Saturday, December 25, 2010

And you thought Bing and Bowie were an odd Christmas combination.

Sorry to bring you down on Christmas Day, but here's a clear sign of the coming apocalypse. Recovering Baptist, secular humanist me getting a Christmas hug from the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, the Most Reverend Timothy Michael Dolan. (I'm on the left.) Don't ask.

Except to say thanks to Tom Murphy for taking and sending the picture, and apologies to Brian Vaine, on the other side of the Archbishop, whom I cropped out because I didn't get to ask him if he wanted to appear in this place. And to say that Archbishop Dolan is a very, very, very nice man.

Hey, you know, my profile's nowhere near as bad as I thought it was. I knew I had a chin. (Shame about the nose.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Won't you please, please have a Merry Christmas.

A few weeks ago, my choice of Saturday night movie was one of my all-time favorites, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Tertius clearly remembered the scene where Michael Caine and Ian McDiarmid (Emperor Palpatine himself) try to teach Steve Martin some basic etiquette.

Given some sparkling cider in a wineglass for this evening's Christmas Eve dinner, Tertius insists on holding it by supporting the bowl with his palm upward. He proposes several increasingly ludicrous toasts during the meal, which enable him to elevate the glass and peer at its contents critically, like a wine connoisseur.

"That's just weird," pronounces Primus scathingly.

"I'm not weird," Tertius retorts, "I'm classy."

I hope your Christmas is classy rather than weird. And for any reader who may have been expecting this years' Beatles-homage card in the mail, my apologies, but I had a serious printer glitch. I'm aiming for Epiphany. Meanwhile, here's the image you're missing. And I do appreciate you being round.


And the original, just in case too much time has passed. The message is different:

Sunday, December 19, 2010


"Is anything worn under the kilt?"*
Nice line from a radio documentary presented by Jude Kelly. She plays a sound clip from one of the better movies in the long-running "Carry On" series of British comedies, this one satirizing the Kilpingesque empire-building tales set in Victorian-age India and Afghanistan.

In the 1960s, she says, Carry On Up the Khyber was the name of a funny film; now it's foreign policy.

*"Nae, your Majesty, it's all in perfect working order."

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ding dong not-so-merrily.

To school this morning for the fourth and fifth grade holiday band concert, Secundus only visible when trooping on and off the stage, otherwise back in the fourth row behind a music stand with the other trumpeters. He says he spent much of the time retrieving dropped drumsticks for the percussionists in the row behind him.

But a small observation. I'd never noticed before that the little, insistent four-note phrase in "Carol of the Bells" uses exactly the same notes as the much-quoted, gloom-laden opening of the Dies Irae from the plainsong Latin Requiem Mass.*  I wonder if the (Ukrainian) composer was distantly related to Ebenezer Scrooge?

More to the point, why did it take a suburban elementary-school band concert to provoke this funereal revelation?

*Ha! In your face, Wikipedia. You didn't spot it, either.

You can get the same effect, incidentally -- same notes, different rhythm, when you compare the opening six-note phrases of "I'm In the Mood for Love" and "As Time Goes By." Also the first five notes of the main themes from Star Wars and ET - The Extra-Terrestrial. You'd think they were by the same composer, or something.

Rye versus Rye.

After starting out briefly as "Hastings," our town of Rye, New York was renamed after another English south-coast town, called, er, Rye. (It wasn't until I'd lived her for several years that I discovered my paternal birth grandmother was born in England's Rye.)

For some local research, I've been reading a children's history of the American Rye called Read About Rye, originally written for the city's 300-year anniversary in 1960 and last revised in 1984. It speaks of the close relation between the two namesake communities -- especially between the Episcopal/Anglican churches -- but mentions that when our city hall was built, "the clock in the tower was fashioned after the one at St. Mary's Church in the mother city."

Old Rye's clock, left, with its famous Quarter Boys, and it's much younger nephew.

Not sure I see much of a resemblance, beyond the Roman numerals. The little mechanical statues above the parish church clock-face in the older Rye strike the bells hanging in front of them on the quarters, but not on the hour itself. I lifted their name "Quarter Boys" for a family name in Murdering Ministers.

Still, the book was an education, and I learned a couple of things about colonial life that hadn't occurred to me before.

Such as the four-poster bed, with its canopy, wasn't originally invented for warmth or privacy -- or later, grandeur -- but to stop the bugs that lived in thatched roofs from dropping into the open mouths of snorers.*

That triangular stools weren't just a design whim, they guaranteed stability on dirt floors that were seldom level.

And that when a colonial home was past its prime, it was sometimes torched, which made the retrieval and recycling of nails a whole lot easier -- wood was plentiful, but iron nails had to be individually forged and were precious.

*I once had to take an overnight train in Myanmar. There were no berths or air conditioning. Passengers basically slept upright in their hard seats, and the windows were open all night to ensure a breeze. When I awoke as we came into Yangon, I noticed that my shirt front was covered in a colorful display of flattened Burmese insects, just like a car's windshield after a long interstate trip. I really, really hope I slept with my mouth closed that night.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Laugh, I thought my trousers would never dry.

The BBC radio comedy program The Now Show usually concludes by asking its studio audience (and web-followers) for their answers to topical questions.

A week or so ago, the question was what sensitive information would they like to reveal in advance of another Wikileaks, er, leak. Britain is still digging out from a serious snowfall that came during one of the coldest periods of wintry weather for a quarter of a century, so the best response couldn't help fusing the two topical subjects. And in my opinion, it's a virtually perfect joke:
"The snow is so bad that all my wife has done over the past few days is stare through the window. If it gets any worse, I'll have to let her in."

Grammar question.

Re: the title song to Ghostbusters. Shouldn't that be "Whom ya gonna call?"

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Scenes before school (including the daily insult).

Serious parental disciplinary failure this morning. Primus and Secundus squabbling over use of the laptop. Feisty S. bats away the muffin P. was eating.

"You broke my breakfast!" Primus protests angrily.

Alas, Daddy unable to supply the necessary stentorian correction because of the fit of giggling brought on by the phrase. Primus doesn't see the funny side, but is mollified when I say that I'll blog the event. Consider it done, P.

Primus is quite taken by this blog, incidentally, having read a few recent entries yesterday evening.

"It's funny. You're a good writer," he says. The beam of fatherly pride disappears from my face when he adds, "You write a lot better than you speak."

A little later this morning, the Magic 8-ball has resurfaced from the plastic undergrowth.

"Is Daddy awesome?" demands Secundus, and to his credit, he gave it the three tries it needed before he got a grudgingly positive response. Next, it's the dog's turn.

La bete blanche, avec le nez rose
"Is Leila awesome?"

Alas, the answer is no. Undaunted, Secundus tries "Is Leila the super totally awesomely best dog ever?"

And this time we get a yes, which accounts for the earlier answer -- our first question was unworthy of the reality. I admire Secundus's persistence, although I'm dimly troubled that it uses an approach to the truth that's the basis of several dubious religions.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My mum v. John Lennon, part 2.

I've already had cause to mention in these chronicles the time in 1964 when my (adoptive) mother, a devout woman, looked up from a newspaper article and asked me if I knew what was "The World's Best Seller," and I replied John Lennon's "In His Own Write," when I clearly should have said the Bible. (See the footnote to last September's The Walrus was Nowhere.)

Mum and Dad liked the Beatles, but they were shocked at the "more popular than Jesus" comment Lennon made a year after this first incident. Mum reported this news to me in a grave, slightly self-righteous manner, which always made me feel as if I was partly responsible when my idols misbehaved.

