Actress Joan Fontaine, who died Sunday, was the "Rolls-Royce Lady" I wrote about in this post from 2009.
Friday, November 1, 2013
“The test of a first-rate
intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald
"The Great Gatsby" is an indisputable masterpiece.
"The Great Gatsby" is a ridiculously overpraised soap opera.
"The Great Gatsby" is an indisputable masterpiece.
"The Great Gatsby" is a ridiculously overpraised soap opera.
"The Great Gatsby" is YOWWWWWWWW!
My head hurts!
I gotta lie down....
Sunday, October 20, 2013
The whole thing seemed simple enough.
Then again, the whole thing involved an insurance company and a bank, so I probably should have known better.
The insurance company has been sending me dividend checks for many years now. Until recently, the company sent me one check at the end of each year. It wasn't a big check, but I always dutifully deposited it.
Earlier this year, the company informed me that instead of one check, it would be sending me four smaller checks each year, all adding up to the amount I used to get at the end of the year.
Oh, great, I thought -- now I have to find the time to schlep four checks to the bank.
One of the checks arrived some weeks ago, along with a note saying that I could arrange to have future checks direct-deposited into my account.
That was fine with me -- my payroll checks have been direct-deposited for years.
So I sent off the necessary paperwork, including my bank account number and the bank's routing number.
Last week I got a letter from the insurance company.
It said the direct deposit arrangement did not go through because of an error. It said my account either did not exist, or the company couldn't find it. It said I could complete an enclosed form with the "correct" information and start the process all over again.
Devout paranoid that I am, I immediately phoned the bank. Yes, they said, my account does exist. Yes, they said, the account number and the routing number I gave the insurance company are the correct ones.
So, I asked, what went wrong?
Ask the insurance company, they said.
The rep from the insurance company said that the account number and routing number, which the bank had just told me were correct, were indeed the numbers that the insurance company had on file for me.
So, I asked, what went wrong?
The rep's response (and do I really have to tell you this?): Ask the bank. They must have rejected the direct deposit application. In the meantime, we'll send it through again.
I called the bank, which denied rejecting the request and said they had no record of such a request. They said they'd have no reason to turn it down.
The insurance company said I could check back within "five to seven business days" to see if the second attempt worked.
We're not talking about a huge amount of money here, so I can't say the suspense is killing me.
But I am beginning to wonder whether I should be on the lookout for an insurance company that will indemnify me for the time I waste straightening out stuff like this.
And I've even come up with my own idea for an insurance company -- a business that would actually give you back the time you're forced to waste in so many everyday situations:
The person in front of you at the bookstore cafe who spends five minutes ordering a cup of coffee because he or she wants it just so, while all you want is a bottle of water.
The well-meaning older person in front of you at the store who never seems to realize that the store's cash registers have plenty of change and insist on paying for everything to the last penny, even if it takes five minutes.
People in front of you in line who take out a check and don't even begin to fill it out with information you'd think they already know (the store's name, their name, the date) until the cashier tells them the correct amount.
Better yet: people in front of you who buy a lot of stuff, take out a check, fill it out, then present it to the cashier -- who then opens a mysterious green box that has a list of People We Don't Take Checks From, and guess who's on it and whose purchase now has to be voided, and all 43 items have to be removed from the checkout counter before you can even begin to buy your own stuff?
(Yes, someone like this was in front of me once.)
And this is not to mention the folks at the medical office who, when you arrive right on time for your 2 p.m. appointment, aren't anywhere near ready for you yet because they're still finishing an in-house lunch hour that, from the sounds of it, seems maybe a mite too convivial.
How would my company actually get your wasted time back? Beats me -- I'm just an idea guy. I'll get some techie to do that.
In the meantime, I do have a name and slogan for this can't-miss venture:
Metaphysical Life -- Own a Piece of the Clock.
Monday, September 30, 2013
On Sundays the Classic FM station in my town offers an hour of Italian music with two local hosts.
This past Sunday they featured a song I hadn't heard in maybe 40 years: "Eh, Cumpari!"
It was written by Julius LaRosa and Archie Bleyer and recorded by LaRosa in 1953. My family had a copy of the recording, and I seem to remember that we played it a lot.
Or maybe we didn't play it all that much, but I kept imagining we were.
I say this because "Eh, Cumpari!" is what we now call an "earworm" -- the kind of song you can't get out of your head after you've heard it, to the point where it seems that nothing short of dynamite will dislodge it.
The '50s seemed to provide a bumper crop of earworms. Anyone remember Rosemary Clooney singing "Come On-a My House"?
Anyone want to forget Rosemary Clooney singing "Come On-a My House"?
Ms. Clooney reportedly wanted to forget it. In later years, she said her boss at Columbia Records, Mitch Miller, made her do it. Yes, that Mitch Miller.
"Come On-a My House" is probably the only hit song ever co-written by a Pulitzer winner (William Saroyan) and a purveyor of chipmunk tunes (Ross Bagdasarian, alias David Seville, who gave us Alvin and the Chipmunks, who, to be fair, had a pretty decent cartoon show in the '60s).
And let's not forget "If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked a Cake" and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window." (As though we could forget them, and isn't that dynamite starting to look pretty good right now?)
I just found out through a Slate article, written by Mark Steyn, that both songs were written by the same guy, Bob Merrill, who also wrote that "People ... who need people ... are the luckiest people in the world." (Especially if they can also manage to forget "If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked a Cake" and "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.")
But back to "Eh, Cumpari!" (You knew I'd get back to it eventually. Sorry, but it's my job here.)
The lyrics to "Eh, Cumpari!" are in Italian, but in English they are something like: "Hey, pal, music is playing! What is playing? The whistle! And what does the whistle sound like?" (Cue sound effect, then go over the same routine again with a saxophone, mandolin, violin, trumpet and trombone.)
I don't think the lyrics lose anything in translation because there was nothing there to be lost in the first place.
If you haven't heard "Eh, Cumpari!" and have a desperate need to do so, you can click here.
But don't say I didn't warn you.
Friday, August 30, 2013
Saturday, July 20, 2013
When I found out that the local cinephile society was going to show "Duffy's Tavern" (Paramount, 1945), I was surprised.
