Friday, February 26, 2010

For the Ages

John Babcock, the last Canadian World War I veteran passed away the other day at his home in Spokane Washington. He was 109.

When someone attains an age as advanced as that the natural question is what has kept them alive so long. "What do you attribute your living so long to?"

There are no real answers to this kind of question. Certainly you can have a chance to live that long if you avoid gunfire. But Mr. Babcock was in the Canadian Army as an underage recruit who didn't get assigned to combat, but who nonetheless left Canada after the war and joined the American Army. He didn't seem to duck much.

I like to think his name had something to do with his longevity. His full name is so strong you could drive traffic over it: John Henry Foster Babcock. The name John Henry alone connotes strength. The mythical "steel-driving man" was named John Henry. The real-life horse John Henry raced until he was 9, lived till he was 32, and won nearly every major race there was for older horses. For years and years he was the leading ranked money-winner, until the larger pursed Dubai races came into being.

In John Irving's Cider House Rules one of the nurses frets over the fact that doctor Wilbur Larch has such a strong last name, but a weak first name. A larch tree is a hardwood. A Wilbur is not. (Quite oddly enough, when Mr. Babcock was 5 his father was killed when a tree fell on him. No record of what kind of tree.)

Definitely the name. At least four more solid names can be made from John Babcock's full name. John Henry, Henry Babcock, John Foster, Henry Foster. Names like that are short, and strong, and when strung together resemble spaced girders and trusses holding up a bridge. Cs and Ks contribute to strong words. Babcock. And Mr. Babcock had a name with four short, simple, strong words.

The character named Babcock wouldn't open the train door to allow Buth Cassidy to rob it. Butch blows the mail car up with enough dynamite to create a Grand Canyon, but Babcock survives.

Despite the sometimes steep exchange rate differences between Canadian and U.S. currency, 109 years Canadian is still 109 years.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Pet Effluence

Fran Lee is the most famous New Yorker I never heard of--until today. And now she's gone.

Only time will tell if Margalit Fox's obituary in today's NYT will enter the obituary Hall of Fame like Robert McG. Thomas Jr.'s one on Edward Lowe, the inventor of kitty litter, but it should certainly clear the nominating committee and get on the ballot. Election should be assured.

Ms. Fox takes us through the adult life of Ms. Lee (Frances Lederman Weiss) in which she first gains a foot-hold to some fame as an actress, to what it seems even she herself would confess to be most proud of--being the catalytic agent that brought a pooper-scooper law to New York City.

Ms. Lee comes to acting in the 1940s when she appears on stage and as an understudy, to a small part in the 1947 film "Miracle On 34th Street" where she has a bit of dialogue and hand gestures that come about when someone at Macy's tells her to try Gimbel's.

This leads to many things, but basically culminates in getting New York City to adopt a pooper-scooper law in 1978 that requires dog owners to pick up after their pet's use of the gutter, sidewalk, or whatever part of the outside domain they seem to choose to do their thing on.

I don't remember any of Ms. Lee's apparent antics in getting this local law in front of the legislative body, but that may be due to the fact that I never owned a dog past the time I was 12.

I do remember the uproar surrounding the proposed law, and I do remember what seemed to be ever increasing mounds of solid waste that seemed to sit in the street--and elsewhere. There were signs that said, "Curb Your Dog. It's the Law." Well, even when the law was obeyed, that didn't make anything go away without street sweeping or a heavy rain. A lovely sight things were not.

Ms. Lee passed away at 99, in Jersusalem. She had to be what the Yiddish word word nudge means. And then some. But you will have to say this:

If the Wall Street Journal published on Sunday, or Alexander Haig hadn't passed away at the same time, Fran Lee would, I think, be immortalized in those pages as well as the Times.

After all, business picked up after her.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

If It Fits...

I don't go out of my way to try and read everything there is, but there are things I try to absorb for information.

Take CDs. I read the liner notes, and anything else on the packaging. I look for copyright dates, and just about anything that might be interesting and useful later on. Take the CD that came through the door this afternoon.

"Digipak printed on recycled paper containing at least 30% post-consumer content."

