Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Poems to Learn by Heart

On the first day of each month Barnes and Noble takes out an ad in the NYT announcing who will be speaking about a book, or performing a musical selection in any of their stores. I always scan this just in case there's someone I might want to go hear and see (rare) or to get an idea of a book that might be worth reading. (Happens occasionally.)

The schedule for March revealed that Caroline Kennedy was going to be discussing and signing her book, 'Poems to Learn by Heart,' a bit of a sequel to other collections she has assembled. The book was being released the day of her appearance, March 26th, at the Union Square store.

Online blurb about the book showed it to be attractively priced, hard-covered and watercolor illustrated by Jon J. Muth. Add to this my own interest in seeing and listening to the remainder of a First Family. It's been 50 years this November when she and her mother and brother were who was left after that fateful day in Dallas. More interesting still was that I was in high school at the time and lived and went to school in the Union Square area in 1963. I wanted to think back 50 years.

There were approximately 200 or so people who were seated for the event. The crowd was mostly women, with not many people as old as I was. There were noticeably four young boys and girls wearing matching T-shirts, seated in the front row. The back of the shirts said "American Ballet Theater." If they had bigger frames the shirts could have said Santini Brothers, but these kids were hardly movers.

There were two sixtyish sisters seated near me who were a bit of a scary sight. Both were rail thin, but they might have once been female wrestlers; one with extensive arm and hand tattoos, the other with Cyndi Lauper colorful streaked hair. Not sure if I'd want either of them to be my neighbor. I don't think I could be sure if the garbage was being taken from the house, or into the house. They easily could be living with rooms full of cats.

Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Murth entered on time and were introduced. All interest was on Caroline, however. The introduction mentioned she was an attorney, president of the JFK library, and other social and philanthropic connections, one of which was trustee to the American Ballet Theater. Front row explained.

Involvement with NYC public schools and the over the over $300 million she was acutely responsible for raising for the school system (All without raising taxes, or causing a financial scandal.) was mentioned. Certainly an achievement.

I had forgotten the attorney part. Whether she followed the Kennedy rite-of-passage and was a prosecutor for the Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau is forgotten. He brother John certainly did, and with a few attempts did pass the bar exam. He prosecuted a few purse snatching and muggings, and he was out of there. Public service achieved.

Caroline's high-wattage smile and well-bred bearing would probably leave her with being a prosecutor who couldn't make you mad at the defendant, no matter what they were accused of. The road not taken was the right one.

As Ms. Kennedy made her way to the elevated stage it was apparent she was not particularly tall, was fashionably thin, and walked it seemed tilted foward, as if from a bad back. Something I'm familiar with. Not being much for one who can describe what women are wearing, she appeared to be wearing a caftan, bright red and gold over trousers. It was a distinctive look.

When it came time for her remarks she spoke from a prepared text, not wearing any reading glasses, despite now being 56. Her voice was clear and newscaster neutral that revealed no trace of a New England or New York accent. A broad 'a' or 'fuhgetaboutit' was not going to escape her lips. All her years of living in New York did not turn her into Al Pacino. Or Christine Quinn.

Some family anecdotes were shared, particularly how poetry was always part of her life and was actually a family assignment growing up to pick and recite poems at family gatherings. "Uncle Teddy would recite the 'Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.'"

Some Q&A, with it being revealed that any monsters under her bed growing up were "cute ones." No political questions whatsoever. Forgotten it seemed was the short-lived interest expressed to New York's Governor David Patterson that she'd like to be considered for the U.S. Senate vacancy created when Hillary Clinton took the Secretary of State job in Obama's first administration.

To those who might remember this fairly recent event you might also remember that she came out, however briefly for the job, at her Uncle Teddy's urging after his phone call. Paul Revere indeed. Another road not taken, and probably for the better.

So, what do Caroline Kennedy and myself have in common? We're both left-handed, and wouldn't think of creating a collection of poems without something by Ogden Nash.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Knights

It all started with a Twitter feed early this week from @obitsman, linking an Associated Press obituary appearing in the San Fransisco Cronicle regarding the death of Ruth Ann Steinhagen, 83, the woman who shot the major-league ballplayer Eddie Waitkus in a Chicago motel in 1949. Big news indeed, that even formed the basis for the opening scenes in Bernard Malamud's novel, 'The Natural.' 

The NYT today caught up to their obituary backlog and added its rendition of the Ruth Ann Steinhagen/Eddie Waitkus story. Both obituaries add distinct background nuggets to the tale.

In 1949 I was only a few years or so away from my first year in kindergarten. Because I was somewhat young and not quite housebroken, I had to repeat PS 32's stint closer to home at
PS 22 because of my poor attendance. I skipped 5th grade, however, so I regained the points in the standings.

