Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Living the thankful life

Sometimes a memory just sticks with you, and we don't get to select the ones that do.  

I think all the time back to a day in the early 90's.  I would go now and then to talk to the kids in a Head Start program run by my friend Sue.  Head Start is a good idea for promoting the success and well-being of families, and it's helped lots of kids get on the road to competing in school and in life.  Not every child has the same advantages that many of us enjoyed in the early days, and it's for the good of all of us to give everyone a leg up on achievement. I pulled out the bag o' tricks for these kids. I still remember making our little egg heads.  I saved a few eggshells, we filled them with potting soil and added grass seed, and presto! homemade Chia pets.

I don't feel guilty about coming from a privileged background, but on the other hand, I never take for granted the things that have come my way just by being born into a family best described as "comfortable."  Lucky in life, lucky in love, as they say. Cosmic forces from the planet Lovetron sent Peggy my way when I was a roguish 21-year-old, thus assuring me a daily cornucopia of love and laughter that continues to this day.

Something else that continues: the reminders to be grateful.  Back to the Head Start classroom, I was down there with the kids when they were all putting on their coats to go outside for playtime.  A little girl walked up to me with her little white coat in her hand, which is kidspeak for "Please help me put this on!" so I held it out for her little arms, and she said, "How do you like my new coat, mister? I just got it!"

And the smile on her face and the gleam of pride in her eyes just melted this old man right on the spot, for the coat was obviously old, somewhat tattered, and could have used a good turn at the dry-cleaner.  But, in a country in which some spoiled teenagers publicly complain that their parents gave them the wrong color Mercedes SUV or last-year's iPhone or a "stupid local"  Sweet Sixteen, instead of one on the beach at Ibiza, I saw real gratitude, true thankfulness, in the face of little girl who knew that a cold winter was coming, and she had a warm coat to fend it off.  

She also had, has, a warm heart, too.  I have no idea where the little girl with the coat is today, but something tells me she's doing all right for herself, because she was proud that she had that white coat.  She would be old enough to have her own kids by now, if that was her choice, and let's hope they're just as happy with their gifts as their mom was.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Treat All The Same

I had only been a supervisor for about ten minutes when I learned a valuable lesson. Let's say you're supervising 17 people. You give one of them a break, let them off the hook for something, or give them a requested day off when you really shouldn't.

The other 16 people will not say, "Hey! What a great guy! Let's hear it for our wonderful and gracious boss!"  

Nor should they.  Fair is only fair when it's equally applied, which brings us to the current unpleasant state of the National Football League.  Players are in trouble for domestic/spousal assault.  Ray Rice of the local team here slugged his partner unconscious in a drunken fight in an Atlantic City casino and has been suspended indefinitely.  Other players are sidelined following similar foul events.  Adrian Peterson of the Vikings is on the carpet for walloping his four-year-old son WITH A TREE BRANCH and his lawyer is pointing out that Mr Peterson only did it in the name of better discipline among his many children.

It makes one almost miss the days when the biggest NFL scandal was lunkheaded wide receiver Plaxico Burress smuggling a gun into a disco in his pants (I know, what was a disco doing in his pants?) and the gun went off and he shot himself and ran into the night howling, also running afoul of a New York law designed to stop people from shooting themselves in the pants.  Burress served jail time to the tune of a couple of years, and New York's night life seemed a little safer for a while.

My point, and thanks for waiting for it, is that miscreants all deserve the same treatment. I recently found myself being hollered at by a couple of people who urged compassion in the Rice case and said that he is not a wife-beater, even though there is video tape that proves otherwise.

East Jersey State
Prison (formerly Rahway State Prison)
I know that rich and famous people sometimes get breaks from the legal system.  In Rice's case, he got a sweet deal from the New Jersey authorities and was allowed to attend a diversionary counseling session instead of joining the football team at East Jersey State (Prison). The program they found for him was supposed to be for non-violent offenders committing victimless crimes.  Wrong twice, New Jersey!

I urged strict punishment and was branded a "typical liberal," which makes as much sense as letting bad guys walk away unpunished. Any man who would hit a woman deserves firm sanction.  In fact, people of any gender who go around knocking out people of any gender deserve to be taken aside and given some time to consider other ways of dealing with their issues.

