31 December 2008

Cold hard advice for 2009

On this New Year's Eve, after a very pretty daytime snow, it's a bitterly cold night in New England, so I figured I'd offer this sage advice from the television show, Banacek, starring George Peppard, which aired for two years beginning in September 1972:

"If a wolf is chasing your sleigh, throw him a raisin cookie, but don’t stop to bake him a cake.”

– Thomas Banacek

This faux Polish proverb, naturally, reminds me of the "Old World" vignette, as told in Willa Cather's remarkable novel My Antonia, about the sleigh, filled with a wedding party, that was attacked by wolves. After first trying to outrun the pack, the drivers realized they would survive only by literally throwing the bride and groom to the wolves. They survived, but, boy, were they were hounded by the guilt...

Speaking of the cold, I can't help but think of a song lyric -- and no, it's not "Baby, it's Cold Outside."

How about "Artificial Flowers" (as sung by Bobby Darin with the most swinging arrangement ever, although the English band The Beautiful South does a nice touching arrangement of the song, as well, on their 1996 release Blue is the Colour)?

Alone in the world was poor little Ann
As sweet a young child as you'll find
Her parents had gone to their final reward
Leaving their baby behind.

Poor little Annie was only 9 years of age
When Mother and Dad went away
So she bravely worked at the one thing she knew
To earn her few pennies a day

She made artificial flowers, artificial flowers
Flowers for ladies of high fashion to wear
She made artificial flowers, artificial flowers
Fashioned from Annie's despair

With paper and shears, with some wire and wax
She made up each tulip and mum.
As snowflakes drifted into her tenement room
Her baby little fingers grew numb

From making artificial flowers...

They found little Annie all covered with ice
Still clutching her poor frozen shears
Amidst all the blossoms she had fashioned by hand
And watered with all her young tears

There must be a heaven where little Annie can play
In heavenly gardens and bowers.
And instead of a halo she'll wear 'round her head
A garland of genuine flowers

Ah, the associations a cold night can elicit!

Happy New Year and, as Dean Martin would sing, "sleep warm"!

30 December 2008

No More "Foggy Days" in My Pants!

Like many, if not most, of us men, I suffer from the embarrassing problem of...well...uh...you know...a great deal of...of spam in my inbox.

And it just so happens that the vast majority of it focuses on my apparent lack of size in the "manliness" department.

While many of the titles of these messages stretch the bounds of effective metaphor and clever euphemism, I've finally received one that speaks my language: the language of the Great American Songbook!

The title of the spam reads "The Age of Miracles hasn't past [sic]," which, of course, is an allusion, albeit a misspelled one, to the ending of a wonderful Gershwin and Gershwin song, originally introduced by Fred Astaire, "A Foggy Day (in London Town):"

...How long, I wondered, could this thing last?
but the Age of Miracles hadn't passed;
for suddenly I saw you there,
and in foggy London Town the sun was shining everywhere!

I almost wanted to open the email and risk an e-virus because, if a George and Ira composition can't sell successful lovemakin', what can? Goodness knows, that "Viva Viagra" campaign isn't cutting it!

I'd also suggest a trio of other G & G titles for those Viagra or Cialis ads:

"Could You Use Me?"

"[My] Love is Here to Stay [Up]"

and, of course, the ever-popular

"(We are) Bronco Busters"!

Harold Pinter, RIP, in more ways than one

I first encountered the drama of Harold Pinter as a junior in high school in drama class in which we were given scripts of two of his "Revue Sketches," "Interview" and "trouble in the Works"-- odd little examples of British humor. With plot lines of how pornographers deal with the "Xmas" season and how manufacturers deal with unhappy workers, and punchlines of "Communists" and "Brandy Balls," respectively, they were as far a cry from my suburban Cincinnati upbringing as I could imagine. A truly honorable goal for any school, I must say.

And, lest we forget, they killed at the Christmas concert/performance that December!

Looking back -- or, should I say, at the present -- I can't imagine any HS doing the pornography/communism skit now, if there ever was another one that did it then. Too great a chance to offend someone, anyone.

