Sunday, November 25, 2012

Beyond Agatha.

"You killed me!"
"Well, you killed me back!"

An overheard exchange that, I submit, has no meaning outside the world of video games.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

O Tertius, I stand on guard for thee.

Back to school. And nice to uncover a plot of disinformation in my own household, as over dinner, I find out that Primus (8th grade) and Secundus (6th grade) have convinced their little brother Tertius (4th grade) that Canada is a state.

Well, at least he's stopped calling it "Canadia."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Roll over, Heifetz.

Camps and vacations over, the boys focus on a new school term, Tertius showing great enthusiasm for fourth grade. He reminds me that he's signed up to learn the violin.

"You know what I like best about the violin?" he asks.

The timbre? The repertoire? The consonance? "What?" I reply.

"It comes in different colors," he says.

The son also rises.

We go to see The Dark Knight Rises, which holds the boys' attention, despite its nearly three-hour length. On the way home, we note where we may have seen the actors in other projects. Secundus has Morgan Freeman in Dolphin Tale,  and they may remember Gary Oldman in the Harry Potter series.

"And you recognized the man who played Alfred the butler, Sir Michael Caine?"

Secundus, on a roll, reluctantly admits defeat.

"'You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!'" I prompt by quoting The Italian Job, in an enviable and flawless Caine impression perfected by merely every other Englishman on the planet.

"Oh, I thought you meant the other Sir Michael Caine," he answers.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Oh, that wacky second amendment.

Crossing the family room without my reading glasses, I stub my foot badly on an unexpected item in the middle of the floor. It's Tertius's discarded nerf rifle, orange plastic camouflaged against the light wood floor. I'm going to lose a quadrant of the nail on my big toe, which is bleeding.

Tertius inspects the damage.

"I hope you didn't get any blood on my gun," he comments scathingly.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Do I hear a meep?

Secundus and Tertius have been playing with the hose and with water balloons in the backyard. After a break indoors -- during which Secundus is suspiciously elusive -- Tertius is persuaded to step outside the backdoor and wait.

A card descends on a length of string from the upstairs bathroom window. On in is written "Look up."

(On the reverse, just in case, it reads "Look on back of card.")

Tertius looks up.

A water balloon drops on his head.

Nice to know that an education based on Chuck Jones cartoons hasn't been wasted.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sticks are for fetching.

The Divine Leila's favorite thing is to ride shotgun in the minivan.

(What a crock. That's just one of her favorite things. But to list the preferences that would come first would mean identifying every form of small furry mammal on the planet -- squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, etc. -- and that could keep us here for some time. And you have other things to do, right? Note, I didn't say "better" things. Anyway, it also explains why I'm currently wearing a thumb-brace on my left hand, after the chipmunk-leash-off-balance-sidestep-fire-hydrant-flat-on-face incident.)

I may have mentioned this before, but Leila also has the irritating (but, to her, humorous) habit of shifting over to the driver's seat as soon as I leave the car, to the terror of oncoming motorist who don't realize we're parked.

I pointed this out to my friend Loren the other day, who asked if she can drive a stick shift.

Well, duh, of course not. Because she's a dog!

(An automatic is as much as she can manage, and her parallel parking still sucks.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Modern etiquette dilemmas, #138

Has this ever happened to you?

When I shook hands the other day with the Dad of one of my kid's friends, I found myself with a palm-full of his fingers.

And I had no idea if he was just a bit slow to prepare the open hand, if he was testing me for freemasonry, or if it was a misguided attempt by a white, middle-aged man to start one of those multi-stage finger-grasping exercises that really should be left to the brothers. (It's like trying to get bowing right if you're not Japanese. You can't.)

I just ignored it. Mind you, it reminded me of one of the jokes of my extended adolescence. You'd tuck in your middle finger when you shook hands firmly, lean toward your acquaintance, and whisper confidentially "Excuse the wart."

The best one of these was to keep shaking hands and not let go until it got seriously embarrassing. (A man is programmed not to pull out of a shake unilaterally -- the ending comes about by one of those inexplicable bits of telepathy that the social psychology department at my alma mater should be researching.) Then you'd say, shaking more firmly and a little more rapidly, "Oh, by the way, I'm from the planet Neptune. We have our sex organs in our hands." Well, it amused us for hours back in Hounslow.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Modern etiquette dilemmas, #137

I've never wanted fame, but I do relish those odd moments when I'm one degree of separation from it. Back in the 1970s, as a psychology undergraduate, I remember the weird thrill I got when our social psychology department at Oxford was featured in a Sunday newspaper, under the tired old trope of "look what ludicrous things these academics are spending public funds on."

In this case, it was a video camera that had been set up on an Oxford Street (London) pedestrian crossing to observe how people passed each other in public places. And while it was easy to ridicule, the post-grad researchers actually discovered some interesting stuff about human behavior.

