Friday, November 27, 2009

Gobble, Gobble

My long time friend was over for Thanksgiving yesterday and were remembering one meal in particular that was in 1967.

I ate over his house that year, and his mother cooked, and his father and Uncle Benny were there as well. My surrogate family.

Now his father was about 20 years older than his mother, his second wife, and Uncle Benny, the father's older brother, was a bachelor, born in 1889, a World War I veteran with many memories of helping French women get a good night's sleep.

My friend's mother was a very good cook and the meal was great. It didn't take long after the meal for his father and Uncle Benny to be sound asleep in their armchairs. As my friend and I were going out to shoot pool his mother stopped at the door a bit just before closing it and looked at us and looked back at two old guys sleeping and digesting and said, "I hope I don't have to call Campbell's twice tonight."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

All in One

When I was a kid the Long Island Star Journal came to our house everyday. In it I distinctly remember a one panel cartoon, The Strange World of Mr. Mum. It had no caption or speech bubbles, but was purely funny by what it was showing, juxtaposing something, or imagining things as they might be.

I used to clip some of these cartoons out and save them. Goodness knows where they are now, but one in particular always stuck in my mind. It showed Mr. Mum at the post office standing in front on the slots that allowed you to pre-sort your mail for the postal people. In that era there were slots for Zone such-and-such only, Other Local Zones, Out-of-Town, Air Mail, Special Delivery, and Foreign.

The cartoon was drawn as a bit of a cross section that let you see Mr. Mum pushing his letter through the slot he chose and seeing where it went on the other side. One cardboard box on the floor was set up to catch all the letters. So, no matter what sorting you did, it was undone by going only one place. Talk about a strong union.

Many, many things in life have made me think of this cartoon. The most recent occurred when I was working only slightly late and the cleaning lady came by to empty the waste baskets. We attempt to be a "green" office and have one waste basket for white paper only, and the other basket for everything else. Usually I have only the white paper basket ready to hand her because I use a white pad of paper and do not eat in the office.

But lately I've been using a yellow pad of paper, so I've had white and yellow paper. I still chuckle when I separate the two into separate baskets. Is this really going to matter?

By now you might have guessed what was next. Out of the corner of my right eye I saw that she was emptying both baskets into the one large basket that she was pushing around. She was not being negligent. After laughing hysterically to myself I asked her about her use of only the one basket. She told me they never told her to separate the paper, and gave her no means to keep it separate.

I swore I would tell no one. Mum's the word.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Koala Bears and Kumquats

“When pigs fly” is an expression used when it is desired to tell the listener that the likelihood of whatever it is you’re talking about has as much chance of happening as when bacon and chops takes to the air. (It’s amazing what three small words can stand for. Of course, “No” is even shorter.)

But horses do fly. Generally thoroughbred horses. Not on their own of course, but they do when they’re cargo in a plane and are being transported from one place to another when entry in a race is involved. The distance is generally sufficient enough that van travel is impractical, or there is an ocean involved. Shipping quality thoroughbreds to certain races has become fairly common. One trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, got so good at spotting entrants in races they could conquer that his prowess was acknowledged by a handicapper's rhyme that went, "D Wayne off the plane." This meant, if Lukas shipped, then you better pay attention as to why.

Quality Road is a quality thoroughbred that was recently shipped to California from the East Coast to compete in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race of such importance that generally the winner emerges with tons of money, increased value in breeding rights, and is generally thought to be cinch for Horse of the Year honors.

Quality Road is a bit of what they call a "head case," meaning he can get a stubborn streak when he's asked to enter the starting gate, or even participate in the pre-race post parade. And a few weeks ago he proved so stubborn at the starting gate before the big race that he persistently refused to enter the gate. He was a handful.

A fair amount of time was spent trying to coax him in. Eventually, because he was delaying the start by being so temperamental, the other horses were backed out and he was given a chance to enter again. Nothing worked. This happens, and when it does, the horse becomes scratched, or taken away from the gate and does not run. A major disappointment to his owners, connections, and fans who thought he had a good chance to win. The scratch produces betting refunds to the bettors who used him in their wagers.

