Friday, July 31, 2009

Dick Would Have Loved It

I was reminded about Dick Schapp twice today. Dick of course was a prolific sportswriter, columnist and sportscaster who passed away a few years ago. Dick immortalized himself to me in a few ways, one of which was when he told a TV sports news audience that Riva Ridge and Secretariat were the two most famous stablemates since Joseph and Mary.

When he said it, in the 70s, there were people who did know who Riva Ridge and Secretariat were. Less now. They were back-to-back winners of the Kentucky Derby for the same Meadow Stable. They were horses, in other words. Riva Ridge missed winning the Preakness, thus denying Meadow Stable back-to-back Triple Crown winners. Rare earth, indeed.

So Dick was comparing horses to two of Christendom's most famous people. Several layers of outrage descended on him, but he survived. He even kept his job, best as I can remember.

He was also famous for popularizing the description of New York City as Fun City. The words were actually uttered by Mayor Lindsey as he crouched out of a helicopter ride over NYC at the outset of the 1966 Transit Strike. Dick was nearby when hizzoner said, "Well, I still think it's a Fun City," even as he had been watching traffic jams of epic proportions from the air that were the result of the strike that he wouldn't prevent on the first day of his administration. Mayor Lindsey was an optimist. You had to live through it, to know it.

Fun City became such a popular phrase that there was a porno parlor, video booth, "dirty-book-store" that was named Fun City. It was only recently torn down for a bank building near Bryant Park. Mayor Lindsey knew how to coin a phrase, and Dick knew how to write one.

Even with all that, that's still not why I was thinking of Dick today. As I noted in a prior posting, Dick was famous for writing in the Herald Tribune after Candy Mossler and her boyfriend were acquitted of murdering her wealthy, older husband, that the killer should, "Come on down" to Florida. That was a popular slogan for Florida tourism at the time.

The last time I went to a library was years ago when I went to get a microfilm copy of Dick's column on Fun City. It was worth it. And today, I was going to go again for another piece of "research," but got delayed by the other job. That's the second time I thought of Dick.

The first was this morning when I heard that the Brazilian police have now released Arturo Gatti's wife, who they first believed had strangled him in his sleep. They now contend that Arturo hung himself 7 feet (okay, he wasn't that tall) from the floor with her purse strap tied to a staircase post.

Dick, I wish you were here.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Connected to Kevin

The Onofframp blog is somewhat dedicated to the belief that things in this world are connected. And not just connected in the obvious way, by say, being next to each other, but connected through some ether-like, cyberspace, celestial glue that pushes our molecules together. There's usually fresh proof of this, and today's book review in the WSJ offers yet another example of worldly connectivity.

Not Here, She Said, the title of the book review by Vincent J. Cannato, weighing in on Anthony Flint's book, Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City. Another candidate for a stamp.

I remember reading about Jane when she passed away in 2006. She did rate a news obituary in the Times. And I remember why she was remembered. She lead the fight to keep Robert Moses from building yet another road, this one through lower Manhattan, that would have bisected Greenwich Village: The Lower Manhattan Expressway.

This is the subject of Mr. Flint's book. Ten lanes of elevated highway were planned that would allow traffic to flow (yeah, sure) from Long Island to New Jersey, over Manhattan, in effect. I don't remember Jane Jacobs by name, by I do remember the uproar in the 60s. Air pollution was only one of the reasons to protest.

I remember Mayor Lindsey and Governor Rockefeller taking credit as well for standing up to Robert Moses (the Master Builder) and getting the project shelved. Public pork didn't get built.

So, with all this as a backdrop it's beyond the realm of probability that Kevin Bacon's name should appear, but appear it does.

The reviewer, Mr. Cannato, cites people in other cities who were like Jane Jacobs, and who fought to derail projects that were not felt to be in anyone's interest other than concrete companies.

...At the same time, Jacobs has been shown to be one of a cluster of 1960s activists who, in other cities, rallied in opposition to their own mini-Moseses, such as Ed Logue in Boston and Edmund Bacon (father of the actor Kevin Bacon) in Philadelphia.

