Friday, May 28, 2010

The Art of Art

Live long enough and become known to millions of people and your passing will likely be noted with respect and fondness. This certainly applied to Art Linkletter, who passed away the other day at 97.

It wasn't that long ago when either the WSJ, or The Times had a story about Art Linkletter. It was a bit of an interview and it found him quite with it, and belying his age. I realized then that I hadn't heard anything much about him, and that I really hadn't even been sure he was still with us. Despite being an avid reader of obituaries, if you go on the day I didn't buy the paper (and that can happen) then I might not learn of your passing.

The story revealed something I didn't know. Art was Canadian. Lorne Greene was Canadian. Alan Thicke is Canadian. Lots of people who aren't hockey players are Canadian, but it still surprises me when I hear of someone who I just assumed was born in the U.S. was really from Canada.

There's a certain newspaper hierarchy of where your obituary will appear, or, where it will be announced as appearing. For the Times, this can mean starting the obituary below the fold. This is somewhat like achieving the rank of a full-bird Colonel. You're up there in recognition, but you're not above the fold. Above the fold is rare. It is a 21 gun salute. It is world-wide news.

But you can still make the front page in another way, with a capsule headline at the bottom that announces your passing, and that the full obituary news story appears inside on a certain page. This is an Inspector's funeral. It's newsworthy, but you've probably been out of the public eye for a number of years. There are millions of people who know who you are, but you haven't recently done Saturday Night Live or collapsed while dancing with youngsters. I suspect Liz Taylor and Shirley Temple will rate a capsule headline. A headstone tombstone.

So, there's the news of Art Linkletter on Thursday morning. I really anticipate a HUGE text that will take me into the weekend at the rate I read. I'm excited by the prospect.

Not so in the size department. Six columns, yes. But the octogenarian owner of the tony men's store Paul Stuart, Clifford Grodd, got six columns on the opposite page, albeit not as many inches. They also closed the store for the day.

Never mind. Art is in good hands (and it turns out in the same hands that does Cliff, William Grimes). He doesn't get the short shrift.

We delightfully learn that Art grew up in true hardscrabble fashion. And while resourceful people are usually described as ones who make lemonade from lemons, Art sold discarded lemons as lemons and made some change. No wonder he did direct mail life insurance later. If he hadn't been diverted to radio he might have become the most famous car salesman of all time. Certainly a plaque somewhere in LA under some flapping pennants. Maybe a statue.

But Art does go into radio, which leads to television, which leads to what he did best: listen and talk. I remember as a kid watching 'House Party' on our television in the 50s when it wasn't being lugged through the front door and down the steps because it had to "go to the shop" to be repaired. The worst news you could hear as a kid. A death in the family.

I remember parents talking about what some little kid said on Art's show, and how by the time I got into high school we were skeptically believing the kids were fed answers, just like those quiz show people, as they sat there wiggling in their seats, adorably groomed like it was Easter Sunday.

People will say they don't make them like that anymore. But they're wrong. There are still some television people who have Art's durability and affability, if not the same type of show. Pat Sajak, Vanna White, Alex Trebek (another Canadian!), all, as they say, "icons."

No, Art didn't get short-changed, and he didn't short-change us. I'll only be mad if Phil Donahue gets more space.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

All The News

The Wall Street Journal under the ownership of the Rupert Murdoch media juggernaut is a vastly different paper than it once was. There is a sports section and there are paparazzi photos of gala attendees. There is even now a 'Greater New York' section that puts in one's hands a paper that is a cross-pollination of The New York Post and The Daily News. Police blotter news, featuring homicides, now get the light of day in the Journal.

Aside from featuring those freshly killed, the Journal also has an obituary feature that provides a fresh news story of a notable's death. Inside this 'Remembrances' feature is where Stephen Miller is given a few column inches to apply his craft.

Russell Baker in his last piece described his column efforts as trying to create a ballet in a phone booth. He certainly succeeded, but the metaphor has become dated. Stephen Miler, with not much more space than you'd have while holding a pole on the No. 4 train headed to Yankee Stadium before a game, manages to impart knowledge nuggets that start the thoughts spinning.

Start with the legendary moonshiner Marvin 'Popcorn' Sutton, who committed suicide rather than start a federal sentence for producing untaxed whiskey. He was found in his Ford Fairlane, likely having succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. It was his "Three Jug Car" because his wife claimed he bought it for three jugs of moonshine. You suspect it was a "used" Ford Fairlane.

Then there's Oswalso Lopez Arellano, a Honduran general, military coup leader and two time president who seemed more durable than granite. He passed away at the age of 89. Military Strongman indeed.

But he was also once the recipient of a small moon rock presented to him by President Nixon in 1973. Ownership of the rock seems to have shifted over the years and it became the subject of a court case that was able to return its possession to the country of Honduras. The case was titled: United States of America v. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material (One Moon Rock) and One Ten Inch by Fourteen Inch Wooden Plaque.

