Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Fast-breaking punctuation news

Last year Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint, M.D., published a book with a title that raised some eyebrows:

COME
ON
PEOPLE

In his blog, Bill Walsh of The Washington Post reacted to this by commenting that "Bill Cosby is either one kinky bastard or a guy who never learned about the comma of direct address. Or both."

At the bookstore today, I noticed that Mr. Cosby's opus is now in paperback.

With a comma after "on."

Thursday, December 25, 2008

"Christmas - 1954"

Stare
In awe
At Him
On straw --

Fleshed Law,
Fleshed Love,
Deity without flaw.

Look down
Above to see:
Kneel to
Mystery


-- The Rev. Robert H. Flood, C.S.B. (1919-1974)
(my uncle)


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Maybe ... but I wouldn't bet the ranch house

The Associated Press reports that Ed McMahon and his wife won't be leaving their home, which has been facing foreclosure for nine months.

Publicist Howard Bragman "said he doesn't have details about the deal that's allowing the 85-year-old McMahon to stay, but added: 'They ain't leaving.'...

"In a time of bleak financial news, Bragman expressed hope that the resolution to McMahon's situation served as a good omen. 'We hope every other American in trouble has the same experience,' he said."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Have they got a life coach for me!

The folks at Borders, apparently not content with depleting my bank account (with my connivance, I admit), have apparently decided that I've been spending too much of my time in the company of books.

Now they seem to want to fix me up with someone -- a someone named Mel Robbins, who is described as "one of the top life coaches in the country."

That's very sweet of them, don't you think?

Oh, you don't believe me?

Well, phooey on you -- you're wrong, and I can prove it!

The Borders folks actually have a radio show titled "Make It Happen with Mel Robbins."

OK, so they don't exactly say what "it" is, but they're obviously just being coy. "It" obviously means love, excitement, all the things that make a life coach's life worth living.

And certainly Ms. Robbins is quite attractive. Sorry to say, this coach is so attractive that she is way out of my league. But if the Borders folks say they can help me win her over, I'm certainly willing to let them try.

But I have one problem with all this.

Borders also has a program titled "Advice for Living with Mel Robbins."

Whoa! Aren't those Borders folks moving just a little too fast? First they seem to want to get me to first base, but then I'm apparently supposed to bypass second and third, head straight for home and continue on through to the parking lot.

I mean, shouldn't there be a few intermediate programs? Such as:

Advice for Sitting Through "Mamma Mia!" with Mel Robbins

Advice for Meeting Mel Robbins' Parents

Advice for Picking Out Furniture with Mel Robbins

But no -- they have me living with the woman, almost from the get-go.

Frankly, I'm not sure I'm up for all this. Tires me out just thinking about it.

And I'm sure Ms. Robbins can do a lot better.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Hyphenation deviation

A "rent-to-own" store at a local strip mall has the following sign in its window:

GOTTA
HAVE
GIFTS
FOR THE YEAR
ARE HERE

But hanging above the store's entrance is another sign:

GOTTA-HAVE
GIFTS HERE

Which leads to (not "begs") this question: Why is there no hyphen in the other sign?

My best guess: Some designer said that

GOTTA-
HAVE
GIFTS

would look lousy.

Or could it be that, in these ever-tightening financial times, the store chain decided it had to cut back on hyphens?

And if so, where does the store get its hyphens? From Rent-a-Hyphen?

Are there specialized stores for this sort of thing? Comma World? The Period Store? Or, for those who can afford a more upscale product, Ampersands R Us?

And if you rent a hyphen but miss a payment, does someone come and repossess it? And maybe take a semicolon or two as interest?

Are punctuation-mark stores a good investment? Is it best to diversify -- put some of your money in hyphens and dashes, and some in diacritical marks? Should we keep a sharp eye on the international value of the umlaut?

And do badly placed apostrophes drive properly placed apostrophes out of circulation?

It's hard to say. Perhaps we should just await the release of that key indicator, the Gross National Syntax.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Another Christmas rerun

Tis the season. That time of year. (And any other holiday cliche you might want to add.)

Yep, it's that month when everyone gathers around and watches Charlie Brown, the Grinch, Rudolph and Frosty.

And maybe even "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" -- perhaps the best of them, though I haven't seen it on TV in recent years, and it's just as well; to fit in more commercials, they cut the heck out of it, including some fine music by Jule Styne. True, when I was a kid, I was bored when Belle Fezziwig -- played by Jane Kean, who later played Trixie Norton -- sang "Winter Was Warm," but when you're a long way from being a kid, that song can pack a wallop.

Anyway.

I wish I could say I had my own TV special, but the closest thing I have is a story called "The Afternoon Before Christmas." It's about 1,500 words. I linked to it last year at this time, and the Web page is still up, so why not again?

You can find it here.

Beverly Garland dies

The actress, who was 82, was perhaps best known for playing Fred MacMurray's wife on "My Three Sons," but if you grew up watching TV in the 1950s and 1960s, she was all over the place, mostly in dramas, especially police dramas, but also on game shows.

According to The Associated Press, her first movie, in 1950, was "D.O.A." -- the one where Edmond O'Brien runs all over the place, trying to find out who poisoned him. (Too bad he couldn't get Ben Gazzara's character from "Run for Your Life" to help him.) Vintage-movie buffs might recall that the movie also featured Pamela Britton, who later played the scatterbrained Mrs. Brown on "My Favorite Martian," but who, as I recall, was rather touching as O'Brien's love interest.

By the time Garland began appearing on "My Three Sons," that show, for me at least, had lost whatever charm it once had. I suppose it was, in one way, ahead of its time in that Steve Douglas and his boys jumped the shark years before Fonzie did -- perhaps several times, especially when one of the boys got married or left, and although I always liked Garland, her addition to the show didn't help. (Then again, I always did have a little crush on the late Meredith MacRae, who married one of the boys. Was it Mike?)

And remember the time Steve's lookalike cousin Fergus visited and they had to hire another actor to dub the voice because MacMurray, despite his name, apparently couldn't do a Scottish accent?

I also enjoyed the show a lot less after I learned that MacMurray filmed all his scenes for the entire season all at once. This seemed to give the show a kind of cut-up feeling.

But I don't mean to knock MacMurray. Just the other night, I went to a showing of "Remember the Night," a 1940 movie he made with Barbara Stanwyck, a few years before they teamed up to kill her husband in "Double Indemnity." His voice was deeper back then, and he knew how to be self-confidently charming without being off-puttingly cocky.

Beverly Garland wasn't cocky, either. But I suspect she was a very gutsy lady, especially considering that she once married a man who went by the name of Fillmore Crank. (What could his parents have been thinking?)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Unintended irony

In my last post, on Nov. 12, I waxed nostalgic about how, in November 1968, I decided to become a writer.

Then my local store apparently ran out of Nostalgia Wax (I had a coupon, too), and despite my professed love of writing I didn't do any more blogging last month. So far, I think it's the only month in which I've had only one item.

I didn't mean to stay away, but the last few weeks of this year seem to be slipping by quickly, as if Father Time himself had slipped on a patch of black ice. (As I did many years ago.)

So, in an attempt to catch up, I offer the following detritus from my alleged mind....

Am I the only one who thinks that Gary Sinise, of "CSI," might be perfect casting if any movie maker decides to film "The Robert Young Story"? Something about his eyes, I think. Heck, if the erstwhile Jim Anderson were still alive and working, he and Sinise could have played father and son, I think.

And who knows? Maybe after "CSI" and all its spinoffs have run their course, Sinise might settle down as "Marcus Welby Jr." And maybe he could have a young assistant, played by Josh Brolin....

Irving Brecher died last month.

"Irving who?" you might be saying, and perhaps that's understandable; his was hardly a household name.

But he was perhaps the last living person who had written for the Marx Brothers. He wrote two of their movies, in fact: "A Day at the Circus" and "Go West." He also created "The Life of Riley," a radio and later TV show that I never could warm up to, though it probably gave William Bendix his best role.

Are any other writers for the Marx Brothers still alive? I doubt it (though I suspect someone who wrote for only Groucho in later years might still be around). Anyway, feel free to let me know if you know of any....

Similarly....

Actress Anita Page, 98, died in September. She was quite possibly the last living person to have appeared in a movie with Lon Chaney (Sr.), "While the City Sleeps," in 1928. And she was certainly one of the last living performers to have appeared in a silent movie. I can think of two who are still alive: Baby Peggy, a child star who now goes by the name of Diana Sera Carey and just turned 90, and Mickey Rooney, who starred in many short subjects under the name Mickey McGuire.

Anyone know of anyone else?....

Also similarly....

The death of Studs Terkel, who at one point made money by playing gangsters on radio shows, prompts this question: Is anyone else from the old days of radio still around? I believe Hugh Downs used to announce a soap opera. (Was it "Hawkins Falls"?) And Anne Francis, whom guys of a certain age (namely mine) fondly remember as the 1960s TV detective Honey West, was a child actress on radio. If any listeners (oops, I mean readers) out there know of any others, the number to call is -- oops, there I go again; heck, just e-mail me.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

40 years later and still scribbling

I'm celebrating an anniversary of sorts this month: In November 1968, I decided to be a writer.

Was writing my first choice? Hardly.

I can remember wanting to be a firefighter for a few minutes in the early 1960s. My class had just made a field trip to the firehouse a block away from my home, and I thought it would be neat to slide down one of those poles.

The firehouse, by the way, still exists. Or at least the building does, but it has been a flower shop for many years. I think they took the pole down.

I later wanted to be a cartoonist, an ambition that lasted quite a while. The local CBS affiliate was showing reruns of the "Mickey Mouse Club," and although I tolerated the Mouseketeers (I wasn't yet of an age to fully appreciate Annette) and didn't mind Spin and Marty, I always looked forward to the cartoons from the Disney archives. I really wanted to do that.

Or comic strips.

Or maybe both.

But one thing held me back:

I can't draw.

And I had a brother who was very good at that sort of thing.

