Saturday, April 10, 2021

Hardly Two of A Kind

They couldn't be more different than if they were the product of fiction. Prince Philip, royal consort and ardent defender of the Crown, and married to Queen Elizabeth for 73 years, passed away at 99. 

DMX, Hip-Hop's preacher of pain in the body of Earl Simmons passed away at 50. Together they shared the front page of this Saturday's NYT in side-by-side obituaries, below the fold.

The last time I can remember there were side-by-side obits on the front page of the NYT was when comedian Jonathan Winters and ballerina Maria Tallchief, were in side-by-side obits on April 12, 2013, below the fold.

Prince Philip was likely the better known of the two, being the Queen of England's husband for 73 years and of course living to just a year short of the century mark.

DMX certainly had his fame with three rap albums in 1998 and 1999 that went platinum several times over. At one point, he was the most famous rapper there was.

Like myself and my own ancestors, Prince Philip is of Greek origins, his uncle was King Constantine of Greece; myself of rural Greek peasants. However, King Constantine was descended from Danish royalty, placed on the Greek throne by other European countries in the 19th century.

Philip was smuggled out of Greece in a fruit crate when the going got tough in the country a year after his birth when the Turks took over Greece.

DMX's origins are of humble origins, the only child of an itinerant and indifferent father, and an often single mother who struggled to raise him and his half sister in a tough Yonkers, NY neighborhood.

Prince Philip, like his wife Queen Elizabeth, shared ancestors who historically could be classified as winners and losers. Philip was the great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth is the great-great granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

And both are great-great-great-great-grandchildren of King George III, who famously lost the American colonies to independence  in 1776 and forever relegated Britain to second tier status for not being known for giving the world Coca-Cola. DMX's lineage beyond his parents is not in his obituary.

Both lives had their highs and lows, and you only have to look at he photos and read the captions in the obits to realize how different their lives were. Reading the full texts fills in all the details.  

Should a Black rapper's obit appear on the front page alongside a British Royal? DMX was a Black entertainer who was not known as Prince, but was featured next to one. There are no rules governing this, only editorial choices, which by subsequent editions changes.

Maybe my early edition will count as an inverted Jenny airplane stamp. I'll save the rarity.

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Friday, April 9, 2021

The Front

It was a one word response from the father to the question from his oldest daughter Nancy if the shrubs were going to be cut down and removed if the siding job was green-lighted.

"No," he explained.

You'd have to know the backstory to appreciate the question and the response when it comes to the size of the shrubs in front of our house. They are HUGE. They pretty much hide what I always claim is an ugly house. The house is pretty nice inside, but outside, it is camouflaged.

The shrubs were fairly large 28 years ago when he bought he house. So, imagine what 28 years of growth can do to the appearance. Plus, there a few I planted that have taken off. There are window boxes in the front that have pretty much not seen the light of direct sunlight for 28 years. They go unused, one section discreetly holding an FM radio antenna that is not all that needed.

The hidden appearance of the front of our house is a running joke in the family—and perhaps the neighborhood. I tell my wife the fate of the shrubs rests on who comes back from the funeral parlor first. If it's her, then go ahead, there are some things I'm probably not going to know. The phrase "over my dead body" has some meaning

If I'm first, then the status quo remains until the next set of owners decide what to do. It is unlikely to be any of the kids, but, you never know. Something else that I may not ever get to be aware of.

So, here we are, in need of a new roof and not really in need of siding since the asbestos shingles are in good shape, and might really only need a paint job, which would translate to a fraction of a siding job. Decisions, decisions.

There is no difference of opinion over the roof. It is over 20 years old, patched in places, and would not be missed when replaced. The same red color would be chosen, and the three-dimensional shingles in use today would look really nice. They simulate cedar roofs, no longer seen, but remembered by some. (You've really got to be old and breathing regularly on your own to remember those.)

I'm not in favor of siding, but a good part of the back is already sided due to some renovations, and I will admit it does look good. My wife, who has vacillated from being certain she wants to side the rest of the house, to thinking maybe it's not something septuagenarians need to do, has once again floated back to being emphatic that we should proceed.