The Onofframp submits further proof of the theory of connectivity.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Double Pitchforks

Mentioned it before, but book reviews are almost as much fun to read as obituaries. The good book reviews of course tell you more than something about the book. You learn about the author, you learn about the context of the times the book is set in, even if it is fiction. You learn enough to figure out if you'd like the book. You might even come across an out-quote, or out-take, that you can use at your dinner parties. I read way more book reviews than I read books.

Take today's book review in the Times. The reviewer, Barry Gewen, takes us through the life and times of female wrestling via Jeff Leen's book, The Queen of the Ring: Sex, Muscles, Diamonds, and the Making of an American Legend. With a title like that, you might start to think Mildred Burke will make her way onto the next commemorative stamp. Hey, it can happen.

To no one's surprise, Mr. Gewen reveals that Jeff's book describes Mildred's manager, and second husband, Billy Wolfe, as "one of the most repulsive people you are likely to meet outside of prison." You can almost hear yourself working that one into a conversation as you're passing something to someone. Details follow.

"[Wolfe] He beat Burke, he beat her young son by her first marriage, he beat the other women he managed. He seems to have slept with most of the wrestlers in his stable except the lesbians, and is said to have pimped them out when the occasion required. Near the end of his life he married for the fifth and final time; he was 60, his bride 17." Certainly all things that are hard to overlook.

There's a mold somewhere for wrestling managers, especially managers of women. In the movie California Dolls, one of the blond wrestlers is screaming at Harry, her manager, played by Peter Falk. She's really going off on him. He's had her sleep with Burt Young so she and her tag-team partner can get a choice match. It's completely understandable why she's mad. Burt Young? A girl has standards.

Anyway, she's yelling at Harry, telling him, "you're a lousy manager and a lousy human being." This stops Peter Falk from further blinking, as he thinks for just a second, raises his hand to his forehead, and tells her, "I'm not a lousy manager." Guys have standards too.

I've always loved that line. In fact, I've used it to describe a former CEO at the company I worked for prior to my current job.

In his case, he was both. Probably still is.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Aunt Margie

My wife is going to a wake tomorrow for Aunt Margie, who passed away at 89. Margie was one of five from a branch of my wife's family. There is only one left now, Aunt Emma, who is 84, hardy, alert, in good health and spirits, a widow, who has also outlived one of her three children. Aunt Emma is the herald for news from this branch.

Margie at 89 was not the oldest. That would have been Herbert, and he died several years ago. In human duration, 89 years is quite a chunk of time. Margie, also a widow, outlived one of her five children. Margie lived independently until the last 6 months of her life, when she entered a nursing home, something she abhorred. This led Aunt Emma to ask a priest, how does a woman who raised 5 kids, have 4 still left and living near her, not have one of them take care of her? The priest had no answer.

But 89 is an advanced age, and at that point even surviving children are not themselves young. Still, the priest had no answer.

People at any age are always looking back, and I'm sure Margie did her share of that. I know I do, and I'm not her age. Sometimes there are things I remember that were so long ago I wonder if they really happened, or did I just read about them?

Time times rate equals distance; t x r = d. That's the formula for computing distance. But time in human life terms is also distance. You cover a lot of ground in 89 years, even if you never move far from where you started. Eighty-nine years is a long look back. It's quite a distance.

I think of the astronauts on the moon looking back at earth. It's a long way back to where we come from.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Learn Chinese

You may have seen the educational inserts for fortune cookies that now seem prevalent. The front is more a saying or a quote than a fortune prediction, and the back is a primer on learning Chinese and playing Lotto or Keno.

It never ceases to amaze me that the symbols these inserts are showing are somehow readable AND pronounceable to someone who knows Chinese. And there are more than a few. I got a kick out of the one that I've actually gotten a few times that has a symbol and the word TANG, phonetically telling me how the symbol is pronounced and that it means "sugar." You mean the orange drink powder that astronauts (Wally Schirra, et al.) started to use in the 60s and was later marketed nationwide, TANG, is how sugar is pronounced in Chinese? Alert the media.

Today's fortune cookie insert continues to induce contemplation.