This is a movie that Leonard Maltin, who is well-acquainted with the group's leaders (I myself had the pleasure of meeting him once), has designated as a BOMB with "no redeeming values" in one of his capsule reviews.
I had never seen the whole movie; many years ago, when I was a kid, I saw a little of it when one of the local TV stations showed it on a slow Sunday afternoon. I think one of the adults in my family had to explain to me that "Duffy's Tavern" was based on a radio show of the same name.
The power behind the show -- and its star -- was Ed Gardner, who played Archie, the tavern's manager. Each show began with a phone conversation between Archie and Duffy, the owner, who was never seen or heard, although he did have a daughter, the man-hungry "Miss Duffy," who did appear and who was originally played by Shirley Booth (who was then Gardner's wife).
The phone call set up the plot for the week, which often involved a guest star who would somehow find himself or herself among the denizens of what Archie always described as the place where "the elite meet to eat." As you've probably figured out, this statement was symptomatic of what Archie, who could go toe to toe with the Bowery Boys' Slip Mahoney in a malaprop match, might describe as a "delousion of grandeur."
On radio, "Duffy's Tavern" was what today would be called a "monster hit." One of its original top writers was Abe Burrows, who later wrote "Guys and Dolls" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" for Broadway. Years later, his son James co-created "Cheers." Apparently the Burrowses had an affinity for bars.
Turning a successful radio show into a movie obviously seemed like a good idea to Paramount, which hedged its bet by including many of the studio's performers, such as Bing Crosby, Betty Hutton, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Dorothy Lamour, Diana Lynn, Cass Daley, Robert Benchley and Billy De Wolfe.
The movie's setup isn't worth describing in detail. Let's just say that Archie gets in trouble while trying to financially help a group of GIs. The financial help comes from Duffy's till, and Archie is in big trouble if he can't get the money back. Fortunately (way too fortunately), Archie knows someone who is a switchboard operator at a hotel where (apparently and, again, way too fortunately) many of these Paramount performers are staying.
If you can't guess what these performers agree to do, you need to enroll in "Cinema Cliches 103: Introduction to Garland and Rooney."
But is the movie (directed by Hal Walker, who later worked with Martin and Lewis) really a "BOMB"?
On the prosecution's side is Ed Gardner's performance. Although some radio performers made a very successful switch to movies (Alan Ladd and Jeff Chandler come to mind), as Archie himself might put it, "Ladd and Chandler, Gardner ain't." Some people have a face the camera loves. In Gardner's case, you suspect that the camera was looking over his shoulder to see if it could find someone more interesting to look at.
I also couldn't help noticing that something about his face reminds me of the comedian Norm Macdonald, whom I find a lot funnier.
And a major flaw is that the variety show that closes the movie basically consists of tacked-on bits. Archie serves as emcee with what are supposed to be funny intros, but there's no interaction between him and the show's performers -- not even a scene between him and Crosby, which would have been easy enough to write.
Instead, you get a bunch of Paramount stars and supporting players who (especially in the final number) look as if they were asked to come in for a few hours on their day off.
But the defense case is at least equally strong.
The skits are fairly amusing, especially one with Ladd and Lake and Howard DaSilva, who at that time was typecast for playing tough guys. The skit is a quick parody of the kind of scenes the three of them could play in their sleep, with a neat surprising ending.
One number features Cass Daley, a performer who was cut from the same burlap as Judy Canova. "Who's she?" a friend of mine asked irritably when she came on screen. But after her specialty number, he was clapping along with most of the rest of the audience.
In the final number, which parodies Crosby's hit "Swingin' on a Star," the performers seem to be having a good time (though I wish Billy De Wolfe would have been given more to do). Maybe they weren't having a good time at all, but the troupers' professionalism shows through, and the sequence has a kind of bargain basement charm that has led me to watch it on YouTube more than once. Heck, it even features Howard DaSilva singing! That makes it a classic of a sort. (OK, I won't try to guess which sort.)
By the way, you can find that final number here. I'd love to know what you think.
But I can't see how a movie can be a "BOMB" when, despite its many flaws, it contains enough charm and professionalism for me to want me to see at least parts of it again. (I wish that Ladd-Lake-DaSilva skit were on YouTube, for one thing.)And I should add the film seemed to be a hit with everyone in our packed house -- which included many non-cinephile-society members and a fair number of non-old-fogies.
So, Mr. Maltin, in resting my case, I'd like to argue that "Duffy's Tavern" isn't a "BOMB." I'd even argue that with its low-key, hokey star power it's worth two out of four stars.
But I'd settle for one and a half.
Sunday, July 7, 2013
It's a pleasant summer evening, I'm probably somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8, and I'm with my uncle at a driving range.
I've been spending some time with my uncle, who lives in a city about an hour and a half from where I live. He's a Catholic priest, a published poet whose acquaintances include Marshall McLuhan, and the head of the library at the local Catholic college.
He's especially interested in me because I was able to read at a very early age. This leads him to believe that I am, among other things, capable of understanding Aristotle. When he tries to lecture me on this topic, I manage to disabuse him of this notion very quickly.
At this point in his life, my uncle has done some golfing. In retrospect, I suspect he never did much of it, but I think someone gave him some clubs and he decided to take it up. And now we're ready to tee off -- my uncle, another priest who's a friend of his and has accompanied us, and little old me, who is armed with a kiddie club my uncle has purchased for me.
My ball in position, I take a swing and hit it into the vast expanse in front of me.
But not before yelling "FORE!"
My uncle leans down and explains that I do not need to yell "FORE!" because there is no one out there to be injured by the ball.
I nod, set up another ball, take a swing and hit it into the vast expanse in front of me.
But not before yelling ... well, you know.
I don't know how many times my uncle tried to explain to me why I didn't have to yell "FORE!" Maybe I stopped after the second time, but I wouldn't bet any money on that. All I know is that I had been conditioned by who knows how many TV shows, comic books and cartoons to the extent that when I hit a golf ball, I feel I HAVE to yell "FORE!"
You might as well try to tell Pavlov's pups not to drool when that little bell rings.
That's the only memory I have of that evening. I think it's the only time my uncle ever got mad at me. And now that I think of it, some of the other golfers might have been giving us unkind looks, and because my uncle had left his clerical collar at home, he couldn't count on them to give him a mulligan.
