My books can be purchased as e-books for only $1.99. If interested, just click here: Books.
Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, an archive list can be found at the bottom of this page.
My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.
Saturday, December 30
Hello and Goodbye. Here comes 2018, ready or not. What will Donald Trump do or say that’s outlandish? What will happen at the Winter Olympics? What will the FBI probes decide? What will Artificial Intelligence give us that we’ll love or fear? How will Tiger fare in his latest comeback? Lots of things that need to be answered.
Happy New Year, everybody!.
I’m in countdown mode with only one day left in this year, and since film plays such an important part of my life, I need to talk about films in 2017.
First, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a year in which there was almost no consensus about what was good, what was bad. I checked out a variety of critics and magazines and their picks for best ten. I’m not sure I have enough room here to demonstrate all their differing opinions.
Let me start with some of the curiosities. Mother, with Jennifer Lawrence, made it as high as #10 on one list and down near the bottom of most lists. The Lost City of Z was in the top ten in several lists, but I can’t for the life of me understand why. I thought it pretty much stunk. I, Tonya sneaks into the top ten of several lists, and, again, even though I haven’t yet seen it, I can’t understand how a movie about Tonya Harding and her curious assault on Nancy Kerrigan could be anything but average, maybe even lower than average.
The most noticeable curiosity in these lists is their choice of films that have made almost no ripples in film news. I realize I don’t see all the movies that come out in any one year but I certainly see more than most people do. Here are some that were listed in top-tens that are almost invisible: Colossal [USA Today], Faces Places, BPM (Beats Per Minute), Dawson City: Frozen Time [CBS], Wormwood, Lady Macbeth, Columbus, Marjorie Prime, I Don’t Feel at Home in the World Anymore, I Called Him Morgan [Esquire], Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Novitiate, Their Finest [Rex Reed].
Okay, here we go, the lists I looked at:
Rolling Stone – Dunkirk, Get Out, Call Me by Your Name, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Post, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Detroit, Phantom Thread
Esquire – Wormwood, Lady Macbeth, Dunkirk, Marjorie Prime, Columbus, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Okja, Phantom Thread, The Lost City of Z, I Called Him Morgan
NY Times critic, Manhola Dargis – Dunkirk, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Faces Places, The Florida Project, Get Out, Lady Bird, Okja, Phantom Thread, A Quiet Passon, Wonder Woman
USA Today – Get Out, Logan, The Lego Batman Movie, The Big Sick, A Dark Song, Guardians of the Galaxy, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, Baby Driver, Split, Colossal
Rotten Tomatoes – Get Out, The Big Sick, Dunkirk, Wonder Woman, Lady Bird, Logan, Baby Driver, Star Wars, the Last Jedi, Coco, Thor: Ragnarok
Most Critics – Get Out, Lady Bird, Call me By Your Name, The Florida Project, Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, Phantom Thread, Blade Runner: 2049, A Ghost Story
Bill Goodykoontz, AZ Republic – Lady Bird, The Big Sick, Dunkirk, Call Me by Your First Name, Get Out, The Florida Project, The Shape of Water, The Post, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, Phantom Thread
Rex Reed – The Post, Call Me by Your First Name, Lady Bird, Their Finest, Brad’s Status, I, Tonya, Mudbound, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Novitiate, Stronger
Ranker – Logan, Dunkirk, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, Get Out, John Wick 2, War for the Planet of the Apes, Split, Despicable Me 3, Blade Runner 2049, It, The Lego Movie
The Guardian – Call me by Your First Name, The Florida Project, Get Out, Phantom Thread, Lady Bird, The Post, The Shape of Water, Blade Runner 2049, A Ghost Story, Lady Macbeth
Entertainment Weekly – Dunkirk, Call Me by Your Name, The Shape of Water, Get Out, Foxtrot, Hostiles, Lady Bird, Molly’s Game, Faces Places, Wonder Woman
Now, what about me? I’m going to list the best of what I’ve seen and some of what I haven’t yet seen but plan on seeing based on the bests of those above. And I’m eliminating all the Marvels and animated children’s films; let the children and teens make their own lists. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049, Get Out, The Shape of Water, The Post, Lady Bird, Call Me by Your First Name, The Florida Project, Dunkirk.
Now I can’t wait to see which movies are nominated for Academy Awards. I have a feeling they too will be without a consensus. I hope my ten come close.
Thursday, December 28
I’ve noticed lately that I need my days to be symmetrical, a place for everything and everything in its place. I don’t mean my days are rigidly repetitive or monotonously regimented, even though in many ways they are. I mean that each day should see a task completed or that my life and the things I own or things that own me should all be like little soldiers all lined up in a row. I keep my books together on their shelves by author, and I love to see them there, and whenever my wife misplaces one, they all look wrong until I put it in its proper place. I try to keep all my e-mails to-and-from in separate folders on my hard drive, all dated, all chronological. How handy it is to see what someone wrote to me one or more years ago. I get a haircut once a month; I shave daily; I take my blood pressure every morning as I drink my juice; every three weeks I take out all my prescription bottles and reload the appropriate pills into my weekly pillboxes; I keep track on the calendar of all the dates for having blood drawn for the many different medical specialists I now visit with too much regularity; I change my oxygen line and cannulas regularly (monthly for the line, weekly for the cannulas); and my wife and I go out for dinner every Tuesday and Thursday. I love to cook, but my favorite dishes are what can be prepared ahead of time, like tuna casserole, chili, beef stew, or oven chicken, and after I’ve prepared a meal I immediately have to clean up and put away any dishes I used in the preparation. I have little tasks I need to finish to put my house and life in order. I spent several weeks getting LED lights lined up along our driveway, not because we needed them to guide visitors to our home but because they’re part of the symmetry. We had a number of problems with our irrigation system, either minor leaks or too little water going to various trees and flower beds. One by one they got fixed and now they’re all symmetrical. These blogs I write get printed using my Clickbook software that prints them as a booklet, four pages to each sheet back to front. Right after every December 31, I print them, then cut the pages, punch six holes in the stack, print and punch a cover and back page, bind the pages with heavy upholstery thread, then duct tape the back to cover the binding, then line up the finished product with the others back to 2009, along with all the bound annual journals back to our arrival in Sun City west twenty-three years ago. My dotage is all neatly symmetrical. Pretty obsessive, pretty compulsive, right? Yeah. But it’s just my way of preparing for my departure. I’m not afraid of shuffling "off this mortal coil.” I just want what was me to be in symmetrical order so that my wife and/or my children won’t have any heartache or problem putting me and my “stuff” away. This is not my Thanatopis. It’s my Symmetropsis. I like to think it’s a felicitous examination of what was a symmetrical perspective of my life. I don’t want my life to be like what Keats in his epitaph said about himself, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” But I also don’t want it “writ in stone.” That smacks too much of a lonely granite headstone somewhere out in the boonies.
