Wednesday, December 28, 2016

This looks like a post for Superman

Although I seem to be plodding relentlessly toward codgerhood, one sentence that you will never hear pass my lips (I hope) is “Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!”

There are two reasons for this. The first is that my house (where I also grew up) doesn’t have much of a lawn anyway, and I well remember how my siblings and I often parked our bikes, trikes, wagons and what-have-yous on what little grassland we had – and there wasn’t really any grass on that land precisely because we often parked our bikes, trikes, wagons and what-have-yous on every available inch of it.

Eventually, as we edged closer to adolescence, our parents finally decided to plant some grass on this not-so-vast wasteland of dirt. This was the closest they ever came to landscaping.

The second reason I don’t disrespect my juniors is that I don’t mind being around young people. I worked with a lot of them during my 30 years at a newspaper and three years at an ad agency. I appreciated their talents and, dare I say it, sometimes I even learned from them.

One thing I especially admire about them is their ability to do something that I will never be able to do:

Talk on a cell phone in the middle of a lot of noise.

I don’t know how they manage it – maybe it’s a part of evolution that Darwin didn’t envision – but you could put any one of them and their phones in the middle of a boiler works at peak production time, surround them with bands simultaneously playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “St. Louis Blues” at competing decibels, and they wouldn’t miss a single syllable uttered from any end of the earth.

I was thinking about this for the umpteenth time while I was downtown today and needed to make a couple of calls.

I needed a quiet place – as quiet as possible. So I went into one of downtown’s oldest buildings, figuring that its marble lobby would provide the most amenable acoustics – or, better yet, no acoustics at all.

I figured wrong.

Because a big radiator near one of the two main staircases had decided to sound off. Not a very loud sound, mind you, but loud enough.

So I ducked behind one of the staircases and found something that I hadn’t realized still existed.

A line of old phone booths.

I have no idea what they were doing there – there were no phones inside them – but you could still sit inside one of them, pull the door shut and quietly go about your business.

I can’t possibly describe the looks on the faces of the people who walked by as I was using my cell phone, mainly because no people happened to walk by as I was doing this. But I must have presented quite a minor spectacle – anachronism as performance art.

I suppose I’m grateful there were no witnesses – perhaps one of them would have taken a picture of me with their phone, and presto! Instant clickbait.

Maybe I would even have made the evening news shows, which are always looking for anything to put on instead of, God forbid, actual news.

And of course there then would have been enormous public pressure on me to top myself, maybe by perusing my iPad while perched in a Tin Lizzie. Or piloting a drone in the Sistine Chapel, and thereby stirring up a theological hornet’s nest. (Is a flyby a mortal sin or is it just venial?)

And my heart stops and my blood pressure surges to new heights as I come to realize how close I might have come to becoming – gasp! – a cultural icon.

Then again, these days it seems that every man Jack, every woman Jill, every dog Fido and pretty much every existing being, animal, vegetable or mineral – yes, even including you and me – is either an icon or is on its way to becoming one. Just stay on the line, and we’ll get to you shortly.

And as always, your call is important to us.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Hey, New Yorker fans: Check this out

“You make sure that the names and dates are right, but then if it is a John McPhee piece, you make sure that the USGS report that he read, he read correctly; or if it is a John le CarrĂ© piece, when he says his con man father ran for Parliament in 1950, you make sure that it wasn’t 1949 or 1951.”

-- From a lecture by Peter Canby, New Yorker fact-checking director, Feb. 28, 2002

As I was growing up and aspiring to be a writer, I read the classics, which for me included Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and E.B. White.

All of whom wrote for The New Yorker.

Eventually I read Thurber’s “The Years With Ross,” about Thurber’s days at the magazine and his dealings with its founding editor, Harold Ross.

I liked this book so much that over the years I reread parts of it. The world he described seemed like so much fun. It was only years later that I read that E.B. White and others weren’t too pleased with what Thurber had written.

In 1975, Brendan Gill published “Here at The New Yorker,” which I didn’t like as much as the Thurber book. To some extent, Gill’s book seemed like a rebuttal of “The Years With Ross,” and he took the opportunity to take a few shots at Thurber. The shots were well-aimed, but I thought Gill himself came off as a jerk.

But over the years, during visits to the library, I sometimes reread parts of Gill’s book, too, because I was still in the thrall of the New Yorker mystique.

In later years, I’ve enjoyed reading – and rereading – “About Town,” a history of the magazine, written by Ben Yagoda. It’s a great book, written by a very nice guy whom I've been lucky enough to meet.

Anyway, if you’re steeped in New Yorker lore – even if you’re in it only up to your knees – chances are that you know about the magazine’s fabled fact-checking department, to which no nit was too small.

I say “was” because something I saw in the magazine recently made me wonder whether that department has been downsized.

I’m referring to “The Film J.D. Salinger Nearly Made,” by Jill Lepore, in the Nov. 21 issue.

The article tells how the reclusive author gave a TV producer permission to make a movie out of one of Salinger’s stories, “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.”

The article identifies one of the actors cast for the film as “Ted Bessel.” He’s referred to by name four times, each time as “Bessel.”

I immediately knew this was wrong. And if you grew up in the 1960s, there’s a good chance that you know it’s wrong, too.

The guy’s name was really “Bessell.” And it’s not as if he was some really obscure actor – for a number of years he played the boyfriend of Marlo Thomas in the hit show “That Girl.” Granted, after that he didn’t do very much, and his starring role in a short-lived series, “Me and the Chimp,” didn’t help. (And no, he didn’t play the chimp.)

I realize that a New Yorker fact checker’s job must be a tough one. I wouldn’t want it, even though my longtime job as a newspaper copy editor often involved fact checking.

Thing is, names are very easy to verify, especially these days. Checking whether it’s “Bessel” or “Bessell” is nowhere near as hard as checking whether, say, the Orinoco River has any fish and if so, what kind, and how many there are of each.

And checking a performer’s name is painless and easy; I won’t say the Internet Movie Database is 100 percent reliable, but for my purposes it’s almost always close enough.

The Salinger article is still on the magazine’s website.

And it still says “Bessel.”

Mr. Bessell, unfortunately, can’t stick up for himself – he’s been dead for 20 years – but I’m surprised that apparently no one has brought this to the editors’ attention.

(By the way, if you happen to be fact-checking this article, you might discover that, strictly speaking, I have spelled “Esme” wrong – the poor girl needs an accent over that last “e,” but I don’t know how to put one there. Perhaps one day I’ll get better at this word-processing stuff and I’ll throw her a bone – or maybe a tilde, or even an umlaut or two.)