Monday, February 28, 2011

The Comeback

Coinciding with the recent 100th anniversary of the birth of President Reagan were a flock of documentaries. A life as long, varied and public as President Reagan's will produce sound bites galore. And it did.

There was of course the one about questioning the party affiliations of the surgical team poised to remove a bullet from the president's torso. There was the retort about age and experience to the reporter during the second debate with Democratic candidate Mondale. There was a plea to a foreign leader to file for a demolition permit.

These were all great. Memorable. Historic probably. But there are others, and they can be found in the darndest of places: in obituaries of others who have passed away. And not just the initial Reagan utterance, but the reply from the receiving end. In this case, even better.

Thursday's NYT obituary section carried a lengthy, by-lined news obit, complete with a fairly large photo of R.W. Peterson, an environmentalist who passed away at 94.

The name rang no bells. I almost skipped it because there were others that day that caught my interest, and I was somewhat full of this kind of story. But there's one thing about the print medium saved: you can have it laying around in front of you, and not have it hidden behind electronic retrieval access. Seeing can bring renewed interest.

And the renewed interest paid off. Mr. Person was not only an 'environmentalist' but he also had his hand in developing Dacron at DuPont while being there for 26 years, rising to lead research and development. He was a one term (4 years) governor of Delaware after getting involved in politics through efforts at prison reform. We was selected for Washington work and served with presidents Nixon and Ford.

But it was as president of the National Audobon Society from 1979 to 1985 that Mr. Peterson entered into the Comeback Hall of Fame. This would certainly seem to be the view of the reporter Douglas Martin who unearthed the following tit for tat.

"Mr. Peterson vigorously fought President Ronald Reagan's efforts to weaken enforcement of environmental regulations to help businesses. When Reagan said conservationists would not be happy until the White House was a "bird's nest," Mr. Peterson snapped back that it was already a "cuckoo's nest."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Tractable Apostrophe

In yesterday's NYT, Mr. Clyde Haberman riffs on the punctuation misuse that annually becomes apparent when Presidents' Day rolls around. It's a well-written piece that is informative and earnestly written, making good use of its tongue and cheek. You do have to be probably minimally 40 years old at today's sunrise, or the product of very expensive education (attendance required) to appreciate and even understand what Mr. Haberman is talking about. Then, you will at least understand and enjoy it. If you bought or read Lynne Truss's book 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' you probably already read the piece.

I share Mr. Haberman's frustration and surely wonderment at how the apostrophe gets so misused. His is the reporter's reaction. He's pointing out what he sees. He points out the strengths of other's reactions when he quotes Ms. Truss as to what she'd like to do to people who misuse the elevated comma. It is not pretty. It is certainly not legal.

I for one, when confronted with an apostrophe quandary, will duck the issue. Write around it. It's something that doesn't seem to be offered by Ms. Truss. She makes a great fuss over how to punctuate Two Weeks Notice when you could really write Two Week Notice and not lose a thing. But overall, both Ms. Truss and Mr. Haberman highlight the confusion.

Ten years ago I wrote to Mr. Russell Baker about what I was then seeing as a noticeable trend in the paper of his former employer to smashing what were once hyphenated words into a single word. The style is still in effect to turn once hyphenated words into newly minted compound words.

Mr. Baker replied that he gave up on "hyphen idiocy" years ago and that he felt "you can be excused for shooting on sight without asking questions" when offended.

Grammarians have decidedly strong reactions to the misuse of punctuation. Thankfully, they're really kidding, and using their way with words to convey frustration. Extreme frustration.

Even without consistent gun control and weapon laws it's good to know that unhinged rage is not let loose at a book store on Presidents' Day, even given the paucity of bookstores and the fact that the carnage count would likely be reasonably low. Tolerance (smugness?) is in order. It keeps you out of the hands of the authorities and able to buy, or logon to a newspaper the following day. Or even write for one.

Monday, February 21, 2011

George Shearing

There's an appreciation of the jazz pianist, George Shearing, in the WSJ that's topped off by a line by Terry Teachout that Shearing was, "blessed with an ear sharp enough to hear a gnat shrug."