Next time I'll wear gloves.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Post-Madoff Era

The Bag Lady Papers, by Alexandra Penney chronicles the author's misfortune at the hands of Bernie Madoff. The book, as reviewed in the WSJ by Dave Shiflett, describes other women who were swindled by Mr. Madoff.

Mr. Shiflett, rather cutely inserts how that number might even be a bit larger than the one person, one victim ratio.

The book is described by Mr. Shifleet as an account of the author's financial disaster and how, for various other reasons, it also struck Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin, Shirley MacLaine "'and many other accomplished, well-off women.'" To which he adds: "(Ms. MacLaine's past lives alone account for many other women, but that's a topic for another day.)"

Years and years ago when Ms. MacLaine was gaining attention for her claim to have been on earth several times, Don Imus rumbled in his lower register mumble, that what “Shirley needs is a truck driver, a big truck driver.”

Could still be true, but now in the post-Madoff world she apparently needs one with money. Brinks truck driver?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Elevated Comma

Presidents’ Day is upon us once again, and once again it makes me think about apostrophes and men’s shirt sleeve sizes.

Presidents' Day has been around long enough now that there can be fully developed individuals with the right to vote and drink who know nothing of the historical observance of separate holidays to celebrate the birth of President Washington and the birth of President Lincoln.

As a kid, these days were easy to spot on a calender. Whoever made calendars in that era was way ahead of their time, because each holiday had an "icon" on the date, wordlessly telling the calendar viewer what the holiday was about. February 12th was the celebration of Lincoln's birthday, and there was a picture of Lincoln, somewhat like what's been on the penny (huh?) since 1909. For Washington's birthday, February 22, there was a picture that looked something like George in that that Gilbert Stuart painting

These icon were colorful. They could almost be likened to the mosaics that were used in the New York City subway (and can still be found) to depict stops and a major landmark to people who might not be able to read English.

Calendars today are somewhat more global. The companies that produce them I'm sure are distributing them in different countries. How else to explain my knowledge of holidays in New Zealand, or Canada. And there are no more "icons."

The forces that have given us Presidents' Day have been making the effort to combine the two birthdays into a single holiday, always observed on a Monday, for quite some time. What has now emerged fairly consistently, is a single holiday that accomplishes two observances. Since the holiday was never a revenue generator for the greeting card industry, there was no anti-combination lobbying from that sector.

So, here we are. In February, looking forward to another Presidents' Day, and another Presidents' Day weekend.

Apostrophes have always been a challenge to anyone who tries to follow rules for writing English. There can be a lot of teeth gnashing over trying to remember the proper use and placement of that elevated comma, that realistically doesn't even change the pronunciation of the word it floats over.

Say Presidents' Day without seeing an apostrophe, and then say it when you see one. Big difference, right? No.

Lynne Truss, in her informative and entertaining book Eats, Shoots and Leaves devotes an entire chapter to the back-story and use of apostrophes. Ms. Truss wrote a book on grammar that became a best-seller, a stunning achievement. She explains, "the word in Greek means 'turning away,' and hence 'omission.' In classical texts it was used to mark dropped letters."

And there we have it. Dropped letters. Words that are contractions (combinations) make use of apostrophes, and a holiday that drops in effect two separate holidays and replaces it with one proudly waves its apostrophe over the proceedings. (When it is used properly.)

Time-off is meant to induce indulgences. So, if by some chance I happen to go shopping for a men's shirt this weekend I will no doubt be confronted with the sleeve choice of 32/33. This of course means, that depending on how you use one of the two buttons on the cuff, you will have a sleeve that is either 32 inches (my true size), or a sleeve that is 33 inches. Amazing, without changing physical matter, the sleeve can simultaneously be one of two measurements. The sizing has been collapsed. There has been a "contraction" of inventory needs.

It turns out however, one of my arms is slightly longer than the other. Although I don't readily remember which one, through a little trial and error, I make use of the choice the two buttons provide me.

The loss of a holiday and a dedicated sleeve size has been bemoaned for years. My own personal surprise is that I've gotten used to it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Things We Do to Ourselves

There is one of those A-head stories in today's Wall Street Journal that is a gem. It fits the season, and certainly is appropriate for being published the week of the Winter Olympics, which will give us snow boarding AND curling. Pick your own highlights.

