Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Always liked sharing a last name with him. He was an okay piano player, too, and, for all his solo talent, he didn't mind being part of a group ... if the group had a little swing.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Merry Christmas to those not having one

(This column originally ran in the Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, NY, December 24, 1994)

I had a problem with my Christmas cards this year.

When you do cards, you have to wrap up the year's news in a few deft sentences before you ask about the other person's family and then add your wishes for a good holiday season and so forth.

The problem was, things have gone very well for me this year. I like my job. The kids are wonderfully content with what they are doing. We're healthy and happy, and, you know, about the fifth time I wrote that in a card, all the good news began to make me want to puke.

Tolstoy is right: All happy families are alike, which is why he didn't bother writing a novel about a happy family. Nobody wants to read about a bunch of perky, cheerful high-achieving jackasses.

I recognize, however, that having too much good news may not be your particular problem this Christmas.

I certainly wasn't facing a crisis of over-cheer a decade ago. My Christmas cards went out early in 1984, so our faraway friends would know in time that they should either choose which of us to send the card to, or else send two cards: One to me and one to my wife of 13 years but no more, at her new address.

It could have been worse. I had my kids part-time and the Colorado economy hadn't crashed yet, so I was still able to pay most of my bills and to buy basic groceries, though I couldn't afford health insurance or car repairs.

Still, it was bad enough. I took what little money I could afford to spend on presents for my kids and bought a toboggan, one good present the three of us could enjoy together. Then, the only times it snowed, they happened to be over at their mother's. It all seemed to go like that for me in 1984.

I could write an uplifting holiday message here, suggesting that my current swell Christmas is some cosmic payback for having been put through that really lousy one. But I don't believe that, not even at Christmastime.

No, I wasn't visited by three yuletide spirits, or by an angel-in-training named Clarence, that blue Christmas.

The transformation, rather, came over the course of the next year, through the agency of mortal folks who had been down that road themselves and were willing to extend a hand to assist a fellow-traveler.

For instance, I dropped off a manuscript at a client's office one day, and mentioned to his accountant that I was working on my income taxes. Turned out she was also a single parent, and she proceeded to give me a quick lesson in filing as head-of-household despite having joint custody and thus qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit. It saved me a generous fistful of much-needed dollars.

My dentist had been through a particularly unpleasant divorce: He repaired a cracked filling for me at no charge.

And my main client, God bless her soul, was big sister and counselor and a boss of saintly patience and forbearance throughout the year. She'd been through it, too, and we had many extra cups of coffee and a few unnecessary "business lunches" while she assured me that everything was going to work out for me in the long run. And she went across the hall to a sister publication and got the editor there to throw a little work my way.

If this is not a cheerful Christmas for you, I can't fill your teeth or give you a job, though I do suggest you look into that earned-income tax credit.

But what I can do is to promise you that blue is not a permanent color.

Others have been through this, and, while there is no fast-forward button you can push, it will eventually end.

Yesterday, Dec. 23, was the longest night, the darkest day, of the year. Beginning today, the sun will start shining a little earlier every morning, and it will stick around a little later every evening.

Make the effort to stand where that sun can shine on you. Keep your head up so you can see it. Avoid the shadows, and especially, refuse the company of those who wish to share misery and bitterness instead of hope.

The days will eventually become longer than the nights, it will be warm once again, the flowers will bloom.

And then maybe one day, a few years down the road, you'll be faced with the problem of phrasing your good news in a way that won't make people want to puke.

When that happens, remember how you got there, and help someone else find the way to a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Gasp!! I am offended!!

When this November 24 Non Sequitur was published, it created a brief furor on the newsgroup rec.arts.comic.strips, started by an offended poster with a history of being offended by criticism of racism and a generally mixed-up and conflicted view of the topic -- during The Boondocks' days on the funny pages, he used to periodically show up to rant over that strip, too.

But others picked up on his disfavor for this particular cartoon, just as they had gotten their knickers in a knot a few years ago for this Non Sequitur gem, at the height of the Weakest Link craze.
(This may be a good time to add the disclaimer that I consider the artist, Wiley Miller, a personal friend. A good time because, besides being conversant with "The Weakest Link," he was the one who turned me on to the first season of "The Osbournes." I have to respect a man with such a prodigious appetite for pop culture drek.)

Getting back to the chicken joke, it apparently ruffled a few feathers (heh heh) in Beloit, Wisconsin, because the Beloit Daily News there has now "suspended" the strip.

I'm less interested in how thick the good citizens of Beloit must be not to see that the chicken cartoon was just a silly joke that, if it made any point beyond "egg whites," was ridiculing the Klan, or what it says about them if they realized it was contemptuous of the Klan and objected to it anyway, than I am in the brain-dead reasoning of the editor who made the decision to pull the strip.

You don't often see the crisis of newspaper comics laid out in such stark terms, or the inability of editors to understand (A) the purpose of comics, (B) the importance of intelligent content to keep papers alive and (C) their own responsibility to know what the various elements of their product are and to monitor them.

Often in journalism, the best way to hang a villain is to quote him accurately:

Frankly, we don't pay much attention to the content of cartoon strips on our Comics page. We just expect them to be funny and give readers a chuckle. We do not devote a seasoned editor's time to closely check each cartoon for provocative or controversial story lines. The cartoons are pulled from the national syndicate's Web site in our graphics department, and loaded onto pages for publication. Apparently, we need to look closer, and we'll try. But we also admit it's possible some other strip - in which the artist routinely is innocently humorous - could slip through a crack if one day that artist is suddenly overcome by an irresistible urge to say something provocative.

Dear readers, the truth is we have plenty of controversial material to be concerned about, day-in and day-out, in our news and opinion columns. I have neither the interest nor the time to defend some goofy artist's stab at political points on the Comics page. Be funny, or be gone.

In subsequent comments, about a third of those who wrote in agreed with getting rid of the cartoon, two because it frequently attacks hypocrisy in religion (okay, they didn't phrase it quite THAT way), one for unspecified reasons of outrage and one who also wants Dilbert dropped because "Human beings are so belittled every day in this comic."

The remaining two-thirds said they like cartoons that make a point and that commentary with wit has a legitimate place in the pages of a newspaper.

Faced with this 2-to-1 deadlock, the editor sums up his courage to admit that he just doesn't know what to do about the whole doggone thing.

And they wonder why their readership is dropping.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Reviews are mixed

Ziwa seems to think this stuff is fun and amusing. Des, on the other hand, has seen 9 winters and isn't that enthusiastic about the 10th. We got about a foot of it, but the trail where we walk is a popular snowmobile trail, so it wasn't hard to get along. Except for the one of us who lagged behind wishing he were somewhere else.

However, on a more important level, I got a phone call this afternoon from a woman whose husband had just called her on his cell phone to say that he had found a missing hunter and she should call 911 and get an ambulance standing by. Which she did, but then, bless her heart, she also called me.

He was about 15 miles back in the bush. The hunter had been missing for two days and had been out in this storm the whole time and had that part of Maine pretty much upside down -- but not the part of Maine where the guy brought him out, which was on the other side of some serious backcountry.

I bolted for their place but the ambulance passed me when I had covered about 24 of the 30 miles up there. I wasn't going to get the picture of the hunter being loaded into the ambulance, but I kept going and had a very nice conversation with the guy who had found him.