Despite always liking jazz, I never did buy a George Shearing album--until now that he's passed away.

In the 60s, many of George's album covers were graced by very attractive women. I remember a radio personality alluding to George's blindness, as well as his taste, that he got to use Braille on each candidate before she appeared on an album.

The things you remember growing up.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Finish Line

Even in the dead of winter, a day at the races can be a welcome diversion. And not because the race track is in sunny Florida or California. Because the one visited on Saturday isn't. It's Aqueduct, in South Ozone Park Queens, New York, and well described as 'nuclear winter.'

There is nothing physically appealing about the place, or the weather in February, with mountains of snow in the parking lot and whoever shows up crammed into the clubhouse area because of the construction finally getting under way in the grandstand area to provide for the video lottery terminals (VLTs), or video slots, that have been propping up racing's bottom line these days. But parking is free, and so is the admission, so you can at least start the day without spending any money.

And if you treat yourself to a table in the dining room you can secure a halfway decent place to spend the afternoon watching and betting on thoroughbred racing such as it is in New York in February. Which is what we did.

No problem being in the front set of tables, on the glass, overlooking the finish line and the paddock. There's plenty of elbow room. The place is a bit shabby, the TVs at the tables are not flat panels, and the glass is streaked with the effects of snow, wind, rain, and ice. They probably don't wash the windows until March or April. The place hasn't been painted in a while, and the baseboards are coming unglued. There is heat however, so the place does function. And the buffet format provides enough edible food that make it your own fault if you leave hungry.

Front row is the front row, and all the tables along the glass are occupied. We're in the left corner as you face the track. A prime spot. There are people in the adjacent table, two fiftyish, sixtyish guys, joined by a younger guy and eventually by a young blond haired, pony-tailed girl wearing blue jeans, a sweater and a red puff jacket, who looks like the daughter of the guy on her left. She's in her 20s.

The afternoon is proceeding nicely, if you're picking winners. We started out that way, but as happens, something evaporates, and contenders now finish second, and exactas go 1-3, with no bet on the winner. The prices are somewhat short, as favorites at meets like this seem to win at a 45-50% rate, rather than what usually holds at a 33% rate.

There are 10 races on the card. Soon after the 7th race I realize the people at the table behind us have checked out and left. Nothing unusual there. Lots of people do not stay for the whole card, and depending on how things are going, can leave early if they've lost within their budget, or have just plain seen enough. Or, are so far ahead that they don't want to jinx themselves by further tempting fate.

The 8th race is typical for what's on the card at Aqueduct's winter meet. It's a race for cheap horses, going for a claiming price of $7,500 who are four years old and up who have never won three races. The total purse is $17,000. A winning stable gets 60% of the total purse. There's not a huge amount of money that's going to be tossed around after this one. And whoever wins is not going to make it to even a lead story in the Daily Racing Form, never mind the 'Today' show.

But what racing accomplishes through the eligibility and the conditions of the race is that a competitive field is assembled. There usually are no absolute standouts. They may run slow, but they'll run slow together, and leave the outcome generally in doubt until late in the race.

There were 10 such horses in this 8th race. My own selection went to two horses in an exacta, one of whom looked like they were going to cruise to a victory in this 6 furlong race. My other exacta horse was somewhere else, not in contention, so I was headed for perhaps once again being half right, which does not pay off in an exacta.

The leader down the mid-stretch was the #8 horse, Auditorium, a second choice favorite, who was looking good approaching the finish line. But, horse racing not being over till it's over, saw the #7 horse, Dakota Roadhouse wiggle free, take charge down the middle of the track, giving every look like he was now at least giving someone a run for their money.

Auditorium is running, still in the lead, but Dakota is Swallowing. Up. Ground with Every. Stride. Still, Auditorium looks like he will prevail. But Dakota is Coming. Coming. Coming. The wire is where it always is and They. Get. There. Together.

Dead heats are rare in racing. An examination of the photo can usually lead the placing judge to declare an undistbutable winner. And Dakota is it. By a nose. A flared nostril, really.