The symbols transcribed here are actually a little more simplistic than the ones on the insert, which each look like a forest of apartment house rooftop TV antennas along Northern Boulevard in the 50s and 60s. These two symbols mean "strawberry."

You really wonder what the novel Moby Dick looks like translated in Chinese.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Now We Know

It would be beyond my capacity for comprehension if someone were to read Douglas Martin's obituary on John S. Barry in today's paper and still think that obituaries are only about dead people.

I've probably read obituaries with as many facts--and the good ones have facts--but this one is as much about the person as it is a business school case study on how to run a company. It is too bad John Barry has left us, but I think it would be worse if WD-40 left us as well. Talk about a legacy.

First, there's the lesson in the obituary about the name, WD-40. Always assumed it had something to do with 40 weight aerosol oil. No. It stands for a "water displacement" formula that was finally successful on the 40th attempt.

It was never patented. Patents can protect your invention, but applying for them can create a filing trail that reveals secrets. No patent. Few imitators. No one near the same market share.

Trademarks, distinctive coloring, packaging, distribution channels all vaulted the company into a world-wide known name under Mr. Barry's stewardship.

The ultimate in product recognition. The name becomes synonymous with the product category. Aerosol lubricants are all WD-40 no matter who makes them. Scotch tape is cellophane tape, even if 3M has no hand in it.

Consumers become the sales force. They recite so many uses for the product that they become advertisers.

And like all good obituary writers, Mr. Martin gives us a parting gift, like something from a game show. One of the cited uses for WD-40 was freeing a tongue stuck to cold metal.

Truthfully, if I ever found myself in that situation, and someone pulled out the product found in 80 per cent of American homes (okay, but how many ERs?), I think I'd wait for the metal to heat up.

If I could.

Monday, July 20, 2009

When an Irish Eye Is Shining

I'm not at all surprised to read in today's obituary on Frank McCourt that his Angela's Ashes reached a hardcover printing of 4 million copies. That's a lot of books. Certainly one found its way into our home.

I don't know if it was gift to my wife, or she was talked into buying it, but we did have a copy. My wife's Irish-American, Catholic, so the book would seem right up her alley. However, she doesn't read many books, but does pore over sale circulars like an environmental lawyer trying to preserve the Rain Forest. Nothing gets past her, which of course fills our pantry and cabinets with some useful, if not strange items.

She's right there with Frank in the suffering department. We're here (or at least she is) on earth to suffer just enough to deserve a decent funeral. According to her calculations, she's in for a doozie.

The point is, I don't think she finished the book. She might have had other suffering in mind and the book was taking away from her fun. I don't know. The book did then make its way onto my daughter's desk several years ago. I don't even remember if she read it, but it was there on the desk in her bedroom when the two young fellows came from P.C. Richard's to install the bedroom air conditioner.

One of the fellows spotted to book and told my wife that Frank had been his teacher in high school. I had gone to the same high school, but went through there many years before Frank arrived. The young man related nice things about Frank, mentioning one thing that stuck out in his mind.

It seems one day Frank came to school with a faded, but still visible shiner. The story emerged that Frank had gotten into a fist fight with his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. Or husband. Someone connected to his current female companion.

By all accounts, Frank was a good teacher. Even if he wasn't saying anything, his face was giving a lesson.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walter Cronkite

I don't even have to look for it to know I have it somewhere. It's a letter from Walter Cronkite. Although it was addressed to me, it was I'm sure one of what I would guess were thousands of letters he mailed to people who wrote to thank him for his coverage of the moon landing and walk.

It was forty years ago, and even though he was reporting on the event there were people like myself who believed he had a hand in creating the event. He wouldn't have liked that, and surely would be quick to remind and even prove to someone he didn't make the news. But he did create how you reacted to the news, and that's why he got so much thanks.