So, at the age of 14, I decided to try writing. I remember my first story, too -- some piece of tripe I was actually going to try to sell to the Ellery Queen magazine, for I seemed to like the mystery genre most of all.

And when I wasn't trying to be the new Erle Stanley Gardner, I was aspiring to be a modern Robert Benchley. Or Perelman or Thurber or E.B. White or (the early) Woody Allen.

I later discovered Graham Greene. I remember picking up a copy of "The Comedians," which my older sister had brought home from the library, and discovering that an "adult" book didn't necessarily have to be difficult to read. Greene's voice -- or rather, the voice of his first-person character -- really drew me in and carried me along.

I eventually learned that Greene had worked at a newspaper, and his salary subsidized his fiction writing.

Neat idea, thought I, and when my local newspaper launched a program for high schoolers who were interested in journalism, I jumped at it.

Five years later, I was lucky enough to get a job there, and I stayed for 30 years. The job title was "copy editor," but after a number of years I was allowed to write occasional humor columns -- an ambition realized! -- only to find out that trying to be humorous on demand was not always a laughing matter. (I suspect that the readers agreed with me more often than I would like to think, and I eventually stuck to headline writing.)

I also continued to write fiction, mostly literary (or maybe allegedly literary, to be more precise) with paltry results. But a few years ago I returned to mystery writing and wrote five stories that were accepted for publication by actual magazines, print and Web.

Then I hit a dry spell, which, I'm happy to say, might have ended, for in the last six weeks I've completed two short stories, both of which I've sent out into the world -- one of them to the Ellery Queen magazine, which is kind of the holy grail for mystery writers. I've tried selling to those folks before, with no luck.

But who knows -- maybe my luck will change.

Or maybe I'll just have to see whether that flower shop could use some extra help. (I suppose sliding down a poinsettia might be fun....)

Monday, October 27, 2008

A look back at how we've been looking back

It used to be that when people talked about the way things used to be, they'd say, um, "It used to be that..."

Or:

"Back in the old days..."

Or:

"I can remember when..."

In the past few years, this seems to have been replaced with:

"Back in the day..."

Somehow this phrase has never seemed quite right to me.

For one thing, whenever I hear it I always think a word is missing. Do we mean "back in the day when such and such happened"? Or "back in the day of horses and buggies"? Don't we need a "when" or an "of" there somewhere?

And the singular "day" makes the phrase, to my ear, even more awkward, as if it's implying we're talking about a particular date. ("On Feb. 18, 1886, women wore hoop skirts.")

As a replacement for the previously mentioned phrases, it doesn't seem to add anything.

But maybe that's the point.

Maybe it's supposed to subtract something, namely the personal element.

For if you say "Back in the day" instead of, say, "I can remember when" or "It used to be," you're avoiding saying (or hinting) that you yourself are old enough to remember something.

Whereas with "Back in the day," you can distance yourself, as if to say, "I don't have personal experience of this, mind you, but I have heard it said that The Beatles created quite a sensation in the U.S. in the '60s."

Will I ever get used to this phrase? Am I the only one who finds it awkward?

I suppose those are questions for another day....

Congrats, but how are your clients sleeping?

From a newspaper ad for an investment brokerage firm:

"We help people make money and sleep well at night."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Just once ...

... at the end of one of those testimonial-filled campaign ads, I'd like to hear the candidate say:

"I'm Joe Blow, and I don't know what the hell they've been smoking."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Edie Adams and Jack Narz

Those of us who spent (or in some cases misspent) much of our childhoods watching TV in the '50s and '60s have reason to be sad this week with the deaths of Edie Adams and Jack Narz.

I suppose Edie will be forever linked with her late husband and frequent co-star, comedian Ernie Kovacs, and I also suppose she wouldn't mind that much, if at all.

Many people have called Ernie a genius. And that's quite possibly true, even if his stuff, viewed today, is mostly funny only if you remember seeing it the first time around, when the technology, trick shots and gags were new and fresh, long before "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" borrowed (to put it mildly) his style. (And 40 years later, that show seems antiquated, too.)

I've sometimes wondered what Kovacs, who died in a car crash in 1962, 10 days short of his 43rd birthday, would have achieved if he'd lived longer.

But there's no doubt about what his widow achieved, for while Ernie might have been more brilliant than Edie, she was surely the more mature of the two. His motto was "Nothing in moderation," and the debts he left his family leave little doubt that he lived by those words. Over the years, as Mark Evanier notes in his indispensable blog, Edie Adams went to accounting school and eventually got her family out of debt.

All this while being a fantastic performer: a very talented singer, actor and impressionist who knew how to be sexy without being salacious.

If you're too young to know what I'm talking about, go up to any guy who was around back then and say two words: "Muriel cigars."

You will probably notice that he is smiling, and you won't have to be The Amazing Kreskin to know that he is thinking about Edie Adams....

When I was a little kid, my favorite game show was "Dotto." (Well, maybe second favorite, next to "Concentration.")

"Dotto" featured connect-the-dot puzzles, which I was really into at the time. It was hosted by a guy named Jack Narz.

At one point the show left the airwaves forever. Years later, I learned it had been fixed. Narz, whose career went into a tailspin, denied he was in on the fix.

I've always believed him.

His career recovered, and he also emceed such shows as "Video Village," "Now You See It" and (a '60s favorite of mine) "Seven Keys."

Jack Narz was not the wittiest of men, but he didn't need to be. Like the master game show host Bill Cullen (who was Narz's brother-in-law; Narz's brother is Tom Kennedy, another game show host and underrated talent), Narz made a difficult job look easy.

All of us have probably had to go to work on days when we didn't particularly want to go to work. Maybe Jack Narz had days like that, too.

But if he did, he never showed it. When you watched a show emceed by Jack Narz, you always saw a guy who seemed happy to be there, happy to be alive, happy for the winning contestants and happy to have you in his life.

As far as I'm concerned, that's not a bad way to be remembered.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

So many writers, so little time

Last weekend, for the second time, I attended Bouchercon, the biggest annual get-together of mystery writers and fans, held this year in Baltimore under the extremely capable leadership of Ruth Jordan and Judy Bobalik.

I didn't get to meet all the people I wanted to meet (that's how these things usually go, for me, at least), but I was able to renew friendships with Julie Hyzy and Michael A. Black, two Chicago-area writers whose productivity puts me to shame. (I suspect that as I was polishing that last paragraph, the two of them each wrote a novel and collaborated on a third. For more about them, see my blogroll.)

I also met a very amusing Floridian named Bob Morris, another refugee from daily newspapering. I'm looking forward to reading his books "Bahamarama" and "Bermuda Schwartz." And then there's Rick Mofina, a Canadian journalist whose books include "A Perfect Grave" and the upcoming "Six Seconds."

(What can I say? I'm a sucker for mysteries by journalists and ex-journalists, especially those that feature -- surprise! -- journalists.)

In a daring move, I decided to step outside my comfort zone by volunteering at the registration desk for two hours. I learned that a lot can happen at a registration desk within two hours, including:

Someone turning in a cell phone found in a ladies' room.

Someone reporting a lost iPod.

Various people registering, including an author whose work I've always admired.

Someone turning in a lost iPod.

Someone complaining to me about the way the session rooms are lit.

The person who reported the lost iPod wandering by amid the current of attendees that is sweeping the hall in the break between sessions.

Me noticing the person.

The person complaining about the room lighting asking me to leave the desk and follow her so she can show me what she means and so that I can complain to the hotel.

Me trying to get the attention of the person with the lost iPod as the person complaining about the lighting heads toward the session rooms.

Me seeing to it (with others' help) that the iPod owner is reunited with his valued gadget.

Me finally following the person complaining about the lighting so I can see what she's complaining about.

Me reporting the lighting problem to the co-chair.

Not to mention a stint standing guard outside the room that contains the goodie bags that contain loads of free books for attendees. (Mine, by the way, included Sean Chercover's "Trigger City," which, if the first 60 so pages are any indication, is definitely something you should consider grabbing.)

I'm happy to have done my bit, which made me even more appreciative of the work Ruth and Judy did.

And now I think I need to lie down. Again.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

1,000 and counting

No, that's not my age, though I did have a birthday a few weeks ago.

Instead, the headline refers to the number of hits this blog has received since I installed a counter about six months ago. So I have no way of knowing how many total hits Murphy's Craw has received since I started it a year ago this month.

Hit No. 1,000 came while I was away for a few days, so I'm afraid I didn't give it the kind of buildup it might (or might not) have deserved. The visitor was someone from Pomaria, S.C., a first-timer, as far as I can tell.

This disappointed me a little. I'd been hoping the 1,000th visitor would be one of the regulars, one of the anonymous residents of places such as Rochester, N.Y., and Boise, Idaho. (Not that I had any prizes to offer.) I often wish the regulars would say hello, but I respect their apparent need for privacy.

By the way, I was away because of a small gathering of mystery writers from New York state. On Wednesday I'll be embarking on a trip to Baltimore, for Bouchercon, the annual gathering of mystery writers and fans. I hope to renew a few friendships and start new ones.

I'll be reporting on this after I get back, so let the breath-bating begin.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

An idea that didn't quite make the grade

Earlier this month, you could play the “William Tell Overture” – the theme song of “The Lone Ranger” – by driving over a specially grooved road in Lancaster, Calif.

A car company commissioned the work for one of its commercials, but the idea hit a sour note with neighbors. City officials, perhaps fearing that these townspeople would get some silver bullets and take the law into their own hands, agreed to repave the road.

Before I heard about this, I didn’t know that you could, in effect, turn a road into a vinyl record. (Remember when “vinyl record” was a redundancy?)

Maybe this technology could be used at other locations, with appropriate selections, to create the musical equivalent of road signs.

Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve” could warn you that a major construction site is just around the bend.

The opening music from “Dragnet” could tip you off to a speed trap.

And if you heard the theme from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” you’d be sure to avoid that next intersection, the one with the 53-car funeral procession.

Hmm. Perhaps I should put this project out to bid.

Or, more likely, to bed.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Calling Dr. Freud (It's a capital case)

A sign on the counter at a local drugstore includes a reference to

“acceptable forms of id.”