Today’s exercise in symmetry involves getting this blog finished and inserted into Doggy Dog World, going to CVS to pick up another prescription, then on to Fry’s for two ribeyes, two small potatoes, and eight jumbo shrimp for our New Year’s Eve dinner, after which we’ll watch the crowds freezing their asses off waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square. Then, just after 10:00 Arizona time, we’ll toddle off to bed, crossing off another symmetrical year.
Wednesday, December 27
A few chronological oddities: Legal documents in Massachusetts in 1655 that require signatures of women (half of whom used only X) indicate a 50% illiteracy rate among the Puritan ladies. In 1675, Cotton Mather entered Harvard at age twelve. In 1770, a lawyer named Thomas Jefferson argued in a Virginia court for the freedom of a mulatto slave on the grounds that “under the law of nature all men are born free.” In 1775, Patrick Henry gives his “liberty or death” speech while his wife is chained, insane, in the basement of their house. In 1818 Thomas Jefferson cautioned against the reading of a relatively new form of fiction, the novel, saying “When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading.” In 1833 Edgar Allan Poe won a $50 prize in a contest for his story “MS Found in a Bottle,” called by some the first science fiction story. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited America for the first time and hated it. In 1863 Samuel Clemens, working in Virginia City, Nevada, heard of the death of Isaiah Sellers, a little-known writer who wrote under the pseudonym of Mark Twain. Clemens decided to take it for his own. In 1866 Horatio Alger was removed from his pulpit at the First Unitarian Parish of Brewster, Massachusetts, for the “abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys.” (Hello, Catholic priests, are you listening?) In 1889 Thomas Wentworth Higginson advised Mabel Loomis Todd not to publish the works of an obscure poet named Emily Dickinson, calling her poems “too crude in form.” In 1895 Mark Twain began a world-wide lecture tour to pay back a $100,000 debt, all of which he eventually repaid. In 1926 the world’s first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was published by Hugo Gernsback, whose first name was taken for the annual award for best sf novel of the year, the “Hugo.” In 1933 Ernest Hemingway went on his first African safari. In 1938 on Halloween, Orson Welles aired his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and scared the bejesus out of his listeners, many of whom assumed the Martian invasion was for real.
Word games: Most of us know what an anagram is (using all the letters of a word or phrase to form another word or phrase, as in the wonderfully serendipitous Listen and Silence. But almost no one knows what an ananym is. It’s a sort of sub-category of an anagram, but one in which the new word or phrase is a reversal. For example, Seltaeb is the name of the Beatles’ merchandising company, an allerdnic is what you call a reverse Cinderella, someone who goes from riches to rags. I remember trying to find a name I could use based on my own name. Yrrej Sivart didn’t sound so good, so I went to Dyolf Sivart. And somewhere in the early fifties, a female singer named Yma Sumac put out a record in which she demonstrated a vocal range of four-and-a-half octaves. The bio information said she was Peruvian and her songs were examples of a genre called exotica, but a lot of people thought she was really an American woman ananymically named Amy Camus. Another word game is the palindrome—words, phrases, series of numbers that read the same backwards and forward, like madam or nurses run. If you’re ever looking for something longer and want to impress your friends, use “Rats live on no evil star,” which, by the way, is the title of a song by the reggae group called Ooklah the Moc. There are longer examples, but this science fictional one about rats is my favorite.
By now, dear reader, you must be sick and tired of my sick and tired blogs about literature and language. I think I’m sick and tired of writing them. I’ll try to find something more interesting to conclude the year, after which I think I’ll go on vacation for a while.
Tuesday, December 26
Christmas is now behind us and New Year’s Day lies just ahead. I hope everyone had a peaceful, happy, bountiful day on the 25th of December, 2017.
Now, back to literary oddities. We assume that all writers we now regard as great had an easy time of it, that their fame was built on the successful publication of their works. But quite a few knew early failure, and some failed throughout their entire lives. And some were suicides.
What are some literary failures? Stephen Crane had to borrow $700 to print Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. He sold only 100 copies; the rest he burned in the winter to heat his Bowery apartment. Thoreau actually lost money by publishing A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. His royalties were $15, but he had to pay $290 for all the unsold copies. Emily Dickinson wrote more than 1700 poems but only seven were published in her lifetime. In Booth Tarkington’s first five years as a professional writer, he earned $22.50. Hart Crane’s White Buildings had a critical introduction by Allen Tate, a jacket blurb by Eugene O’Neill, and at least some chance for success. All told, his publishers managed to unload 499 copies, 121 free to reviewers, two hundred remaindered. By the time he committed suicide in 1932 (by jumping off a cruise ship), he owed his publishers $210.