It's only fair. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book 'Em

My dear friend Amanda Sheridan-Stokely, as kind a person as there is on this earth, challenged me to name ten books that have stayed with me. Well, I sat down and listed ten books without even blinking, and then, with a moment's thought, typed five more titles and thought I'd better slow down.  Sorry to exceed the request, but books are my friends, and have been since I figured out that's where all the information was. Who can limit the number of friends they love?

My list follows:
The Catcher In The Rye - J.D. Salinger - Show me a teenager who hasn't read this, and I'll show you a teenager who hasn't read it yet. It sums up everything there is to say about being between Phoebe's age and Holden Caulfield's parents' ages, with nod to the ageless Allie, somewhere between the two forever.

The Ring Lardner Reader - Ring Lardner - The master of American colloquial writing, Lardner was an expert chronicler of baseball, war, and life among the hopeful and hopeless.

How To Talk Dirty and Influence People - Lenny Bruce - When I was a kid, people said Lenny was a "dirty" comedian, which is like describing the Mona Lisa as an "old" painting.  Lenny skewered the hypocrites, the racists, and the warmongers like they had never been skewered before or since.

Up In The Old Hotel - Joseph Mitchell - Mitchell wrote for The New Yorker about life on the more seedy and salty sides of New York from 1938 - 1964, although he remained in the employ of the magazine until his death in 1996. He suffered 32 years of writer's block, never publishing another word after his final book, "Joe Gould's Secret."  Fascinating man.

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - Capote took the notion of writing about a real crime as if it were a novel in the story of the murders of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959. Not a whodunit or a how-did-he-do-it, more of an example of great writing and investigation.

Yes, I Can - Sammy Davis, Jr. - If this story of a man who never attended school or had formal instruction in singing, dancing, acting, doing impressions or playing music, and yet became a master of all those arts, had been fiction, people would have considered it too far-fetched. There was only one Sammy, the man who once said "There are only three people who matter to me: Sammy, Davis, and Junior."

The Keillor Reader - Garrison Keillor - The Bard of Lake Wobegon recently published this collection of radio transcripts, speeches, newspaper columns and the like.  A multi-talented man, much like Sammy, but with the ego pointing inwardly.

Washington Goes to War - David Brinkley - Longtime NBC news anchor, and the man for whom the word "wry" seems to have been invented, wrote about DC in the World War II era.  His autobiography is also fascinating, if only for being the only autobiography I can recall by a person who said his mother just didn't seem to like him very much.  Hey, I guess it happens.

Chips Off The Old Benchley - Robert Benchley - Essayist, Broadway critic for The New Yorker, movie actor, and wit. In all his comic essays, he portrayed himself as a whimsical semi-fool, hiding the fact that in real life he was a serial philanderer and serious alcoholic.  I'm grateful for not having known that when I fell in love with the words of the bumbling semi-fool.

On The Road - Jack Kerouac - The beatnik bible, the story of the man who fell under the spell of wanderlust in postwar America and started an entire new trend in writing.

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby - Tom Wolfe - speaking of new trends in writing, this is the first volume collecting former newspaperman Wolfe's writings as he led the way into the New Journalism - telling the facts with pizzaz and lots of onomatopoeia.  Bang!  Zoom! You gotta read this book! Here is one sentence from his article on stock car racer/moonshiner Junior Johnson: "Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-cheek raspberry, Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields."  Not the sort of writing we had seen before.

Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters - John Waters - Baltimore's gift to oddball living shows his versatility: filmmaker-turned-essayist.

The Entertainer - Margaret Talbot - I love this book, written by New Yorker staff writer Talbot about her father, character actor Lyle Talbot, the eternal sidekick in movies and TV (and also father of Stephen Talbot, who played Gilbert on "Leave It To Beaver" and is now an award-winning documentarian). Lyle's career began in tent shows and medicine shows and circuses, and the story is the story of American show business in the 20th Century seen through the eyes of someone who worked in most aspects of that business.

The Little Engine That Could - Platt and Munk - The first book I ever read, and it gave me encouragement to read more, so I haven't stopped.

Webster's Dictionary - Noah Webster et al -  Because, every word in the other books is in this one, too.  It's just a matter of arranging them nicely.

