Thursday, August 20, 2015

FM radio poet

Lin Brehmer

     The dog needed her teeth cleaned. Her appointment was at 7:30 a.m. Monday, so I left the house at 7:15, which put me in perfect position to listen to Lin Brehmer's "Lin's Bin" on WXRT, 93.1 FM, which airs Mondays and Fridays, at 7:15 a.m., repeating at 6:15 p.m.
    I'm not sure how to describe Lin's Bin for someone who hasn't heard it. A little poetic digression, answering a listener's question, which can range from the prosaic ("Why are teenagers so grumpy?") to pop culture ("What are the best album covers?") to the profound, ("Can you explain string theory?"). 
     His answers start on the surface of his subject of the moment, then dive into the depths of existence, holding a profound mirror on modern life. Brehmer's droll, steady commentary is interspersed with clips from movies and songs, a sort of aural montage of words and music. He's been doing the twice weekly segment since 2002. 
    Monday's was a question from Chris DeRosa of Westmont. "Lin, after living with my parents, my college friends, and now my fiance, I noticed one similar oddity: Why does every household have a junk drawer?" 
     That's a simple, almost obvious question, one you'd never hear addressed on WBEZ. They'd use the time to tell you about building a road in Guatemala, and would shrug off the junk drawer as lacking in gravitas. 
    Which is why Lin Brehmer can be in turns funny and profound. He has no gravitas, no political agenda, other than to puzzle over the same world we're all puzzling over. His catch phrase, "It's great to be alive," is a 50-50 mix of sincerity and sarcasm. Brehmer understands the small ball most of us play, the tiny interests and flickering, selfish concerns that occupy our lives, somehow redeemed by occasional flashes of wonder. Friday's Lin's Bin was a riff on the phrase, "Take care of you" which he spun into an ode to love and sacrifice that brought a tear to the eye.  
     To my eye, anyway. 
     Monday was more typical, half rumination, half romp.
     "Why does everyone have a junk drawer?" Brehmer asks. "...the junk drawer is just a manifestation of our postponement,  of all the junk we accumulate, the curios that wind up in a drawer are just a mental map of our random lives. The best part of this question is how it forces us to go through our junk drawer and  revisit tokens of our own common existence. Matchboxes from shuttered restaurants. A cheap James Brown wrist watch that doesn't work. . . Our junk drawer is not to be judged or abridged, because we need a place to hold onto what is least important."
    As a person with several junk drawers at home—because one just isn't enough—his existential reflection on our worthless-yet-precious stuff struck home, particular since it evoked —I swear to God—a description of the surface of a desk, my favorite passage from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow:
         Tantivy's desk is neat, Slothrop's is a godawful mess. It hasn't been cleaned down to the original wood surface since 1942. Things have fallen roughly into layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom, made up of millions of tiny red and brown curls of rubber eraser, pencil shavings, dried tea or coffee stains, traces of sugar and Household Milk, much cigarette ash, very fine black debris picked and flung from typewriter ribbons, decomposing library paste, broken aspirins ground to powder. Then comes a scatter of paperclips, Zippo flints, rubber bands, staples, cigarette butts and crumpled packs, stray matches, pins, nubs of pens, stubs of pencils of all colors including the hard-to-get heliotrope and raw umber, wooden coffee spoons, Thayer's Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges sent by Slothrop's mother, Nalline, all the way from Massachusetts, bit of tape, string, chalk ... above that a layer of forgotten memoranda, empty buff ration books, phone numbers, unanswered letters, tattered sheets of carbon paper, the scribbled ukulele chords to a dozen songs including "Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland" ("He does have some rather snappy arrangements," Tantivy reports, "He's sort of American George Formby, if you can imagine such a thing," but Bloat's decided he'd rather not), an empty Kreml hair tonic bottle, lost pieces to different jigsaw puzzles showing parts of the amber left eye of a Weimaraner, the green velvet folds of a gown, slate-blue veining in a distant cloud, the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skins of a Flying Fortress, the pink inner thigh of a pouting pin-up girl ... a few old Weekly Intelligence Summaries from G-2, a busted corkscrewing ukulele string, boxes of gummed paper stars in many colors, pieces of a flashlight, top to a Nugget shoe polish can in which Slothrop now and then studies his blurry brass reflection, any number of reference books out of the ACHTUNG library back down the hall—a dictionary of technical German, an F.O. Special Handbook or Town Plan—and usually, unless it's been pinched or thrown away, a News of the World somewhere too—Slothrop's a faithful reader.
    There, now you can say you've read most of a paragraph of Gravity's Rainbow. If you think that was tough sledding, imagine getting through 776 pages of similar. Exhausting, but satisfying too. When you're done, you know you've accomplished something, and it sticks with you, obviously, or at least that part stuck with me.
    Brehmer's words also stick with you, a blend of personal and universal, an oasis of intelligence in a media landscape that too often seems as if it has hit the bedrock of stupid and is struggling to drill deeper. I sat in the van outside the veterinarian's office, listening, scritching my dog, waiting for Lin to finish his segment. You only get two chances to hear each "Lin's Bin" on air, then it vanishes. While he will post scripts on line, occasionally, the finished product, with its fun acoustic embellishments, does not exist on the web. Because of the medley of music and movie clips, and the insane hash of our copyright laws, he can broadcast it, but not post it. So you have two chances to hear it and then it disappears. 
     Which is both regrettable and apt. Because one of the points underlying Lin Brehmer's writing is, I believe, that life is not only great, but fleeting, and we have to appreciate what's in front of us while it's there and while we can.


  1. ...and this column has been brought to you by Gene &Georgetti. Product placement is everywhere! As you say, we have to appreciate what's in front of us while it's there.

  2. No small task trying to throw a net over what Lin Brehmer accomplishes with his Lin’s Bin twice a week but I would say Neil’s done a fine job here. I, like Neil, structure my moving about in the morning so as to catch Lin and The Regular Guy and having grown up listening to live radio push my three teen kids into listening to: “hip meets staying relevant” so to know Mr. Brehmer is close to my age but can relate to my teens makes him my hero. It’s great to be alive listening to WXRT morning in Chicago.

  3. Can't say I ever caught his program, since I'm not listening to the radio at that time but WXRT does play some good rare music and not the same old. Their Sunday Breakfast with the Beatles program with T. Hemmert is pretty good.

  4. I don't have a junk drawer, I have a junk basement, junk extra bedroom & junk garage!

    1. Has my life been hacked? This is me!

  5. I was a little anxious as junk drawer was being referred to in the singular form at the beginning of the story....we have a number of them. Thank goodness Neil mentions that he has several of them. Now I feel better that I'm not alone.

  6. People need to stop hoarding.

  7. I've always said Brehmer is a genius.

  8. I've always said Brehmer is a genius.

  9. " a media landscape that too often seems as if it has hit the bedrock of stupid and is struggling to drill deeper." Nice! Somehow, determined in their quest for the next pot of gold, they always manage to find a lower level, alas...

  10. WXRT and Brehmer are the best, along with the Regular Guy, Hemmert, Saturday morning flashback.......etc.

  11. Brehmer looks a bit like you, NS.

  12. I have to call you out on that WBEZ remark. Apparently you are not a listener or you would know that the junk drawer question would fit right into the mix. And by the way, that story about building a road in Guatemala would probably be far more fascinating (and a lot less heavy) than you are imagining. Come to think of it, YOU would fit right into the mix. Many of your columns and stories have a similar flavor to things I enjoy on NPR.

  13. I like XRT and BEZ, but please, you have to know and appreciate the difference! And you do know that Neil is on BEZ, right?


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