Thursday, April 30, 2009

Time Outlives All Life

How many people could have lived till 1877 and still been able to say George Washington was president when they were born? Turns out Cornelius Vanderbilt was at least one of those people.

Vanderbilt (1794-1877) is the subject of what is reviewed to be an entertaining biography by T.J. Stiles, that is nearly as long as Vanderbilt's life, and, like the man's life, hardly boring.

When I read about someone's age in brackets I always imagine what era they lived through. Who was president when they were born, what inventions were new to them, how did they get around? What was around to see? What was life like?

Horses, steamships and trains were the going means of motion then, and Vanderbilt was involved in all three. Big time. He lived through 18 presidencies. I haven't lived to be an octogenarian, but at 12 presidencies so far it's still hard to think I might match that.

As mentioned in prior postings, I love to string the linkages back. It was only fairly recently I began to realize that my own early schooling was probably in someone's hands who was born in the late 1890s. (I'm sure Mrs. Cornell was 19th century.)

And now because of T.J. Stiles's book, The First Tycoon, I know why Cornelius was known as The Commodore. And then of course I can understand why the hotel on 42nd street, just east of Grand Central Terminal (along Vanderbilt Avenue) that is now The Hyatt was once The Commodore. (The renovation work was extensive.)

If I get old enough, I wonder if looking back I'll think Harry Truman was as quaint as George Washington?

Only time will tell.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Series of Three-Minute Romances

There are a lot of words in today's obituary on Frankie Manning, the ambassador and master of the Lindy Hop, who passed away at 94. And surely it's a good obituary. Just not complete.

How does such a well-constructed three-column story fail to mention how the Lindy Hop got its name, or what dance it was derived from? Terry Monaghan tells us everything interesting about Frankie Manning and the dance. He uses inches of words to describe what Frankie best describes as a "series of three-minute romances." And if Frankie danced with 85 consecutive partners at 85 and wasn't taken to the hospital, then he was on something that hasn't needed FDA approval.

Terry, how hard would this have been?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Greek Independence Day

Words and word combinations get my attention. The prior posting stopped short at "active breezes." All sorts of questions there. Can a breeze be a breeze if it's not active? We could go on and go, but won't. William Safire has got that job nailed down.

Funny phrases can come next. Playful descriptions that sound funny in their own right, and even funnier when you know something about the person who says them. Like my wife.

I got a call this morning about 9:00 from my wife who had gone into the city to drop my daughter off who was doing the Moore Half-Marathon in Central Park. Her plans were to drop her off, then look for street parking, or at worst, stay in motion, somewhat, to avoid a ticket.

"Guess what day it is."
"I thought it was Sunday...the 26th?"
"It's TAKI-LAKI-LET'S-EAT-SOUVLAKI-DAY!!, that's what it is."
"It's Greek Independence Day?"
"I couldn't get near Fifth,, or Madison...something's going on on Lexington, too."
"Stay away from Ninth, the Norwegians used to get that when I marched in the Greek parade."
"I had to spend $27 for a parking garage!"
"I didn't sign the parade permit and forget to tell you."

What she's really mad at is the $27, not that hairy guys in short skirts are going to grab hold of Fifth Avenue for a few hours. It's the not knowing. Be prepared. And she wasn't.

She hates traffic hold-ups. And the people, or things that cause them. She would have been right behind Patton in shooting the two jackasses who stopped pulling their carts on that narrow bridge in Italy and held up the tank convoy.

It's a good thing for the Greeks it's not World War II and she wasn't packin.'

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Weather Report

Maybe it's because of the economy and there are people doing things they wouldn't ordinarily be doing. Maybe it's because I watched Elvis Costello's Spectacle show last night and was sent off into a word association trance because of his guests, particularly Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash, both favorites of mine.

(Kris performed a song he wrote that was inspired by the candy counter scene in The Grapes of Wrath, thoroughly fitting for a literature Rhodes scholar to be inspired by other words. To say Kris sings is far too inaccurate. At 72, his voice is further away from singing than it was at birth. But with Kris it was never the sound of his voice anyway. It was always the words.)

Or maybe it was because of listening to Bob Dylan this morning while getting ready for work, and I absorbed too many rhymes and word pairings.

Whatever it was, I happened to gaze at the top right box, front page, of the Times, where they dispense a little weather forecast. I don't know who writes these things, but today's struck me like someone was trying out for something else. Like a Pulitzer.

Russell Baker years and years ago wrote of someone in Baltimore who was a weather forecaster, or something like that, who might have gotten themselves in a world of trouble when they announced that "we had some weather today, and we're going to have some more tomorrow."

Today's paper of record: breezes...
Tomorrow...gentle winds...

I think I need a guitar.