And now that I finish, I realize I left out Jean Shepherd, John Updike, Studs Terkel, Roger Kahn, E.B. White, and dozens of authors I also love.   

Let's do this again soon!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Rerun: I Got The Number is an excellent website, and the source of a lot of the trivial information that dots my life and my conversations like cloves on a ham.  I don't know who is behind the website, but I like it a lot.  They interview performers and songwriters, and share interesting facts about, and the real lyrics to,  songs we all sing as we drive along or take a shower.

No surprise then, that I was skipping through the site the other day and read an interview with Gary Lewis of "This Diamond Ring" fame and also of being Jerry Lewis's son fame.  (I often spend hours reading about, watching or listening to Jerry Lewis.  You said it would be ok, remember?)  From there, I saw a link to this interview with Alex Call, the guy who wrote Tommy Tutone's 1982 hit  "867-5309 (Jenny)",  and what an eye-opener that was!  The interview tells you all you will want to know about the song, except for why, in the video, the bassist is wearing one of those French sailor shirts with a red bandana around his neck.  There are some things that we are just bound to puzzle over forever.

There used to be a website devoted to the antics of two guys who spent their days and nights calling 867-5309 in every area code across the nation, chronicling the results as they asked for Jenny if anyone answered.

And you legal scholars certainly remember last summer in a US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision, Justice Elena Kagan included the following sly Tutone callout in her opinion in American Trucking Association v. City of Los Angeles, which, as you all know, said there can be no agreements between trucking companies and the Port of Los Angeles.

“Under that contract, a company may transport cargo at the Port in exchange for complying with various requirements. The two directly at issue here compel the company to (1) affix a placard on each truck with a phone number for reporting environmental or safety concerns (You’ve seen the type: “How am I driving? 213-867-5309”) and (2) submit a plan listing off-street parking locations for each truck when not in service.” 
Justice Kagan is also doing standup three nights a week at Giggles, a comedy club in Silver Spring, MD.

But one thing struck me in the Song Facts interview.  Apparently, Tommy Tutone is still touring on the strength of his one and only hit record, and weaves a tale about how the song came to be written.  Alex Call says, "Tommy Tutone's been using the story for years that there was a Jenny and she ran a recording studio and so forth. It makes a better story but it's not true. That sounds a lot better than I made it up under a plum tree in my backyard."

Hold everything.  Wait a second.  You're telling me you can have a tree right in your backyard and grow your own plums? I got to get me one of them!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Saturday Picture Show, September 13, 2014

If I ever had a boat, I would have named it something awful, like "Titanic" or "Sinker."  Good thing I have no nautical inclinations.
Sorry, vegans, vegetarians, and everyone who doesn't enjoy a good hamburger now and then.  A nicely-grilled hunk o' ground beef on a tasty roll with grilled onions, a pickle or two, a slice of yellow American, and whatever else you like...sometimes, it's just the perfect thing!
You know how happy it makes some people when Spring comes bursting out?  Well, that's how giddy I am about Autumn, with its lovely colors and crisp air and everything smelling and tasting pumpkin-y.
There was a fellow named Graig (yes!) Nettles who played for a few big-league baseball clubs.  Nettles is famous for saying, while a member of the 'Bronx Zoo' Yankees of the 70s,  "When I was a kid, I wanted to join and the circus AND play for the Yankees. Lucky me, I got to do both!"
So I can set this up in my own kitchen, and make big-time bucks peddling iced raisin donuts at restaurants, grocers, drugstores, cafeterias and plants?  We have all of them close by!  I'm gonna be rich!  Rich, I tell you! I always wanted to get to the top of the donut game, and now, here's my ticket to Easy Street!

Down by Baltimore's Patterson Theatre, now known as "El Teatro Patterson," someone made a pretty cool bus stop.  I'll see you on the upper section of the 'B.'
It was a cool summer here in Bmore.  We got plenty of rain, and the lawns stayed green and lush.  Now the trees are just starting to change, and soon from garages to sheds to basements all over town, you'll hear the annual question: "Where did I leave that rake last year?"
It's been a fun week, so Thank You!

Friday, September 12, 2014

I might just change my name to "Buster Move"

Many times, people ask me what's the secret of the long and happy marriage that Peggy and I have enjoyed since gas cost a quarter. It's the little things; we don't need to traipse all over the globe to find the amusement we get just from moments like our early morning discussions of "Who did the better version of 'Rock 'n' Roll Dreams Come Through' ?"  Enjoy the Jim Steinman version, or order the Meat Loaf; you can't go wrong.  