Thus, poor Eddie's plight did not register with me, and was not ever mentioned by my father. It did register with my friend's father, who was born in 1902 and was a lifelong baseball fan who often talked of Eddie Waitkus and how he was considered to be on his way to being the next Lou Gehrig before the shooting.  Eddie did survive the shooting, missed the rest of the season, but did have several productive years after, playing for a pennant-winning Philadelphia team that lost to the Yankees in 1952.

As I grew older I may have heard about the Waitkus story, but by the time the movie 'The Natural' rolled around in 1984, I was making no connection. And neither did my friend, another lifelong baseball fan, complete in his father's image.

I never realized until reading the obituaries on Ms. Steinhagen that the Malamud novel was written as long ago as 1952, the year she was declared sane and released from a mental institution. Because Mr. Waitkus didn't press charges at that point, Ms. Steinhagen disappeared into anonymous everyday life, with no trial ever being convened.

And that would be that. You would think. But several years ago, the prolific sportswriter Dick Schaap wrote what turned out to be his last book, 'Flashing Before My Eyes,' a sort of highlight film of Dick's life. Anyone who ever read or saw Dick Schaap on TV knew he could drop more names than a room full of faulty hard drives at the Social Security Administration. But that was part of his charm.

I remember Dick proudly bragging that he purposely let his book be published without an index, to basically thwart those who just wanted to look up their names to see what Dick said about them. He had sales in mind. Buy the book. It worked. The book sold.

But at some point in Dick's book be recounts the story of meeting Bernard Malamud at a gathering and telling him how much he liked 'The Natural' and how it portrayed the Eddie Waitkus story. Dick goes on to tell us that Bernard gave him a rather frosty glare and told him that he was retelling the story of Sir Percival, one of the Holy Grail Knights and member of King Arthur's Round Table.

Well, we do remember that Roy Hobbs does come back from being shot in the stomach by a deranged female fan to play heroically for the New York Knights, so we have to believe Mr. Malamud's literary intentions. He did write he book.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Life Saving Properties of Duct Tape

Obviously, there's a happy ending here.

There are things and places that are the butt of jokes. Cleveland for instance can't stop being the place that monsters devour. At least for people who saw monster movies on their TV sets in the 1950s.

Fruitcake is almost in a complete class by itself. Besides being used to describe a person's unsound mental state, it also serves as the only food to be a family heirloom. If you don't know that by now, you haven't been reading this blog.

And then we have duct tape. That which fixes all. Permanently, or temporarily, depending on the user. My father would have used it for his fillings if it stayed in his mouth. Saliva and scotch seemed to relax any adhesive properties it had in a dry state. It is usually waterproof, but it's the scotch that is likely a solvent.

Regardless. You only have to absorb the story of the rescue of the construction worker who was trapped 100 feet below Second Avenue in truly life-threatening, gripping mud, while working in the tunnel that would finally bring a subway to the length of Second Avenue. The effort by all involved in pulling this man up and out after many hours of being stuck was so great that a fare increase was nearly declared on the spot. But give it time, they always say.

Many people and many pieces of equipment were used to finally extricate Joseph Barone, who became trapped in the mud when he took a bad step off a top piece of plywood. Apparently, at that point of tunnelling for the subway, soil and mud is dug through, rather than blasting through bedrock, as is needed for other portions of the line.

Since a Second Avenue subway was first proposed in the 1930s, only to see the bond money disappear into another account, the construction of the subway has been a bit of a NYC joke. "Did you hear the one about the Second Avenue subway?" "No one else has either." My father told me of the plans for the line that were the topic of the day when he was kid: Prohibition was still in effect.

Poor and lucky Joseph Barone. Unlucky enough to need saving. Certainly lucky enough to be saved, while taking part in building a long running joke, all the while saved in part by a joked-about hardware store staple: duct tape.

Proof positive of its qualities is found in the news story by Marc Santora and Matt Flegenheimer, in yesterday's NYT.

"A Consolidated Edison truck, typically used to vacuum flooded areas, was rigged so its hose could stretch deep into the tunnel and suck out what it could. Additional sections were attached using duct tape."

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Machine that Does Nothing

So goes the A-Head piece in yesterday's WSJ: there is a machine that exists only to turn itself off after you turn it on. 

The story doesn't say if it is battery operated, or electrically wired, but it does seem to require the owner to build it from a kit, which of course means you have to do something to build a machine that will, in effect, do nothing. The experience gained might still be valuable.

