Thursday, January 30, 2014

I'm Laying Two and a Half

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel was finally spotted this month. She appeared at the Super Bowl Media Day in Rutherford, New Jersey and is seen here acknowledging a reporter's question. It was one of those typical stupid reporter questions. They asked who she liked in the big game.

"I'm wearing Orange, aren't I?" was her somewhat slightly accented response.

The assumption is this means she's for Denver and not looking to invade Holland.

The Four Ss

Through the miracle of Twitter and Tweets, my attention was drawn to story from an online site about an Indian newspaper that has ads that smell. Smellable ads. They emit an odor.

What I never knew was that the Times of India has the largest circulation of any English newspaper in the world. We know there are A LOT of people in India, and they were once ruled by the English speaking British, so I guess some of this stands to reason. I never gave it any thought, but I'm sure Rupert Murdoch has.

Anyway, it seems Johnson and Johnson has placed an ad in the paper that can be smelled. In his case it's their baby powder. The ad is a full-page advertisement on a page that is liberally scented with the company’s famous baby powder.

I never heard of advertising like this is a newspaper. But apparently it's a new platform. Scott Smith, the founder of a futures research lab, wrote in the online magazine Quartz earlier this month that "scent is being mined as a new focal point of interaction for companies looking to break through a cluttered communication environment,”

I agree it's cluttered. Just try walking through my kitchen after 10 PM when the news is on and my wife is watching and texting. Attention will not be paid.

I remember perfume companies doing this scented thing in magazines, but I think it caused some trouble when people with certain allergies lifted the flap and fainted while operating heavy equipment, or something like that. I'm certain some litigation ensued.

I was on a plane fairly recently and I was asked what choice of a miniature portion of children's zoo kibbles I would like. I opted for the almonds over the purple chips. This lead the flight attendant to veto my choice since there was a person with a "peanut allergy" three rows in front of me. I was confused. I was being offered almonds, but couldn't have them because someone with a "peanut allergy" was in close proximity to my seat.

Flummoxed, I didn't protest, but quietly went for the offering of purple potato chips. I don't know what the peanut allergy radius was, but I hoped it didn't reach the cockpit. I didn't want the people in charge of guiding the plane to be denied their choice.

So, with this awareness of how careful you have to be with distributing scents in public places, I'm quite surprised Johnson & Johnson is willing to take a chance with a full-page scented ad in a publicly distributed newspaper-the largest circulating English newspaper anywhere.

Surely the conspiracy theorists will see it as plot to lower the population in India. Airborne chemical warfare through advertising. This would not only kill off the readers, but would deliver the final blow to newspapers. Just think.

Thankfully, that's not going to happen in this country. Advertisers have learned that Americans follow the rules of the four Ss:


It's a great world. You just have to be careful.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Stool Pigeon

"I ain't no stool pigeon," or a snarl to that effect is often heard in those 1940s and 1950s cop, crook, and DA movies.

As often as I've heard this declaration, I never really looked into how it got to mean that the person saying it is someone who will not betray, or entrap another bad-guy person just so the law will give them a break--the stool pigeon that is.

I always got the meaning from the context, but not the origin. There was no need, really. I understood what the potential "stoolie" was trying to say. But, like many things in this life, an explanation presents itself when you least expect it.

Under the heading of I read almost anything, I read about a book that's just come out: 'A Feathered River Across the Sky,' by Joel Greenberg. It's about the passing of the passenger pigeon.

This really is a book about pigeons, and a species of pigeon that the reviewer, John Steele Gordon tells us was "once the most numerous bird on the planet," that has now gone extinct. And not prehistorically extinct, but extinct within the last 150 years.

Over-hunting wiped the bird out of the sky, much like the easy killing of the buffalo left them on the backs of more nickels than those roaming the plains.

Shooting the pigeons was common, but also using nets to capture them was effective as well. The pigeons were lured with traps baited "with corn and other grains, along with tame birds to lure the wild ones."  This apparently gave rise to the term "stool pigeon," because the birds were tethered to a small platform called a stool. "When enough birds had gathered, the trap would be sprung and snap over the victims." Thus, a "stool pigeon" was a bit of a double agent: pretending to be a feathered friend, while leading the target to their capture.

My own experience with a pigeon is the unforgettable time that my pregnant wife ran down the neighbor's driveway to get our cat to drop the pigeon that was in his mouth. I watched this play out from our kitchen window. The cat was more afraid of an oncoming pregnant person than he was inclined to stick to one of his animal instincts. He dropped the bird and ran. The bird was alive, scooped up by wife and placed in a box, where he was nursed back to health with the help of a vet and a person my wife knew at work who raised pigeons.

