Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The New Yorker

I've just read a book review in the WSJ that the cartoon editor of The New Yorker has assembled a bit of a memoir as well as a how-to book on cartooning.

The New Yorker cartoons are famous, and have certainly appeared in more PowerPoint presentations than words starting with Q. I have no real way of knowing that, but I'll bet it's true. Unless it's Iceland.

The book, reviewed by Mr. Edward Kosner is, 'How about Never--Is Never Good for You?' by Bob Mankoff. The title is taken from one of the all-time single panel cartoon classics, also by Mr. Mankoff, and has I'm sure appeared in umpteen presentations, with or without permission.

Mr. Mankoff's origins and background are described to the point that Mr. Kosner simply tells us Mr. Mankoff was born in the Bronx, but raised in Queens, and seems to have majored at Syracuse in the art of being a wise guy--"as in Jewish from Queens, not Italian from Little Italy."

I've never met Mr. Mankoff, but I know this guy. I'm the same kind of wise guy from Queens, not Jewish however, but exposed to Jewish, who could easily sit at the same table as Mr. Mankoff at the deli. "Are you done with the mustard?"

Over the years I've subscribed to The New Yorker just for the cartoons. I put all of 1967 in a scrap book. I've also let my subscription lapse many times and I don't think I've been getting the magazine now since we invaded Kuwait.

One particular doctor I see has a great waiting room selection of magazines, and it's there I catch up a little with the cartoons. But I only see this physician once a year, and any others I see are not in the same league of magazine choice. Maybe it's because they're not in Manhattan.

It's because of this annual reunion with the magazine that I became aware of the contest to send in ideas for a caption to a one panel cartoon setup. I've never done this, and I did previously read about Mr. Ebert's frustration of not having a caption selected after over 100 different submissions. Somewhere along the line the frustration became public and apparently a Mr. Ebert submission was a contest "winner." Seems like it was sort of getting into the college of your choice only after some arms might have been twisted.

Anyway, since I can't draw, and have proven to myself many times that that will never be possible...and...who needs rejection anyway?, I offer some described setups that can be easily imagined by the reader, and could be easily drawn by someone with a modicum of talent.

Scene 1

The small semi-circular bar we've seen many times, where the bartender is drying a glass and one fellow with a hat is in the foreground seated at the bar, thinking about the next sip from the shot glass, and seated to his right, several stools away, is a fellow dressed in a clown outfit, also with a shot glass in front of him, who speaks:

"Ever since the Internet, Skype, and YouTube, everyone thinks I'm a clown."

(Quite honestly, I'm not sure I haven't already seen this one in the magazine, but I offer it as original because, I don't really know, I'm not making any money off of this, and it is possible that different people can have the same comedic thoughts, sometimes simultaneously.

Scene 2

This one I'm certain I didn't see anywhere and happens to be one I anticipate after my wife's soon-to-be knee surgery. She doesn't read the blog, and that I know of, none of her friends do either, so I offer this one with my some confidence my well-being will be continued.

Woman is in a hospital bed with either her leg up on a pulley, or in some kind of position that gives the reader the impression that something orthopedic has been done. She looks calm, all is well and she his not in any distress or any pain.

The husband explains to either the nurse, or a physician, or both who are also bedside that:

"She understands that pain-killers can lead to constipation, but in my wife's case, I think it's going to be hard to know, since for her, not going for 5 days is usually just will-power."

Scene 3

Man and a woman at the front door of a single-family home, perhaps drawn by Chon Day. They're taking a survey, or collecting for some charity.

The front door of the house is a full-size locker door, drab green, fairly narrow, vented on the top,  with the number 134 stamped on a piece of plain steel wedged between two brackets.

The man says to the woman:

"The people in his house are very into sports."

Scene 4

Finally, for now, something topical given Russia's annexation of the Crimean part of the Ukraine.