So here's one valuable piece of advice that comes out of that study. You know those situations where you come face to face with someone coming in the opposite direction, and then you do that interminable little dance where you both try to pass on the same side for several iterations. (In the indispensable masterpiece The Meaning of Liff by the late Douglas Adams and the still-on-time John Lloyd, this is defined as a "Droitwich.")

Well, if it starts to happens to you, go to the right and stay there. Nips it in the bud every time.

The British taxpayers' money well spent.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

John, Paul, George, and Bonzo

"Na, na, na, na-na, na na
Na-na na na, Hey Jude"

It's Tertius's voice alone, but I'm assuming he's singing along with the Beatles on his iTouch.

It's a busy year to be a Brit, even a half-American expatriate, with the Dickens bicentenary, the Diamond jubilee, and the Olympics. And we're shortly heading into a slew of golden anniversaries for the Fab Four, kicking off -- pleasingly but utterly coincidentally -- on my birthday this year, with the fiftieth anniversary of the first photograph to include Ringo in the line-up.

Regular visitors to these parts will be satiated with my adoration of the Beatles, so let me instead send you to an essay for the BBC by that fine commentator, Adam Gopnik, that says it better than I could. But I note his point -- as Tertius demonstrates -- about the timeless appreciation of the group (the Beatles were never a "band," except when masquerading as Sergeant Pepper and his cronies):  If, like our children, we baby boomers had admired music that was coming to fruition half a century earlier, we'd have been singing songs from before World War I.

Yes, I'm often found in the shower warbling Vesta Victoria's "Look What Percy Picked Up in the Park." And who can forget Harry MacDonough's "When I Was Twenty-one and You Were Sweet Sixteen"? (Certainly not Harry, who got eighteen months without the option. At least John and Paul waited until she was just seventeen.*)

But in the way of things, another hit from 1912 was the American Quartet performing a barbershop arrangement of "Moonlight Bay." And somewhat later, with a somewhat different quartet, who had little use for a barbershop, unless of course it was showing photographs of every head the barber had the pleasure to know . . .


*Know what I mean?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

What ho, er, me.

I'm doling out the breakfast Frosted Mini-Wheats for Tertius, who then requests more milk than my initial libation. I comply.

"Thank you, Jeeves," he says.

Is there such a thing as too much P.G. Wodehouse?


Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Daily Insult. (Non-family version.)

The kids are with their mother on a visit to their grandparents. I get the opportunity to see a grown-up movie at the theater, the deeply satisfying The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Simply can't recommend this enough, just in case a cast that includes Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy isn't its own recommendation.

A well attended show in a smaller theater, average age considerably in advance of my own. Those announcements about not talking during the show duly ignored, as all the best lines are repeated aloud with chortles and then repeated again to companions who couldn't hear them the first time. Also any words on the screen are read aloud. I wish this were just a joke about older audiences, but, alas, it's true.

The insult? Oh, yes. As I buy my ticket, the vendor double checks that I mean a full-price ticket. Yes, I know the movie is about getting older, but I have ten years to go before I qualify for the senior discount, thank you.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

It's only rock and roll. I know.

Catching the season finale of "Saturday Night Live" on Hulu. (Well, it's past my bedtime to watch it live.) Our host and musical guest: Sir Mick Jagger. Who rules.

 I drag Tertius in to watch the second music spot, with Mick backed by the Foo Fighters doing a medley of "19th Nervous Breakdown" into "It's Only Rock and Roll." Does it get any better than this?

"What do you think?" I demand of my youngest scion.

"It's boring," he says.


"Yes, they keep singing the same words over and over."

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Steve Jobs legacy.

I'm at the ophthma . . .  the opthfma . . .  the othph . . .

I'm at the eye-doctor for my annual appointment, and I have to complete one of those questionnaires before we begin. The name of my vision care insurance isn't on my medical card, so I ask the assistant to remind me whose coverage I have. She tells me it's EyeMed.

Despite standing in Rye Eye Care, surrounded by frames, with an eye-test in my immediate future, I write "iMed" on the form.

I guess Apple has me where it wants me.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Daily Insult.

Over dinner at our local Asian fusion restaurant.

Tertius: Dad, what's on your bucket list?

Me: I don't have one yet.

Tertius (astounded): Why not?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Who needs Walmart?

In less than a year, I'll have lived in the United States for 30 years. It's already more than half my life. I'm an American citizen, as are my three kids. I even know all the words to the National Anthem. Well, I sometimes get the word order a bit muddled around that broad stars, bright stripes bit. . . uh, bright stars . . . white stripes . . . smashing pumpk--

(And, as I tell the offspring, even though they now dwell among the wicked investment bankers in the Marvelous Leafy Land of Rye -- "Greenwich Lite" -- they were all born in New York, New York. Manhattan. The center of the gosh-darn universe. In New York Hospital.)

