Nellie Blog

Saturday, August 03, 2013

What does it take to get on Jeopardy?

(This piece ran June 7, 1989, in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY. Perhaps obviously, the people named in the opening paragraphs were on the news team at WPTZ, which was our chief rival in the market as well as the station on which Jeopardy aired.)

PLATTSBURGH - Let's be honest: If I had a personality, would I be working in print? If I had a personality, and a little more hair, I could be Dave Huntress. I could be Stuart Ledbetter. I could even be Rob Michalak.

Okay, maybe not Rob Michalak. But I could be on "Jeopardy!"

There were 77 of us, Tuesday morning, lined up at the Howard Johnson's, preparing to participate in the "Jeopardy!" contestant search. First thing I found out was that, since I know so many people at WPTZ, I was probably going to be ineligible anyway. They had a blank on the registration form that asked if you knew anyone at the production company, one of the networks or any of their affiliates.

Then there was a blank asking who you knew and how you knew them. There wasn't any blank asking whether you liked them, but they did ask where you worked and what you did, which should answer the question.

Newspaper people are not traditionally fond of broadcast people. We're jealous of their personalities.

There were a few familiar faces in the line, like Bob Shimko.

Shimko is finance director for the Municipal Lighting Department, which might have been an edge, except that WPTZ moved out of the city some years ago.

Shimko couldn't threaten to pull the plug on them: He was going to have to make it on brains and personality, like the rest of us.

Sue Cook was up from Ticonderoga. She has made it into the finals of the Press-Republican Cook-Off for the past two years, but there was only one question about cooking on the written quiz.

Oh well, she said, it was a nice shopping trip anyway.

The written quiz is the first hurdle — 50 questions, read by Alex Trebek on videotape while the traditional slide was shown on the monitors. We had 10 seconds to answer each question, and we didn't have to phrase our answers in the form of a question.

Answering 50 questions in a little over eight minutes was quite enough, thanks.

While we waited for our tests to be graded, they showed us an old episode of "Jeopardy!' This was not a room for those people who stumble, whimper and alibi their way through Trivial Pursuit.

The crowd of would-be contestants was calling out the questions before Alex had the third word of the answer out of his mouth.

"Double Jeopardy!" was about half over when Susanne Thurber and Ingrid Hirstin-Woodson, the contestant team, came back with the corrected tests and sent 69 people home.

According to Hirstin-Woodson, you need to answer approximately 70 percent of the questions on the written test correctly to make it to the next plateau.

The next plateau was the simulated game, where they would see who among us was fast on the bell, verbally adept under pressure and had a personality.

Susanne and Ingrid told us to pretend we were on the air, show a little energy and to speak up, but not to feel compelled to jump up and down and burble. This isn't "Let's Make A Deal" or "Win, Lose or Draw," after all.

No danger of burbling. It was hard enough just ringing in on time. The trick is, you can't ring in until the entire answer has been read. Then, the first person in gets to ask the question, score the points, be on television, win prizes, become famous and escape for one shining moment the tedious obscurity of his own wretched existence.

Pressure? Not a bit of it.

I got one question right, but Ingrid cautioned me to show more energy. I showed more energy on the next one I rang in on.

Good energy, bad information.

So it goes.

Dan Milkman and Bruce Daitz had the right combination of brains, dexterity and personality. With any luck, they will be appearing on television sometime next season, together with Lisa Guay, Laurie Kunkel and Joseph Laboda, who qualified from a field of 72 in the afternoon session, and whoever Susanne and Ingrid turn up in Burlington and Montreal this week.

The team processes 15,000 contest hopefuls every season, both in talent searches around the country and at the Los Angeles production offices, looking for about 475 contestants.

It helps if you have a pleasing personality.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Man Who Could Have Bought Donahue

(I'm not sure when I wrote this, but likely sometime around 1980, well before my own divorce but at a time when our friends' marriages were beginning to go through the process. I'm not particularly satisfied with it -- and it's at best only a second draft -- but, as the young curate said, "Parts of it are excellent.")

"Six years ... seven." He squinted slightly as he thought about the question. "Seven, the beginning of September. We moved in the beginning of the academic year, right after I got my PhD.”

"Very nice.” His guest, or, rather, his wife's guest's husband, looked around once more at the yard, the split rail fence against which they were leaning, the apple trees, the neat gray house with the fieldstone chimney. "Out west, you know, everything' s either tract houses or sort of Mexican, stucco and that. Whenever I come out to the Midwest or the East Coast, I see these houses and think, well, that's more what I thought I'd end up with, you know?"

"It's you TV guys that did it," his wife's hostess's husband chuckled. “Beaver and Wally, Bud and Betty and Kathy, they all lived in houses like this. But I grew up expecting it, too. When I saw this house, yeah, it looked to me like the kind of house you'd raise a family in. We didn't have any kids yet, of course, but when Brad was born, I started pruning that tree over there so it would have the right-shaped branches to hold a tree house. See, up there? Maybe next summer, when he's six, we’ll get out here and put it up.”

"You're lucky to have your summers free. Your kids are lucky."

"Well, that thing about summers being free is kind of deceptive. People think that, but it's really the only time you have to do any kind of serious research, writing and so forth. And I’ve taught summer school every year I've been on the faculty."

“Still, you've got some time to call your own. I wish I could take off when we started reruns. Take the summer off and do the things that really mattered to me. Even if it's work, you know, it's still your choice. This is my first real vacation in five years, and if it weren't for the affiliate's meeting, I doubt we’d have left the state. And next week, I've got to be back getting set up with the new season, you know, parties and hoopla and all that.”

"I guess you don't spend your vacation time sitting around watching TV like most people."

"I can’t. I can’t watch it for fun at all. I sit there, even here where I'm fifteen hundred miles from the station, and I go, 'Oops, missed your ID' or 'They've got a cart jammed' or 'What's the matter with the network feed?' Or I watch your local news and start looking at the set or wondering why we can't find someone like that gal that does your noon news show. I have to just turn it off and get out of the house."

They stood for a few minutes, looking around at the yard and smelling the warm, moist air, listening to a cardinal calling from the top of a power line three backyards away.

Finally, the visitor broke their silence almost plaintively:

"I couldn't have bought Donahue. It wasn't my decision."


"Last night, at dinner. Trish and Barbara were talking about joint custody of divorced kids, or, I mean, kids whose parents are divorced, you know?”


"And Barbara said she saw a show about it on Donahue. Trish said that I could have bought Donahue and didn't and the independent station in our market snapped it up. I think I've told her about forty times that it wasn’t my decision whether or not we picked it up. At that time, I wasn't program director yet, and, even if I had been, you know, you don’t function with that kind of, whatever, authority or independence, to just pick out shows like they were cans in the supermarket. All that happened was that I was assistant to the program director and he asked me what I thought about Donahue, and I said something about the phone calls. You know, the calls he takes during the show?"

"I'm afraid I don't watch it very often. I’ve seen it a couple of times, but I didn't pay that much attention. Even Barbara doesn't watch it more than a couple of times a month. Not even once a week.”