Her disapproval deepened with 1969's "The Ballad of John and Yoko," because the chorus began with the blasphemous exclamation of "Christ!" I suggested that "Christ, you know it ain't easy" was possibly a direct appeal to Jesus for his sympathy. (I tried not to draw her attention to the "they're gonna crucify me" part.) She was having none of it. It offended her, and that was that.

And fair enough.

Well, forty years on (and thirty after his tragic but hardly senseless assassination), there's a very good article in this week's Newsweek about John Lennon and the cult of celebrity that entirely agrees with my interpretation of the line. Ha! I knew it.

You know, there can be little doubt that, in the world of entertainment, the Beatles are the most iconic celebrities ever -- in terms of sheer cultural impact outshining Valentino, Sinatra, Marilyn, Michael Jackson, even Elvis. And John and Paul were the two most famous Beatles. But add John's greater flair for publicity, his stronger voice, his contributions beyond music, his very public and then very private life and -- of course -- his murder, and it's possible that, this week, we're commemorating the death of the most famous person there ever will be. Sorry, Kanye.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Curses, foiled again.

We're in a playground, but it's time to move on. Primus and Tertius, feeling the lack of gloves on a chilly December morning, are cooperative, but be-mittened Secundus wishes to stay longer. As the bringer of the news about our exodus, I find a stick pointing at me and hear him mutter "Avada Kedavra."

He underestimates my Potter I.Q. "That the killing curse, isn't it?" I ask.

"Unforgivable," confirms Primus, who has absorbed every word of Rowling (most of which seem to be adverbs, he added archly).

Secundus, a little shamefaced at his good-natured patricide, waves the wand again, but modifies it to "Stupefy!", the Hogwarts equivalent of "phasers on stun." The trouble is, it comes out as "Stupefly!", which then makes me think of "Super Fly." And I envision a curse that causes purple fedoras to materialize on the victims' heads and forces them to sing falsetto like Curtis Mayfield.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The daily insult.

Today, we go to the Rye Free Reading Room (that's the fancy name for our precious library, which is so essential in every way to our community that it should not have to give up a penny of funding in the 2011 City budget) to renew the boys' library cards. They're fascinated that even the well-stocked and practically perfect children's section has freely available computers. Of course, I have to remind the young gentlemen that their purpose is scholarly research, and that fellow readers doing their homework might not appreciate the soundtrack of a lively game of Pinball, no matter how close you are to a record score. (Currently held by Secundus, with his grandmother in second place.)

Tertius says he wants to use the computer to see what Edgar Allen Poe looks like.

"Is he still alive?" he asks.

"No," I inform him, "he's long gone. He was born about two hundred years ago." (Lucky guess, but I was right, although I should have remembered anyway, because I contributed to the Rye Arts Center's celebration of his bicentenary.)

"But was he alive when you were younger?" is the sincere response.

"Just how old . . .?" Ah, never mind. Regular readers know how these things go by now.

The Master and the Young Master.

Just like The Mozart Effect, there's clearly an advantage in early exposure to P.G. Wodehouse. Seven-year-old Tertius, in a conversation with Secundus just after breakfast, expresses his surprise about something with a hearty exclamation of "Jeevesawooster!"

Friday, December 3, 2010

I never dreamt that I would get to be the creature that I always meant to be.

Okay, since I've taken to raiding YouTube (this stops now!), probably my absolute guiltiest pleasure -- Pet Shop Boys.

I hate the beat-box-driven, post-disco, synthesized, four-in-a-bar bass-drum thump of contemporary music. It sanitizes the sound by eliminating the last trace of danger that you get with a live, human rhythm section. When did we lose the back-beat? Where's Keith Moon when you need him?  (You want to hear drumming? Go back to 1967 and The Who's "I Can See For Miles.")

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe
But you have to admit that PSB anticipated the production and arrangements that now characterize songs by Usher and Pitbull and even Rihanna by a quarter of a century. And the duo easily overcome my aversion to techno ambiance with haunting melodies, witty lyrics ("I've got the brains, you've got the looks -- let's make lots of money!"), art-school stylings, and Neil Tennant's lean but beautiful voice, as reedy and pure and evocative as a Hammond organ. (And the fact that their faces always seemed too ordinary through and under and over the top of those costumes only adds to the irony. Tennant's older than me, with substantially less hair, but he's still getting away with it.)

Last year, they were given the "outstanding contribution to music" Brit award by the British equivalent of the Grammys, the year after Paul McCartney got his, and celebrated in their customary off-kilter, Brit-pop, Brit-art, pop-art style with a medley of great moments, culminating in "West End Girls." (That classic track first appeared in 1984?)

Here's a bit of the show, kicking off with their cover of the Village People's "Go West." And you don't have to wait too long to see a guest appearance by Lady Gaga, substituting for the late Dusty Springfield, and proving that the Lady has the pipes.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

These honored dead.

There's no better place for a names enthusiast to browse than a cemetery, and I have a doozy on the doorstep. Rye's Greenwood Union Cemetery only dates back to 1837 -- our Milton Road Cemetery, which includes the Purdy family's burying ground, goes back nearly two centuries further -- but today, under blue skies, that low, silvery December sunshine, and with only a slight chill in the air, it was a perfect place for Leila and me to take our constitutional.

The cemetery is bisected by the tree-lined Beaver Swamp Brook, placid despite being flushed with yesterday's heavy rainfall. A bright blue beachball floating in the water, pinned to the bank by tree-roots, is an odd but pleasing touch. I suppose it sneaked in from a better world upstream, but it seems to belong among the tombstones with their hopeful, carved messages of a better world still to come. (And the occasional presumptuous message to the living, supposedly from that better world.)

We check out the corner of the graveyard set aside for black Civil War victims and other African-Americans, still unfairly segregated in death, despite their cause, and still unable to rest in peace -- at least in this world -- because of I-95 roaring past on the other side of a chain-link fence. But here's today's discovery, a small tombstone with a richly inspiring name: ENDLESS HUDSON.

Although the marker mentions his service as a private in the Second World War -- and presumably he died in that conflict -- it is entirely appropriate that Endless has no recorded date of death.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I'd like to propose a toast. (Cause I used "Everybody rise" for yesterday's title.)

Matching Elaine Stritch to her signature "The Ladies Who Lunch" takes us back to the original production of Sondheim's Company waaaaaay back in 1970. The recording of the cast album was filmed by documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, and the resulting movie includes this remarkable sequence of Ms. Stritch tackling her big number. It's two o'clock in the morning after a long, exhausting day in the studio, and she just isn't delivering to the satisfaction of the producer or composer/lyricist. And they're not afraid to tell her.

(I saw this documentary years ago, and I don't remember its having the later-day audio commentary by Stritch and others that's on this YouTube exerpt. I could be wrong. But either way, it's brave of the actress to let us see one of her least successful moments.)

So why is her recording of the song from these sessions regarded as one of the all-time great performances of a show-tune? Just see what happens when she comes back to try again the next morning. That's a professional.

This time I remembered to grab the code that embeds the video in the appropriate width for my blog, But I make no apology for yesterday's sprawl, which obscured my contents column, or for whatever it's still hiding today. The stunning Audra McDonald should be enjoyed in her maximum glory.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Everybody rise.

Best thing seen on television in a long, long while (not that I watch much): PBS's Great Performances broadcast of the Stephen Sondheim 80th birthday concert from the Lincoln Center. (Yeah, I know, even then it was merely TV coverage of a live stage show.)

Best thing in it: Very hard to choose, especially when you have 84-year-old Elaine Stritch doing "I'm Still Here" as if it's her autobiography, Patti LuPone owning "The Ladies Who Lunch" (with gracious deference to Ms. Stritch), and Donna Murphy knocking it out of the park with "Could I Leave You?"