Why risk that, even in the name of broadening young people's horizons, when we can do another production of High School Musical or Beauty and the Beast?

Mr. Pinter, we will miss you.

29 December 2008

Cars are Cars

I'm not, and never was, a car guy. I don't understand how they work, and I don't much care about what I drive -- as long as it starts when it's supposed to and gets me where I want to go.

Indeed my daughters (9 and 13) and wife (no age necessary) are far better than I at identifying a wide variety of makes and models on the road. (For example, in Cleveland this past weekend celebrating Christmas with my family at my older brother's home, we played a game called Memory Madness, a "category" game that requires each team/player to give an example of the category until someone can't offer another example or repeats an earlier offering or gives a wrong answer. As early as the third go around for the "Car Models" category, while those around me were offering a veritable alphabet soup of "LX500," "H3," and "CRV," I was already falling back on the Dodge Dart.)

I never learned to drive a stick because, no matter how much "more fun" it is, it seems an unnecessary burden to be clutching and shifting all the time -- and, as my tap dance teacher will readily attest, coordination is not my strong suit.

In any event, "clutching and shifting" sounds like something folks should do in the back seat!

Even as I readily embrace the ease of the automatic transmission, I DETEST cruise control. The one thing all drivers should do is control their own speed, and those who rely on cruise control when driving long distances on the highway, and especially when seemingly compelled to set it, forget it, and yet remain in the far left lane... well, just revoke their licenses. Too often, because they can now ignore everything except what's in front of them, they tend to forget to check behind them. Face it, no matter how high they've set their speed, there's a chance that someone might want to pass them, and it's not their place to say "This is fast enough."

As I always tell my girls,"The job of every driver is to follow the rules of the road as safely and yet as efficiently as possible." So, if you have the right of way, it very rarely is safe or efficient to yield that to someone else, since there's a real good chance that the others on the road are counting on you to do what you're supposed to do not whatever whim you feel like indulging. Thus, if you're first in line at a stop light, it's your job to pay attention to it and move as soon as possible after that light turns green -- not only after you've decided who in the on-coming lane has waited long enough over there and should go before you. Follow the rules, and all will get their turn.

(Relatedly, while I'm no fan of cellphone use by drivers, I am befuddled by the distinction in CT and other states that makes my holding a cellphone illegal while I can hold a drink, a sandwich, or a balloon, for that matter, and not break any laws. If I were a scofflaw, I'd simply place my phone in a paper cup and talk into the cup. Take that, coppers!)

One can't end a posting on cars without citing Paul Simon's "Cars are Cars" from the best Paul Simon album ever, 1983's Hearts and Bones:

Some of my cars have been more like a home;
I lived in it, loved in it, polished its chrome.
Some of my homes have been more like a car;
I probably wouldn't have traveled this far

25 December 2008

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum.

24 December 2008

Ya learn somethin' new everyday

For instance:

If you get an idea for a post and begin a draft of it, but you don't finish it until after you've posted another piece (or two or three), the draft, when completed, is posted BEFORE the "later" ones. ?!?

A draft, after all, isn't a posting until it's posted -- no matter when it's begun!

And it should be published in the order it's posted.

In other words, if you're interested, there's something newer on the blog here than the last several posts.


Hark, the Herald Angel(fish)!

For as many of my jewelry purchases as possible (not that I have many, by the way), I try to patronize local businesses rather than chain stores. I do confess to heading to Tiffany's to buy a 20th Anniversary present for my wife last May, however; two decades of marriage to me should earn a woman something really special -- combat pay, as it were.

Anyway, this week, I went to to the local "mom and pop" jeweler looking for a holiday pin for my wife for Christmas, a little something festive to go with the requested "pastry cutter." "Mom" promptly directed me to a case on the wall and said, "Here's a Christmas tree!"

Now, this pin was indeed triangular-ish (as my younger daughter might say)...with a stem at the bottom, and I'm thinking, "Hmmm, an interesting Dali-esque wilting tree. The star at the top isn't even at the apex of the triangle. This is quite intriguing. I think I like it!"