"I'm glad somebody doesn't watch it. Anyway, he takes phone calls from viewers with questions, but the shows are taped, so I just said that I thought he was a little tied into his own market too much, that people watching the show might get frustrated that they couldn't call in. The thing is, though, he didn't want to take the show, he was over budget anyway, they were asking quite a bit for it, and he sort of wanted me to  tell him not to pick it up. When you've worked with a guy for three years, you know when he's trying to get you to tell him to do something and when he's trying to get you to tell him not to, you know what I mean? You must run into that sort of thing."

"Sure, all the time."

"Sure, everybody does. Part of my job was to make him feel good about his decisions. But the bottom line was that we turned it down and the independent picked it up and it's this monster hit, you know? Trish thinks the guy can walk on water, and she isn't the only one. So I get to be program director and I bought John Davidson, you know, the show that replaced Mike Douglas when that went under. Seemed like some of the same sort of thing, and I mentioned to Trish that, you know, something about not getting Donahue but picking up Davidson. And ever since then, she's been on my case about not buying Donahue when I had the chance. Which I never had. And she's really been on me about it since I told her I thought Donahue was kind of a dork anyway."

"I guess if she’s a big fan, that wasn’t the right thing to say.”

"Tell me about it. She thinks he walks on water. I'm not kidding." He leaned over and picked up a twig, then began snapping off inch-long pieces and flicking them into the air with his thumbnail. “But, anyway, it bothers me when she says that to people who don't know me that well and might not understand or something. When she makes it sound like I don't know how to do my job.”

"Well, I can understand that you wouldn't want to have people think that.” Ray smiled, mostly to himself. "If it makes you feel any better, Marty, I wasn't paying too much attention to the conversation anyway.”

"When you think about it, I'm being pretty stupid, I guess. I mean, you're just a name on a Christmas card, you know? If I had any sense, I wouldn't give a damn what you thought. Trish is the one who's known you guys for a million years. But still ... "

"You've got your professional pride. I can understand that.”

“lt's silly, though. We've been married for eight years, and I've seen you guys, what, three times? Let's be honest, Ray. The girls have this big thing about being college roommates and all that, and you dated Barbara then, so you’re in on it, but I don't have any connection with you guys at all."

Ray chuckled. "Maybe we should be self-conscious instead of you. We must sound pretty dumb when we start talking about the Olden Days."

"No, not at all, because we're here, you know, this big four day visit, highlight of the summer, and the stuff you guys did in college is the only thing that holds it together. If you didn't sit around and tell stories about what happened when you were at Magdalen, what would we talk about? What would we be doing here?"

"We're still friends. The fact that the three of us met in college isn't that important. It just happens to be that we spent that time together, so that's what we have to talk about. I know you must feel kind of left out. Actually, I thought you might like to come out here and let them carry on about it without us for awhile. To tell you the truth, I don't know half the people they talk about, either. I didn't meet Barbara until junior year, and, even then, I wasn’t living in the dorm with them.”

"Yeah, but at least when your name comes up, it's about you, you know? Last night, I think Trish said my name three times over dinner. Once was when she said we ran into that guy you all knew, the one with hair down to here and beads and bells and all, and now he's so clean-cut that Trish didn't know who he was when he came up to her on the street. Only I wasn't part of that story. I didn't know him before, and I don't know him now. We talked for five minutes on the street and they were going to get in touch, but of course they never did. End of story, and for my part, well, if she'd been walking the dog, she'd have said his name instead of mine. The second time she said my name was to say I ran over the neighbor’s kid’s bike, which is true. I backed over the bike. But she doesn't say I spent the weekend fixing it and that I felt really bad about it or anything. And that it wasn't that bad anyway, just the back wheel. And then she told you I screwed up and didn't buy Donahue, which doesn't happen to be true. I mean, I just don't know sometimes, Ray.”

"Barbara can be pretty hard on me, too, sometimes. It's just a thing married couples do. I tell stories where she doesn't come out looking too good, either. But it doesn't really mean anything. Might get a dirty look or a kick under the table once in awhile, but that kind of thing just happens. You shouldn't take it so seriously."

"It's different. I really envy you, Ray. You and Barbara are something special. How long have you been married, ten years?”


"Right. But, I mean, I don't know how you do it, but you don't seem like you've been married for a long time. Sure, she told us about how you cut the lawn a different way each time and then rake it up a different direction, you know? But she made it sound kind of cute or something. She made it sound like a little quirk, but the kind of quirk that makes her love you more. Do you know what I'm trying to say?

"I thought she made me sound a little eccentric, but the thing is, she doesn't tell funny stories very well. She'd have made it sound a lot funnier if she was a better storyteller. Trish is a terrific storyteller. She's really a very funny person, and Barbara just isn't."

"Yeah, she's a scream. It's like being married to Joan Rivers." He reached the end of the twig and began to peel the bark from the remaining inch and a half. "Look, I'm sorry to be laying all this on you, Ray. It's just something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I don’t mean to sound like ..."

He dropped the twig and let the sentence fall with it.

"You want to talk, talk. I can listen. Not that I'm going to come up with any great advice, Marty. I'm an English prof, not a psychologist. But we're friends. Go ahead."

"No, I shouldn't be saying all this stupid stuff. This is supposed to be a nice visit to my wife's old roomie. It’s just, I don't know, maybe we should have come out before the meeting, when I was fresh and maybe I'd have been in a better mood. I'm not very good company, I'm afraid, and I'm sorry."

“Now you're being silly, Marty. I like having you around. I think everything's going just fine.”

"Yeah, yeah. Last night, when we were going to bed, Trish got all over me about being a wet blanket, bringing everyone down by just sulking around. But what am I supposed to do! Am I supposed to get into some discussion about something that happened in Milligan Hall?"


“See, I don't even know the names."

"You do so. You did that on purpose. After all these years, you can't tell me you don't know Minihan Hall."

"I thought you said you weren't a psychologist?" Marty laughed softly. “But you know what I mean. I figure if I sit there quietly, I’m doing about all I can do, right? Because all they ever talk about is college. And, when you think about it, what else could they talk about? What do they have in common besides that? Fifteen years ago they lived in the same room. Big deal. What is it about women, anyway?"

"Big question, Marty."

“Sure is. But look at us. What do I know? Local television and football. I don’t get the impression you care a whole lot about either of those things. What do you know? Literature and, I don't know, classical music or something. I don’t know anything about that stuff, but so what? We don't have much in common, but who cares? Our wives want to get together, it isn't going to kill us to sit around and talk for awhile, but four days? Four days? Thing I can't figure is, what can they talk about for four days? I mean, here's Barbara, tall and cool and smart as a whip, pretty, athletic, sings like a bird and she's got a professional job, right? Trish isn't any of those things. They didn't take the same classes, Barbara was a straight-A student while Trish barely scraped through, Barbara did all this activity business, choir and plays and politics and all. I don’t even know what Trish did with her spare time. Probably don't want to, either. But they shared a room in the dormitory. That's it. What the hell is the attraction? Why did we just come fifteen hundred miles? Does it make any sense to you?"