But on the plus side, I suspect that my behavior that night conclusively convinced him that any further lecturing involving any moral philosopher above the level of Dick Tracy would be a tragic waste of breath.
Saturday, July 6, 2013
While I'm trying to figure out what to write about next (and trying to find the time to get the writing done), I hope you'll check out two new additions to my blogroll.
Both are by two former newspaper colleagues of mine, both of them fine writers: Jim McKeever (whose blog is Irish Investigations) and Mark Bialczak, whose blog title is easy to remember because it's ... Mark Bialczak.
Sunday, June 30, 2013
It's 3 p.m., and I'm entering the building that houses my hometown newspaper as I report for another day of work on the copy desk. It's the late 1970s, and I've been out of college for less than a year.
Also entering the building is a guy named George Swayze. He's a lot older than I am, medium height, white-haired, one of those crusty old news guys who, like almost all crusty old news guys of that era, is crusty only on the surface.
But George usually isn't crusty with me. He greets me warmly, as if I've worked at the paper as long as he has. His crustiness is mostly on display when he's on the phone with one of the "correspondents" who work for him.
George is the paper's "state news editor," responsible for the news that comes out of about 10 bureaus in the circulation area outside our home county, in addition to the output from "stringers" who operate out of their homes.
If you'd ever had to do George's job, you might not blame him for being crusty -- he's so busy going through the mail, sending photos out, putting "specs" on copy, keeping a record of each story and laying out pages, not to mention dealing with the correspondents, that he has no time to "edit" in the usual sense, no time to really think; he's basically pushing papers.
The only times that George is crusty toward me -- and then not much -- are when I come up to him with a story that has a problem. His usual solution, aside from cursing, is to cross out whatever it is I've pointed out.
The cursing is really directed at whichever correspondent wrote the story. The correspondents are a mixed bunch, and that's putting it politely. Some of them are really good and write well. Others know how to get the news but can't write their way out of a plastic sandwich bag, so I and my desk colleagues wind up not so much editing their stuff as decoding it.
And one or two of them are blitzed practically all the time and are practically worthless. One of them -- we'll call him Jake -- has almost no business reading a newspaper, much less writing for one.
At 5 p.m. the top editors get together for a news meeting to decide what's going on Page 1, what stories might be developing, etc. As state news editor, George Swayze attends this meeting.
After the meeting, Swayze disappears for two hours. Every day.
During this two-hour period, Jake -- his voice sodden and stutteringly slow – often calls and asks for G-G-G-George. He never manages to figure out that G-G-G-George disappears for two hours around this time every day. He always manages to talk the ear off of whoever is unlucky enough to pick up the phone.
That phone, by the way, is a rotary -- this is some years before everyone had push-buttons -- and the part of Swayze's phone that is directly below the part that you dial has became separated -- maybe just a millimeter or two -- from the rest of the phone. The phone still works, of course, and it's not hard to imagine that this slight disconnection is a direct result of George constantly slamming the receiver down in frustration.
After George gets back from his two-hour break, he and his best friend, George Carr, the night city editor, walk to the vending machine room to get coffee. You can set your watch by this. Almost 40 years later, I can still see them heading out.
George Swayze comes back, eventually finishes laying out his pages, and around 10 p.m. he hands things over to his assistant and leaves. For the night.
Wow, I think more than once, he has a cushy shift -- 3 to 10 with two hours off, yet. I don't resent this or mentally criticize him -- after all, I like the guy, and I just feel happy to be in the newsroom, working at the job I always wanted and which I know I was lucky to get.
George Carr works Sundays through Thursdays. George Swayze works Mondays through Fridays. On Fridays the two of them get together at a local watering hole during Swayze's break. One Friday night, after Swayze returns from his break, I eventually sense that something is, well, different.
On Friday nights it's my job to give one last look at the state news stories for the next day's paper, then put them in a box to my right. Usually, Swayze pounces on these stories, which have been typed on a teletype machine, then writes the first word of the headline on his log sheet and puts the story back in the box. I then take the story and put it on a pile to my left so one of our typists can retype it on paper that can be run through the composing room's scanner and set in type.
On this particular Friday night, I notice that I have placed several stories in Swayze's box, and they are still there. I look to my right and see that although Swayze appears to be looking down at his layout sheet with his head between his hands, he is actually asleep.
Which poses a dilemma: Do I try to awake him (I have no idea what he's like when he's roused) or just let him be (and risk blowing a deadline or two)?
Finally, one of the printers comes to my rescue by calling George from the composing room about some type that came out wrong.
"Oh!" George says semi-irritably. "Was I sleeping?"
One Christmas the entertainment reporter, who means well, leaves a plate of what are apparently homemade cookies on the copy desk.
George picks one of them up, takes a bite, then says, with perfect deadpan: "Do these things go good with food?"
And a friend of mine still remembers the time that Swayze and Carr went to a baseball game and, well, had a few. And they'd probably had a few before coming to the stadium.
After the game, Swayze couldn't find his car, so he and Carr decided to wait until all the other cars left the parking lot.
This left two cars: Carr's and Swayze's. But Swayze steadfastly denied that his car was really his car.
"Yes it is, George!" Carr said.
"No it isn't!"
"Look, George," Carr said, "just get in the car and put your keys in the ignition. If it starts, IT'S YOUR CAR!"
And I've also been told of the time Swayze, at an outdoor party, decided to do a little dance on a picnic table. I imagine he was quite graceful; in his younger years he played and taught tennis, and in the 1930s he was an Olympic speed skater.
But on this occasion, I’m told, he accidentally kicked a top editor's wife in the head.
It's now Labor Day, 1977. I've been at the paper almost a year, and because of the holiday, I'm supposed to work a later shift.
But I get a call telling me that I need to come in early; George's assistant is out sick, and I have to come in and relieve George, who has to go home and take care of his wife.
This is the first time I've ever heard anyone mention George's wife. Or that George even has a wife.
But I have no time to think about this because I have to scramble to get to work and scramble even more when I get there, because I've only done layout at the paper once before.
I eventually learn that George's wife has been ill for many years and is now an invalid.
I also learn that George's work shift isn't cushy at all.
Turns out he shows up around 10 a.m. each day and begins getting things started for the next day's editions.