When our daughter was born I was pleased to note she made into this world with no feathers. So far, no "stoolies" in our family.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

There's Someone in That Tree

I'm not that far behind on the news, but I just read that Renee Fleming is going to sing the national anthem at this coming Sunday's Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on February 2nd.

Opera singers belting out "O Say Can You See" is nothing new. Robert Merrill did it for so many years at Yankee Stadium that he should have worn a number. Which makes me wonder: what will Ms. Fleming wear?

She will look great in anything, but I somehow don't think she's going to come out like a female Springsteen, or, like a complete diva. A red coat like at Obama's first inauguration? No, like Leslie Stahl, I don't she'll repeat an outfit.

I'm not an opera fan by any means, but I first started to take note of her when she appeared on the short-lived musical show 'Spectacle' hosted by Elvis Costello a few years ago. I think she appeared with Rufus Wainwright, and Kate McGarrigle, singing a very country song about a train. It was at about this time I think Ms. Fleming put out a CD of non-operatic songs that she sings about an octave lower than her normal soprano,
'Haunted Heart.' It's become one of my favorites, along with a successor CD, 'Dark Hope.' I'm hoping there's a third one coming soon.

I've seen her at Carnegie Hall doing a piece from 'A Street Car Named Desire,' apparently an opera written with her in mind by Andre Previn. My only regret there was that I didn't know enough to yell out 'brava' for a female singer, so I just clapped.

While certainly not much of an opera fan, I've become aware of the staging of operas and the odd spots some of these people have to song from. 'Carmen' is the one opera I can say whose music I enjoy, but whose performance goes on too long. Even with two intermissions, I know I nodded off. I've seen Elina Garanca have to sing one of her Carmen arias while being carried like a board over the heads of a bunch of guys. That can't be easy.

Although, no singing seemed more challenging than seeing people doing it on the elaborate stage they built for the Wagner Ring Cycle productions. Robert Lepage's titanic, awesome contraption is a member of the cast. It is even nicknamed "The Machine." Trying to sing on that thing while it is shifting into place would seem to be like singing on top of a moving bus.

So, unless there's really something far-fetched they've got planned for Ms. Fleming while she sings the anthem, we can probably get good odds they'll play it straight and have her stand in front of a microphone rather than belt it out from the top of a tree under a full moon.

Monday, January 20, 2014


There aren't many people whose passing I read about that I've actually met. I don't keep count, but it can't be more than the fingers on one hand. Chryssa might actually be the first for all I remember.

When I say 'read about' I mean as a news item obituary. No elbow rubbing with statesman, Nobel prize winners (any category), actors, musicians, villains, scientists, military figures, Congressional Medal of Honor winners, educators, judges, lawyers, sports figures (any sport), and generally writers. I know a few writers who might someday warrant a news obit piece, but they're either about my age, or somewhat younger, so they're still around and haven't shuffled off because of age or illness. Give us all time.

But Chryssa is someone I met and talked to. She was a somewhat noted artist who worked in neon lighting. She was known by only her first name, but the obituary in Sunday's NYT reveals more about that.

Chryssa's work was said to evolve from letters and numbers, perhaps the coded graffiti from the Greek Underground that appeared on walls she saw growing up in what was then Nazi-occupied Athens during World War II.  Margalit Fox's obituary explains better. My encounter with Chryssa involved a delivery of flowers and a polite rejection of an errand.

The obituary describes that Chryssa's first solo exhibit in New York was at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1961. The early 60s was about the time I delivered flowers to Chryssa, who then lived on Broadway, just off Union square, near Paragon sporting goods (still there). I have no idea who sent her the flowers. She might have even been ordering them herself. I had no idea she was an artist until I got to her place, a large open floor plan loft-like area with a mattress on the floor. Exactly how you expected the living area of an artist to be.
I remember her looking pretty much like what the picture is in the obituary. There were objects in her studio, but no neon. I do remember what seemed to be mounted pages of a telephone directory that attracted my attention. Even at a somewhat early age, I tended to appreciate the off-beat.
The kicker was she asked me to go get her a bottle of booze at Frank's liquor store--still there--off Union Square. I remember sort of looking at her funny because I was about 12 or 13 at the time, and knew liquor couldn't be sold to me unless I was 18. And I also knew I had no chance of convincing someone I was 18.
She didn't seem to understand that there were laws regulating the sale of booze to minors, but accepted my explanation. I think I got a tip anyway.
Somewhere around the same time small pieces of her neon work were publicly exhibited in the Lower Level of Grand Central Terminal. I guess she was big news at the time. I remember liking what I saw.
Sometime in the 'aughts' I was walking on West Broadway and noticed a street level doorbell that had the name Chryssa above it. For some reason I explored no further.
I liked the works I remember seeing. I always thought that letters and numbers could be seen as forms of art.
What the hell. She might have just been another crazy Greek whose work appealed to me.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


Unless it's time to cover the Triple Crown series of races, there is scant newspaper attention paid to horse racing. I always look, and occasionally there are a few paragraphs about something: a famous horse died, or a jockey or trainer's milestone achievement. And then sometimes we hear about how many times a male horse, a stud, has being doing it to matched mares.

