Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Place in the Hole

I've been waiting a long time for a well written obituary on a truly way out character. When Robert McG. Thomas was alive you could count on some appearing almost regularly. But Mr. Thomas himself is no longer with us, and he is missed.

But there are others, when they're allowed to be. And in today's WSJ, Stephen Miller's telling of the life of Richard Zimmerman, Dugout Dick, is what we've been missing.

Mr. Miller is completely capable of filling the Thomas shoes, but one gets the feeling the WSJ keeps a bit of a hold on him. When he worked at The Sun, Mr. Miller wrote some beauts, but probably none close to the one he wrote for in a 'zine for his own amusement about Jeffrey Dahmer basically being the son even a mother would be afraid to admit was hers.

Dugout Dick was not a denizen of the baseball world, but rather a modern day caveman. And when you live in a cave you need a nickname, like Dugout Dick. He just passed away at 94, and lived in a cave complex he created in Idaho. Even had tenants, when they paid the rent.

Dugout's obituary is such a departure from what has been turning up in the Journal that one suspects that Mr. Miller slipped his editor some hallucinogenic powder that sent the poor soul to the emergency room a few hours before deadline, or, the boss was just plain on vacation. Whatever, as they say, a gem emerged.

Mr. Zimmerman is described as a striking figure, who was topped off by a red miner's helmet. And a good thing, because it probably contributed to his longevity. Dugout was quoted in 2002 (when he would have been 86) as saying, "you bump your head a lot when you live in a cave." Thank goodness for self-adherence to OSHA regulations.

Mr. Miller clearly had fun and likely only regrets they limited him to the space they did in today's paper.

But there will probably be a little more about Dugout before the news cycle expires. Perhaps we will see an Op-Ed piece soon. As he grew frail, a friend of his got him in a nursing home. This of course means that even before the recently passed legislation, the caveman had health care coverage. This might come as a surprise to some people who inhabit The White House, pop up on Fox and CNN, but Dugout proved it was true.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Heroes and Heroines

I've been a fan of Mary Chapin Carpenter's music ever since her debut album, 'Hometown Girl.' There are several songs on the album that I think one would still think of as good, and one in particular, 'Heroes and Heroines,' that has beguiled me for years.

It is a delicate, beautiful song that weaves together the exploits of Charles Lindbergh ("your wings hang in a gallery sky") with that of...who?

Is there even a female counterpart to the song? There aren't many clues, but we go from illusions of Lindbergh to..."way out on the Western plains...rodeos and riding high...ladies and their men get by on six-guns and white lightning."

For years I though it might be Annie Oakley. She was a diminutive sharpshooter who toured with the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West shows and was the basis for Irving Berlin's musical, 'Annie Get Your Gun.' Later a movie.

I tried for years to get input from someone else. I e-mailed MCC. No answer. I posted Internet queries here and there. Silence from sites that are light years away by now. I e-mailed another singer whose music I like, Susan Hamlin. She wasn't familiar with the song. (If anyone is interested in a certain kind of folk, Irish music, then Ms. Hamlin's CD, 'Younger Than the Sun' is a good one to try out. Plus, you get Yeats.)

Trying to translate lyrics is of course nothing unusual, and can be a bit of a hobby. For decades people have been dying to know who Carly Simon says is, "so vain." This one's been going on so long that people have probably died without knowing for certain. Aside from life on other planets, it's the one GREAT unanswered question.

Mary Chapin's music does not enjoy the reach of the same mystery. But it can still generate thought. Don McLean's song 'American Pie' has been successfully deconstructed by many, but the best one I ever heard was my friend's, umpteen years ago, who walked us all through it and told us, "the jester on the sidelines in a cast" is Bob Dylan after his motorcycle accident.

So, if I doubt Annie Oakley, who, if it's anyone? The only other female Western figure I could think of was Calamity Jane. (I did think of Kitty on 'Gunsmoke,' but that was a TV show.)