Always wondering about authenticity, one wonders whether the real rock is what was eventually returned.

And just yesterday comes the story of the death of the Scottish man, John Shepherd-Barron, 84, who is undeniably credited with inventing the ATM machine. ATMs are described as being so omnipresent world-wide there is even one in Antarctica.

A cash machine in Antarctica!? What do those scientists do down there with a cash machine, use it for buying poker chips for the 6 month Texas hold-em card game?

One wonders.
Keep reading obituaries.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Nothing Better

Sir Winston Churchill is famous for several things, one of which, for me, was saying, "nothing in life is so exhiliharting as to be shot at without result." While to date I haven't been directly shot at, I think I can equate it to the feeling I got today on walking into an orthopedic waiting room without assistance, and on leaving the waiting room without assistance.

They must have towed the wreck away already, because everyone looked like they and the bus didn't get to Atlantic City in one piece.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Closing Time Looms

There is a place near my house--near a lot of houses actually--where there are people with more loose parts than you'd find at a ball bearing factory. It is a branch of Nassau Downs OTB, and it is set to close at the end of the year.

Times are tough all over, and even what would seem like a guaranteed money maker needs to sell off assets. This will be another example of closing doors to the marginally sane and giving them no place to go.

There is the fellow who roots any horse coming down the stretch with a chance to overtake the leader with spirited, loud and repeated shouts of "Hi-Ho Silver." He does this whether the horse is grey or not. Just coming down the stretch is good enough. And since there are races broadcast from several tracks, sometimes minutes apart, this fellow gets to cheer a good many horses on throughout the day. Whether he actually benefits from any of them winning is unknown, but he doesn't get up often to collect, or make fresh bets. He is there for the cheering.

Another fellow, suspended from the premises for an indeterminate time, would make a real pest of himself trying to retrieve a refundable soda can or bottle--whether you were finished with it or not. Even assurances that the empty was his as soon as it was empty were met with skepticism.

And then there is Droopy Drawers, a middle-aged fellow who walks in a crouch like Groucho Marx. Droopy just seems to do guard duty by walking back and forth and mumbling something you can almost understand, but know there's no good reason to try and understand. He is not very tall, so at least he never gets in the way of blocking even the lowest TV on the wall.

There are more. Many more. The good news is they're not there all at once. In fact, I'm not even there anymore, but my friend brings back the Alumni News.

And by December 31st, another outpatient facility will close.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Without getting into all the threaded connections of Daniel Okrent, obituaries, Rotisserie baseball, and newspapers, Mr. Okrent's book, Last Call, the story of the era of Prohibition, sounds like a solid piece that recreates the era that produced legislation that fairly, as a book review claims, "preposterously" outlawed the production and consumption of alcohol.

I have no direct link to the Prohibition era other than all the stories I heard about it from the old-timers at my uncle's and father's flower shop. The family business even once fronted a speakeasy, Bellis's, now known as Pete's Tavern on 18th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan. Plenty of stories were heard about the drinking in the back, and the ladies upstairs. My father would have turned 18 when Prohibition ended, but I suspect his first drink and that of his brothers didn't start at the stroke of repeal.

Given this indirect linkage, Prohibition, you could say would occasionally be on my mind. And when it was, it was how an entire nation, then 48 states, could pass legislation that would ban alcohol. If I'm right about this, the Equal Rights Amendment never made into the books. Talk about taxing soda with sugar all you want, but wiping booze off the shelf has to be one of the more confounding legislative acts I've heard of. What were they thinking? Why were they thinking that?

Mr. Okrent's book apparently explains it quite well. Lobbying. Dry vs. Wet and Dry wins. The 18th Amendment was passed in 1920, and wasn't repealed until 1933. The taxes lost from the prior legal sale of alcohol would be made up by the income tax. Al Capone would be convicted of evading income tax. Talk about irony.

Being a fan of obituaries and of "recent" history I always try and think of what the people were like in a certain era. When were they born? Etc.

If the Amendment passes in 1920, then the adults spearheading its passage would likely have been at least 40 years old. That backs the calendar up to 1880, prior to my grandfather's birth. Back the calendar up another generation to their grandparents, and you're rolling back into 1850. Stage coaches and Indians. Thus, people with linkage to 1850, oral history and otherwise, are in charge in 1920.

The WSJ review by Russ Smith describes how Mr. Okrent fleshes out the Anti-Saloon League leader Wayne Wheeler. Districts are targeted for election change. Wheeler's people succeed mightily. In a still vastly rural nation, media counterweights seem to have no pull. They don't exist. It's got to be interesting.

I will admit, I haven't yet picked the book up myself, and I don't know if it has pictures. It's not listed as "illustrated." And at 468 pages, well, that's nearly as long as the era itself. But depending on how it's organized, the history and the climate of the times should be worth dipping into.

And if I won't be taking a nip myself, I will be taking a dip into it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mighty Happy, Part II

I once started to write a bit of doggerel about a key I carry in my key case.