Then, of course, I realized it wasn't a Christmas tree at all but rather an angel fish turned on its tail. The "star" was its eye, and the "stem" its tailfin. When I, trying to be helpful, pointed this out to her, she flatly contradicted me and said "No, that's a Christmas tree."

I remain unsure whether a) she took me for a fool (since that's not hard to do), b) she simply assumed I'm the stereotypical male who "doesn't know nothing 'bout buying no jewelry, Miss Scarlett," c) she didn't know her own merchandise, or d) the times are so financially dicey that she'd say anything for a sale.

I still made a purchase (which says far more about my lack of "gifting" imagination than my ability to overlook an insult), but, I assure you, I didn't buy the the "tree."

23 December 2008

Sinatra: No (X-)mas! No (X-)mas!

On Tuesday, 23 December, I did my annual WFCS Christmas radio show on "Frank, Gil, and Friends," during which I played a good chunk of Sinatra's official Christmas albums from Capitol and Reprise Records.

While I'm a huge Sinatra fan (why else would I have hosted a Sinatra program for the past 15 years and published two books?), I've never warmed to his post-Columbia Christmas recordings.

To put it bluntly, they ain't Bing (or even Andy Williams, for that matter). Only yesterday's show brought out the "why" to me. Unlike almost everything else he recorded (and, most certainly, unlike his very best songs), I don't believe a word he's singing.

If, as is commonly believed (and, to my mind, as is correct), Sinatra's remarkable strength as an interpretative performer comes from telling stories through his songs, and if, in doing so, he makes his audience believe he's telling those stories to each of them alone, then way too much of A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, arranged by Gordon Jenkins (1957), Twelve Songs of Christmas (with Bing Crosby and Fred Waring) (1964), and The Sinatra Family Wishes You a Very Merry Christmas (1968), sounds as if he's reading a phonebook into a megaphone on Main Street. Almost none of the recordings, and certainly none of the traditional hymns or carols he recorded in the '50s and '60s, is subtle, sincere, or intimate...which may be a tall order for any singer, but he IS Frank Sinatra, so it should NOT be too tall an order for him.

Aside from "Mistletoe and Holly" and "The Christmas Waltz," both written specifically for him, the songs come off stiff and stagy: too somber to be enjoyed (much less joyous), not heartfelt enough to be heartwarming, or too kitschy to ring true. The frequent choral arrangements don't help the intimacy, but, even alone, he never actually convinces me that it matters whether "All ye Faithful" actually come or whether "It" indeed "Came Upon the Midnight Clear."

His recording for Columbia Records in the '40s fare far better, perhaps due to his more angelic voice and swell Axel Stordahl arrangements, but Sinatra seems equally comfortable balladeering -- e.g., "Christmas Dreaming (A Little Early This Year)" -- and swinging -- e.g., "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

Most importantly, however, the proof that they work is plain: I believe.

Follow the Blog (with apologies to Randy Newman)

"Follow the Blog"

You can blog alone,
or with somebody else,
or blog with all of us, together.
If you can believe in something bigger than yourself,
you can follow the blog forever.

They say it's just a dream some dreamers dreamed,
that it's an empty thing that really has no meaning.
They it's all a lie, but it's not a lie.
I'm going to follow the blog 'til I die.

Into every life a little spam must fall,
but it's not gonna be forever.
You can rise above -- you can rise above it all:
We will follow the blog together.
We will follow the blog together.

(based upon "Follow the Flag" by Randy Newman, from Land of Dreams, 1988)


21 December 2008

Must-see Christmas Movies

It's, as Sammy Cahn's "The Christmas Waltz" goes, "the time of year when the world falls in love" and, more unavoidably, when every t.v. channel airs every Christmas movie/special ever made -- no matter the quality of cast, script, or mise en scène.

Below are my must-sees: the films that matter to me for one reason or the other. None is terribly unique (except maybe It's Only Money), but that's only on the list because it shows a California Christmas -- and nothing in 1951 could have been odder than a film in which there are Christmas trees among the palms.

1) Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Maureen O'Hara, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, and Natalie Wood http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IZr_SvCcXc

The gold standard of Christmas movies. Brilliantly written and acted. A nice balance between fantasy and reality (personal, corporate, and political). And a young Natalie Wood who shows already why she'd grow up into "Natalie Wood."

2) It's Only Money, a.k.a. Double Dynamite (1951): Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Jane Russell http://www.guba.com/watch/3000092384

Jane Russell can't act or sing, but, as released in 1951 by boyfriend Howard Hughes, she gets the title role since she's packing the "Double Dynamite" in her sweater! Happy Holidays, gentlemen.

3) The Little Drummer Boy (1968): Jose Ferrer, Greer Garson

Greer Garson, with whom I first fell in love when I saw Mrs. Miniver, narrates this Rankin/Bass take on the nativity story and familiar Christmas song. Jose Ferrer as the "desert showman" is pretty swell too. And it's always nice to see at least a cameo by Jesus in a Christmas film.

4) A Christmas Story (1983): Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Peter Billingsley http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mjruvE310Y

Nostalgic and funny. VERY funny.

20 December 2008

A Trio of Pop Songs as Ancient Literature

Herman's Hermits, "It's The End of the World":

Peter Noone as Achilles, mourning the death of Patroclus on the beach in Homer's Iliad

Why does the sun keep on shining?

Why does the sea rush to shore?

Don't they know it's the end of the world?

It ended when I lost your love.


I wake up in the morning and I wonder

why everything s the same as it was.

And I can't understand, no, I can't understand

why life goes on the way it does!

Frank Sinatra, "Something's Gotta Give":

FS as Prometheus, in chains, addressing Zeus in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound:

When an irresistable force such as you

meets an immoveable object like me

You can bet just as sure as you live

Something's gotta give Something's gotta give Something's gotta give.

So, en garde, who knows what the Fates have in store...?

The Hues Corporation, "Rock the Boat":

An ensemble piece with Aeneas and the Trojans in their ships and Juno and Aeolus on Olympus at the opening of Vergil's Aeneid.

Aeneas: Oh, I'd like to know where you got the notion to

Juno and Aeolus: Rock the boat!

Aeneas and the Trojans: Don't rock the boat, baby!

Juno and Aeolus: Rock the boat!

Aeneas and the Trojans: Don't tip the boat over!

Juno and Aeolus: Rock the boat!

I gotta start takin' the bus!

NORWALK, CT: Students Sold Cocktails On Bus (December 20, 2008)

Norwalk officials say three middle school students turned their school bus into a club car by selling mixed drinks to other students. Ponus Ridge Middle School administrators plan to address concerns about student drinking with parents and students. Principal Linda Sumpter says the three students will be disciplined for selling drinks on the bus to at least 20 other children. She says she has met with the students and their parents.—Associated Press

Some thoughts:

1) Did the bus driver get a cut of the take or, at the very least, courtesy drinks?

Even if not, I can imagine his/her thinking: "Well, they're fairly quiet and well-behaved, and one of 'em's even dressed in a white shirt and black bow tie and being helpful to the others. How lucky can I be?!"

2) Where'd the middle schoolers learn to make mixed drinks? Beer, wine, or something served neat would be impressive enough, but, if they were making Grasshoppers and Harvey Wallbangers (heck, even Gin and Tonics or Rum and Cokes), that'd be commendable for nothing more than the dexterity of doing all this on a moving school bus without a permanent bar.

(I fully realize the drinks mentioned above show that my sole knowledge of alcohol dates back to my watching my parents entertain in the late 60s and early 70s or Andrews Sisters' songs from the 40s! I know a little bit more about wine -- but that's only because I love the poetry of the Roman Horace. Speaking of which, anybody know where I can get a nice Falernian or Massic, vintage 30 B.C.E.? Sigh.)

Since this post started with buses, let me say I've always admired that, whenever buses pass one another on the road (city buses, school buses, charter buses, tour buses, etc.), the drivers always acknowledge one another with a little wave or nod of the head.

Now THAT'S true "professional courtesy" and not something that I've seen in any other field.

A toast to you all.