This is called breeding, and never makes the cover of People, or US magazine. Male thoroughbreds that are considered worthy enough to have their progeny attempt to reach the races are bred to mares that are sent to them for just that purpose: breeding, or covering a mare.

The male horses that have done well on the track, dirt or turf, are the most sought after for this post-competitive activity. And the better they did, judged by the competitive level and distance of the races they've won, the more demand they are to become sires.

Frankel, is one such sire. He finished his career, all in Europe, undefeated in 14 races, the longest not being much more than a mile, but at a high level of competition. He was an impressive runner.

So, it goes his demand to be a sire is great. And so is the price for him to 'cover' those mares they've lined up for him. The story is brief, a mere two paragraphs, but using it as a mathematical word problem some stunning numbers are thrown off.

After an illustrious unbeaten career on the track, Frankel has fathered his first foal...

Frankel was retired to stud in October 2012 after winning all 14 of his races. He mated with 133 mares from February to June last year at $200,000 each.

This is a whopping stud fee amount. But not the highest I've seen. Storm Cat used to breed for $500,000 a pop, until he lost his pop. He was 20 years old when he passed away in 2013. That was news as well.

But think of the story as a word problem. $200,000 at 133 matings is $26.6 million. For one year. He's not dead yet. He's getting ready to be back at it very soon.

And then there's the time frame, February to June. In North American, those are the breeding months because birthdays for foals are all considered to be January 1st. Thus, Frankel's first foal, so far un-named from a mare named Chrysanthemum, is considered to be 1 in 2014. He'll be 2 automatically on January 1, 2015. And so will any horse born in North American in 2014. Thus, the breeding months are geared to try and yield births fairly early in the year, given a mare's gestation period of 11 months.

Part two. Add up the number of days in the months of February through June and you get 150 days. One hundred thirty-three covers over a 150 day period. At least he got some days off.

The good news for Frankel is that he gets to stay where he is, where he's 'standing.' In this case, I supect it's in Ireland where Coolmore Stud is located. All the comforts of home. No more road trips.

And of course, mention the name Frankel and I can tell you it comes from the owners honoring the now deceased great Hall-of-Fame trainer Bobby Frankel.  Bethany Frankel, from one of those shows is his daughter.

Bobby grew up in Brooklyn and at Aqueduct race track, where he came an assistant trainer to Buddy (Howard) Jacobson. Jacobson trained 'claimers,' those relatively cheaper horses that can be publically claimed with the right approval. In those days, there were a lot of claiming races on the New York circuit, so many, that when Buddy Jacobson lead a horseman's strike against the New York Racing Association that suspended racing, the newspapers pointed out the sales tax the city and state was losing because horses weren't being claimed during the strike.

This did not make Mr. Jacobson a favorite of the blue-blooded New York Racing Association. He eventually disintegrated into drug use and homicide, dying in prison of AIDS. His son, David Jacobson, after some sketchy patches, has turned into a top New York based trainer, winning a training title with an astounding 160 wins for 2014. You are wise to take notice of his entries.

Bobby headed west, and honed his craft at the West Coast tracks, and became a top trainer of good, and very good horses. If Bobby Frankel entered a horse in a New York race you were smart to at least take notice of his intentions to win, because he often did.

Eventually, Frankel found his way back to New York, training and racing horses for top Arab stables. It was one of the Sheiks that owned Frankel.

Frankel is a common name. My guess is you'd find plenty of Frankels in a Manhattan phone book. But in horse racing there are only a few, and they all mean winning.

All that from a two paragraph piece.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Aging Brain

My younger daughter Susan is concerned about my brain. She doesn't think I'm going crazy, or have ever really been crazy, but she is concerned about the affect of aging on the cognitive powers of the brain.

I know words like cognitive because she comes out with words like that all the time. She's a speech language pathologist who encounters young and old people alike in pursuit of her practice. The older people can be suffering from swallowing disorders, strokes, as well as general dementia. Alzheimer's.

Her thoughtfulness is sweet, even though I assure her nothing much is different. A few short-term memory lapses, but a trip back into the room where I came from generally always works.

Since retiring, she's worried I'm becoming a couch potato. She tells me all I do is read newspapers and watch TV. Not really true, but that is generally what I'm doing when she sees me, so I'm guilty.

I don't find any TV to watch until the evening, generally sports, or the miniseries shows on PBS, BBC etc.  Her concern manifested itself this Christmas when I got, among other things, a book titled 'Keep You Brain Alive: 83 Neurobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitness.'