"They like each other. They’re friends. You don’t need an excuse to be friends, do you?"

"Sure you do. Guys do. Lookit, you say Barbara hardly ever watches Donahue, right? Trish never misses it. She makes dental appointments, does her shopping, schedules everything so she can be in front of the tube when Donahue comes on. Donahue gets up there with his innocent baby act day after day and she never catches on that he's either an idiot or a phony to listen to all those freako guests he books without becoming more tuned in to what's going on. Would Barbara let a phony dork like that bamboozle her? Trish thinks Donahue is a genius. She thinks he's this really brilliant guy. You know what? If somebody gets on Carson’s show and says ‘Horses are really smart', Johnny says, ‘Oh yeah? I'll bet they're not as smart as pigs. Pigs are really smart animals.' If somebody said that on Donahue, you know what he’d say? He’d say, “Wait, wait, wait a minute. What's a horse?' No lie, listen to him sometime.”

Ray laughed. “Come on, Marty, give the guy a break. It's just a difference in interviewing techniques."

"I know. But Carson assumes his audience knows what a horse is, and what a pig is, and maybe would like to hear something a little more interesting in the way of conversation. Donahue comes in with the assumption that his viewers are morons, so he acts stupid himself. And it is an act, because the guy makes millions. He really is a genius, but you can only tell that by looking at his ratings, not by listening to his interviews."

"Well, a lot of guys act like Farrah Fawcett Majors was the greatest actress since Sarah Bernhardt.”

"That I bought: Reruns of Charley's Angels. I ought to put it up against Donahue. We’d have murders in half the households in the market, fighting over the TV.

“The thing is, Trish watches a lot of television and Barbara doesn't. Is that such a big deal?"

“That’s not the point. It’s like women have to go to the bathroom together, you know? Why? What is all that stuff they do? You know, the singing business, where they pretend they're the Supremes or the Ronettes or whoever, and lip synch the music and work out these dance routines like they're on stage? I mean, come on, Ray! I didn't go to a college with dorms, I just drove in to class and then drove to my job, but did you and your roommate and your friends stand out in the halls pretending to be the Four Tops? Did you have stuffed animals on your beds? Did you put on your pajamas and go make fudge together? I don’t know what went on in those women's dorms, but it's like if everybody isn't your best friend, the whole damn world is going to come to an end! Tell me the men's dorms were like that!”

“There was some pretty silly stuff that went on."

“But who was doing it? The cool guys? Or the jerks? Did the guys you really respected, looked up to, you know, the student leaders, were they doing the silly stuff?”

"I guess not."

"Where’s your freshman roommate now? What’s he doing?”

"I haven’t got the slightest idea,” Ray admitted with a smile.

“Well, if he and his wife popped up for four days, what would you talk about with him? You’d be walking around whispering to Barbara, trying to figure out what they were doing here and when they were leaving."

"Listen, Marty, I enjoy having you guys here. Trish and Barbara are having a terrific time and that alone is enough to give me pleasure. And like you say, you and I get along. No, we don’t have much in common, but we get along. To tell you the truth, you're like a lot of neighbors I’ve had down the years. Talk about the rain, the crabgrass, and you don’t really care about it, but it's conversation. It's kind of nice. I’ll tell you something, Marty, I’d rather have you here than some of my relatives. No kidding.'"

"I appreciate that, Ray. I appreciate your saying that. But what you said about neighbors, that's the same thing. Everybody on our street has to be our friends. The women have decided that living on the same street makes you friends. We have parties at least once a month at somebody’s house, and nobody has anything in common except, uh, the same mailman or something. He doesn't get invited, either, because he doesn't live on our block. The guys all end up standing around with their drinks wishing they were anywhere else in the world, making polite conversation about crabgrass and football or some other garbage that nobody cares about, while the wives are all in the next room going at it like, well, you know, at least they don't dance and sing together, but it's that same ‘Aren’t we all having a marvelous time?' kind of thing. And then they come in to get a drink or refill a nutbowl or something, and it's 'Oh, all you guys do is talk about football, how horrible!' What are we supposed to be talking about, world hunger? And what are they doing that's so much better? Why do they put us through all that? What's the point?”

"Beats me. With us, it's a little different because we end up at faculty parties, and we all have the college in common. Most of the people around here are connected to the college somehow, so we do have something in common when we get together.”

"You're lucky. You're lucky in a lot of ways, Ray. The thing is, Trish gets so much pleasure out of making me look like an idiot, you know, with her funny stories and her snide remarks. If we get into an intelligent conversation at one of these things, she'll break in to tell me I say ‘you know' too much. Doesn't matter what else I might have been saying. I could say the greatest, most intelligent thing anyone’s said since Moses came down from the mountain, and all she’d pick up on is that I said 'you know' in the middle of it. Or stuff around the house. I fix things around the house all the time, but she doesn't notice the ninety-nine things that get fixed and work fine. The one thing, that one hundredth thing I can't get to work, oh, boy, that's big humor for the next six months. And it's not like she tells how I can usually fix things, but I screwed up this thing and it was funny. I could laugh at that. But she makes it sound like I can't fix things, like I mess up everything I touch. Or errands. I hate running errands for her. I tell her, ‘Look, just go yourself so you can get exactly what you want.’ But she sends me, and then it's the wrong size, or it has a little tiny dent or chip out of it, or I paid too much or it's the wrong brand or something. Next party, I can hear her in the next room talking about how I can't run a simple errand. And getting big laughs. I hear them laughing in the next room, I don't have to eavesdrop. I know what's happening, and that isn't paranoia, either. It's experience."

"Her sense of humor does have kind of a bite to it,” Ray allowed. "But everybody knows that, who knows her. I don't think people take those stories that seriously. They know she's clowning around, exaggerating."

“It's not that, Ray. For that matter, what do I care what some jerk down the street thinks? It does bother me, but ... "

He bent over to pick up another twig and began breaking it up as he had the other. “Here's the thing, Ray: She hangs around with all these people that she doesn't have anything in common with, except they lived together or down the block or whatever. Barbara is her best friend, and all they have in common is sharing a room in college. Well, I mean, I'm her husband. We've been married for eight years, two kids, dog, house. But we live together, too. Do you know what I’m saying, Ray? We live together.  Is that it? Am I just her new roommate? She doesn't seem to care who her friends are. She just makes friends with whoever she gets thrown in with. So where does that leave me?"

“Hey, Trish loves you. I've known Trish a long time, and she does love you, Marty.”

“Really? Is making babies at night any different to her than making fudge with the girls in the dorm? What do we have in common?"

Ray shrugged. "I don't even know what Barbara and I have in common, Marty, I sure couldn't try to say what you and Trish have in common. All I know is that my relationship with Barbara works, and works well. But I don't try to analyze it objectively. Love doesn't work that way."

Marty nodded and flicked away another section of twig.