This is a key to a door
On the 29th floor
From a building that no longer exists…

I never really pushed it any further to a state of completion--or further incompletion. I was satisfied I said it all. The key opened a door to a computer room we used at the World Trade Center. After 9/11, there was no more door, no more building.

I thought of this unfinished piece when I read what I think is one of the best leads I’ve read in a while. Not just for the news it conveys, but for the way it is conveyed. Prose poetry. It appeared today on the front page of the NYT.

The keys found in the ignition of the sport utility vehicle that was left to explode in Times Square on Saturday evening did more than just start cars: one opened the front door to Faisal Shahzad's home.

Not bad.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Mighty Happy

Owning a thoroughbred race horse provides one with the opportunity to be pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. It's like buying a lottery ticket, but with a far greater price tag.

I've never owned a thoroughbred, not even a portion of one--a tail or a hoof, or the right flank-- but through a good-friend of a good friend, I've come to witness aspects of ownership close up. Are there ever highs and lows.

So yesterday, when I knew the friend's friend's horse was going in the 10th at Belmont I spotted the owner and his modest entourage headed for the paddock. I had been invited to join them in the Trustees' room, but a prior commitment to others held me the restaurant at Belmont. To have your horse running on a Saturday is special, and to have it turn out to be Kentucky Derby day can only add to the historic possibilities.

When I saw the owner approach the paddock a pair of retiree-aged well-wishers shook his hand. I saw the owner give the "who knows sign," a right hand turned turned palm up, then quickly turned palm down. No need to hear any words. The motion was its own communication.

The horse is named Mighty Tuff, sired by Good and Tough, and is from thoroughly modest breeding. If this were a person, open admission at a community college might still present a challenge. There'd be a form to fill out.

This was to be the horse's fourth race. The first two were complete disasters. They could only be considered successful if you consider finishing last each time in 10 and 12 horse fields being exactly where you'd like to be. Not many people cherish that spot. But at least he wasn't hurt.

Information was coming in that he had been gelded. This sometimes improves a colt's performance when they seem to have shown no interest in doing anything involving racing. From some very distant article, I've added to my memory the results of a study that claimed that teenage boys think of sex every 14 seconds. I have no idea how this might apply to colts, but I am happy boys are allowed to mature without being gelded.

As if often the case with horses, there is a search to find out what they like with regard to racing surface, distance and class level. Sometimes it is never found out, and plenty of horses never win a race. The owners generally give up on them after whatever money and patience they have has been exhausted.

But two races is too soon, and the horse does have modest turf breeding, through the dam and the sire. This means Mighty Tuff might do well on the grass, as opposed to a dirt surface.

The third race offered such an opportunity but the weather didn't cooperate. When it rains heavy, races come "off the turf" and are carded for the main track. Wet grass is not safe to run on when the animal weighs 1,000 - 1,200 pounds and goes somewhere nearly 35-40 miles an hour with someone on their back, however light.

But the third race revealed some signs of life when the lead was taken and held in a one mile affair at a class level that was considered "open," meaning not restricted to New York Bred horses. Odds were in the slightly better range of 18-1, coming down from the previous 44 and 38-1s. The result was only slightly better in that Mighty Tuff managed to beat only two other horses in a 7 horse field, finishing 5th.

This type of erratic result starts to earn a horse the label of being...well, "no good." But the desired turf surface had yet to be tried. Rain prevented it.

So, now we're at the fourth career start on the first Saturday in May, at Belmont, the last race on the card, and the sun is shining. It's been shining all day, and as the announcer told the gathered at the start of the day's racing: "the track is fast and the turf is firm." We're going to have turf racing today. Mighty Tuff will meet the surface his "connections" have been hoping for.

On paper, that is the past performances, all that has been described is revealed in numbers and symbols. The gelded status is there, but when it occurred isn't. The turf breeding is there, but not lit by a sign that says: "Turf Breeding Here." You've got to bring that piece of knowledge with you, either from knowing something about the breeding, which is revealed, or reading something that might be written along those lines. From the paper, you certainly don't get to know what the connections are hoping for, only that perhaps they're delusional, or maybe they're onto to something, but who knows what.

Mighty Tuff 's odds are climbing. 18-1 when last looked. Despite what can be a host of negatives on paper, a very modest sum has been wagered by the people at my table since money won is twice as nice as money earned.

Basically, the horse is running toward the back in a 12 horse field going 6 furlongs on the turf at Belmont. But not last, not distanced, and not boxed in. The pre-race hand signal is still valid. And then they "straighten for home." Mighty Tuff is swung out to the three or four path and takes dead aim on the wire. The jockey is hardly a household name, but is capable.

Mighty Tuff just keeps coming, with nothing in front of them, but with plenty of others to their inside, who also happen to be ahead.

At final odds of 33-1, Mighty Tuff wins by a nose.

Mighty Happy people.