Of course, his attitude is that he was pleased to be in the right place at the right time and hopes that, if it ever happened to him, that somebody would turn up, too.

I love this place. And, despite what Destry tells you, the snow's pretty nice, too.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Telephones are a good thing!

This ad ran in 1936, as the Depression receded and the phone company started to ponder how much business they had lost along the way. It's worth clicking on the ad to see the larger image and read the print.

It's really a wonderfully well-done ad. The woman is very Barbara Stanwyck/Fay Wray, and the art and layout are terrific.

Oh, and take a good look at the phone ... notice anything missing? Apparently, we were still at the "Hello, Central?" stage of technology.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Cultural literacy

Sleepy Hollow (1999) -- A Colonial-era constable probes a series of grisly decapitations in an upstate New York hamlet. Based on Washington Irving's ``The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.''

This is from Zap2it.com's TV listings. Wouldn't you think lightning would strike them, or their fingers would cleave to their keyboards or something?

On the other hand, if all they did in junior high lit was read modern stories about cheerfully empowered multi-racial, multi-ethnic friends, the most dynamic of whom are female and some of whom have disabilities, overcoming the developers who plan to create jobs in their community, maybe they have no idea who Washington Irving was or what on earth his story was about. It's plain that Tim Burton didn't give a damn ... (And for anyone inclined to say that it's a good horror flick, that don't signify. If "Citizen Kane" had been called "The Red Badge of Courage," it would still not have been based on the Stephen Crane novel.)

They probably simply cribbed from imdb.com. For those disinclined to click upon the above link, here's a portion of the listing ... verbatim ...

In the early United States of America, young policeman Ichabod Crane is sent to from New York to the fledgling settlement of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of ghoulish murders. On his arrival, the town council informs him that the three victims were killed in open ground, and the heads had disappeared - taken by a headless ghost that is supposedly responsible. Ichabod is unconvinced of this, but learns more about the ghostly horseman - it is the ghost of a Hessian sent by the British during the revolutionary war, and he was caught by redcoats and decapitated with his own sword. When Ichabod sees the ghost kill one of the town council members, his skepticism evaporates - and he soon discovers that the horseman's ghost has an unholy connection to Balthus Van Tassel, a wealthy farmer - and whose daughter Ichabod is falling in love with...

Rant mode off. And a Happy Thanksgiving to my reader(s) in Sleepy Hollow ...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ziwa's fashion show

These days, Ziwa wears a blaze orange vest when we walk on the Whistlestop Trail. Des has only an orange collar, but he stays pretty close to me, and I'm wearing my orange hat and a blaze orange vest. It's hunting season, a time when people take precautions or stay out of the woods entirely.

Des should probably wear a vest, too, but he's always hated clothing. Some dogs think it's funny, some don't care one way or the other, but if you put a t-shirt on Des, he sits there like he's being punished. So I let him get by with just the collar, since he doesn't go running off into the woods anyway.

Hunting season is very much a part of this world. I'm impressed that I haven't seen any evidence of "slob hunters" around here, the city guys who come in and spend a week drinking, then shoot somebody's cow and go home.

People around here have an intimate relationship with the woods and there are various times when the woods provide food. They go out and get a deer in deer season the same as they go out and pick blueberries when it's time for that.

Here's an example of the intimacy of local people with the natural world around them:

I was talking to a woman the other day and somehow we began talking about the danger of moose on the highway. As I think I've said before, the problem with moose is that they are black and blend into the darkness at night. They also weigh about six or seven times what a deer weighs. You run into a 120-pound deer, as I nearly did on my way to work Friday, and you've ruined the front end of your car. But run into an 800-pound moose and you've done more than smash a headlight.

She was telling me how her husband was run into by a moose while he was on his motorcycle. No kidding. She and the kids were in the SUV trailing behind him when this moose came running out of the woods and just smacked right into him. At the last minute, he put his arms up, crossed across his face and into the moose's chest. It send him spinning down the road like a rag doll. He wasn't wearing a helmet (they're optional here) but he was basically all right except for bad road rash. And the pager he was wearing on his belt was ground down to nothing by the asphalt.

He was okay. He's a State Trooper and has been on the scene of enough accidents that he was able to check himself out. The moose, on the other hand, had a broken leg. She had a 9 mm pistol in the car, and handed it to a man so he could put the poor animal out of its misery. However, she told me, he took it "like this" (and she imitated holding the gun between thumb and forefinger) so she was pretty sure it wasn't going to happen. Despatching a moose with a little popgun like that would have been hard enough anyway. (She mimicked the gun behind the ear), but the passerby wasn't even up to that, and the poor animal wandered off into the woods, where he no doubt became food for coyotes.

And so the circle of life continues.

So I mentioned to her a local woman who had had a deer run into the side of her car, whereupon it died of a broken neck. The woman called 911 as required and then, when the Trooper arrived, had him help her load the thing into the trunk of her car, whereupon she took it home, butchered it and ate it.

And she laughed and told me of having had a deer run into the side of HER car. Then she went into a mini-rant about insurance companies -- how could it be YOUR fault if the deer came out of the woods and collided with the SIDE of your car?

But she had had to fix the car on her own, with no help from the insurance company, and with the threat of getting her rates raised because she had had an accident. "If the deer runs out in front of the car and I hit it, that's an accident," she agreed. "But when it runs into the side of my car? How am I supposed to avoid that? Smash my door? You're darned right I'm going to eat him!"

Unfortunately, she said, the deer got up, shook it off, and ran into the woods, sticking her with a body shop bill and no compensatory venison.

Oh, I didn't mention -- the woman who managed to take the offending deer home and eat it is the assistant superintendent of our school district, the woman whose husband was accosted by the moose is executive director of the local chamber of commerce.

I love this place. I really do.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

No Regrets

After I updated my last blog to note the death of Norman Mailer, it occurred to me that I had a letter from him kicking around in a box upstairs. It was 1975, I was 25 years old and beginning to be frustrated, trying to get in the door with a first novel. I had decided that the thing to do would be to form a publishing collective and publish each others' works on a small scale, which isn't really such a bad idea as long as nobody has high expectations of having it mushroom into a real business. (The flaw, of course, is that you would have to assemble a group of people whose work on some level deserved publication, which would require you to become roughly as selective as the system you were rejecting, but never mind.)

Of course, today, you'd just throw your stuff up on the Internet and be done with it, but in those days, it would require some real money to print novels, and I had the idea of a Tupperware party, hosted by Norman Mailer. Which is also not a bad idea, except, as you will read above, he declined to show up. But he had a flair for the ridiculous and for self-promotion, and he might well have done it, and it was worth inviting him.

Anyway, that's the context of the above letter, which you will be able to read if you click on it to enlarge it.

If that topic weren't enough to get me thinking about my non-career as a fiction writer, looking for the letter certainly did, because before I found it, I came across the folder of rejection slips from my two novels. Many were form letters, but a fair number were real letters, with praise for my writing, always followed by "however ... "

I've said that I'll have to keep working because I retired at the start of my career, and it's true enough -- I took about 15 years to try to become a professional fiction writer, during the course of which I found that I was good enough to get personalized rejection letters, but not quite good enough to get published. And, meanwhile, I also discovered that there were other modes of writing at which I was really quite good and that I enjoyed.