It was only the other day when I finally consulted the Web and learned more about Calamity Jane. The inspiration for both a Doris Day and a Jane Russell movie, a Broadway musical, she was more of a legend than Annie Oakley, who was herself still quite a legend.

Martha Jane was the oldest of her family and wound up providing for them after her parents died. She was an Indian scout, an Indian fighter, and caregiver to smallpox patients. She rode in Buffalo Bill's rodeo, and was, in general, a hard drinking, cussin' figure on the Western trail, one of the boys. Not, unlike, it seems, Hillary Rodham Clinton on the 2008 Presidential trail when she was knocking back boilermakers, talking tough, and teaching the boys a thing or two. My only guess is that they avoided any allusion to Calamity Jane in Ms. Clinton's campaign because of the name 'Calamity.' Who wants a president nicknamed Calamity?

She apparently acquired the nickname 'Calamity' when she helped a calvary officer who had been wounded from falling off his horse. On recovering, Captain Egan is supposed to have laughingly said: "I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains."

I think I found my heroine.

But it doesn't end there. Calamity Jane, by most accounts was married to Wild Bill Hickok, the lawman, gunfighter, gambler who was killed in a poker game in the Dakotas. They are buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery on Mount Moriah in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Deadwood. Home of the South Dakota Festival of Books, and the site of the opening chapter in a recent book about librarians, 'This Book is Overdue. '

South Dakota. New York's famous mayor Fiorello La Guardia was raised on Army bases in the West. His father was an Army bandmaster, and young Fiorello learned to ride horses in the Dakotas.

So, when in New York, your answers might be in South Dakota. You just can't there by subway.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Someone Eats Out

I do marvel a bit at the beat obituary writers in the New York Times. They can turn out pieces on subjects whose lives and fame are from such varied pursuits that I sometimes think no one can possibly learn all that about these people without already be an expert in the field themselves.

And while I know some of them them are experts in certain fields, when someone like William Grimes pulls double duty, like today, and writes about a famous architect and a famous chef I can only marvel at how much information can be artfully spliced together to inform us about someone's life.

I suspect Mr. Grimes heart is with the chef, Jean Vergnes, 88, who passed away after a lifetime of working in restaurants, being nearly every kind of chef there is in restaurants, starting restaurants, and most importantly, and what surely helped prolong the life we read about, escaping from the Nazis by trying on a German officer's coat and wandering away from the forced labor mine he was detained at in occupied France in 1943. Given the chance to keep cooking, he did.

And when I have to look words up that are used in an obituary, it's even more entertaining. I suspect Mr. Grimes might eat out quite a bit, while I don't. The dictionary becomes where I get a happy meal.

One of the restaurants Jean Verges helped get underway was The Cirque. I always suspected this meant 'circus,' and it does. It was never obvious to me that the name implied breaking with stuffy haute cuisine. Even if the restaurant was named 'Hot Dog' in French (chien chaud) I still wouldn't have gotten it without Mr. Grimes's explanation.

And then there was the word 'soigne' socialites. Turns out that means "sleek, well-groomed, elegantly maintained." Perfect description of the people who eat out in those places, because from anything I've seen, there isn't much on the plate, but it is STACKED up high and is great to look at. And I'm sure they don't sketch a HAPPY FACE with sauce drippings, either.

None needed. By all accounts, Jean Vergnes was the happy face.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Good Earth

Today is Earth Day.

I know this because the calendar says so, and there were some hand-outs at the job to remind us. A somewhat large corporate emblazoned tote bag made from recycled Rice Krispies, and a rubber ball with rough approximations of the continents were distributed early this morning. Most of the world's land masses were on the ball--Greenland for instance--but not Iceland. They're going to get blamed for a lot with that volcano.

I tried to think what anniversary of Earth Day it was today. I thought sometime in the early 1970s would make today something like the 30th anniversary. Turns out I'm having a little trouble subtracting the 70s from 2010. Today marks the 40th! anniversary of Earth Day.