But it's still a joy, every once in a while, to have a new classic American cultural experience. And a few weeks ago, my beloved goddaughter, Lily, celebrated her birthday in a Long Island establishment owned by a Mr. Charles (Chuck) E. Cheese.

Lily and her dad, my buddy Ryan
And it was great. Well-organized, clean, professional, decent pizza, plenty for the guys to do, well-trained and friendly staff. No complaints -- I just take my hat off, as I do for that other corporate Mouse, when a business sets out to do one thing well and succeeds.

So no satirical comments about the venue. Just a couple of observations. Like another first experience -- the observation of an amazing poufed-up and suspiciously dark-brown mullet haircut on a middle-aged customer, complete with a compensatory bald spot on the back.

And, as I was successfully bonding with Lily, whom I do not see anywhere near enough (and I'm sure my three other goddaughters, all teenagers now, could confirm my criminal elusiveness), having her little cousin come up to us, look at me critically, and ask: "Are you Lily's aunt?"

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Make a joke and I will sigh and you will laugh and I will cry. Or vice versa.

We never forced the boys into piano lessons, but there's always been an available keyboard or two around the house, with frequent urgings to play and offers of parental guidance. Yet no instinctive, budding Mozart has so far emerged, even though they all enjoy music.

Which is why it was inspiring to catch 13-year-old Primus hammering out a riff on the family room Casio the other day (hey, dude, there's a Steinway in the living room).

Even more inspiring to recognize it as almost exactly the rhythm and chord sequence of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid."

I was hoping for Vaughan Williams, but I guess Ozzy in the blood isn't so bad.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tales of the unexpected.

The young gentleman are going to Disneyland with their mother for the Easter break. As I drive them over, Tertius solemnly hands me a wooden rod from the back seat of the car, the size of a longish baton.

"What's this?" I ask.

"It's the handle from the toilet plunger," he says, with the "duh!" subtext clear.

"Well, how did it get here?" I splutter.

"Oh, I took it."

"Why? And where's the rest of it?"

He looks at me strangely. "In the closet where it's supposed to be, of course."

Duh, indeed.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

I'm sorry, darling, but the part of Nana is already taken.

A true and wondrous shaggy dog story. Secundus's fifth-grade play is the musical version of Peter Pan, a hugely accomplished and enjoyable production, in which all the children in the grade take part. (S is the pirate Starkey.)

Having watched the first evening performance from the front, I had happily volunteered to help wrangle the large cast of ten- and eleven-year-olds behind the scenes for the next night's performance, a role that principally involves saying "Shhhh!" a lot. We're about halfway through the show, and the long corridor that runs past the stage entrance is momentarily devoid of pirates, Indians, or Lost Boys, who are either onstage or shut in the gym. It's a rare moment of peace.

I look up and see a dog, padding along the corridor toward us. A Golden Retriever. Alone.

Dogs are not allowed in school. Not even during theatrical performances. Even Nana, the Darling family's nursemaid Newfoundland, is played by a boy in this production.

A couple of us intercept the beast, who is docile and friendly and seems pleased to have some attention.

And then one of the girls recognizes it. "It's Hilary's dog!" she cries, referring to the talented young student who is that night's Wendy. An examination of the dog's collar reveals that it is indeed the redoubtable Scout. But how did he get here?

"Shall we tell Hilary?" another girl asks. "No!" the grown-ups respond quickly, not wanting to distract her from her performance. Nor, we decide, should we tell Hilary's mother, one of the two hard-working and inspirational moms who were the guiding lights of the show, now contentedly sitting with the rest of the family in the audience, unaware that she should have saved a seat for a late-arriving canine member.

One of the mothers backstage finds a necktie to use as a leash, and I keep Scout distracted while she tries to telephone the family's neighbor, who is able to come to the school and take him home. The play continues to the end, and Hilary -- unaware of the backstage drama -- gets to enjoy the well-deserved standing ovation, along with the rest of the cast and her mom.

Here's what we think happened. Hilary's family lives in a house next to a pathway that runs into the school grounds. Scout must have have gotten out, taken a fairly familiar route, and finding the cafeteria doors open to let in some air on this warm evening, trotted into the school looking for company.

Of course, we could be fanciful and believe he knew mighty things were happening that night, and he was determined to share in his family's triumph. (After all, if he'd chosen the previous evening for his escapade, he'd have seen a different Wendy.) So he took the second star on the right and went straight on till morning. Yes, that must be it.

Ah, but there's an even spookier aspect to this story. Because the cafeteria was set up for the cast party, which immediately followed that night's performance. And Scout managed to walk all the way across the room . . . without pausing to eat the cake!

(Cue Twilight Zone music.)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Alan versus Retail -- A New Hope

I've finished my shopping in Target, and I notice that my cart has only about ten items in it, ranging in size from a Kit-Kat bar to a big box for my goddaughter's third birthday. So I join the express lane.