I've also said that it's good that I wasn't trying it in this age of the Internet, because I would have put my novels up on the 'Net and I'm glad they're in boxes instead. They really weren't good enough and I'm really much better at what I'm doing now.

However, for anyone curious enough to slog through 4,500 more words, here's what the kind of writing that gets personalized rejection letters, and nothing better, looks like. The first version of this story was written in 1976, this is probably a draft from about four years later, I would guess. And it's not bad. I've corrected a few spelling errors, but nothing else, and the only note I would add is that the reference to "Jerry and Linda" is to Jerry Brown and Linda Ronstadt, who were an item for a time back then.

So, here's a little portrait of a 30 year old author who had begun to make money doing other sorts of writing and would shortly direct his energies in those directions. And the title of the story really was "No Regrets."

No Regrets

Durham made Danny think of Beth. A lot of things made Danny think of Beth, but especially Durham. The town just didn't come up often enough to have any other associations in his mind. It was her town.

Now he sat at his desk, turning a pencil in his hand, pushing the point down into the pad in front of him and letting his fingers slide down slowly, then lifting it so that it swung eraser-end down and he could push the eraser into the pad and repeat the process in reverse. He had been doing this for about fifteen minutes, aware in the back of his mind that it probably wasn't the most productive thing he could be doing at the moment, but thinking more about Beth than of anyone who might glance over and wonder at his diligence in pushing and turning a yellow pencil for a quarter of an hour.

He should be on the phone to Roberts Electric, talking to someone there about a bid they had made on the Sioux Falls project. He couldn't find the letter and couldn't remember the name of the person he had talked to originally, except that it was a guy and his last name was Kinney. He didn't remember that, either, but he had the bid figures in front of him on a memo he had written for his boss, with the Roberts bid circled and, in his boss's cramped, round, schoolboy hand, the notation "DS — Call Kinney and sound him out."

That was how he knew it was a guy named Kinney. His plan was to call Roberts and ask for Mr. Kinney and hope that Mr. Kinney answered his extension with his first and last name.

Toward that end, he had gone down to the company library and looked up Roberts Electric in the Durham phone book. Then he looked up Beth Rossiter, just on a whim.

She had a listing, under Elizabeth Rossiter. So she hadn't gotten married, or maybe she had and was still using her own name. Or she was divorced and had taken it back. Or something. Still in Durham, anyway. Her parents' listing was three names below hers, still at the same address, same phone number. Of course, she wouldn't be living there. Not at thirty.

Danny looked up at the clock on the wall. Two-forty-five. It would be a quarter to six in Durham. Kinney had probably packed it up for the night, unless he worked nine to six. He could still make the call, since the company had a WATS line and it wouldn't cost anything to find out how late Kinney was working that night. Most likely, he was sitting at his desk wrapping up something or other and keeping an eye on the clock while he tried to finish up and get out at six. Unless he was a young guy, a kid, trying to better his position by working until seven or so every night.

Danny had done that for awhile, when he was first on the job, tried to "better his position". He found that the best thing to do was to hand his boss something at about five minutes to six, when the old man was about ready to leave, and then make sure there was something fresh on his desk when he got in the next morning, so that he'd realize Danny had been working late again. Then he discovered that he could just do something during the day and hold on to it for later. He'd hand in whatever he had done in the afternoon, as always, right when the boss was on his way out the door, and then he'd slip the hoarded piece onto the guy's desk and go home himself about ten minutes later. Someone should tell Kinney about that. Someone should also tell Kinney that neither method had produced much results.

What was she doing still single? He hadn't the foggiest. He could eliminate things, of course. Whatever it was, it was something you didn't have to be married to do. Another triumph for deductive logic, he told himself, wondering if there was anything that only married people could do. Besides get divorced. He realized that the only way he was going to find out was to dial the number and ask her.

"Beth isn't here," the cool but friendly female voice would say. "She'll be back Thursday, can I take a message for her?"

"Well, I'm kind of an old friend and we haven't seen each other in about ten years. What's she doing these days?"

"Ten years? Wow, that's a long time! She's flying for Eastern Airlines..." No, scratch that. "She's flying for United Airlines. I'm her roommate, but we're on different schedules. She's out in Sacramento now."

"Sacramento? No kidding? Hey, that's where I'm calling from..."

No, she wouldn't be a flight attendant. Not Beth, not by a long shot. She'd already seen enough of the world, and, anyway, she wouldn't be a stew. Not that she wasn't pretty enough. They'd have used her face on ads and posters and everything, if they'd had somebody that beautiful flying their friendly skies.

She sure was pretty. He flipped the pencil a few more times, just thinking about how pretty Beth was. That had made it tough, sometimes, but not the kind of tough you really mind very much. Guys would check her out and then kind of size you up, and then check her out again. Back then, it wasn't such a touchy issue, checking out girls, but Beth had always resented it. She wasn't one of your late bloomers. Guys had been checking her out since she was twelve years old. She hated it.

"Feminist Socialist Alliance House," a stern voice would say. "Amy Solidarity speaking."

That would kill him. That whole political thing had been such a waste, that whole thing she'd gotten caught up in after they broke up, that whole bunch of idiots. He'd been active, but back when there was some sense, some taste, a little class. He didn't begrudge her the activism. But those fools who talked about "our brothers in Cuba" and "our brothers in North Viet Nam" and all that, those socialist parasites with their berets and goatees and old military jackets and big trust funds, that was a real bunch of jerks. She started going out with that smirking dilettante who edited the campus paper, Dave Corrado, with his briar in his cheek and that stupid, smug, "I'm above all this" expression on his face as they sat at the tables in Rourke's while their friends ate pizza and plotted the overthrow of their mommies and daddies.

Hadn't the political thing died out when she broke up with Corrado? Or did she break up with Corrado when she lost interest in politics? He took the pencil in a firmer grip and began to doodle, drawing a face, beginning with the eyes, then nose, mouth, outline. He added hair, a moustache and beard. No, she broke up with Corrado because she was tired of Corrado. Anyway, he had heard about Corrado. He was in Chicago, editing some local magazine and winning awards. Award-winning Dave Corrado. Award-winning Dave wanted to get married right after graduation, but Beth wasn't having any musical chairs, thank you. Circle all, and marry the person you're dating when the music stops. She was too smart for that old trap. Still, she wasn't perfect.

"Hey, sorry to ring you up so unexpectedly. Are you busy now?"

"I'm just putting dinner on the table for the kids, but I can talk. I've just got to get Jason and Jennifer fed early so they can get to their ... " What? Kids don't go anywhere at night, not on a school night. "I wanted to get the kids to bed early, so I'm feeding them now."

"You're married?"

"I was. Not anymore. After five years, he just walked out on me." Wait a minute. Who in his right mind would walk out on Beth Rossiter? "I had to leave him after five years, Danny. He was married to his job. I was just a showpiece, the cute little executive wife. It was strangling me. And then he started drinking ... "

"I'm sorry, Betsy. Gosh, that's rough. Are you okay now?"

"It's better. I'm okay, I guess. I've got a job and my mother watches the kids during the day, so they don't have to be left with a stranger. I had to move back here, of course. Oh, Danny, I've made such a mess of my life!"

Well, maybe one kid. Not two. She didn't even want kids. She wouldn't have two.

Anyway, she wouldn't tell him that she'd messed up her life. She'd be plucky or distant, maybe, but she wouldn't cry on his shoulder. Distant, yes. Very likely.