Whether the machine is a metaphor for many things in our lives, electronic mechanical, human, or governmental, is not discussed.

The machine, in its first variation, appeared in the 1950s, invented by an artificial-intelligence expert who is now retired and is 85. As pictured in yesterday's edition, I first thought it was variation of the Laugh Box, a black cube that caught on many years ago as a novelty. It was battery operated, and when you turned it on it emitted this hideous laugh/cackle for several seconds, then shut itself off. The difference between it and the 'Useless Machine' is that it did something before shutting itself off. It laughed.

The boxes were fairly popular as gag gifts. If anyone can remember Fifth Avenue Card Shops, then you might remember the Laugh Box. A story went around town that Sir Rudolf Bing, the Metropolitan Opera's long deceased, legendary general manager pulled a Laugh Box out of his desk and started it up when a certain baritone came in and asked for a better contract. Opera folk.

Academics have of course weighed in on the 'Useless Machine' by saying it reflects an "intuitive grasp of a fundamental problem of the unconscious...Freud...death drive." Read the story.

The show Seinfeld is famously said to have been about nothing. If that were true, then the show would have turned itself off right after you turned it on. There would be no ratings, and Jerry et al wouldn't be ensconced in a multi-million dollar property in the Hamptons.

Philosophically, I wonder if something that turns itself off can really be something that does nothing. After all, countless TV and radio talk shows get turned on, but don't reward us by turning themselves off.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Parade's End End

This visually stunning sad story does have the light, happy ending that we might have been hoping for, but without knowing the source story ahead of time, we couldn't really be certain is the one we'd get.

Along the way though, we've suffered with waaay too many little guys with mustaches who all looked alike, even if their uniforms were sometimes different. Some of this confusion was mitigated toward the end when one of them gets it from a German artillery blast and lies face up, half buried in a trench with a smile on his face. One less hairy lip to keep track of.

Aside from the casualties of war, we have arborcide. The Groby cedar gets it in the end and is chopped up for cord wood. Some might see this as the most disturbing part of the story. I'm sure this is symbolic of many things, but it's removal does let more light into the house, as well as remove a home for termites.

We know it's a happy ending with connubial bliss when we see that Miss Wannop is going to be treated like someone in the book 'Married Love,' from a man who probably didn't read the book, but who instinctively knows what works. Christopher Tietjens will be smiling from here on in.

As for Sylvia, we suspected correctly that she'll take care of herself. She's about to get the most mileage out of her body as possible by hooking up with an older guy who won't cause her to exert herself too much. This is key to Sylvia's lifestyle. Lots of pomp and pampering, without too much sweating. Perfect.

So, there we have it. It takes a while to watch all five parts, and my ending it on the day that an hour is lost due to Daylight Savings Time doesn't help. Bottom line is, one is completely convinced that the British will never stop telling the world about WWI, or WWII. That neither war was the war that ended all wars is of no matter. They're the only wars the British ever need.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Parade's End: Through Episode Three

This is a visually beautiful sad story that's confusing as hell. The unhappily married man is easy to spot. Even his wife knows he's not happy, because she's not happy. 

But the other characters that occupy the story are the source of confusion. Too many guys with small mustaches, odd living arrangements in "rooms," shaving rituals, people who pop their head into railway compartments, women who know about the birds and the bees, and a young woman who somewhat late in what is still a young life, learns that sex doesn't necessarily lead to children. And her name is Valentine, and she's the object of interest to the married guy, Christopher Tietjens, who might really be nearly the last honorable man in England.

It's hard to follow time because we have people who never look any different five years later, who are maliciously thought to have given birth to an out-of-wedlock "war baby" while never having been seen pregnant. This rumor, and that of another mistress and passing bad checks, dogs our hero to the point that his father commits suicide that is staged as a hunting accident. This involved some brush, a dead rabbit and a shotgun. The father joins the dead rabbit in the hereafter.

Still, with all that going on around our hero, we can follow him back to the front after he spends some time convalescing from being wounded in his first tour of duty. No post-traumatic syndrome is recognized yet.

And we too will "soldier-on" and take in the last two episodes. It's worth it to find out what happens to Christopher Tietjens and if he'll find happiness with Miss Wannnop. And will his wife Sylvia be kept in an income that keeps her from a life of having to shoplift cosmetics and tins of toffee?    

We'll see.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Family Heirloom

One of the best passages I ever read was when Russell Baker referred to fruitcake as the only food that came closest to being classified as a family heirloom. When he wrote it, be might have had his own proof for saying that, but the rest of us have now gotten ours.