What are some of the most notable successes? Margaret Mitchell wrote only one novel, Gone with the Wind, but it earned oodles in royalties for book sales, $50,000 for the film rights, and in 1974, $5,000,000 from NBC for a tv version. L. Frank Baum and his Oz series had millions of followers and his books were best-sellers from the first in 1908 right up to the present. The same sort of success came to Edgar Rice Burroughs with his Tarzan series, the Mars and Venus series, the Earth’s Core series, and all the other science fictiony stuff he wrote.
And here are a few bits of trivia to tide you over to the New Year. Stephen Crane was the fourteenth child of a Methodist minister and married the madam of an English whorehouse. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was a poem written by Phillips Books in 1865 and sung for the first time at Christmas in 1868. The highest short-term sales figure by an American novelist was the 6,800,000 copies of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls in 1967. Robert Frost is the only poet to win the Pulitzer Prize four times. Erskine Caldwell played professional football. He was also born in rural Georgia so far from a town, post office, or railroad crossing that his birthplace had no name. When he was a student at Bowdoin College, Nathaniel Hawthorne was fined twenty-five cents for “walking unnecessarily on the Sabbath.” In 1951, William Burroughs killed his wife while trying to shoot a glass off her head. James Thurber, also playing at William Tell, is blinded in one eye by an arrow shot by his brother. The very prolific Earl Stanley Gardner wrote under his own name but also under eleven different nom de plumes. I guess he didn’t want his readers to know exactly how many novels he wrote in any one year. Speaking of prolificacy, Eleanor Marie Robertson, under the pen name Nora Roberts, just came out with another best-seller called Year One. This was the 217th novel she’s written under four pen names. Nora Roberts, or Eleanor Marie Robertson, is 67 years old, which means that she would have to have written five novels a year for the last forty-three years, or ten novels a year for just over twenty-one years. How is either of those estimates even possible?
Monday, December 25
Here are some examples of what writers have said about other writers or the things they’ve written: The Boston Intelligencer called Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, “a heterogeneous mass of bombast, egotism, vulgarity, and nonsense.” The Chicago Times said of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Wow, that sounds much more fitting for our present president. Clifton Fadiman on William Faulkner, “Mr. Faulkner, of course, is interested in making your mind rather than your flesh creep.” Nathaniel Hawthorne on women writers, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women.” Whoops, Nathaniel, that wouldn’t go over so well today. James Russell Lowell satirizing Poe, “There comes Poe with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge, / Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths pure fudge.” Barnaby Rudge was a mystery that Poe admired enough to deduce the solution of the mystery without having read the story. Flannery O’Connor on Southern writers, “In the South there are more amateur authors than there are rivers and streams. . . . In almost every hamlet you’ll find at least one lady writing epics in Negro dialect and probably two or three old gentlemen who have impossible historical novels on the way.” Allen Tate on Emily Dickinson, “Her poetry is a magnificent personal confession, blasphemous and, in its self-revelation, its honesty, almost obscene. It comes out of an intellectual life towards which it feels no moral responsibility. Cotton Mather would have burnt her for a witch.” Twain on himself, “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.” John Dos Passos on writing as a profession, “If there is a special purgatory for writers, it would be the forced contemplation of their own works.” Robert Frost, “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” And, of course, that time Frost told Sandburg, "Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net."
The kitty above wants to purr you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Just listen to him:
"Deck the halls with boughs of catnip.
Here is what I want to say:
Donald, leave the oval office.
That would really make my day."
Such a smart kitty.
Sunday, December 24
Christmas Eve, 2017. And not a creature is stirring, not a bunny or a quail or even one of our cats. Just Rosalie doing her weekly laundry and me watching the Cardinals trying to give another game away. I don’t have anything to say about Donald, so I’m going to write several blogs about American literary oddities to bring this year to an end.
We know a lot about our best-known writers, but there’s much that almost no one knows about them. For example, the question of what books should or should not be banned from the public eye, or maybe just the prurient eyes of our youth. We’ve come a long way from the prudish Puritanism of the last two centuries. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen, but I think our present openness about sex and bodily functions is a good thing. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was banned somewhere in the U.S. every year from 1955 to 1980. And all because Holden Caulfield tried to keep from his little sister’s eyes the F-bomb he saw on a graffitied wall. One F-bomb kept this funny, sensitive, moral novel from our children’s eyes all the way up to 1980. See, even now, I and others like me in the media still are uncomfortable saying “fuck.” In 1957 New York State was still disapproving for its schools any of Twain’s writing. Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre was banned in Mississippi in 1950. This was a few years after the revolution in affordable books we know as paperbacks. I can remember in my youth sneaking a copy of this book off the rack to see what was thought then to be so titillatingly risqué. And Mickey Spillane came out with paperbacks of I, the Jury and My Gun Is Quick in the late 40’s. Oh, how we young lads loved the double entendre of that gun that was quick. This was the age in which grocers and druggists still had to wrap boxes of Kotex in brown paper so no one would be offended by a product for a female’s menstrual cycle. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was banned just after it came out in 1939. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises wasn’t allowed in the San Jose, California, schools in 1960. There were many other books that were banned for sale in the U.S., like Ulysses by James Joyce and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. All of these books would now be considered as tame as kittens.
Twain is one of America’s most frequently quoted because of his acerbic wit. Nearly everyone knows what he had to say about golf: “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” He would never have said such a thing if he’d ever taken up the game. But he also said, “A classic is something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Other notable quotes by other less notable people: Groucho Marx, “Practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book—and does.” Dorothy Parker, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” Twain on critics, “The critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug; he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” E.B. White on critics, “The critic leaves at curtain fall / To find, in starting to review it, / He scarcely saw the play at all / For watching his reaction to it.”