A few days after the disappointment, it was time to go home. In this case, Kentucky. Quality Road has flown before. He was flown out there. He's raced in New York and Florida. He's been around a bit.

Turns out Quality Road became Rain Man, the sometimes excitable character Dustin Hoffman played so well in the movie of the same name. He wouldn't get on the plane. Wouldn't, didn't, plain and simple. They spent 5 days vanning him (Quality Road on the road again) back to Kentucky. In his own way, he went Greyhound, rather than American.

What we don't know is if someone mentioned Quantas to him, or if he even thought about it himself, but just couldn't bring himself to be Mr Ed, the talking horse. Quantas has never crashed. Quantas goes to and from Australia. And there is quality racing in Australia, although comparatively not as many races.

If I ever get the chance to name a horse I'm not sure what name I'd use. I really don't know if Pegasus has been used before.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

They Still Miss Someone

You suspect you're in for a different kind of news story when the lead describes a convict "flicking his hand" at a deck of playing cards, giving it a "mystical cut." And you are.

The deck of cards is unlike anything from Bicycle, or any other major card manufacturer. There are 52 of them, in four suits, with all the recognizable markings. But there's more. Each card contains a picture of someone who represents an unsolved murder, or disappearance in South Carolina. There is a short summary of the case, and a tip hotline number to call, just in case you might know something you want to tell someone.

The cards are sold to a very selective audience: prisoners in South Carolina prisons. The thinking is that there a lot of information in prison, and someone might, after repeated visual reminders staring at them from a deck of cards, remember something about a cold case. There are anonymous phone numbers prisoners can use. Apparently other states have similar programs, among them Florida.

It's more than an intriguing story. It's a touching story because the people behind the effort to produce the cards have lost someone to violence, or an unexplained disappearance, and have no satisfaction of justice being served. What they know hasn't yet reached a ending.

These people still miss someone. It's never over.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Chuckles the Clown

I don’t know if I ever saw it, or just plain forgot the Chuckles the Clown episode from the Mary Tyler Moore show, but thanks to Bruce Weber (and the recently departed David Lloyd for writing it) I will now forever think about the possibilities of a rogue elephant mistaking a clown dressed as a peanut and accidentally killing him in an attempt to shell him.

Salted or unsalted, shelled, or otherwise, it’s not safe to be a peanut around an elephant. What if you were dressed as a crumb at a picnic? You’d soon be covered in ants.

Obituary writers bring life from the dead. Mr. Weber, perhaps correctly, has his own interpretation on what the episode means. We use laughter and tears to get through things. At my mother's wake Father Hannon asked me if there were any special prayers, poems, or songs they might use at the church the next day. She might have had a Greek married name, but if he's a Catholic priest he was correct to assume she wasn't Greek Orthodox. Father Hannon, with a brogue and a cold, seeing my mother in a green suit topped with wisps of faded red hair, must have thought she was Irish. After all, he was Irish.

I thanked Father Hannon for his thoughtfulness, but I explained that my mother was of Polish and German ancestry, and unless they were prepared to play a polka or a march in church, there really wasn't anything I could recommend.

The poor man turned into Mary Richards at Chuckles' wake. He had all he could do to keep from bursting out loud with laughter as I was grinning at him. He turned away and went on with his work.

The You Tube link above is really a link. It's a link to an age of TV comedy that we're not likely to see again. We're probably not even going to see people who dress like that again either, even at a funeral. Ted Baxter's 50 cent cream shoe shine is long gone as well. As is Ted Knight.

Nestled in the episode's dialog is something Red Skelton is known to have said at the funeral of Harry Cohn. Cohn was head of Columbia Pictures, was powerful and strongly disliked. Seeing the size of the crowd at the services, Red said that it proves that if you give the public something they want to see, they will turn out for it. (I read that in Skelton's obituary.)

Ted Baxter boasts that his funeral will have more people than are there for poor Chuckles. Murray turns and explains how well attended a desired event can be once the word gets out.

Think of how many ways Chuckles is remembered by in the episode that are so well recounted in the obituary. When the popular actor Ed Wynn, (Keenan Wynn's father) a rubber faced vaudeville comedian who was in Mary Poppins, passed away it was commented that when he died it was the only time he made people sad.

