Monday, December 29, 2014

None of My Favorite Things

'A Few of My Favorite Things' is one of those rare songs that comes from a musical, 'The Sound of Music,' that has nothing to do with Christmas, but nowadays gets used fairy incessantly as a Christmas song. And that's okay. It is a nice tune, with a good title that suggests the singer is going to tell you what they like. 'Warm woolen mittens...' I guess this is where it starts to become a Christmas song. In the North and Northeast it is generally cold at Christmas, and anyone outside under the age of 10 might be wearing 'warm woolen mittens.'

Of course, those in warmer climates might be wearing little, but who cares, the calendar says December, and if it is December, Christmas will be on it.

So, since this is the time of year people make up all sorts of lists, I thought I'd share my list of my least favorite things. This is a list of words, or phrases that when uttered within earshot cause me to flinch a bit. I'm not going to offer a full blown William Safire-like treatise on why they make me flinch or what I construe their meaning to be. They may be amongst your own dislikes, or even your likes.

I'm just going to tell you that when I hear the following I start talking to myself a bit. I keep my dislike of these words and phrases to myself when I hear them, but they still annoy me. Big time.

It is what it is.
Giving back to the community.
Exact same.
Free gift.
Affordable housing.
Do the math.
Have a nice day.
Trust me.
Boots on the ground.
It's not rocket science.
It's not brain surgery.
Reality TV.
Social media.
Having said that.
Sounds like a plan.

This of course is not all the words and phrases I dislike. It is all I've been able to think of, or heard and wrote down within the last month. Some waaaay more than others. I'm sure I'll be adding more as time passes.

Trust me.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Oh Mandy. Mandy Rice-Davies Passes Away at 70

It was 1963, and as schoolboys we were still recovering from the loss of Marilyn Monroe to suicide. So, in 1963, when Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler got the world's attention for doing what comes naturally, we couldn't get enough of them. They were a more famous pair than Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

It doesn't matter who you thought was prettier. These were Miss Rheingold's with a story that we liked to read about. And if you think publicity is out of control now, it was no less out of control then, and without Twitter, without Facebook, and without YouTube. Newspapers were good enough. And in black and white, no less.

Think Monica Lewinsky with overtones of missile secrets being passed as pillow talk. The minister who was involved with Christine Keeler was John Profumo, who was the Secretary of State for War, and the common bunkmate between he and Christine was Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet defense attaché. Almost like a episodes from 'The Americans,' if you've been paying attention.

Mandy only shared an apartment with Christine, and did not make the triad a quartet. The scandal rocked the Harold Macmillan government. The joke amongst us was that the British were lousy carpenters: a few screws and the cabinet falls apart.

Now Mandy has passed away at 70, and we all feel a little bit older. As she got older and entered  into entertainment, writing and restaurant ventures, she liked to say she spent a long "descent into respectability." Christine is still with us, but recent photos show her to be completely unrecognizable to the girl of the 60s.

You have to love the British and their way of telling describing Mandy: "Mandy was by a long chalk the more resilient and streetwise." This is a horse racing metaphor telling us she was the favorite. And by the read of her obituary, she lead quite a life, unapologetic for the past, using it for the future.

Perhaps because of Mandy's sly reply in the witness box about Lord Astor's denial of sleeping with her, "Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” we compared her response to every response that appeared in the paper when someone was caught at what comes naturally. Like when the scandal broke in New York City that women, were sleeping in the firehouses and the bunkmates calmly pointed out that they "were just friends" we couldn't pass a firehouse with an open door without wondering who was upstairs above the poles.

It was a great era.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Slightly Used...Best Offer

Sound familiar? Sure, someone has something to sell. But what? A used coffin? No way.

All of the recent events once again prove life is an on off ramp. Names have been changed, but the story is the same.
Over the weekend my wife got word that a cousin of hers had passed away suddenly at 62. And actually, not yet known of what causes. The cousin, Barbara, lived outside the Washington D.C. area to a husband that was always viewed as a bit of scootch, a family in-law pariah.
Through the inevitable phone calls from other family members, it came back to my wife that Larry, the husband, was looking for a discount of some kind on the burial expenses, even though Barbara is to be cremated. On what basis he thought a discount might apply is not known. Larry is not someone anyone looks forward to talking to.
My wife laughed, and said that was Larry, but said she never heard of anyone getting a used coffin.
So tonight, I read the story about the fight over the ownership of Lee Harvey Oswald's original coffin. This was in Friday's NYT.
One, I never remembered that there was an older Oswald brother, Robert, now 80, that reporters became pallbearers at Lee's funeral, and that Oswald was exhumed in 1981 in order to put to rest the raging conspiracy theory that a Russian impostor was buried in his place. (And this was before Fox News.)
Turns out the funeral home took possession of the coffin, and after 30 years of keeping it in storage, is now trying to sell it at auction. It is not in great shape. Robert Oswald is suing to prevent this.
In a video deposition, Mr. Oswald said he knew of "no case where anyone has ever bought a used coffin."
He obviously hasn't met anyone from my wife's extended family who thought he'd give it a try.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Men Are From...