Oddly enough, today I passed the through the part of Manhattan where I saw the first evidence of how someone was celebrating, or acknowledging Earth Day. Years and years ago there some some kind of "earth" shoe store on 17th Street, off Irving Place, that specialized in a special kind of shoe that was supposed to let you walk as if you were barefoot. All the back-to-nature people would line up outside the store and wait to get in. Kaslo, I think. Some kind of shoe from Sweden.

It was in this area in 1970, not quite a full year after we put a man on the moon, where I came across the first Earth Day sentiments on the back of someone's jacket--letters carefully formed by masking tape:

Fuck the Moon
Fix the Earth

The shoe store is long gone, and so are the people who would wear taped sentiments on their clothing. You wonder if they're acknowledging the day today.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Easy for Someone to Say

You'd have to just be waking up from a long nap to suddenly hear that a volcano in 2010 is causing a bit of world-wide havoc with air travel.

I was at a Doo-Wop concert last night and one of the singers was waxing a bit nostalgic about things in the past. That's the whole point of going. But this fellow seemed to be missing something I didn't understand. He asked, "How did we ever get hooked on phonics?" There wasn't much reaction, because frankly, I don't think anyone knew what the hell he was talking about. Anyway, I guess it sounded like there was a simpler time when we weren't hooked on phonics. (Personally, I think we're hooked on talking heads and opinions, but I'll need my own act to advance that observation. And I can't sing.)

Anyway, because of the volcano that's erupting in Iceland we're once again getting news from that frost-bitten speck near the Arctic Circle.

Bobby Fischer's chess match with Boris Spassky in 1972 brought the place into world-wide consciousness, and a good number of us learned how to pronounce Reykjavik, the nation's capital and site of the match. Many years later Bobby Fischer's self-imposed exile in Reykjavik and his death there, along with the country's monetary collapse put the place back in the news. Now it's volcanic ash, and what it can do to jet engines.

Along with the volcano news we're struggling to learn how to pronounce the name of the town the volcano is in. It's not even easy to spell, let along pronounce, even with the aid of phonetic spelling. The name makes Icelanders seem like they're terrible at Scrabble and use the bottom of eye charts to create place names.

Hooked on phonics? If any of us were the phonetic spelling 'ay-yah-FYAH'-plah-yer-kuh-duhl' for Eyjafjallajokull should seem like trying to say 'cat.'

There are many European hockey players in the NHL, and ever since Team Canada vs. the Russians in 1972 I've tried and gotten better at pronouncing Russian, and now other Slavic names. I work my way through the letters, and usually emerge with near-correct pronunciation.

But if someone from Iceland named 'Eyjafjallalokull' were to make the NHL the lettering would start just about the left elbow, go across the shoulders, and end just above the right elbow.

Announcers would also likely hope he never touched the puck. They'd never have to try and say his name then.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tesco Hardware

In 1991 when we were still living in Flushing, the local hardware store handed out breast pocket weekly planners in celebration of their 25th anniversary: 1966-1991. I remember when the Tesco family bought the hardware store from the Nelsons, who bought the store from the Herzog's. Saturday was always a great day because it was of course the first of two days off from school, as well as the day I got to go to the hardware store with my father to bring home benzene, paint, or something that was filled up from a tank in the back. Or a bag of nails. Loose nails in tin bins; 6d, 8d, 10d, etc.

We no longer live in Flushing and Tesco hardware is gone too. The family is still around, but no longer trying to figure out the translation to whatever it was people were describing to them that they needed.

I still have the weekly planner, as much for the sentimental value as for the often valuable quotes that are part of its layout at the top of every other page. Some quotes are pedestrian, but interesting because of who they're from who is still around.

Diane Sawyer: "I'm always fascinated by the way memory diffuses fact." Gee. Wow. Diane, you're deep.

Others are worthy material for Bartlett's, and might actually be in later editions. Two of them I've remembered all these years and am somewhat guided by, no different than if they were passages from the Bible.