It comes via one of those odd-ball crime stories that sometimes make the newspaper. In this one, a career burglar was caught leaving a residence with two boxes, one of which it turns out contained two densely weighted bricks of fruitcake. The other box contained wine glasses from Crate and Barrel.

The burglar was caught immediately after leaving the premises from which he robbed the boxes, being caught by a policeman who was observing his every move from the outside. It turns out to be the burglar's 30th arrest. He's apparently prolific at burglary, and excellent at getting caught.

The story is almost too funny for words, but the reporter Michael Wilson does a good job of leaving the reader with the ethical question, if not the legal question, regarding the theft of fruitcake. Namely, is this a crime, or a community service?

The owner of the fruitcake certainly feels sufficiently violated. The fruitcake is an annual gift from his mother in California, who apparently supplies hundreds of people across the United States with her baking output as gifts. Because he loves it so much, he gets her to send him a second parcel. He explains, "the recipe is a poundcake foundation invented generations ago and passed down. It is a family secret that will not be shared." Sounds like an heirloom to me.

Because this theft occurred somewhere in Brooklyn and was reported in the New York Times it can only be a matter of time before the son, Mr. Purdy, will be approached for offers to sell the fruitcake alongside craft beers and homemade mayonnaise. His life is now forever altered.

The story, probably because of space limitations, leaves the reader with numerous questions.
  • What did the burglar, Mr. Anibal Maldonado, think he was making off with? Because of the dense weight, did he think he was boosting gold bars?
  • The police don't seem to have taken the fruitcake as evidence. Will this impede the legal proceedings? Will the case be plea bargained even lower than it already seems to be?
  • Was the fruitcake left with Mr. Purdy because it was thought it would spoil in the police evidence room?
This would surely make Mr. Purdy's mom's fruitcake the first such fruitcake to come with an expiration date.

Even better for the upcoming business.

Monday, March 4, 2013

British Miniseries

It was difficult, but I managed to make it through the entire first episode of 'Parade's End' without writing it off completely. The acting skill of Benedict Cumberbatch is obvious when you compare his role in Sherlock Holmes to that of an entombed statistician who speaks like he has a mouth full of prunes.  Watching with the close captioning button on is a necessity.

And Rufus Sewell, as a loopy reverend, is another example of how well the English can act, even if you don't understand what the hell they're all about. I suspect if I knew more of the Ford Madox Ford story watching would be more of a cinch.

But the scenery is so nice and colorful. It adds its own certain charm to the story. Certainly it's not easy to understand why a guy knowingly marries a woman who is pregnant with someone else's child, but then that's part of the story. The serially unfaithful wife Sylvia is quite a piece of work. If she sang, she'd be Carmen for sure.

So, with baseball not yet here, it may be possible to absorb at least another episode or so, since they're all out there on the DVR, waiting retrieval.

Who knows, if all finally ends well for Christopher Tietjens at the end of the parade, then maybe he'll be easier to understand when he talks.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Parade's End

Because I have what is now a somewhat dated DVR player, I can only record two shows at the same time, or watch one show from the recorded shows and record another. Three is not my magic number. Two is.

So, last night I was confronted with my limitations. The 5th episode of 'Parade's End' (a 1914-era HBO British miniseries) was taping, as was a PBS Mystery, a Miss Marple episode that I've seen, but thoroughly etch-a-sketched from my brain. Mysteries keep staying mysteries when you forget the ending. Talk about renewal. Watching what you forget you once saw works well when nothing is on.

So, I was prevented from starting to view the first episode of my recorded 'Parade's End' from the very beginning, while all this was going on. With all these circumstances competing for my attention and decisions needed about cancelling tapings, I decided to take in just a bit of 'Parade's End' as it was unfolding in real time. It was somewhere near the beginning of the 5th episode, and I had a gist of the story from the reviews.

I was fearful it might be dull, and it certainly had that look, feel and sound, despite WWI trench warfare scenes. I hung in for just a bit and caught the bit about the main character's mistress, Valentine, who I fully gathered was a teacher at
an all-girls school, finding a somewhat promiscuous book in the cloak room just after she chased the gathered girls off to class. They of course were engrossed in listening to passages being read aloud by one of them when there were no teachers around.

The book was titled 'Married Love: A Book for Married Couples,' by Marie Stopes, Ph.D. and seemed to contain text about sexual arousal for married couples. At least that's the part that was read.

In the 1960s and into the 70s, a great deal of comedy was about the battle-of-sexes. On the 'Ed Sullivan Show' the now deceased comedian Alan King got a good deal of mileage out of the observation that, "if you want to read about love and marriage, you need to buy two books."

Just think of the money those girls were saving by sharing one book on the subject.