Will that mean the removal of the shrubs—even a little bit?

"No," he explained.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

I've Done Something Nearly Just as Good

Reading tributes obits is not for those who are seriously lacking in self-esteem. Tribute obits, particularly those found in major newspapers, detail the lives of the notable who have passed away. Accent on the word notable. They've done things surely few, if any of us have. In short, they've made a difference.

There is no tougher comparison of your life than that to a deceased humanitarian nun. If after reading one of those you can still manage to hold your head at even a light elevation, then your self-esteem is made of granite and you could probably survive solitary confinement for decades.

Take the passing of Sister Janice McLaughlin, 79, who exposed abuse in Africa and was at times imprisoned for her efforts. 

Right from the lede you know you're not going to be reading about the nun you might have had in grammar school who was strict wit you. Sister McLaughlin was imprisoned by the white-majority government in war-torn Rhodesia for exposing atrocities against its Black citizens, then returned to help the new country of Zimbabwe establish an education system, died on March 7 in the motherhouse of the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, near Ossining, New York.

Right there, read no more, and you can be sure your life is not likely to have stacked up against that of Sister McLaughlin, who seems to have done every humanitarian thing there is to do and still not wind on the short-list for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Katherine Q. Seelye's informative NYT obituary of Sister McLaughlin stretches over six columns and is filled with so many notable efforts that any one of them would have likely earned Sister McLaughlin a tribute obituary.

Read the obit for the details, but absorb the summary that tells us:

"Sister McLaughlin spent nearly 40 years ministering in Africa. She lived much of that time in Zimbabwe, starting in 1977, when the country was known as Rhodesia."

"She helped expose human rights abuses across the country that included the systemic torture of Black people in rural areas, the shooting of innocent civilians, including the clergy."

Two years after being thrown out of the country, she returned and worked from the forests of Mozambique, "where she was able to help refugees and exiles from the war in Rhodesia."

After Rhodesia's white leaders ceded power to Black Zimbabweans in 1980, Sister McLaughlin returned to Harare, the capital, where at the urging of the new president Robert Mugabe she established nine schools for former refugees and war veterans.

After returning to the New York and serving a six-year term as president of Maryknoll and writing books, she returned to Zimbabwe in 2015 and devoted "herself to combating human trafficking, environmental destruction, and H.I.V./AIDS. She left Africa for the last time in 2020."

Compare Sister McLaughlin's life to mine, now in its seventh decade, and it is easy to see why I will never rate a tribute obituary. There is nowhere near enough time left in a natural life expectancy for me to catch up. I have however accomplished the following:

I have gotten up early on occasion without being asked to.

I have loaned some people money and not been repaid and didn't resort to physical means to try and collect.

I have changed diapers (not many).

I managed to get through teen-age puberty where it is reported an average male thinks of sex every 14 seconds and still graduate high school "with merit" and go onto college, where the thoughts seemed not to occur as frequently, but even now can still be measured.

I pay my taxes.

I have remained married after 45 years, even after helping to raise two daughters who are now full-fledged adults with husbands and families of their own.

I helped a blind person cross the street (Once. Maybe twice).

I bring the garbage cans in the same day they are emptied, and occasionally bring in the neighbor's. (More than twice.)

Obviously, I have miles to go before I sleep to catch up to Sister McLaughlin. But then again, if we were all like her, she wouldn't have been so special.

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Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Short Shot

The short shot travelled less than any other thing I've bet on at the race track. Perhaps less than two centimeters into my upper right arm. The bet was of course that the first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine would be effective in keeping Covid-19 at the door and prove to be the perfect setup for the second shot three weeks from yesterday.

Because yesterday I went to Aqueduct race track in South Ozone Park Queens, walked out with as much money as I walked in with—pretty much a rare day at the track—having bet no money but still coming out ahead. There aren't many days like that at the track ever.

It all started when my oldest daughter Nancy secured a reservation several weeks ago for me to get my first Covid shot at Aqueduct yesterday at 11:00 a.m. The long-awaited day dawned; the weather was clear, the track was fast and the turf was firm, and the traffic was light on the way to the races.