The story is about snow-shovel racing. It is nothing new, even from the standpoint of being done on ski slopes and involving ski lifts. It is how wonderful it is described that sets the story apart.

Miquel Bustillo does a fine job of dispensing some great imagery:

How to assume the starting position. There are several steps that end with prayer.

How the sport has gotten back to it origins. "We don't need an aircraft carrier net anymore to stop people from crashing into the resort." Thoughts of safety, spurred by lawsuits, have restored some sanity.

Techniques of steering. Think trying to direct a cannonball after it's left the cannon. (At the recent Millrose Games I witnessed Chris Cantwell win the shot put with a heave of over 70 feet. I had great seats and watched the arc of that toss from nearly track level. The shot put is not something you want to be in the way of when it lands. And it will land where it wants.)

Misuse of education money. One competitor once blew his student loan money on a modified shovel. (Dear Mr. President, it's not just Vegas that gets the money.)

Injuries do occur. Once a competitor broke his jaw, leg and back in three places; cracked his sternum, and bruised his heart.

All types of people can take part in the competition. A 72-year-old-retiree two years after open-heart surgery has taken part "lusting for adrenaline."

Adrenaline can be good for a stopped heart, but not if it's been cracked open by someone or something other than a highly skilled surgeon in an ideal setting.

Read the full story. But not while sitting on a shovel.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

State of the Art

A book came out this week, This Book Is Overdue!, by Marilyn Johnson. The book's complete title goes on, as they all do: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. It is non-fiction.

Nearly 50 years ago the East Orange, New Jersey police arrested several people after midnight, in their homes, for possessing overdue library books. The fact that some of people were unable to post bail should have surprised no one. If they couldn't afford to return the books and pay the fines, how were they going to post bond? They spent the night in jail until their arraignment.

The new book (which is so new it can't yet be overdue) and the news story are linked.

As a teenager I remember reading the 1961 news accounts of the East Orange arrests. I myself had overdue library books now and then, but always managed to trudge them back and bump up the 2 cents a day fine for each book. (There is absolutely no truth to any stories that I used to challenge to flip the librarian double or nothing for the fines.)

You can find several links to this news story by going online to and searching for East Orange Overdue Library Books. At the Times site, money will be required to read the February and March 1961 stories. This can cost several dollars, and is realistically not a very economical way to satisfy frequent nostalgia urges.

Or, you can go to a library that is equipped with digital database access and read them at a computer for free. You can add the expense of paying 20 cents per page if you want to reprint the stories. This is now what I do.

Ms. Johnson traces this evolution of library services. She even shares her own retrieval story that certainly is public proof of her propensity to read A LOT and remember what she's read when she describes finding the passage in a book (fiction) that contains a female marine biologist who has sex with a dolphin, that puts her among the other people in her world who suffer from information sickness. (Waaaaaay too much research can apparently do this to you.)

Ms. Johnson's book has 12 chapters that fairly easily bring you up to a few minutes ago. Reading is not going away, but where the words are held is changing. And access to those words is changing too.

Some of this I like, and some of this I hate. But to paraphrase from Nick the Greek, a famous gambler whose 1966 obituary I was also reunited with on my latest digital pull, the "read" is the thing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ground Hog Day

I don't usually repeat myself so accurately, but it turns out when I was at the eye doctor this afternoon they reminded me that I was there last Ground Hog Day. I knew it had been early in February, but I didn't realize I had managed to make an appointment two weeks in advance on the anniversary of the last visit.

Sure enough, I even blogged about it in a February 2, 2009 entry, which I do remember, just not the exact date.

And as yesterday was the first of the month, and that meant "punch day" for monthly tickets, I did remember that the conductor last year managed to somehow see me as "female," and then had to scribble something on the ticket to correct the mis-punch. The rest of the month went smoothly last year, and this year, a different conductor got it right the first time.

I did ask the doctor and his staff though if they had something that would block vision when the Grammys were on. I thought a device like that could come in handy between this year and next, assuming the scheduling is the same.

This took them a bit off guard, and with no apparent solution. I told them I took one look at the show for a few seconds, changed the channel, then took the batteries out of the remote and swallowed them.

They didn't believe the swallowing part, but then, they don't realize who I have had appointments with this week.