Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Inflatable Donald

The media, print, online, broadcast, televised, whomever, tries to tell us ALL sorts of things. But not all the things I'd like to know about. Take helium-filled balloons. Specifically, a yellow/orange helium balloon shaped like Donald Trump in a diaper holding a cell phone being pulled through a crowd of President Trump protesters in London on Friday.

It seems no one has learned much from the Jimmy Breslin example of interviewing the JFK gravediggers as the plot in Arlington was being prepared that fateful weekend.

Or from the photographer who took the picture of a cancer weakened  Babe Ruth from behind, leaning on his bat, as they were honoring him at Yankee Stadium. Everyone else was in front. Nat Fein's photo in 1948 was worth the thousands of words written about the Babe.

The missed story is this: where did activist Leo Murray, the reported balloon creator, go to get his idea made into something that can released into the air? Who has the pattern that can depict Trump in a hilarious 19-foot inflated height, holding a cell phone while in a diaper? Where do you go when you have the idea? I mean, who makes custom helium balloons? Can they make another? I've never seen one at the card store in the shopping center where I buy the birthday balloons.

Did a group of people across the Pond call Macy's and ask, "hey, where can we get something that looks like America's president, in yellow/orange holding a cell phone, in a diaper? There can't be many places that can fill an order like that before Trump flies up to Scotland. There's a deadline there.

Saturday's NYT, The 45th President/Foreign Policy page, A14, shows us Donald floating, (in a black and white photo) having his picture taken by more cell phones per square foot than clicked away when American Pharoah and Justify won their Triple Crowns in 2015 and 2018.

We get The Donald in orange today when we read Maureen Dowd's weekly effort at writing when her piece leads off with the headline, 'Trump, Having a Brawl in Europe.'  Cute headline.

Maureen, as irrelevant as ever, starts off telling us she had lunch with other invited journalists in the summer of 2000 with Vladimir Putin at the 21 Club. Somehow, she doesn't tell us what she ate.

The only other satiric helium balloon I've ever seen on the street is when some union is protesting an outfit that is housed in some building in Manhattan over their not hiring union labor. They plop a giant inflatable rat in front of the place and chant. The same rat shows up at these things. It's Rent-A-Rat.

So, will Sarah Lyall, the NYT reporter-at-large, who has contacts across the Pond, try and find out who is the go-to person for Trump helium balloons? Jimmy won a Pulitzer with his approach.

I think the right size balloon would sell out at the neighborhood card store.

Nancy Barbato Sinatra

That didn't take long. Margalit Fox's last day at the NYT writing obituaries was June 29. The first of her advance obituaries to bob up to the surface was in today's paper, for Nancy Barbara Sinatra, 101, Frank Sinatra's first wife, and the mother of his three children.

I had forgotten his first wife's name was Nancy. I knew the oldest daughter is named Nancy, and I knew I always liked the song 'Nancy' so much that my wife and I named our first daughter Nancy, after Frank's song.

Frank also sang about Emily, and Elizabeth, but we liked the song 'Nancy.' I've always liked a 'smiling face.'

And according to Margalit, Frank and Nancy, the wife, always liked a smiling face—each other's smiling faces, long after they were divorced in 1951, and long after Frank had his way with countless women, some of whom he even married.

The jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton once remarked that we wouldn't have all those great Sinatra torch songs if he and Ava Gardner hadn't split up. Ava being who he chased and married after Nancy. Over the years, Ava was the one subject Frank would never discuss publicly.  She was off-limits.

Perhaps it's like the Dylan Thomas poem, "after the first their is no other." I once heard the director Peter Bogdanovich tell us that Cybill Shepherd left Elvis Presley for him. She later left Peter, but he could always say she left Elvis for him.

Frank never had any children with anyone other than his first wife. And his first wife apparently never settled for anyone other than Frank. Obituaries can end with a final word. And Ms. Fox lets this one end with Nancy's.

"Let Mrs. Sinatra, who hewed so long to steadfast midcentury propriety, have the last word. As Pete Hamill reported in his book "Why Sinatra Matters," first published in 1998, she was asked, later in life, why she had never remarried.

Her answer was impeccable:

'After Sinatra?'"