Here's how the American Heritage Dictionary defines “id”: “In Freudian theory, the division of the psyche that is totally unconscious and serves as the source of instinctual impulses and demands for immediate satisfaction of primitive needs.”

Which makes me wonder: What kinds of “instinctual impulses and demands” would a drugstore consider “acceptable”?

The impulse to wait in line for 10 minutes, behind someone who is buying a week’s worth of groceries at the drugstore – including, invariably, one of those small canned hams?

The impulse to wait five more minutes as the cashier argues with another cashier -- and their supervisor -- about who gets to go on break and when?

The impulse to wait in another line for an additional 10 minutes before being told that the prescription drug you’re looking for is available only at another branch of the store, a branch that is halfway across town?

All of which leads to an irresistible impulse to stock up on Xanax....

Sunday, September 21, 2008

As continents go, it's a mere stripling

In a statement issued last week "to address policyholder concerns," AIG cites its "long tradition of service in Asian markets, which are key to AIG’s future growth.

"Founded in Shanghai in 1919, Asia is home to some of AIG’s oldest and most valued clients."

Friday, September 19, 2008

An observation

Sneeze in front of a dog. Sneeze a few times. Sneeze loudly.

I think the chances are pretty good that the dog will look at you with sympathy and maybe even whimper a little, as if to say, “Yeah, I been there, too, pal.” Maybe the dog will offer to buy you a drink.

Do the same thing in front of a cat. (Which, by no coincidence at all, I did yesterday.) The cat will give you a stern, uncomprehending stare, as if to say, “How dare you distract me from my contemplation of that squirrel outside the window?” And don't waste your breath pointing out that it wasn’t you who coughed up three hairballs within the last week.

This is not to say that I favor dogs over cats; I’ve lived with cats, and I’ve been on very good terms with a number of dogs.

But once in a while, a “Gesundheit” would be nice.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Two literary passings

GREGORY MCDONALD

I remember reading "Fletch," and several of its sequels, many years ago.

I enjoyed them, especially the first one, but after a while I think I got a little tired of the character and the books' quirky style, though I always respected Mcdonald's storytelling skills.

I've never read any of his "Flynn" books. Perhaps it's time for me to look them up.

Let's see ... John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Gregory Mcdonald. There's even a Canadian mystery writer named Marianne Macdonald.

Maybe I'd be a more successful mystery writer if I changed my name to Mark Macdonald. (After all, Ross Macdonald was really a guy named Kenneth Millar.)

More than likely, though, I'd be far more successful if I stopped goofing around and got to work....

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

I never read his novel, "Infinite Jest." But I did like his nonfiction. "A Supposedly Fun Thing That I'll Never Do Again," an essay describing his trip on a cruise ship, is indeed a classic, and I also enjoyed "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage." Both pieces, which originally appeared in Harper's, were heavily footnoted, but the footnotes were just as enjoyable as the essays themselves.

His style could be idiosyncratic, but it wasn't idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy's sake. There was a method to it, and it was the method of a very intelligent thinker who never wasted this reader's time.

I'm sorry that we will not hear more from him.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Let them fall where they may

I’ll be seeing my friendly neighborhood eye specialist in about 10 days – and I’m beginning to suspect it’s not a moment too soon.

The other day, in the grocery store, I glanced at a shelf and for a moment was sure that I was looking at a bag of “Sin Chips.”

On closer examination, this proved to actually be a bag of “Sun Chips.”

But who knows: I might have stumbled across a new idea for a product.

But exactly what sort of product?

I suppose “Sin Chips” could be a food product that is so decadent that, according to the nutritional label, one serving (two chips) provides you with a year’s supply of salt, sugar, cholesterol, non-trans fat and DDT. (That last ingredient being a sop to those of us baby boomers who love to wallow in nostalgia.)

Then again, instead of being a foodstuff, a “Sin Chip” could be a new kind of chip for a new kind of poker game, perhaps a sort of existential poker game, analogous to the chess match in “The Seventh Seal” – something from a movie Ingmar Bergman might have made if he had forsaken the Game of Kings for Spit in the Ocean (or, perhaps in Ingmar’s case, Spit in the Fjord).

This might certainly make for some interesting listening for those of you who love to watch late-night poker on TV:

“I’ll see that gluttony and raise you five sloths…..”

“And as all you viewers know, a full confessional beats a pair of perjurers every time!”

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What is this in refer to?

A long time ago, a reporter showed me a news story from the 1800s that described "an awful fire."

The reporter pointed out that in this case, the 19th-century journalist was not saying that the fire was "very bad" or "horrific," but that it was of such a magnitude as to fill one with awe.

Proving once again that language changes.

Some changes are good. Other changes aren't exactly good but somehow become more acceptable over time.

Many years ago, a copy editor I was working with hated the use of "hopefully" to mean "it is to be hoped" -- as in, "Hopefully, he will survive the operation." He hated this so much that he would change it each time, and if "hopefully," in this sense, appeared as a quote, he'd try to paraphrase the quote.

Which seemed a bit much.

A few years ago, by which time I think I had given in on this use of "hopefully," this same copy editor told me he also had surrendered and was allowing this use -- even outside of quotes.

Were I a coffee drinker, this announcement would surely have put me in the Guinness World Records book for Farthest-Reaching Danny Thomas Spit Take.

In the 1980s, as libraries were becoming more computerized, I heard a librarian use "access" as a verb, as in "I cannot access this file." I hated this, and I resisted it for a long time, but I think it eventually occurred to me that a) this use of "access" was becoming more widespread and b) changing "access" to "get access to" within the context of computers seemed to result in awkward sentences. (And "get access to" added extra words.)

So I gave in on that, too.

But there are some nouns that don't seem to serve any useful purpose on verbs, and although I try not to be crotchety about it, I'm still attempting to hold the line on "impact" and "reference."

As a verb, "impact" doesn't really do anything that "affect" doesn't already do, and with the same amount of letters. So why has it become widespread, even among people who are known to be intelligent? Perhaps "impact" sounds more important stronger, with hard consonants, while "affect" seems, well, wussy.

But although I haven't given in on "impact" as a verb, it no longer produces an almost Pavlovian "fingernails-on-the-blackboard" reaction.

But "reference," as a verb, does.

It says nothing that "refers to" doesn't already say, and it's not any shorter.

So why is it so widespread? My best guess: Although it doesn't have the hard consonants of "impact," it makes a sentence -- and it's writer or speaker -- sound more important.

Oh well. At least I haven't heard anyone "allusioning" something.

Yet.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The ultimate in outsourcing, I guess

As I was out and about today, I noticed a big truck parked in front of an office building.

The truck was from a company that shreds other companies' documents.

The name of the company was in big letters on the side of the truck.

Beneath it, in smaller but still prominent letters, was the company's slogan:

DESTROYING YOUR BUSINESS

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Bless me, Father, for I have wiped out

In Italy, Catholic nuns and priests have established an inflatable church and a beach-convent in the sands to attract sunbathers, Reuters reports.

The 98-foot-long church was scheduled to debut this weekend on the Adriatic coast in the Molise region, with priests available to hear confessions, the news service says.

I guess you had to be there

Reuters is reporting that the world's oldest recorded joke has been traced back to 1900 B.C.

The knee-slapper, attributed to the Sumerians (they were residents of what we now know as Southern Iraq), goes like this: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

This just in

“Tonight on Channel 13 news: Man at South Sasquatch house holding police at bay! Now switching to News 13 reporter Cosmo Nerp on the scene, telling us what he’s hearing….”

“Not hearing much officially, Phil. Police saying little, playing their cards very close to their vests. Neighbors talking nervously among themselves. Rumors, speculation running rampant. One rumor making rounds: Man in house holding mysterious weapon, muttering something about ‘present particles’ – Wait, hold it, Phil: Next-door neighbor whispering in my ear.”

“Whispering what, Cosmo?”

“Telling me it’s not ‘present particles’ but ‘present participles.’”

“Present participles? Hm. Phrase ringing a bell. Bringing to mind memories of grammar school, English class, nuns rapping me on wrist with rulers.”

“Phil, another neighbor informing me that you’re getting the right idea!”

“Neighbor identifying himself?”

“Not giving name, but saying he’s living in retirement, not regretting leaving his job as high school English teacher.”

“Retired teacher saying anything else?”

“Telling me about ‘present participle.’ Defining it as something used with the verb ‘to be’ to indicate an action that is incomplete. Giving examples: ‘I am reading.’ ‘I was reading.’ Further explaining that present participles can also be used as adjectives, as in ‘an interesting story.’”

“Fascinating. But man in house making threats, police surrounding house, all owing to grammatical term?”

“Making no sense to me either, Phil, but – holding on! Man in house signaling he’ll be making statement very soon! Starting to speak now! Everyone preparing to listen! Getting our microphones in place! Standing by, cutting to him now!”

“You there! You TV reporters! I can’t take it anymore! Used to be that someone was hit by a car! Or a president was assassinated! Or the World Series will begin Tuesday! Haven't you people ever heard of the past tense? Or the future tense, even! But all these present participles! I can’t take them any more! They’re driving me crazy – hey! Did you hear what I just said? ‘Driving!’ You’ve got me doing it, too! I can’t take it anymore!”

“Phil, man’s holding small box. Opening it. Mysterious light shining from within it! Pulsing! Humming! Getting louder! Resembling some kind of bomb! Indeed, turning out to BE a bomb! Me, running for cover, trying to remember words to Lord’s Prayer, wondering whether this report will make the deadline for this year’s Emmys! Throwing things back to you, Phil!”

“Thanking Cosmo Nerp for that incisive report! WORLD ENDING! And after this break, catching up with the latest ‘American Idol’ loser!”

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A headline I always wanted to write

Just suppose.

Suppose that a man who once served as President George H.W. Bush's chief of staff moved next door to one of the co-stars of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

And suppose that one day, the former chief of staff bought a pet: a long, dark antelope with a long head, a beard and mane, and a sloping back.

And suppose that this pet turned out to be rather noisy.