But I'm going to opt for Audra McDonald's unforgettable performance of "The Glamorous Life" from A Little Night Music. This isn't the song from the original 1973 production, but an inspired reworking written for the generally disappointing 1977 movie of the musical, which is now frequently included in stage productions of the show. One of the Man's best numbers, soaked in sadness and irony.

Here's Ms. McDonald doing the song brilliantly on a different occasion:

Mind you, if you really want to see the greatest imaginable performance of Sondheim's most famous song (from the same musical) by the world's finest and most beautiful actress -- oh, indulge the hyperbole, the guy's eighty*, it's a special occasion -- watch the next clip. The tail end of the preceding interview with that nice Alan Titchmarsh is worth it to provide context.

Stephen Sondheim. Words and music. Makes you wonder why anybody else bothers.

*Sondheim, not me.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

We come with the dust, and we go with the wind.

Another belated tribute to the actress Sylvia Davis, who died earlier this month. Sylvia played Arlo Guthrie's mother, Marjie, in the movie of Alice's Restaurant, directed by Arthur Penn, who also died recently. (He followed Alice's Restaurant with Bonnie and Clyde.)

Here's a link to a clip that briefly features Sylvia (years before I first met her), which I managed to track down on the Turner Classic Movies website -- sorry, I can't embed the clip into this post. Arlo visits his dying father, Woody Guthrie, in hospital, to find him being serenaded by none other than Pete Seeger, playing himself and and a banjo. That first song, "Pastures of Plenty," which was written by Woody Guthrie, is utterly haunting.

Friday, November 26, 2010

So stick around, we may have a joke this week.

Introducing a new character is a delicate balancing act. You need to give readers enough information for them to get an unambiguous mental picture from the start, but you don't want to stop the story dead for three pages of backstory with each new arrival.

Does the suspect have a livid dueling scar down the side of his face that prevents his eyelid fully closing and permanently twists his lip into a humorless grimace? Tell us immediately. (Mainly so we can stop reading such a cliche-ridden tome right there.)

Does he have small, white, star-like scar from a childhood skating accident beneath the hairline on the back of his neck? Wait until the story of that event -- which you described so vividly in your 50-page preparatory mini-essay about the character -- becomes a crucial part of the plot. Oh, here's a clue: it won't.

Generally, the reader will fill in the basics of, say, height, age, build, race, so you'd better make sure there are no misunderstandings. (Although the immortal Sarah Caudwell went through four staggeringly witty books holding back one essential fact about her first-person protagonist, Professor Hilary Tamar. And it's intriguing to see how far you get into your first Caudwell novel -- do start with Thus Was Adonis Murdered -- before you realize your mental image of Tamar is entirely based on your biased assumption, not on the text.)

But one of the  dullest ways to give this essential information is the "identikit" approach -- plainly listing height, weight, hair, eye-color, etc. How much better to nail all that with one line that plants the mental image instantly and economically.

Hoagy, not Stokely
Ian Fleming describes James Bond as looking a little like a cold and ruthless Hoagy Carmichael, and that's all you need -- as long as you have some idea what Hoagy Carmichael looks like. (Confuse him with Stokely Carmichael and you could have some problems.)

One step further is to find a shorthand account of a person's appearance that also helps establish character. From Wodehouse (of course): "He was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say 'when!'"

And to get back to this post's title, that's why I really liked this stray line from last week's "Saturday Night Live," describing Nancy Pelosi: "A woman who always looks like she's watching someone not use a coaster." I wish I'd written that.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Best. Blooper. Ever.

And I'm thankful that I once read this, although I wish I'd kept the pocket-sized magazine it was in, which I picked up in an Oxford department store in 1977. Called "Getting Married," it was little more than an excuse for advertisements for the china, glass, and linens that get onto middle-class wedding lists. But it did have a small section addressing certain relationship issues, purporting to be the answers to real letters.

One hapless (and blatantly fictitious) male had supposedly written to confess his fear of embarrassment when, on his wedding night, his blushing bride discovered he was circumcised.* (Not until then? This was the 1970s, post-Pill, pre-HIV. Told you he was fictitious.)

Despite the intervening years, I can remember the answer virtually verbatim, and I swear this is true. The advisor replied (with statistical inaccuracy):
"I can't think why you would feel embarrassed about being circumcised. Perhaps as many as half the men in Britain have been circumcised . . . and there is certainly no drawback to this as far as lovemaking is concerned."

*At this time in the UK, less than 20% of men would have been circumcised, and the number has decreased since. Although, come to think of it, how in this scenario would his virginal wife know the difference?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How to make yourself invisible. Fail.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, one thing I'm thankful for is that I was in Avery Fisher Hall (the home of the New York Philharmonic) the evening this happened, even though it's a funny memory without a punchline. So I'll add one when the time comes.

It is, of course, regarded as rude to applaud between the separate movements of musical work. That's a time for rustling your programs and coughing consumptively. Nor is it good manners to leave the concert hall between movements, or even between works. Ideally, if you can't stay for the whole concert, you should piss off during the intermission.*

I once saw Leonard Slatkin start the second half of a Philharmonic concert with Vaughan Williams's brief, melodious little lollipop, the Fantasia on Greensleeves. Then, without leaving the podium, no doubt so would-be fugitives from modernism had no cover for their escape, he launched into the grinding discords that begin the same composer's angry but ultimately lyrical Fourth Symphony. Ah, but the notoriously unadventurous New York subscription audience is made of tougher stuff. One hint of a D-flat and a C played fortissimo at the same time and silk-clad pensioners were out of their tip-up seats and fleeing up the aisle like Leila after a squirrel.

That wasn't the memory. Sorry. You get that when you read a blog by someone with ADD. Personally, I don't see it as a drawback. Did you know that "orchestra" is an anagram of "carthorse"?

Anyway, you get used to people leaving a concert between works, irritating though it is. No doubt if they wait until the very end of the performance, they won't make it back to New Jersey in time for Leno. But on this one occasion (now we're back with the memory), an elderly couple seemed to make up their minds to leave just a little late. And for some reason, they chose to depart through the emergency exit at the front of the hall, which meant walking up the empty aisle toward the orchestra and then along the first row in front of the stage. So the lady naturally adopted that peculiar style of locomotion that she clearly thought would make her invisible to a concert hall full of people -- hunching her shoulders, bending forward, and walking on tiptoe with a prowling gait, like a tall heron stepping out of a helicopter. The man just ambled after her, meekly carrying her fur.

The trouble was that, by now, Kurt Masur had taken the podium and was about to start the next work. Catching the movement out of the corner of his eye, he did the best double take I've ever seen by a conductor of a major orchestra. He lowered his baton, turned, and simply watched the pair as they slowly stalked across the front of the hall immediately beneath him, unaware of his magisterial scrutiny and convinced of their invisibility. The door opened and closed behind them. Maestro Masur looked up at the audience, gave a long-suffering, adagio shrug of helplessness and turned back to the orchestra, shaking his head in disbelief. (Zubin Mehta would have arranged for their immediate beheading in the lobby.)  A delicious moment.

That's it. Okay, it's a vignette that needs a punchline. How about: "And that's why the Republicans now have control of the House of Representatives."**
*Although I remember this once tripped up the audience at an outdoor concert at Caramoor. The program was, perhaps injudiciously, all six of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos played in sequence, with an intermission in the middle. The problem was that the first concerto has the typical three movements, but these are uniquely followed by a long, segmented fourth movement. A lot of optimistic concertgoers calculated that this was, in fact, the second concerto. So when the actual second concerto ended, and the performers left the stage during the reshuffle of instruments, there was a partial exodus in search of refreshments. Re-enter the string players for concerto number three, to watch half their audience trooping out of the tent, realizing their mistake, and ruefully squeezing back into their the seats, treading on the toes of the better-informed audience members who'd stayed put. That memory doesn't have a punchline either.