Once inside I took one look at the place and told the National Guardsman that I loved what they did with the place. They actually got people to go there. The parking lot was somewhat full, there were backsides in the chairs, and everyone was looking at the flat panel TVs or reading the literature that was handed out. The only thing missing was John Imbriale announcing the changes for the day. But it was early. Just wait, if you can.

There would be racing at Aqueduct yesterday, and today, but not Easter Sunday. The porous tarps were  removed from the two turf courses and the grass was Augusta Masters green. At 1:30 the first race was due to go off in front of no patrons other than those who were there connected to racing ownership, riding, training and broadcasting, and those connected to administering Covid-19 shots. It might have been the first time at the races that injections were being given out in the open.

The odd thing about being there was that I wasn't going to stay. I had no set of marked up past performances with me. No program. After waiting 15 minutes to make sure I had no immediate negative reaction to the vaccine, my daughter and I left at 11:15. I told her I'd be watching the racing from Aqueduct later on FS1 or FS2, joining Maggie Wolfendale, Richard Migliore, Andy Serling and Greg Wolfe do a better than decent job at presenting the day's card at Aqueduct, and whatever tracks are in on the simulcasting.

They are a good broadcasting quartet, and even Andy Serling is tolerable when he's showing off his deep memory and not giving you some ridiculous horse to play because the "price is right." Listen to Andy long enough and you realize that no horse has the right price and that whatever odds are on the horse he might like he doesn't like the odds.

Richard Migliore, a former jockey mostly at NYRA tracks, is a fountain of inside information about the game. He is a gem. Discussing the unveiling of the two turf courses yesterday, The Mig informed us that grass grows when the temperature is above 51°. All the homes with all the lawns I ever moved I never knew this.

Maggie gets a little excited over a horse's conformation, looks, weight, muscle mass, blinkers, bridle, hoof size that I can never translate what she's saying into actionable betting advice. I just listen. She's knowledgeable, but I'm in the wrong classroom.

Greg Wolfe ties them all together as the anchor and keeps the divergent personalities polite and not antagonistic toward each other. They are a happy family.

Once home, and absorbing all the opinions, did I make any bets? No. I liked Paris Lights in the featured Distaff, but the straight odds were low, and I didn't know enough to make an informed exacta bet. I let it go.

Paris Lights won a nicely run race from a small, but highly competitive field, but only paid $4.60 to win; 13-10 odds. The price wasn't right for my small wager.

But, a day at the races was successful. I lost no money, picked a winner, and got vaccinated at no cost to myself or my health plan.

I should always be so lucky.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Oboe Woman

Everything comes from someplace. As much as this is probably an oversimplification, it is true. Whatever you're looking at was made somewhere. You just didn't give it any thought that some kind of factory, person or person at a factory was turning out whatever it is you're looking at.

We know the big stuff is made somewhere. Cars, planes and ships. And that's the short list. But did anyone ever give much thought to where oboes come from? Once you look it up, or remember what an oboe is, you might not really care where they come from. An oboe is pictured above, a musical instrument most commonly found in classical music orchestras. It resembles a clarinet, and when properly played has a rich, warm sound.

And as of March 1, there is one less master craftsman oboe maker, as Paul Laubin, 88 has passed away in Peekskill, New York. He was found dead in his workshop in the evening, having passed away during the day in his workshop. 

Making oboes the old fashioned way, completely by hand from rosewood and grenadilla is what Paul did, just like his father Alfred. Both gentlemen were professional oboists, with Paul having play in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Alfred took up making his own instruments when he was not satisfied with the imperfections in the ones he used for playing.  

Together they made oboes in their garage in Scarsdale, New York, a garage being the place where you'd expect a master craftsman to turn out his made-by-hand product.

That is until they needed a little more space to turn out their yearly output of 100 oboes. In 1958 they moved to a clarinet factory in Long Island City, Queens.

I grew up in Queens in that era and knew Long Island City to be home to several factories, some of them large, like Eagle Electrical Supply, Ronzoni and Mueller's spaghetti, Silvercup bread bakery, Breyers ice cream, Swingline Staples, Sunshine Bakery, Chiclets/Black Jack gum.