At 1 p.m., he leaves for a couple of hours to go home and look after his wife, Dorothy. He returns at 3 p.m., then leaves again after the news meeting to look after her again. He then returns for the last leg of his "cushy" shift.
On Friday nights, his daughter comes to the house to look after Dorothy while George -- a "caregiver" before the term was widely known -- enjoys a bit of a respite with his best friend.
All along, I've had no clue from anyone -- including, of course, Swayze -- that this is the life he leads.
Five months later, Dorothy Swayze dies. I do some extra filling in for George during this time. It's no big deal -- since that Labor Day, I've become a lot more experienced at this sort of thing -- but when he gets back he makes it a point to cheerfully thank me for filling in for him and tells me what a great job I did. It is the only time I ever hear him make any reference to his wife.
Some months later, George himself becomes ill. It turns out that during all the time he was looking after Dorothy, he apparently wasn't looking after himself. His illness is more serious than he lets on, and soon he retires.
When I report to work on Labor Day 1979, George Carr, who is now my boss, tells me that George Swayze has died.
Even now I can't imagine how difficult a day this was for George Carr, but he was, after all, a World War II veteran who served on a recon team after the D-Day operation, and he once told me he was also among a group of soldiers who were brought to a newly liberated concentration camp because the CO wanted them to remember its horrors. Self-pity does not come easily to him, and I follow his lead as he stoically proceeds to get our section of the newspaper out.
Some years later, Carr himself retires to take care of his ailing wife, Jean.
I'll write more about George Carr at some point. For now, I can't help noting, and not for the first time, that although I haven't seen George Swayze for more than 30 years, and although I knew him for maybe three years at the most, I remember him more than I remember many others I worked with longer.
And I keep trying to remember to think about George Swayze whenever I think about complaining about anything.
Sunday, June 2, 2013
She spent some time in my town about 30 years ago.
She starred in a comedy, "The Show-Off" by George Kelly, for the professional theater company in town. Orson Bean, whom people my age probably know best from his appearances as a panelist on "To Tell the Truth," was also in it.
The theater company, which still exists, is one of the gems of our community, and it's not unusual for famous performers to come here to do plays just for the company. Its founding director, who died a few months ago, was very much respected in the theatrical community at large, and the company has attracted such performers as Sam Waterston, James Whitmore, Ben Gazzara and John Cullum.
"The Show-Off" was directed by William Putch, who also happened to be Stapleton's husband.
In "The Show-Off," Stapleton played a woman whose husband dies during the course of the play.
During her stay in Syracuse, William Putch died of a heart attack.
A few hours after he died, Stapleton performed as scheduled.
There was no performance on the day of Putch's funeral, but other than that she continued with the play for the rest of its run.
Friday, May 24, 2013
Monday, May 20, 2013
Friday, May 10, 2013
A few months ago I started an online subscription to The New York Times' crossword puzzle for my iPad.
Today I received an email from The Times, advertising a special collection of Mother's Day crosswords constructed by women.
The email included this note
"We'd like to thank you for being a New York Times Crosswords solver since: 2014-02-23"
Sunday, April 14, 2013
Not long ago I came across a book called "The Quotable A**hole: More than 1,200 Bitter Barbs, Cutting Comments, and Caustic Comebacks for Aspiring and Armchair A**holes Alike," compiled by Eric Gryzymowski.
It's an enjoyable book with a number of quotes I hadn't seen before, including one by a hero of mine, Fred Allen:
"I like long walks, especially when they're taken by people who annoy me."
But there's one thing about the book that puzzles me.
Page 132, for example, includes a quote by Yogi Berra, who is accurately described as an "American baseball manager and former player."
Also featured on that page is Dorothy Parker, who is quite properly (if incompletely) called an "American poet."
At the bottom of the page is a quote from Bob Hope, who is not given any description at all. This seems reasonable, considering he was the type of guy who in life was apt to be described as "somebody who needs no instruction."
But right above him is a line from another of my favorites, Henny Youngman.
Henny is described as a "British comedian."
I did some checking on the Internet and found that Henny was indeed born in England, and his family moved to the U.S. with his family when he was young. I can't seem to find out exactly how young, though the Internet Movie Database says he was a baby at the time.
But I'd hardly call him a "British comedian." "British-American comedian," maybe.
Meanwhile, below him is a guy who was born Leslie Townes Hope in England and came to the U.S. with his family when he was maybe 4 or 5. So why isn't he described as a "British comedian"?
I suppose that if I had the time and cared that much, I could track down Mr. Gryzymowski’s e-mail address and ask him about this.
But I don't want to be an a**hole.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
If you're a regular customer here, you might recall that some weeks ago one of my posts dealt in part with what I referred to as "the death of Danny Dollar."
Danny Dollar was the number you could call here in town to get the time and temperature. He got that name when he was introduced about 50 years ago by the local bank that originally sponsored the service, and that's how my family has always referred to him.
But when I tried calling him recently, I kept getting the voice mail of the plumbing company that had been sponsoring Danny, which led me to believe that Danny was no more, a victim of the Internet/smartphone age.
But the other day someone I know called the number and found out that Danny -- Praise be! -- is not quite dead yet.
I just tried the number myself and was told that Danny "is expected to be restored in a week."
Although this gives me hope -- and of course I'd like to thank all you loyal readers, who obviously have been pulling for Danny just as earnestly as hundreds of audiences over the years have pushed for the survival of Tinker Bell -- I find myself feeling a sense of (totally unreasonable, I'm sure) foreboding.
I think it's that word "restored" that bothers me.
It makes me think that somewhere a modern Dr. Frankenstein is trying to resuscitate Danny with the help of the doctor's faithful servant, Igor.
Kind of like a previous project the two of them were involved in.
And we all remember how well that worked out.
But maybe I'm worrying too much.
Let's all just keep our fingers crossed.
And don't stop believing!
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
This week I saw a TV commercial for a new movie.
It's a comedy about a big wedding that involves a dysfunctional family -- a big wedding where things might not go ... hmm, what's that phrase? Oh, yes -- "exactly as planned."
I get this idea (I'm going solely on the basis of the commercial) because the snippets from the film make it clear that certain members of the family are (humorously, of course) at odds. Perhaps even violently (though in a humorous way, of course) at odds.
The cast of this movie includes Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon and Katherine Heigl.
The title of this movie is very clever.
It is "The Big Wedding."