**Oh, you want to know what that's the punchline to? Okay. "Knock, knock." ("Who's there?") "Barack." ("Barack who?")

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Quiet weekend.

I've often complained about some of the banal drivel I've had to write while wearing the corporate communications hat, but I envy whoever in the local Petco had the privilege of drafting the neatly typeset notice that announces "Our frozen rodents have been relocated."
Tertius approaches me with a pack of cards and invites me to pick one. The nine of hearts. I memorize it, then slide it back into the deck. He shuffles through, produces a card, and asks me if it's mine. It is indeed. And I choose not to mention that I know he owns a trick deck in which the nine of hearts is, shall we say, overrepresented.

Later, he insists that I play "Go Fish" with him. He solemnly deals out seven cards. I look at them. They're all the nine of hearts. "Got any nines?" he shouts gleefully, getting in just ahead of me.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The daily insult.

This time it's all my fault. I should have known better. But we were talking in the car about the effectiveness of substitute teachers, and I just had to ask the question that all fathers have surely asked at least once since the beginning of time.

"Whenever I ask you do anything," I mutter, "it takes about twelve tries before you register that I'm talking to you, and I generally have to threaten you with dire consequences to get a response. But you can't do enough to please your teacher. How come you don't behave for your parents the way you do for your teachers?"

Secundus needs no pondering time for this one. "Because teachers are awesome!" he instantly cries.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Don't step on it, it might be Ringo.

For the past three Christmases, our family holiday card has been a parody of a Beatles album cover, largely because the word "Beatles" can so easily be manipulated into "Beecheys," and because there are four children in the next generation, if you count the dog. Of course I count the dog, don't you know me by now? (Here's a tip. You can neglect your friends from January to December, but send them an original, homemade Christmas card and you're golden for another twelve months.)

For this year's card, we needed a top hat as a prop, to be worn by that junior Lon Chaney, Tertius. (I will not, at this point, give away the identity of the album to be mercilessly manipulated for the forthcoming holiday, but it's probably the last one that's sufficiently iconic for recipients to get the reference. I refuse to attempt "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.") On the same run to Party City, young T also got his long-requested bald cap, an essential part of his proposed Halloween costume for 2011, which is to be a hobo. I always believe in encouraging forward planning. Not that you can do any backward planning. Of course, it's no surprise that he enters the office where I'm working claiming to have the largest brain in the world, because he's wearing the oversize, flesh-colored bald cap with a large bubble of air trapped in the top.

Ten minutes later, he's back. He's ditched the bald cap and is now wearing the top hat and a black sweater. He says he's Abraham Lincoln. (He tries to fashion a white dishcloth into a stock, but throws it to one side, claiming it smells of throw-up. It didn't, it was freshly laundered.) I ask him where his beard is, and he says he'd have one if he could find a spare Post-It note. However, he's quite logically substituted a clip-on ear-ring. Abe, dude.

*Only after I printed all the cards did it occur to me that the row of Leilas would be funnier if it were reversed -- four pictures with her ears down and the last showing her ears raised. I've now made a version like this, but the image here is what our friends and family actually received. Or should have, if we'd finished writing them all before Purim. 

Incidentally, the Leila images aren't the same picture with the ears manipulated. They're two totally different pictures of the beast taken at different times under completely different lighting conditions. Behold the power of Photoshop. (Friends and relatives in England were miffed that I seemed to have shipped the kids to Abbey Road but didn't find time to visit. I had to explain that it was all done with a homemade bluescreen in the back yard.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Onomastics and Daleks.

Many readers have commented on the unusual names I give my characters. (One reviewer called the practice "Dickensian," and I take that as a gigantic compliment, even though it probably wasn't intended to be one.)

There's a reason for that, beyond the fact that I just love names. In a mystery, when you need to introduce several suspects plus the usual repertory company plus the walk-ons and extras, it's essential that you make each character as memorable as possible. Distinctive names help.* (I recall an Agatha Christie novel in which two of the suspects were called Richard and Robert, and I could never keep them straight. But maybe that's what the wily Dame was counting on, Gawd bless 'er.)

So as well as the "where do you get your ideas?" question (to which I reply, with solemn veracity, "in the shower"), I often get the "where do you find these names?" question. The boring truth is that I've kept a growing list of potential character names for years in my ancient Filofax, going all the way back to a long perusal of the classic four-volume London telephone directory in my teenage years.** (Which is where I found the name "Strongitharm.")

But life hands me gifts. When you go into Staples, a large sign tells customers of the special store representative to whom they should address their technical questions. On Sunday, that person was the melodious and improbable "Stafford Gumbs."

Sorry, Stafford, if you ever Google yourself and find this blog, but you'll soon be fictional.

*Nobody seems to have spotted the rude joke hidden in the company name "Woodcock and Oakhampton," both characters in An Embarrassment of Corpses.

**Back in the 60's and 70's, the standard four volumes were A-D, E-K, L-R, S-Z, these letters prominent on the thick spines. They were installed in every London phone box, on a peculiar swivel-out arrangement, but we also had a set at home. Now imagine, like in so many offices, you had all four books lying in a stack on a shelf or on the top of a filing cabinet. And, as so often happens, they were in the wrong order, so the third volume was on top of the second. It would be perfectly possible to trace the word D-A-L-E-K through adjacent letters.

When Terry Nation created the Daleks back in 1963, for the new BBC series "Doctor Who," he told the Daily Mirror that the name "came from a dictionary or encyclopedia volume, the spine of which read 'Dal - Lek.'" But according to the 1988 The Official Doctor Who & the Daleks Book, Nation later admitted that this book and the origin of the Dalek name was completely fictitious, and that anyone bothering to check out his story would have found him out.

I merely offer another potential source, other than Nation's imagination, based on my original research.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

You MUST see this!

Found it! My old friend Sylvia Davies, the centenarian actress who passed away last week (see Curtain Call), was in her early nineties when she had a sudden flurry of work in commercials. Here's a classic, which I knew had to be out there somewhere, and which I just located on YouTube:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Your flashback needs a flashback.

A red sports car hurtles along a country lane, the radio playing a Blondie track. But this is not enough to specify the time. The two women in the car are arguing over the blond passenger's apparent inability to read a map. The brunette driver angrily drains a can of beer, hurls it away vehemently. One cut as the empty can flies over a fence. One more cut, and it rolls to a stop in the grass, revealing a sell-by date in May 1988.

There you are. Fifteen seconds into the sequence and we already have a clear sense of the women's dynamic -- it will be crucial -- and we know this happens in the past, so it's undoubtedly backstory, told with startling economy.

The use of the can to establish the date so quickly and unambiguously is brilliant. No, it's contrived and ham-fisted. No, it's written (and produced and in this case directed) by David Renwick, so it's tongue-in-cheek.

It's from the "The Judas Tree, " the April 2010 feature-length episode of the clever and hugely entertaining television series "Jonathan Creek," which since 1997 has featured endearing Alan Davies as the scruffy, beduffled but rarely befuddled expert on stage magic and illusions. And we have to wait until the end of the program to know that Renwick's rich flashback has fooled us. (And in this case, it fools Jonathan.) We're so taken by the economy of the exegesis, by the way the story hits the ground running, by the way he obeys the rule to start as late as possible in any scene, by the uncanny events that then unfold, that we forget to ask an obvious question: what happened even earlier? The swiftness of the story deceives the memory.