Reverend Hesburgh: "The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother." Reverend Hesburgh was president of Notre Dame at the time, and is still around. I recently saw something on an Op-Ed page he was weighing in on.

And certainly on the playful side, one of my absolute favorites is from Mae West: "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."

So when someone we know remarked that they are "...barely keeping my head above water with librarians." I was able to quickly remind them of Ms. West's sentiments.

Of course, if anyone can remember anything about Ms. West, or chooses to look it up, they will easily conclude that Mae was not talking about checking books out of buildings, but was rather more occupied in thought with checking something else out and enjoying it.

No matter. The sentiment fits, and that's all that matters. Which of course goes to show you that quotes can be like liquids: they assume the shape of their container.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

I have to say I'm a little rusty on everything that's going on in the '"Wizard of Oz." I didn't realize one of the Munchkins was a coroner who pronounces the Wicked Witch dead as part of his duties.

It turns out that the actor who played the coroner has just passed away, and Margalit Fox in Saturday's NYT starts his obituary off in a highly unique fashion. She leads with the announcement for which he became famous, and remained so for 70 years.

As coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her.
And she’s not only merely dead,
She’s really most sincerely dead.

Meinhardt Raabe, who has now passed away at 94, announced this event with great fanfare when he was 23 in the 1939 movie classic the Wizard of Oz. And while I may not have remembered he was a medical examiner, I do remember the song that followed, "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead."

Several times in my work career at a major insurance company I remember paraphrasing that ditty when a vexing female management member shuffled off for another position outside the company. They didn't have to go all the way and die to deserve the ditty, just moving on was good enough.

Ms. Fox points out in the obituary that Meinhardt was one of the few Munchkins who had a speaking role. He certainly made the most of what God gave him, excelling in fields that one wouldn't expect.

There was one story from the movie that I remember hearing that told of the time there was an extended break in the shooting of a Munchkin scene. To kill time, several, or all of the Munchkins took to having a few belts of their favorite libation while waiting to resume shooting. Someone said that you really haven't seen anything until you see a set full of 100 Munchkins stewed to the gills trying to do the next take.

Ms. Fox doesn't try and explain the difference between dwarf and midget. We basically know it means they are people who remain short into adulthood.

It wasn't until I moved into a Levitt home sub-division umpteen years ago that I saw "dwarf" applied in a symbolic fashion. All the streets in our area start with the letter D. We are in the D section. There are people somewhere who are in a W section, but they're not really neighbors.

Anyway, using streets with a D starts to exhaust the possibilities within the English language. We have streets named Deep, Dell, Disc, Dock, Deer, Daffodil, Downhill, Dahlia, Duck Pond Drive East, North and South, and finally, Dwarf.

Dwarf Lane is very short. It only has one house on it.



Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Day at the Races

Money earned is nice.
But money won
Is twice as nice.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Last Word

Obituaries sometimes end with a zinger, inserted by the writer to throw a splash of irony at the deceased. They also sometimes end with a quote from the deceased that is meant to sum up their life, their philosophy, or just plain memorialize something memorable they uttered. The application for Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

Published obituaries are not written by the deceased. But sometimes the living express themselves as if they were already in the past tense.

Norman Mailer's widow, his sixth wife, Norris Church Mailer has just had her memoirs published, A Ticket to the Circus. The book review in today's NYT by Dwight Garner recounts some of the events described in the book. The book is well titled.

The reviewer closes the review with the observation that Ms. Mailer has survived her own health problems, and writes, toward the end of her memoir, "If I go tomorrow, I will still be ahead."

Anyone married to Norman Mailer for 27 years who managed to outlive him--even if she was much younger they he was when they were married--has certainly earned whatever renewals they've been granted. They should probably get a few more.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Letters in the Attic

The still-at-home offspring has turned into a triathlete. This leaves the counter and drain board with several types of empty bottles, each covered by their own recycling regulation.