And somehow I can't escape the thought that if, by some unheard-of fluke of nature, the script for this movie is deemed worthy of an Academy Award nomination, it will be in the category of Best Screenplay Based on a Moldy But Still Smelly Sheet of Mimeograph Paper That Was Found on Top of a 1973 Xerox Machine.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
Once in a while I do a Google search for "Murphy's Craw" to see how many hits I get and what they are.
A few weeks ago I noticed something I hadn't seen before.
A site called Web Stats Domain had evaluated this blog.
I didn't understand most of the stats -- they involved mysterious words such as "backlink" and "alexa rank." To say nothing of "organic keywords."
But there was one stat that I did understand -- at least on a superficial level.
It turns out that according to Web Stats Domain, the estimated "worth" of this site, in U.S. dollars, is $351.
I've been running this blog for five and a half years, and this is all I have to show for it?
And of course I'm also wondering:
Who appraised my blog?
How did they come up with that appraisal?
Why $351 -- instead of, say, a nice round number like $350? Did the appraiser throw in an extra buck just to make me feel better?
Is there some sort of stock exchange thingy for blogs? Kind of like what the Chicago Mercantile Exchange used to have for pork belly futures?
(Which reminds me that I used to think that a famous Chicago author would have been a natural for that kind of trading -- doesn't "Saul Bellow's Sow Bellies" have a nice ring to it?)
And all of this leads to another question:
Is there someone out there who's been buying up blogs?
Kind of like the way Warren Buffett has been buying up newspapers? (In my case, Warren could probably buy "Murphy's Craw" for a song -- probably even for the first five bars of "Down by the Old Mill Stream.")
I don't know how to find the answers to these questions, but if any of you folks out there can give me the merest hint of a clue, please feel free to write in.
In the meantime, as I was getting ready to write this item, I did another Google search for "Murphy's Craw" and found that another site, urlpulse, has also rated this blog.
This rating includes even more obscure terms -- among them "cache-control," "transfer-encoding" and (my favorite) "nosniff."
It also says my blog's rank in the U.S. is 12,412,065. Worldwide, it ranks 26,117,579.
Don't sugarcoat it, urlpulse.
And look at the bright (if cliched) side: I have nowhere to go but up.
But once again, there is one figure that I do understand and which leaps out at me.
According to urlpulse, the estimated worth of my blog is....
Drum roll, please....
Take that, Web Stats Domain! (And while you're at it, WSD, please notice that urlpulse threw in that extra 16 cents!)
And now I'm beginning to get excited.
Because there's obviously, in the blog-trading underground, a bidding war going on for "Murphy's Craw."
And the sky -- or at least the virtual sky -- is the limit!
Come on, Warren -- you can easily beat $728.16.
And I can easily be had.
Do I hear $12,432,946 -- and 75 cents?
Monday, March 18, 2013
(SPOILER ALERT: If you're going to be doing this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament by mail, you shouldn't read this post. I'm sure you can find many other delightful things to read on this blog, or, if you must, elsewhere on the web....)
Perhaps one of my most memorable moments at this year's tournament occurs before the competition begins.
In the lobby outside the ballroom where the tournament is held, a researcher for Michigan Technological University is conducting a study of folks who do crossword puzzles. Four laptop computers are set at a table, and people seated there are taking a test that involves filling in the blanks of words and remembering pairs of words.
I decide to try my luck. I take two fill-in-the-blanks tests and do fairly well on them. I do only fair, at best, on the memory tests, which involve remembering pairs of words that are flashed on the screen. I suspect that part of the reason I do only fair, at best, is that I've psyched myself out; the older I get, the less I trust my memory.
At one point during the memory tests, the program crashes. I go to signal the researcher about this, but the guy to my right beats me to it -- he's having problems, too.
I eventually beg off on finishing the tests -- the researcher says I'd provided enough data already -- but as I watch the researcher help the other guy with his computer, I get the feeling I've seen him before.
Then I look at his name tag:
Then it clicks: He's been a champion on "Jeopardy!" According to the show's web site, he has amassed $213,900 and, not surprisingly, has been in the Tournament of Champions.
This is quite a moment for me because appearing on "Jeopardy!" has been on my bucket list since long before buckets were invented.
But of course I don't trust my memory, so I lean over and, in what I hope won't come across as a stage whisper, ask him if he is indeed the guy. He pleasantly confirms this, and I leave him to his computer.
So maybe my memory is quite all that bad....
The first puzzle is by Lynn Lempel, who constructs a lot of the New York Times puzzles for Mondays.
The puzzle is supposed to be easy, but it somehow gives me more trouble than the usual first tournament puzzle does. It doesn't help that my mechanical pencil's point breaks at one point (easily remedied, though) or that I write in BASE ON BALLS instead of BASES LOADED. The puzzle is called "Buzz Words," and I figured out only a few minutes ago that the second part of all the theme answers is a synonym for "drunk."
Puzzle #2, "Short Breaks," is by Mike Shenk, one of those names who make me sweat a bit when I see it on a puzzle. In this case, the theme answers are phrases into which "min" or "sec" -- as in "minute or second" -- has been inserted. (BUS DRIVERS, for example, becomes "B MINUS DRIVERS.") At first I don't think I'm going to finish the puzzle -- I just hop around the grid doing what I can -- and I'm pleasantly surprised when I do finish it.
Puzzle #3, perhaps the second-hardest of the tournament, is by another feared (at least by me) name: Brendan Emmett Quigley and is called "Say What?" Once again I fill in as many fill answers as I can, hoping that the theme will occur to me, and it finally does: The theme answers all begin with the "say" sound, so that, for example, "What the Wheel of Fortune host wields at an auction?" is SAJAKHAMMER. And darned if I don't manage to finish this, too.
One new wrinkle in this year's tournament is that I have my iPad, which means I don't have to depend on the kindness of strangers (and their laptops or smartphones) to find out how well I'm doing. I can check my scores myself, and I'm pleased to see that my score is what I thought it was, and I got all the answers to the first three puzzles.
After lunch comes Puzzle #4, "Immortal Combat," by Ian Livengood. This time the theme isn't that complicated, though I figure it out after I've completed at least most of the grid: Each theme answer contains the name of a war god -- for example, FLOOD INSURANCE contains ODIN. I finish the puzzle without any problems and am confident I got everything correct.