Left, Alan Davies. Right, Alan Beechey (in 1975). Scary, huh? And I had a duffle coat.
Yes, the reach of Renwick's writing often exceeds our grasp of the events, but what's a mystery for? The apparent contrivance and coincidences of his baffling set-ups are whittled down so satisfyingly over the course of an hour and a half, that we can easily brush off the traces that remain. These are good mysteries and great visual story-telling. And funny with it. Catch them if you can.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

To say nothing of the dog. For once.

Listening on my iPod to a download of a sadly abridged reading from the BBC of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in A Boat, one of my favorite books.

(Why is this author always given his full name? He's never referred to as just "Jerome." I suppose people like saying it. The K stands for Klapka, incidentally, which shows he got his sense of humor from his parents.)

The file info says the reader is the great Stephen Fry, but it turns out to be his equally talented friend and former performing partner, Hugh Laurie. I find myself laughing aloud in the street at passages like:
" . . . [Having moored on the bank of the Thames and prepared a meal] We had just commenced the third course — the bread and jam — when a gentleman in shirt-sleeves and a short pipe came along, and wanted to know if we knew that we were trespassing. We said we hadn’t given the matter sufficient consideration as yet to enable us to arrive at a definite conclusion on that point, but that, if he assured us on his word as a gentleman that we were trespassing, we would, without further hesitation, believe it."

Plug here for Connie Willis's hilarious science fiction time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, which draws heavily on this story and on the works of Wodehouse.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

And if you cross a Great Dane with a dachsund, you'd need a stepladder.

Then there's all this business of designer dogs. It probably started with the labradoodle (Labrador retriever and poodle), possibly to shove some of the poodle's intelligence and (supposedly) hypoallergenic qualities into the nation's favorite breed.

Now you have all kinds of hybrid, such as the "Dorkie" (dachshund and Yorkshire terrier) or the "Puggle" (pug and beagle). And no kidding, a chihauhau/Pekingese hybrid is called a "Cheeks."

So it occurred to me that if you cross a Shih-Tzu with a Poodle, you'd get a redundancy.

It does exist. It's disappointingly called a Shih-Poo. Close.

The private beauty of restraint.

Secundus's scout troop is having a bake sale during the kids' Saturday soccer at the Rye Recreation Park, to raise money for a local charity. I drop by during his shift this morning, Leila in tow. As we're standing there in the field, momentarily isolated, one man and his dog on a bright blue leash, an older man ambles over from a nearby table.

"Is that your dog?" he asks.

Oh, oh, oh, too many, too many sarcastic replies fills my brain. So many that I'll have to categorize the potential responses according to the possible emphases within the four-word sentence. "Is that your dog?" gets a different funny from "Is that your dog?" "No, it's my . . ."

Taken by Tertius last year with his Fisher Price camera.
But I don't. And won't. Even now. The man is pleasant and a dog-lover. He smiles and pets Leila, who licks his hands. We chat about a show on Animal Planet, deploring the cruelty to dogs that it depicts. He has a faint Irish brogue. He's a regular volunteer for the Youth Soccer Program. I dimly remember that he was the man with whom my eyeglasses had been deposited a year ago, when I'd dropped them while watching Secundus play during my one true season as a literal soccer dad, and I wish he was available to track down the really nice pair I mislaid on Thursday. There are too many other people in this world who deserve my rudeness.

Like the woman I passed on the way to the park, who doesn't realize that reining in your dog to stop it attacking mine doesn't work if you only shorten your leash by about two inches so your lab mix can still reach her. Even when I have her tightly gripped behind my legs. But I say nothing.

Like the woman pulling out of the Citibank parking lot a few minutes after I left the Rec, who assumed -- quite wrongly -- that I was just going to stop my brisk walk and cede my right of way on the sidewalk to let her drive past. She stopped in time. And I say nothing.

Or like the woman yesterday turning left onto the Playland Parkway at Milton Road (site of many an incident), only to encounter me and Leila already halfway across the intersection. Your bad-tempered, long-suffering, arrogant gesture toward the red pedestrian light fails to take into account that I had, in fact, stopped in the middle of the road to let you pass, if you wished; that under any circumstances, light or no light, you ought to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk on a right turn; and that had I not refrained from pressing the crosswalk button on a day with almost no traffic, you'd have still been back on Milton waiting for the red light.

All of which I would have said, only she was already speeding toward the interstate, smug in her self-righteousness, unaware that I'd just shaved 30 seconds off a journey that's so important to her, she feels it entitles her to give up a little humanity and grace. Which is why I'm writing it now. There, I feel better.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Major media blunder.

I was reading "Dear Abby" for story ideas, as you do, when I spotted a link on the page that said: "PHOTO's: People's Sexiest Man Alive.

So I clicked it, and it wasn't me. Again. Bugger. I'm going out to eat worms.

On the other hand, today's Rye Record did include my letter about dogs.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Curtain call.

I just received the word that my dear friend, centenarian actress Sylvia Davis, died yesterday at the Actors Equity nursing home in Englewood, NJ. Regular followers with long memories may remember that I wrote a week of blog entries in her honor in April, culminating in her one hundredth birthday. A small, unworthy tribute from an admirer to an actress who, like so many, didn't have a resume that in any way reflected her enormous talent.

(You can read those entries in order, if you wish, by starting with "My other girlfriend . . . " and then hitting the "Newer Post" link at the bottom of each page.)

One last reminiscence. Susan Mosakowski, the director of the recorded book studio for the Library for the Blind in Manhattan, created many opportunities for the visually handicapped to come to the building to hear live performances, using the talents of the studio's volunteer narrators, many of whom were professional actors and voice-over artists. (And one was a mystery author.) A popular series was our re-enactment of old radio plays, often detective thrillers, but including a fine adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost. As someone who spent more time working the tape machine than actually reading, my role was often to handle the sound effects, a mix of live noises and prerecorded effects. I liked this play, because I got to make the sound of a suit of armor being attacked with peashooters.

Sylvia played the housekeeper of the ancient, haunted castle, which in the play was occupied by an American family -- she was like Young Frankenstein's Frau Blucher, only without the German accent or the horses. Near the beginning of the play, she came to the door to greet the newcomers with some innocuous remark like "Good morning" or just "Yes?" (Sorry, Sylvia, darling, I can't remember.) To herald this moment, I'd found a recording of the longest ever sound of a creaking door-hinge. (A word, incidentally, that does rhyme with "orange.")

So there's the set-up. Knock on door. Door opens with an interminable creak. Pause. Then Sylvia's voice.

It was always the funniest moment of the performance. Not my weird sound effect. Not Wilde's words, or whatever greeting the adapter had put in Sylvia's mouth.

It was her pause. Flawlessly, perfectly, shamelessly timed to the nanosecond.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

If you knew Suzi.

Foreigners like to depict Americans as being uninformed and uninterested about other countries, but that's a gross understatement. We don't know much about the other states within the US either.

I mean, who outside California can name its governor? It's bound to be somebody we've never heard of.*

But there is the slight chance that even non-New Yorkers have caught wind of the corruption and cronyism and deep dysfunctionality of our state government. Google the name of the capital, Albany, and every citation is preceded by the words "the mess in."

So today was election day, a chance to vote for a new governor. (To recap, Eliot Spitzer stepped down after a bare year in office following his involvement with a call-girl ring, although he's recently resurfaced as a pundit on CNN. His term was served out by his lieutenant governor David Paterson, famous beyond state borders for being regularly lampooned on "Saturday Night Live." But at least he doesn't shoot moose from a helicopter.)

It's also our chance to jiggle up the State Senate, although I ended up doing the knee-jerk thing and voting for Democratic incumbent Suzi Oppenheimer, who's already been a state senator for a quarter of a century.** This is despite my irritation with getting four recorded phone messages yesterday plugging her candidacy. Hey, I have all my lines forwarded to my cell phone, these are my minutes, guys!