Halfway through checking me out, the sales assistant says caustically -- at a level designed to be heard by the people waiting on line -- "I don't know if you can read, sir, but the notice says '10 items or less.'"

"I don't have more than ten items," I answer, slightly thrown by her rudeness.

She's not letting it go. She checks the register. "It's six already . . . " she says, and looks back at the belt, "and you have one, two, three . . . oh . . "

"Four more, which makes ten," I say, at a level designed to be heard by the people waiting on line. I crank up the English accent. "And I do know how to read, thank you for asking." The woman who's behind me suppresses a smile. I'm on a roll.

Ah, but how far can I take this? The famous Alan Bennett line, when reminded that the word "knickers" begins with a k, not an n: "Yes, I was at Oxford, it was one of the first things they taught me"?

Or even: "In fact, I can read well enough to know that sign should say '10 items or fewer.'"

But then the sales assistant mutters that she's sorry, so I guess there's an end to it. She even wishes me a pleasant day as I depart, so I don't even complain that her idea of bagging is to slide a packet of raw ground turkey into the same bag as some children's books. It's not as if I envy her job.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A judgment for the plaintiff.

It was the annual Westchester Young Authors Conference this week, the fourth time I've had the privilege to run a couple of workshops on mystery writing for the cream of the county's ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade creative writers. The usual great audience. (Well, I'll maintain that until I see their evaluations.)

A touching moment at the end. A young man, who had been an active and enthusiastic participant in the workshop, came up to me as the students were leaving, and asked me if I'd heard of Perry Mason. Of course, I said yes, but didn't mention that I'd even referred to the sublime literary lawyer in a blog just a few days earlier.

"The author is my great-uncle," the young man tells me, with noticeable pride, and I spot then on his name-tag that his family name is Gardner, although his parents had the good taste not to burden him with either Erle or Stanley as a first name. (Apologies to any current high school kids who rejoice in those given names, and my sympathies for the times you had your hair washed in the toilet.)

He leaves, clutching my reading list. Ah, if only his uncle's name was on it, an unforgivable oversight.

I even used to own a first edition* of The Case of the Cautious Coquette, complete with this wonderfully erotic dust jacket, very daring for 1949. (That was long before Psycho, when all women in America stopped showering for ten years.)

*Lost it in a divorce.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Alan versus Retail, the struggle continues.

It was said of the Divine Leila that her gullet was never darkened by a kibble.

So I check out at Petco with my two 33-pound bags of Solid Gold dry food -- she's particularly partial to "Barking at the Moon," but then aren't we all? -- and I take the receipt.

"Thank you," I mutter.

"No problem," replies the sales assistant.

No problem? Whatever happened to "you're welcome"? I may have disturbed your texting about the secret sex life of gerbils and insisted you drag yourself halfway across the store to open one of the deserted cash registers, just so I could selfishly, oh, leave sometime before midnight, but seeing as I've just ratcheted up the equivalent of the Gross National Product of Benin, you bet it's no effing problem.

Since when did doing your job become doing the customer a favor? I'm not begging for a "Oh no, thank you, guv'nor, and that's a very nice jacket, if I may so so, Milord, how much did that cost, eh?" -- if I want that, I could go to the Bloomingdale's menswear department -- but a simple grunt would do.

 * * * * *

And call me old-fashioned, but I do think it's up to the management to make sure a new employee knows the word "butter" before he's put on the counter of a bagel store.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

You should-a heard him round about one-thirty.

One consolation of doing the grocery shopping in the Harrison A&P: hearing Keith's opening riff to the Stones' "Brown Sugar" over the store speakers.

And oddly enough, I was in the baking needs aisle at the time.

Three minutes of bliss. Glad I didn't die before I got old.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Wisdom of Tertius

 . . . explaining a convenient short-term memory discrepancy:

"When you're eating a brownie, it's hard to think about anything other than brownies."

Friday, March 9, 2012

To everything, there is a season.

Good to know it's not just Buicks . . .

I drove several miles along Route 127, following a Porsche Boxster, whose driver was clearly unaware his right turn signal was flashing. ("His?" "Yes, of course, 'his,' it's a Boxster in Westchester.")

Monday, March 5, 2012

How cordiale was my entente.

Prolific conservative commentator Paul Johnson, on a recent edition of the BBC's "Desert Island Discs," asked how many words he can produce in a day, now that he has reached his eighties.

"I can write up to 5,000. Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I knew when I lived in Paris, could write 20,000 words in a day!" [Beat.] "Of course, he was writing in French."

Friday, March 2, 2012

Life with Tertius

I'm sliding a freshly filled ice cube tray into the freezer when I find something blocking it. Reaching in, I extract a roll of socks, nested like a matryoshka doll and frozen solid.

No need for an inquisition to locate the culprit. "Did you do this?" I demand, for form's sake, dangling the icy evidence in front of eight-year-old Tertius.

"Awesome!" he exclaims.

