Monday, January 31, 2011

I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I'd rather dance with the cows till you come home.

Sunday's movie is the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, made in 1933, the same year as the pioneering King Kong. Good to see three modern-day brothers laughing in hysterics at jokes made nearly eighty years ago. Since it comes in at just over an hour (the King Kong remake was over three hours), they feel a bit cheated, so while I make dinner, they all opt to watch it a second time. Just as funny, especially the classic mirror sequence.

See, being a transplanted Brit, I can't explain the infield fly rule*, and I don't even know for sure who's playing in the Superbowl next weekend.  But I can still make sure my kids get the benefits of a classical education. Even if it includes Zeppo.

Horse Feathers next. Trivia point: There was an earlier, silent movie called Duck Soup. It starred Laurel and Hardy.

*I can explain the offside rule in soccer.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Is this the moving picture ship?

Weeks ago, our movie of the week from my home collection was the original 1933 King Kong, forever one of my favorites.

This weekend, we watch Peter Jackson's excellent 2005 remake -- spectacular, flawlessly researched, and deeply respectful of its trailblazing ancestor. Afterward, I ask the guys which they prefer, expecting the stunning computer graphics and much longer action sequences of the newer version to eclipse the crude old black-and-white original. But all three of them say that, much as they enjoyed the new movie, they still liked the classic better.

Throughout the viewing, Tertius's running commentary refers to Kong as a "monkey." I explain that Kong, being a giant gorilla, is actually an ape. Never one to pass up the opportunity for a little pedagogy, I follow up with some zoological basics.

"What does a monkey have that an ape doesn't?" I quiz him.

He thinks for a second. "A banana," he replies.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The daily insult.

I have an idea for a children's science fiction book, and over dinner, I'm consulting the boys about what could be in it.

"I know," exclaims Tertius. "You could have Area 51, and everyone in it is 51 years of age, so they're all very old." And he does his impression of an old man, shuffling around with a cane.

"You do know that Dad is 54," remarks Secundus.

Tertius thinks. "Okay, then we'll call it Area 52."

Monday, January 24, 2011

More than "I" will stand for.

Puzzling instruction on the webpage for Jersey Insight, the telephone company for the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands. I'm trying to look up my friend Gillian's home phone number, and it gives me this protocol for the typing her name into the box:

"Person or a business by full name (e.g. A.Smith)" (My emphasis.)

Maybe it only works for Bea Arthur or Kay Parker.

Friday, January 21, 2011


At the hairdresser's today, I catch sight of this headline on the cover of the new Westchester Homes magazine: "Interior Designers' Own Homes -- When Designers are Their Own Clients."

Choosing how to decorate your own home. I may be missing the point here, but isn't that how most of us have to do it?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Short, fat, hairy legs.

Back after a break.

Over the holiday, I managed to see "Eric & Ernie," the new BBC TV biopic about the early days of Britain's greatest double-act and most beloved comedians, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. A truly wonderful piece of film-making, endearing but without being sentimental, and helmed by a fine performance by comedian and writer Victoria Wood as Eric's pushy stage mother. (Victoria had the idea for the film in the first place.)

A companion documentary charts the pair's progress from where the biopic left off, and reflects on what made them so memorable and so influential. (Their humor stayed on the right side of the Atlantic, so to give American readers of this blog some perspective, Morecambe and Wise are as important in Britain as Laurel and Hardy are in the history of American comedy. Except that Stan Laurel is also English.)

Ernie Wise, Eddie Braben, and Eric Morecambe
Their glory days on British television came in the 1970s, largely because of the genius of their writer, Eddie Braben. Although Eric and Ernie are long gone (Eric died in 1984, Ernie in 1999), Braben is still with us, aged 80, and concludes the documentary with this magnificent thought on the widespread popularity and legacy of the duo. Certainly an inspiration for me as a comic writer.

“How’s this for an ego trip?" he says. "Sometimes, I can see a group of people at a bus stop. I think to myself, you may not know it, and you don’t know me, but at some time in your lives, I’ve made you smile.”

G - I know you've got more pressing things to do than read this, but in case you do, here's yet another vibe for a fast recovery. The title of this entry -- a Morecambe and Wise catchphrase, as I don't have to inform you -- clearly doesn't apply to you.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A loss to the world of mystery.

A million years ago, I was a St. Martin's Press author. My books were acquired and shepherded by the great Ruth Cavin, truly the doyenne of mystery editors, and a wonderful, kind woman who wasn't shy of giving me a penciled "Oh Alan, for shame!" comment in the margin of a draft when she came across one of my more egregious puns. With her guidance, St. Martin's remained a perennial supporter of the mystery novel and particularly encouraged the development of young, emerging writers.

Sadly, the news comes today of her passing at the age of 92, working till the end. Click here for an informed tribute that says it better than I can -- she was the world's nicest person.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The daily insult.