But I'm already regretting it, if the phone call I got this afternoon is an indication of why things are so bad in Albany. It went something like this:

"This is Mrs. Brown. Am I speaking to Mr. Beechey?"


"Sir, I'm calling on behalf of the Suzi Oppenheimer campaign, and --"

"I already voted, you're too late."

"Oh, you did? Well, I just wanted to remind you that today is election day, and the polling stations are open from six o'clock to nine o'clock."

[Mystified] "I said I already voted. There's no point in telling me this. We're in New York, not Chicago."

"I see, sir. For verification can I have your first name?"

"I'd prefer not to. Anyway, don't you know who you called?'

"It's just for verification, Mr. Beechey. Why can't I have your first name?"

"Because I can't think of any reason why you'd need it."

"Then can I confirm that the number I called to reach you is [my home telephone number]."

"Yes, but why don't you know the number, since you just called it . . . ?"

A good job this gang isn't trying to shoot moose. At least it's not our tax dollars that are at work here. Alas, it soon will be.

*Yeah, right. And who's his lieutenant governor, Danny DeVito?

**Even her campaign slogan, a relentless exhortation to "Keep Suzi," was a reminder of her incumbency, a dubious tactic this year. I couldn't help taking it personally, since I have a recurring character called Susie Beamish in my books -- she features prominently in This Private Plot -- and I was wondering if I should bring her and her cleavage back for the fourth Swithin title, which I'm currently planning, even though it takes place in New York, not London.

I'm Plenty.

That Aston Martin DB5 used in Goldfinger sold over the weekend for $4.6 million, a little less than expected. But despite the chance of getting a bargain, the mem-sahib was not one of the bidders. I mean, it's not as if I hadn't dropped a hint or two. (See "Now, pay attention, 007.")

It's just like the time I wanted a Kandinsky I'd seen at Sotheby's. It wasn't even one of his later, more expensive works. But what do I get? Bupkis, that's what I get. Strike two.

More on peotry.

Kathi Taylor (praise be to her) commented on my pome "Ode to my bitch" that the "possum/awesome ('ossum')" rhyme, which I said wouldn't work in British English, might also bypass some versions of American English, too.

It works the other way round. Here's a clerihew what I wrote:

Lady Chatterley
Said: "Just latterly
I've dispensed with umbrellas;
Now I'm covered by Mellors."

But that only works in British English (maybe Boston, too), where the post-vocalic 'r' in Mellors isn't pronounced. (It would come out as "Mellahs.") It also means I couldn't rhyme Chatterley with "philately," which of course gets you everywhere, except in America. So here's a bi-lingual version:

Lady Chatterley
Said: "Just latterly
I've topped the best-sellers
Because of ten pages with Mellors."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Notes from a Halloween.

I buy the usual large bags of Halloween candy from the supermarket, miniature versions of well-known candy bars.

"'Fun-size,'" Primus cynically reads off the packet, as I decant the contents into a purple bucket to leave outside the door while we're out trick-or-treating. "They're a quarter the size of the normal bars. How is that fun?"

Primus and Secundus have each joined his own pack of marauding schoolfriends, and I'm left to accompany seven-year-old Tertius on his solo attempt to corner the world's candy supply. He's a biker skeleton. I'm a friar.

"Now what do you say when you knock on the door?" I rehearse.

"Trick or treat!" he replies.

"And what do you say when you get candy?"

"Thank you!"

"And if you don't get candy, you say . . . ?"

I trail off, the joke having been made (although this doesn't prevent the knee-jerk reproof from his nearby mother, which is what I was going for). But Tertius continues merrily:

"Well, I know the b-word, and the f-word, and . . ."

I'm talking to my friend and fellow-author and fellow-mother Annabel (plug for her book -- click here) about the costumes at Party City for grown-ups. Everything for women seems to be a sexy variation on a kid's classic, such as "Sexy Pirate," "Sexy Nurse," "Sexy Vampire."* But I lament that I never actually get to see these in the, er, flesh. Annabel informs me I'm clearly not getting invited to the right sort of party. Of course not. I have three small children, and I go to bed at ten o'clock.

Clearly not in Kansas anymore
But after an hour of chaperoning an avid trick-or-treater in temperatures that have dipped into the 40s and with a chill breeze blowing around my sandaled feet and up my friar's robe, I know why the young mothers of Rye prefer to cover up on Halloween. About the only tolerable costume would be "Mildly Risque Polar Bear."

This year, eleven-year-old Primus cashes in on his shoulder-length hair and decides to go out disguised as a girl. Wearing a pink top that he made me buy at Kohl's and with his mother's help to braid the hair and sweep it into a pony-tail, he's utterly convincing.

I applaud his courage. And as a father, I'm quite okay about it. Really, I am. No, really.

*That picture is a genuine 2010 Halloween costume downloaded from Party City's website. In researching it -- I suffer for you, Dear Reader -- I also found similarly skimpy versions for adult women of Hermione from Harry Potter, Wednesday Addams, and -- the horror! the horror! -- Big Bird and Elmo from "Sesame Street." (I knew Katy Perry's cleavage was the thin end of the wedge.) But the worst is a "sexy Betty Rubble." What a sacrilege! As if you anyone could make Betty Rubble any sexier than she is already.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ode to my bitch.

A poem, jointly composed with Secundus while walking the lady Leila around a pond on Halloween. Not that those last two facts have anything to do with it.

Our dog
Is not a possum.
When bigger dogs diss her in the street, she doesn't lie down and play dead till they go away, thinking she's just put one across 'em.
She fearlessly barks right back, which makes her

(Note to international readers: That Og de Nash-ian last rhyme doesn't work with an English accent.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

I need a minder.

A few days ago, I put my kettle on the stove for some tea, got distracted by something, and forgot all about it. I didn't hear the whistle through the closed door, but an hour or so later, I distinctly heard the kitchen smoke detector. The kettle had boiled dry, and although still intact, it had taken on a smoky odor on the inside.

Not wanting all my tea to taste like lapsang souchong (I'm decidedly either green or Orange Pekoe), I survived for a day or two by sticking my mug in the microwave.

But I broke down and spent the $60 for a cordless electric kettle, on the grounds that it has an automatic cut-off when it reaches boiling point. Safe, right? Foolproof.

Not if you come down for breakfast, fill your new electric kettle, and then absent-mindedly put it on the gas burner. This time my nostrils detected the stink of scorched black plastic just before the smoke detector started shrieking.

Tea addiction and ADD -- not a good combination.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hitchcock should've had these problems.

I've just left the house with the beast when I hear the noise of a sudden hailstorm in the road ahead.

A black splattering of grackles -- the collective noun is a "plague" -- has flecked the treetops around the nearby pond, several hundred birds that all sound as if they need oiling. Their greedy scamperings in a high oak tree causes a cloudburst of acorns, which pelt me and Leila, and, to the surprise of its driver, bounce off the paintwork of a car that attempts to nose its way down my Dead End street.

Leila barks, and they flee, in concerted cowardice. But they're back by the end of our walk, and we're pelleted again from above.

Now if I were a true poet, I'd be trying to make this into a metaphor for something.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010

What don't like it?

Right-click with your cursor on the stripe along the bottom of the screen in Microsoft Windows. You get a menu with an option to "Lock the Taskbar."

Wasn't that a song by The Clash?


Multi-tasking! Not a male strong point, but I'm doing my best with some much-needed time management.

The fair Leila requires her daily exercise. So do I. So I've combined them into my new regime -- no less than an hour of non-stop walking around the streets of Rye and Harrison and occasionally Mamaroneck*, at a brisk and calorie-consuming pace of 4 mph, apart from those days when I'm dragging children behind me. With varying four-mile loops plotted on Google Earth.