"Oh, hello, Danny."

"Well, how's it going?"

"Very well, thank you. And yourself?"

"No regrets. I'm married, you know."

"I didn't know that."

"Yeah. Almost nine years now. You?"

"I was. Not anymore."

"Gee, Betsy, I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about. It didn't work, that's all. Happens to a lot of people."

"I just meant I wanted you to be happy. It must have been kind of rough, going through, you know..."

"Not really. We just decided to call it off. We got a no-fault divorce and the whole thing was over very quickly. It's a fairly streamlined process these days."

"I suppose. Still, the process is a little painful at some point, I would imagine."

"I'm a big girl now, Danny. I'm not nineteen anymore."

"Right. Well, I'm glad you're doing well."

"I'm doing quite well. Look, are you in town or something?"

"Um, no. No, I'm out in Sacramento."

"Well, why did you call? How did you get my number?"

"I just looked it up in the Durham directory and there you were. So I thought I'd give you a buzz and just see how you were doing these days."

"And have you satisfied your curiosity?"

"I guess."

"Good. Good-bye, Danny."

That one was pretty likely. Boy, she could really turn on the old coolers when she wanted to. When they broke up, or, really, when she told him to get out of her life, boy, she was like ice for months. Polite, but icy. He tried to talk to her, but he always ended up feeling worse than before. Nothing got past that armor of hers. They would talk and nothing would get said. He'd keep trying to get things rolling and she'd keep heading them off.

She'd say there was nothing to talk about, that it wasn't anything he had done, that she still thought he was an alright guy but she didn't like feeling like a possession. That was what she kept saying. A possession.

What a crock. He'd never treated her like a possession. Sure, he didn't like it when guys ogled her, but she didn't like that, either. And maybe he liked to stay in in the evening instead of going to some party or something. And, yeah, he wanted some kind of commitment from her. But not marriage or anything, not yet. Just, something. She kept asking if he wanted to give her his high school ring or let her wear his letter sweater or something. She could be really sarcastic when she didn't want to talk about something. All she would have had to do was to somehow let him know that it was okay, just tell him that she loved him once in awhile. He could have backed off on it a little, if she had just given him some kind of sign.

She couldn't do it. There was something about her that couldn't make any sort of commitment, and it drove him out of his mind. Take, take, take, that's what it felt like.

Finally, he told her that. She told him that she was giving just by being there, by being around. Yeah, right. Taking is a form of giving. And then she replied that giving could be a form of taking and he accused her of twisting words to be clever and she said that he was taking from her by insisting on giving so much, so ... what did she say? So publicly? No, but something like that. Ostentatiously? Unyieldingly? Something. But she said he was draining her and sucking her dry and reducing her to less than a person. And he said that he was trying to give her a chance to be more than a person, to be a part of two people. And then the next day, she called him to tell him it was all over and she couldn't take it anymore and he shouldn't come around her place but they could still be friends like before they started dating.

Boy, that was really something. He pressed down too hard with the pencil and snapped the point off. He picked up the tiny graphite cone and tossed it into the wastebasket, then glanced up at the clock. Three-thirty?

Good grief, he'd been sitting there for an hour. Kinney was gone by now, and even if he was still there, the switchboard would be closed down for the night. He'd have to get in early and try to catch him before he went to lunch. Eight would be eleven there. That would work. He glanced around the office and saw everyone else working away. He tossed the pencil aside and picked up a felt-tipped pen and a pad with some notes on it, then opened one of his binders to a page with some meaty looking specifications. He sat back in his chair, cradling the pad on one leg and trying to look as if he were studying the figures.

Of course she wanted to be loved. Everybody wants to be loved. It's just that she was afraid of being vulnerable, afraid of being hurt. Why couldn't she trust him? He didn't want to hurt her. He kept reaching out to her, but she was afraid, afraid to be loved, afraid to love. And she was still single.

"Danny? Are you here, in town?"

"No, no. I'm in Sacramento,"

"That's so far away." Come on, she wouldn't say anything that corny. "Sacramento? How did you find me?"

"Just looked you up. So, how've you been?"

"I'm all right, I guess. It's been a long time, Danny. I've thought of you."

"I've thought of you, too, Betsy. I've often wondered whatever happened to you, and I thought, well, hey, what the heck, give her a call and find out."

"I'm glad you did, Danny. I had no idea where you were. I've asked about you from time to time, when I ran into somebody from school."

"I'm not in touch with too many of those people any more. I get a card from Bucky and his wife at Christmas, but that's about it, and usually there's just a note, you know, a sentence or two. Other than that, I'm just not in touch with anybody from school."

"I've thought about you, about us. I've thought about the way things turned out and I've tried to understand why. I guess it was all my fault."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that, Betsy. It was just one of those things. Wrong time, wrong place. If we'd met somewhere else, maybe later in life, well, who knows, right? But don't blame yourself."

"I do, though, Danny. I can't help it. I was just so selfish, so insecure. I keep thinking that if I had just tried a little harder."

"Well, we were pretty young. Nineteen, twenty, you know, that's pretty young to be taking on such a major commitment. But it was good while it lasted, Betsy. No regrets."

"I wish I could be that philosophical about it, Danny. I really do. I just loved you so much. I guess I still do. I know I should have told you then, but I'm telling you now."

"Hey, listen, Betsy, I think you ought to know, I’m married."

"Oh, no, Danny!"

Right. And he'd give her the letters of transit and send her off in the plane and then he and Claude Rains would walk off in the foggy drizzle together. It was right alongside California sliding into the ocean on the list of probabilities, anyway, Beth Rossiter breaking into tears on the phone. If she was regretting her life, she wouldn't be sitting around thinking about it and weeping and wishing things were different. Something else. She'd take some indirect route, something self-destructive if she was all that twisted up by the way her life had gone.

"Danny? How did you find me?"

"Just looked you up in the book."

"I thought maybe someone had given you my number."

"No, I'm not in touch with anyone from school."

"I didn't mean someone from school. I just ... you haven't heard anything about me, then?"

"No, I just ran into your listing when I was looking up ..." In the background, he'd hear a loud, slurred voice. "Hey, baby, hang up that thing and get back here! I want to have a little party!"

"Danny, I have to go now."

"Beth, are you all right? What's going on there?"

"I'm fine, Danny, really. But I'm very busy..." and then the voice would come on the line,

"Look, Buddy, call her some other time, huh? I'm only in town one night and I'm on kind of a tight schedule, understand?"

Naw. Not Betsy. Couldn't happen, or, at least, not like that. Maybe some rich tycoon type, sitting there in her place, smoking a cigar and drinking a brandy and waiting quietly until she was finished on the phone.

No, that was absurd. Just because she's single and beautiful and has her number in the directory doesn't mean that. There are a lot of reasons why a pretty girl would still be single at thirty.

"Oh, I haven't been able to get around much since the accident, Danny, but I'm learning to do a lot more for myself, you know? Living alone has been such good therapy, and they say that with a couple more operations, I may regain the use of my ..."

This was getting ridiculous. Danny picked up the phone and dialed into the WATS line, punching out the number he had written down. He heard it ring, across the country in Durham.


"Hello, Betsy? Dan Shevlin."

"Well, hello Danny Shevlin. A little voice from the past."