William Cullen Bryant was only seventeen when he wrote what is considered to be his best poem, “Thanatopsis.” It seems odd that a boy would have such a morbid view of death, but he admired a group called “The Graveyard School of Poets” and was obviously trying to emulate them. He meant it as consolation for anyone who fears dying, saying that we’re all in an almost infinite line of people, kings and wise men as well as paupers and idiots, who move through life in single file toward that cliff in front of us, slow-footed, dim-witted as we throw ourselves like lemmings over the precipice. I don’t derive any comfort from such an image. He goes on to say that you can’t set foot anywhere on the planet without stepping on someone who’s gone before us. Ugh, that’s an unappealing thought. He concludes with this advice, “Approach thy grave / Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch / About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.” Hmm, pleasant dreams? I’ll try to put that thought out of my mind when I go to bed tonight. You try also.
Tuesday, December 19
Another book I found hiding on one of my shelves is a little collection of puns and shaggy dog stories. The editor, James Charlton, asked writers to supply a story to play on the various expressions he gave them for the assignment. Stephen King was given “Read any good books lately?” He had no trouble coming up with a story about London’s shortage of rooks that were dying from pollution. King brought it to the end with, “Bred any good rooks lately?” Thus the title for this collection by Charlton. I thought I would summarize a few for my readers’ amusement but then realized that the stories were too long to use. That led me to the question of puns and shaggy dog stories, many of which are short enough for inclusion here.
But first, some definitions.
A pun is a play on words, the humorous use of a word or phrase to emphasize or suggest its different meanings, the use of words that are alike or nearly alike in sound but not meaning. Santa’s helpers are known as subordinate Clauses.” “The grammarian was very logical. He had a lot of comma sense.” You get the idea. Puns are usually greeted by groans and hesitant laughter. Some are better than others. “She had a photographic memory but never developed it.” Groan! “The two pianists had a good marriage. They were always in a chord.” Groan! Groucho Marx was fond of using them on his tv show and would always tap his cigar and twitch his eyebrows at the moaning audience. Then there’s one of my favorite plays on words, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” And a few more just to keep you groaning.
What’s the difference between deer nuts and beer nuts? Beer nuts are a $1.75, deer nuts are under a buck.
Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
How do you know when Santa's in the room? You can sense his presents.
A New Year's resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.
Did you hear about the cat that swallowed a ball of yarn? She had a litter of mittens.
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How does a shaggy dog story differ from a pun? Mainly by its length. I’ll include Donald Hall’s response to the Stephen King story about good books:
“Here where we live in New Hampshire, the little creeks roll down Ragged Mountain across our fields, squirt under Route 4, and piddle into our hayfields on the other side. My wife spends all fall and much of the spring working on borders to these little springs, planting bulbs, fertilizing, and then keeping the borders clear and clean, because if there’s anything she likes, it’s to weed a good brook.”
A spoonerism doesn’t really fit my topic for today, but they’re often so funny and so much like puns that I have to include a few examples. A spoonerism is an error in speech in which corresponding consonants, vowels, or morphemes are unintentionally switched between two words in a phrase. Such errors are named after the Oxford don and ordained minister William Archibald Spooner, who was famous for doing this. Once, Dr. Spooner raised a toast to her Royal Highness, Queen Victoria, and proclaimed: “Three cheers for our queer old dean!” He also said as he was scolding one of his students about poor work habits: “You’ve tasted two worms.” And once when he wanted to speak to the dean: “Is the bean dizzy?”
I’ll supply only a few shaggy dog stories, the shorter not necessarily the better, but more fitting for the length of this blog.
(1) It seems there were two frogs sitting on a lily pad, when all of a sudden, a fly came along. One frog put out his tongue, ate the fly, and started laughing hysterically. Soon the other frog joined in the laughter.
Later in the day, the other frog ate a fly and the two frogs burst out in laughter. As time went on, the frogs enjoyed the flies so much that the sight of a fly would cause them to double up with pleasure (if it's possible for frogs to double up!). But of course, the most pleasure came when the fly was actually eaten.
A third frog hopped up to the first two and asked what was so funny. The first frog answered, “Time.”
“What?” said the third frog.
The second frog explained: “Time's fun when you’re having flies.”
(2) A butcher got along great with everyone in the neighborhood except a mysterious Swami. They hated each other. One evening, the Swami's pregnant wife had intense cravings for liver, and the Swami had to go into his enemy’s shop. “Give me a pound of liver,” he said to the butcher’s clerk. The butcher whispered to the clerk from the back of the shop, “Here's our chance to get that no-good bum.” Pointing to the clerk’s thumb, he said, "Weigh down upon the Swami’s liver!”
(3) When Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, he had trouble selling it. People just didn’t trust this “new” way of making light. In order to promote his idea he decided to go around the country installing lights in different towns in order to drum up publicity. While in Oklahoma, Edison stopped by an Indian reservation and offered to put lights in any building they wanted. After much thought the Indian chief decided that he wanted lights in his outhouse, so he could see what he was doing at night. This made him the first man to wire a head for a reservation.
(4) A king carried environmentalism too far when he prohibited hunting of any kind. Soon the realm was overrun with lions and tigers and bears. “Oh My!” shouted the people. They revolted and threw the king out of the country. It was the first time the reign was called because of the game.
Have you had enough? Well, in case you’d like just an old-fashioned joke without any play on words, here’s a good one:
On a passenger flight, the pilot comes over the public address system to greet the passengers. He tells them at what altitude they’ll be flying, the expected arrival time, and a bit about the weather, and advises them to relax and have a good flight. Then, forgetting to turn off the speaker, he says to his co-pilot, “What would relax me right now is a cup of coffee and a blowjob.” All the passengers hear it. As a stewardess immediately begins to run toward the cockpit to tell the pilot of his slip-up, one of the passengers stops her and says “Don’t forget the coffee!”
Monday, December 18
Yesterday, historical anecdotes, today, literary anecdotes. I’m really scratching for blog topics. Most of the following are little-known but interesting.