You can hear the Jersey City accent.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Twin Glasses at Belmont

You'd think they we're giving something away. Oh wait, they were.

Yesterday's weather in the New York area was as nice as anyone could ask for. Sunny, comfortable temperature, no wind, no rain, no humidity. It was a good day to go to the races.

And that's exactly what two of The Assembled had now planned for over a week to do. The date, July 7 was circled on the calendar, and weather permitting—meaning nothing washed off the turf—that's where Johnny M. and Johnny D. were headed.

It was a surprise it was also a giveaway day. The schedule had been looked up, but nothing was noted that would indicate anything was going to be offered for free. So it was nice surprise to pay for admission and get a coupon to redeem for what turned out to be two nice water/beer glasses, that had 'Stars and Stripes Festival' stenciled on their sides, packed in a sturdy box. Suitable for wrapping and giving away to someone, if you were so inclined. Which I wasn't.

Much as I don't like having to carry anything extra around with me during a day at the races, the box didn't prove to be too difficult to manage, along with the clipboard, printed past performances, and binoculars slung over the shoulder.

And there was a crowd, or what these days passes for a crowd, for something other than the Belmont Stakes. It was noticeable. Were all these people still trying to leave the track after the June 9th Belmont? No. But a good number of them hardly looked prepared to play the horses. There were few with programs, even fewer with anything that looked like they were using past performances to enable their picks, and certainly almost no one with binoculars. I'm not not sure you can even rent them out there anymore.

Nevertheless, it was a crowd. And it was reported to be over 16,000, wagering a healthy $24.6 million on the 11 race card. Of course that includes simulcasting, the bloodstream these days that keeps racing going. But money is money. Track management had to be feeling good.

There weren't so many people that they created bottlenecks anywhere. I never waited to use a SAM machine, or had to line up for the bathroom. And since I don't bother with food or refreshments, I never wait on line for any of that anyway.

That announced crowd was paid admissions. I don't know how long the supplies lasted for the boxed glasses, but it didn't seem there were too many people walking around with them. What there did seem to be plenty of were credentialed track photographers. My God, there were pictures being taken left and right.

Aside from the usual scrum that floods the winner's circle, there was a semi-circle of shutterbugs that formed in an area carved out for them near the stairs and platform where a patrol judge can be seen climbing up to before the races begin. What this individual is responsible for noticing from that perch has been beyond me for decades. They are not one of the stewards, so I don't know if they alert anyone to an infraction, much less are capable of seeing one, despite the binoculars.

My own guess is that this is the paddock/patrol judge who makes their way from the paddock to the platform as the horses are ready to race. In the paddock they are responsible for ensuring that the stated equipment is being worn, or not worn by the horse. If they are supposed to be running with blinkers, are they there? If the blinkers are off, are they not there?

I will never forget one of the very few times I was ever in the paddock with a group of people who had a horse in the upcoming race, when the owner's trainer, Colum O'Brien, was called to the paddock office because the stated blinkers were either there, or not there on his horse. An infraction, which probably resulted in a fine to the trainer.

Thus, I had inside information that there was unpublished information about the horse's eyewear. This did me absolutely no good. The trainer was a low percentage trainer—near zero percent trainer—whose horse did have four legs, but was not able to move them with any sufficient speed to keep up with the field once the gates were sprung open. No change of equipment was going to help that horse win anything. I had a polite deuce on it to win, just in case.

But getting back to this extra area for photographers, it was there for the winning jockey and horse to pose before heading off the the winner's circle. It seemed to come into use when it was one of the five featured stakes races, a large part of the appeal of the day. Rich races, good horses, solid competition.

After a race, there is so much activity just outside the winner's circle on the track that you might think there was an accident of some kind. Grooms and assistant trainers duck under a rail to greet their charges as they return from their cool down. Like seconds in a boxing ring, these people have water and sponges to wipe the horses down before they are lead back to the barns. Instead of waving a towel or draping a robe over the fighters, a blanket is sometimes slung over a horse's back after they are unsaddled. The swirling activity fairly quickly ebbs as the attention goes to the winner's circle, and more photos. More photos than ever are taken these days. As racing attendance has declined, photos are up. Everyone has a camera these days.

So, how did the two Johns do on this great day of racing?