Briefing room, with only Vladimir Putin seated, looking intently at the presenter, who points to a map that shows Russia and the west coast of the United States, with Alaska and the Bering Strait quite prominent, and what the presenter is drawing Mr. Putin's attention to:

"We could try and get Alaska back as well, but there's that woman Palin to deal with. She says she sees everything we do."

The doctor's ready to see me now.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Continuing Education

Quick need to repeat oneself. You learn things from obituaries. And if you really pay attention, you might be present when the first of something occurs.

Take yesterday's obituary for L'Wren Scott, the fashion model and designer who committed suicide. The NYT obit was quite capably penned by Bruce Weber, one of their stalwart obituary writers. Over the years, Mr. Weber has had to make strenuous declarations that he is not "that Bruce Weber," a famous photographer. He's even written a piece how he keeps getting mistaken for the photographer. And no doubt, unless he's holding an array of cameras, that Bruce Weber has had to strenuously declare he's not that Bruce Weber, the one who currently writes about dead people in the NYT.

So, there are two Bruce Webers, whose names can be encountered when writing and photography subjects come up. Given that, what are the chances that the obituary writer Bruce Weber would get to use his name as part of an obituary on someone who is not Bruce Weber, but who was connected to them at one point. The other Bruce Weber, the photographer.

Alert the media. It has happened.

Mr. Weber, in yesterday's obituary on Ms. Scott, mentions that she was encouraged by the photographer Bruce Weber to further pursue her modeling career by moving to Paris from Utah, where she was born and where Mr. Weber first photographed her. Her modeling and fashion designing career took off, to the point she ran her own fashion company and was an A-List celebrity romantically connected to Mick Jagger.

This coincidence doesn't have an official, or professional name. When an obituary is bylined by someone who has themselves pre-deceased the obituary's subject, this time-bending occurrence is called a "double-down."

It does happen, although somewhat rarely. Obituaries for noted figures are pre-written to the extent they can be, and bylined by that writer, waiting to go to press with updated text as needed when the subject does become deceased. This is done, because the more famous the figure the larger the obituary, and including everything might be difficult if it had to be done from scratch, while also making deadline.

Some famous "double-downs" that have appeared over the years occurred when Red Smith pre-deceased Jack Dempsey, and Red's byline appeared over Jack's obituary years later. Mel Gussow and Liz Taylor is another example. This was written about, nearly three years ago! in a posting.

So, what can we call the same name phenomena of Mr. Weber including his own name in an obituary, and having it refer to someone else? "Double-Up" is offered to the committee that might exist to decide these things. Until then, we have more to go.

Back to the apparent suicide of Ms. Scott by the method gingerly described. The NYT doesn't report salacious, or gruesome details, but Mr. Weber does gently mention that Ms. Scott was found with a scarf tied around her neck, that was also tied to a French door handle, leaning forward on her knees. On the surface, it remains a complete wonder how a 6' 3" woman (or anyone above 3') can successfully do themselves in from a door handle, French door, or otherwise.

Death, or the mention of it, can produce gallows humor, and it certainly did when Maureen Dowd a few years ago recounted the story of the film director Billy Wilder aiming his anger at the very height-challenged, very famous Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar, by declaring: "That man should go hang himself from a Bonsai tree."

As funny and as cruel (cruelly funny?) as that statement is, it does coincide with our image of someone who is hung, that they are hung from an object above their own head.

I will report that a reading of other obituaries can reveal how the technique employed by Ms. Scott can prove fatally successful, as impossible as it might initially seem.

And the education is not over.

An adjoining obituary was written by Robert D. McFadden on Rachel Mellon, an heiress who passed away at 103. This is a very significant age, and Ms. Mellon was in every way connected with the upper social levels, most famously married to Paul Mellon, one of the world's richest and most philanthropic of people.

At 103, you come from an era of 1930s Turner Classic movies. And Ms. Mellon certainly did, and this was invoked by Mr. McFadden when he describes Rachel as a "dazzling figure in a swirling cotillion or at the taffrail of a steamer.