1. Most of us know that Ben Franklin was a really inventive man, first coming up with the lightning rod, bifocals, the pot-bellied stove, a glass armonica, a flexible catheter, and even a long wooden arm like a giant tweezers for getting books down from high shelves. Now here’s one almost no one knows about. Franklin suffered from painful bouts of kidney stones. So he would take long, hot baths in a tub he devised. It was copper, shaped like a shoe, the heel to accommodate his butt, his legs under the tongue, and a place on top of the tongue for propping books.
2. Thomas Jefferson, also a prolific inventor, wrote a letter to his eleven-year-old daughter Martha suggesting how she should use the hours of her day. “From 8 to 10, practice music. From 10 to 1, dance one day and draw another. From 1 to 2, draw on the day you dance, and write a letter next day. From 3 to 4, read French. From 4 to 4, exercise yourself in music. From 5 till bedtime, read English, write, etc.” He also told her never to spell a word wrong. Sounds like a little girl’s work is never done, at least not in the 19th century and not in the Jefferson household.
3. James Fenimore Cooper hated to write, but when he complained about a book he was reading, that he could write a better book than that one, his wife challenged him to do it. So he accepted and wrote Precaution, which was pretty much a stinker, but it led him to then write the five in the Leatherstocking Tales, which are considered to be much better. Except for Mark Twain, who thought they were pretty awful.
4. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is always shown in portraits wearing a beard, a custom followed by many men of the day, but he wore a beard to hide severe facial burns he suffered when his wife Fanny accidentally set her dress on fire. He tried unsuccessfully to snuff out the flames. She died the next day, but he was permanently scarred on face and hands.
5. Edgar Allen Poe married his 13-year-old cousin. I guess he might have been considered a sexual predator today but just a very strange man then.
6. Henry David Thoreau, Concord’s “village odd fellow,” was described by Nathanial Hawthorne as “a young man with much of wild original nature . . . as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer mouthed.” It was alleged that Thoreau could swallow his nose. I would assume by this that he could lift his lips enough that he could cover the end of his nose, not a pretty sight I’m guessing. When he was dying his Aunt Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God. He answered, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.” His life was singular in many ways, renouncing what others accepted as necessary. He wasn’t trained for any profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay any taxes; he didn’t eat meat or drink wine; he didn’t smoke; he never used a gun or trap. And he gave the 20th century that useful tool, Civil Disobedience.
7. John Steinbeck read an interview that William Faulkner gave after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. He thought it showed Faulkner’s shallowness and egotistical self-praise. He thought that if that was what winning a Nobel did to the writer, he never wanted to win one. But when he won it in 1962, he sang a slightly different tune. “I’ve always been afraid of it because of what it does to people. For one thing, I don’t remember anyone doing any work after getting it save maybe Shaw. The last book of Faulkner’s was written long ago. Hemingway went into a kind of hysterical haze. Red Lewis just collapsed into alcoholism and angers. It has in effect amounted to an epitaph. Maybe I’m being over-optimistic but I wouldn’t have accepted it if I hadn’t thought I could beat the rap.”
8. The English poet W. H. Auden heard from his friend Christopher Isherwood that Erika Mann, Thomas Mann’s daughter, when she was afraid that she would lose her German citizenship, wanted to marry an Englishman so that she could become a British subject. She had asked Isherwood, who declined, but Auden wrote back that he would be “delighted.”
9. Most of my students would remember Shirley Jackson for her memorable, spooky short story, “The Lottery,” in which the “winner” each year was stoned to death, or maybe for her novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Somewhere along the way, she became obsessed with witchcraft and believed that she possessed diabolical power. She was angry with her publisher, Alfred Knopf, for some reason, and when she heard that he was going to Vermont to ski, she made a wax impression of him, stuck a pin in one of the legs, and, sure enough, he broke a leg in three places coming down a ski slope. Hmmm, coincidence or diabolism?
10. Apparently Robert Frost wasn’t a very likable man, openly jealous of his poetic rivals. Most of us remember him as that lovable white-haired man who stood in the winter breezes to read his poem “The Gift Outright” at JFK’s inauguration in 1960. But according to those who knew him best, he could be vindictive and insulting to any and all. His poems, though, are what we should all know and admire. If any American poet deserved win the Nobel Prize for Literature, it should have been Frost and not that nincompoop Bob Dylan. “The Road Not Taken” may be the most frequently alluded to poem in American literature, second only to almost anything of Shakespeare’s for number of allusions.
11. There are almost too many stories about Ernest Hemingway to choose from. He was the writer who made popular the word machismo. He may have been macho or he may have only wanted to look like he was macho. He loved to box with some of his friends; he loved the ritual heroism of the bull fighter; he hunted big game and fished for giant marlin; he drank like a fish; he tried to seduce almost every woman he met; he perfected the “tough guy” style of writing that too many others tried to copy and failed; and he killed himself with a shotgun in the mouth. But, damn, his short stories are really good.
Tomorrow I may have to dig around in well-known sayings and find a dozen or so keepers.
Sunday, December 17
I borrowed a few little known-facts about American history that are interesting, amusing, or somewhat relevant to the present. They’re from a book published in 1980 called One-Night Stands with American History by Richard Shenkman and Kurt Reiger.
Here’s one that seems a bit relevant: Thomas Jefferson once described the White House as “a great stone house, big enough for two emperors, one pope and one grand lama in the bargain.” We now have someone living there who might be considered any one of the above three.
The median age in 1800 was sixteen.ouseHou
The Pilgrims didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. It was only suggested that they did when in 1741, Thomas Faunce told a crowd that his father had once pointed out to him a rock where he said the Pilgrims had landed.
The Puritans in 1659 made it illegal to celebrate Christmas by taking off from work or feasting and any who did so would be fined five shillings.