Now comes Puzzle #5, which, each year, is informally called (hold your ears, kiddies) "the bastard puzzle." And it's by Patrick Blindauer, another fearsome puzzler, and is titled "Take Five."
Once again I'm in "you're probably not going to finish this, but get in as many answers as you can" mode. And if this is a typical Puzzle #5, chances are I'll be in pretty good company. Last year marked the first time I ever finished a Puzzle #5, which was cause for celebration until I found out I'd made a mistake.
As I soldier on, filling in what I can, I figure out the theme relatively early: The theme answers are phrases in which the vowels have been removed, so that "'Macbeth' prop" is WTCHSCLDRN -- WITCHES' CAULDRON. Even so, with five or six minutes left to go on this 30-minute puzzle, I'm still having problems with the upper left part. Then, somehow, my mental adrenaline, if there is such a thing, kicks in, especially on 31 across, "Snap, maybe." It's five letters, and I know the fourth letter has to be Y because the answer coming down is AYN as in AYN RAND. But this doesn't make sense -- a Y as the fourth letter of a five-letter clue that's not a plural?
Finally, the answer kicks in: EASY A.
And now all the other answers fall into place like a pile of dislodged logs and I check the puzzle over and I look at the clock which is almost down to two minutes -- if my puzzle is handed in under the two-minute mark, I'll get credit for only a one-minute bonus. I wave my hand frantically, but the proctor who is standing a few rows away doesn't seem to see me.
Finally, from behind comes another proctor, the great Stanley Newman, crossword puzzle editor for Newsday, who scoops up my puzzle, sees 1:59 on the clock but, bless him, gives me credit for two full minutes, taking into account the couple of seconds or more it took to get to me.
And, as I later confirm, I have, for the first time, finished AND CORRECTLY SOLVED a Puzzle #5!
The rest should be smooth sailing, right?
Puzzle #6, the last one of the day, is "Everybody Loves a Clone," by Elizabeth C. Gorski. It's a cute, simple enough theme: The theme answers are familiar phrases with the last letter of the first word repeated, so that "Wonderful chinaware contests?" is SUPERB BOWL GAMES. I finish the puzzle without much trouble.
That's the last puzzle of the day, with one more, "Puzzle #7," Sunday morning, eventually followed by the finals, in which the three top members of Divisions A, B and C compete. I'm in Division C, meaning I'm among the top 40 percent of solvers. I'd love to get into Division B, which is for the top 20 percent of solvers.
But on Sunday I outsmart myself -- and not for the first time.
Hours before I take on Puzzle #7, which is a 45-minute puzzle, I try to calculate how quickly I need to solve it to get a really decent score -- meaning, in my case, a score substantially above last year's 142.
I figure that 18 minutes ought to do it, and if my experience with New York Times Sunday puzzles (Puzzle #7 is that size) is any indication, I might be able to pull it off.
The puzzle, "The Long and the Short of It," is by Patrick Berry -- another tough constructor. (Rule of thumb: Any puzzle by anyone named Patrick is apt to be a bitch, if not an out-and-out bastard.)
I fill in the squares as quickly as I can. I have a hard time getting a handle on the theme. I also hit a huge speed bump, otherwise known as 8 Down: "Prince of Wales's motto." It's seven letters, and it comes out to be "ICH_IE_" and I'm darned if I can figure the rest of it out, though I know it must be a two-word phrase because although I don't know much German, I do know that "ICH" means "I." All righty, then, but ICH what? I figure the fourth letter might be L and the last is F because it intersects with an O in one of the horizontal theme clues whose other words are "PEAK" and "THE CHECK." So, ICH LIEF? That would make the intersecting L answer "DAL," for "Old man." Maybe "DAL" is a Hindu word for "Old man." I eventually have a flash of insight and realize that the old man is really DAD.
All righty, so this gives us "ICH DIEF." What could that possibly mean? I don't know, but I do know from looking at the clock that I'm running late, so I go with it.
As I'm on my way to the elevators to go back to my room, it hits me: "A PEAK OF THE CHECK" is really "A PEAK ON THE CHECK," a play on "A PECK ON THE CHEEK" -- the short vowel becomes a long vowel, and vice versa.
And that motto has to be "ICH DIEN," which I soon confirm on my iPad. (It means "I serve," which in this case is particularly apt: The Prince of Wales has indeed served -- served to confuse me.)
So I wind up sliding to No. 166, but I also figure out that had I not blown it I would have wound up at 149, down seven points from last year.
Which prompts (not begs) the question: Is it worth trying again next year, or have I reached my level? I don't want to keep attending the tournament unless I can improve. Ah, what the heck. I'll give it one more try next year. I might even try another tournament, called Lollapuzzoola, held in the summer in Manhattan. In the meantime I can try to improve my speed.
Amid all my musings, the three tournament finalists are announced. In alphabetical order, they are Anne Erdmann (also celebrating her birthday that day), Dan Feyer and Tyler Hinman.
And this is how it all came out. (Play the Part 2 section.)
(Memo to the Prince of Wales: If you're ever in my neighborhood, don't even think about dropping by mein haus.)
Saturday, March 9, 2013
After spending most of the day waiting to board a 10:40 a.m. flight to LaGuardia that finally got off the ground at 2:35 p.m. because of bad weather in New York City, all ends well enough as I prepare to try my luck (and whatever skills I can muster) for the sixth time at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
The tournament doesn't really begin until Saturday, but there's a Friday night program of presentations and warm-up games.
One of the presentations, by Michelle Arnot, shows that there is something for crossword puzzle fans to celebrate this year: It's the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle, which was invented by a newspaperman named Arthur Wynne.
To mark the occasion, copies of eight very early crossword puzzles (they were originally called "Word-Cross" puzzles), most of them by Mr. Wynne himselsf, are passed out for us to do.
They're not like today's puzzles; the grid is shaped more like a diamond then a big square. And Mr. Wynne's clues can sometimes be a bit odd. Case in point: "To drive away by shouting 'scat.'" (Four letters.)
The answer? It's, um, "scat."
(Well, you can't say it wasn't in front of you all the time.)