A what? Without knowing the exact definition, the taffrail can be inferred to be a ship's railing from which departing passengers wave vigorously to those on the dock, and the same spot that the same, now arriving passengers wave vigorously to the people on the dock at their destination, providing of course the ship doesn't run into an iceberg, or is not blown up by a German submarine. If that's the case, the people only get to wave once.

It turns out of course that he taffrail is the railing at the stern, upper part of a ship. Perfect place to wave from. But that's not all.

The obituary by Mr. McFadden is typical of those that will appear as the people he's pre-written about cross the line into their demise. Mr. McFadden is, at 77, I suspect retired, but is one of the great newspaper journalists, being awarded a Pulitzer for breaking news reporting. No one ever wrote a better lede than Mr. McFadden.

So, who was given the task of pre-writing Mr. McFadden's obit? You know someone has.

I can wait, as I'm sure Mr. McFadden can wait, but it would be the greatest if Robert McG. Thomas Jr.'s name appeared on the byline, himself a legendary NYT reporter and obituarist, who passed away all too soon at the age of 60 in January 2000.

Now that would be some "double-down."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

It Must be the Custom

A Tweet from @obitsman leads us to a BBC News story from India about the dead guru who was recently put in a freezer on his demise by his followers because they believe he will return to life to lead them. They are confident he was merely in a state of deep meditation.

"He is not dead. Medical science does not understand things like yogic science. We will wait and watch. We are confident that he will come back," his spokesman Swami Vishalanand told the BBC.

Ashutosh Maharaj led the Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan (Divine Light Awakening Mission) which claims more than 30 million followers.

This is significant, because it allows his followers to see the light come on as they open the freezer lid to make sure meditation is still taking place.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Right Words

I'm only up to owning the 15th hardcover edition of 'Bartlett's Familiar Quotations', edited by Emily Morrison Beck. Thus, I do not have access right now to the 16th and 17th editions that the recently deceased Justin Kaplan edited. However, I am not going to let that hold me back.

Everyone has got at least one quote they feel should be in Bartlett's, and they are all probably right. The following might be in an edition of Bartlett's, but not likely, no doubt because the person who said it, to the best I can tell, is not identified. I plucked it from a book review on Tammany Hall, the great political machine that built huge parts of New York City and kept construction workers, bankers and prosecutors busy for decades.

The book is, 'Machine Made,' by Terry Golway. The book review, in a March 10, 2014 edition of the Wall Street Journal, is by Edward Kosner.

Mr Kosner excerpts one of the apparently few humorous anecdotes from the book when it is reported that when a long-time chief of the organization, a hard-drinking bail bondsman named Murray Hall passed away and it was revealed he was really a she who had been a lifelong cross-dresser, a friend of Mr. Hall's quite succinctly paid his respects: "She's dead, the poor fellow."

Even unattributed, maybe that will make into a future Bartlett's edition.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

She's Alive and Well

The world's most photographed woman with clothes on has once again been spotted. Any thoughts she was on the doomed Malaysian airliner, Flight 370, have disappeared when Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel was spotted with Russian president Vladimir Putin going tete-a-tete on a Soviet team version of 'Jeopardy', trying to provide the question to the answer, "bitcoin."

Each world leader looked tanned and rested, and were trying to dispel any rumors that they were in a ski chalet together ever since the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Post Obituary

I think easily the best post obituary sentence I've ever read has appeared in Bill Bryson's latest book, "One Summer, America, 1927."

Mr. Bryson opens Chapter 14 with: "For Warren G. Harding, the summer of 1927 was not a good one, which was perhaps a little surprising since he had been dead for nearly four years."

Mr. Bryson's book, while focusing on the major events of 1927... Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic, Babe Ruth and the Yankees, the Sash Weight Murder Case...also provides background as to what the era was like by also revealing what was going on a few years before 1927. What set the table, so to speak.