My extensive newspaper reading tells me the jury is still out on the ability of puzzles and other things to stimulate the brain. And this book has 'other things.'

  • Turn pictures of your family, your desk clock, or an illustrated calendar upside down.
If you have a Picasso illustrated calendar, none of this may work however.

  • Get a new cover or cushion for your chair.
I'm going to mark on the upside down calendar the number of days I'm giving myself to buy a new cushion.

I also got a Dr. Seuss book, 'You're Only Old Once.' This is the counterpart to the widely given 'Oh the Places You'll Go...' people give their recent family graduates. They do this so often the book perennially makes the bestseller lists.

'You're Only Old Once' is subtitled 'A Book for Obsolete Children.' It follows the path of an older man through a hospital maze of tests. The book coyly recommends buying the book for your kids, and then giving it to them on their 70th birthdays. My mathematical brain tells me the probability of this occurring is quite low. The book however ends optimistically. No co-pays are mentioned.

In my defense, I tell my daughter plenty of things I read in the paper about her work, and point out the articles she's too busy to find for herself. Thus, I act as a bit of a teacher/librarian. Always a parent.

I also point out that I keep a pad and pen at my side when I'm watching TV. Those English shows, 'Downton Abbey' in particular, are always coming out with references and words I never heard of. Because of the actors' accents I often use the close captioned option on the TV, along with the replay/ reverse options of the DVR player. Nearly everything I watch is from a DVR recording.

Using a DVR is of course great, since commercials and network promos and news teasers can be hopped over. They're not always eliminated however, leading one to assume for a few seconds that it's going to snow again, or there's another hurricane headed our way, when that was the weather report teaser from several days ago. Thus, I'm probably exercising my brain by constantly orienting my brain to current time, vs. past time.  I bet they don't have that one in the book.

Take the second episode of Season Four's 'Downton Abbey.' For an hour show, it was chock-a-block filled with references to things I quickly wrote down and looked up today.
  • gannets; a fish capturing, plunging sea bird; a greedy person. The cook, Mrs. Patmore's description of the appetites of the upstairs guests.
  • Damascene; pertaining to the city of Damascus; ornamental metal.
  • Miss Lane Fox; a likely reference to an etiquette maven; a British Beatrice Fairfax.
  • We're going to get stick; Lord Grantham's reference to being hit on the rear with a switch like a schoolboy unless he gets back to the party instead of quaffing booze from a decanter to steady his resolve.
  • The Lady of Shallot; Reference to a Tennyson poem about a maiden who secretes herself in a castle, but eventually comes out to join the rest of the world.
  • Stygian gloom; the Styx River; the underworld; gloomy, infernal, hellish, indistinct.
  • Tyke; unpleasant, ill-mannered coarse man.
  • High Cockalorum; self-important little man.
  • Racing Demon; a card game played with a deck per person, with lots of players. Would seem like its rules are as incomprehensible as cricket, but it moves much faster.
I think I'll write my own book. It's got to be good for me.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Better Living

You've got to appreciate the thought. Dupont chemical corporation used to use an advertising slogan: 'Better Living Through Chemistry.' Little did they know that decades later a baseball player named Alex Rodriguez would become the 21st century's poster boy for trying to live and do better in the batter's box through eating chemically laced Gummy Bears.

And potions usually seem to be the way better living, or eternal life is chased after. But not always. Consider Ted Williams, the Hall-of-Fame Red Sox player whose head is being preserved in a deep freeze, cryo-life belief that when it is learned how to reverse death, Ted will be back.

Ted's son did this to him after the great slugger died. The raging family conflict is over if this was dad's wishes. Certainly to be continued, but we can be grateful that no one issues baseball cards for players' likenesses after they've left the game. A macabre Halloween present has thus not reached the local CVS.

I have to say, I never heard of someone who thought that death's inevitability could be forestalled, or even put on permanent hold by the design of living spaces. But Madeline Arakawa Gins apparently did, who with her husband built some very odd buildings. Not having followed architectural trends, Ms. Gins thoughts are totally new to me. But the fact that her husband died in 2010, and that she has now passed away from cancer at 72 makes me think someone has to get back to the drawing board.

Ms Gins obituary is quite revealing about how her beliefs in non-conforming living spaces could impart everlasting life. The descriptions of the non-conformity of these spaces is incredible, and can be found in Margalit Fox's obituary of Ms. Gans. It sounds like you're living at F.A.O. Schwarz. The fact that some of these buildings were actually built is a testament that her beliefs came backed by someone's money. Vacancy rates are not, however, disclosed.

One of my uncles, who was born in Manhattan in 1916 told me the story that somehow October 1st was 'moving day' in New York City. Whenever someone's lease was up on September 30th, they were out there moving into a new apartment on October 1st.