"Funny thing is, if I’d told him to buy it, we'd still be living in an apartment. I mean, if he had gone ahead and done it on my say-so. That's the laugh. I told him what he wanted to hear and it turned out to be bad advice. So he got canned and I got his job. Big promotion, big raise, we bought a nice house. If I weren’t program director, we wouldn't have made this trip and we wouldn't be having this conversation at all. And she still gets to watch the damn program, you know, on the other station. It's not like she doesn't get to see it. But that's all I hear is that I didn’t buy Donahue. I've tried to tell her what my job really consists of, but she doesn't listen. I've tried to tell her it wasn’t my decision and how you can't just program your personal favorites and all that, but she doesn't want to understand it. It would ruin the joke. She wouldn't be able to ride me about it if she took the time to understand what really happened with that whole deal.”

“I hope you don't mind that I don't have anything very helpful to offer in the way of advice."

"I wouldn't expect you to. You're married to Barbara. She's not like that."

“She hits a nerve once in awhile. But when she does, I let her know about it. She doesn't mean to do it. Have you told Trish what you've been telling me?"

"I've tried. I told her one time that she hurt my feelings, but she acted like I was some kind of big baby about it. Couldn't take a joke, a little kidding. It was my fault, you know? I wasn't even looking for an apology from her, or some kind of, you know, whatever. She came down on me for it, though, and I didn't expect that. I don't think Barbara would do that to you.”

"I guess not. But Barbara, well, I’m pretty lucky."

"You can say that again. You know something, Ray, when I first met you guys, when I first met Barbara, the weekend we got married? It really scared me. I thought, ‘Wow, what am I getting myself into?' Because I'd never met anyone from Trish's college days, from Magdalen. And Barbara was just so pretty and classy and everything, that I started thinking maybe Trish was too good for me."

"I’ve always thought Barbara was too good for me,” Ray admitted. "I think you're supposed to feel that way."

"But not scared. I always thought Trish was kind of cute and smart and everything, and I was flattered that she liked me, and I knew her folks had a lot more money than my folks did. But when I met Barbara and the other girls who came out for the wedding, the ones from Magdalen, I started thinking she really was too good for me, in the scary sense of that. I mean, really too good for me. It's like, well, I know you don't watch too much TV, but do you ever see the old Bob Newhart shows?"

"Not too often. I’ve seen a couple. I know the basics, I guess."

“Well, on the show, there's this girl, Carol, and she marries this guy who's a real washout, just a total loser. Nobody can stand the guy. But everybody is nice to him because they like Carol and he’s her husband. They put up with this dork, and they're even nice to him, but only because they like his wife. That's what I started thinking was going to happen with Trish and me."

“Now, Marty, that just isn't the way it is. Forget it, man. It just isn't true.”

"It's true I felt that way, though. I don't anymore. I’ve got a good job where I get to make decisions, I have a staff under me, not much of one, but I do a little hiring and firing and motivating and all that. I make more money than my old man ever did and we live pretty well. And another thing is, people think I've got this wonderful job in an exciting industry. It’s great. I meet people from outside the industry and they think I have lunch with Harry Reasoner twice a week or something, you know? It's not really true, of course. Local TV, well, it might as well be a shoestore for all the romance. I’m just the guy who decides whether we should put ‘My Favorite Martian’ or ‘the Beverly Hillbillies’ on at four in the morning. But when I meet people, they think it’s really interesting, they're really impressed that I work in television. But if I'm with Trish, in about two minutes they hear this hilarious story about how I blew it on the Donahue thing. She gets her laugh and I look like an idiot all of a sudden.”

“I really think you ought to tell her all this," Ray insisted. "I don't think she's consciously trying to make you look like an idiot. She really does love you, Marty."

"I don't think she's trying to do it. She just does it. And that doesn't make a whole lot of difference, does it? Anyway, what I'm saying is this: If she just hung around with you and Barbara, I'd tell myself she had good taste and I'd be really flattered that she married me. But she hangs around with all these crazy neighbors of ours, you know? Her friendship with Barbara isn’t a question of her taste. It's just some clerk at Magdalen that put her name and Barbara's together on a room number. She had nothing to do with it. Her dad was a Maggie and he had the money to send his daughter to his old alma mater, that's all. She walks into her room the first day and there’s Barbara. I wish there was more to it than that, but there it is. And here we are leaning on your fence. You know what I'm saying?"

"I know what you're saying. I think you're wrong, Marty, but I can tell I'm not going to be able to convince you of that, and I feel stupid just telling you one more time to talk to Trish about it. But that's about the only thing I can think of to tell you."

"I wish it would do some good. I really do. I tell you, Ray, I’d do anything if I thought I could end up feeling like something other than just another one of her roommates. Anything. I might talk to her, you know, I might. If just once, she would just lay off long enough to let me say some of those things, maybe I could do it.”

He flicked away the last of the twig. "Anyway, here they come. Must be just about time to go in for dinner.”

Their wives were crossing the lawn, holding a glass in each hand. “We thought you might like to have your drinks out here," Barbara called out as they came near. “We'll even promise to stop talking about school if you'll let us join you."

"Actually, Ray, we thought we’d better get out here and rescue you," Trish laughed as she handed him a drink. "Marty has never understood that there are people in the world who don't want to be cornered for hours listening to his expert analysis of the last San Diego-Oakland game. I warned him before we got here that you're not much of a football fan. He hasn't bored you too much, has he?”

"We weren't discussing football," Ray said. “We were just out here, enjoying the weather and having a nice conversation in the fresh air. It really is a beautiful evening, isn't it?"

"See, Barbara? He's so polite!” Trish laughed, and her laughter tinkled out across the yard as she gave Ray's forearm an affectionate pat of the hand. “You can always count on Ray to be a perfect gentleman.”

Friday, March 15, 2013

Irish in America

 Being Irish in Colorado
(The Colorado Springs Sun, March 17, 1985)

One of my favorite stories ever. Sean, a kind, wise man who meant a lot to me, played bodhran in our Irish ballad group, The Bogsiders; the women were also from the Irish music scene, of which I was proud to be a part.

   There's a limit to the history of the Irish in Colorado.
   Molly Brown was Irish, which some say explains why Denver society treated her with snubs as chilly as a North Atlantic iceberg. The Irish patriot Maude Gonne was once spirited off from her Denver lecture schedule by Irish miners and treated to a day and a half in Cripple Creek and Victor, a detour she described in her autobiography as "the happiest days of my whole American tour."
   And it's rumored that Irish president Eamon De Valera's Spanish-born father is buried somewhere in Colorado, in an unmarked sheepherder's grave.
   But the fact is, the Irish tended to congregate in urban centers, and despite a handful of hardy pioneers, the Irish one finds in Colorado tend to be fourth and fifth generation Irish-Americans, transplanted here from their families' homes in Boston, New York and Chicago and far removed from their ancestral roots.
   But there are the exceptions.