And suppose that the pet's noise irritated the movie star next door.

And suppose that the movie star filed a lawsuit against the former chief of staff, claiming not only that the pet was a problem, but that the former chief of staff was aware that the pet would be a problem when he bought the animal.

Then the headline could be:

NEWMAN: SUNUNU KNEW NEW GNU WAS NUISANCE.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Oh, I'm so relieved

The Associated Press reports that Ed McMahon has a new gig, doing commercials for Jimmy Kimmel's show.

"I'm optimistic," said the former "Tonight Show" announcer, who last month announced he was fighting foreclosure after falling $644,000 behind on mortgage payments on his Beverly Hills residence.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

39 years ago today

4:17 p.m. EDT: Apollo 11 lands on the moon.

4:18 p.m. EDT: Abner Guernsey of King of Prussia, Pa., becomes the first human being to utter a sentence beginning: "Yeh, they can put a man on the moon, but....."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bring in the blackboard! Cue the fingernails!

As a career copy editor, I've had to know a lot about the niceties of language, including the difference between insure and ensure, imply and infer, lie and lay and other pairs of words.

In everyday speech, some non-editors often get these words confused. I think this drives some copy editors crazy. Some grammar sticklers even correct those who misspeak.

Not me.

Although such distinctions are important and need to be observed, there's no reason to go ballistic if someone, in speech, confuses imply and infer, for example. My mother got these words confused all her life. But she wasn't a writer, and she also played a key role in the successful raising and feeding of six children. And she had more common sense than a lot of folks who have doctorates.

In addition, correcting someone's speech could have its risks, depending on the situation, as I mentioned in this previous post (which for some reason has received a lot of hits, according to Site Meter).

But if you really want to get my goat (and you're welcome to the smelly creature), there's one area, involving not easily confused words but grammar, that can get to me (and my goat; he may be smelly but he does have some sense of literacy).

A local car dealership has an ad that includes the following jingle, which I've changed slightly to remove the name of the dealership (why give those folks a free ad?):

IT WOULD BE A PITY

IF YOU DON'T SHOP AT AUTO CITY


"NO NO NO," I want to say in full-blown Daffy Duck mode, "IT'S 'IT WILL BE A PITY.' OR CHANGE 'DON'T' TO 'DIDN'T'!"

Whew.

I feel better now. Thanks.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Are you listening, Sierra Club?

I think I have uncovered another endangered species:

The American Game Show Announcer.

This species isn't exactly extinct yet: "The Price Is Right" has Rich Fields, Charlie O'Donnell remains the voice behind "Wheel of Fortune" and the aforementioned Mr. Gilbert (whom I first saw on "Yours for a Song," starring none other than Bert Parks) is still telling us that "This is 'Jeopardy!'"

But "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" has no announcer, and, more recently, neither does "Million Dollar Password." Meredith Vieira and Regis Philbin are such known quantities that they apparently, and literally, need no introduction.

I suppose this is a way of saving money; I also suppose not that many game shows these days end with those long lists of product plugs, which were the announcer's bread and butter (or Rice-a-Roni and butter).

Here's hoping that Rich, Charlie and Johnny hang on for a while.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I DO believe in hype! I DO believe in hype!

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has announced that "25 of our greatest talents" have been selected to receive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Topping the list in the category of motion pictures is, um, Tinker Bell.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Fast-Food Worker/Bob Hope Syndrome

Granted, this phenomenon might not be as well-known as the Stockholm Syndrome, and if I really worked at it, I might be able to come up with a catchier name for it, but maybe you've experienced this:

You're in line at a fast-food place and the person at the counter finally says, "Can I help the next person?" and it's you.

You step forward. The person makes eye contact with you. But as you start to give your order, the person's eyes move to your left, as if something's just happened -- as if, say, someone more interesting just walked in the door.

You get the person's attention again (I've been known to hold up an index finger, as if giving a sobriety test) and place your order.

This used to happen to me quite a bit, then I noticed it happening less. Then it happened again the other day.

I'm not angry about this; heaven knows, these employees don't make that much money. But it's happened often enough that I wonder what causes it. It's quite possible, of course, that someone far more interesting than yours truly has just walked in the door. (It wouldn't have to be, say, Elvis, though from what I've heard about him he wouldn't exactly be out of place at a Mickey D's.)

But I always feel as if I'm in one of those TV specials that Bob Hope used to do as his career was winding down. He and the guest star would appear in a skit, and it would soon become quite clear (perhaps I should make that "ridiculously obvious") that they hadn't bothered to learn their lines and were unabashedly looking over each other's shoulders to read the cue cards.

Then again, this syndrome also reminds me of a "Twilight Zone" episode where a guy (Howard Duff?) learns that his entire life has been scripted, or something like that.

Could this (once again cue "Twilight Zone" sound effect) be happening to me? To all of us? Are our lives merely scripts being played out, and are most of the people in our lives very adept at learning their lines, but the fast-food folks aren't that great at it because, well, let's face it, they are walk-ons, they are inexperienced, and they're just being paid scale?

Or am I just hard up for a way to fill this space today?

(And did someone just yell "CUT"?)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Jim McKay and The Gut Guy

He was, of course, best known for his work on "Wide World of Sports" and his coverage of the Olympics.

But Jim McKay is also one of a handful of broadcasters whom I recall seeing (or listening to) before they became famous. And somehow I always associate these folks with the first time I saw (or heard) them.

McKay, for example, was once featured on a show called "The Verdict Is Yours." I believe it was on CBS at 3:30 p.m. EST weekdays. According to the Internet Movie Database, it made its debut in 1958, which means I was almost 4 years old at the time.

On the show, McKay, complete with earphones, was a court reporter giving the details of fictional trials that were enacted on the program. I guess I liked this show because I also liked "Perry Mason," and courtroom stuff fascinated me, even though I didn't understand a darn thing about it. I even remember that once, while we were downtown, my mom and I stopped by the county courthouse and she showed me an empty courtroom. (Perry, Della and Paul were obviously on their lunch break.)

But whenever I saw McKay in later years, I often thought of "The Verdict Is Yours."

And, speaking of lunch breaks, there was the first time I heard Charles Kuralt.

Years before he went "On the Road," he did a daily health feature for CBS Radio. Sometimes the topics of these features were things you didn't necessarily want to think about while you were eating. So, of course, some programming genius put Kuralt on sometime between 11 a.m. and noon, when my siblings and I were home from school on our lunch break. And because we were kids, and had that typical try-to-make-each-other-spit-up-their-lunch mentality, the juxtaposition of unpalatable health topics with our Spam sandwiches apparently appealed to our sense of absurdity, and we'd get silly.

My mother, noting how often Mr. Kuralt's reports focused on some aspect of digestion, dubbed him "The Gut Guy."

Years later, and skatey-eight journalism awards later, when Mr. Kuralt appeared on our household's TV screen he was still -- and always would be -- "The Gut Guy."

And then there was the time my mother called me over to the radio and said there was a guy reading the news who sounded a lot like Dick Van Dyke.

And gosh darned if he didn't.

And gosh darned if the guy's name wasn't Charles Osgood, years before he had to get up early on Sunday mornings.

And gosh darned if he still doesn't sound at least a little like Rob Petrie. (Hmm. I wonder how good he is at stumbling over ottomans....)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ms. Altman, my ankle and Agatha

I'd never heard of Sophie B. Altman before I saw her obituary on The New York Times' Web site..

But when I found out about her main claim to fame, the phrase "Altman Productions" leaped to the front of my alleged mind.

For I used to see that phrase every week at the end of the TV program that Ms. Altman started in 1961: "It's Academic."

In case you've never seen it, "It's Academic" is a quiz show featuring three teams of high school students representing their respective schools. A number of local stations produce their own versions of the show, probably under some kind of franchise agreement with the company, which is based in Washington, D.C.

According to the show's Web site, contestants on the show over the past 47 years have included Washington Post CEO Donald Graham, New York Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer; political commentator George Stephanopoulos; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon; and best-selling mystery author Laura Lippman.

Conspicuously absent from this list (OK, maybe not so conspicuously) is yours truly. This is an especially outrageous omission because Hillary, Chuck, George, Michael and Laura, famous as they are, did not have to play with a handicap. ...

It's the middle of a week in January 1972. My brother Martin and I are walking in a parking lot, toward the spot where a friend and his father are going to pick us up and take us across town to school. The weather isn't bad, but there's some left-over "black ice" on the lot, and this kind of ice is particularly treacherous if, instead of wearing real boots with decent treads, you are sporting a much flimsier pair of overshoes that have slightly more traction than a fresh roll of wax paper.

One moment I'm walking along, perfectly fine; the next, I'm on the ground, spouting all sorts of words that my brother will later swear he had never before heard me utter.

Our ride comes, and on the way to school I notice my left ankle is swelling. Just a sprain, I think. My friend, a basketball player, seems to think differently.

We get to school, and I'm stupid enough to climb two flights of stairs and walk all the way down a hallway to homeroom, where the nun in charge immediately figures out that something's very wrong with me.

Eventually I wind up home, my ankle in a cast.

Thing is, the following Saturday I'm to appear on "It's Academic." I'm incompetent with crutches, but luckily the cast has a rubber heel that I hope I can get used to.

On the morning of the show -- one of several episodes to be taped that day -- my folks take me to the TV station, which is part of a shopping center. I'm still wobbly on the rubber heel, but my mother has cut a hole in a ski hat and placed it on the bottom of the cast, and my father helps me up what I remember as a (wouldn't you know) tall flight of stairs that leads to the studio.

I get situated on the set with my two teammates, a guy and a young woman, with the woman at the center. I notice that some stagehand has apparently left an empty pack of smokes on our desk.

The host shows up. Before doing the show, we tape a promo, with the host doing all the talking, but he manages to botch one of the other school's names, provoking a heartfelt and very audible barnyard epithet from somewhere behind us in the hidden control room.

We're finally into the show, which includes several rounds of questions for each team. The questions and long and involved; they're apparently written that way in the hope of tricking you into giving an early -- and wrong -- answer.