18 December 2008

Call me Philo (or Pseudolus)

On Monday, a colleague of mine mentioned to me the NY Times Book Review piece on the new translation of the often bawdy but ever-entertaining Roman epigrammatist Martial by Garry Wills, Martial's Epigrams: A Selection (Viking 2008).

It got me to perusing my own copy of Martial's poems (Loeb Classical Library, 1979)

The epigram below struck me as particularly relevant because one of my staffers brings in great food every day to share with the department and is patently unhappy if I don't eat.

"Boss, LUNCH," she cries.

I obey.

Her generosity is a wonderful perk, I cannot deny it, but it is problematic. In those rare instances when she isn't around, I'm truly at a loss for what I'm supposed to do. I've become one of the local geese who's grown so used to being fed by park-goers that, on those rare days when people actually obey the posted "No Feeding" signs, he just goes hungry.

Or, on a more literary note, I've become a Roman stereotype: the sponger!*


Numquam se cenasse domi Philo iurat, et hoc est:
non cenat, quotiens nemo vocavit eum.

Philo swears he has never dined at home, and that's right!
He doesn't eat if no one invites him.

*See also the title character of Plautus' Pseudolus.

17 December 2008

Ten (Nonfiction) Books I Wish I Had Written/Edited

Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh
The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946-Present (First Edition, 1979)

Steele Commager
The Odes of Horace: A Critical Study

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley

Thomas M. Greene
The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity

Pete Hamill
Why Sinatra Matters

Cotton Mather
Bonifacius or Essays to Do Good

Fred J. Nichols
Anthology of Neo-Latin Literature

Alan Schwartz
Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics

Lee Server
Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing

Jan Ziolkowski and Michael Putnam
The Virgilian Tradition: The First 1500 Years

It's All Up to Us

Last week I gave a talk about Frank Sinatra to the local Senior Club and had U.S. Representative Chris Murphy as my opening act.

There's a reason why Sinatra had comedians as lead-ins and not congressmen (although Frank would frequently introduce Sen. Jack Kennedy in the audience at his concerts in Vegas): congressional representatives talk about things that matter to people, but they tend not to please anyone with their answers -- especially when they're talking about Medicare Part D.

He was engaging, informative, knowledgeable, and sincerely interested in fixing the system, all the qualities one wants in a representative, but short of saying he had just completely abolished the administrative red tape associated with signing up for or switching specific plans, he wasn't telling them much they really wanted to know.

Talk about a tough audience...and thanks for the warm up, Chris!

His speaking that day did give me the chance to mention to his aide that, if health insurance reform is on the way, I had the song for him. It was written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, donated to the Good Health Association of North Carolina, and recorded by Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore on 11/7/46.

Entitled "It's All Up To You (To Make North Carolina Number One in Good Health)," the song is an excellent example of what health care reform needs in the US (and something that the Clinton Health Care Reform attempt in the early 1990s simply lacked): catchy lyrics to summarize succinctly why it'd be good for ALL of us.

Consider this:

..if we do this, we will be the state
where the weak grow strong
and the strong grow great.

16 December 2008

What do rice and prostitutes have in common?

A good side of pasta beats 'em both.

From the NY Times: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/16/what-do-prostitutes-and-rice-have-in-common/

Confessions of a Wannabe Smoker

I've never smoked. My parents and siblings never smoked. My wife doesn't smoke. I'm not then, and never have been, I guess, a smoker.

In college, I was in a play or two that required my smoking a cigar or cigarette -- which I then played with outside the theater since it offered me a good prop (or, at the very least, gave me that affected look that only a late-teenage boy from the Cincinnati suburbs might think even remotely attractive).

But there's a part of me that's always wanted to be a smoker.

(Of course, now I wish I were a smoker because my subsequent quitting apparently could add years to my life. Free years to your life after years of cool-looking, and vaguely debauched, enjoyment; how sweet is that?)

I've always liked the smell of cigarette smoke (smoke, like love, is "lovelier the second time around," I guess), and I've always loved the accoutrement of smoking: the cigarette holders, the lighters, the cigar cutters, the ashtrays -- the things that a gentleman in an earlier age would receive (monogrammed) at his retirement after forty years with the company.