Monday, April 20, 2009

My Midwestern Roots

If I didn't know something about Aurora, Illinois I might let it go when Bruce Weber refers to it as a place the same as nowhere. (see John Oros's obituary) The only trouble is my mother spent time growing up in Aurora, which is Gotham City compared to where she was born, Tampico, Illinois.

And the thing about Tampico is it is the same place that Ronald Reagan came from. And growing up, even before he was governor of California, I heard the stories of how my uncle, her oldest brother, Howard and Reagan went to school together in the same school house. And how they had spitball fights in class. The picture that appeared one year in Life Magazine showing the class outside the school house shows Reagan in the lower left portion and my uncle somewhat in the middle, with light hair.

I still have some distant cousins who live in Tampico. One, Don, painted a mural on the wall of a building showing Nancy and Ron. And not a bad rendition for something on brick. Don's address in Tampico completely belies what the town's size is: 29965 35 E Street. I kid you not. You have to think they're assigning numbers to rows of corn. It's been over 50 years since I was in Tampico, but if I had a Bucket List I'd want to go back just to see what's on either side of Don's address. And then the even side of the street. I wouldn't mind seeing Don, but he hasn't answered in years.

I suspect the population of Tampico is somewhat bigger than Willie Nelson's home town, Abbott, Texas. Or, at least it grows. Willie likes to claim that the population of Abbott is the same as when he was born: When a baby is born, a man leaves town. No twins in Abbott.

At some point my mother went to live with her Aunt Elizabeth in the big city of Aurora. She went to nursing school there at St. Charles Hospital, then entered the Army during WWII. It was as a nurse she met my father, as New York as they come, in General Thayer Hospital, Nashville. He was a patient for some reason, not combat related. He was either on his way to Guam, or was sent there from Guam. It's times like these you wished you asked more questions as a kid.

Once married, they bought a house in Flushing New York, where I was born. It wasn't that long ago there was a Kitty Kelly book that described where Nancy Reagan was born. Yes, in Flushing, three blocks from our house. Her name wasn't even Nancy, it was Anne. She changed everything. The Times ran a story on it.

So, here's my mother, from Tampico, where Ronald Reagan was born, whose older brother, my uncle, played with Reagan, living in Flushing, New York, three blocks from where Nancy Reagan (Robbins) was born. The house is still there, hard by a bar. There should be no wonder why this blog is named the Onofframp.

Years ago I got a postcard in the mail for my mother that was announcing a school reunion in Tampico. She had passed away several years before but now I had the Kitty Kelly/Nancy Reagan connection added to the family history. I wrote the alumni committee that my mother had passed away, and I filled them in on the connections.

I guess I got something back because they told me they read the letter I wrote at the reunion. (I think the dinner dance was $15.) I sometimes think about that group of people who might have remembered my mother and hearing of all that history being read to them by someone reading what I wrote, from far off New York.

Thank goodness I typed it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Writer's Writer

No secret I like to read obituaries, book reviews and stories about authors.

So, when a writer writes about writers, and is themselves I suspect part of that book review team at The New York Times Book Review, you have my attention.

Such is the case of Margalit Fox, an obituary writer for The Times. I happened to meet Margalit when she gave a presentation at the Mid-Manhattan Library on obituary writing during Halloween week last year. It was a lot easier going there than going out to Houdini's grave in Maspeth and breaking a wand over his headstone.

Her presentation moved along and gave credit to some of the noted practitioners in the art of writing obituaries. I got a complete sense of her scholarly approach when she compared Homer's writing techniques with that of an obituary writer. Not many people these days would know who Homer was, other than a John Irving character or a description of a ball hit out of the ballpark.

But Margalit hit her own home run when she explained what was going on in Robert McG. Thomas's obituary of Howard C. Fox, "the Chicago clothier and sometime big-band trumpeter who claimed credit for creating and naming the zoot suit with the reet pleat, the reave sleeve, the ripe stripe, the stuff cuff and the drape shape that was the stage rage during the boogie-woogie rhyme times of the early 1940s." I remember reading that obituary when it appeared and it never dawned on me until Margalit pointed it out that McG was writing his own piece in jazz to reflect the era. I only knew it was good. Margalit explain why it was good.

And being a fan of the obit page I've also noticed what I think is no coincidence. Margalit gets to write about the writers more often than not. And why not? At certain points in the game Mariano gets the ball to do what he does best.

So today, when Margalit writes, "Micheal Cox, a former singer-songwriter turned biographer, then editor, was an authority on the Victorian ghost story who, five years ago, spurred by the threat of blindness, wrote a vast Gothic novel," I knew she was about to let loose her disarming wit that darts out between periods.

She tells us Cox's The Meaning of Night "is set in an 1850s London awash in fog, footfalls and fatality." There is more. "Purple profusion" comes in on the tide. Check it out. Margalit is now writing her own Gothic novel about the Gothic novelist, just as Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. (the man with the "somewhat overloaded name") was writing jazz.