A few years ago I was at a New York Pops concert at Carnegie Hall with my daughter. Skitch Henderson had just passed away, and at the concert there were a few people there to say a few words about Skitch. One of those people was Walter Cronkite, who emerged somewhat unsteadily, but unaided, as he approached the microphone. He spoke a bit. Not too long, but I immediately knew what I hadn't been hearing for quite a few years. The sound of his voice. It was a radio voice that had made it to television, and therefore into the living room. I closed my eyes, and the voice was coming from someone who wasn't in their 90s, shaking a bit at the microphone, but rather from someone who was very much in command of what they were saying. Which they were.

The letter I and others received after the moon landing and walk was a simple thank you. A few sentences, on a half sheet of paper, with no fancy letterhead or logo. Maybe just a name at the top. I really only remember part of one sentence, but have never had to reread the letter to refresh my memory. Walter Cronkite expressed his thanks for the thanks and said he felt like, "the gushy recipient of an Oscar..."

A great comparison. Only they give Oscars for acting, and he never did.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Bell Tolls

Getting killed is no laughing matter. Especially in real life.

There can however be irony. And irony can be funny. Cruelly funny, but funny nonetheless. Maybe it is black humor. There's an entire book of black humor death, Novels In Three Lines, by Felix Feneon.

Arturo Gatti was a professional boxer who fought for his share of a purse.

He was found strangled by what police theorize was a strap from a purse. Purse strings can deadly when wrapped around your neck.

His wife is a prime suspect.

One tabloid in New York headlined her as his "stripper wife."

Apparently, she wasn't strapless if she did it.

Falling asleep next to people who want to kill you can be dangerous.

The trick is to detect when that danger is the greatest and avoid those encounters.

If pillows and cushions come with tags containing fire safety information, then bedrooms should come with warning labels.

Little in this world is certain.

In 1978, punk rock star Sid Vicious had a similarly fatal effect on his sleepmate Nancy in NYC's Chelsea hotel when he stabbed her with a knife. Sid was arrested, detoxed, and months later was released on bail. He overdosed at his low key bail party.

When it is real, it can take a while before you know how it turns out.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Robert S. McNamara

I knew from Monday's news that I'd be reading Robert S. McNamara's obituary the next day. I thought about it on Tuesday morning as I was getting dressed. Robert S. Some names just always come to you with their middle initial. I told myself that I'd finally find out what the S stood for. Certainly I could have found out sooner. I just never did, but not because I didn't give the man any thought. I thought about him enough, just not enough to start to find out what the S stood for.

And of course, there it was, eventually in the obit piece. As somewhat typical, it's not another first name, but a mother's maiden name: Strange. Robert McNamara's middle name was Strange. Not Dr. Strangelove, but I'm sure that had been already suggested by others.

I often thought about McNamara when I thought about my father, and the job he had at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an engineer in the Design division. The year was 1964, and the Yard was closed as part of McNamara's wave of cost control. I read in the obituary that the military closings came about hastily because McNamara had to get under a budget amount set by President Johnson.

My father, and many others wanted to keep their government jobs, Most of them had already been working for Uncle Sam during World War II, and then thereafter. A Federal pension was nothing to sneeze at. My father and several of his co-workers found jobs in Washington, D.C., for the Department of Navy, rather than the Department of Defense. But, they were of course still Federal jobs. And the work was almost the same.

People were uprooted. My father became basically a commuter between New York and Washington, coming back to us in New York on weekends. Life was never the same. The Yard closing was a seminal event in my life, and I always associate the upheaval it caused as being caused by one man--McNamara--fairly or not.

Vietnam of course was the other--what's the best way to say this?--era that I lay at his feet. Hardly alone there. The obituary softened some of the enmity, but very little. A low-key military presence had become escalated to a long-running catastrophe on his watch.

I don't remember how long it was after the 1964 election, but Barry Goldwater appeared on the Carson show, and in what I will always remember as the ultimate in self-effacing humor, told Carson, with a good trace of chuckle, that he never realized how unpopular a president he would have been until President Johnson adopted his policies. Goldwater laughed at himself, and Carson laughed with him, but with a look of acknowledgment.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Day in The Life of Death

It's not many days when I've had to attend funeral services and then a burial. And today wasn't one of those days anyway. But when it has happened, I've always been struck how sharply my day is contrasting with everyone else's day. They're doing what I'd probably be doing, except I've got to take this time out to fulfill a presence. I have to be where I am because of the circumstances.