Until 1863, Santa Claus didn’t look anything like he does now. Thomas Nast drew him as we now think of him, but until then he was described as a smiling man, tall, slender, with brown hair.
When Kentucky and Vermont joined the Union in the 1790’s, two stripes were added to the thirteen on our flag, but it was then mandated by Congress that any new states would be indicated by adding a star. The fifteen stripes were also reduced to the original thirteen some time later.
By the end of the Civil War, there were almost as many blacks fighting for the Confederacy as for the Union—93,000 to 100,000. This is a detail that makes absolutely no sense to me. Why were 93,000 blacks fighting for the Confederacy?
Ulysses S. Grant had this to say when he saw a beginning golfer trying unsuccessfully to hit a golf ball: “That does look like very good exercise, but what is the little white ball for?”
Before he was elected president, Grover Cleveland admitted that he had an illegitimate son, an admittance that led to his opponents jeering, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?/Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”
The only non-white to be elected vice-president of the U.S. was Charles Curtis, a Kaw Indian who served under Herbert Hoover.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald told Ernest Hemingway that he thought his penis was too small, Hemingway took him on a tour of nude statues to reassure him.
For the ten years before that day of infamy in 1941, every graduate of the Japanese Naval Academy had to answer this on his final examination: “How would you carry out a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor?”
In 1957, Ford Motors spent $20,000,000 promoting its failed automobile, the Edsel. I might here note that my wife and I owned a used Edsel in 1960. Funny looking but still a good car.
1949 was the first year in the 20th century in which a Negro was not lynched.
Joseph Heller originally wanted to call his novel Catch-18, but when he found out that Leon Uris was coming out with a novel with that number in the title, he switched it to Catch-22, giving us one of the best-known, most often-used terms in our modern dictionary.
And finally, here’s one that today seems relevant. In the 1960’s when Congress was revising the immigration laws, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was given this advice from an Indian living on a New Mexico reservation: “Be careful in revising those immigration laws of yours. We got careless with ours.” You should heed that lesson, Donald.
Saturday, December 16
Thursday, December 14
Another night at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, this time to see Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. And another excellent production of what I now consider the best of the Rogers and Hammerstein collaborations, better than Carousel, Oklahoma, The King and I, and better than even The Sound of Music. The story is familiar to nearly everyone, based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. There they were, Nellie Forbush, Emile De Becque, Luther Billis, and the best Bloody Mary since Juanita Hall made her so famous almost seventy years ago on Broadway. But the score is also so familiar to everyone. For the past week, every night when I found myself awake at my 3:00 a.m. witching hour, I would listen to those songs in my head. Way back when I was a boy, my sister took me to Chicago to see the first road show of South Pacific, and I was so entranced that I bought the album and memorized all the lyrics. Now, sixty-eight years later, I still know nearly all of them: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right outta My Hair,” “A Wonderful Guy,” “Younger Than Springtime,” and “This Nearly Was Mine.” In this strange 2017, with its renewed ugliness of racism and division, the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," indicates that we still have a long way to go. Nellie at first decided she couldn't marry De Becque because of his fathering two children by a Polynesian woman. Lt. Joe Cable felt he couldn't marry Bloody Mary's daughter Liat and sings that we have to be taught to hate others who are unlike us, that bigotry and racism aren't attitudes we're born with but are carefully taught by those who should have done better by us. Are you listening, President Trump? The sets were simpler than what ABT usually puts up, but made effective use of netted curtains and various props. The only thing missing, something I wanted to see, was the image of Bali Ha’i on the blue backdrop as Bloody Mary sings “Bali Ha’i.” They could have easily used a scrim to slowly bring up the black outline of the island as Mary sings of the desert island's mystery that calls to us. The voices of the principals were all very good, especially that of Sean David Cooper, who played the French planter De Becque, and Kate Marshall, who played Nellie. From what I remember of that first Broadway cast, these two were as good as, maybe even better than, Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin. The only weakness in this production was the choreography. Everything else, though, was spot-on. I might even consider going back to see it again.
Tuesday, December 12
A friend recently sent me a copy of what the CEO of Mercedes-Benz, Daimler Benz, said in an interview (July 2017) with Plebiscite Naija. He predicted what we might see in the next twenty years, and what he said can be either frightening or wonderfully comforting. Here is a summation of what he predicted:
1. Law as a profession will be out because of the many less expensive places to find legal advice; there will be 90% fewer lawyers in the future.
2. By 2030, computers will be more intelligent than humans.
3. In the near future, no one will own a car and accidental deaths will drop significantly. Since there will no longer be a need for parking, such space in cities could be used for parks. Auto insurance agencies will go out of business because there will be so little need for such insurance.
4. There will be a significant increase in solar energy and a similar decrease in the use of fossil fuel for energy. Cars will be run on electricity, thus minimizing noise and pollution. With cheap electricity, plentiful drinking water will be obtained by desalinizing sea water.
5. By 2027, with cheap 3-D printers available to nearly everyone, 10% of all products will be 3-D printed.
6. By 2037, 70% to 80% of all present-day jobs will be gone.
7. We will soon be using insects as a source of protein for many of our food products.
8. By 2036, almost everyone will live well over 100 years.
9. By 2020, 70% of all humans will have a smart phone with internet access, making education a personal process.
10. Bitcoin may soon become the default reserve currency.
So, does this frighten or comfort you? If we can somehow avoid destroying the world in these next 20 years, I consider his predictions very comforting. But what he said about bitcoin only confuses me. What the hell are bitcoins, anyway?
Wednesday, December 6
Tuesday, December 5
First, probably the dumbest, most offensive commercial any company has ever put before us is the Sanderson Farm bit in which they sing a song about all their happy chickens and then show us thousands and thousands of their happy chickens just before they kill them and then cut them up for our consumption, all of them bunched together in their happy happy barns. It’s a little like saying all those calves on too many farms are twinkly-toe happy to be living in those tiny little boxes until they can be killed and cut up for veal parmigiana.