Ah, but it doesn't stop there -- that's also a good hour for thinking and planning and plotting, with the blood gushing through my brain and my lungs filled with air. Or I can listen to informative BBC and NPR podcasts on the iTouch, which did dry out after its recent dunking in the john. Or I can make a personal phone call or two, as long as the person at the other end doesn't mind the heavy breathing or the pause (and sound effects) when I have to gather dog poop.

(Given the praise she gets when she delivers and the care with which I pick up after her and carry it away in those little blue New York Times bags, Leila must think I'm some kind of collector.)

Sometimes I get more exercise than planned. A couple of weeks ago, I was about two-thirds of the way around my loop when I noticed my glasses, which I'd hooked over the neckline of my shirt, were missing. I turned around and retraced my steps, scanning the ground. Amazingly, I found them in the middle of the sidewalk, just a hundred yards from home. It would have been quicker to complete the original circuit and then go round a second time. Instead I covered five and a half miles that day.

Yesterday, the same thing happened. This time I was going the opposite way round the same loop, but two-thirds into it, I looked down at my jeans pocket and realized my new pedometer must have fallen off. Again, reverse course, retrace steps, study the sidewalk fruitlessly, get home after a much longer walk than planned. But I found this missing item, too. I'd dropped it on the bedroom floor.

*I like Mamaroneck because it's easy to spell. Just one consonant per syllable. None of that confusing Massachusetts or Mississippi stuff.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

And they say it's snooker that's the sign of a misspent youth.

I'm telling the boys about the movie trivia game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." (Very happy that Secundus immediately spots the assonant similarity between "Kevin Bacon" and the word "Separation" from the original phrase. He also thinks Bacon is a funny name.)

Ignoring their initial challenges -- I'm not sure that Miley Cyrus or Miranda Cosgrove* have exactly the body of work that makes this worthwhile --they give me John Cleese to Harrison Ford.

Hmmm. But I got a three-degree answer within two minutes: John Cleese was in Rat Race with Rowan Atkinson; Atkinson was the comic relief in Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery; Connery was in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Harrison Ford.

What pleases me is not the speed, which was only average, but the unlikely members of the chain: Basil Fawlty -- Mr. Bean -- James Bond -- Indiana Jones.

(This morning, while walking the dog, I got that elusive two-degree solution -- I don't think there's a one-degree, because I don't believe Cleese and Ford were ever co-stars. Cleese was in Time Bandits with Kenny Baker as one of the dwarves; Baker was inside R2-D2 in the original Star Wars trilogy with Ford as Han Solo. Of course, Sean Connery was also in Time Bandits, so I could have just skipped Blackadder in the earlier chain.)

Am I boring you?

*She did do a voice in Despicable Me, which connects her to Dame Julie Andrews, no less. And that's a link to the Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester in Mary Poppins.) And, incidentally, to John Cleese in Shrek 2.

Later addition: Okay, I had to hit up the Internet Movie Data Base to see what Miley Cyrus could offer in her brief movie career. She did a voice in Bolt, which connects her to John Travolta, who starred in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, which featured a guest appearance by second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin. (Two steps.) You can also get through Travolta to Abe Vigoda (Looks Who's Talking.) And to Jamie Lee Curtis (Perfect) who was in A Fish Called Wanda with  . . . John Cleese.

But the scariest is that Malcolm McDowell also did a voice in Bolt, and he starred in Caligula, which also featured Sir John Gielgud. The greatest Hamlet of his time to Hannah Montana in just two steps. Oy.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Cereal filler.

Doing a Whole Foods run to equip the kitchen, I also load up on my favorite breakfast cereal, a nutritious blend of kamut, spelt, and quinoa, which doesn't taste like an Ikea tabletop and which, combined with say banana slices, blueberries, and blackberries and a sprinkling of toasted wheatgerm is the perfect way to start the day, unless of course there's cold mushroom pizza in the fridge.

When Tertius was in nursery school, he dictated the captions for a clutch of his drawings that were bound into a book and presented to me for Fathers Day. It all seemed a pretty accurate assessment, until it got to my favorite food. His teacher had transcribed that I "like to eat Harry T. Jones."

More recent portraits of me by Tertius.
A little distracted by the homoerotic overtones of this observation, I protested that I didn't know anyone called Harry T. Jones even to talk to, let alone, well . . . (The nearest name in my experience was "F. Harry Stowe," which isn't a person but the way to pronounce the Greek word for "thank you." Benefits of a classical education, which I freely bestow on you, dear reader. Oh, you're welcome.)

It took me a while to realize that Tertius had quite accurately offered up the name of this Cheerios-shaped breakfast cereal. It's called  "Heritage O's."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's (something, something) gone mad, I tell you.

From the instructions for a new purchase:

"Use a qualified electrician for installation of this lighting fixture.
Before installing fixture disconnect power by turning the circuit breaker or by removing the fuse at the fuse box . . ."

It was only a bloody reading lamp!

Mind you, it reminds me of the joke: How many Rye housewives does it take to change a light-bulb?

Two. One to call the electrician and one to mix the cocktails.

Somebody has to write this stuff.

Another mindbender, this time on a webpage for an end-table. (Clearly, I'm furniture shopping.)

"Rustic cottage style for contemporary spaces."

Took me five goes to get "rustic" right. I must learn to type some day.

P.S. Just dropped my iTouch in the toilet. I had flushed already.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Words fail me. And the copywriter.

Seen on a furniture website, this highlighted feature of a club chair:

"Furniture piece is perfect for sitting down."

As opposed to all those other chairs that force you to . . .?  Oh, never mind, insert your own joke, it's too easy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Daily . . . Compliment, for once. I think.

Chatting with a friend (and blog follower) after attending a meeting at Rye's City Hall -- the only person I know in Rye who also knew my first wife, gosh, twenty years ago. She expresses mild surprise that some of the women in my life have concluded that I'm completely superfluous to their requirements. (As the publishers' rejection letters put it, I did not meet their needs at this time.)

"I mean," she says, "you're not exactly an ax-murderer."

And there we have it. My complete epitaph, combining this passing compliment with an older comment about my recorded narration of a young adult novel, which I mentioned in a much earlier blog:


Sunday, October 17, 2010

There IS a leopard on your roof.

Last night's movie for the boys was Howard Hawks's classic comedy Bringing Up Baby. Black and white from 1938, but they loved it.

Every time I see this movie, I'm smitten all over again by Katherine Hepburn's irresistible Susan Vance. I often feel as bewildered by life as Cary Grant's hapless character (and I have a pair of glasses like the ones he eventually breaks), but unfortunately, that's where the resemblance to one of my favorite actors ends.

Screenwriters Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde reportedly fell in love while writing this movie. It shows.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Hardscribble life.

I have the world's worst handwriting. I can't even decipher it myself. Just found last week's shopping list on a Post-It note stuck inside my billfold, and I had to stare at it for several seconds to figure out why I'd wanted to buy "succor." (If only you could get that at Stop & Shop.) Turned out to be "scissors."
Think I'm kidding?

But I was truly flummoxed by seeing the name of Ari Fleischer on my list of needs, even though the former press secretary for W is, I believe, a Westchester resident and as a media consultant is clearly for sale, so it wasn't entirely impossible.

I finally figured out that what I read as "Ari Fleischer" was actually "Air Freshener."

Friday, October 15, 2010

What was that quote about the intelligence of the American people?*

Brain-hurting endorsement spotted on the packaging of some "As seen on TV" gadget I didn't want in Bed, Bath & Beyond: "Pitchman Approved!"