Mistakes are made in the afternoon shade
That are those that are repeated.
So often now it is a wonder how
The amnesia tank is not by now depleted.

This is an attempt at a poetic way of saying that after decades of playing the horses the same mistake is made.

The afternoon started well, with some early winners, even in the first race, always a good sign. Johnny D's numbers might not have been exactly humming, but damage was slight, and there was a surplus on the voucher heading into the last two races.

The plan was to only stay through the 10th race. And it was adhered to, The bets for the 9th and 10th races put the voucher at a value below its purchase price, but not by a great deal. And there was still the running of 10th race to make things better.

What causes one to ignore their by far two highest numbers—numbers that put two horses into what screams a boxed exacta bet—shuts down their senses and renders them deaf, with no memory of how these things usually turn out, to make them place a $6 win bet on Aidan O'Brien's Hunting Horn, forsaking the repeat exacta of Analyze It and Catholic Boy, is a force that comes from somewhere, perhaps from the Devil himself. The Devil made me do it.

Catholic Boy and Analyze It put on a rousing stretch finish that was a repeat of their finish in the Pennine Ridge on June 2nd. A looked for angle is to find if there are two horses in the current race who have just run 1-2 in a recent race.

If such a pairing is found, then it is in your best financial interest to look at this very closely and bet on the chance of its happening again. Because just like the advice given at the outset of the musical 'Guys and Dolls' about betting against a guy who claims he can make cider from a deck of cards squirt in your ear, you do not bet against this man, because if you do, you will have an ear full of cider.

Just like if you bet that Catholic Boy and Analyze It are not going to once again finish 1-2, you will not go home winning $35.40 for a $4 boxed exacta bet. Your voucher will still be worth less than what you put on it. Guaranteed.

Wipe the cider out of your ear. It happened again.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Exiting A Stage

She didn't pass away. She merely announced that after writing more than 1,400 obituaries for the New York Times, Margalit Fox is leaving the 'Paper of Record' and will now concentrate full-time on writing books. All kinds of books.

That Margalit came to write what might be a record number of Page 1 bylined obituaries for the paper is of no surprise to Marilyn Johnson, who in her book 'The Dead Beat,' recounts the story of having Margalit in her Columbia University obituary journalism class and recognizing she had talent for the craft.

In Friday's edition of the Times Margalit gets to write her own sendoff. She traces her beginnings at the paper, joining the staff on the Sunday Book Review in 1994 as a copy editor. From what I can tell, a copy editor is a nearly extinct job title. Staff reductions at all the papers and magazines have shifted the task of getting the nits right to the writer themselves.

While doing this pretty much thankless work, Ms. Fox feared her her own epitaph was going to read: "She changed 50,000 commas into semicolons." But if anyone knows anything about punctuation, the semicolon  is one of the trickiest to get right. So, if Margalit accomplished introducing 50,000 semicolons into Book Review text, she should be lauded just for that. Fifty thousand is a biblical number.

I've been reading NYT obituaries for decades. I distinctly remember arriving at work one morning and telling co-workers they had to read that day's obituary by Robert McG. Thomas Jr. on the Goat Man. They laughed at me. Who reads obituaries? "You will when you read this one."

And it was like that when a Margalit Fox obit hit the pages. There was an almost signature lede. In her own sendoff she tells us she hopes she didn't tick too many people off. I'm sure you can't write anything in the paper that doesn't raise someone's hackles. Her lede for the passing of the Cosmopolitan magazine publisher Helen Gurley Brown went:

Helen Gurley Brown...died on Monday in Manhattan. She was 90, though parts of her were considerably younger.

There were  people who were ticked off at that one. I just thought it was hilarious.

Margalit will let her subterranean sense of humor rise to the surface, often with the choice of a single word.

In the obituary for film director and producer Delbert Mann, Ms. Fox recounts the sequence of events that lead NBC to leave a 1968 telecast of a Jets-Raiders football in the final minutes, with the Jets leading 32-29, in order to achieve an ultrapunctual presentation of Delbert's production of 'Heidi' at 7:00 p.m.

If the score had remained the same, few would have complained and we would never have what came to be known as the Heidi Game. But The Raiders scored two touchdowns in those remaining minutes and went on to defeat the Jets 43-32. No one watching TV saw that, thanks to pre-empting the game for the network's telecast of Heidi.