When I see headlights on a highway from a string of cars, or see funeral cars make their way through Manhattan, I'm reminded of how someone else's day is surely not like mine. They're going to a burial. I'm probably just going back to the office.

I listened to someone's story at work today that described an even different encounter with the departed than any of these.

They had reason to take some time to go to the Greek consulate in Manhattan at lunch to arrange for dual citizenship. They had an appointment, but it took them a little longer than they anticipated.

There weren't many staff members at the consulate, and they became tied up a bit by two hearses that pulled up, each with a pine box and a lawyer. (Much as this could be a joke about members of that profession, it isn't.)

It seems the lawyers presented notarized documents to the consulate staff that required at least one of them to come out to the hearses and affix a seal of some kind to the pine caskets with a blow torch and a template. The feeling was this was some kind of requirement necessary before the box and the body inside could be shipped back to Greece for burial. The boxes weren't opened, and no "inspection" seemed evident.

So, the person from work was a little further delayed getting back because they encountered a bureaucratic version of an "up drawbridge." It doesn't happen everyday, but if your're in the right place at the wrong time, you're going to be inconvenienced.

Death may not take a holiday, but it does take paperwork.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Ms. Marilyn Johnson, author of The Dead Beat, explains she's a bit of a magnetic North Pole when it comes to attracting knowledge of obituary Web sites. She says they find her.
I'm sure this explains some of it, but I also imagine her to be in an Internet control tower monitoring obituary sites coming in for a landing. A patient character in the movie Heat explains to master thief DeNiro that the bank intelligence he just sold him is available in the air, "You just have to know how to grab it."

Take the latest site, referenced in the title, that she says has just appeared on the scene. Quite honestly, I don't know what to make of it. Too soon to tell, might be the best thing to say. But there is at least one immediate wry, linked observation, complete with a photo, of cars parked for Wimbledon in a nearby parish cemetery, quite adjacent to the departed.

The immediate excuse offered is that the cars were directed to park near graves of people who have been gone for quite some time now, with the hope that no one connected to the departed is also viewing a match. At least in person.

The story is worth checking out. The logic is fully what you'd expect from the English, but it does attract enough attention that the whole arrangement is abandoned. So, respect eventually wins.

It does offer some further insight into Wimbledon and the British. This isn't London, and the cemetery is a mile from Centre Court, but it is completely unlikely anyone would get directed to park in a Queens cemetery in New York for the U.S. Open.

The reason is simple: No one in New York would be willing to walk a mile to an event no matter how safe the parking.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

In a League of Their Own

There aren't many days when the obituaries keep me from getting to the sports section on the train ride in. But today was one of them.

There were four news story obituaries in today's Times that I found worth reading. It was the fourth one that caused me to miss reading the sports section. I had to re-read the whole obituary, and selected parts of it so many times that before I knew it we were in the tunnel and Penn Station's Track 15 was fast approaching.

The obituary was written by Joyce Wadler, whose name I don't remember seeing on the page. I usually see her name associated with what I guess the Times would call hate to call gossip, but others might. A few sentences into the obituary and I got a sense why perhaps Ms. Wadler got the call in the bull pen. Only someone who makes a living reporting on celebrities could get all that straight.

In case anyone is curious, the obituary was about Shi Pei Pu, a person of several orientations who seemed to be fairly well known. They passed away at 70.

The obituary is well worth reading just to marvel at how pronouns can be used properly. Mr. Shi was really a male, who often presented themselves as a female, especially to someone they loved, who it seems also enjoyed companionship from both sides of the equation, but who was particularly distraught when it became known that Ms. Shi was Mr. Shi.

Part of my real-life work involves programming to catch oddities in health care claims processing. Sometimes this is fraud. And believe it or not, today involved writing edits to see if there were any male specific medical procedures performed on people who are listed as female, and also if their were any female specific medical procedures reported on males. Because if there were, something's wrong somwhere.

One claim from Shi Pei Pu and I venture it might have crashed the system.