   Kate McGuire Browning is only six years removed from Andersonstown, the Catholic inner city neighborhood of Belfast where she spent most of her young life. Married to Steve Browning, an Army helicopter pilot she met in Germany, she is celebrating her third St. Patrick's Day in America.
   Though many who come from the Six Counties would style themselves economic or political refugees, Mrs. Browning is more philosophical about her move.
   "I had a good job, but I just wanted to get away, just wanted to go somewhere different, try something out. It was just always what I wanted to do."
   That good job in Belfast, however, wasn't easy to find.
   "When you fill out an application form, first of all, your name is what gives you away," she says. "If you don't have an Irish name,  then they know you're a Protestant. And Andersonstown is Catholic, so your address gives you away. One girl and I were talking together about how hard it had been to get a job. I'd been a year out of school before I got myself a full-time job, working in a telephone exchange. This other girl, she was Catholic, and we were talking about how hard it was, and then this other girl, she belonged to Ian Paisley's church, and she said, 'Oh no, there's no trouble getting jobs, there's all kinds of jobs.' There's supposed to be equal rights and all, but you still can't see it a bit.
   "A Catholic person can apply for a job at the shipyard. There isn't much chance he'll get the job, and if he did take the job, he'd be doing it at the risk of his own life. For years and years, it's always been a Protestant firm. It's always been Protestants worked there. Harlan and Wolf is all Protestants working, and a Catholic daren't go look for a job there. It's still not safe. You go to the unemployment office and they've got all kinds of jobs, but the areas they're in, it isn't safe," says Mrs. Browning.
   Growing up in a divided society began to be difficult in the late Sixties, when the nonviolent Catholic civil rights movement was thwarted and militant nationalists utilized the bitterness of that defeat to start up the ancient war for freedom once again.
   "Up until I was about nine or ten, I had a Protestant friend, and we couldn't be parted," says Mrs. Browning. "It was around '69 when it started to get real bad, and I got up one morning and all of a sudden my friend wasn't there anymore, her parents had moved out. It was a mixed area where we lived, Protestant and Catholic, and we all lived along just fine. I guess the parents felt it was safer for them to move. It just got to the point where people were split up: Catholics were burnt out of their homes, Protestants were burnt out of their homes."
   Mrs. Browning had lost more than a friend in those difficult days. Seeing the local police stand by and even encourage the violence of the vigilante mobs against Catholic homeowners has left her with firm opinions about the situation.
   "The police over there are the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They're British, and, as far as the law goes, we don't get too much protection from them."
   Though the corruption of local police was largely checked by their disarmament and the substitution of the Army to perform their duties after those initial, chaotic days, the damage was done and the Army was no more welcome than the police had been.
   "It's not that the Catholic wants the Protestant out," Mrs. Browning insists, "It's not like that. They're all willing to live together. They just say that it's Ireland, that it doesn't belong to Britain, and we're entitled to have our country back. Britain has let go of so many other countries that they have ruled, and why not Northern Ireland? It'll go on until Britain pulls out."
   In this country, Mrs. Browning keeps her Irish heritage alive as she did when she was growing up, through preserving her culture in Irish dancing with the local Irish club. "I started doing solo dancing when I was about five," she says. "That was the normal thing at home, when kids start school, they start Irish dancing classes. I quit doing that when I was about ten or eleven and started playing camogie. You've heard of hurley? Camogie is the ladies' game. Even with the girls playing, it's pretty rough."
   Hurley, Ireland's national game, has been described by wags as "lacrosse played with pick handles."
   Ms. Browning also preserves her heritage in the oldest way, through her children, Aoife Fiona, 4, and Sean Padraig, the baby. "Aoife was a name I liked, and I always wanted that name for my first daughter, but I didn't know my first daughter was going to be an American," she admits. "When people see her name, they've got no idea what it is, and I think, 'God, poor kid, going through life.'"

   Eilish Rogers Argenzio's eldest son Cormac is 20, old enough to explain his Irish name to the confused, as his mother often has to explain hers.
   "It's a very old Gaelic name," she says. "It's not a diminutive of anything and there's no English translation. Eileen is not a diminutive of it, though people argue about that."
   Like her friend Kate Browning. Mrs. Argenzio came to this country with a military husband, Arthur, since retired from the Air Force. As a Dubliner and as someone who came over before the current round of Troubles started, however, her politics are more muted.
   "If I was in the North of Ireland, living, and was in a bad zone, I know I'd be up there doing something I shouldn't be doing," she admits. "But I'm not there. I'm here. I have never lived that. 
   "Even down in Dublin, where I lived, the Troubles weren't really bad up in the North then at all. We used to go up there on shopping expeditions. So I've never really come across the bad parts of it. I've never been that closely involved in it. I left in '64." 
   Still, she's not untouched by the controversy. "I'll tell you what really fires me up, is to hear an Irish person who lives in the North of Ireland, and they say to them, 'You're Irish. why do you feel that way?' and they say, 'I'm not Irish. I'm British.' That just fires me up instantly. If they feel that way, they should be living in Britain. That's Ireland they're living in."
   Mrs. Argenzio is still an Irish citizen and still very Irish.
   She, too, keeps her heritage alive by dancing, and Irish mementos are scattered through every room of her home.
   Despite the failing economy in what has been described as the northernmost Third World nation, she would go back to Ireland.
   "If Art said. 'Let's go back to Ireland, I'd go. Without my washing machine, without my dishwasher, without all the stuff that I have here that I wouldn't be able to afford at home. Things are so much more expensive over there. I have sisters-in-law there, and they have washers and dryers, but my mother doesn't, still. She does her own washing by hand and hangs it out on the line."
   The economic situation still drives the Irish out of their country as it has for hundreds of years. Her brother is in the process of emigrating to the United States. It is a long process.
   "He's a jeweler by trade," she explains. "And he had his own business at home, and he said he was making a living, but he just couldn't get ahead, no matter how hard he worked and how long he worked. He was always just making enough to get by, because things just keep going up and up and up. He applied over two years ago for a visa, and he was given a number, which means he was accepted for immigration, but now he has to wait for it to come up. He wrote last year and said they were processing 1981, which he means he hopes to be out here sometime this year, because he applied in 1982. He thinks by summer this year, but I think if he gets here by Christmas, he'll be doing good."
   For Mrs. Argenzio. the hardest part about living in the United States is missing family. Even with a brother in New York and another on the way, she has a mother and aunts who are growing older in Ireland. Though she gets homesick for Ireland, she's found it more economical to invite her mother to visit than to try to save the money to take her own family over there.
    She returned to Ireland with her sons, Cormac and David, for a summer in 1977. It was a sentimental journey, to say the least. "I didn't really get homesick for Ireland until I went back, and when I came back here, I had a terrible time settling down. I wanted to be here and I wanted to be there. It was really hard to settle down again, and I'd never been like that until I went back. Everyone said that, 'Wait until you go home, see what it does when you go home.' And I said. 'Oh, that won't happen to me. I'm very happy here, I love it here."