To misquote a likely misquoted Abraham Lincoln: You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time . . . and that's clearly good enough for most purposes.

*"No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Not P.T. Barnum. Not Mark Twain. It was attributed to H.L. Mencken.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Any writer will tell you that a new project begins with the hunt for perfect stationery. It's procrastination disguised as work.

So I'm in Staples, failing to find a 9" x 6.5", five-subject college-ruled notebook with poly cover, preferably purple, for outlining my next book,* when I notice another large notebook, with an alternative binding to the usual spiral of black-plastic-covered metal. It's described, therefore, as "wireless."

I resist the temptation to buy one for Primus and tell him I got him the "wireless notebook" I know he wants.

*I actually have six ideas for the next novel, only one of them an Oliver Swithin story.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Words to live by. Or are they?

I don't contribute to my facebook account much, mainly because I'm too long-winded to fit my comments into those little boxes. That's what this blog is for, suckers. I don't check in very often either, largely because I don't care that some "friend" of a "friend" got a good night's sleep or now likes Febreze.* (And don't get me started on my nephews' open love letters to their girlfriends.)

But the profile page encourages you to add a favorite saying or quotation. My friend Maureen gave me a ceramic plaque with this mystery-writer's twist on existentialism: "It is what it is. Or is it?" which is now hanging over the mantelpiece of my new abode.

I was tempted by this, but for facebook, I went for this attributable variation on the same Fate-defying theme: "One never knows, do one?" courtesy of that frequent visitor to my CD-player, the ever-magnificent Mr. Thomas James "Fats" Waller.

This morning, however, I did waver for a second in my fidelity to Fats when I heard someone say: "I know it's just my opinion, but . . . I'm right." I'll be using that.

P.S. This reminder did come out of a recent facebook exchange: It's four years old, but if you've never seen and rejoiced in the lovely Feist's version of "1234" for Sesame Street, you're a complete loser. Hang on for the final frame, where she reacts to a good take.

(It's even better if you've already seen the popular original video for "1234," so simple, only one uninterrupted shot with the tiniest atom of digital manipulation, but one of the best videos ever. I know it's only my opinion, but . . .)

*I like Febreze.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Stop following me.

Kohl's is a remarkable store. By some miracle of retail management, they always manage to have exactly two checkout assistants fewer than is needed at any time, no matter what the customer volume. That takes skill. (It's certainly harder than Petco's approach, which is to have exactly zero.)

Why Britney? Well, I Googled the phrase "Kohl's checkout line" to find an illustration for this post, and this was the third image that came up. (The first was a picture of a J.C. Penney store.) Guests should go figure.
But waiting on line (as opposed to online) to pay for wineglasses gives you time to reflect on the extraordinary fact that, despite having the largest vocabulary of any language, English has very few true synonyms. By which I mean there are tiny shades of difference in meaning and of usage that prevent even the most closely related words from being interchangeable on all occasions. Take "little" and "small." You can waste a "little time" on line for a register to open up, but to waste a "small time" doesn't sound quite right.

And as one-by-one, the line ahead of you is gradually whittled down, you also get several opportunities to cringe every time you hear the standard corporate script Kohl's has clearly issued its employees: "Following guest, please."

Now let's leave aside that, as a "guest," I generally expect to have someone hand me a drink as soon as I cross the threshold, and then possibly the host will wash my feet with his or her hair, weeping over the inadequacy of the amenities. It's not a term I expect from an institution that exists to remove my credit card from my pocket and wring it dry.

(Bearing in mind that the checkout is further slowed by trying to get each punter to apply for a Kohl's credit card every time and by an encouragement to go online and rate their 30-second performance. Okay, you didn't drop my glassware and you didn't bite me in the neck. Gold star, then. You don't even have to make change. Why is it that every transaction these days -- on the phone, in a store, on a website -- requires marking?)

But that "following" sounds wrong, too, although I can't exactly articulate why. I think it's the fact that it's asking you to self-identify yourself as "following" in the present tense; in other words, I wouldn't describe myself as following until after I've followed. "Following" is not synonymous with "next," which is the word they really want.

"Who's following?" sounds weird when you want to ask "Who's next?" "I'm the next in line," I may shout irritably at the seven-foot, ape-like queue-jumper with the swastika tattooed on his forehead -- or maybe not. But were I to say "I'm the following in line," he would probably wince and call weakly for some sal volatile.

Are you following me? Oh, it's good stuff, this, isn't it? Tell your friends.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Fulminating about poor typography a couple of posts ago, and throwing in a reference to blackletter, reminded me of a quote from the great American type designer Frederic Goudy.

("Blackletter" is a generic term for those Old English or Germanic typefaces that seem inspired by the handwriting of monks in illuminated manuscripts. Like lower case fonts, it looks better when the letters are set without too much air between them.)

The apocryphal story is that Goudy's comment was inspired by an award he had received for his contributions to typography. He was honored by the recognition, but glancing critically at the specially made certificate, he added in an aside: "Anyone who'd letterspace blackletter would f*ck a sheep."
This fairly famous quote has been cleaned up in other versions, but trust me, this is what he meant.
Blackletter is almost unreadable set in all caps, too, but fortunately, she doesn't have to look at it. How long did it take you to decipher?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

All we are saying . . .

 . . . is happy 70th, John.

"They killed him you know, at least he didn't die alone did he? Merry Churstchove,  . . . old pal buddy."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Out with the old, in with the old.

A long-lost favorite haunt in Manhattan was a diner just south of Columbus Circle, whose name was an odd combination of past, present, and future: The Cosmic Coffee Shoppe.

You picture thatched tea-rooms on ye olde Planet Mars, with mylar cozies, freeze-dried tang-flavored scones, and a fat marmalade cat in a space helmet.

Reminded of this retro-futurism because, across the street from my new abode, is the hideously named Rye ExecuPlaza.*

Only it doesn't say "rye execuplaza" on the untrendy all-lower-case sign. (In the Avant Garde typeface? In the twenty-first century? Give me a break, you might as well put it in blackletter. Or entirely in upper case Old English.)

The r in "rye" is missing.

So imagine a medieval wandering knight, seeking damsels to slay and dragons to woo, trotting up to a bleak castle and demanding to know of the castellan if he's seen a flock of grails go by.

"Alack, good Sir Knighte," sighs the head guard, after the required banter about swallows carrying coconuts. "Thou hast just missed his nibbes. But hist, dogge! Thee might find him at his counting-house. Down yon lane, in Ye Execuplaza.**"

*Or Execuplaza or Execu-plaza or execuplaza, depending on where it's listed. Honestly, the tin-eared property development Philistines who came up with this monstrosity -- and no doubt thought it justified their fees -- might at least be consistent in the way they're effing up the English language. How about bringing a poet to one of those meetings?

**Mentioning only that the "ye" as in "Ye Olde iPadde Shoppe" should be pronounced "the," and not like the old form of "you," which is a different word. In the "Ye Olde . . ." case, the Y is not our modern letter y, but a representation of a symbol called a "thorn," which made the "th" sound in Old and Middle English. It had largely died out by the time of Caxton, so when the early printers needed to include it, they used a y instead. So it's their fault, the lazy bastards.
The "curse" on Shakespeare's tomb, which he didn't write and which was pretty standard practice for the time, so that well-off ex-parishioners could hold on to their prime spots inside the church and not have their remains dug up by venal vicars and dumped in the charnel house as soon as another cash-paying stiff came along demanding altar-front property to decompose in. It includes several Y's representing the "th" sound. (That Y with a little T over it stands for Yat, meaning "that," pronounced "that.") For more about this inscription, see Alan Beechey's novel This Private Plot. Oh, wait, I forgot to finish it.