Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Hallmark Movie: I Nail It Again!

The movie has been on about ten minutes when I walk into the room. Oh dear God no, Spike is watching another Hallmark flick. The woman in the movie is about to go meet her boyfriend for dinner. She is very excited, because she thinks he is going to propose. After all, they’ve been going out for eight months and a girl can’t, you know, wait forever.

I sit quietly for a bit and then proceed, in my usual delightful way, to announce what would be happening over the next nearly two hours of the film.

“He’s going to dump her,” I say, and thirty seconds later the boyfriend, who was too serious and pasty-faced to be an actual love interest in a Hallmark movie, does just that. Breaking up with a woman, and not appreciating her general wonderfulness is, of course, the second worst crime a man can commit in a Hallmark movie. The third is not listening to her and the first is the unspeakably monstrous act of…cheating. This is a transgression so heinous that, while perhaps not all will admit it, there’s not a single woman in the viewing audience who would not recommend a punishment of lethal injection for any offender. And a good many of them wouldn’t mind pushing the plunger on the syringe, either.

The woman, the aforementioned Dumpee, is also a doctor, and she later that same night finds out that her fellowship to a fancy-pants Boston hospital has fallen through. She runs home to Daddy, who it turns out is also a doctor. After enduring some recreational whining from his daughter, Daddy promises he’ll make a few phone calls and find an equally prestigious position for her. Those poor, suffering white people and the problems they must endure!

And suddenly I felt the need to again step in with my updated predictions:

“Okay, so she’s going to go to some cabin in the snow for a month to ‘get away from it all.’ She’ll meet some guy who’s handsome in a non-threatening way, and who wears flannel shirts, owns a dog or a kid that he loves more than anything and, eventually, will teach her the true meaning of life and love.”

In actuality, she gets a fellowship to a small town w-a-a-a-y up in Alaska. It’s all that’s available, and so she goes. At this point I leave the room for a few minutes and when I come back she is riding into the tiny Alaskan town with some guy in a truck. He’s young, mildly good-looking and is (Bingo!) wearing a flannel shirt. He takes her to the place of residence that the town folk are providing for her. It is, of course, a glorious cabin in the snow.

Me again:

“She’s going to fall for this guy, and for the town itself. When Daddy calls with a new fellowship in some upper-crust hospital she’ll decide to stay in the small town and with the flannel-shirted guy, having learned the real meaning of success and happiness.”

And an hour and fifteen minutes later that’s exactly what she does. Daddy calls and tells her the original fellowship in Boston has again become available, but by now she has treated an endless number of the local yahoos, and kissed the flannel guy several times. (Closed mouthed—no tongue.) In one scene she even went so far as to hold his hand.  Without gloves! She turns Daddy down, and tells him she’s staying right where she is, in Moosepoop, Alaska, or whatever the hell that town was called.

By this time I’m more than a little impressed with myself and the accuracy of my predictions. My celebration is a tad tempered by the fact that the flannel guy turned out to have neither a cute dog nor kid, but he produced something better: his loveable old elf of a dad, who is played by the always endearing Brian Doyle-Murray. How much cuter can you get than that?

Two hours later I was watching a movie I had already seen several times. Spike entered the room and I explained that the fellow in the front seat talking dirty with the pretty woman was indeed married to someone else. His wife, however, was back at the house, where she was getting stoned and about to make love with her own mother-in-law.

“This isn’t a Hallmark movie, is it?” asked Spike.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Woman in Black: Play, Movie, Book

“I give it an F,” said Spike at we emerged from our local playhouse and into the nighttime fog. I’ve always found her to be remarkably perceptive in her grading system of movies and plays. Even when she disagrees with me I often can’t help thinking, Yeah, she’s probably right.

Still, this time I thought she was being a little harsh, although I can’t say I’d rate the play any higher than a C-minus. It had been a major disappointment from the beginning, and any hopes of a big finish were soon dashed shortly after intermissions.

The play was The Woman in Black, and I had been looking forward to seeing it. The advertising had claimed it to be this incredibly scary ghost story, and that it had been running in London for 25 years. I always enjoy a good old-school ghost story when I can find one, which is extremely rare these days. And so I snapped up tickets to this production with some eagerness and, admittedly, a little bit of fear. I mean, I didn’t want to get really scared in a room full of people. I needn’t have worried.