Along with the celebration, a cause for sadness: Will Shortz, the puzzle editor of The New York Times who has run the tournament since it began in the 1970s, announces that since the last tournament, Doug Heller, who had been a mainstay of the tournament (and its webmaster) died.
In past years, the folks at the tournament have been kind enough to link to this blog, and over the years I've received one or two graciously complimentary notes about my blog entries. I did not really know Mr. Heller, but from our correspondence I didn't have to be a champion puzzle solver to figure out that he was a very nice guy, and even with my limited contact with him, I feel his loss.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
This weekend I will once again compete in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn.
This will be my sixth year in the tournament. I've gone from 262 back in 2008 to No. 142 last year. (That's out of 650 to 700 contestants.)
However, last year I finished one spot behind a computer program called Dr. Fill. That's embarrassing, though I will concede that as far as I know, Dr. Fill hasn't been gloating about this.
In the past, lacking a laptop or a smartphone (I just barely have a reasonably intelligent phone), I've had to depend on the kindness of other, more tech-savvy contestants to check the standings on the tournament's web site.
But I now have an iPad, which I hope to use to track how I'm doing. And while in the past I've come home and reported on my experiences for this blog, this time I'm hoping to file same-day reports at least once or twice. We'll see.
In the meantime, I have read that Dr. Fill will be competing again this year. Perhaps this time I will best him -- or maybe steer him to the hotel bar, where, if I ask really nicely ("nicely" defined here as subtly flashing a wad of cash in the barkeep's nostrils) I might be able to ensure that the good doctor is slipped a virtual Mickey Finn.
Again, we'll see....
Saturday, March 2, 2013
I try not to get too personal on this blog because in invading my own privacy I might wind up trashing someone else's.
But in this case I'm making an exception.
I'm in an off-and-on relationship with a woman named Julie.
For the most part it's been good, but it's beginning to get a bit, well, scary.
It all started one day when I decided to take an out-of-town train trip and called Amtrak.
Julie took my call, immediately introduced herself and told me she'd be happy to help me make my reservation.
With tact and great tenderness -- she could obviously tell that it was my first time doing this and, well, everyone is always nervous that first time, right? -- she took me through the process, asking me where I was from, where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go there, when I wanted to come back, which of the available trains did I want, taking me all the way to that climactic moment when I shared that most personal part of myself -- my credit card number -- with her.
And maybe I'm wrong, but wasn't there just the slightest catch in her voice as she thanked me and gently terminated the call?
It was something I'd always remember.
Some months later, when I wanted to take another train trip, I called Amtrak again, and who do you think took the call? Was it coincidence? Or could it be that she recognized my number from the Caller ID and rushed to take my call, elbowing aside any operators who got in her way?
In any event, when she got on the phone, she was politely all business, just as before. Well, it had to be that way, right? After all, if the other operators found out about our relationship, they'd surely turn her in to management and her Amtrak career would be derailed.
No, her tone told me, it has to be this way, and without any words we firmly established the terms of our relationship: It was good, it was fun, but ultimately we were just two freight trains passing in the night.
And then one day, after several years of freelance proofreading and editing, I was offered a full-time job, which I accepted. Unfortunately, I became so focused on this new job that I didn't do any traveling -- which of course meant that I wasn't calling Julie.
And then one day, shockingly enough, Julie called ME and left a message on my home answering machine.
It turned out she was now working for my cell phone company, and she was calling to tell me about some new offer. I didn't respond because I wasn't interested, but I was concerned: Had she lost her job with Amtrak because word of our relationship had gotten around? Also, her message about the cell phone company's offer was, well, a bit long. I couldn't help wondering whether she was going on and on in the hope that I was home and would, at some point, pick up.
Looking back on it, I feel like a cad for not calling her back, and I offer no excuses.
Then, near the end of last year, I decided to take a holiday trip out of town and again called Amtrak.
And she answered.
I instantly guessed (though I of course couldn't ask her) that she was now holding down two jobs -- Amtrak and the cell phone company. And as we talked this time she was her usual professional self, though I thought I could detect a slight edge to her voice -- an edge whose message was unmistakable: Why haven't you called?
Of course I couldn't respond to this tacit question; for all I knew, Amtrak was recording us.
And that was it until a few weeks ago, when she called me again, purportedly to tell me about another offer from the cell phone company. It was another overlong message, and though I can't be sure, I thought I detected a slight tinge of desperation.
And in the middle of this, a major personal blow:
The death of my old friend Danny Dollar.
I'm sure you've never heard of Danny, but there's probably someone just like him where you live: That voice that comes on when you dial the time-and-temperature number.
Danny came to my town when I was a kid, maybe 50 years ago. At first he was sponsored by one of the local banks -- hence the name. To promote this, the bank hired a ventriloquist to go on local TV. The dummy's name was Danny Dollar, and ever since then, and even though the bank dropped its sponsorship decades ago, my family has always called this voice Danny Dollar.
At first the phone version of Danny was a woman -- not that that should be surprising. Hasn't Peter Pan always been played by a woman? Not to mention Casper the Friendly Ghost -- and Bart Simpson.
Come to think of it, the woman who originally voiced Danny sounded a little like Julie. Her mother, maybe? I can easily imagine Julie having a mother who taught her the tricks of the trade.
Some years ago I called Danny and either got no answer or a busy signal. Others were equally concerned, to the point where the local paper finally reported that Danny had found a new sponsor.
By then Danny's voice had changed to a voice I recognized -- that of the former morning man on the local Classic FM station. (Quite a comedown -- from Sibelius to Celsius.)
Danny's new sponsor was a plumbing company. But for the past few days, when I've called, I've been getting the plumbing company's voice mail, causing me to fear for the worst.
I'll just have to face it: Danny has apparently, like so many others, fallen victim to the World Wide Web, where anyone with a smartphone can find out the time and temperature within seconds.
So I'm in mourning -- I hope the black armbands around my cell and land-line phones won't affect my reception -- while worrying that I'll come home some day soon to find that Julie has boiled a rabbit in my kitchen.
I know, I know: I brought this on myself, and I have no one but myself to blame.
But thank you for letting me share.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
The other day I ordered a couple of books from America's favorite online retailer.
I'm happy to say they arrived promptly -- ahead of schedule, in fact -- in separate boxes.
But as I was preparing to recycle one of the boxes, something on the mailing label caught my eye.
Something mildly disturbing.