THAT'S the beauty of smoking: the ritualistic activities that surround it -- the lighting of a lady's cigarette, the offering of a smoke (from your gold cigarette case!) to a friend or colleague, the careful clipping of the end of a fine (or not-so-fine) cigar, the careful positioning of attractive, yet functional, ashtrays around the room, ...even the cigarette advertisements.

How can we ever really replace Sinatra's "This is FS for L(ucky)S(trike)" or the frighteningly naive ad from his 1946 Old Gold Show:

"The nicest thing anyone has ever said to us is 'If I want throat care, I consult an MD. If I want smoking pleasure, I consult an OG'...That's right, friends, anytime you want a treat instead of a treatment, don't call for an MD, call on an OG." One couldn't make that up.

I was reminded of my wannabe smokerism last Wednesday when, about 7 PM, I was taking my garbage to the curb and, as soon as I walked out into the brisk night air, smelled the cigar of my neighbor down the street. Nightly he walks his dog while smoking a cigar. I was utterly taken by the civilized nature of it all, deliberate puffs during a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood... a man and his dog.

Indeed it's the closest I've ever been to actually wanting a dog. I've thought the better of that, however, so I decided I'd just envy him his smoking.

15 December 2008

Iraq as "The Tender Trap"?

Re: An Iraqi Reporter's Throwing His Shoes at the U.S. President:

A little quote from Sammy Cahn's "The Tender Trap" (recorded by Frank Sinatra, 1955)

...And all at once it seems so nice;
The folks are throwing shoes and rice.
You hurry to a spot
That's just a dot on the map
Then you wonder how it all came about;
It's too late now there's no getting out.
You fell in love, and love is the Tender Trap!

(Emphasis added.)

(Potential) Fathers and Mothers

A local medical practice specializing in vasectomies (ouch!) has a radio advertisement the tagline of which is "This is not your father's vasectomy."

Now, I'm unsure of whether it's my uneasiness with medical implements around particularly delicate areas of my body (i.e., I'll never wear contacts for the same reason!) or just my Catholicism (or insecurity) showing, but this seems an really unfortunate turn of phrase.

What's the next ad campaign? The Pill -- The Mother of All Birth Control!

Yes, it alludes to the 70s car ad campaign: "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," but, if my father had bothered to have one, I, as child #3, very well might not have been around. Now, statistically speaking, getting a vasectomy is probably far safer than driving an Olds, but at least you can pass on your 1986 Toronado to your teenagers.

(When a colleague of mine had the procedure done, I dedicated Frank Sinatra's and Keely Smith's 1958 duet "How are you fixed for Love?" to him on my radio show. If you're gonna have it done, at least set it to swingin' music.)

Speaking of mothers and fathers, my favorite British title that didn't make it across the pond (like the American release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone -- well, THAT clarifies things!) is the original title of an Elvis Costello compilation. In the US it was called Girls Girls Girls (with symbols of the American dollar and British pound interspersed into a misogynistic equation), in the UK, Ten Howsyafathers and 10 Bloody Marys.

American record companies and publishers always get uneasy when religion is even tangentially involved. Hence we get Nick Lowe's Pure Pop for Now People instead of the original, and far better, title, Jesus of Cool.

14 December 2008


Welcome to the ironically named Connecticut Wit, which will probably be far less witty than imagined, but I'll try.

The title is taken from the group of late 18th-century poets in the US (including, inter alia, Joel Barlow, Timothy Dwight, David Humphreys, and John Trumbull) who first tried to write a distinctly American literature. They FAILED.

Their failure, of course, is less important than their recognition of the need of something different to reflect the newness of the American experiment. As students of American literature know, failure has been a major theme from its Anglo-American beginnings (enter snide "Brit lit's better" comment here) as seen in such works asOn Plimmoth Plantation and Letters from an American Farmer...

And failure's almost always more interesting than success.

Now, while Frank Sinatra's late '60sWatertown album can't be enjoyed as regularly as Songs for Swingin' Lovers, it's intriguing in a way that only a failure can be.

Here's hopin' the same can be said, in the end, of this blog!