"Yeah, I thought I'd give you a ring. It's been ten years, you know."

"Ain't neither of us getting any younger, Danny Boy. You sound really long distance."


"Oh yeah? You see much of Jerry and Linda these days?"

"Not since they broke up," Danny laughed. "No, I was looking up the number of a company we're thinking about doing some business with in Durham and just for the heck of it, I looked you up and there you were."

"Well, I'm glad you did. Who are you involved with down in this neck of the woods?"

"Roberts Electric. They're a little manufacturing outfit that is bidding on a project for us."

"Oh, sure, I know Roberts. In fact, I'm working with them myself at the moment."

"Really? What are you doing with them?"

"Oh, they're expanding a little, building a new plant outside of town and I'm helping them find a site and get the paperwork on it all lined up."

"What are you in, real estate?"

"Yeah, I've been doing it for a couple of years. You know I went to law school?"

"Tell you the truth, I haven't heard a word about you in years."

"I kicked around for a year or two and then went to Madison and picked up a law degree. My boyfriend and I had a practice down here for awhile and then, well, we handled a couple of commercial projects for some clients and decided to go into it full time. In fact, he's down in Charleston tonight, putting together a kind of industrial park deal with some people down there."

"Sounds like the big leagues."

"Probably sounds bigger than it is. It pays the rent, though, and it's better than trying to compete with the four million lawyers that seem to have shingles out in every town in the country. So what are you doing?"

"I'm in procurement for a company out here."

"Oh. What do you procure?"

"Whatever they need. I kind of coordinate materials for various projects. Take bids, check out specs, negotiate here and there, and then I make recommendations to the people who do the actual accepting and rejecting."

"Is that a good thing to be doing?"

"Ah, well, you know. A lot of it is pretty routine, but you're dealing with different people, different companies each time, and the projects are fairly diverse, so it keeps you thinking."

"Really hate it, huh? Why don't you quit?"

"I can't do that, Beth, come on."

"You always were hung up on propriety. So you bought the old Protestant Work Ethic, huh?"

"No, it's not that. But, heck, I've got a wife and two kids depending on me."

"Two kids? Danny, you've got two kids?"

"Sure do. Six and three. Boy and girl, Terry and Deirdre."

"Ah, there's a good Irish lad. But listen, they love you, don't they? Your wife and the kids?"

"Sure. Sure they do."

"Make yourself happy, then. That will make them happier in the long run than to have you breaking your back in some job you hate. It’d be better for all of you, you know?"

"I suppose, but, well...you're still single, huh?"

"Is Smokey the Bear a Catholic?"

"Well, you're in a different mindset. No kids..."

"No kids."

"I assumed that. I just meant, with no kids, you can afford to take an idealistic view of things. You don't have the kind of responsibilities I’ve got.”

"That's what I'm talking about, Danny. Responsibilities. If that family of yours is together at all, they must see that you aren't happy working as a procurer."

"I use another term whenever I can. So, then, it's just you and your boyfriend out there, huh?"

"Yeah, Danny. Just the two of us, and our horses."

"You finally got your horse, eh? That's great, Betsy."

"A dozen of them. We raise Morgans, show them, sell them. It's just a hobby, but it keeps us off the street.”

"Hey, that sounds fantastic. You must live on a farm, then, huh?"

"No, Danny, we live in a condominium apartment in town. Fortunately, there's a large service elevator and the doorman is really good about walking the horses every morning."

"All right, all right."

"So, any chance of your ever getting out this way?"

"Oh, I kind of doubt it. You aren't exactly sitting at the crossroads of America, you know."

"Not from out there, I guess. We see people from school, though, sometimes, driving through on their way to Florida. We're not totally out of the way."

"Out of mine, I'm afraid."

"You never know. If you ever do wind up traveling this direction, stop in, Danny. We'll pour you a drink and show you around the place."

"I'd like that. I don't know how likely it is, but who knows?" He paused a moment. "Well, I guess I'd better get back to the salt mines."

"That's right, it's still work time out there, isn't it? Goofing off, Danny?"

"They let me take ten minutes or so off once in awhile if I want to. But I really had better get back to it. Not like you real estate bums, work two hours a day and then go out and play with your horsies."

"You ought to get a license, Danny. You might find you like being a real estate bum."

"I'll take it under advisement, counselor. Well, I'll call you again in another ten years."

"Don't make it that long."

"I won't. Promise."

"Good. Well, I'm glad you called, Danny, and, seriously, if you get out to the seaboard anytime in the future, I expect to see your smiling face down here."

"You will. So long, Betsy."

"Bye, Danny. Thanks for calling."

"Yeah. Take care." He hung up the phone and looked at the clock. Seven-fifteen out there.

Kinney would be gone for sure, unless his idea of "bettering his position" included acting as night watchman.

Well. He could clean out his drawers a little and maybe find that letter and then call Kinney in the morning. He pulled the wastebasket closer and opened a drawer. There was a lot of stuff in there that could be thrown out, and the rest of it really needed to be better organized. That was his real problem. If he just got his desk set up so that he could find stuff, he could get back to work on the Sioux Falls project then without getting bogged down with little companies like Roberts Electric just because he couldn't find the stupid letter. He couldn't be as productive as he ought to with that mess in his desk. Papers all jumbled together, you couldn't tell what was in there and what wasn't. It was ridiculous.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Newspaper Correction of the Month
(If Not Year)

By Editor & Publisher Staff

A reader, Howard Bailen, sends along the following, from the November 4 edition of The Telegraph in London:

Correction: Lady Jeanne Campbell. "Our obituary of Lady Jeanne Campbell (Sept 22) said she had a daughter, Cusi Cram, 'possibly by a man called Guy Nicholas Lancaster.' In fact Mr. Lancaster is Ms. Cram’s brother-in-law and was only five when she was born. We apologise to all concerned for our error."

(I didn't even have to rewrite the headline -- though I did a quick Google to find out who had that name. I then Googled to find out who "Guy Nicholas Lancaster" was and pulled up the original obit, which is certainly worth reading. I guess I can see how the writer might get tangled up in the research.)

About six weeks after her own death, Lady Jeanne's first husband, Norman Mailer, has died. She was his third wife, the one he stabbed was his second. I'm not sure what that says about her judgment but we already know she had a taste for adventure. Perhaps it was a taste easily satisfied: They were only married for a year, during which time Kate Mailer was conceived.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Friday, October 26, 2007

Easiest Decision of the Week

We're in the process of hiring an editor for our weekly, which would reduce my workload down to editing TWO papers, though I'd still supervise that one. Here is a cover letter we received yesterday. Bear in mind that one of the necessary skills listed in the job application included computer literacy. Aside from sending out a form letter instead of actually saying why he'd like this particular job, I don't think he realized there was something attached at the bottom.

With the obvious redaction of personal information, his letter follows in its entirety:


M*** M. S***
(street address)
Portland, ME 04101
(phone number)

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am writing for the opportunity of a position with your Company. I have enclosed for your consideration a personal Resume detailing my education and professional experience. I have considerable experience in film and television production, media relations, and as a writer, editor and performer for a rather varied professional, business and creative clientele.

My work has been wide-ranging, and has accustomed me to a diversity of people, places and perspectives. I have a keen ear, a sharp eye, very sound aesthetic judgment and polished communications skills. I am looking for a position which will afford me the opportunity to wed professional obligation with creative instinct.