(It's hard to be stern in the face of such cheerful enthusiasm.)

- - - - 

"Go and brush your teeth," I tell Tertius, before leaving for school.

"I have already," he says.

"I don't think you did -- you haven't been upstairs long enough."

"I did!" he maintains.

"No, he didn't, Dad," comments Secundus, the Adjudicator. "He just wets his toothbrush, without using any toothpaste."

"I don't!" wails Tertius.

"I've seen you do it."

"You can't have done, I haven't even been in the bathroom!"

Perry Mason would have a field day.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

President Santorum. Did that scare you enough?

From the Department of Gross Electoral Oversimplification.
  • Even when there's a third-party candidate, such as Perot or Nader, the Democratic percentage of the popular vote has never dipped below 40% since 1940 (apart from 37% for McGovern in 1972).
  • At the same time, the Republican percentage of the popular vote has never dipped below 40% either (apart from 38% for Goldwater in 1964 and 37% for Bush senior in 1992).
  • So you can count on at least 80% of the voting population being either hardline conservatives or knee-jerk liberals, at least in their unwavering support of their party's nominee, whoever he is.
  • But, mathematically, neither group alone is big enough to win a two-party election. And even when Bill Clinton was in a three-way with both the insurgent Ross Perot and the incumbent President Bush in 1992, he still got 43% of the popular vote.
  • So it's the remainder, that shifting middle 20% of party-switchers and independents, who effectively tip the election to the left or right. And with the Electoral College system, that slight tip can become an almighty crash. Ask Al Gore.
  • Now, given that Obama is -- so far -- the unchallenged Democratic candidate, let's look at the Republicans (if we must).  Roughly one-third of all self-identified Republicans actually turn out to vote in the primaries. That's only about 8% of the voting-age population. 
  • We can't assume that these active, primary-voting Republicans are also the most conservative. (Nor can we assume they're representative of Republicans in general.) But it's clear that any Republican candidate who can put together a platform that appeals to, say, just 5% of US voters can secure the presidential nomination. Not exactly a ringing endorsement on the national stage.

Rick Santorum is clearly hoping that his 5% are sitting at that far end of the spectrum, at least in terms of sexual, reproductive, and gender politics.

But getting the nomination is one thing. Winning the presidency is quite different.

As you can see, a candidate's target audience before the nomination-- the non-apathetic party faithful -- is quite different from his (and I truly wish I could add "or her") audience after the nomination: the thoughtful, persuadable middle ground. Sure, by just getting on the ticket, they automatically pass Go and collect their 40% of party-line voters. (I'm one, on the grounds that I'd sooner marry a Kardashian than ever vote Republican; however, since I only became a citizen in 2005, that's been one no-brainer presidential vote for Obama.)

But that won't get them elected. So we get to witness that amazing shift after the conventions, when the chosen candidates "reach out" into the no man's land of the central undecided, suddenly softening their extreme messages and singing hymns of praise to compromise and bipartisanship. Some of them mean it. Some of them (Dubya) don't (Dubya).

Mitt Romney can clearly do this. Heck, he's already done it, no matter how hard he tries to cover up his record.

But suppose Santorum prevails? How on earth is he going to equivocate to make his ludicrous conservative, counter-sexual-revolutionary, homophobic platform in any way acceptable to the -- by definition -- average American? Who now, according to the latest polls (I checked!) favors gay marriage, overwhelmingly practices contraception, and is marginally pro-choice.

Can we take heart, therefore, from the fact that Rick seems unelectable? The 52% of voters who were born with a uterus should guarantee this. But remember, the Equal Rights Amendment wasn't defeated by the all-boys club in Congress. It was brought down by one (well-funded) conservative Catholic woman.

It's getting interesting . . .

Saturday, February 18, 2012

So would the Rebecca Black be the cheese or the turkey?

A local bagel store names its special sandwiches after iconic figures in music. For lunch today, I had the "Eric Clapton" tuna melt, but I really like the "Robert Johnson"* nova and cream cheese, because it includes capers.

 But, despite the erroneous urban legend, is it bad taste that they call the chicken cutlet bagel the "Mama Cass"?

*Pausing merely to shove in one of my occasional plugs for my old schoolfriend, Robb Johnson, one of the all-time great songwriters, who comes immediately after Robert on my sadly alphabetized CD shelves, but who manages to be a ridiculously good guitarist without going down to crossroad to sell his soul to the devil. At least, he's never mentioned it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

My life as a dog-walker.

Crisp, clear, winter mornings. Pale sun. Rye's Playland Beach at shimmering low tide, open for dogs to hurtle, sniff, and socialize. Leila, unfettered, joyously runs two hundred yards across the damp sand to chase a flock of seagulls.*  Stands in the freezing ocean up to her belly, puzzled by flight. Later, leaps into the passenger seat of the Starship Minnie, dripping sand, sea, and snow, panting and happy.