The final round is more like "Jeopardy!" All nine students can press a button, attached to a light, to answer a question.

Going into the final round, our team is in second place. At one point, the hosts says something like, "This movie, about a mode of transportation, stars Burt Lancaster --"

I hit the button!

"'The Train'!" I say.

"No, if you'd listened to the entire question, you would have found out that the movie was 'Airport'!"

We're now in third place. Good one, Murph.

But a little while later comes my big moment, my shining hour, the nerd's equivalent of the last-second jump shot from halfway across the court that goes into the hoop and wins the game.

"Celebrating her 80th birthday with her 80th book --"

I hit the button again! "Agatha Christie!"

The host, a note of incredulity in his voice, confirms that I'm right. Somewhere from the audience I hear a gasp. A swooning cheerleader, I hope.

We're back in second place, and my teammates correctly handle two other questions, and when the buzzer goes off, we're the winners.

Some weeks later we return for the semifinals. The producer tells me not to lean too far into the microphone. She doesn't really have to tell me; when I'd seen the previous show at a family friend's house, I'd noticed that if my mouth and the mike had been any more intimate, we would have been officially married under the laws of 16 countries.

We're blown out of the water by an aggressive team from a nearby city who apparently spent the previous night finishing a new translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls while munching on steroids.

Maybe if I'd broken my arm earlier that week....

Monday, May 26, 2008

Dick Martin

He always seemed like a nice guy, and from what I've read about him since his death the other day, my perception apparently was, for once, right on the money.

I particularly remember seeing him on game shows and talk shows and noticing how he would laugh at other comedians. That's not something you always see.

And although I usually pay a bit more attention to the straight men when I'm watching comedy teams (I like watching straight men try to be funny but not too funny as they feed the comic and try to control the pace of the act), Rowan and Martin were an exception. Dan Rowan didn't seem particularly charismatic (I've since read that he wouldn't exactly be a semifinalist in a World's Nicest Man contest), and I was more drawn to Martin's persona -- silly, goofy, the type of guy who could get away with risque material because he was almost a cartoon character. (I suspect you could say something similar about Groucho.)

I also think Dick Martin got one of the biggest laughs ever on "Match Game" with a response that, as I recall, practically incapacitated Gene Rayburn for the better part of a minute.

The question was something like: "Ninety-nine-year-old Mr. Periwinkle married a 22-year-old exotic dancer. They spent their honeymoon blanking."

Martin's response: "Shucking oysters."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Aunt Dorth

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, my Aunt Dorothy died early last month. She hadn't been in the best of health, but we hadn't expected to lose her so soon.

Like my Aunt Helen, Aunt Dorothy was a nun. (My Uncle Bob was a priest.) Aunt Dorth also had a doctorate in music education. I don't know what the salary range is for a professor with a doctorate, but I figure it amounts to a decent chunk of change, especially if the prof has tenure. Aunt Dorth was a teacher at the same college for 38 years and formerly ran its music department. (Before that, she taught at diocesan schools for 12 years.)

Because she was a nun, I believe her salary went to her order. Which, I'm sure, was fine with her. She wasn't in it for the money; the teaching -- her calling, really -- was the main thing. Two contributors to the online guest book accompanying her obituary make it clear that she "really cared about her students and made each feel special." And I'm sure you could find at least 200 other former students (maybe even 2,000) who would echo that sentiment.

I'm sorry to say I never had Aunt Dorth as a teacher. I did take piano lessons for about five years, but my teacher was a nun who had taught Aunt Dorth. After this nun left my school for another assignment, I decided to drop the lessons, and I've always remembered how disappointed my aunt was, though she didn't scold me or otherwise try to give me grief. I think she actually thought I might have a future in music, and although I still think I was right (music remains a favorite hobby, but I wouldn't enjoy having to perform for money, even if I were that good), I still feel a little bad that I disappointed her, and I feel more than a little heartened that she seemed to have so much belief in me.

A few other memories:

Once while she was visiting us, we were going to have hot dogs for dinner. "I like hot dogs, but they don't like me," she said. To literal-minded little me, this seemed absurd. How could hot dogs not like someone? I know better now, much better, and could someone please pass the bicarbonate?

(By the way, to show you how things have changed over the years, until about the mid-1960s, when my aunts came to town for a visit, they couldn't stay overnight with us; my mom had to drive them to the parish convent, a few blocks away. Yet my uncle could always stay overnight. Go figure....)

Until I was about 12, my aunts wore a traditional habit, which meant we kids didn't know what their hair looked like. No big deal, except that we knew (our mom had told us) that Aunt Dorth, who was a very young-acting thirtysomething, had hair that turned white at a very early age. (Whoa! Cue "Twilight Zone" sound effect.) When my aunts switched to a more modern habit, we were prepared for our first view of the fabled hair. But it still took some getting used to....

Aunt Dorth earned her master's degree in Boston. During that time, I think she and some other nuns briefly met JFK. I do know for sure that I would much rather have stood in the middle of an arena and waved five red flags at five different bulls than to so much as imply, in her presence, that Mr. Kennedy's feet had been at least dipped in clay.

But I think the thing I'll always treasure about Aunt Dorth -- something that I'm ashamed to say didn't occur to me while she was alive -- is that our relationship evolved over the years. This doesn't always happen with one's older relatives or family friends, who can sometimes, despite the passage of years, still see you and treat you as if you've never completely reached adulthood.

At the beginning, of course, I was the kid and Dorothy was the aunt. (I still remember how, even in recent years, she enjoyed telling people that I pronounced "Peter and the Wolf" as "Peter and the Wilf.") But after I became an adult (chronologically, at least), she treated me as an adult, which (if this logic isn't too twisted) helped me to become an adult in truth. She was an invaluable confidante -- and friend.

And at some point I hope to tell you about my Uncle Bob.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

How green were our stamp books

Not far from where I live, one of the city's main drags leads into a part of the city that used to be a village until it decided to merge with the larger entity decades ago.

But this area's business district is still there and runs the better part of a mile. When I was a kid it had a couple of drugstores (one with a soda fountain), a bakery, at least a couple of banks, a bowling alley and other assorted stores.

Over the years the businesses have come and gone. A few years ago, the bowling alley was felled by a very big ball that didn't have three finger holes. Nothing has replaced it. A building across the street seems headed for the wreckers, too.

A few years ago, a health insurance company established itself near the beginning of the business district. It wound up taking up most of a whole block, displacing a long-standing pizza shop, though a used-book store remains defiantly, and incongruously, in the middle of the block. The insurance company did a lot of remodeling, and it now appears to be doing some more. (Re-remodeling, you might say.)

I mention this because as I was walking across the street from the insurance company a week or two ago, I noticed that the workers, in removing the older but newer facade, had uncovered part of an even older sign that dates to when I was a kid.

At first I didn't recognize the sign because all I could see was:

AMPS

It took a moment for me to figure out what the rest of the sign must say, but I finally got it, and when I walked in that neighborhood yesterday, the crew had done more work and my guess was confirmed:

GREEN STAMPS S&H GREEN STAMPS

It used to be a redemption center, where you could bring your books of Green Stamps and get stuff. My brother Michael remembers getting a bicycle there.

I can remember my mother spending evenings pasting those stamps into books. But I can't remember anything we got with them.

I also can't remember when Green Stamps disappeared, but all of a sudden they weren't around anymore. (At one point, a rival company had something called Plaid Stamps. I suspect they didn't quite catch on.) And it's been years since I've heard of a "redemption center." Kind of has an existential feel to it now, like a place you'd go for absolution. ("Shrives R Us!")

I myself never collected Green Stamps. Instead, I collected Raleigh cigarette coupons.

I should make it clear that I've never smoked, but my uncle did, and he'd give me the coupons. I even sent away for a catalog of stuff I could get with them.

I finally decided it would be neat if I could get my mother a Munsey Toaster-Broiler. (At least I think that's what it was called.) So after collecting enough coupons, I sent them in and got the contraption. And presented it to my mother. Whose response, as I recall, was lukewarm. (My first hint that women don't like getting appliances as gifts. Glad I learned it early.)

I don't recall that my mother ever used this modern wonder much, except maybe to please me. As she pointed out, you could indeed make toast with the thing -- if you put the bread on the thing's tray, put it inside the thing, turned the thing on and, after a certain point, pulled the tray out and turned the bread over. More labor-intensive than your average toaster, I guess, though maybe safer, especially if you were my uncle, who was known to have risked electrocution at least once by sticking a fork in our pop-up bread warmer.

Nowadays I suppose the closest thing we have to Green Stamps and cigarette coupons are the bonus points we get for running up our credit card bills. And we don't even have to send in for the catalog; it comes to your home unbidden. Right now I have my eye on a radio/stereo that looks like an old-time radio.

As far as I can tell, it doesn't broil anything or make toast, but you can't have everything....

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

47 years later, a mystery solved

I suppose I should finally come right out and confess: I have a tin ear.

I don't mean a tin ear for music; actually I can play piano by ear fairly well, for an amateur. (OK, maybe a rank amateur.)

What I have a tin ear for is lyrics. Perhaps you've heard of the term "mondegreen," describing what happens when someone mishears a lyric -- for example, when "Gladly the cross I'd bear" becomes "Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear."

I don't mishear lyrics all that often, but (to paraphrase Fiorello LaGuardia) when I do, it's a beaut.

Many years ago there was a song called "Sad, Sweet Dreamer." Somehow I heard this as, "Hey, Mickey Mouse." Don't ask me how.

Anyway, when I was a kid in the early '60s, one of my favorite shows was "Top Cat." Here's how I heard the lyrics:

Top Cat!
The most effectual Top Cat!
Who's intellectual close friends get to call him T.C.
Crow biting is worth it to please!

Of course that fourth line makes absolutely no sense. And I knew it didn't. At one point I thought "crow biting" might be "law abiding," but that wasn't much (if any) of an improvement.

I revisited this vital question the other day while I was listening to Shokus Internet Radio, which I highly recommend and which you can find here. The station often plays tunes from old TV shows, and on this particular evening the "Top Cat" theme was featured.