Apparently this came to be because the leases were printed by a printing company that specialized in legal papers and had October 1st pre-printed on the form as the effective date of the standard lease. (Premises need to be left broom clean.) The date could be crossed out and replaced by another date, but often wasn't. Thus, there were a bunch of people who were always looking for a new place on October 1st. I always had this vision of my grandmother walking around with a lamp and looking for a new place to put it.

An entry in Wikipedia corroborates my uncle. Or, vice versa.

At the height of Moving Day in the early 20th century, it was estimated that a million people in the city all changed their residences at the same time. Resistance to Moving Day was strong in the 1920s and 1930s, but it took the start of World War II to end the general practice, as the moving industry found it difficult to find able-bodied men to do the work. The post-war housing shortage and the advent of rent control finally put an end to the custom for good. By 1945, a newspaper headline announced "Housing Shortage Erases Moving Day."

Madeline Arakawa Gins is reported to have passed away in Manhattan, where she is also described as being a longtime resident. None of her projects were built in Manhattan. so we are left to believe that she didn't live in a non-conforming space. Thus, overall, a rather conventional existence.

Anyone who knows anything about apartments in Manhattan knows that eternal life is achieved by being lucky enough to live in a rent-controlled apartment. Funny floors and off-kilter light switches have nothing to do with lasting long. Just ask the owners of those buildings.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Breaking Bad News

Normally, this would be one of those alternate Mondays that Clyde Haberman's Breaking Bread piece would appear in the NYT. Anyone who has read these columns and read this blog knows that the people Mr. Haberman has interviewed over lunch and dinner at some odd sounding places have acted as a muse for my blog postings. There doesn't seem to be anything or anyone that doesn't make me think of something else.

Mr. Haberman's last piece is his last piece. At least with the NYT. The New York Observer carries the story that Clyde has had his last bite with the NYT, being ushered out the door with a non-renewed contract at the age of 68.

Turns out Mr. Haberman has been coming and going with the NYT for years. The New York Observer metaphorically turns the table on Clyde and interviews him at some SoHo eatery described as 'rustic-chic' with some odd food on the menu.

Before ever reading the thumb-nail bio it is easy to realize Mr. Haberman has been a newspaperman his entire life, and is a native New Yorker. He and I first started trading an e-mail here and there when he did a piece on the 50th anniversary of the spectacular fire on the aircraft carrier Constellation that burned out of control at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on December 19, 1960, killing 50 workers and injuring 330 others. The aircraft carrier was under construction when diesel fuel accidentally came in contact with welding sparks.

My father worked at the Brooklyn Navy then, but in a building housing the Design division. I remember him calling on the phone and describing the fire to me. Because of that connection I never forgot the Constellation fire. The ship's construction was eventually finished and the carrier remained active for over 40 years, seeing duty during the Gulf War. The Brooklyn Yard itself was closed in 1964.

I shared with Mr. Haberman my father's take on how the fire got so out of control. At the time, welders were no longer being accompanied by a backup fireman who would douse any fire started by sparks. Mr. Haberman replied that in his article research on the blaze and his reading of official reports, there was no mention of an eliminated job.

Mr. Haberman's  December 20, 2010 piece of the 50th anniversary mentioned how the mid-air collision of two passenger airplanes three days earlier seemed far better remembered on its 50th anniversary than the Constellation fire. No doubt this has as much to do with the fact the people still take airplanes, 9/11, and that no one remembers when Brooklyn built warships.

Matthew Kessel's piece in The New York Observer gives some of the typical facts we read about someone. Their age, where they worked during a certain time period, and in a reporter's case, the assignments they had. We learn of their marriages and how many children they have. In Mr. Haberman's case I wrote him to tell him that at 68 he's quite well-situated for retirement: his wife works.

I'm going to miss the chance of there being a bi-weekly muse to blog postings. Mr. Haberman and I are contemporaries, of similar NYC educational backgrounds (specialized public high schools and City College) and similar memories. We remember the same mayors, and some of their same quotes.

The interview concludes with some memories of newspaper movies and how a movie has never been made about a blog. And about that I will agree. There doesn't seem to anything more anonymous than writing a blog.

But think of the by-product of so-called social media. Arrests. The recent arrests of the stunods who claimed and got mental health disability awards from Social Security while enjoying active lives of jet-skiing and marlin fishing, were partially done in by their own postings and pictures on Facebook and other media sites. The Feds logged on.

The newspaper accounts of this are a great read, and examples of the glory of the press that Mr. Haberman feels so dear to. The coached methods that were used to present the disability applicant to Social Security psychiatrists to gain benefits are so ridiculous that the tangent to this whole story is who gets rejected for benefits? It would seem all you have to do is show up and act just short of the antics of mobster Vincent Gigante, who faked poor mental health by taking a shower with an umbrella and walking the streets in his bathrobe.