In Harding's case, it was how he was unlikely to even be expected to be the Republican nominee for president in 1920. And after the election that Harding won with the greatest plurality of the times, how he pretty much acted stupidly in office, allowing those around him to pilfer the public treasure chest.

Harding died in office, in 1923, after only serving 29 months. Mr. Bryson summarizes:

Harding's death was so well timed, in terms of escaping scandals, that it was widely rumored that his wife poisoned him for the sake of his reputation. Her behavior following his death was certainly curious: she immediately began destroying all his papers and wouldn't allow a death mask to be made. In addition, she stoutly refused to give permission for an autopsy, which is why the cause of death has always been uncertain.

Talk about achieving a code of silence. Mrs. Harding was well ahead of the times.

So, with a death in office, the vice president takes over. In this case, Calvin Coolidge, who would finish the term and then win the election of 1924 in his own right.

The Teapot Dome scandal was the most famous of the Harding administration. It involved the sale of oil leases to public land by the Interior Secretary Albert Fall to oil executives for favorable "loans" back to Mr. Fall.

The scandal was conceived during the Harding administration, but unraveled over time, with court cases that went into 1929. 1927 was a bad year for Harding, posthumously, because it was then that the Supreme Court ruled that the leases had been obtained fraudulently, and a book came out about the love child Harding had fathered.

Albert Einstein studied gravity, but sex and money have been the driving forces on Earth, before, then and now.

Harding it seems fathered a child with his mistress, Nan Britton, 31 years his junior. The baby girl, Elizabeth Ann, was born in 1919. Harding supported his mistress, and the baby, even as his political stature rose. But, he also continued the affair, with assignations in the White House in a cloak room outside the Oval Office.  Ms. Britton wrote about these in her book, "The President's Daughter," finally published in July 1927.

True to the chapter's opening sentence, 1927 was not a good year for Harding, despite having died nearly four years earlier. He may as well have been buried in the doghouse.

My father didn't pass down any opinions of Harding, his, or that of others. My father was 12 in 1927, and did witness the ticker tape parade for Lindbergh. I'm thinking he skipped school that day, Monday, June 13th, but he never said.

The only politician I can assign posthumous enmity to (so far) is John V. Lindsay, New York City's mayor from 1966 through 1973. And I'm hardly alone, although we are starting to check out.

There was a terrific snowstorm in February 1969, dumping 15 inches of snow in the city. Drifts of course were higher. We lived in Flushing, in the borough of Queens, and were particularly affected because Mayor John didn't get the plows out. The city in general was crippled, but Queens was hardest hit. Nothing was plowed. We and the rest of the neighbors literally shoveled the street out and exposed the fire hydrants. And good thing, because our upstairs tenant fell asleep on the couch while smoking and nearly burned the place down. Damage was extensive, but the fire department was able to get through because of our collective snow removal efforts. Smoke inhalation was the worst anyone suffered.

The story went that Ralph Bunche, the Under Secretary General for Special Political Affairs at the U.N., living in the Kew Gardens section of the borough got his street plowed after he complained. Where he was going with only his street plowed is not known. Queens County, then, and now, is a maze of streets, avenues, lanes, boulevards, drives, places, roads and parkways that adhere to absolutely little pattern or regimentation. It's London.

So, Mayor John V. Lindsay basically got a snowstorm named after him. To this day his name brings recognition if you're discussing inept snow removal.

Last month I was in a Queens butcher shop, Karl Ehmer, buying what are to me the world's greatest frankfurters, and there, on their flat panel TV screen was either a live, or a taped press conference on NY1 coming from City Hall, with the freshly elected Mayor de Blasio trying to defend himself against poor snow removal on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, keeping schools open during a blizzard, his dislike of charter schools, his emphasis on speed limits and cracking down on jaywalking. He was having a tough time of it.