When I was in high school studying biology the periodical 'Scientific America' ran an entire issue on the study of human cells. Since we were studying this in class, the teacher either got us, or brought in several copies of the journal to help us in our classroom work.

It was the only edition of "Scientific America' I ever read, or looked through. It is quite, well, scientific, and beyond the layman's level. But there we were, high school sophomores immersed in Ph.D. articles.

I thought of this long ago dedication of an issue to one topic when I looked at last week's NYT 'Science Times' section. Over 90% of the eight page section is about the planet Mars. This is because of the reports coming back from the Curiosity Rover that we landed on the planet. The robot is a virtual geologist moving across the planet taking photos and surface samples. Results are sent back to NASA.

Ask different people what are the most burning unanswered questions and I have no doubt that the question of life on other planets will rank in the top three of all respondents. As for myself, I've always ranked it No. 1, followed closely by who is Carly Simon singing about in her song 'You're So Vain.' Carly moved into the No. 2 spot after W. Mark Felt revealed himself to be 'Deep Throat', the anonymous parking garage source about Watergate. Where is Whitney Bulger never made my top three, and now even his whereabouts are known. Prison. (Currently, I have no No. 3.)

The 'Science Times' issue easily justifies the NYT newsstand price of $2.50. I can see classrooms, somewhere, using the issue to enhance their study of planets.

Mars has always fascinated us because it is the closest plant to Earth, so therefore it is thought we could have some kind of planetary neighbors. Martians. All the early Sci-Fi movies dealt with our imagined version of what these "people" might be like.

The 'Science Times' issue is an easy to read section, filled with color photos sent back by Curiosity Rover. The text is not highly technical, unlike that long ago issue of 'Scientific America.' In keeping with the 'People' magazine celebrity form journalism we are now used to, there are pages with left and right columns of photos of famous people and what they may have once, or currently said about Mars

Bold face names like Buzz Aldrin, Ray Bradbury, President Reagan, Elton John are examples of the variety of people featured in these thumbnail quotes. Some are witty, some are serious, some are dismissive of the planet.

To me, one is particular stands out. And it's not really about Mars directly. It's more of a touchstone for anyone's research into how long lawyers have been disliked.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, the man who gave us Tarzan, wrote in 1917 in 'A Princess of Mars,' "In one respect at least the Martians are a happy people: they have no lawyers."

Reason enough for going there.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

College Costs

Chester A. Arthur was not a president whose name rings many bells after his time in office. He became president because he was James Garfield's vice president and Garfield was assassinated early in his term. Prior to being on the Garfield ticket Arthur was a chief mucky-muck in New York Republican politics, aided by the patron saint of  New York Republicans, Roscoe Conkling. Arthur was the chief Customs Collector in New York, and with the system of accepted givebacks, was literally making more money than the president.  Perhaps significantly, Roscoe Conkling's statute is at one end of Madison Square Park, and Arthur's is at the other.

Aside from being the answer to a trivia question, Chester A. Arthur was one of the few presidents sworn into office in New York City. This fact escaped my knowledge until I read in Monday's NYT that the building where Arthur lived and took the oath, still standing, may not ever ascend higher on the Landmarks Preservation Committee's list to consider protecting. In fact, it may be dropped from the list all together.

All this is easy to understand when you look at the building where Arthur lived and was awoken on September 20, 1881 at 2:10 A.M. to take the oath of office after confirmation of Garfield's death reached New York.

The building is at 123 Lexington Avenue, near 28th Street, and is a building I would have walked past any number of times as I went to the landlord's office to pay the family's flower shop rent in the 1960s. Usually late. I never knew I was walking past anything historic. And why would I? The plaque pointing all this out, when it wasn't being stolen, was inside the front door.