As I again puzzled over that last line, it occurred to me that the lyrics might be posted online somewhere.

And it turns out that they are.

And the real lyrics are:

Top Cat!
The most effectual Top Cat!
Who's intellectual close friends get to call him T.C.
Providing it's with dignity!

So the mystery is finally solved. But I dunno ... still sounds like "crow biting" to me....

Monday, April 21, 2008

Aunt Helen

I'm standing in front of our house; I'm perhaps 6 years old.

My Aunt Helen is sitting on the porch, reading.

Standing next to me is a younger playmate, whom I'll call Willy.

I am trying to introduce Willy to my Aunt Helen.

"Willy," I say, "say hello to my Aunt Helen."

Willy says nothing. He's nervous, he's fidgety and he's probably scared, perhaps in part because the woman on the porch is wearing a nun's habit, and he's not used to dealing with that.

Being perhaps 6 years old, I don't exactly pick up on this.

But Aunt Helen does.

"Willy," I say, "say hello to my Aunt Helen."

Nothing.

"Aunt Helen," I say, "say hello to my friend Willy."

She gives him a big smile. "Hello, Willy!"

"Willy," I say, "say hello to my Aunt Helen."

Still nothing.

This goes on for maybe five minutes in the same absurd way. At least I hope it was only five minutes. But I'm sure it goes on long enough to give Samuel Beckett the heebie-jeebies.

But not my Aunt Helen. She goes along, and she is obviously willing to keep going along for however long it takes.

And somehow I think this story, which my aunt loved to recount in later years, pretty much summarizes the way she was.

Kind. Practical. Patient.

A born teacher, whether the subject was the niceties of business law or how to tie your shoes.

When she died, she had been a nun for about 70 years, a span that included the changes that resulted from Vatican II.

(Actually, she wasn't really my aunt but my great-aunt, a distinction we kids -- there were six of us -- usually didn't make. She was my grandmother's sister, about 18 years younger.)

Of my two aunts (Aunt Dorothy was a nun, too), she was the more conservative. At first she didn't like the idea of switching to the "new habit" (which would eventually become "no habit at all"), but she eventually went along with it and even embraced it; I remember thinking it was kind of cute when, in the late 1960s, my aunts would compare notes on the best places to shop for clothes.

And when my godmother, a very conservative Catholic, showed up at my mother's funeral in the early '80s, Aunt Helen pretty much told her, "You probably want to see me back in the habit, but it ain't gonna happen, so deal with it."

Of course, she didn't use those exact words....

In addition to shopping for clothes, there was something else she learned later in life: how to drive.

Then again, my mother would probably take issue with the word "learned." And perhaps someday I will tell the tale of a car journey that she, Aunt Helen, Uncle Bob, my brother Michael and I embarked on together. Michael and I are the sole remaining survivors of this trek, which I lovingly refer to as the "Death Trip to Oswego."

Unlike my Aunt Dorothy, who was a college professor, Aunt Helen taught high school business classes. I don't know that she ever received an award for teaching, unless you count the number of former students who kept in touch with her.

And who, I would venture to guess, still use the skills she taught them.

Kind. Practical. Patient.

For someone who took a vow of poverty, that's an especially rich legacy.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The past passes by

They are all gone now: Aunt Helen, Aunt Dorth and Uncle Bob.

My two aunts were nuns; my uncle, a priest. An informal holy trinity, you might say.

Unk died in 1974, Aunt Helen passed away in 2004 and Aunt Dorth left us earlier this month.

A cousin from Dorth and Bob's generation lives in California, and an older cousin lives in Canada, but although we've all been on good terms we're far apart and rarely in touch, so, practically speaking, my aunts and uncle were the last links to my family's past, the last people who could, for example, tell you what it was to live in this neighborhood -- and in the very house in which I'm writing this -- 70 or even 80 years ago.

My mom died 25 years ago and my dad passed away almost three years ago, but somehow it's only now that I'm really beginning to feel like an orphan.

I'll be writing more about my aunts and uncle soon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I promise I'll write to them every day

Having just purchased a new pair of sneakers, I was heading toward the store's exit when I was confronted with this overhead sign:

SEE YOU SOON.

THE SHOES ALREADY MISS YOU.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

That was no lady (and it wasn't my wife)

At 9:21 p.m., the phone rings.

Me: "Hello?"

Caller: "Hello, I'd like to speak to the lady of the house. Or is this the lady of the house?"

A pause, as I try to take what I had thought was a fairly masculine voice down half a notch.

Me: "Do I sound like the lady of the house?"

Caller: "I'm just asking!"

("Excuse me, sir, are you feeling all right?"

"Why, you freaking moron! He's just been shot in the head -- quite possibly by someone in that book depository!"

"Geez, Mrs. Kennedy, I'm just asking!")

The call ends after I explain that there is no "lady of the house" and point out that 9:21 p.m. is kind of late to be taking a call like this.

And it later occurs to me that 2008 is kind of late to be using a phrase like "lady of the house."

And it further occurs to me that I might need a voice coach. Oh, where is Larry Hooper, the guy from the old Lawrence Welk show whose voice could penetrate the studio floor and the studio basement's floor while journeying to the center of the earth, now that I need him?

Or maybe I should just try some vocal workouts on my own. ("How do you get to Testosterone Hall? Practice, practice, practice.")

And now, if you'll please excuse me, I have to head to eBay. Surely somebody there is peddling the sheet music for "Asleep in the Deep"....

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Legend of Lefty

Soon it will be time to go to the local ballpark again with my friends Rollie, Gary and Dan.

The four of us have been going there for many years now, usually sitting past the first-base line.

And we've made so many trips to the park together that certain traditions have been established. For example, it wouldn't be a true seventh-inning stretch if Gary and Dan didn't spend it deconstructing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." ("Whaddya mean, 'Take me out to the ball game'? We're already here!")

And we often remember one early season game, in either April or May, where a bunch of would-be macho but meteorologically challenged teenagers showed up wearing shorts, only to wind up pretending they weren't freezing their alleged buns of steel off after the sun went down.

But one of our most cherished traditions is remembering Lefty.

And to be fair, the title of this posting might not be completely accurate. For Lefty, as we have since called him (never knew his real name), did in fact exist, and probably still does, somewhere, though I probably wouldn't recognize him if I fell over him, and that's a pastime I don't intend to take up any time soon.

Anyway, Lefty and his girlfriend came to a game and sat a few stands away from us.

I don't know how long the two of them had been going together, but apparently Lefty thought it would verily impress her if a ball were hit into the stands and he caught it.

I of course don't know whether Lefty came to the ballpark planning to do this, or whether it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, the spur being a ball that was hit right toward him.

In any event, Lefty apparently never stopped to consider the difference between the gentleness of a fly ball descending into two cupped, conveniently placed hands and the abruptness (maybe that's putting it mildly) of a line drive.

So that when the line drive was indeed hit in their direction, Lefty reached out, and the ball made contact with his hand (and that for damn sure IS putting it mildly) before dropping into a lower row and into the hands of a fan who in high school probably had higher marks than Lefty in physics class.

Did all this embarrass Lefty in front of his girlfriend? Quite possibly, but if so, that was the least of his problems.

For he now had to spend the rest of the game pretending that his hand didn't hurt like a son of a you-know-what. Kind of reminded me of that "Dick Van Dyke Show" episode where Rob has to pretend to Laura that he doesn't have the flu, and he has to stifle a sneeze with a grimace that he is somehow able to turn into a tortured smile.

Pity poor Lefty. I'm sure he wished he were anywhere else in the world than that ballpark -- even on the deck of the Titanic, where, with the band playing its last song and all the available lifeboats already lowered, he could at least have taken solace in the knowledge that nearby was the one piece of ice that was big enough to ease the pain and swelling.

We occasionally look for Lefty when we go to the ballpark, though we really don't expect to find him. Some weeks ago, Gary, Dan and I went to a basketball game, and for all I know he might have been somewhere in the stands, maybe with the same girlfriend, engaging in the following dialogue:

She says, "Honey, why don't we go to baseball games anymore?"

"Aw, baseball is such a slow sport," he replies as he raises his left arm and self-consciously tries to adjust his comb-over with what looks like a leg of lamb.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy birthday, Henrik

Norwegian poet-dramatist Henrik Ibsen ("Hedda Gabler," "A Doll's House") would have been 180 years old today.

Which reminds me....

Some years ago, one of my fellow copy editors was handling a column about the arrival of two tigers at the local zoo. He told me he was thinking of putting the phrase "Tiger! Tiger!" (or maybe it was "Tiger, Tiger") in the headline, an allusion to the famous poem "The Tyger." ("Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night ...")

He told me he was thinking about alluding to the Ibsen poem because --

Wait, I said, you mean William Blake, don't you?

No! Henrik Ibsen!

The look he gave me implied that I was so dumb it was amazing I'd ever learned to stand on two feet.

I again hinted (gently, I thought) that William Blake had actually written the poem. (Seemed odd to me, an English major, that a Norwegian poet-playwright would have written one of the enduring works of British literature.)

No, he said, it says "Ibsen" in Bartlett's. He then got up to walk to a reference-book table in the center of the room so he could look it up again.

No, I said, politely but firmly (I think), it doesn't matter. (And besides, I was busy with other stuff.)

And I was. But something kept nagging at me. Finally, after 10 or 15 minutes, I couldn't take it anymore, and I walked over and went to the Bartlett's myself. And there I found the quote from the poem.

Under the citation was this word:

Ibid.

I never did talk to the guy about it. For one thing, we were busy. And it seemed best to take the high road.

And for all I know, old Henrik always wished he HAD written "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright...."

Friday, March 7, 2008

Sunday at the puzzle tournament

Final notes from a rookie contestant at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held Feb. 28 to March 2 in Brooklyn.

(Previous postings below)

I get my stuff all packed (checkout time is a few hours away) and head downstairs to see if the latest rankings have been posted.

I'm not completely eager to see these postings, considering that I wiped out on Puzzle 5.