David Lloyd will be missed. There are those of us who were already missing the kind of shows he was part of and contributed to. It might even be the only time he made people sad. I don't know. I do know that any man who invents a clown who meets his demise when he's dressed as a peanut and is accidentally shelled by a rogue elephant in a parade makes both the clown, and himself, forever memorable.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Paid Announcements

Paid obituaries, or death notices, are certainly nothing new. Members of the family and or friends notify others, and the public at large, of someone's passing. Funeral arrangements and particulars are detailed. There is a certain solid format one can expect.

What has been happening in the last few years is the paid death notice that is epic in length. It is taken out by the same relatives or friends, but acts more like a biographical infomercial than just a notice. Pictures usually accompany these. Newspapers charge a lot for any kind of advertising, and these are no exception. A long notice for a long life doesn't necessarily mean a discount. They become a revenue center for the paper.

We get someone's cradle to grave achievements. Their scholastic, military, athletic, professional, philanthropic career highlights. Their marriages, children, grandchildren, and where they all live. We get Business Week like details about how the company they started out with became another company through mergers and acquisitions. We get hobbies, and even in one case what their last meal was seasoned with. (Cinnamon, not arsenic.)

The longer the notice the near guarantee it will become embarrassing in detail. No one makes you read these, but if you do, you start to feel like you've intruded into someone's family. You're caught in an elevator and someone's spilling their guts out. They didn't just press a floor's button, they pressed memory dump.

But without judging their motives, or making fun of the details imparted, a haiku, or a tome, a notice does tell us one thing: someone is missed, who can only come back through a memory.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Acrostic Messages

The Numbers Guy has a great story in Thursday's WSJ that California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sent more than one message to the legislature when he vetoed a piece of recent legislation.

It seems the text of the governor's message in the veto was a neat seven lines, a four line paragraph, followed by a three line paragraph. The first letter of each paragraph line spells something. Two words. The first is the word that Richard Burton lovingly described as that great Anglo-Saxon word for copulation. (To be without it would be to be without life. I don't think he was kidding.) The second is a pronoun: you.

A clear message, hidden in plain sight, it seems.

The article goes on about the mathematical possibilities that this was, or wasn't a coincidence. Worth reading, but it may be no surprise that coincidence is what has the longest odds.

This of course brings us to California governorships, Richard Nixon, and the nation's destiny.

Richard Nixon famously lost his election bid to be governor of California, and in a parting statement basically said the rest of the world would no longer have him to "kick around." There's that all needed K.

I don't know what the state of term limits are in California, but we know whatever they are, things can change. So, if governor Schwarzenegger seeks another reelection bid and loses, or is forced from office for some reason, then his next coded message can easily spell Hasta La Vista.

And in true Richard Nixon fashion, his final coded message, shown on Fox News after it is revealed that he really was born on a military transport plane bearing a vast cargo of American geraniums potted in U.S. soil, is that he really is eligible to run for president: I'll be back.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Champions

If there are people who tell you they're writing a book, or plan to write a book, I tell people I'm compiling a book.

It's a work in perpetual progress. It will never be finished, because there's always something to add. This blog has somewhat taken the place of making additions to it, but the blog itself is additions to the "book."

It's a book of leads, quotes, clever phrases, poetic prose that's found nearly anywhere, but basically in the newspaper, in almost any kind of story. I just happen to favor reading sports and the obituaries, unlike the Irish who read the obituaries and call it reading the sports page.

Margalit Fox had one of those phrases in her obituary today on Art D'Lugoff, the impresario of the Village Gate. Anyone's who's been below 14th Street after the sun goes down and is at least 40 has likely at least been aware of the Village Gate, if not having actually been in attendance for some musical venue held there. I'm no exception.

So when Margalit describes Art's brother Burt, a medical doctor, (at least someone in the family became a doctor) as the "frequent silent partner" in his brother's "joyously noisy endeavors" you certainly feel like there was fun in that family. And that's the kind of polished line that deserves to be preserved: a silent partner for a noisy other half. Balance.

It made me think of the Yankees. If only I could buy into the once again world champions, whose victory parade was held today. I could be a silent partner to their "joyous, noisy endeavors."