The play featured only two actors (plus a woman playing the title role). I won’t give away the story, but the whole thing seemed convoluted from the get-go. Before the end of the first act I had figured out where they were going, and how it would end. And that’s not bragging, as I can rarely figure out even the most obvious of storylines.

And so during intermission I hinted to Spike that I knew how the play would conclude, but I wouldn’t tell her my theory. For her part, she had already given up on the play, correctly as it turned out. But how could this be? Twenty-five years in London and all that?

A few days later I rented the movie version of The Woman in Black, and it turned out to be much more of a classic ghost story, devoid of the awkward machinations that had been inserted into the play for whatever reasons. It wasn’t a great ghost story, but it was definitely more enjoyable than the play. Then again, so was going to the DMV.

The ending of the movie in no way resembled the play, although you would recognize the various characters and scenarios in both forms. And so I wondered what had caused them to make so many changes for the stage. Was it possible that here was a book that never should have been made into a play at all, bit was anyway?

The only way to find out, of course, was to read the book. And so a few days after one-clicking it on Amazon I did just that. It’s a skillfully written novella, created in the form of a nineteenth century Gothic novel. There were some parts that were actually a bit chilling, which is especially difficult in a book, where you can’t rely on cheap scares like slamming doors or loud musical chords. The ending, curiously, was neither like the movie nor, thank God, the play. After experiencing The Woman in Black in all three forms I wondered how the author felt about how they had changed her work. I also wondered if the stage version I saw at our local theater was the same as the one in London. In my mind I know it couldn’t possibly be.

Going through my parents belongings last month I found two large boxes filled with copies of Playbill from the  scores of plays they had attended together. And these were just from the 80’s and 90’s. I knew they had been attending the theater since the late ‘40’s. I often told my mom that I much prefer going to the movies than seeing a live play. She thought I was nuts. Admittedly, I too thought I must be a little off to feel this way. That is, until I saw the stage version of The Woman in Black. And I couldn’t even eat popcorn to ease my suffering.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Quiz For a Rainy Day

In most parts of the country, a rainy day is a good excuse for staying indoors. Here in Northern California rain has become such a rare event that you have the opposite reaction: you want to get out into it. And that’s just what I did today.

First I headed up to the marine preserve and climbed the hill to the grove of trees on top. And although there were many trees, and they grew rather close together, they still didn’t form enough of a canopy overhead, and I was soon drenched. And loving it.

On the walk back down the path I looked out over the grey, choppy ocean and then down to the beach below. On it was a group of about twenty seals, nineteen of them seeming to be asleep, and acting as if it was just another day in the sun. But I could tell that they knew it wasn’t, and they were perhaps a little pissed about it. Except for the twentieth seal, a baby who bounced around the beach having a swell time, completely confused by the adults who seemed to want to waste another day just lying around. I remembered having that feeling myself, although it was a long time ago.

I hiked back down to my car and was absolutely drenched when I got there. And so what? I had spent the day hiking through the woods in the rare and glorious rain. Arriving back home I turned on the heater and put on some dry clothes, but the feeling that this was a special day, almost a holiday, wouldn’t leave me. In fact it’s still with me now, as I write this quiz.

It’s simple, really. All of the answers have “rain” or some form of it, in them. Oh, and watch out for the homonyms!

1. The title of this Dylan song is actually not “Everybody Must Get Stoned.”

2. The steelhead is one form of this fish

3. Last track on Eric Clapton’s self-titled 1970 album

4. 1988 movie starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman

5. This song by the Carpenters reached #2 in 1971

6. Prince album, song and movie

7. Considered the most successful of the Beatles tribute groups

8. Comedian and actor whose father Richard was also a comedian and actor

9. TV show about Mary, Queen of Scots that premiered in 2013

10. Dasher and Comet, to name two

11. To delay something, or put off until another time

12. It’s the last song on the Who’s Quadrophenia


1. “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”
2. Rainbow trout
3. “Let It Rain”
4. Rain Man
5. “Rainy Days and Mondays”
6. Purple Rain
7. Rain
8. Rain Pryor
9. Reign
10. Reindeer
11. Take a rain check
12. “Love, Reign o’er Me”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


When I was in Kenya, the question I was most often asked by the people living there was about prejudice. “What is the prejudice like in America?” they’d wonder. And each time the question caught me off guard, and grasping for a proper answer. For how could I, a middle-class white man, possibly speak for black Americans who faced the ugly truth of prejudice each day of their lives? I couldn’t, and so eventually I stopped trying.