   "This is home, right here." Sean Sheehan says, sitting in his Denver house. "People say, 'When you going to go home?' A lot of the Irish say that, 'When you going to go home?' But when you're back there, and you're there two or three weeks, then you're ready to go home. We've lived here twenty-seven years. This is home. We don't have a home in Ireland."
   Sheehan and his wife Peggy came to Denver in 1957 from the small village of Ardagh in County Limerick; she was originally from Ballyhigh in County Kerry. Married in 1948, they had moved into the Sheehan home with his mother and father.
   When his parents died, Sean sold the house and all its furnishings and came to Denver, with the original plan to go into business with Peggy's brother, a plasterer. Drywall killed that plan before they arrived, but they came out anyway.
   "We were coming to the country of riches, where you could pick it up off the streets," Mrs. Sheehan laughs. "We found out different."
   The Ireland they grew up in was more the Ireland of postcards and the sentimental songs than the modern world of Eilish Argenzio and Kate Browning, and the rural West of Ireland was and still is very different from the urban centers of Dublin and Belfast, despite the fact that the entire island is only the size of Indiana. It was an enormous island a half century ago for the son of a roof thatcher.
   "There was no television," Sheehan says. "We didn't know what the rest of the world was like when we were growing up. There were radios, but they were few, they were scarce as automobiles. When somebody had a radio. people would gather at the house. That was a big thing, to have radio. That was something like someone having a Rolls Royce now."
   Automobiles were scarce and were often chauffeur-driven hackneys (rental cars) available for weddings or errands.
   "There was one hackney car," Sheehan says. "That was about the only car. I think the doctor had a car. but he had to cover an area that was, from one end to the other, about thirty miles. I could count the cars on one hand that were in our area, up to about 1935 or '36. You had to be very rich to have a car in Ireland."
   "I thought about America, when I was growing up." he explains, "that everybody drove to work in a big car with a suit and a tie. I thought there was no poor people, because very few people went back to Ireland. But when they went back, they'd hire a car or take their own cars back on the boat. And they'd go back and drive around in their fancy cars, and you thought, 'This has to be the place!' They've got TV now; they know what the Americans are like. We didn't have an idea about how American people lived."
   Even when they emigrated twenty years later, those childhood impressions remained strong. They still thought America was the country of riches.
   "Paddy told us we'd have to work very hard," Mrs. Sheehan says of her American brother. "But we couldn't believe that. He was out here (in Denver) eight years, and he had five more kids here and the one he'd brought with him. He went back to Ireland and rented a big house, as well he would with six kids and a husband and wife to live there. He rented the house, and he rented a maid and he rented a car. Well, wouldn't all that give you the impression that America had gold about the streets? And I wouldn't believe otherwise. He told us how you'd have to work hard ..." 
   "When we were growing up," says Sheehan. "You'd be lucky if you could go into Limerick for a day, never mind going overseas for a vacation. My father lived in the County Limerick. He was born and lived all his life there, and he was 72 years when he died. He was only out of the county once in his life. Of the county! That was to go to Queenstown, Cobh they call it now, with the Confraternity, the church group, on an excursion on the train. Where we lived, to go to the borders of Cork County was 10 miles, to go to the borders of Kerry was 15. And he was only out of the county one time."
   The Sheehans met when his Local Defense Force was sent to Kerry for maneuvers during World War II. Otherwise, they say, they'd never have married someone from a town over fifty miles away.
   Now, Ireland has changed, Ireland has joined the twentieth century, and they regret some of those necessary, inevitable changes.    
   "They're losing their brogues," Mrs. Sheehan says. "I have more of a brogue. Now, they're going to school and they're meeting so many Europeans and Americans. And the television."
   "They love to meet people and make friends with them," she says. "Whereas you can't do that in America, you can't go down the street and say hello and stand up and talk to them. Well, you can do that in Ireland."
   "But that's going out in Ireland, too," Sheehan says. "I think by the year 2000, it will have changed so much you won't know it.
   "I'll tell you a little story, a joke: This American is driving down this country road, and his watch had stopped. And he saw these couple of men standing by the ditch at the crossroads, and he stopped and he said 'What time is it?' And you know the answer the Irishman made to him? 'Why?'
   "Time didn't mean nothing in Ireland at that time. It does now, because they've got these factories, and they've got time clocks and they've got bills and they've got pressure and they've got everything like any other country has."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In which Vaska visits one of my favorite places

So here's my boy Vaska on the path through what used to be an Adirondack Great Camp. Or a pretty good camp. It never quite reached the status of Marjorie Merriweather Post's camp, but it was okay as far as plutocratic retreats go.

This used to be a wide-open area, and has, in the past quarter century, been taken over by small trees and brush. But let's explain, first:

We are about 10 miles back from anywhere, in a part of the Adirondacks where even being in the middle of "anywhere' isn't a whole lot.

Here's where we were:
Or, to put it in more global terms:
The point being that we started nowhere and then got a little more out of the middle of things.

But, when I talked about going out there later, everyone was familiar with the place and had a story to tell. Streeter Lake is a place that everyone goes, but in a protective kind of way. We live a quiet life to start with, and Streeter Lake is one of those place we go when we want life to settle down even more.

Check it out: I'm aware that city folks get a little freaked out by how quiet it is in the country. But here's a video that I shot out at Streeter Lake around noon. Earlier in the morning, the birds were challenging each other -- that is, at about 5 a.m., you hear the "Oh, I love you, baby" birdsong, but by around 10 a.m., the lovemaking is over and it's mostly "Hey! Whachoo doin' on my territory?" singing. 

Still, it's singing. As the sun gets high and the temperatures rise, everybody chills out and here is the result: It's like having noise-cancelling headphones on. The only sound is an occasional breeze and whatever the dog is up to. Crank your speakers to the max and dig it:

If you know a more peaceful place, feel free to share it, but I felt like I was in heaven. 

And so did the pupster, who was happy to find new things to smell and new place to explore, This is what hounds are bred for, and he was in his element:

The farther we got into the trails, the happier he became.

We got down to the lake itself, and he took a drink and then shrugged it off. But this is where I camped with my boys, back when they were tiny and we'd hike the six miles from the house to the lake.

Making that long hike to Streeter, without whining or asking to be carried or otherwise exhibiting evidence of being a baby, was a rite of manhood. And a very entertaining one.

The nine-year-old in that picture will turn 40 in just a few weeks. Meanwhile, despite his desperate clinging to hot chocolate in this picture, he did have the presence of mind to swim out into the lake and beckon his father with "it's warm once you get in," only to laugh and swim to shore, towels and fire once he had lured the Old Man into the chilly water.

Anyway, three decades plus a little later, here's the same spot, and much the same indeed,except that the dog is not as much into humorous deceit:
 One oddity of the place is that, although it is 10 miles back from any real roads, and far in the midst of the "Forever Wild" Adirondacks, this is a 4,000 acre tract that was once owned by a man who had made a fortune with potato chips.

The place had been a kind of minor example of the Adirondack Great Camp, and there was a time when there were buildings on the grounds, though they have all disappeared since. The only thing left is a codicil in the will that gave the grounds over to the state, and that is a small area that contains the family mausoleum:
Strangely, in the middle of nowhere, you come across this fenced area and these groomed grounds. There is apparently some kind of endowment that keeps it going, because it is absolutely spotless, amid absolute wilderness.

Tres bizarre, but in a kind of cool way. There was a time when Andy's groundskeepers would run you off the property, but he donated the acreage before his death and it's a great place to go back and just kind of hang out. Even with Andy and his family entombed on the property.