Throughout the exchange of e-mails one of my best takeaways from Mr. Haberman was a mention that there is a Senior Citizen discount MetroCard that can be applied for. Half-fare on the subway and buses.

I'm getting mine next week. Unlike those guys who got disability, I am entitled to mine.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Three First Names

When someone with three first names, two of them female, and one male first name as their surname, passes away at 90 you really expect a hyphen in their name. But Elizabeth Jane Howard, a British novelist who has just passed away at 90, didn't have a hyphen in her name. No matter. Her name is no less patrician. And certainly no less British.

I have to say, I never heard of Ms. Howard, or read any of her books, which apparently didn't get turned into 'Downton Abbey.' She also apparently didn't accrue what you might expect to be the usual British recognitions: Dame, OBE, etc. She lead a lively life and would hardly ever be accused of being a serial monogamist. She would appear to have been the literary version of America's political playmate Pamela Harriman in how many literary figures she shared sheets with.

Accompanying the obituary is a 1965 picture of Elizabeth with Kingsley Amis, her husband for 18 years. Ms. Howard, then in her 40s, is shown in profile exhibiting what Gilbert and Sullivan would surely claim were "the remains of a fine woman about her." Ms. Howard married Mr. Amis in 1965 after a affair with him that lead him to leave his wife.

Language papers over many harsh adjectives. And obituary language can be as soft as cashmere. In the NYT obituary by Margalit Fox, a writer as American as a hot dog, she lets us in on the code for Mr. Amis's behavior that lead to the divorce.

Ms. Howard herself is quoted from a 2002 newspaper interview where she expresses how difficult it was "to live with someone who drinks too much and dislikes you."

Ms. Fox describes Mr. Amis as someone who "descended into alcoholism and unpleasantness." The most civilized of all descriptions. Obituary translation: he became a useless, drunken sod that absolutely no one could stand.

Ms. Howard moved on, and as late as her 70s was still beguiling. Even without a hyphenated name.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Fourth Year in the Big House

The big house on TV of course is not Sing Sing, with Jimmy Cagney holed up in a cell not singing to no one, especially to lousy coppers and that corrupt DA that framed him. The big house is Downton Abbey, and Season Four got underway in the States last night.

I must admit, it is slow sledding from the beginning. A crosstown bus in the rain with no exact fare is faster. But, you have to set the chess pieces on the board before you can let them move around and bump into each other.

To say that Lady Mary looks like death is a compliment to the wardrobe and makeup people. She did lose her husband Matthew in an auto accident as he was happily tooling along, anxious to see the baby, but Mary really looks the part. The blossom in her cheek has turned to chalk.

It's hard to believe she could have exerted the physical effort it took to tax Mr. Pamuk's cardiac system to a full stop while having a romp in the sheets. All this of course is before Matthew, but it did leave Mary as a slice off a cut loaf, something very 'downstairs'.

We also have the non-appearance of Lady Grantham's maid O'Brien, the scheming 'dark horse' who's not to be found at sunup. She's left notes that she's off to someone else's employ, after being poached from the staff by a distant family member. Apparently lady's maids can become free agents, like Robinson Cano, and go elsewhere to work in a place that sounds like the English version of Seattle.

If you missed the subtle details of the show's opening, and don't understand why the staff is quickly talking to each other in the grand entrance to the Big House, you might have suspected O'Brien has met with foul play and Jane Marple will definitely be coming for dinner to determine whose bones those really are that the dog has dragged into the kitchen at Mrs. Patmore's feet.

In reality, we already knew O'Brien wasn't going to be back, we just didn't know the circumstances that would cause her non-appearance. In an interview, the show's creator, Julian Fellowes explains that English actors don't overly pre-commit to a ton of years to a show that might keep going. So, if it's a member of the higher-ups, the core family that wants out, then death is the way to treat it. If it's someone else, then another plot device is used to remove them. This of course allows re-joining the show years later if it works for everyone. Matthew is thus removed by death for pretending to be Jackie Stewart, and O'Brien merely walks out, with no leave or hello, like the 'dark horse' she is.

We have one of the earliest forms of privacy invasion there is: a dumpster dive into a wastebasket and the retrieval of someone's tossed aside correspondence. It'll take many decades before this becomes a digital thing and Edward Snowden electronically makes off with millions of e-mails, secrets and no secrets, and takes up living in Russia.

Mrs. Hughes dives into the butler Carson's wastebasket and pulls out a letter that leads to a reconciliation of a friendship that broke apart decades ago. Carson and Charlie it seems were a bit of an English Smith and Dale back in the day, but now long estranged. The story line leads us to what the British love to proudly show off most: their train collection. We get treated to old trains, tracks, conductors' uniforms, stations, signals, and of course steam, plus those great cars whose doors open onto the platform. We also see the class system and penury are well, as Charlie climbs into a 3rd Class carriage behind the noisy engine. Wait till coach in airplanes, Charlie.