That particular stretch of Lexington Avenue is changed in the sense that at street level the storefronts are full of Thai and Indian restaurants. The buildings however, are the same, with no high rises in sight. Still passing through this area I think of how unchanged the height of any buildings is. The Old Print Shop is still there, looking nearly as old as the prints they sell. I attribute the lack of development to air rights that went elsewhere, but what do I know?

It is not surprising that Arthur would have lived in the house. That was a much more fashionable part of town in the 1880s, with its location just north of Gramercy Park.

Sam Roberts, the reporter who is giving us the story with all this nostalgia, does close with an observation that can be taken two ways, the way it was meant, and the way it could be twisted. I always go for twisted.

Mr. Roberts tells us that " a recent study led by Henry L. Roediger III, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis (just think of the contacts Mr. Roberts must have!), found that only 7% of college students remember Mr. Arthur at all."

Sounds like a small percentage. But if 7% of college students remember Arthur then they've been in school waaaaaay too long and need to move on. It's no wonder college costs so much.

Poor parents.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

From the Bench

I don't usually read legal wordings from the bench. In fact, I don't read them at all. I did happen to be part of a case that went to Federal court that put me at the sentencing of a doctor for health care fraud. A hefty sentence was handed out, and in the judge's reading of the sentence he said to the defendant, "You have had a Faustian fall from grace."

Someone next to me, not a journalist, said that that sound bite would be in tomorrow's paper. The judge was William H. Pauley III, and it was October 2001. And indeed, the quote was on the front page of the next day's New York Times.

The trial was a bit of a celebrity health care case for New York. The doctor was a Park Avenue gynecologist and obstetrician with a busy practice of performing in-vitro fertilizations for women having trouble conceiving. He was highly sought after, having earned a good deal of success and positive notoriety in his field.

The only trouble was that Dr. L,. for some reason, thought it best to circumvent the insurance coverage, and where the contracts did not allow payment for such a procedure, misrepresent his services as something else, thereby achieving payment.

Dr. L. did this so often, and for so long, that he was collecting in excess of $1 million from a variety of regional health insurers. Exception was taken.

So, indeed his fall from grace was of Faustian proportions, and the judge sentenced him to over seven years. The prosecution appealed the sentence, and got more time added. Thus, Dr. L. spent a good deal of time in federal prison, before the final blow of being deported back to Denmark.

Every so often I'd read of a case and I'd see that Judge Pauley was involved. And so it was in Friday's Wall Street Journal that I read that U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III sentenced Richard Chichaki below the sentencing guidelines for his conviction on conspiracy and wire-fraud charges. Mr. Chichaki was a Syrian associate of an international arms dealer, Viktor Bout, and got five years in prison.

Judge Pauley, in his sentencing remarks pointed out that no one was even sure that it was Mr. Chichaki who stood before him. "Mr. Chichaki continues to be shrouded in mystery," noting that his passports were "so filled with immigration stamps that they looked like a sheet of Rachmaninoff's music."

The judge is clearly cultured. Well read, and poetic. He invokes the famous work of Johann Goethe, and the thunderous music of a Russian composer.

All this gives me an idea that I will never act on. If Judge Pauley can be so clever in his sentencing orations, then surely there are others who are good at it too. The judge himself, by virtue of being on the bench for so long might have by now compiled a book's worth of quotable phrases. A bound book, and therefore gift giving possibilities arise.

I'd love to hear Picasso worked into a sentence.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

We Almost Had It

As anyone you plays the horses knows, multi-leg wagers can be difficult to hit. A Daily Double is picking the winner of two consecutive races, that years ago were strictly the first two races, but now roll through the entire card.

After that there are Pick-3s, Pick-4s, Pick-5s and the Pick-6, a bonanza bet, that when hit, usually pays off with a lifestyle changing return. The requirement is that the winner of the races covered by these bets must be represented as one bet. Usually, several permutations are devised and bet on by the bettors to strengthen their changes.

There is a consolation for the Pick-6. If five winners are picked, there is a separate payoff, usually small, since usually there are lots of bets that have 5 of the 6 winners picked; any 5 of the 6. On rare occasions, if there are some real significantly priced "bombs," longshots that come in, there might only be people who have only five winners on a ticket; no one picked six, or no one picked five. In these situations, a percentage of the total pool is marked for consolation payouts and the rest is carried over to the next day of betting, fattening that pool right from the start. Successive carry-over days create some hefty pools. And attract more wagers.