The label said the package was sent to me by "Amazon Fulfillment Services."
Is it just me, or is there something at least a little creepy about that name? Not the "Amazon" part -- any company that does its job so well can call itself almost anything it wants, as far as I'm concerned -- but, um, "Fulfillment Services"?
Doesn't that phrasing sound like something out of Ray Bradbury? Or Stephen King? Or maybe even Philip K. Dick? (OK, I've never read anything by Dick, but from what I've heard about him, this sounds as if it might well be up his blind alley.)
I'm sure any of these three writers could easily come up with a plot about this, even though two of these writers happen to be dead. A company offers "Fulfillment Services" -- but in exchange for what? Of course, for the movie we'd have to get Christopher Lee, at his most Mephistophelean, to play the proprietor. If he's not available, Max Von Sydow could do this kind of role. (And I suspect he already has, and more times than he'd care to admit.)
Casting these casting ideas aside, I also can't help wondering who, in real life, is actually in charge of "Amazon Fulfillment Services."
Of course there's only one possibility:
Yes, that Mr. Roarke. From "Fantasy Island." You know, that guy who looks like Ricardo Montalban.
Has to be. After all, the show has been off the air for many, many years, and the money for those immaculate ice cream suits has to come from somewhere, right?
What? You say there's no Mr. Roarke? You say he's really unreal -- a fictional character?
Yeah, right. And I bet you're the kind of person who goes around scaring kids by telling them lies about there being no Santa Claus. About right now, I figure you're gearing up for your annual slanders against the Easter Bunny -- when you're not yanking the wings off flies who've never done you the least bit of harm.
"No Mr. Roarke" -- what a laugh. He's there all right -- greeting all our Amazon orders with his customary urbane charm while what's-his-name, that obnoxious sidekick of his, sits by the computer monitoring the e-mails and occasionally yelling "Ze orders! Ze orders!"
"No Mr. Roarke" indeed. Honestly, the things some people believe....
Saturday, February 23, 2013
As more and more newspaper copy editors are forced to walk the plank, John E. McIntyre, in "The Old Editor Says," makes it clear that he, for one, is not about to give up the ship -- especially when there are so many verbal barnacles to be dealt with. (And he will defend to the death your right to end a sentence with "with.")
McIntyre, who works at The Baltimore Sun, also has a blog, "You Don't Say," which has long been a mainstay of my blogroll.
You might say that "The Old Editor Says" is McIntyre's magnum opus -- if you can say that about a book that is only 67 pages long. But the description fits, for within these pages he has distilled more than 30 years of editorial experience into a collection of pithy maxims (his own and others'), each followed by a commentary delivered in the endearingly crusty tone that is familiar to anyone who has attended one of his presentations. (Or, as he prefers to call them, "seances.")
"If you can't tell me in one sentence what your story says, you don't know what your story says."
"If you are not possessed of a perpetually filthy mind, you are ill-equipped to edit."
"Edit to live; don't live to edit."
If you're a writer or editor, there's a good chance you'll learn at least a little something from this book.
And as I navigate the often troubled waters of contemporary prose, it heartens me to know that John E. McIntyre, battered but never unbowed, remains standing at the ship's bridge.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
When I was starting out in the newspaper business, I sometimes had to edit something called the "fire log."
This was a list of fires and other emergencies that local crews had responded to the previous day.
It would include things like:
11:30 a.m. Garage fire.
2:16 p.m. Meat on stove.
(I believe we had a reporter who wrote that as "meat upon stove." "Ouch!" one of my male colleagues would say in response. This same reporter was also known for writing that someone was pronounced "dead upon arrival.")
The paper stopped running the fire log many conflagrations ago, fortunately for me. For if it had still been around a few weeks ago, it might have contained this entry:
I'm sure there must be an easy, convenient and painless way to remove those plastic rings. It's just that I'm constitutionally incapable of finding it. And this isn't limited to six-packs; if there's a long, inefficient way to do something, I'll come up with it for sure.
I especially remember how my high school geometry teacher's eyes glazed over when it took me maybe 20 steps to prove some theorem that any third-grader could have polished off in three.
A few years ago, faced with another six-pack, I came up with what I was sure was an efficient, if not downright clever, idea: Simply cut the plastic.
Perhaps this would have worked if I weren't such a klutz with tools, but my lack of skill was established for all time in my grammar school art classes, where my clumsiness made me so unpopular that the nuns kept encouraging me to run with scissors.
So I should have known that when I tried to cut the plastic rings with my scissors I would end up piercing the bottles instead and spraying the floor with soda.
But I'm smart enough to learn and to never make the same mistake twice -- after all, why do that when you can make whole new mistakes?
In this more recent case, the mistake was trying to wrestle each bottle from its ring while my cell phone slept in my shirt pocket.
At one point, one of the bottles bumped against this pocket and I heard the unmistakable sound of my phone calling someone -- without my bidding.
I took the phone out and discovered that I'd called 911.
But Alex, at right, must have been on another line that day -- maybe on hold with a cable company, if there's any justice in the universe -- and my cell phone rang again.
I answered, and a man's laid-back voice asked me if there was an emergency.
I explained that I had bumped into my phone, and he accepted that and thanked me before hanging up.
Now I concede that my explanation wasn't exactly accurate, but why go into needless detail with the guy when he could be on another line and hearing about a real emergency -- a five-alarm fire, maybe, or a bank robbery, or a murder, or even a presidential assassination attempt, and why indeed go into needless detail when the future of our country, indeed the free world, might well be at stake?
Call me a klutz -- but call me a patriot.
And at least I didn't butt-call the guy.
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Is this year whizzing by, or what?
It seems as if only yesterday we were ringing in our first Dick Clark-less new year, and now we're only a few days away from knocking on Punxsutawney Phil's door. (And as much as I feel sorry for the little critter -- being woken up by ridiculous-looking guys in top hats year after year -- you'd have thought he would have installed a security system by now. Or at least a dork-proof fence.)
But I have to come clean and confess -- it has been more than a month since my last post, a remembrance of Jack "Quincy" Klugman. (By the way, was I the only one amused by the sentence in one of the early obits that said the cause of death was not known? Dr. Quincy -- we never did know his real name, did we? -- would have demanded answers.)
Anyway, I promise to write again soon.