But other days, we still pound the streets at a brisk trot, so that her person can get as much exercise as she does. Today, crossing a City parking lot, I happen to glance down. She looks back warily, a slice of pizza mysteriously clamped between her jaws.

*The birds, not the 80s New Wave band.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The joys of modern parenting, part 37

We gather to watch the Giants triumph in the Superbowl. At one point, Eli Manning gets sacked, and the boys' mother lets out an involuntary swearword, which I don't catch, but Primus picks up on with a huge grin.

"What did she say?" I ask.

"Not one of the two curse words that [eight-year-old Tertius] uses all the time," Secundus informs me.

Alas, this is enough for me to identify the expletive. Double alas, so too does Tertius, who proceeds to tell me what I've missed.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Tintin has a lot to answer for.

We finally get to see Martin Scorcese's Hugo, a genuine masterpiece and a paean to the pioneering Georges Melies, which holds the boys spellbound by the power of great storytelling alone -- no vampires, wizards, or giant robots.

But as Scorcese introduces us to the denizens of the 1930s Parisian train station, Secundus leans in and asks "These are real people, right?"

Yes. Although you probably know Sacha Baron Cohen best as a lemur.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Department of things that make me happy.

Hearing that a seventh-grader at the Middle School has decorated the inside of her locker, including adding a carpet and a chandelier. Style.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"I like to sing in the shower." "Oh yes, what do you like to sing?*"

I suppose that with the vile excrescences and exudations of male adolescence fast approaching, the fact that at least 67% of the young scions spend far too long in the shower is better than the alternatives. But there is the nation's fresh water supply to consider.

So I bought a nifty little device -- or so it seemed -- called a "shower timer." It times showers. Showers. Got that? Trying to train the yoots to keep it to five minutes.

Anyway, you'd think that the boffins at the pompously and clumsily named "Digiventions" (the trick with those portmanteau names, guys, is to find at least one letter than overlaps both words in the right place) would have thought it through, maybe? Otherwise, why market something to be used in . . . remember . . . showers that (a) isn't waterproof, (b) doesn't come with a suction cup but an adhesive pad that rapidly loses its stick** in a steamy environment, and (c) has an alarm that's inaudible because of the competing noise of water coming out of a shower.

Some companies were never meant to leave the garage. That's $5.99 I won't see again.

Okay, now I've brought the limitless power of the blogosphere down onto their stooped shoulders and posted a snippy review on Amazon, I feel better.

*"Duets." Sorry, I'm new to these pick-up lines. Which is more than can be said for the lines themselves.

**As opposed to losing its shtick. See previous footnote.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The wolf's at the door. Make that inside the door.

Good article by Evan Ratlif in February's National Geographic about the DNA of dogs.

Our domestication of the dog has, of course, gone on for millennia, gradually creating and refining breeds for their skills in, say, herding and hunting. But in the space of the last hundred years or so, there's been an explosion of selective breeding, sometimes for specialized behavior, but largely for appearance, which has rapidly brought us to 350 to 400 different breeds of dog around the world, the greatest diversity of any species.*

That artificial evolution had the effect of isolating genes with a large impact. So all that superficial variety of shape, size, coat, snout length, etc., comes down to just a few genetic factors. For example, "the difference between the Dachshund's diminutive body and the Rottweiler's massive one hangs on the sequence of a single gene." (By contrast, height in humans is determined by up to 200 genes.)

The National Institutes of Health has analyzed the DNA of 85 dog breeds to see if genetic similarities of the entire genome - -- not just those affecting morphology -- reveal the patterns of earlier selectivity in the long journey from wolf to Chihuahua. Not surprisingly, the broad groupings that emerge include herders, hunters, and the mastiff-like dogs that would have been bred for protection. (And some oddities -- the classic sheepdog-trial dog, the Border Collie, has very little of the DNA that suffuses the other traditional herding breeds, including the Rough Collie.) But a few breeds -- less than a dozen -- have a profile that is still substantially wolflike "suggesting that they are the oldest domesticated breeds."

When we had Leila's DNA tested to see what was in her mutt mix, the test came back with strong hints of Chow Chow and Akita (presumably the Japanese variety, from her appearance), with a soupcon of Chinese Shar-pei.

Ahem. These three breeds are, respectively, number two, three, and six on the "wolflike" list, with scores well over 90%. Most of the other breeds tested have less than 10% wolf in their mix.

She's already a menace to squirrels and rabbits. We'd better add little pigs, small girls dressed in red, and Daleks** to that list.

*A recent New York Times magazine article discussed the downside of forcing cosmetic adaptations onto Fido that would be ruthlessly expunged in the wild

**Pop culture reference there for the terminally nerdy.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Neither snow nor out-of-control tweens with no steering stays these morons from Facebook . . .