Thank you for taking the time to review the enclosed material. I would enjoy very much the opportunity to meet with you, introduce myself and answer any additional questions you may have. I believe I can make a significant contribution to your Company, your clients and your nterests.

M*** M. S***



How about: "We just want a first-rate Writer/Editor and we'll take a little time to teach you the "embroidery?"

This attitude wouldn't, per chance, have anything to do with this State hemorrhaging TALENT -- now would it?

God, you people are THICK -- not to mention provincial ...

Drop dead!


Thursday, October 18, 2007

My favorite also-ran

(Aaaargh: after getting some very nice comments, I discovered that I had a faulty list of years -- it had listed her films by the year they competed in the Oscars rather than the year they were released -- so that, when I went back to see who she lost to, the competition was mismatched.
Edits are in italics.)

When I heard today that Deborah Kerr had died, my reaction was "damn." Deborah Kerr was one of those actors who just seemed to pop up in a whole lot of really good movies. She was also in some not really good movies that were a whole lot of fun, too.

One of my early favorites was "Beloved Infidel," in which she played Sheilah Graham to Gregory Peck's F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was a fairly faithful rendering of Graham's self-serving, ahistorical memoir. But I saw it at a time when I was just getting into the concept of being a writer, and was still several years away from finding out what Scott was like, what Zelda was like and what Sheilah was like. Ah, the magic of Hollywood!

She also played the romantic lead opposite Stewart Granger in "Prisoner of Zenda," the lifeless remake of the much better original that starred Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll. Madeleine who? Oh, never mind. The real flaw was that they cast James Mason as Rupert of Hentzau, the wonderful villain earlier played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., then had to speed up the film to make the fencing sequences look exciting. Should have sped up the whole film -- Every single actor in this movie appeared in something much, much better.

Certainly, Deborah Kerr appeared in many films better than those two. But somehow she managed to set an Oscar record -- the most nominations for Best Actress without a win (6). For the most part, it was bad timing.

Take a look:

1949 (not 1950)
Edward, My Son

Okay, I haven't seen this one, but she starred opposite Spencer Tracy, so it must have been pretty good. However, the award went to ... Judy Holliday for "Born Yesterday." Talk about being nominated in the wrong year! If they gave out Academy Awards by decade, Judy Holliday would have deserved that one.

1953 (not 1954)
From Here to Eternity

And the winner is ... Grace Kelly for "The Country Girl." I think she might have reason to be bitter over this one, because the scene above is a classic of Hollywood filmography. But that's one scene in a long movie, and Kelly was the Golden Girl. There's always next year.

Well, here's a distinction without a difference: She lost to Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday." Hepburn did some nice work, of course, and there could be a more interesting argument over this one. For my part, I think "From Here to Eternity" had a bit more meat to it, and, comparing the two roles, involved more heavy lifting.

1956 (Not 1957)
The King and I

You would think if there were a role that screamed "Oscar!" it would be this one. I mean, if "My Fair Lady" could pick off eight Oscars, you'd think Kerr could win for "The King and I"? After all, Marni Nixon sang the lead in both films! And it was a fun film with quotable lines, singable songs and terrific costuming. Isn't that the sort of thing that wins Oscars by the bushel basket?

And the winner is ... Joanna Woodward for "The Three Faces of Eve."

Maybe they need more categories. That's hardly fair.

She lost to Ingrid Bergman in "Anastasia." I'd have rather lost to Woodward. Bergman was great, and this was a good flick, but it wasn't her best work, and you could do a whole other post about the roles Bergman won for versus the ones she was nominated for.

Incidentally, Yul Brynner was in both "Anastasia" and "The King and I." He took home "Best Actor" for ... "The King and I." It is a puzzlement.

But speaking of "wait until next year ... " we are now getting into what must have been an absolutely agonizing phase. Watch the dates as we go along.

This was such an entertaining concept: Bad boy Robert Mitchum on a desert island with Deborah Kerr, not only a beautiful British ice queen, but a nun! Plus it was patriotic and exciting ... how could it miss?

And the winner is ... Susan Hayward for "I Want to Live."

Okay, this one is a ripoff. I've seen both movies, and Hayward was getting a lifetime achievement award, just as John Wayne got when he won Best Actor for "True Grit." I love Susan Hayward, but if this was her breakthrough role, she didn't ever break through.

(This is the one she lost to Joanna Woodward. No argument -- Wrong place, wrong time.)

So, wait until next year ...

1958 (not 1959)
Separate Tables

Now, here's a serious role. They can't deny her this time!

And the winner is ... Simone Signoret for "Room at the Top." And that, by golly, was a very serious role.

(THIS is the one she lost to Susan Hayward. That really compounds the sleight.)

Hey, there will be other chances.

1960 (Not 1961)
The Sundowners

I won't defend this one. They reunited her with Bobby Mitchum again, but it's no favor. The idea of either of them as Aussies was unconvincing at best. I have had chances to see this movie and haven't gotten through it yet. It's got its fans, but putting it up for five Oscars was, I think, a stretch. And, anyway, she could have put on the performance of a lifetime, because she was up against a juggernaut.

And the winner is ... Sophia Loren for "Two Women."

Not gonna win that one, no matter what you turn in.

(And you could repeat that for the actual winner -- Elizabeth Taylor for "Butterfield 8," though I think Loren worked harder for hers. However, either is a buzzsaw, and "The Sundowners" wasn't in the same weight class as either film.)

Finally, in 1994, the Academy gave her a special award, and I think it was well-deserved for someone who showed up and, whatever the quality of the material she was given, turned in a good, and sometimes an inspired, performance.

There's no moral here, no fine philosophical point to be made. Well, except that I have always thought that awards were pretty stupid. The regional writing awards I've won were for relatively ho-hum work, while the stuff I was proud of got nothing. I imagine, out there on the international stage, that a lot of actors feel the same way.

Deborah Kerr had very good reason to feel that way.

Ah, well. As Bob Dylan said in "Don't Look Back," "Applause is kind of bullshit."

Not a word I would expect to hear coming from Deborah Kerr, mind you, but she might have thought it a few times on Oscar night.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Photographing Four

Here is a photograph of my four granddaughters, taken at the littlest one's first birthday party yesterday in Vermont. This is not the only picture I took of them, of course. Getting all four to look in the same direction was a challenge, and I ended up taking about a dozen shots, all but two now deleted.

The mathematicians who drop by can figure out a formula for the number of shots it takes to take a good picture of a given number of granddaughters, factoring in their ages, but what I know is that it's not easy, at least not now.

As they grow older, however, I expect it to grow somewhat easier.

However, these four will likely never be any more cooperative than they were yesterday. The two brown ones, constant readers will realize, are my own. The standing dog is my older son's, the sitting dog my younger son's. I won't put their names in because the Internet is full of canine predators who would then appear in Chris Hansen's back yard with Milk Bones, calling to them.

I worked for about two minutes to get a shot of the four of them sitting and facing the same direction. Then I decided to modify my goal to see if I could get a shot of the four of them sitting at the same time, no matter which direction they were facing. I won't say how long I spent on that.

The problem was that I could stand in one place and reach three dogs, but never the fourth. So, when I'd get three of them sitting, I'd have to leave to grab the fourth dog, and at least one of the sitting dogs would either decide to come see what I was going to do, or would decide the sitting session had ended or would simply lose focus and drift away.