Maggie Smith as 'Granny' continues to get in the best quips and is said to be ready to come onto Letterman in full costume and do the Top 10 list while tapping her walking stick. She also gives the best history lessons. Who is King Canute? Go ahead, you've got time to look him up.

In the early part of the show we are introduced to Nanny West, and the rising tension between her and Mr. Barrow. Barrow will take the place of O'Brien in stirring the plotting pot, but at the outset here it seems we might he headed for a mixed-match Ultimate Fighting Contest between Nanny and Barrow on the staircase. Nanny's built like a Sumo wrestler, and should be favored.

But, we instead get an early 20th-century reaction to political correctness when Nanny makes the mistake of disparaging the mixed cultural heritage of Tom Branson's little girl within earshot of Lady Grantham. Nanny is played by an actress who didn't get a long contract.

The settings and the authenticity of things is plainly evident in the show. It's part of the show. Certainly the fashions, hats, and all those gold framed oil paintings in what I will assume really are in the manor where the show is shot, Highclere Castle, apparently a place you can tour.

The Valentine cards resonated because my cousin gave me some that were exchanged between her mother and my mother, first cousins, growing up, back in the early 20s. Small, thick paper/cardboard stock. Julian Fellowes and his staff are doing their homework, for sure.

How long can the show last? It's the start of Season Four and we've only advanced 10 years from the sinking of the Titantic. Mr. Fellowes claims there will be a Season Five, but maybe not a Six. It's already being written the show might be past it sell-by-date, but even then, it shows some durability.

Whether it can make it to WW II and the dust of falling ceilings will remain to be seen. It would be nice to eventually see the gang have to dress themselves.


(This is a bit of a milestone--the 600th blog posting at the start of the sixth year. If that were homeruns and I did it without PEDs, then I'd be in the Hall of Fame.)

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Pillow for Your Head

Pillows are nice to sleep on. Throughout my life I can remember sleeping with a pillow. One pillow under my head. I see this as an implied ratio, One person, one pillow. Somewhat like those voting rulings from the Supreme Court. Why then, does my wife put six pillows on our bed? Is she expecting company?

You see this kind of thing in those Martha Stewart  and Ralph Lauren ads about upscale, comfortable bedding. Make the bed look great. Decorate.

Of course, of the six pillows my wife plumps and plops on the bed, four are strictly for show. And it's not just victims of design advertising that do this, hotels are in on it too.

I was once on a business trip, checked into the room before going to the meet-and-greet, and counted seven pillows on my bed.

When I got downstairs I asked anyone at the gathering if they needed an extra pillow. "I've got seven pillows on my bed and there's a kid in Brazil who is probably sleeping on a soccer ball."

No takers. Everyone else also had seven pillows.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Nostalgia Factor

I have always seemed to have it. The nostalgia factor. As a kid I loved the section in the Sunday Daily News magazine that showed 'New York's Changing Scene.' Featured were photos of what a corner of Manhattan looked at in say the 1920s, or 1930s, and what the same corner now looked like in the 1950s and 60s. Some buildings remained, other didn't, and usually stores were different. There was a bit of text, by Margot Gayle, who I later learned was behind the effort to keep the feature going as long as she could. She was several months past her 100th birthday when she passed away in 2008. She rates her own Wikipedia entry: She was a was an American historic preservationist and author who helped save the Victorian cast-iron architecture in New York City's SoHo district.

I used to cut these 'Changing Scene' pages out and put them in a folder. I used my own Brownie camera to take pictures and expected to come back decades later to record what the area looked like. That never happened.

I remember well the old Penn Station and understand why there are those who have never gotten over its demolition. It almost seems as if the MTA is trying to make it reappear. The girders at the Jamaica Station are styled to evoke the old station. The fairly new New Jersey Transit section of Penn Station is created to look a bit like the old pile. There are tiled touches that bring back memories to those old enough to realize what the designers were working from.

The old Penn Station is so missed that a fairly recent movie, 'Broken City,' finds Mark Wahlberg tailing a campaign honcho and buying a round-trip ticket to Montauk! at Grand Central Terminal. The MTA will be glad to know that the East Side tunnel project has been completed a few years ahead of schedule. At least in the movies.

So, when the NYT runs a 'Building Block' piece on the Hotel Carter, at 250 West 43rd Street and describes how the new  management is trying to upgrade the staying experience, I'm at attention.

Will the writer get to the part that the place was once the Hotel Dixie and used to have Adirondack Trailways buses leave from its garage? Bless their heart, they did.

It's rather amazing that Penn Station was torn down, but the Hotel Dixie/Hotel Carter stays with us. It's the unfairness of things like that that drive the preservationists nuts.