Which is not to say that being white automatically excuses a person from at least being aware of the prejudice around him. We might not experience it first hand, but at least we can make an effort to notice it. I’m long enough in the tooth to have lived during a time when drinking fountains, at least in some parts of the country, were labelled “white” and “colored,” and when black actors rarely were permitted to portray anything more than maids and butlers. 

Some people claim that prejudice has all but disappeared from the United States. After all, we have a black president. (And look how respectfully he is treated.) My gut feeling is that things may have improved over the last hundred years or so, but I would temper that opinion with the gnawing concern that I can never be sure how much of that prejudice has disappeared, and how much has been driven underground. And again, as a white man, how could I possibly know?

During my recent stay in Florida I started each day with a two-mile walk. It was a mile to the grocery store on Tampa Road, so that became my usual early-morning destination, allowing me to purchase the day’s food while at the same time getting a bit of exercise.

I followed this routine throughout the hellishly hot days of August, and then well into September. It was after Labor Day that I began to notice something. Suddenly, on the walk home from the store, I was passing a lot of school-age children. Some were on bikes and some were walking. The reason for their presence was no mystery, as it was obvious that the dreaded day had come for these kids, and school was back in session.

The kids were of elementary school age, freshly scrubbed and loaded down with their new school supplies. I smiled at some of them, as was befitting the friendly old man I apparently have become, and occasionally got out of the way as an oncoming caravan of three, four, five bicycles approached me on the sidewalk. It was about mid-September, when I had been observing these kids for about two weeks, that I began to notice something curious.

Not all of the children smiled back at me, or said hello—not by a long shot. But I became aware that those who did were almost always white. They appeared happy, carefree and with hardly a care in the world. They smiled and looked me right in the eye. Conversely, when a black child walked or rode by they invariably averted my gaze and looked the other way. When I did happen to catch their eye, more often than not I saw worry, and sometimes even fear. 

Although barely nine or ten years old, it was obvious that these kids had already discovered, or been taught, something.  They had been warned by someone, and were self-aware enough to know that they were perceived by many as being somehow “different.” At the very least each black child was cautious, and, in one so young, it was a heart-breaking thing to see.

So was what I saw, or thought I saw, in their eyes actually there, or was I simply projecting in some manner? And were a few dozen kids a large enough sample for me to come to the conclusions that I automatically reached? If so, and these kids are already victims of even a mild form of prejudice, then I know this is something that many of them will now be carrying with them until the turn of the next century, and even beyond. Or maybe it really was all in my imagination. Maybe I hadn’t seen anything in their eyes at all.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

An Angel Quiz

Say, are you enjoying my new-fangled quizzes where all of the answers contain the same word? Well, that's too bad, because I sure am, and really, isn't my personal enjoyment what it's all about? Ahem. Anyway, in today's most recent collection of useless information all of the answers contain the word "angel" or some variation of.

Did you know that over half of all Americans actually believe that angels exist? And I'm not talking about the "angel" who donates to your charity or stops to help you fix a flat. I mean honest-to-god wing-flapping invisible spooks who protect you from walking into traffic or betting on the Raiders. Explains quite a bit about the state of things, huh? OK, let's begin.

1. Hit song for Merrilee Rush and Juice Newton
2. John Prine penned this Bonnie Raitt hit.
3. 1969 movie starring Andy Griffith
4. American illusionist, magician and mindfreak
5. Jim Rockford's weaselly pal
6. Polyester pants popular in the 1980's
7. Type of sponge cake
8. Hit song for Bobby Vee
9. One of racing's all-time leading jockeys
10. Phencyclidine (PCP)
11. It plunges 2,648 feet
12. Sequel starring Tom Hanks
13. They blew one to the A's yesterday.
14. 1980 Sidney Sheldon novel
15. Motorcycle club founded in 1948
16. 1951 baseball movie
17. Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play
18. David Boreanaz played him on Buffy
19. Rich guy who provides capital for a start-up company
20. It sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay
21. Original version of this Christmas carol appeared in 1739
22. 1953 song or 2001 movie
23. American voice actor who played Hawkman
24. Children's book published in 1946
25. U.S. Navy's flying aerobatic team