Ms. Fox was featured, along with other NYT obituary writers, in Vanessa Gould's documentary on the editorial obituaries in the NYT, the sometimes lengthy obits that recount the life of the now deceased, but the nevertheless famous-for-a-reason, subject.

In several shots, Ms. Fox can be seen at work with a paper coffee cup in front of her. It is not a Starbucks cup, but one of the most ubiquitous cups of all time: the blue and white "We Are Happy To Serve You "Anphora design rimmed with a depiction of a Greek frieze. That coffee cup might be more New York than the Empire State building.

When the man credited with designing that cup, Leslie Buck passed away, Ms. Fox got the call to write his obituary  It appeared on Page 1, in the lower right hand corner. So its appearance in the film in front of Ms. Fox cannot be a coincidence. There are no coincidences in Ms. Fox's life.

So, is this the end of Margo? Hardly. Her final obituary to appear in the paper—while she was still employed at the paper—was for Dovey Johnson Roundtree, a black female civil rights lawyer.

Yet to appear in the paper will be the advance obituaries she has written for the famous-for-a-reason people that will appear when they pass away. Thus, we can still be treated to a Margalit Fox byline even after she's left the paper.

Writing and updating advance obits was Ms. Fox's last assignment at the obituary desk. There are probably 1,500 or so of these advances awaiting promotion to the page when the subject's breathing is confirmed to have stopped.

Ms. Fox makes mention of someone's advance obit that she has been updating several times a year, an unnamed American scholar who is still going strong in his 90s. When it is time to read about whomever we will probably be able to deduce whether they outlived their money or not. I don't know about you, but I always like to hear of those who don't outlive their money, and how they might have done it. I'm trying to enjoy a similar fate.

Ms. Fox, in her farewell piece gives us a taste of how she liked to be remembered. I've met her, and even from the math in her piece you can deduce she's not particularly old, and doesn't I'm sure qualify for a reduced fare MetroCard like the one I carry around in my wallet.

She does go on a bit, but basically says she wants to be known as someone who "didn't get too many thing wrong."

Funny, I've told one of my daughters I'd like my headstone to be inscribed: I Got Most Things Right.

(And that would include editing what I write; there is no separate copy editor here in the house.)

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Maternity Leave

I read lots of obituaries. And every so often I wish I had been able to know the subject.

Take the recent NYT obituary for Anne Tolstoi Wallach, 89, a writer who worked in advertising, by Neil Genzlinger.

Ms. Wallach strikes me as thoroughly likeable women who is pictured working at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in the 1950s alongside two things you won't find in an office these days: a typewriter and an ashtray. She's also wearing pearls

Ms. Wallach's major claim to fame is that in 1981 she wrote a book, "Women's Work," about a fictional woman working in the advertising industry who becomes an executive in the thoroughly male-dominated ranks of that workplace, that received an $850,000 advance. It was a stupendous amount for a first time author. And while the book initially didn't do well, it eventually did when it was released as a paperback, allowing Ms. Wallach to write other novels.

She was married three times, the last marriage coming when she was 80 and George Maslon was 84. That was in 2009. Mr. Maslon passed away in 2013. They had known each other from their college days when he was at Harvard and she was at Radcliffe.

Along the way she had three children, two sons and a daughter with her first husband, Ronald M. Foster Jr. Both sons were born when she was working, and her "maternity leave" at the agency was her two week vacation, then her three week vacation for the second son, a longer period because of her longer employment by then.

I worked in an office during some of the same decades as Ms. Wallach, and I remember the maternity leave policy taking many forms. There was the incredibly progressive fully paid leave for six months, guaranteeing the same job on return; the whittling away of that benefit when overall pregnancy was viewed as a disability, ranked alongside abdominal surgery, allowing a four week paid leave. I'm sure there were other varieties of leave, but I no longer paid attention to them after my working wife had our second child. 

I do distinctly remember a time in the 70s when one of the audit managers teased another audit manager who was pregnant that she really shouldn't have her pregnancy designated as a disability when in fact it was a self-inflicted injury.

She thought that was funny. Somewhat.