(Not really that much of it, but enough to postpone the hockey and tae-kwon-do lessons.) The descendants and I hunker in for the morning and enjoy guiltless television* and Jurassic Park. Then off to the rolling foothills of Rye Town Park for some post-prandial sledding.

What, then, was the greatest danger in this precarious activity?

Well, today it was the mother who stood in the middle of the crowded slope and produced an iPhone so she could photograph her plummeting toddler, only to stay rooted in the target zone while she then obliviously checked her messages.

*I'm convinced that Miranda Cosgrove, Selena Gomez, Victoria Justice, and Vanessa Hudgens are the same person, or at least that it hardly matters if they aren't.

E.T. phone homo-.

Tertius is studying homophones in third grade.

Now it always amazes me that the English language puts up with so many common words that sound the same, when we have an abundance of great nonsense syllables going spare.

Confused between a "symbol" and a "cymbal"? Then let's give the percussion instrument a suitably onomatopoeic name instead -- a "blash" or a "tsissss."

Muddled over "popery" versus "potpourri"?  Then drop the pretentious French and stick a bowl of Anglo-Saxon "flergle" or "sneffering" in the bathroom. ("I'll take flergle for $300, Alex.")

We had a timely encounter with a homophone the other day. I mention that some of my forbears were living in Whitechapel at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, which throws up the phrase "serial killer." From the back seat of the minivan, Tertius questions why anyone wants to stab Cheerios to death.*

(This may not be the time, then, to repeat my rather good joke about the body found wearing a bowler hat with an apple nailed to its face and a melting watch stuffed down its throat -- the work of a surreal killer. Sorry.)

Similar confusions from the past couple of weeks. What were they fighting for in the Silver War? (Silver . . . ? Oh, Civil War. Mind you, explaining to a child why any war is called "civil" has its own issues.)

And this morning, dealing with the very acute observation that we don't speak of one pant, one slack, one short, one tight, one britch, etc., Tertius notes that "pants" is a "puerile" word.

Yes. Yes, it is. "Trousers" is much more grown-up.

*Because they was looking at me well funny, innit.

Friday, January 20, 2012

In real life, they're in bed by nine o'clock.

A switch for this year's official Beechey holiday card. Having done the better Beatles album covers -- the ones we could actually recreate rather than just superimpose faces on the existing artwork -- we opted for the fine arts. (See Don't step on it, it might be Ringo and Won't you please, please have a Merry Christmas.

And so the young gentlemen and gentlebitch went the way of many good parodies before them and populated Edward Hopper's corner coffee shop* from his 1942 masterpiece "Nighthawks."

We gave up on trying to connect it to the season -- my suggestion of "Hoppery New Year" eliciting winces even from the dog -- and just let it stand. But despite this, we still got quite a few generous compliments from recipients, which is the whole point of spending time on these customized greetings: to swagger back into my friends' good graces and completely expunge their awareness that I do a lousy job of keeping in touch at other times during the year.

A lot of people asked how it was done. Answer: Photoshop, of course.

Start with photographs of the boys and Leila in the same poses as the people in Hopper's original, and with comparable overhead lighting. (That's Leila in my kitchen.) Cut out their silhouettes, then run them through Photoshop's dry brush filter until the resolution and "painterliness" matches Hopper's brushwork. Then eliminate those original characters, like the server in the middle picture. Finally, drop the interlopers into the gaps, with extra background if necessary. The server's reflection in the counter's surface actually works for the beast, whose name now graces the outside of the establishment.

Next year, Veronese's massive canvas "Wedding at Cana," featuring the entire eighth grade of Rye Middle School.

(And all this work, just because I didn't want to take on "Sergeant Pepper.")

*Despite getting snapped up by the Chicago Art Institute almost immediately after it first appeared, the picture shows a coffee shop on the corner of Greenwich Avenue, Manhattan, the boys' borough of birth.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

See Spot. Run.

A scare this morning.

I stumble into the bathroom this morning at about 6:00 a.m., without my reading glasses. Now I've reached the point in my middle-aged presbyopia that it's not just restaurant menus that are out of focus -- I live in a sphere of blurriness with a radius of about six feet. Even so, I still recoil from the fuzzy reflection of myself in just my shorts. These days, anything less revealing than a diving suit is pretty repulsive.

But hang on, what's that large, circular black spot to the left of my navel?

See, another sign of advancing age is the number of seborrheic keratoses that speckle my torso: brown mole-like patches that are completely harmless but result in calls to the fire department whenever I go swimming to inquire if they've lost a dalmatian.

However, this is not a keratosis. Too dark, too regular in shape. Time to panic?

I poke gingerly at the spot. It falls off with a metallic clank on the bathroom floor.

Somehow, I got a penny stuck on my skin during the night.

Relieved, I tell the tale to Secundus, who's unimpressed, but still manages to pocket the penny on the way out.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Can a dog do what a cat did?