The Carol Burnett 50th Anniversary Special was fun to watch but painful to see how all those people we remember from the past now look so old. And we all missed the two funniest guys from that old show, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, who must have been too old and ill to make it to the reunion. I guess Vicki Lawrence’s presence made up for their absence. We got to see some of the truly funny bits from the past, Carol’s Mrs. Wiggins to Tim’s boss with the funny dialect, the parodies of soap operas (“As the Stomach Turns”), the takeoffs on famous movies like The African Queen and Gone with the Wind, and the weekly fights between Carol, Harvey, and Vicki as Carol’s “mamma.” They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Quick comparison between the two twin military thrillers The Seal Team and The Brave. Odd that CBS and NBC would both come out with such similar shows. Both have lookalike hunks playing the team leaders (David Boreanaz and Mike Vogel), both have similar-sized teams, both include one really capable, attractive woman on the team (Toni Trucks and Natacha Karam), and both rely heavily on new surveillance technology for resolving their plot issues. The Seal Team splits into two divergent plot elements, a practice that makes me weary; The Brave has only one. Both are good. The Brave is better.
And last but possibly best, Seth McFarlane’s oddball Star Trek parody, The Orville. Most of the comic jabs at Star Trek and Kirk and company are belly-laugh funny. I love science fiction and I, like Sheldon and his nerdy friends on The Big Bang Theory, loved the tv Star Trek and all the filmed Star Treks that spun off the original series. How could anyone not love Capt. Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley)? The technological premises forty years ago (teleportation, warp speed, other intelligent species, instantaneous medical cures, and wildly divergent life forms—Isaac, an R2-D2 spinoff from Star Wars, and, wildest of all, Yaphit, a gelatinous blob of green stuff) may have seemed unlikely back then but now seem not only possible but probable. Oddly, though, the weekly plots are also quite exciting and surprising. Both my wife and I really enjoy this show. Apparently, the same is true for enough viewers that Fox is renewing a second season. Good. Too bad each season is so short, only eleven shows.
Monday, December 4
We saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, last week and I’m still trying to figure out what to say about it. It was good, it wasn’t so good. It was good because of the three main characters and those who portrayed them. Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson seem to be always good; Sam Rockwell is new to me so I can’t say he’s always good, but in this, he’s very good. Back to my dilemma, in the 60’s and 70’s we had black humor—films, novels, and plays that were tragically funny, putting a finger on man’s need to laugh instead of cry at life’s ironies. Now it’s called dark comedy so that no one might mistake the “black” as a reference to the shtick of Tyler Perry and his madcap Madea. Three Billboards was in the same vein as Fargo or any of the other Coen brothers’ films, funny and not so funny. McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a tough, recently divorced mother of Angela (Kathryn Newton) who was abducted on her way home, set on fire, and then raped as she was dying. After too many months of no progress solving this heinous crime, she decides she needs to goad Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action. She rents three billboards on a quiet stretch of highway near her home: “Raped While Dying,” “And Still No Arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Ebbing reacts. The citizens are divided because some think she’s wrong to attack their police chief this way and some agree with her about his inaction. Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), second in command to Willoughby, goes out of his way to get her to take the billboards down, even beating nearly to death Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), who had rented the -billboards to Mildred, and then throwing him out the second-floor window of his office. Officer Dixon is a Missouri bigot who doesn’t mind letting everyone know it, especially any blacks he may encounter. He thinks his badge lets him do and say anything he wants. The plot shifts back and forth between those who want action and those who don’t. In fact, this shifting is what I found not so good. It seemed like there were too many places where the story could end, but it didn’t. And when it finally did, it was unresolved and I was left unsatisfied. As I first said, half tragic, half humorous, with the humor winning out. One example of the humor will suffice: Mildred has agreed to a dinner date with James (Peter Dinklage), the town midget (but really a dwarf), because he has supplied her with an alibi when the police station was fire-bombed. He excuses himself from the table, saying to Mildred, “S’cuse me, Mildred, I’ve gotta go to the little boys’ room.” Not a great laugh, maybe, but you had to be there to appreciate it. It was a good film but not quite as good as I wanted it to be. I’m sure that all three—McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell—will be considered for Oscars, with Rockwell the most likely winner, but the director, Martin McDonagh, and the film will not.
Tuesday, November 28
I want to take another look at this question of harassment that’s now so
This current upsurge in women coming forward with complaints about sexual misbehavior by male politicians and entertainers is a healthy sign that we may actually be approaching true gender equality. It certainly will make all men more cautious in their relations with women. They may not yet believe in that equality but they’ll certainly respect it. Now, ladies, I must point out what I believe is a major mental difference between men and women. Many men (maybe even most) wouldn’t consider it as harassment for a woman to pat him on the ass as he passes by or stroke his leg at a dinner engagement or even proposition him. He’d consider the ass pat as a compliment, the leg rub as enticingly interesting, and the proposition as acceptable. What offends most women doesn’t offend most men. Men are such pigs. I don’t think most men are misogynists; I think they’re philogynists who would welcome any come-ons from almost any (but not all) women. Oink! Oink!
I‘m happy to say that I’m not one of them. I love women just as I love my fellow man, but I wouldn’t welcome any sexual advances from just any woman. She’d have to be someone I already love, not just anyone for whom I might lust. I seem to be digging an ever deeper semantic hole for myself. Help! These are such confusing times. May we soon get to that place where we love all people, regardless of gender, race, or religion. All I ask is that we not lose hugs. I love hugs. I believe in the efficacy of hugs that heal, not hugs that harass. So, men, today I’d like for every one of you to give your wife, your children, your friends, even your enemies a big hug and tell them how much they mean to you. Hugs are good; gropes are bad.