This is a good example of shutter lag. I swear, when I pushed the shutter button, there were four dogs sitting. (I am well aware that my children will refuse to confirm this, which is one of the disadvantages of not having the right sort of relationship with them.)

I remain convinced it can be done. Here are three dogs in a photo taken about 10 years ago, when the one in the middle was the youngest, rather than the eldest, as he is in the other shot here. Three is not that difficult. Can adding one more dog change it from challenging to impossible?


The question of how many more small granddaughters you can add before things go completely out of control, I will leave to my children.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Mr. Big Stuff

I go through a certain routine each morning, with about 20 stops all set up in tabs on my Firefox page. This morning, I visited Sandra Bell Lundy's blog, where she has been recounting how she managed to get her comic strip, "Between Friends," into syndication. She talked about calling the managing editor of the Toronto Star, and (not to steal her thunder -- go read it) having him turn out to be a self-important putz.

The next tab in my daily sequence happens to be the Huffington Post, where they had posted this merciless, insightful and hilarious Jon Stewart interview with (or, if you prefer, "evisceration of") one of America's most self-important putzes, Chris Matthews, who has written a book about how to be a self-important putz!

I feel like I've been to a workshop on the topic, and it's not even 5 a.m. yet.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A working weekend

The picture above will likely be the cover of the next issue of the Rangeley Highlander. It was taken on a river about 12 miles out of town, some 70 or 80 miles into a Saturday in which I just drove around looking for what in our business are called "grab shots" -- random photos you can use to show the weather or things people were up to on a particular day. For those who want to follow along, though the photos are in conceptual rather than chronological or geographic order, I went up through Kingfield on Route 27 to Stratton, then over on Route 16 to Rangeley and back home on Route 4, a total of about 130 miles or so.

I'll be working in the office tomorrow -- interspersed with some time to walk dogs and a break to catch a football game. But today was more of the opposite -- driving around enjoying the weather broken up by a few moments of taking pictures for work. It averages out in the end.

Moose are more dangerous at night because, while deer are light brown, moose are black and people really don't see them in time. The fact that they are also considerably larger than deer means that hitting them is no joke and there are a few fatalities each year among people who run into one, or (as often) who run into someone who had just run into one. People don't hit them as often during the day, though it does happen.

However, I didn't even see one, much less run into one today. Having a camera at the ready is probably a jinx.

Here are the dogs at the Wire Bridge, which was built in 1866 and is a local tourist attraction, though it's a bit off the main highway, on a piece of road that isn't necessary unless you actually live on it or want to go see the Wire Bridge. But there were a few of us who wanted to do just that, though not enough to get in each other's way.

Speaking of which, I am quite pleased at the way Mainers become rapturous over this time of year -- no matter how many years they've been here, they seem just as pleased to see the leaves turning as any one "from away" and they go to see the leaves just as enthusiastically as the tourists.

I blogged a photo of this stretch of the Carrabassett River a few weeks ago. It hasn't become any less attractive with the loss of chorophyll along its banks.

This is part of a set of falls just south of Rangeley called "Small's Falls" that are just off the road. There is a picnic area, trails, a few interpretative signs, etc., and it's quite popular. There were probably a dozen cars there, and people of every age.

Walking up to the falls, I came across this "stairway" of exposed roots. With all my clambering down river banks and so forth, it was about the best footing I had all day. Not sure it's good for the trees, but they've been around for years, so I suppose it isn't too bad for them, either.

I was struck by the "grooves" in the rocks towards the top of the falls. You can see the texture, and I assume this is some kind of an uplift, so that the layers are facing up rather than laying horizontally, and that there is enough variation in the minerals of the various layers that some are worn down by the water more rapidly than others. To give a sense of scale, while I didn't bother to count the needles in each bundle, these are either red or white pine needles and so about three inches long. Note also the curve and smoothly worn edge where the water runs next to the rock. Just beyond the edge, where you see the water disappear, is a fall of 30 feet or so.

Two sisters and the daughter of one of them were taking their own picture by the edge of the falls. The dark-haired sister had just set the timer and run back -- you can possibly make out their camera delicately perched in a tiny finger-thickness sapling -- quite ingenious. This is probably going to run on the front page of the Franklin Journal Tuesday, unless Sheila comes in tomorrow with something brilliant. After I took this, I went down and took a couple of shots of them with their camera, too. However, since the little girl was refusing to look straight at the scary man, the one they took with the tree stuck up in the sapling may be the best anyway.

Finally, here is something you may never have seen before, but how on earth can you do without it now? It's a 1952 Bombardier ... well, it's not a Ski-doo, but that's the company. They invented snowmobiles but wouldn't market the first of the small runabouts for another seven years. I would suspect this particular one transported skiers and other tourists, but they were used in Quebec for more mundane things like taking kids to school -- the back has two built-in facing benches, the front is a bench seat like a bus.

This was at a place that restores snowmobiles, and the first of the snowmobiles beyond this big one is more like what I was used to see running around the woods when I was a kid. But I want this one. It's only $7,500 and, according to the sign, "runs good." It even comes with an extra set of skis.

But that's for the next season. I'm going to enjoy autumn while it lasts.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

This was two weeks ago.

This was last weekend.

Autumn arrived in a week. These two pictures were taken along the same stretch of the trail where the dogs and I walk. The one on top shows green leaves just showing a bit of yellow tone. A week later, you can see how much the leaves have changed.

Things are getting beautiful here and I wish I had more reasons to just drive around and marvel at it all. I have asked people if I'm wrong about the speed of the change, but most agree -- It's as if the leaves were holding back and then, pow, just took off. What everyone is hoping is that they'll stay on the trees until most of them have changed. They are starting to fall, but slowly.

Incidentally, I'm finding that apples are not nearly as big a part of the local economy as they are in the Champlain Valley of New York, but the people who do grow them seem to grow more varieties -- Galas and Honey Crisps and new types like that. There are some pretty good apples at the roadside stands here.

This is the time of year I missed most when I lived out west. The weather has been a little too warm, but we'll have some nice crisp days soon enough. Meanwhile, the scenery still blows my mind, 20 autumns after I came back to the Northeast.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Life imitates comics

The Speed Bump comic above ran in 2000. The story story below ran last week. Pity the poor cartoonists: The world is becoming ridiculous at a pace that makes it very difficult for them to keep ahead.

YONKERS - The spooked cat that was stuck 60-feet high in a willow for a week was at last blasted out of the tree last night by a high pressure water hose and landed - soaked but perfectly safe - into an outstretched sheet.

"It was so exciting," says Yonkers artist and animal rescuer Greg Speirs, who was among the crowd of 50 people assembled at the foot of the tree on Rockledge Place. "Everyone was cheering."

Before the cat came down, a crew from the Yonkers Fire Fepartment took a shot into the tree with the water hose and missed the furry target.

The volunteers watched where the water fell on the other side of the tree and adjusted the location of the outstretched sheet, Speirs said.

Good thing, because the next shot knocked the orange and white kitty clear out of the tree and perfectly into the safety blanket.

"As soon as the cat landed it jumped out and ran into the woods," said Speirs this morning, still animated about the dramatic dinner-time rescue. "Some kids helped us bring the cat back, and a man said he would adopt the cat right on the spot."