There were also lots of smaller and one story machine shops like Sklar surgical instruments, but I would have never thought there was a clarinet factory nestled amongst all those industrial streets and loading docks.

The presence of a clarinet factory probably meant there was a listing in the Queens Yellow Pages under Clarinets–Manufacturers, as opposed to possible retail stores that sold clarinets. What a treasure. You would need some old phone directories to see if the oboe guys had their own listing inside the clarinet factory, sharing the same address.

And like any business, there were growing pains. Alex Vadukul in today's informative NYT obituary for Paul Laubin, tells us that his father Alfred built the first Laubin oboe as an experiment, melting down his wife's silverware to make the keys.

Paul's mother, Lillian, Alfred's wife, is described as a "homemaker." Decidedly a homemaker who had to give up her set of good silverware and for a while, or maybe even everafter, had to set out the stainless steel flatware for the holidays so that Alfred could make a better oboe.

Behind any set of inventors and tinkerers is a good woman who made the sacrifices.

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Monday, March 29, 2021

A Reunion, of Sorts

The Assembled assembled Saturday—virtually. Not through Zoom, since no one knows how to set that up, and anyway, one member, Johnny M. doesn't even own a computer and still uses a flip phone.

No, the "meeting" was through email and telephone conversations. Pretty much what can now he called the "old fashioned" way. What brought the quartet together Saturday was the 11th race at Gulfstream Park, a $100,000 Black Type ungraded stakes race called the 'The Cutler Bay' run at one mile over the turf course.

Within that race, the attention was directed at Step Dancer, a 3-year-old making his sophomore debut after having the winter off after three races in 2020. Trained by the nearly Hall of Fame trainer Barclay Tagg and ridden now by Jose Ortiz, a perpetually leading jockey, Step Dancer's chances were rated a fair 5-1 on the morning line behind the favorite Annex, an undefeated Bill Mott colt who was now 2-for-2, not having raced as a 2-year-old.

Step Dancer got our attention and loyalty because of the Bobby G. connection. Bobby's buddy Richie Pressman co-owns the horse, and Richie's horses have often returned some hefty mutuels. 

A hefty mutuel would not be today's result, but a win is always appreciated at the window, and at the racing secretary's office when the check is cut for the winner's share of a $100,000 purse. Money won is twice as nice as money earned.

Richie advance forwarded to Bob, and Bob forwarded to Johnny D. a PDF of the race's Classic pps. Johnny D. in turn forwarded them to Jose. Johnny M. with no computer, just listened on the phone.

Johnny D. did his analysis and number thing, not particularly loving Step Dancer's chances, but did consider them good enough to make some small wagers around and hook him with the favorite in a $2 exacta box.

Additionally, Johnny D. thought enough of Fulmini's chances to cover his chances with a $2 win bet at his expected long odds, which got to nearly 30-1.

So how did Step Dancer do? He hardly danced at all. Didn't seem to pick up his feet after falling out of the gate at the start, passing one horse on the backstretch, but then settling for the rear dog view of watching the field race in front of him, finishing 8th, and last.

The only solace Johnny D. got was that Fulmini didn't take the lead as expected, but did race very competitively and got beat at the wire by Annex by a neck. Annex, thus just barely kept his undefeated record intact, and was now 3-for-3. Not bad, but the water's getting much deeper for the horse, but  nevertheless, still an accomplishment.

When the dust settled, Jose of The Assembled reported that he had the exacta of Annex and Fulmini that paid $44 for $1. Leave it to Jose. He seems to find sunny skies when the rest of us are enduring thunderstorms.

It is not known what Jose had on the exacta, or how much he cleared, since he tends to put together a fistful of numbers per race, resembling a Rubik's Cube of possibilities, but a payout is a payout, and certainly beats a zero return, which is what Johnny D., Johnny M. and Bobby G. suffered.

It was nice to have a race to handicap, and it was nice to once again have the chance of winning. But it's never nice to lose. However, it's not over till it's over, and the weekend is coming up with some good races.

