medium.  While I consider myself a fan of a few of his projects, “Nightmare World” alone has many of the best short comic stories I’ve ever read.  Finally, I truly believe that Dirk has the experience, ability, and honesty required to help young writers have a better chance at creating comics.  So if that’s what you’re looking for, too, buy “Write or Wrong:  A Writer’s Guide to Creating Comics.”  When you’re done reading it, there’s a lot of things you’ll be:  more knowledgeable, better prepared, and ready to get started.  But what you certainly won’t be is sorry.

I think it’s the “honesty” part that I liked best about this book.  In “Write or Wrong,” based on his long-running column on Newsarama, the very last thing you can accuse Dirk of doing is mincing words.  He’s straightforward to the point of being blunt at times – but that’s good!  Creating comics may be fun, but it’s also hard work.  This book won’t coddle you and probably won’t tell you what you always want to hear.  But it will outline exactly what you need to hear if you’re going to be prepared.

For instance, early in the book he asks you the question:  “Why comics?”  Hint:  answering “because I love comics” isn’t enough.  He also challenges you to seriously ask yourself if you are really as good as you think you are.  Honestly, that may be the toughest question a writer can ask themselves, but it’s important to do so.  Why?  Because, while you may think your comic is unique, imaginative, or speaks to the human condition, the last thing you want to hear is, “Dude, this is lame.”  It’s bad enough hearing it from a friend.  But what about hearing it from an editor?  You should be your own worst critic.  Dirk writes in this book that the business of honing your skills is “not a race.”  Instead, take the time to make your work the best it possibly can be.  Only then, Dirk writes, can you present it to “the right people at the right time.”

DirkDon’t let any of this scare you off, creatives!  It’s not all comic-creating boot camp.  A lot of times, you’ll find yourself laughing at different situations Dirk has found himself in over the years.  And, of course, you’ll be happy to know that he does offer practical advice about how to meet artists, how to assemble a team and, yes, how to get your work published, too.  In fact, one of the most informative sections of the book is a chapter in which he asks a variety of artists and comic creators the same three questions geared toward helping you get started and how to make your relationship with your artists the best it can be.  I learned a lot about the comics creating world just from reading this chapter alone!  I have little doubt you will too.

I honestly cannot recommend this book enough to writers interested in creating comics.  It’s honest, it’s funny, and it’s extremely useful.  Dirk writes in a friendly, conversational tone that I found very welcoming.  Technical details that weren’t familiar to me before were explained in an easy and forthright manner and, generally speaking, I found it a joy to read.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so, either.  In chatting with Dirk a bit about this book, he’s let me know that, while originally available through Diamond, it has sold out and is now available only through Amazon.  So, word to the wise, get your copy now.  I guarantee that you’ll learn something.