Many years ago, I mentioned to my mother that my cat, the Mighty Boswell, had a habit of climbing into my lap when I was working on my novels. A charming image -- except Boz was nearly twenty pounds at his maximum fighting weight and had an irritating habit of hijacking my computer to write letters to the New York Times. Mainly complaining that I didn't feed him enough. (I wouldn't mind, but they published three of them.)

Mother had this original porcelain sculpture made of us at work, by Andrew Bull of Sittingbourne, in Kent.

Alas, Boswell took the Great Nap a few years ago, and has now been replaced by the Divine Leila, the Overbeast (aka Gretl Kibbles Sherlock Bones Indiana Bones, Mistress of Squirrels) also a rescue animal, but of the canine orientation, a regular visitor to this blog.

(She's doing quite well in her typing lessons, but she keeps spelling "necessary" with two c's.)

The author at work, about 1995

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thanks, Reginald.

Friday 13 does its stuff.

News today of yesterday's passing of Reginald Hill, creator of (among others) the Dalziel and Pascoe series, which as far as I'm concerned produced at least two of the best mysteries ever written: On Beulah Height and Dialogues of the Dead.

(I'm sure that "best" list will be crammed with more Hills in due course -- I haven't read them all yet.)

A prolific, deep, humane, and hugely entertaining craftsman, who at 75 had so much still to give us. To say he'll be missed is much more than a form of words.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Does it count as preventive care?

From the warnings in a radio ad for Viagra:

"Ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for sex."

 (Because falling in love can be a serious side effect.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sometimes, they just don't heal, do they?

A rather moving report of a Coroner's inquest, from the English newspaper The Standard, January 7, 1892.
"Mr. G.P. Wyatt held an inquest last night at Peckham, on the body of Richard Sheldon Chadwick, 64, a phrenologist . . .  He was well known as Professor Sheldon Chadwick, the phrenological lecturer, and in 1861 had the honour of receiving from the Queen the Royal bounty of fifty shillings for the merit of his poetical works, on the recommendation of Lord Palmerston, the then Prime Minister.

"Mary Ann Jackson said that she had lived in the same house as the deceased [and was likely the mother of his youngest child]. He had latterly been unwell and complained of spasmodic pains in the chest . . . She called his son, who entered the apartment and found him in an unconscious state. Some brandy was procured, but he was unable to swallow.

"A medical man was immediately summoned . . . but on his arrival found life extinct. He made a post-mortem examination, which showed both ventricles of the heart were ruptured, possible caused by an abscess burrowing round it.

"Death was virtually due to a 'broken heart' . . ."
Richard Sheldon Chadwick. A "professor" who had never been to any university, execrable poet, phrenologist, former stage "mesmerist" (hypnotist), traveling lecturer whose meetings may have included conducting seances during the Victorian craze for spiritualism. In other words, very likely the essence of the flim-flam artist that Houdini was so keen to expose.

And my great-great-great grandfather.

Don't bother, it's here.

From the Department of Coinages We Don't Need . . .

Title of a link to one of the seven million websites devoted to the body mass indexes, arrest records, and visible underwear of people who are famous for no discernible reason:

"13 Celebritastic Signs of the Apocalypse"

(Make that fourteen.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why don't you learn to speak English? No, the other English.

We have a large traffic circle in Rye, the almost tautological Daniel Balls Circle. And of course,unlike the English, who spend their lives driving curvaceously, nobody in America knows the rules for precedence. So screeching to a halt with a smug blare of the horn is almost a daily pastime in the leafy suburbs.

It happened the other day, and this time I caught up with the offender, a lady of my years, at the next traffic signal. Pulling up beside her I signaled that she should wind down the window.

"You know you went through two yield signs," I accuse.

"But I didn't see a thing," she replies. (Last time I accosted a different female driver in the same situation, she excused herself by saying that although the word "YIELD" was painted in large letters on the road, she thought she could ignore it because "she had the straight through.")

Oy. "You have to yield to traffic already on the circle," I inform her in exasperated tones, and wind up my window, rather majestically.

Or rather, that's what I should have said. But when I get short-tempered, I lapse back into my native tongue.

So I wonder what she made of the grumpy old git with the English accent who spluttered mysteriously that she needed to "give way to traffic on the roundabout"?

Wheels within wheels: Swindon's notorious Magic Roundabout.

Monday, January 9, 2012

That Beechey touch.

Dedicated followers of this blog may remember this picture from Christmas 2010. That's me and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. (In case it isn't clear, the Archbishop is the one on the right.)

Now, just a year later, it's been announced that Archbishop Dolan is shortly to be made a Cardinal.

Just a year. A year after a moment or two with his arm around my shoulder.

I'm just saying . . .

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sometimes I think they say things just to see if I'm paying attention.

Secundus (from behind me in the car): "Dad, I want to get a hamster and name it 'Gerbil.'"

Me: "What, Gerbil the Hamster?"

Secundus: "Yeah." (Pause.) "Or I might call it 'Cow.'"