At 4-1 Dakota is not a long shot, and pays $10.80 to win. If this were a nationally televised stake race and a horse came from behind like that to take the race it would be seen by perhaps millions, written about by several, and entered as a racing highlight. It would rank up there with the great ones. T-shirts might even evolve.

In fact, the margin of ground that Dakota Roadhouse made up was so huge my own joke was that I didn't think he could do it again on the replay. He did, of course. It's official.

Our dining table vantage point gave us a good view of the finish line as well the paddock. And who is leading the horse down the ramp, holding the halter, headed toward what passes as the winners' circle at Aqueduct but the blond, pony-tailed girl in the red puff jacket.

A very quick feed from the paddock TV camera sees her joining the others who were at the table next to us, now all dressed in puff jackets with one of the guys wearing a wide brimmed felt hat. A country squire look.

No one ever has to be asked to smile in the winners' circle, even in the winter, even at Aqueduct, and even after winning only 60% of a $17,000 purse.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Let's Go to the Videotape

"Charlie is circling the drain."

That was one of the best comments I read after the latest Charlie Sheen episode hit the news. Only those not in comas at the time know what I'm talking about. That leaves a good deal of the population with knowledge of at least something of the events.

Back at the clipping pile and have come across a February 23, 2010 one saved from the NYT on Martin Sheen, Charlie's father. The occasion for the article was Mr. Sheen's reappearance in the play 'The Subject Was Roses', in a Los Angeles theater production. This time he plays the father, having originally played the son when the play was on Broadway in 1964. I remember ads for the 1964 play on the sides of 3rd Avenue buses as they passed the family flower shop.

Charlie Sheen is not really living a life others haven't lived before. But thanks to technology and whatever you want to call the current world of communications, he's certainly living it less privately.

Several years ago when I was reading The Dead Beat, the book on the art of newspaper obituaries, I never expected to get wind of a theory as to who Carly Simon might have been singing about in her song 'You're So Vain.'

Throughout my more recent life I always held to the premise that there were three things in life that ranked as the world's greatest mysteries. The first of course was: Who is Carly singing about?; Who is Deep Throat?; Is there life on other planets? Sometimes I changed the order.

In 2005, shortly before the book's release, one of those mysteries melted away. An assistant director of the FBI, Mark Felt, identified himself as Deep Throat, the news source who helped Bob Woodward write stories about president Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

Then I got to page 85 (hardcover) of The Dead Beat and was presented with the author's completely plausible theory on who Carly was singing about. I was so excited about having stumbled on a source that wasn't making the rounds of the media that few in my office building who happened to be with me in an elevator didn't also get this news from me. I set several youngsters straight that no, it wasn't James Taylor. Smugness set in.

Without permission, I quote:

Carly Simon probably wrote "You're So Vain" not about James Taylor or Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger, but about the dissipated eccentric William Donaldson, who left her her "when she was still quite naive." Donaldson wrote wonderful satirical books, but he also ran through several fortunes, pimped, and enjoyed crack cocaine and the date-rape drug Rohypnol (he liked to use it on himself). "It's such a nuisance," the Daily Telegraph quoted him in his obit. "The trouble is, it wipes your memory. You have to video yourself to appreciate just what a good time you had."

It's going to be somewhat like the groundhog seeing or not seeing his shadow, and the predictions for more or less winter. If Charlie does go to the videotape and likes what he sees, he can only do it all over again.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Life Amongst the Coconuts

Carl Hiaasen is a reporter for the The Miami Herald, who like any number of reporters has taken to writing books. He's amongst the talented few who can do both.

He has previously produced 11 novels, some of which have genuinely gone into bestseller territory. There is a continuing of stream numbnut characters held between terrific hardcover dust jackets that evoke simplicity and the pastel colors of South Beach, Florida. If covers alone sold books, Mr. Hiassen's work would be easy: he wouldn't have to put anything worth reading inside. Lucky for us, he takes his work seriously enough to give us not only some commentary on the culture around us, but some choice strings of words that may come in handy if we're provoked enough.

As a reporter, Mr. Hiaasen knows the waterfront. The story is set mostly in southern Florida, Keys included, on land, water, and where crocodiles crap.