Plus, I'm getting my first Covid shot at Aqueduct on Friday at 11:00. I've already dreamed that a nurse with a Russian accent contacted me and confirmed. Maybe the next person I hear from will give me the winner of a race on Friday.

I'll be there.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Commonplace Book, Chapter 7

Things are a little slow for me these days. My muse must be asleep. No one's passed away that I have anything to say about, and the rest of the news is so dismal and covered my others that there's no sense "going there."

When this happens, I pull out the pages of the Commonplace Book I was compiling and shave off a quantity of entries. Since I haven't been adding to the pages, the nuggets I collected will eventually deplete. No problem. The blog posting have been the substitute for the entries, and will continue to be so.

This installation includes an outtake from a John Updike short story, "A Sandstone Farmhouse." I have forever marveled at the metaphor of removing rocks from a pile to the removal of years from a life span by "an invisible giant." What's left always gets smaller by one day. It's a powerful statement about the progression of life and oncoming death.

There are some favorite out-takes from Damon Runyon and Jimmy Breslin, and another one I cherish by Robert Lipsyte writing about Bill Maloney, a professional billiard, pool, and backgammon player who my friend played against in a three-cushion billiard tournament round at McGirr's pool hall half-a century ago. I've written about Bill Maloney myself in a blog posting, 'The Corner Pocket.'

Enough preface. Let the entries speak for themselves.

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“Shut up,” he explained.

–Ring Lardner

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No one ever dies who lives in hearts left behind.

–Danish Expression: Lifted from Carnegie Hall program notes, 112th Opening, October 2, 2002

I use this sentiment in an In Memoriam notice in the NYT at now 5-year intervals to remember my murdered co-workers in the September 16, 2002 shootings at Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield by an Assistant Vice President who then took his own life. 

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I don’t take the shortcut through Woolworth’s anymore.  You never know when you’re going to get blocked by some woman in the aisle buying a ceramic dog.

–Ray Miller, explaining why the 3rd Avenue, 41st - 42nd Street detour through

Woolworth’s was not a guaranteed time saver.

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Running away from the sound of gunfire is the right direction.

–September 16, 2002

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It’s an amazing thing.  The population of this town never changes. Every time a baby is born...a man leaves town.

–Willie Nelson, commenting on the population of his home town, Abbot, Texas.

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I wish to say I am very nervous indeed when Big Jule pops into my hotel room one afternoon, because anybody will tell you that Big Jule is the hottest guy in the whole world at the time I am speaking about.

In fact, it is really surprising how hot he is.  They wish to see him in Pittsburgh, Pa. About a matter of a mail truck being robbed, and there is gossip about him in Minneapolis, Minn., where somebody takes a fifty-G payroll off a messenger in cash money, and slugs the messenger around somewhat for not holding still.

Furthermore, the Bankers’ Association is willing to pay good dough to talk to Big Jule out in Kansas City, Mo., where a jug is knocked off by a stranger, and in the confusion the paying teller and the cashier, and the second vice-president are clouted about, and the day watchman is hurt, and two coppers are badly bruised, and over fifteen G’s is removed from the counters and never returned.

Then there is something about a department store in Canton O., and a flour-mill safe in Toledo, and a grocery store in Spokane, Wash., and a branch post office in

San Francisco, and also something about a shooting match in Chicago, but of course this does not count so much, as only one party is fatally injured.  However, you can see that Big Jule is really very hot, what with the coppers all over the country looking for him high and low.  In fact, he is practically on fire.

–The Hottest Guy in the World, Damon Runyon

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“I used to be bad when I was a kid but ever since then I have gone straight as I can prove by my record—33 arrests and no convictions.”

–Big Jule, Guys and Dolls, by Damon Runyon

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Chink approached Dutch Schultz’s table. Schultz got up and fired a gun.  This was the first of three occasions on which Schultz and Chink resorted to weapons during these years.  A year or so after this, Chink lost the third and most decisive gunfight by a wide margin.  But this time at the Club Abbey he hit the floor breathing.