Peggy is the one of us who delights in nature and all its wonders; I would much rather read about flowers and birds and bees and the like than have bees and tree limbs land on me, but that's the glory of life and love if you take it easy long enough  - you get to take your choice and enjoy it.

Johnny Burke, 1908 - 1964
It seems to me that a lot of people who shuffle off this mortal coil at early ages were finished their work in time to punch out before the others. Take a man named Johnny Burke, a lyricist who teamed with several composers to write songs such as "You're Not the Only Oyster in the Stew" for Fats Waller, "Swingin' On a Star" for Bing Crosby, and "It Could Happen To You," which was done by dozens, including Diana Krall

Burke only lived to be 56, and if you're 16, that seems like a pretty ripe old age, but let me assure you, it isn't.  At any age, it's good to stop and appreciate the gifts of life, gifts that Burke used his gifts of words to describe in "Aren't You Glad You're You?"

Every time you're near a rose
Aren't you glad you've got a nose
And if the dawn is fresh with dew
Aren't you glad you're you?

When a meadowlark appears
Aren't you glad you've got two ears
And if your heart is singin' too
Aren't you glad you're you?

You can see a summer sky
Or touch a friendly hand
Or taste an apple pie
Pardon the grammar, but ain't life grand

And when you wake up each morn
Aren't you glad that you were born
Think what you've got the whole day through
Aren't you glad you're you?

Burke wrote this before anyone thought of challenging their friends to list the things for which they were grateful.  I am grateful for almost every song that has delighted my ears and eyes, to tell you the truth.  When I hear a favorite song, I song along, I smile, I guffaw, and I holler "Whoomp There It Is!"

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What so proudly we hailed

What Key saw by the dawn's early light!
Two hundred years ago this weekend, the British, still smarting from their defeat in the Revolutionary War, showed up in Baltimore Harbor for The Battle of Baltimore. The War of 1812 had gone into overtime, and the British were attempting to get to Washington by taking the Baltimore-Washington Parkway invading the port of Baltimore by land and sea.  The battle had actually begun here in Baltimore County, at North Point, where the American forces had to retreat, but not before they slowed the enemy forces down enough to allow the people at the port of Baltimore to prepare for battle. As that battle raged on the night of September 13, 1814, Francis Scott Key stood on the deck of a British ship and watched the American resistance "by the dawn's early light" and wrote a poem he called "Defence of Fort McHenry," which, set to the music of the then-popular song "To Anacreon in Heaven," became "The Star-Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States of America.

Why was Key, an American lawyer, aboard the Royal Navy vessel? Well, at the time, lawyers were not allowed to advertise their services on television.  Reasons given for this ban generally include the sad fact that even those who had TV sets in 1814 had no electric outlets anyway. So Key got legal work as he found it, and had to go aboard HMS Tonnant, as the guests of three British officers, as he negotiated the release of prisoners. One of the prisoners held by the British was Dr. William Beanes, of Upper Marlboro, MD.  Beanes had put "rowdy stragglers" under citizen's arrest in what is today Baltimore's fabulous Inner Harbor, a worldwide mecca for rowdy stragglers.

Not really my license tag
So this weekend, Baltimore will celebrate the 200th anniversary of all this.  Most of us have the special Maryland license tags commemorating the writing of the anthem which is played before games just several long fly balls away at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and a few long punts away at M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Ravens.

One of these kids was my maternal grandmom, Mary Elizabeth Willis! 1914.
2014 human flag being formed
Somehow, some brave people got 7,000 schoolchildren to wear red, white, or blue plastic ponchos and stand still long enough to form a human flag, a repeat of the human flag that schoolchildren did on the same spot a hundred years ago, when one of the kids was my grandmother.

That same summer of 1914, Baltimore's own George H. "Babe" Ruth, who grew up one long fly ball away from OPACY, went to work for the Boston Red Sox, beginning a legendary pro baseball career.

History follows cycles, and it's interesting to me to reflect on them.  It's fascinating to think that the kids in this year's Living Flag might have descendants around in 2114 to see it done again.