But I force myself to look, and the news isn't all that bad. I've slid from 231 to 245, with only 580 points from Puzzle 5 (meaning 58 correct answers out of 94). If I can only do a perfect job on the next (and, for me, last) puzzle....

It's a 45-minute puzzle called "Where Oh Where?" and it's by Oliver Hill, who, Shortz informs us, is all of 17 years old. (I've done at least one puzzle by him before -- a Saturday Times, as I recall, and The Times' Saturday puzzles are the toughest of the week.)

I'm a little nervous, but I figure out the gimmick early on. It involves directions -- left, right, up, down -- and these directions take up one word space in various answers.

The first, clue, for example, is "Perfect husband material." It's seven letters: M I S T E R -- and in the last box, RIGHT. It's tough fitting that word into the box, but I do it. (I later learn that I could have drawn an arrow facing right.)

Another clue is "Play direction." Obviously "E X I T S T A G E RIGHT," so I fill in that too. The last box also happens to be the first box of a Down clue, which I look at quickly.

Of more concern to me are two other Across clues:"'Illmatic' rapper" and "Former San Francisco Mayor Joseph."

I'm especially concerned because in each case I'm not sure about the clue that intersects with the answer. "Bath sponge," five letters: LOOF something. I know the rapper, three letters, is N-S. I know LOOF has to end in a vowel. Maybe it's LOOFA. And somewhere from the recesses of my brain I think I've heard of a rapper called NAS. So I try that.

The ex-mayor is A-IOTO. ARIOTO? The intersecting answer, for "Foul-smelling," is O-ID. ORID? Doesn't sound right. Maybe OLID. Then is the ex-mayor ALIOTO? Again, somewhere from the depths of my brain, specifically the part that holds my memory from my many years on The Post-Standard's national and international news desk, comes ALIOTO. Let's go with it.

Afterward, partly through asking other contestants and partly through eavesdropping, I learn I'm right on both counts! Yippee!

Finally it's time for the championship puzzle, done by the three finalists in three Divisions: A, B and C. Each final round is held in front of the audience, with each competitor doing the puzzle on a big grid.

Did I score high enough to be a finalist?

No. (Just as well, considering how tired I am, not to mention having to check out and check my bags between Puzzle 7 and this round.)

This part of the tournament ends with the big showdown in Division A, involving Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne and Howard Barkin.

These three guys do the same puzzle as the finalists in the other divisions -- or rather, the grid is the same and the answers are the same, but the clues are harder. One example: for MITCHUM, the Division C clue is "Robert of 'The Night of the Hunter.'" The Division B clue is "'Farewell, My Lovely' star, 1975." The Division A clue is "Actor who Ebert called 'the soul of film noir.'"

And that's one of the easier ones.

Payne finishes first, but he has two errors; Hinman eventually wins, becoming the first person to win the tournament four years in a row.

After a pleasant banquet and award ceremony (by chance I wind up sitting next to a woman who went to college in my hometown, who's roughly in the same line of the work and who knows a longtime co-worker of mine), I eventually head home.

Once there, I check the standings. It seemed pretty clear at the banquet that the top category winners had, for the most part at least, 10,000 points or more.

I figure I have at least 9,100

I'm in for a rude surprise: From the standings I can see I didn't score perfectly on Puzzle 7, though I'd taken care to proofread my answers before submitting it, and though I know NAS and ALIOTO are correct. My final point score is 8,985.

Fortunately, contestants are allowed to e-mail Shortz, asking where they went wrong. So I do.

On Monday evening, I get an e-mail from Ellen Ripstein, who is assisting Shortz. (If you've seen "Wordplay," Ripstein is the one-time champ -- she finished fourth this year -- who at one point is shown twirling a baton.)

She responds:

"At 35A/41D, you had EXITSTAGE(RIGHT)/(RIGHT)IST instead of the correct direction (LEFT).

"Sorry about that!"

It turns out that the clue for 41 Down was "Extreme liberal."

HOW could I have misread that?

Oh, well.

My final ranking is 262 out of 699. In my age category (fifties) I was 61st out of 161; among rookies, 55th out of 237; and regionally (Upstate New York/Westchester) 18th out of 53.

Doesn't seem too bad for a first-year effort.

But wait till next year....

What's a six-letter word for 'Swanee River'?

At one point during the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in Brooklyn, I notice that one part of the hotel is dedicated to a Brooklyn favorite.

It's the Jackie Gleason Room.

It's on the same floor as the tournament, but we never use it. I never even see what's inside it.

But I'd like to think that if I put my ear to the door, I'd hear Ed Norton tickling (or perhaps mangling) the ivories.

Maybe next year....

An evening at the puzzle tournament

More notes from a rookie contestant at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held Feb. 29 to March 2 at the Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge.

(Previous posting below)

Evenings are social times at the tournament. On Friday night, in the same room where we worked on the puzzles, the get-acquainted event involved splitting up in teams of three to solve a series of puzzle with clues related to Brooklyn. The idea is to get through the puzzles and thus be the first, within one hour, to come up with the Big Answer, which was, appropriately enough, "Fuhgeddaboutit." (But please don't hold me to that spelling.) My team eventually solves it, though quite a bit past the deadline.

On Saturday evening, Will Shortz, who each week appears on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday" with a different puzzle (and a contest for listeners), presents that weekend's radio puzzle. (He'd taped his segment earlier in the day.) He also tries out a puzzle he says is too hard for the radio. The crowd rises to the occasion.

Next is a short movie made by Ed Stein, who has been in the tournament for more than 20 years. The film, "Wordploy," is a parody of "Wordplay," a documentary about the tournament that was made several years ago. The parody focuses on Stein's efforts to finally win the tournament, and it's pretty amusing, largely because of Stein's self-deprecating sense of humor.

After that, there's a tournament version of the TV show "1 vs. 100," pitting the audience against past tournament winners. It's a clever idea, but it's been a long day (not to mention that I have a cold that keeps hanging on), so I escape early.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Saturday at the puzzle tournament

Notes from a rookie contestant at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.....

It's 11 a.m. last Saturday, and I'm sitting at a long table in a ballroom at a hotel in Brooklyn. All around me -- seated across and down, you might say -- are other puzzle solvers. In front of me, face down on the table, is the first of seven puzzles I'll be working on this weekend. (There will be six today and one on Saturday, plus the puzzle that only the finalists do.)

Registration began Friday night. A nice, seemingly harmless guy named David J. Kahn, who also happens to be a puzzle constructor -- I recognized the name -- handed me the registration packet and took pains to point out my contestant number (415) on the folder. I'm supposed to write the number, and my name, on the back of each puzzle. (I later find out that some people have neglected to do this in the past.)

Each of the puzzles has a time limit. Each correct answer is worth 10 points. If you finish early, you get 25 points for each minute you had left. If your solution is perfect, you get 150 bonus points.

The bad news is that if you have a mistake -- or mistakes -- you get 25 points taken off the finish-early bonus for each error. If you have more errors than you had minutes left, though, you don't wind up in the "minus column," like a hapless "Jeopardy!" contestant.

And of course you don't get the 150 bonus points for a perfect puzzle.

On Saturday morning, before going into the ballroom, I walk through the hallway a few times. Tables have been set up and people are selling T-shirts, word games and, of course, crossword puzzle books. New York Times puzzles. New York Sun puzzles. Raunchy crosswords. Even a small book of crosswords to be done in the bathroom. The book is in the shape of a toilet.

People from The New York Times are giving away small card games and mouse pads in exchange for getting your e-mail address.

It's pretty crowded -- 699 contestants, in all -- but one guy stands out. His name is Jim, and apparently every year he wears some kind of weird costume to the tournament. This time Jim, who also sports a mustache, is wearing a wedding dress with a crossword puzzle on it. As he walks by, another contestant looks at me and remarks about the various kinds of people who show up at the event.

"Always a 10 across, but never a 5 down," I say.

It gets a laugh.

I eventually learn that there seem to be two groups of contestants, not necessarily mutually exclusive: those who are hotly competitive and want to WIN WIN WIN, and those who just like solving puzzles, don't get upset if they don't finish that well and just enjoy seeing the same people year after year. (The event has been going on for three decades.)

The first puzzle is titled "Encouraging Words," described as "a puzzle that provides some figurative pats on the back." Will Shortz, The Times' crosswords editor, who runs the tournament, announces that the puzzle is by Andrea Carla Michaels. This brings a round of applause, which is repeated throughout the tournament as Shortz announces the name of a puzzle's constructor. The hardcore puzzle solvers know the constructors' names -- and quite often, their constructing styles. And a number of the constructors are present, serving as tournament officials.

It's a 15-minute puzzle, as indicated by a big digital clock at one corner of the room. Shortz gives the signal, and we're off.

It's supposed to be an easy puzzle, and it is. I finish it with six minutes left. I look it over carefully before raising my hand -- which brings a referee over to take the puzzle from me and write down the time.

I'm a bit miffed; I shouldn't have taken nine minutes. It's as easy as a Times Monday puzzle, which I usually can do in six minutes.

Then again, I use a pen at home, a Pilot G-2, which is easier for my hand than a pencil, which the judges seem to prefer. My hand now feels a little cramped. For next year's tourney, I'll get a pencil that fits my hand better. Also, I solved the puzzle with my glasses on. Sometimes reading things at close range is a bit easier for me if I take the glasses off.

After a brief break, the second puzzle is passed out. Though it's face down in front of me, I suspect it's going to be trouble, because I can see that, besides the usual grid, there's some other kind of grid. Oh oh.

The puzzle, by Mike Shenk, is titled "Change of Venue." The smaller, vertical grid is a word latter; complete it and you get the last word of the puzzle, though the smaller grid will not be scored. We have 25 minutes to solve the main puzzle.

The answers to nine of the clues will complete the grid, but four of these answers are 11 letters long, and clues such as "second word in the ladder" are no help. Besides which, I can't figure out how the word ladder is supposed to work; at the top is the word VENUE. As I work the main puzzle I try to get the 11-letter answers by working around them. The first answer is "love goddess." The next is "bills of fare."