If nothing else, it makes Streeter Lake an outstanding place, when the sun goes down and there is no light but from the stars and the campfire, to tell Mark Twain's classic ghost story of the Golden Arm.

The boys asked for a ghost story and I said I knew one, but then I thought about how incredibly un-right it was to tell the Golden Arm when we were camped on a lake just across from a mausoleum, so I stopped, but they begged and begged, and like a fool, I gave in. Scared the living bejayzus out of them, as well it might.

Thirty-some years later, I still don't know if that was a really cool moment or a stunning lapse in parental judgment. Oh well, what the hell.

And nothing scares the dog, so we went over to Crystal Lake, which is next door. Now, Streeter is remote, but, somehow, you always run into one or two people out there. But the deal is, they stay on Streeter and you go over to Crystal and that way, everyone has some peace and quiet.

So Vaska and I walked over to Crystal Lake, where the water is, as the name suggests, incredibly clean and clear, and also warm.

We had a lovely swim and I think that next year, when we go back for the next reunion, we'll bring a tent and schedule a night at Crystal Lake.

 I don't think I'll get much opposition to the plan.

Friday, June 22, 2012

88 Books You Haven't Read All Of

Here are the Library of Congress’s list of 88 “Books That Shaped America,” and I like the fact that they didn't feel compelled to add 12 more or to cut 13 in order to hit a round number.

So how many have you read? And I'd count "read" to include (as in the case of Dr. Spock or the cookbooks), using the book but perhaps not reading it cover to cover, but not (as in the case of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"), having seen the movie or (as in the case of "Atlas Shrugged" or "Uncle Tom's Cabin") having heard so much about them that you feel like you might as well have read them. But I'd count a play you've seen ("Streetcar" or "Our Town").

I'd have a higher score if I'd majored in American Lit or even English. And a much higher score if I counted the ones I fully intended to read, including some sitting on my shelf as I write this.

I had 28 (31.8%).

“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (Mark Twain, 1884)
“Alcoholics Anonymous” (anonymous, 1939)
“American Cookery” (Amelia Simmons, 1796)
“The American Woman’s Home” (Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1869)
“And the Band Played On” (Randy Shilts, 1987)
“Atlas Shrugged” (Ayn Rand, 1957)
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (Malcolm X and Alex Haley, 1965)
“Beloved” (Toni Morrison, 1987)
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (Dee Brown, 1970)
“The Call of the Wild” (Jack London, 1903)
“The Cat in the Hat” (Dr. Seuss, 1957)
“Catch-22” (Joseph Heller, 1961)
“The Catcher in the Rye” (J.D. Salinger, 1951)
“Charlotte’s Web” (E.B. White, 1952)
“Common Sense” (Thomas Paine, 1776)
“The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” (Benjamin Spock, 1946)
“Cosmos” (Carl Sagan, 1980)
“A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible” (anonymous, 1788)
“The Double Helix” (James D. Watson, 1968)
“The Education of Henry Adams” (Henry Adams, 1907)
“Experiments and Observations on Electricity” (Benjamin Franklin, 1751)
“Fahrenheit 451” (Ray Bradbury, 1953)
“Family Limitation” (Margaret Sanger, 1914)
“The Federalist” (anonymous, 1787)
“The Feminine Mystique” (Betty Friedan, 1963)
“The Fire Next Time” (James Baldwin, 1963)
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Ernest Hemingway, 1940)
“Gone With the Wind” (Margaret Mitchell, 1936)
“Goodnight Moon” (Margaret Wise Brown, 1947)
“A Grammatical Institute of the English Language” (Noah Webster, 1783)
“The Grapes of Wrath” (John Steinbeck, 1939)
“The Great Gatsby” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)
“Harriet, the Moses of Her People” (Sarah H. Bradford, 1901)
“The History of Standard Oil” (Ida Tarbell, 1904)
“History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark” (Meriwether Lewis, 1814)
“How the Other Half Lives” (Jacob Riis, 1890)
“How to Win Friends and Influence People” (Dale Carnegie, 1936)
“Howl” (Allen Ginsberg, 1956)
“The Iceman Cometh” (Eugene O’Neill, 1946)
“Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures” (Federal Writers’ Project, 1937)
“In Cold Blood” (Truman Capote, 1966)
“Invisible Man” (Ralph Ellison, 1952)
“Joy of Cooking” (Irma Rombauer, 1931)
“The Jungle” (Upton Sinclair, 1906)
“Leaves of Grass” (Walt Whitman, 1855)
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (Washington Irving, 1820)
“Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy” (Louisa May Alcott, 1868)
“Mark, the Match Boy” (Horatio Alger Jr., 1869)
“McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Primer” (William Holmes McGuffey, 1836)
“Moby-Dick; or the Whale” (Herman Melville, 1851)
“The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (Frederick Douglass, 1845)
“Native Son” (Richard Wright, 1940)
“New England Primer” (anonymous, 1803)
“New Hampshire” (Robert Frost, 1923)
“On the Road” (Jack Kerouac,1957)
“Our Bodies, Ourselves” (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 1971)
“Our Town: A Play” (Thornton Wilder, 1938)
“Peter Parley’s Universal History” (Samuel Goodrich, 1837)
“Poems” (Emily Dickinson, 1890)
“Poor Richard Improved and the Way to Wealth” (Benjamin Franklin, 1758)
“Pragmatism” (William James, 1907)
“The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D.” (Benjamin Franklin, 1793)
“The Red Badge of Courage” (Stephen Crane, 1895)
“Red Harvest” (Dashiell Hammett, 1929)
“Riders of the Purple Sage” (Zane Grey, 1912)
“The Scarlet Letter” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850)
“Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (Alfred C. Kinsey, 1948)
“Silent Spring” (Rachel Carson, 1962)
“The Snowy Day” (Ezra Jack Keats, 1962)
“The Souls of Black Folk” (W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903)
“The Sound and the Fury” (William Faulkner, 1929)
“Spring and All” (William Carlos Williams, 1923)
“Stranger in a Strange Land” (Robert E. Heinlein, 1961)
“A Street in Bronzeville” (Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945)
“A Streetcar Named Desire” (Tennessee Williams, 1947)
“A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America” (Christopher Colles, 1789)
“Tarzan of the Apes” (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1914)
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” (Zora Neale Hurston, 1937)
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (Harper Lee, 1960)
“A Treasury of American Folklore” (Benjamin A. Botkin, 1944)
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith, 1943)
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)
“Unsafe at Any Speed” (Ralph Nader, 1965)
“Walden, or Life in the Woods” (Henry David Thoreau, 1854)
“The Weary Blues” (Langston Hughes, 1925)
“Where the Wild Things Are” (Maurice Sendak, 1963)
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (L. Frank Baum, 1900)

Read more here:

Friday, June 01, 2012

No looking in the corner for this one

(This column originally appeared August 4, 1989, in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY)