And where some see and hear noise, others see a peaceful easy felling as Tyler Kepner describes the Yankees in his Thursday lead as adding the 27th jewel in their crown and creating a "peaceful easy feeling across their empire."

I really think they should play the Eagles song at the opener next year.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

It Depends Where You Look

Not all databases and search engines are created equal.

And while this sounds obvious, there are many people who don't realize that just because they can't find it, it doesn't mean it's not there, or it doesn't exist.

Digital retrieval is now largely a part of everyday life. But it depends on what clues, or tags you provide the search engine to use. And it also depends on what's out there to be searched. Not everything has been saved in the same spot.

Adam Keiper, in a recent WSJ book review of Delete, by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, discusses the theme that we're in danger of always being able to reach our past. It's a few mouse clicks away. It is healthier sometimes to forget, than it is to remember.

It seems more likely however that due to age, or trauma, we'll forget at the same rate we've always forgotten, despite an ability to retrieve vast amounts of the past with a few mouse clicks. What can be dangerous is that someone will erase, or make inaccessible that past quite easily. We're more likely to be denied the ability to find. It may not be there, by design, or neglect.

I somewhat recently tested this out by using what I've recently become a user of: library databases and digital retrieval of news items. (I have not in any way stopped saving clippings yet. Belt and suspenders.)

I searched for a known major news story from 2002. It was in all the papers, and I have all the papers. The New York Public Library has a wide variety of these databases available to users from their home computer using their library access identification number. They have an even wider variety of these databases if you actually drop into a library and log on from there. No news to some, I'm sure, but the places have changed.

I searched the available home database, provided by Gale, that held items from the New York Times and the New York Post, from 2000 to present. Only the articles that appeared in the Post came through. All kinds of digital lures were thrown at the search engine, but the one story that I know that appeared in the Times did not come through. Easy explanation. Gale didn't assemble everything. And they weren't going to, so they did what they said they would do. But you may not know this, because you may not know there was a Times story. Not finding one, doesn't mean there wasn't one.

Another database assembled by ProQuest and dedicated solely to the New York Times was even more historical and did yield the story I knew existed. A variety of digital clues lead me each time to the one story I knew appeared in the paper. This database, however, is only available by actually going to the library. No home access.

What can any of this mean? Don't take no for the first answer. Especially when you know there is one.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Vocabulary Improvement

Add vocabulary improvement to the list of benefits derived from reading obituaries.

Take the recent NYT piece on Michelle Triola Marvin, 76, of the landmark palimony suit. Anyone who was instrumental in how affairs of the heart and wallet are settled certainly deserves mention on their passing.

Basically, although never married to Lee Marvin, she sued him when they parted ways. Her lawyer, Marvin M. Mitchelson became famous for arguing that there was an oral agreement between the couple to share, and that now it was time to share. The court didn't quite agree, but the concept was born.

The writer of the piece, Anhad O' Connor, educationally fills us in that word palimony (the $104,00 in rehabilitative alimony that was awarded) is a "portmanteau" of "pal" and "alimony." A what?

Language certainly evolves. A portmanteau is a word that is "designating a morph which represents two morphemes simultaneously." Oh. "Combine, esp. to form one word." Just as I thought. William Safire might have passed away, but help is still being provided, thanks to Anhad.

Since affairs of the heart and their subsequent effect on dividing the pool and landscape can be common, and are a great read when it's a celebrity, palimony is a word that's stuck around. Marvin M. Mictchelsom became so famous that there' s no doubt the George Clooney lawyer in the movie Intolerable Cruelty, Myles Massey, was an alliterative reference to him.

And of course we thankfully have the pair of words "'gal pal" that say so much with a simple pair of three letter rhymes. It's almost like "cat in the hat." Certain newspapers couldn't be without the words. While women can pair off with their "girlfriend" and trot off to the bathroom together, or explore malls, if a guy has a "gal pal" it's likely there's a wink involved and surveillance might be called in.

Michelle Triola Marvin passed away at the home of Dick Van Dyke, her partner for over 30 years. So, at least all "gal pal" relationships don't have to lead to paparazzi frenzies and court. It is still possible to die in peace.