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.