I am a much better read person for having read obituaries.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Staying Solvent

Writing checks might be a little old fashioned in these days of electronic transfers, but you still wouldn't expect it to be fatiguing. But when it's tax-time and the checks are going to The Government it seems the mental strain wears at you. Especially when you're sending off a little more money than what the winners' share was for winning the World Series in the late 1950s.

I don't care if it was over 50 years ago, I'm not supposed to be in a position where I'm sending The Government anything closely resembling what Mickey Mantle collected. I certainly don't feel the joy of winning the World Series. Yogi Berra has not rushed out from behind home plate and given me a bear hug.

But there I was last night, writing out four checks. Two each to the federal government, and two to the state government. Taxes for 2008, and estimated payments for 2009.

And four envelopes to mail the suckers. It seems the estimated money goes to a different post office box than the tax money for last year. I couldn't help thinking of an Ogden Nash poem I read that he wrote late in life (he passed away in 1971) that appeared in The New Yorker. I can't find the poem, or even know the title, but it is classic Nash: elongated lines that rhymed. The poem had to do with the IRS, and how after all they put us through they should at least "blow us to a stamp." Something like that.

So, there I am, sending off the winners' share of a 1950s World Series and have to use four stamps to do it.

But, at least I'm paying my taxes. Which of course makes me think of Frank Costello at his Senate confirmation hearing (Senator Kefauver was chairing a committee to confirm Frank was a gangster) who answered a question by telling the assembled: "I pay my taxes."

This of course was meant to separate him from Al Capone who was famously convicted of not paying his taxes and spent the rest of his life at Alcatraz.

Frank, therefore was like us: he paid his taxes. And how that's changed. Now the people who don't pay their taxes are at their own confirmation hearings being considered for something other than being inmates.

But really, four stamps?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Penelope and Her Suitors

I've already written I enjoy reading book reviews.

But there can be the occasional review about the author of a book that is even more interesting. And I think I just read it.

Perhaps 25 years ago or so I remember at work there was a luncheon for a woman who was leaving. I didn't really know her, so it wasn't something I went to. You have to have worked in an office that long ago to remember that at these luncheons people ordered drinks. Made with alcohol. And sometimes the guest of honor might have more than one drink. I mean, what the hell, they were leaving, weren't they?

It must have been something like that, because when someone I know came back from the luncheon they somewhat announced that lunch with Kathy was like having lunch with a Catholic Joan Rivers. This fellow I know then went in his office, closed the door, and probably slept it off. It certainly sounded like Kathy was in the words of a Billy Joel song: "One hit honey, and sure did put on a show."

So when I finally caught up to Thursday's Times and the Joyce Wadler story on Giulia Melucci, author of "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti" I could only think maybe I should have gotten to know Kathy better. Maybe at least become casual friends.

If Joyce's story on Giulia doesn't help sell a book then there is no hope for reading. Or cooking.

Giulia is described as restrained as Joan Rivers on crack, hilarious and good-looking. (There are pictures which prove this.) Giulia went to a Catholic girl's school in Brooklyn, is 42, not married, and by the sounds of things, has no trouble at least meeting men and seeing where it goes from there.

Joyce recounts the story of the Scottish writer that was in Giulia's life who at some juncture says he only wants to be friends. Ms. Melucci, perhaps because of attending school with other girls who she describes as Mafia daughters, makes the writer an offer that Joyce Wadler says even a recently deceased man couldn't refuse. Giulia asks her friendly writer, "If we're friends, why can't we have sex?"

This is going to be some book signing.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Not One of Many

There is by now a famous cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker of a perhaps an executive talking into a phone. The caption reads: "A billion is a thousand million? Why wasn't I told that before?"

I don't know the date of the cartoon, but it is dated. The business man is talking into a receiver that has a cord, so therefore he's using a land-line. He has a suit and tie on. Not contemporary. And of course he's expressing surprise at what then is a bit of a frontier number.

As a kid I used to hear the expression, "You're one is a million." This was and can still be a term of endearment. You're unique, wonderful, hard to find, great. As I got older I also heard the punch line to the set-up. "You're one in a million, and since I've never seen a million, you look like something I've never seen." Not so nice.

Then there's the one that goes: "You're one in a million. And since there are two billion people in China, there are two thousand other people just like you." We're getting closer to the topic.

Billion has given way to trillion. Million is not even close in the rear view mirror. Despite what the little writing might tell us about objects being really closer. The guy next door has a million. And he's a jerk.

The esteemed Senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen once sonorously explained that if you spend a billion here and a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money. That was in the 60s. The 1960s. He was born in the 1890s.

So, where are we? We're at the point where a trillion is the new billion. It had to happen. Things expand like waistlines.