Since New York state has recently expanded its definition of what a "returnable" is, different water products are now under the 5 cent bottle bill. When the recycling effort effort started years ago it was only drinks that had carbonation that were defined as refundable. This notably left Yogi Berra's Yoo-Hoo off the recycling list. It's a chocolate flavored drink and not carbonated. It never made any grocery list in our house.

I'm old enough to remember that in the 50s there was a two cent deposit on 12 ounce soda and beer. Bigger bottles of Coke (family size) were tagged at 5 cents for some reason. As kids, it was rare when someone excavated a 5 cent empty coke bottle from the trash at the school yard. Whoever achieved finding one of those was right up there with getting a decent Yankee in their bubble gum package.

I try and comply with local laws. This even extends to recycling. So when I'm confronted with the variety of what's left to take to the garage or the side of the house I have to read the labels for some of the products.

I was surprised to learn that Gatorade Perform, an Electrolytes + Carbs [21g] concoction (Rain Berry, natural flavor) does not have a NY return value. It does however have a return value in 'CA CRV ME, HI 5 cents'. Okay, that one's for the side of the house, but where the hell is CRV? It's not one of the 50 states, they all only use two initials these days. (When they didn't is another story.)

The Internet is the great leveler these days. And http://www.acronymfinder.com/ is a great site for learning what ACH stands for on your bank statements and what CRV might mean.

Twenty-two possibilities are first painted on the screen. Nothing really to do with geography, but one is Crew Return Vehicle (NASA). CRV, typical NASA abbreviation for something we would call the Space Shuttle. But then again, CRV is probably better than SS. Too many bad associations with that one.

So, the space shuttle has a bottle return policy? Alert the media. I never thought of the space shuttle as being a geographic entity. It makes me wonder if the Vatican has a return policy on wine bottles.

It can't be. Wally Schirra umpteen years ago became a sponsor for Tang, the powdered orange drink that the "astronauts use." So, Gatorade associated with the space program is not too much of a stretch, but how do you take the bottle back to the CRV? You'd definitely need a pass for that.

At the bottom the Acronymfinder page is the link that there are 75 more definitions stored "in the attic." More like it.

Got closer, and slightly more plausible. 'California Refund Value.' But it already says CA for California, so why the CRV? You can take it to a pawn shop?

When I explained all this to my friend who comes over on Saturday mornings before heading to OTB he pointed out that the Gatorade bottle is oddly punctuated. The only comma is after the ME, which of course means Maine. So, why does it go CA CRV ME, HI?

He's very good at spotting these things because he was once in journalism. It also helps him understand the absolute odd symbols they use in Past Performances when you're trying to handicap races. Knowing that the last race was over an inner track surface and today's is on the outer track surface can mean cashing or tearing up tickets. Knowledge is a great thing.

And knowing whether I go to the garage or the side of the house is helpful too.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Daphne Park

Today's obituary in the WSJ on Daphne Park has to be one of the worst I've ever read.

I don't know if this is because Rupert Murdoch and his British brain trust are concentrating so hard at keeping stories short or not, but today's is fairly bad. The obituary is not bylined and is reprinted from The Times of London. We don't really know if it is reprinted in its entirety or not, but it is only six paragraphs, no jumps.

It starts off promising enough, telling us Daphne lived to be 88 and was regarded as an intelligence officer legend. The piece offers that she avoided execution on several occasions by quick thinking. A few biographical facts are sprinkled in but that is basically it.

It does try and impress us with how good she was. The piece closes with this sentence:

She once escaped death after being seized by soldiers who claimed that a tape in her handbag was a smuggled recording of Patrice Lumumba, one of the Congo's new leaders, who was in jail, calling on his people to rise up.

The obituary is so short and inconclusive that it begs you to create your own ending. So I have.

Nothing more about Ms. Park is known because she was such a good intelligence officer and could keep a secret so well that no one could ever find out anything more to write about her.