Consolation Pick-6 returns can be so small that one Pick-6 that was played by a group of four of us, creating four bets, was hit for the consolation payoff of $11.00; five out of six winners, all heavy favorites; split four ways, $2.75 for the $2.00 each person bet. Great return on Wall Street. Lousy at a racetrack.

So, more often than not, multi-leg races result in an incomplete pass. Like Triple Crown pursuits, all legs are not hit often by many.

We just had an attempt at an obituary Pick-3 that resulted in nailing two of the three legs, but a close second place finish in the final leg but a kibosh on the celebration.

It was speculated that Robert McFadden's byline could complete the rarest of obit triples; three subjects, over 90, who all committed felonies. Quite honestly, I got excited when I saw Mr McFadden's byline in Thursday's paper and the subject had passed away at 85 and was a politician who had made numerous attempts at being New York City's mayor. Like horseshoes, close could count.

But as soon as I realized it was Herman Badillo who had passed away at 85, I knew we missed the photo. I was aware of his political career, and couldn't recall it being smudged by even an indictment and beating the rap. This wasn't Mario Biaggi. Reading the obituary confirmed it; no mention of even overdue parking tickets, which wouldn't have counted anyway.

But, as often happens at the races, you look in one spot and something is happening over there, we did have the absolute rarest string of deaths in hockey. A Pick-5. Not all the same byline, but significantly, in close order, Gilles Tremblay, Vitkor Tikhonov, Pat Quinn, Murray Oliver and Jean Beliveau all passed away.

We'll keep our eyes out for more clusters as time goes by. We may get that 90+ McFadden felon before year's end yet, but it won't be a true Pick-3. It will be more like Tiger Woods's Grand Slam. Close, but no cigar.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Pick-3 Watch

We are on a Pick-3 watch, or an obituary trifecta, seeing who might be the third person Robert D. McFadden gets to write about who is 90 or over at the time of their passing and has done time for their convictions on numerous felony charges. Even one felony charge will do. It is a very narrow journalistic window, and we'll be watching the skies closely.

The first of Mr. McFadden's obits was on "Mad" Frank Fraser, a notorious British gangster, thug, and all round brute that even in a nursing home won a British honor, of sorts. Having long since establishing ineligibility for something nice people get, like a Knighthood, or even an OBE, Oder of the British Empire, Mr. Fraser was labeled an ASBO, which stands for anti-social behavior order.

It seems in the nursing home he got into some altercation with another resident. The British newspaper that wrote about this in their obituary does not mention what the "row" was about. But it occurred only last year, when Mr. Fraser was 89 and easily could have been about a wheelchair parking space. We may never know.

Today's McFadden felony obituary is on Anthony Marshall, whose career in crime came to him much, much later in life than Mr. Fraser's and involved an estate swindle of his mother's assets. It is a bit complicated, but at the age of 89, an appeals court upheld his 2009 conviction on the 14 of the 16 count indictment that included first-degree grand larceny charges. It seems Mr. Marshall, in concert with his mother's lawyer, Mr. Francis X. Morrissey Jr., played fast and loose with mum's money and took advantage of her sometimes diminished mental capacities caused by Alzheimer's related dementia.

Mr. Marshall only spent two months in a Dutchess county (NY) prison that had skilled nursing care. He was released under the terms of a compassionate parole. Since mom, the wealthy philanthropist Brooke Astor had passed away at 105 in 2007, it was certain Mr. Marshall no longer had a mom to steal from.

If Mr. Marshall didn't get himself in trouble with family finances, his obituary would not have a lede about his felony conviction, but would instead highlight what seemed to be a polymath man who achieved recognition for creative works and public service. So prominent was the trial and conviction that the headline for his six column obituary contains the words "...Convicted in Estate Swindle..."

This is a little softer than the prior day's online headline, since softened, that a "Convicted Swindler" had passed away at 90.

This is a bit of an object lesson that near end-of-life notoriety is what will dominate your send off. One can only imagine how the comedian Bill Cosby's obituary will be amended based on recent revelations.

So, who is next to complete the Pick-3, or obituary trifecta? Mr. McFadden I'm sure has written many pre-deceased obituaries that lie in what the NYT calls "The Morgue." Marilyn Johnson in her book The Dead Beat, tells us that there are maybe 1,200 names in the Times morgue, waiting to be updated and transplanted to the page once their subjects cease breathing.

Surely there is at least one more in there by Robert McFadden about someone who is now 90 and has entered into the world of crime and been convicted for it. Who will be the next "Tale from the Crypt?"