You need old pictures and old movies to see what the place looked like. I love seeing Tom Ewell make his way through the upper level with a badly wrapped canoe paddle headed for the vacationing family in Maine, with his virtue intact at the end of 'The Seven Year Itch.' We see some of the grand steps when Farley Granger scampers down them to buy a ticket in the appropriately named, 'Strangers on a Train.'

When the 24 story place was the Hotel Dixie there a few summers in the early, to mid-50s that my mother took me there to get on a Trailways Adirondack bus to take the 12 hour trip to Malone, New York, before the Thruway, to see a nursing friend of hers from WW II. Gracie lived on a farm in nearby Brushton with her husband and daughter Judy, who was only a year or so younger than me.

The Port Authority was yet to be built, and the other bus stations in Manhattan were the two Greyhound bus stations, one across Penn Station on 33rd Street, and another I think in the upper 40s on the West Side.

The reporter, David Dunlap, gets in some of these early details of the Dixie, before it morphed into the Carter and was basically a welfare hotel. The bus station that was part of the Dixie used a turntable to turn the buses around, so they could head back out. There weren't many buses, but the place was busy.

I used to get a kick out of the fact that there in Manhattan was a place called Dixie, and my mother and I were headed to see her friend who was originally from Tennessee and who sounded like Patsy Kline.

The Dixie was a decent place to stay, and because of the bus station, was a destination for many. There is a scene in the 1960 Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds movie, 'The Rat Race,' where musician Tony gets to town and can't afford the $7.00 a night! it's going to cost to stay at the Dixie. He winds up staying up Debbie Reynolds, sharing an apartment. Only in the movies.

The Dixie morphed into the Carter, and basically fell into stages of being a welfare hotel, beset with crime, hookers and drugs. I used to think the neon sign on the top of the building, Hotel Carter, should be spelled Hotel Crater. The sign is still there, a fairly identifiable piece of the New York skyline.

Malone and Brushton is a farming community, a long, long way from New York City. It's near the Canadian border, but near Potsdam, where I started college. Downstate talk is not part of their world. It was only much later in life when I saw the movies 'Billy Bathgate' and 'Bugsy' did I learn that Bugsy Siegel was once held in prison in Malone.

Milking, cows and farming were the topics of conversation at the dinner table. And Eisenhower.

Friday, January 3, 2014

First One Up

The wheel keeps spinning, and the first obit to appear for the 2014 year is that of John Dominis, photographer, who has passed away at 92.

Anyone who passes away at 92 will have lead a life that covers a lot of ground. And John's was no exception. He was a news and magazine photographer during the era when that vocation was needed to fill the print media pages that brought us news through pictures. He was a combat photographer during WW II and Korea. Hardly surprising, he worked for Life magazine, that over-sized weekly that landed in nearly every home and waiting room until the 1970s. Still photography, principally black and white, brought us the pictures that were worth a thousand words.

News photography has always been a tough artistic sell. Is it really a good picture, even great picture, because of how it was taken, or merely because it depicts a historic event? Accompanying the obituary is a small 1958 photo of Mr. Dominis, along with a much larger image of the medal presentation at the 1968 Summer Olympics for the men's 200 meter dash.

As photos go, it doesn't come close to the picture of Babe Ruth taken from behind at Yankee Stadium, or the hole in presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson's shoe. But the image, when it hit the wire services, had a tremendous impact.

The two black American athletes, who finished first and third, Tommie Smith and John Carlos are seen each raising a black gloved hand with their heads bowed during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. This was their protest about the treatment of blacks in America. The 60s saw a lot of protests.

The reaction to the photo was immediate and sharp from all sides. As many times as I've seen the photo I didn't realize that Tommie Smith is raising a gloved right hand, and John Carlos is raising a gloved left hand. They split the pair of gloves.

In interviews about the image Mr. Dominis explained that it was almost a grab shot. He did nothing special, he just happened to realize the award ceremony was going on, and that that these two individuals were doing something they told no one about beforehand. He was at the right place and the right time, and there was film in the camera. No one at the Olympic Stadium thought too much about the gestures. Until the photo hit the streets.

Second news obit up for the first day of the new year is that of Patricia Ryan, 75, an editor at Time Inc. who started as a typing pool secretary, and eventually rose to be a top editor at Time and People magazines.

We know obituary page editors like groupings if they can get them, so the fact that we have two people who worked for the media giant Time-Life being noted on the same page is not a coincidence. It's even likely that the writer of Ms. Ryan's obituary worked with her along the way. Writers and editors travel in concentric circles.

So, another year in the can, 2013, and a new one starting. As Pete Hamill has cleverly observed, life is the leading cause of death.

But you do have to see things with some sunshine. After all, how bad can a year be if you're alive at the end of it?