I'm giving the boys a little television history, telling them that when cable arrived, the profusion of channels created a huge appetite for programming, and long-forgotten TV series were dug up and dusted off to fill the available space. Those "Tom and Jerry" cartoons they love could be seventy years old (and, of course, first appeared in movie theaters). And now "Wacky Races" is back, which I used to see when I was Primus's age. Still can't do a decent rendition of Mutley's laugh, alas.

"Did you watch a lot of television back then?" Secundus asks. "Not a lot," I reply virtuously, although England in the 1960s had a grand total of two channels, so children's programing was limited to little more than an hour a day.

"I guess you had to look out for the pterodactyls," he sighs.

You know, sometimes they're trying too hard to get into this blog. That's why I ignored it when Primus, phoning in on the drive back from visiting their grandparents in Virginia, made of point of telling me that Washington, D.C. offers funeral insurance.

I changed my razor blade the other day, and was astounded at the difference it made. The new blade was so smooth it was just gliding across my cheek, with no drag whatsoever.

Then I realized I'd installed it upside down.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New York. Funny place.

Making up the caption for the last blog entry reminded me of my favorite entry ever in New York magazine's regular competition.

The task was to mash up two works of literature and come up with a new one. This one didn't win, but I thought it was the best: Portrait of a Lady as a Young Man by Henry James Joyce.

(Or maybe it was Portrait of a Young Man as a Lady. Doesn't flow so well -- that missing "the Artist as" is more obvious -- but funnier that way round, for some cultural reason. Performing en travestie can be charming. Being in drag is hilarious.)

Fun . . . .                                                                    Funnier!

The New York competition ended in 2000, when Mary Ann Madden retired and was pronounced irreplaceable. So now you have no excuse if you're caught heading straight for the LBGT personals at the back of the magazine. And perhaps you don't need one.

I only ever had one entry published, and then it was edited. We were invited to send famous quotations, ruined by the substitution of one word for another. I submitted the opening lines of T.S. Eliot's Prufrock, rewritten as: "Let us go then, you and me . . ." But Mary Ann thought she could go one better, and printed it as: "Let us go then, you and myself . . ."

(Frankly, I think my original solecism is less egregious, but more likely, and therefore subtler.)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Two unpublished highlights of 2010.

Not one of my better years, 2010. (That little rhetorical device of shifting the subject to the end of the sentence means I don't have to start it with a numeral, because some style books tell me I'd have to spell out 2010.) But here are a couple of high spots I didn't blog at the time.

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Git, by Secundus, November
The great poet Ogden Nash was born in Rye, although he is notoriously unsung in the town of his youth. I'm taking it on myself to redress the balance in 2011, and I'm pleased to say that I already have the Rye Arts Center and the Rye Historical Society on my side. Now I just want the Rye City Council to wake up and rename the place "Nashville."*

Regular readers will be hearing more of our city's Nashional Deficit. In connection with these ventures, I've been in contact with Nash's granddaughter, Frances Smith, who is also a conduit to her mother, Linell Nash Smith, Ogden's surviving daughter, subject of many of his verses, and herself an author and editor of her father's magnificent body of work.

In the course of our correspondence, I rather immodestly drew Frances's attention to my very minor Nash pastiche "Ode to My Bitch," which appeared on this blog in October. She showed it to her mother, and pronounced it "truly Nashian," adding ". . . we know ON would agree."

This could be the highest praise I have ever received in a lifetime of writing, so thank you both. And now I wish I'd given it a less tongue-in-cheek title.

The main house of Ogden's childhood was on property that abutted the railway tracks between Rye and Port Chester, the last stop In New York before crossing the Connecticut border.** So here's a pertinent and quintessentially Nashian limerick from Ms. Nash Smith's own selection of her father's poetry (not the book pictured above):
There was a brave girl of Connecticut
Who flagged the express with her pecticut,
Which her elders defined
As presence of mind,
But deplorable absence of ecticut.

The other event. I was called to jury duty early in the year, in Rye's own courthouse. On voir dire, I was asked if I knew anyone in law enforcement. I answered truthfully that I wasn't well acquainted with any member of the Rye Police Department, but that as a mystery novelist, many of my imaginary friends were police officers.

For some reason, defending counsel excused me shortly afterward. But it gave the judge a good laugh.

*Really, where? Is it famous for anything?

**Back in the early 1900s, ON's wealthy father, Edmund, had an arrangement with the engine drivers to make an unscheduled stop here so he could step out of the train in his own back yard.

This gravestone in the picture, photographed just after last week's blizzard, is shared between Ogden's parents, Edmund and Mattie, who are buried in Rye's Greenwood Union Cemetery. His uncle, aunt, and cousin lie nearby. The site is about one-third of a mile from where I sit writing this. It took three dog-walks, going up and down Greenwood's many paths and reading the names on all the headstones, before I finally found this -- the cemetery covers more than fourteen acres. I could have asked at the office, but where's the fun in that? You can click on the picture for a larger view.