The cat seemed to be more hungry than anything else, chomping handful after handful of cat food, Speirs said.

"You can't come up with a nicer ending than that," he said.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

(Thursday's "Lio" by Mark Tatulli, reminded me of this column I wrote nearly 10 years ago. The granddaughter, now in sixth grade, has turned out to be well able to see through
commercial hype and comment perceptively about it.)

Poohaphernalia just another storybook sell-out

My granddaughter loves Pooh.
"Pooh!" she says, as we walk through the mall together, and there are many opportunities for her to point him out.
Pooh is everywhere, selling everything.
She's not old enough for the original books, for "Winnie the Pooh" or "House at Pooh Corners," but there are a lot of Pooh picture books, videos, clothing, toys and so forth geared for someone about to turn two, and, like every other toddler in America, she has been showered with Poohaphernalia by all her friends and relations.
In fact, by the time she's old enough for the A.A. Milne books, she'll probably know so much about Pooh that she won't want to bother with slower-paced, less hilarious versions of the bear. We can probably skip those gentle, wise witty sources of make-believe and go straight to, oh, I don't know, maybe Snoopy or Garfield.
The rich, wonderful stories that once warmed our children's hearts and fired their imaginations have been glitzed up, dumbed down and turned into profit centers.
It's certainly not just Pooh. When NBC sought to turn Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books into a TV series, producer Ed Friendly approached Roger McBride, the adopted son of Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and current holder of the rights.
McBride was reportedly afraid of seeing his grandmother's stories turned into Hollywood glitz, but Friendly assured him of the respect he had for the originals, and persuaded him to allow the project to proceed.
The pilot was a made-for-TV movie that followed the first book faithfully, and the first few episodes of the series picked up the storyline of "On the Banks of Plum Creek."
Then Michael Landon took over creative control of the program, and Laura Ingalls Wilder's version of her own life was thrown on the trash heap along with her champion, Ed Friendly. The resulting TV series was politically correct, historically ridiculous and immensely popular.
Now we're seeing the television ads that came from Maurice Sendak's sale to Bell Atlantic of his 1963 classic children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are."
A December, 1997 press release from Bell Atlantic crowed over the Wild Things "first appearance in mass media advertising:"
"The book is a fitting metaphor for the current state of the communications industry. This campaign will remind Bell Atlantic's customers - and reassure them, too - that we are there for them through this figurative jungle of communications choices."
Well, maybe. It reminds me that nothing is sacred when it comes to making a buck. I am reassured that the most precious moments of childhood are available for the right price.
More often, the kids sell out. It was the heirs of A.A. Milne and Laura Ingalls Wilder who let those wonderful visions be sold for a mess of pottage.
Christopher Robin Milne was an unhappy child who hated being identified with the Pooh stories, so it's hardly surprising he was willing to cash in his inheritance.
And, if McBride didn't mean to betray Laura, her innocent pioneer memoirs had already been edited and shaped by her politically minded daughter to emphasize the hardy independence of orthodox Libertarian ideology.
Sendak's business decision is like those bumperstickers that say, "We're spending our children's inheritance." He sold out so he could enjoy the profits himself.
But why not? After all, he wrote the books to make a living, and kid's authors are under no obligation to be idealists.
Nor are they, often. For instance, Danny Kaye's movie and the Central Park statue notwithstanding, Hans Christian Anderson was no child-cuddling storyteller. He didn't even like writing children's stories, but he could make a living writing that stuff, and, apparently, couldn't make one writing what he preferred.
Generations of kids didn't know any of that, though. Whatever flaws their authors possessed were irrelevant, whatever motivations lurked behind their writing were invisible. You couldn't tell from the outside. None of it was inherent in the stories.
The stories were sweet and imaginative, and they created dreams, they inspired make-believe, they made children think about things beyond the specific images contained in them. They were part of a fading world of imagination and storytelling.
Today, our children grow up in a world of commercialism, little more than a target demographic to which simplified, shallow, market-tested images are spoonfed.
Theirs is a world in which Pooh is a cartoon character, the Wild Things sell telephones, Laura is in syndication and the only time storytelling involves a rocking chair is when you pull it over in front of the VCR.

copyright 1998, Press-Republican, Plattsburgh NY

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Young Man's Game

A while ago, I wrote about how the Houston Texans' new runningback Ahman Green and long-time defender Jason Simmons worked out a conflict over uniform numbers, with Green, at Simmons' suggestion, buying the rights to Number 30 by helping a single mother purchase a home.

Well, no good deed goes unpunished. Yesterday, having proved his off-field class, Simmons finally got a chance to ramp up his on-field status as well. Here, from the Houston Chronicle, is how it went:

Texans safety Jason Simmons had waited 10 NFL seasons before he was named a starter heading into opening day.

When the special day finally came Sunday, it turned into a nightmare.

Simmons' season came to a premature end in the second quarter of the Texans' 20-3 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs after the strong safety tore his left patellar tendon.

"I just was going to avoid a lineman and put my foot in the ground, and it just gave way," Simmons said. "Nothing more to it, just a freak accident. I was so upset. You finally get your chance — I wait to start my whole career — but I never could question God's timing. I'm fine."

Still a pretty classy guy, but this is the kind of injury that would be better happening to a 21-year-old rookie than a 31-year-old veteran.

At this stage of life, 31 seems awfully young, but it's not young when your body is your instrument, and it reminded me of a conversation I had back when a friend from college, Austin Carr, was playing in the NBA and his team came to Denver. I was going to say I was just about 31, but looking him up, I see that he had his jersey retired about four weeks before I hit that age, and, poking around a little more, I see that he and I were 27 and 28 respectively at the time.

Another friend from the college team was living in Denver then, so the two of us met Austin after the game for a beer, and Fatty Taylor, one of the Denver Nuggets, came over and sat with us. He and Carr started talking about Bobby Jones, the young Nuggets phenom who was the talk of the league that year -- and who was only 5 years younger than Taylor, 3 years younger than Austin and 2 years younger than me.

Austin had attracted some media attention at the time for being a vegetarian, which in 1977 was pretty unusual for a professional athlete, but he was serious about tuning the instrument. I mentioned to him that Kathy and I had gone veggie until she got pregnant, at which point her OB/GYN told her there were certain amino acids necessary for fetal brain development that you could only get in meat. Austin nodded, but then named three things you could add to a vegetarian diet that would fill that gap -- one was watercress, I can't remember the others. I was pretty impressed, considering that he was a young single guy with no kids at that stage.

How young? When Bobby Jones's name came up, Fatty Taylor started laughing about how this kid had an enormous contract and the team had a very, very generous per diem when they went on the road, but Jones would eat at Red Barn, a burger joint of the time, and pocket the rest of the money.

"Well, he can do that," Taylor chuckled, "he's young yet." And Austin nodded his agreement, and it was the first intimation I had that we weren't kids anymore.

Austin played until he was 30 and Fatty Taylor left the court at 31. Bobby Jones, despite his penny-pinching penchant for Barnbusters, played to the ripe old age of 34.

Jason Simmons may well rehab that knee and come back next season, but, if it isn't the end of his career, it's a sad end to what was shaping up as a year that would be a nice payoff for ten long years of hard work. (And I note that he is actually three months younger than my younger son, who probably doesn't think of himself as an old man yet.)