At some point I wonder why the hell I came here. I can't figure out what's going on. I envision myself running up to my room and packing.

Eventually I remember how a word ladder works: Each step of the ladder is just like the previous one, with one letter changed. So VENUE leads to VENUS, MENUS, MINUS, MINES, DINES, DIVES, DOVES, DOVER and, finally, MOVER.

Once I finally have this figured out, it's smooth sailing, and I finish with one minute to spare.

After another break, Puzzle 3 is "If I Wrote the Dictionary" by Merl Reagle, another of the crowd's favorite constructors. It's a 30-minute puzzle but not that hard, with cute "deft-initions"; "adj. pertaining to jazz singing," for example, turns out to be "scatological."

After lunch, I see that the preliminary standings have been posted. I can tell from my scores that I did perfectly on all of the first three. Thing is, though, that solving time is such a major factor that even given this, I'm at 231 so far. (Which, given that it's my first time and there are 699 contestants, I don't exactly mind.)

The fourth puzzle, by Paula Gamache, is "Can You Dig It?" The theme answers are various meanings of "digs." ("Living quarters," "Gets the picture," "Likes in a big way.") It's a 15-minute puzzle. I again finish with six minutes to spare.

The fifth puzzle of every tournament, Shortz tells us, is known as "the bastard puzzle." Because this is supposed to be a G-rated blog, there is no way I can do justice to how much he was understating this.

It's a 30-minute puzzle, titled "Up-Scale: Whose theme will be revealed one step at a time." And it's by that nice man, David J. Kahn.

At least he'd seemed nice.

When a crossword puzzle has a theme (and most of them do these days), figuring out the theme usually helps you speed to the end. In this case, I never do figure out the theme. By working around it, I know that "Physician who treats weightlifters?" is MUSCLE DOC. Also, "Pitched weight-loss programs?" is SOLD DIETS.

Okeydokey, but what do those clues mean? I eventually give up trying to figure it out and try to focus on the "straight" clues, at 10 points a pop. I, and many others, fail to finish on time.

Afterward, I'm told that the theme involved notes on the musical scale. If you take the DO in MUSCLEDOC and take it down one notch in the scale (TI) you get MUSCLE TIC. Taking the SOL in SOLD DIETS down a notch (FA), you get FAD DIETS.

It's a wonder I have any hair left.

The last puzzle of the day, "Elmer Fuddisms," is by Maura Jacobson, who has been putting crosswords together for many, many years. It's a 30-minute puzzle, and as you might expect, the theme answers involve switching an "r" sound to a "w" sound. Thus, "Story about an unemployed hag?" is "The idle witch."

A cute puzzle, and my notes indicate I solved it with 14 minutes left.

Later in the tournament, a woman who has been sitting in front of me and has been going to this thing for years tells me she was on an elevator with David J. Kahn.

Which leads me to wonder how many bruises he got off with. But no, she says she told him he'd forgiven him and had given him a hug.

Yes, I concede, David J. Kahn is certainly a nice man.

But I wonder if his mother knows what he does for a living.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A-puzzling I will go

Tomorrow I head to Brooklyn, where I will compete as a rookie in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

Yes, the one featured in the movie "Wordplay" and run by Will Shortz of The New York Times.

I'll report on it early next week.

William F. Buckley Jr.

A friend of mine has written a reminiscence of a memorable encounter he once had with Buckley.

I humbly suggest that it's well worth your time, and you can read it here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Orthography and me

It's the early 1960s. I'm maybe 6 or 7 years old, and I walk into the kitchen and find that my mother is listening to the radio.

"It's the spelling bee," she says.

I am a very literal-minded little kid; when I first heard of the song "I Only Have Eyes for You," I pictured a doctor in a hospital ward, telling the patients that there weren't enough eyes to go around. (I am a very literal-minded, very weird little kid.)

I remember thinking that it is interesting that a bee can spell, but not unlikely, given my acquaintance with cartoon animals who can do lots more than talk and who can even get shot in the face without being killed, although they always seem to wind up with a nominal amount of gunpowder on their face.

Eventually I figure out what is really going on: A bunch of kids are spelling words on the radio as a kind of game.

Flash forward to 1968. I'm on a stage in the auditorium of a downtown high school, competing in the very same spelling bee, sponsored by the local newspaper company. Earlier in the day, the other kids and I took the written test, after which we were treated to a Henry Aldrich movie that featured Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer in a small role. (I sometimes can't remember where I put the TV remote, but somehow I remember that.)

After a luncheon across the street at a motel that later became a place that treated alcoholics and people with mental problems, and that later went belly-up, the finalists, including me, were announced and were marched back across the street.

And now we're all live on the radio. I still remember the engineer and the announcers, and the judges, including the head of the Catholic schools. (He's still around, a bishop now.)

One girl misspells "derringer," and after doing so she leaves the stage and she and her parents leave the building. Years later I will work with her on my college's newspaper and will be stupid enough to bring this up. Especially stupid, considering she is very nice-looking. As you and everyone else with a brain out there have guessed by now, her misfired "derringer" is not a happy memory for her, and although she is polite about it, I might as well have a nominal amount of gunpowder on my face, and rightly so.

I finish eighth that afternoon, going out on "divertissement" -- a French word given to a kid who hasn't taken French yet.

Later that year, I am invited to the state fair spelling bee. Robert Earle, the guy who replaced Allen Ludden on GE's "College Bowl," has been hired as the pronouncer. But he has canceled so he can tape a pilot for another game show. His replacement is a woman who is not pleasant to deal with; if you miss a word, she doesn't let you walk away -- you have to stand there with egg on your face while she judgmentally spells it correctly for you.

When it comes time for me to spell my first word, "accurate," I draw a blank in the middle of it while my brain takes a round trip to Chicago. After it returns, I add an extra "r" and get the bell, finishing dead last, with an entire omelet, plus two frittatas, on my face.

Worse yet, I don't get to leave the auditorium, much less the building. I have to keep sitting in front with the others for the entire bee.

Flash forward to last Saturday. It's about 40 years after that first bee, and I am now a judge, by dint of having worked for the local newspaper company for many years. I've been serving as a judge for about six years, and the bee is now on TV instead of the radio. It's still live, though. Boy, is it live.

I suppose one could argue that my generation was made of sterner stuff; the written test and the final spelldown are now on separate Saturdays. But these kids are more sophisticated; I suspect most of them have seen the national bee on TV, or the documentary "Spellbound," or another film, "Akeelah and the Bee," or all of the above. They're more likely to ask for other pronunciations. (And who knew there were so many kinds of schwas?)

This year the bee, which is supposed to be 90 minutes, runs more than two hours straight; it's on the local PBS station, so there are no breaks until we get a winner. For me, that means a lot of sitting and concentrating under very hot lights. And a lot of straining to hear some of the kids; though they're a few feet away, because of the audio engineer's skills, they're more audible to the folks at home than they are to me, except when my earpiece is working -- which it doesn't for a time; I suspect I've screwed it up somehow.

And this year, for the first time, I'm the one who hits the bell. I hate doing it at first, but I get used to it; I suppose the same thing happens to hired killers.

Aside from its length, this bee is especially dramatic because there are a couple of rounds where all the kids misspell, meaning they all have to come back. Never seen that before. The winner is the same kid who won last year, and he seems just as thrilled.

Soon it's all over; the bright lights are turned off, the unabridged dictionary is closed, and as I uncreak my knees (funny how arthritis didn't bother me 40 years ago), I watch the parents coming forward to chat with the pronouncer and the representative from the paper, and I am happy to notice that none of the parents seem to be heading my way, bearing lighted torches.

I wonder how the 13-year-old Mark Murphy would have reacted that day at the high school -- or better yet, at the state fair -- if someone had told him that four decades later he'd be a spelling bee judge. I would like to think that he would immediately have undertaken a comprehensive study of schwas, but having known this kid for more than 50 years, I wouldn't have bet the rent on it.

And I'm still looking forward to Mr. Earle's new game show.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Barry Morse

You might not remember that name, but if you're a certain age -- OK, OK, if you're my age -- chances are you'll remember Lt. Philip Gerard, the grim policeman who hounded Richard Kimble in "The Fugitive."

Yes, that was Barry Morse. He died last weekend at the age of 89.

Even now, as I recall the series -- in its original run and in its reruns -- I remember Gerard as a rather fearsome character, always tightlipped, never losing control and somehow scarier for never losing control.

And I suppose if you weren't around at the time, it might be difficult to believe what a hold the series' finale had on the American public. Is there an actor anywhere, in any century, who could look more put-upon than David Janssen, who played Kimble? And I can still remember the catharsis I felt (my aversion to violence notwithstanding) when Kimble, in the climactic scene at the top of an amusement park ride, began to beat the crap out of the one-armed man who had actually killed his wife. And how, when the one-armed man fought back, got the upper hand and was about to kill Kimble, a gunshot from below killed the killer, and how the shooter was revealed to be Lt. Philip Gerard himself. Wow!

Not to mention the epilog (as producer Quinn Martin always spelled it), in which Kimble was shown beginning his best day in years. (What guy wouldn't want to start the day with a new lease on life and a new girlfriend, especially one played by Diane Baker?) And how Gerard was standing by and shown to be, um, smiling, though maybe a bit painfully? (That would make sense -- I suspect Gerard hadn't used those facial muscles in some time.)

Morse also did a science fiction show, "Space 1999," which I never did watch. But I also remember him from a "Twilight Zone" in which he played an abusive critic who buys a player piano that proves his undoing. Then again, anyone who would abuse Joan Hackett (who played his wife) is clearly a swine who deserves whatever Rod Serling could dish out. (Or more specifically, Earl Hamner Jr., who wrote the episode long before he created "The Waltons.")

I can't remember whether it was during the original run of "The Fugitive" or afterward, but I did see Barry Morse as himself as the host of a small show on PBS. (Or maybe it was NET at the time -- remember National Educational Television?) How amazed I was at his volubility and his British accent! This, my unsophisticated self thought, was truly a classy guy!

And years later, my somewhat more sophisticated self still thinks so.