–Damon Runyon, a biography, by Jimmy Breslin

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If he and his father and grandfather had torn the porch down themselves, he would have remembered so heroic a labor, as he did the smashing of the lath-and-plaster partition that separated the two small parlors downstairs, making one big living room, or the tearing out of the big stone kitchen fireplace and its chimney, right up into the attic.  He remembered swinging the great stones out the attic window, he and his grandfather, pushing, trying not to pinch their fingers, while his father, his face white with the effort, held the rope of a makeshift pulley rigged over a rafter.  Once clear of the sill, the heavy stones fell with a strange slowness, seen from above, and accumulated into a kind of a mountain it became Joey’s summer job to clear away.  He learned a valuable lesson that first summer on the farm, while he turned fourteen: even if you manage to wrestle only one stone into the wheelbarrow and sweatily, staggeringly trundle it down to the swampy area this side of the springhouse, eventually the entire mountain will be taken away.  On the same principle, an invisible giant, removing only one day at a time, will eventually dispose of an entire life.

–A Sandstone Farmhouse, John Updike

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Bill Maloney, slim and blond, his choir-boy face just beginning to crack and fade at 31, laid his jacket and cue case on a metal tray that slid under the billiard table out of reach of junkies and boosters.  He screwed the halves of his stick together with quick, sure twists of slender hands, as graceful and efficient as fish-snatching birds.  He prowled the table, smoking, drinking coffee, but lithe and relaxed, as if he had purged his mind of a thousand deals and poured all his energies down into that cue. Players from other tables gathered to watch his match, part of McGirr’s current three-cushion billiard tournament, another attempt in the long, vain disjointed campaign to make something profitable of this complex and absorbing game.

Even now, so easily moving round the table, so quickly sure of his shot, Maloney might be a little bored.  Maloney will never get better playing a five-handicap opponent, and he will never get better unless he plays five or six hours a day, which means giving up chess and checkers and bridge, and go and scrabble and table tennis and bowling and golf, games he also plays well and bets on.

Maloney accepted a few congratulations after winning, then reached down for his jacket and cue case, and left.  He would move back and forth several times in the next hour, answering telephone calls, going into corners for whispered conversations.  His movements, so sure around the table, became ragged, even tense.  After a while, he joined Polsky, who had finished next-to-last in the tournament, for coffee at the counter. His eyes were darting around the room, prospecting.  “I might go to Antwerp in September, to see where my game’s at but...”  He saw something that may or may not have been there, softly said, “Excuse me,” and was gone.

–Bill Maloney, Plays a Game at McGirr’s, Sports of the Times, Robert Lipsyte; June 1971

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Sleek, slinky creatures crowd the bar at Vandam.  With a Darwinian instinct for social display, they perch on the tall stools and preen, agreeably conscious that they have chosen a flattering setting. 

–Restaurant review, NYT, July 21, 1999

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Grandma’s Bake Shoppe, now in the midst of its high season, produces some 2 million pounds of fruitcake each year.  Fruitcake, that stodgy Yuletide loaf of neighborly good intentions and caloric density, endures though it has long been disparaged by the good and the great.  Russell Baker has called it “the only food durable enough to become a family heirloom.”  Dickens, no doubt referring to the boulder-like heft and longevity of the loaf, described it as a “geological homemade cake.”

But unlike relax-denim-clad baby boomers, fruitcake at least has time on its side.  One customer took a Grandma’s Bake Shoppe loaf out of the freezer after 18 years and reported that, a generation later, it was still moist and tasty.

–A Cake So Misunderstood, WSJ, Amy Finnerty, December 20, 2002

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The grounding of the Concorde means the end of an important symbol, one that made what seemed an impossible feat—traveling faster than the speed of sound (while wearing street clothes)—possible on a regularly scheduled basis.  As a boyhood fan of such interplanetary travelers as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, I never dreamed that the future might arrive during my lifetime.  It makes me especially sad to see that part of the future disappear.

–The Future Is Past, Op-Ed piece, NYT, April 26, 2003, by Larry Gelbert, who developed the TV version of M*A*S*H.

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