    When I was in college, one of the interesting things about our old campus was the strange little bits of sculpture and artwork tucked away in odd corners.
    In the Administration Building, there was a set of murals of the life and times of Christopher Columbus.
    One painting showed Columbus and these weeping Indians in a cell and was entitled "Bobadilla betrays Columbus."
    We didn't know who Bobadilla was, but he must have been a cad.
    Near the art building, there was a six-foot sculpture of a man, made of reinforcing rods.
    The rods approximated musculature, and the man's head was thrown back in a scream of inarticulate angst, while his hands tore open his stomach. Inside were gears and suchlike, with a little, tiny man in the very center .
    Oddest of all, though, was the mural in the Huddle. Wrapped around the end of the booths in the snack bar was a really ugly painting of grotesque football players hitting each other, while referees blew whistles and threw flags. As undergraduate artwork goes, this was really a wonder.
    I thought of all this awe-striking artwork the other day when I was over on the Plattsburgh State campus and saw the new giant head that is rising up between the library and the science building. I don't know much about sculpture, mind you. but I know what is big, and this is big.
    It isn't a record for macrocephalic sculpture, of course. Mount Rushmore is larger, but that is, strictly speaking, a statue of four giant heads, not four giant sculptures of heads.
    The heads of Easter Island are more separate, but still can hardly be classed as individual opera.  
    But the giant head of Ferdinand Marcos, overlooking a golf course in the Phillipines, is clearly the world-class giant head of all time.
    Still, for Plattsburgh, this is one big head, and that is important. Campus art these days has few restrictions, but it is supposed to be really, really big.
    Look at those two gingerbread men shaking hands: now. that's big! That's really big, really good campus art.
    Giant art is important in the high-pressure world of the modern undergraduate facility.
    When we were students, we didn't care about our futures and we weren't under the same pressures to get high grades.
    If we wanted to go wandering around campus, hunting up unusual things to look at and ponder, we could take an hour or two and go do it. If the dinky little lifesize heads and bodies we were offered were tucked away in a quiet grotto or down amid the crab apple trees somewhere, we had nothing better to do than go down and have a look anyway.
    Today, students need to be able to get at that art quickly. They are busy people and they need to just look across campus and there it is: A giant head. Two men shaking hands. Whatever.
    You look, and you see it. No time wasted, no one late to class.
    This is very American, you know, this efficient artwork. It started with the Statue of Liberty.
    We'd bring in all the wretched refuse yearning to be free, and, as their boats steamed into the harbor, we'd say, "Hey, there's Lady Liberty over there. We made her real big, so you wouldn't have to get off the boat and go have a close-up look. You can see her just fine from here. Now, go get your shots and find a job."
    I don't know what this really big head is going to actually look like when it is done. Right now, it looks like a giant-but-kind-of-flimsy jungle gym, but they wouldn't dare leave it like that unless they are going to really, really crack down on campus drinking.
    I haven't talked to the artist about all this.
    But my senior year, they decided to renovate the Huddle, and they covered over the grotesque mural of ugly football players that had been there for 15 years, and some enterprising campus reporter thought to call up the guy who painted it and ask him what he thought about having his artistic tribute to Notre Dame football destroyed.
    "I hated football,'' he replied. "I thought it was incredibly grotesque."
    Which doesn't have much to do with giant heads, except that it was nice to run into a campus artist who didn't have one.

(Note: This provoked an angry letter from the curator that may have provoked more laughter than the original column.)

Friday, March 30, 2012

 Being Stupid Can Be Taxing

(originally published in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY, December 6, 1988)

 So here's how it all started: A bunch of the guys in the Caucus were sitting around, trying to figure out how to get up some money.
   "Raise the tax on cigarettes, "says O'Malley, and Dutch hits him upside the head with a wadded-up empty pack of Camels.
   Dutch smokes two packs a day and figures the only way he'll ever turn a profit on his own taxes is to check into the VA with lung cancer.
   "What about a new statewide sales tax?" says Milstein. "Kick it up a penny. Nobody'll notice.'
   "The municipalities'll notice," says Callaghan. "Same thing with real estate. The locals'll raise holy Ned if we do any more hunting on their preserves. Nah, we need to tax something new. We need to tax something everybody has, but that they ain't paying any taxes on now."
   "The guys in my district are always telling me the next tax will be on the air they breathe," says Dutch. "It's worth a thought."
   "Manhattan'd refuse to pay it," says Milstein. "What they got to breathe ain't worth paying for."
   "I got something else in mind," says Callaghan. "Something almost as common as air. Something we're surrounded by every day. Something this state already has away too much of."
   "What's that?" says Dutch.
   Callaghan gets this big smile on his kisser. "Stupidity. Any shortage of that in your district, Dutch?"
   "In my district?" he asks. "There ain't no shortage of that in my immediate family! But how you gonna tax stupidity?"
   "Yeah," says Milstein. "You think the people downstate would get upset about paying for air which they ain't got, wait'll you try to tax'em for brains which ditto."
   "What're you gonna do, Callaghan?" says O'Malley. "Make 'em take a test or something? Who's gonna write the test?"
   Dutch whistles. "You think you got trouble with the Regents and the SAT's and all that? How you gonna write up a stupidity test that ain't culturally biased?"
   "Don't need a test," Callaghan says, still with the smile. "This is a tax people will pay without a test. They'll volunteer."
   "Right," says Milstein. "They'll just send in their money. They'll say, 'Here you go, I'm pretty stupid. Here's fifty bucks.' In a pig's eye. Callaghan! Who's gonna admit to that?"
   "They won't have to," Callaghan laughs."That's the beauty. We don't call it a stupidity tax. We call it a 'state lottery.' We tell'em, if they give us their money, we might give them a whole, bunch of money back. The more they give us, the more chance we might give them a couple or 20 million bucks. They'll be lined up out into the streets, fighting to pay their stupidity tax. We won't even be able to collect it ourselves, it'll be coming in so fast. We'll have to farm out the job to convenience stores, groceries, gas stations, every place you can think of. You start taxing stupidity, boys, you're talking about a major windfall, you know."
   Dutch shakes his head. "I don't know, Callaghan. You're talking about giving the money back?"
   "Bird feed!" Callaghan snorts. "We lay 20, 30, even 50 million bucks on one dumb schmoo in Queens, every other dumb schmoo across the state is gonna think he's next in line. That's the beautiful thing about this: The more stupidity they got, the more they pay! One pathetic jerk wins the money, there'll be 100 million other pathetic jerks lined up to pay us back and then some, the next morning."
   "So what are the odds on this thing, this big money?" O'Malley asks.
   "14 million-to-one," Callaghan says. "That's what weeds out all the smart people who shouldn't have to pay. I mean, a person with half a brain is automatically exempt from paying the stupidity tax, just by virtue of knowing what a sucker deal it is. You gotta figure, you got more chance of being hit by lightning. Twice. You got more chance of signing with the Knicks. You got more chance of meeting the Pope in an elevator."
   "Most of my constituents think they got a chance of being swept up in a UFO," Milstein admits. "14 million-to-one odds don't mean nothing to them. Meet the Pope, nothing. They think they still got a chance to meet Elvis."
   "I got to hand it to you, Callaghan," says Dutch. "A stupidity tax. That's really beautiful. It's the one kind of tax nobody's gonna wise up to."