Comments from the business side of the counter from the staff basically accused the Mayor of being an "a-hole." (Why people torture themselves with TV news is beyond me, but here they are doing it to themselves at work.)

One woman, perhaps a co-owner of the place was old enough to understand my comment, to no one in particular, "Bring back Lindsay."

She just shook her head, and flatly said, "Oh, Lindsay." Forty-one years since Lindsay was mayor, and 14 years since he passed away, she still didn't think he was good idea either.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

They Stand Corrected

Just happened to spot the following two corrections that appeared in Saturday's WSJ. Perhaps my own rejoinders to the corrections occurred to me because I had recently been in a doctor's waiting room and had picked up a copy of The New Yorker. Most of these corrections are usually fairly dry, but these two, appearing at the same time, seemed like hitting the Daily Double.

A dispatcher mistakenly sent firefighters to Grand Street in Jersey City on Thursday instead of to Grant Avenue where a fire killed four people. An article on Friday incorrectly said the blaze was on Grand Avenue and that firefighters were wrongly sent to Grant Street.

It's amazing anyone eventually showed up.

Apartment 4B at 32 W. 40th Street in Manhattan is listed for sale. In a Block Party column on the Garment District on the property page Friday, the apartment number was given as 3B.

And the people in 3B were not happy one bit about that.
(Can you imagine if Whitey Bulger was in apartment 3B? After the bell rang a second time he might have jumped out a window.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Grammarians at the Gate

Somewhere back in time, when the white board was black and the teacher wrote with chalk, and before zip codes expanded on postal codes, I remember a grammar school teacher (grade unknown)  going over parts of speech and the use of superlatives.

I don't know if a few days was devoted to this, or a full week, with a test on Friday, but I do remember enough to make me pretty sure that the phrase "memories are more fond on paper" is not correct. It should be: "memories are fonder on paper." Or, "memories are fondest on paper."

What rule of grammar this phrase seems to violate is not known. Something about comparative words and superlative words and who wins out. But the appearance of the phrase as part of an ad on the front page of a section in today's New York Times got me thinking. If it is misstated, (alert readers, please let me know) was it done so on purpose, or did the phrase escape the proofreading/grammar abilities of the people who put the ad together, and the people who placed it?

The ad is for what appears to be a trade group representing paper. Their website is cleverly named The ad is directly beneath a story (coincidence?) about Newsweek magazine restoring a print edition to accompany its digital edition, and its plans to start printing hard copy this Friday. What goes around, comes around.

The photo that accompanies the ad is a vintage photo of six kids, one girl and five boys, in size-place order, circa 1910-1920 or so. It's one of those vintage photos that a politician would use in their campaign to show their humble origins and why there wasn't enough food on the table when they were growing up. I'm not running for office, but to me it could be a photo of my father and his siblings before the family of six kids was reduced to four after the Spanish influenza of 1918.

Of course that's the point of the paper people. Your memories are best held on paper and not in pixels. And I do agree.

I know advertising can take liberties with language. We have "nobody doesn't like Sara Lee," a clear double negative and what was taught to be a no-no. But that's a slogan that seems eligible for a pass. And somehow, double negatives read as positives anyway. Isn't the multiplication of two negative numbers a positive? And in programming, doesn't a double negative return code render a positive? Of course they do.

One of the great grammar lessons that played out that I remember was the advertising for Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds." Posters everywhere informed us, "The Birds Is Coming." Teachers had a field day asking didn't that violate subject/verb agreement?

If you answered no, you're right. 'The Birds' is a title, singular, and 'is' is the correct singular verb form to match the singular title.

A few years ago, Lynne Truss wrote a surprising bestseller on the correct use of punctuation marks, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves." I have no idea if a sequel on simple rules of grammar is in her gun sights. If she does produce such a book, I'll buy a copy. I know something book length is beyond my talents to produce. It would easily be more better if she did it.