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:


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:


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....