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."


"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:



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"....