1. Angel of the Morning
2. Angel from Montgomery
3. Angel in My Pocket
4. Criss Angel
5. Evelyn "Angel" Martin
6. Angel Flights
7. Angel food cake
8. Devil or Angel
9. Angel Cordero
10. Angel Dust
11. Angel Falls
12. Angels and Demons
13. Los Angeles Angels
14. Rage of Angels
15. Hell's Angels
16. Angels in the Outfield
17. Angels in America
18. Angel or Angelus
19. Angel investor
20. Angel Island
21. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
22. Angel Eyes
23. Jack Angel
24. The Littlest Angel
25. The Blue Angels

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Guano a Place

There's a fascinating article in the current issue of Smithsonian all about...the potato. Scoff if you will, but did you know that up until the lowly spud was introduced to Europe the continent was never quite able to feed itself, and the standard of living was much like you might find in a third world country? And also, the potato was originally poisonous and had to be eaten with clay to neutralize the toxins, a trick that people learned from watching the animals? And during the agricultural boom brought on by the growth of the potato's popularity, Europe imported tons and tons of bird poop? Wait, come back.

You probably think of bats when you hear the word "guano," but in fact the word is derived from the South American "wano," meaning "dung." Guano can refer to the excrement of bats, seabirds or seals. In Peru there are many coastal areas with high, inaccessible cliffs, as well as secluded islands, which allow tremendous numbers of seabirds to nest undisturbed by people. And where there are seabirds...

Just off the coast of Peru lie the Chincha Islands. Peru began exporting the guano deposits found there in 1840. Guano is rich in phosphorus and nitrogen, is odorless and so makes an excellent fertilizer. In some places on the islands the guano was over 150 feet deep. And that, my friends, is a lot of bird poop.

Over the next few decades Peru exported about 13 million tons of guano from the Chincha Islands. At one point it accounted for 60% of the revenue for the Peruvian government. In 1864, as further proof that people will fight over just about anything, Spain took control of the Chincha Islands, and with it much of the Peruvian guano trade, igniting the Chincha Islands War. The war would last until 1866, when Spain was finally sent packing. As with most natural resources, the guano of the Chincha Islands was quickly used up, and the supply was mostly exhausted by 1874.

You already knew that wars have been fought over many things including land, gold, slaves, rubber and oil. And now to that list you can add piles and piles of goopy bird poop. Enjoy your breakfast.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Grandpa Leonard Does It Again

I was going to say this happened in the grocery store, but that’s not exactly honest. In truth, I was in the food aisle of the dollar store, and she had now crossed my path for the third time. She was young, perhaps in her mid-twenties, and quite attractive. I watched as she reached up for a box of something--I never knew what-- on the top shelf, wondering if she would be able to reach it. And if she couldn’t I was standing by, ready and able to use my no more than average height to aid this damsel in distress.

At first it looked like she was not going to need my chivalrous assistance, but then three boxes came tumbling down on her. I instinctively reached out to catch them, missed them all, but valiantly bent down to retrieve the boxes. I handed her one and returned the others to the top shelf.

By now the girl, slightly embarrassed, was laughing and apologizing. I laughed along with her, all the while thinking of something clever to say. Make it witty! I commanded myself. What I said was this:

“Boy, you’d never make it on The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Now, this was a pretty good line and I’ll explain why, because some of you younger men need to hear this. The natural instinct for many men is to rush in, filled with faux concern. Are you alright? they’ll fawn, even though she obviously is fine. Or they’ll move right in with a compliment. A pretty girl like you should have someone getting those things for you, or some such drivel.

My line was good because, and it would do you young fellows well to remember this, instead of gushing with compliments she was no doubt used to, and perhaps weary of, I gently teased her. I implied that she was clumsy. It’s a good approach, and in addition the comment itself was pretty slick for the spur of the moment.

Now, this is why it was a good line but not a great line, and I suspect you’ve already figured this out. Two seconds after I spoke I wanted to take back my words and do some quick editing. As mildly clever as my line was, I couldn’t help but sense that this fresh, young girl, decades my junior, was now thinking, Who the fuck is Ed Sullivan?

You see, it would have been a great line if this incident had taken place in, say, 1967, but sadly it did not. I later tortured myself by recognizing what a simple matter it would have been to replace The Ed Sullivan Show with perhaps a program that hadn’t been off the air since Nixon’s first term. I could have said, Boy, you’d never make it on America’s Got Talent, or even, I wouldn’t want to see that on YouTube. But no, I had to mention a guy who had already been long dead before she was even born.
Ah well, I thought, driving away consuming my dollar store Diet Coke and peanut butter-filled pretzels. I suppose it could have been even worse. I might have said, Boy, you’d never make it on Major Bowes.