Wednesday, November 22
Before the written word, the past had to be preserved by assigning its details to a tribesman (or woman) who became the repository for the tribe’s history. And he (or she) would pass on that memorized history to a younger successor. This system was awkward and prone to the sort of errors we used to see in the children’s game of “Pass It On.” You remember how different the word or phrase was when it finally got to the last person in line? Only when these memories could be written down did we have a nearly flawless system for preserving the past.
I was born and raised in Mobridge, South Dakota, a small, rural, farming and railroad community near the banks of the Missouri River, so my most vivid memories are there from my first seventeen years. If I don’t commit them to paper, they’ll slip away and vanish along with me when I die.
As an exercise in memory, I’m going to recreate what I remember about the carnivals that came to town over Fourth of July celebrations, either a combination of all those carnivals or maybe just the one when I was twelve or thirteen.
In the 1940’s, the carnival was set up on the south end of Main Street. Its boundaries were the railroad tracks to the south, the Mobridge Wholesale House to the east, the White Horse Hotel to the west, and the Moose Club to the north. The Tilt-a-Whirl was always the first thing you bumped into when you approached from the north. It was about even with the Moose Club. What an evil ride it was. Young people today would laugh at me for calling it evil because they’re more accustomed to much more frightening rides now. I remember it as evil because I’d be called a sissy if I didn’t ride, so I did . . . and hated it every time. As I remember it, there were nine cars, each holding three or four people. You got in, pulled down the retaining bar for holding you in and for you to hold onto, and away you’d go, each car independently spinning in various directions as the whole ride whirled around. The severity of the spins depended on the combined weight of the riders in each car, the more of you there were, the more awful the ride. I think I closed my eyes during most of the ride and I hazily remember the pain in my upper leg when I’d be pinned to the side of a fellow rider. All I ever wanted to do was somehow get off without falling down dizzy or throwing up the hot dog I’d just eaten, the hot dog I’d just bought at the stand near the White Horse that also sold cotton candy. But I was wise enough never to eat any cotton candy before my potentially regurgitating ride on the evil, painful Tilt-a-Whirl.
Close to this ride was the Penny Pitch, a flat, square board close to the ground, roped off, maybe six by six feet with small painted squares designating how much you could win if you landed on the square without touching the line. As I remembered it, you could win amounts up to a dollar. Did you win very often? No. I remember going there with both pockets full of the Indian head pennies my older brothers had been saving. I pitched both pockets empty without winning much, but the young woman running the game very carefully pocketed all my Indian heads, my brothers’ pennies. I wonder how much they’d be worth today.
The middle of the carnival grounds held most of the arcade games, side by side along the north and south borders—a balloon pop where you threw darts at blown-up balloons hanging on the back wall, the baseball toss where you threw baseballs at a wall with fringed dolls sitting on shelves, a nickel pitch where you tried to get a nickel to stay in one of the pieces of glassware you could win (almost impossible to make the nickel stay in the vase or dish, and why would anyone, let alone a twelve-year-old boy, want to win some cheap glassware?), the basketball free throw, and the stand-alone challenge where you tried to ring the bell with a sledge hammer (and the guy running it would also try to guess your weight). One of my favorites was the crane you operated with a round handle that you turned to move the crane into position above various small stuffed animals or above that tempting tray of dimes. You then dropped the crane and hoped the metal jaws would grab an animal or a jawful of dimes. Then you carefully lifted the crane and navigated your bounty to the exit chute where you would drop your prize. Most often, though, the crane never latched onto anything or you dropped your prize before you got it to the chute.
I remember only three rides besides the Tilt-a-Wheel—the Merry-go-round on the west side, the Ferris Wheel somewhere in the middle, and the swings on the east side near the wholesale house. I never rode on the swings because they looked so dangerous, just you strapped in a little seat attached to a long chain attached to a big metal ring that whizzed around in a circle, swinging the riders way out and around. I always imagined the chain snapping and sending the rider in a long toss like a stone out of a slingshot. No thanks.
Somewhere near the east side, they always had a long trailer called the Fun House or the House of Mirrors. It couldn’t have been very scary because the trip from one end to the other, even though divided into narrow, back and forth passageways, couldn’t have been more than fifty feet. But you went through it in semi-darkness with warped mirrors along the way to show you as really short or tall, skinny or fat. I don’t remember any other little tricks there were along the way, but I suppose there was eerie music and screams piped in.
And, finally, somewhere near the back of the grounds there would be a tent housing the freak show. The carny barker would announce each show about every half hour. “Step right up! Step right up! Come on in and see some of the strangest things you’ve ever seen! We got the bearded lady, the fattest lady in the world, the tattooed man, the man who lies on a bed of nails, the snake lady. She walks, she talks, she crawls on her belly like a snake! All kindsa freaks and geeks! Next show in ten minutes and all of for just a quarter, one skinny fourth of a dollar!” I don’t think I ever went into this tent, maybe because they had an age limit. I just don’t remember anything but the opening spiel.
Sometime in the 50’s the carnival was moved and set up near the rodeo grounds. I don’t know why. Maybe some people complained about the congestion on Main Street and the mess that was always left behind. But the sights, the sounds, the smells of those carnivals on lower Main are etched in my memory, frozen there by my putting them down on paper. What are your carnival memories? Some probably the same as mine, some different. Just let your mind wander back to that time in your youth and see what’s there.
- Top Ten Movies
- Literary Oddities Part IV
- Literary Oddities Part III
- Literary Oddities Part II
- Literary Oddities Part I
- Puns & Shaggy Dogs
- Literary Anecdotes
- Oddball U.S. History
- REM Sleep
- South Pacific
- Possibilities for 2037
- A Very Slow Day
- Some TV Observations
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
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