The characters in his latest novel, 'Star Island' should be familiar to anyone who has fairly recently sat in front of a TV, a computer screen, read a photo caption, or had the radio on. This should blanket anyone who hasn't been in a coma in the last 10 years, or so.

The story centers around Cherry Pye, a vacant-headed female pop-star singer who hasn't yet held a pharmagological susbstance she doesn't want to ingest, who is surrounded by an entourage of her parents and paid flunkies, who if they can't do what's best for Cherry, will at least do what's best for themselves. It's a familiar world.

Then there are the outsiders who try and crash what happens around Cherry and turn it into cash. The 'photo journalists,' and one in particular, whose uncut fingernails don't even reach the lowest rung of decency.

There is also a recurring character, an unhinged, one-eyed, eco-terrorist former governor of Florida who goes by the name of Skink. Rhymes with sink, which is what happens to you when you step in quicksand or speculate in Florida real estate.

There are other colorful walk-ons, like the substitute security guard whose thoughts on reincarnation are as novel as they are completely understandable, given the hormones cruising through his body.

And when Mr. Hiaasen's descriptions of people seem too stretched out you have to realize they are commentary. Like the father of the knocked-up daughter who has the largest collection of AK-47s in the Louisiana parish, causing a prospective son-in-law to leave the state. This father is not alone. He just happens to have the most AK-47s in working order. Others are behind him in quantity, that's all. There's more where he comes from.

You really don't have to have read the dust jacket flap to realize Mr. Hiaasen is a born and raised Floridian who has absorbed an invasion of humanity that really may not be a gorgeous mosaic but is more like a collection of people with IQs that ruin the state's average. The only person who meets death in the novel is surely Mr. Hiaasen's least loved person on earth.

The story of course has an ending. But the story isn't really over. Just stay out of a coma, and you'll keep getting chapters somehow.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


The main branch of the New York Public Library has undergone a renovation. The plywood has been removed.

Today's WSJ reports the story, along with some interesting quotes and observations from Christine Quinn, the New York City Council Speaker.

It's hard to understand Christine Quinn, but if I get her right, she might be contemplating renaming the lions Nip and Tuck because of the restoration work on their noses. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of course named them Patience and Fortitude. You'll have to look it up as to which one is which.

Ms. Quinn's comments of course remind me of something. Something always reminds me of something.

Years ago I read in the New Yorker a piece on John Gotti, the now deceased Godfather who appropriately earned the nickname Teflon Don, because between his two lawyers, Gerald Shargel and Bruce Cutler, the government didn't win convictions from its indictments. The charges had a way of not sticking.

Apparently, the magazine story filled in some wiretapped dialogue that had John reaching out for his counselors by telling someone to get him "Muck" and "Fuck."

At least Ms. Quinn has kept the cleaning clean.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Empire State Runup

Yesterday was the Empire State Runup, a multi-wave race sponsored by the New York Road Runners Club that involves running up the stairs of the Empire State building from the lobby to the 86th floor observation deck. It's a heck of a way to bypass the elevator.

This event has been going on for some time now, and is repeated in other tall building throughout the country and the world. There are even outdoor events that involve enough steps that, when repeated in enough loops, approximate the climb up Mt. Everest. Eliminate or decrease gravity, and the distance to the Moon is next.

Running up steps has always been a training aspect for athletes, particularly runners. I used to add a series of stone steps to my 5 mile workouts in Flushing's Kissena Park. Many, many years ago.

Everytime the Runup rolls around I remember the stories that the old Irish guys told in a Madison Avenue Blarney Stone that was not far from the Empire State building. These fellows were on their break, or something, from being elevator starters, or lobby men in what was once upon a time the tallest building.

They, as well as I, remembered the time when there were six indoor track meets held each season at Madison Square Garden. Whenever one of these meets was scheduled they'd keep their eyes peeled on the lobby doors that led to the stairs for runners who were in town looking to top off their training with some stairs. They'd intercept those they found headed for the doors.

Which of course is just another example of how things change. Now, once a year, several hundred people are selected by the Road Runners Club for the right to pay an entry fee to run up the same stairs and reach the 86th floor completely out of breath.

Marketing. More powerful than gravity.