One of these days I really must update my references.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Scraps: Going Postal

This scrap is made up mostly of an article about the price of a postage stamp. More specifically, it’s about a speech presented by the head of the letter carriers union expressing his hope that President Eisenhower “will have the courage” to raise the cost of a stamp…from three cents to four cents.

At first we might laugh at all this commotion over a penny, but then when you think about it that’s a cost increase of 33%, a sizable jump. Why, if they raised the price of a stamp today by the same percentage, it would jump from forty-nine cents to sixty-five cents. You’d be able to hear the caterwauling for miles. And I have to make a confession here. I had to look up the current price of a stamp. I was pretty sure it was still forty-six cents.

Another humorous aspect of this article is the less than subtle “baiting” of President Eisenhower, implying that if he doesn’t raise the price of a stamp by a penny he is somehow lacking in courage. Eisenhower, as Supreme Commander in Europe, seemed to have had enough courage in World War II to defeat Hitler, but apparently the thought of increasing the price of a stamp by a penny was enough to turn him into a quivering pile of Jell-O.

The price of a first-class postage stamp was eventually raised to four cents in 1958, somewhere near the middle of Ike’s second term. The cost of a stamp has increased steadily since then, with the accompanying and predictable cries of outrage each and every time. To me, though, the fact that I could put this old newspaper scrap into an envelope and have it hand-delivered to a friend three thousand miles away, for about the price of two slurps of a Starbuck’s Crappuccino, is remarkable.

Incidentally, just below the article about the cost of a stamp is a short article titled “Decides on Discretion.” It tells of a man who, while out hunting for squirrels, spotted a lion in the woods outside of Cincinnati. At first he decided he was going to go after it with his squirrel-hunting gun. After some thought, however, he changed his mind, ran home and called the police. There is no further information on the fate of the lion, if indeed there ever was one. The article does make it a point to mention, however, that the squirrel hunter had been deemed, “as sober as a judge.”

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Scraps: Now Showing

Even if the date had not been there at the top of the page, it would have been an easy matter to approximate, and perhaps even pinpoint, the day when this scrap was printed. It’s a page of movie advertisements, and it would be fairly simple to research the release date of each film. As it turns out, the date is there, and that date is December 31, 1951.

Not all of the movie titles are known to me. Sure, I’ve heard of My Favorite Spy and Quo Vadis, but others are only vaguely familiar and some are completely unknown. I couldn’t have told you who starred in The Magic Carpet, Darling How Could You! or Double Dynamite, or what they might be about.

And yet, while I may not recognize some of the titles of these films, I certainly know the names of nearly all of the major movie stars appearing in them. There’s Gary Cooper, whose Distant Drums was playing at both the Warner Theatre on Broadway and the Fox in Brooklyn. And if you weren’t a Gary Cooper fan, that didn’t seem to be a problem at all. You could also choose from movies featuring such future legends as Bob, Hope, Lucille Ball, Hedy Lamarr, Robert Talylor Doris Day, Danny Thomas, Claudette Colbert, Groucho Marx, Frank Sinatra and Jane Russell.

As far as I can tell, nearly every artist mentioned on this discolored scrap of newspaper is now dead, but there is at least one exception. On New Year’s Eve, 1951 not only could you see the comedy Double Dynamite at the Paramount in Times Square, starring Groucho Marx and Jane Russell, but there was also a live stage show which included the Five DeMarco Sisters, the Four Step Brothers and comedian Joey Adams. Headlining the show was a singer who is not only still alive today, but who, at the age of 88, just released his latest album. And that singer is Tony Bennett!

Or perhaps, rather than a live show, you would have preferred to be one of the first on your block to see the epic Quo Vadis. And now, finally, you could. New Year’s Day, 1952 offered the first showing of Quo Vadis where there was no reserved seating. Of course, that still didn’t come cheap. Ticket prices ranged from ninety-five cents to a dollar eighty. 

You know, even that seems kind of high to me. After all, ten years after the publication of this scrap I was still paying only twenty-five cents to go to the movies on Saturday mornings. Then again, we were kids, and we didn’t care about watching Quo Vadis. We wanted to see Gorgo.
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