The absolute best depiction of this I've seen so far appeared on the Op-Ed page of the Times, March 31. Hard to reproduce here, so the link should be useful.

As good as this is, and it is good, what is even harder to see and depict is that a million can be written as 10 to the 6th as an exponent. A trillion is 10 to the 12th. When you multiply numbers with exponents you add the exponents.

Thus, 10 to the 6th times 10 to the 6th is 10 tho the 12th.

There are a million millions in a trillion.

Why wasn't I told this before?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Art in the Strangest Places

I used to work with a woman who never said too much about her ex-husband, but did say that he left Picassos behind in the toilet bowl for her.

She did emphasize "ex."

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pacific Tel

A North Korean communications satellite was launched but wound up in the Pacific Ocean.

Putting a positive spin on what could be seen as a national embarrasment, Dear Leader proclaimed the mission went well: fish now have a dial tone.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

There Are Advantages

Because of my confessed interest in obituaries I was referred to a link that took me to King's Journalism Review, a Canadian college's publication. The story, by Heather Cox, was titled The Brilliant Minds of Obit Grinds. Not exactly sure about the whole title, but the story was well done.

Ms. Cox writes a contemporary account of the lively art of writing about someone's life in the past tense, invoking all the names of the profession. She gives room to Jim Sheeler and Marilyn Johnson, people who she accords Oscars to as the George Clooney and Julia Roberts of their profession.

Her Canadian connections also gave her ample access to Catherine Dunphy, a Toronto Star obituary writer who wrote Lives Lived, as a column in the paper. Heather closes with a well-honed obituary technique of using a zinger and a quote, when she tells us Catherine Dunphy explains why she loves her job so much: "“The dead can’t sue,” she says. “This is where you want to be.”

And then we have Cadillac Man, the pen name of Thomas Wagner, who has written about his life of living on the streets of New York. And not for an incidental part of time. Thirteen years, from 1994 to 2007. His book just came out.

Thursday's New York Times allows a terrific piece in their Home section, ironically of course on the homeless guy who now has a home. The piece is by Cadillac Man, complete with a few photos, plenty of surprises, no surprises, and an admission that he's slept nearly everywhere but the Waldorf-Astoria. He goes on to point out that even a 5 star hotel has nothing on a mausoleum. "The other guests never complain."

Thursday, April 2, 2009

My Buddy Dave

My buddy Dave Anderson finally got around to responding to the letter I sent him a while ago announcing my blog.

I'm able to say "buddy" because Dave and I somewhat co-wrote one of his columns in 1994 when he used a letter I wrote him as a large basis for his column, It's Not Going to Be A Baseball Christmas. The letter was written about the then hockey and baseball strikes. Dave's column appeared, with a fair part of my letter, fully attributed, in his column that was published in the Sunday Times--on Christmas Day. Not exactly the best of news days for me, but it remains a thrill of a lifetime.

Every so often we'd trade letters about hockey, or baseball, nothing much, and nothing that frequent. Dave is certainly capable of hatching his own ideas. Once he called me up on Travers Day to tell me the answer to something I asked about the "fourth estate." Dave's not a horse racing guy (Red Smith was) but when he called I did have to tell him he must have brought me luck because I had just hit the exacta. I think I received his call before the result was even official.

I did write him a few years ago about Dick Schaap and how in Schaap's latest book you couldn't drop more names if you were to shove the Manhattan phone directory onto the floor. Schaap was hospitalized and died not long after his book was published, Flashing Before My Eyes.

I also mentioned to Dave at the time that I was lucky enough to get down from the 29th floor of One World Trade on that day of days, 9/11. Dave thanked me for getting down from there. He wasn't the only one happy to hear that news. That letter is framed and I'm looking at it now.

So, it only seemed natural that I told him of my blog and if he's interested, would he digest a few of the sports-centered entries. I think I wrote Dave around the time Johansson passed away.

It took Dave a bit of time to answer--after all, he is retired now, only writing an occasional gem for Sunday's paper--but when I saw the envelope yesterday I immediately knew who it was from: my buddy Dave.

Typewritten print is quite distinctive these days, and quite honestly, Dave needs a new ribbon, if he can find one. If he ever does detour into ransom notes, however, they'll nail him in an instant. His letter is on Times stationery, with the old West 43rd Street address. (Dave shows Green to us.) Apparently, however, he can resist the Web. He writes:

Dear John:

Just a note of thanks for your thoughtful letter about your new career as a...blogger. [I think he got choked up there.]

Please forgive me, but I spend enough time reading what newspapers are still among us. I prefer to turn the pages of the Times every morning rather than turn on my computer.

Thanks again...and keep blogging.


Dave Anderson

Dave, just keep writing. We'll get you a ribbon.