Thursday, December 31, 2009

Old Father Time

Do you remember the song "Old Father Time Keeps Pickin' My Pocket"?  Neither do I.

I'm not going to reveal whose birthday it is today, to avoid clogging the world's telecommunications systems with phone calls, e-mail, etc.  I am, however, keeping one line open so that Michaelle Jean can get through with the Order of Canada appointment.

Does it seem to you that Capricorn is the most undervalued astrological sign?  Here's today's reading from the stars:  "You are stolid and under the illusion that you are surefooted as you leap from career crag to crag.  You're in a rut, use your nut, get off your butt.  Capricornians with whom you share this sign:  Howdy Doody and Richard Nixon."  

My thanks to the Sage of Lantzville for recalling these most appropriate Ogden Nash lines: 

Come, children, gather 'round my knee,
Something is about to be.

Tonight's December Thirty-First,
Something is about to burst.

The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.

Hark!  It's midnight, children dear.
Duck!  Here comes another year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Best, The Woist

Turner Classic Movies is, at this moment, screening ""Deadline USA," which has Humphrey Bogart as a newspaper editor and Ethel Barrymore in the Katherine Graham role as publisher. It is one of the films in which Bogart got to wear a bowtie, which he seemed always to enjoy.

But that is a digression, for what I have come to discourse upon are end-of-the-year best and worst lists.  Everyone in the trade, it seems, compiles them:  best and worst movies, best and worst styles, best and worst CDs, best and worst wurst.  It has become obligatory, and that is why I am not going to do it.

The best of these end-of-year roundups was Esquire's Dubious Achievement Awards, which grew increasingly rude and irreverent; but, sadly, the magazine has given up this noble cause.

Wait a second--just got a flash from Editor Bogart, says I have to do some kind of end-of-year list.  Okay, so there were some things to applaud in 2009, including another predictably unpredictable CFL season (with a continuing fashion statement by Saskatchewan Roughriders fans); Richard Thompson's charming comic strip, "Cul de Sac"; the publication of "Endpoint," last poems by the irreplaceable John Updike; Meryl Streep's wonderful performance as Julia Child; the successful saving of Victoria's CHEK-TV by the station's employees; PJ Perry's continuing saxology; Vaughan Palmer's puckish "Voice of BC"; Bobby Flay on the Food Network; President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize; and Litehouse Pear-Gorgonzola vinaigrette.

On the downside, we give low marks to Olympic 2010 religious fervor; the use of "impact" as a verb; the relentless (and often inappropriately logged) promos on CBC Radio 2; the slavish use of "Mr." before names in the news, even when identifying axe murderers; the push to have "actor" serve both male and female performers (think of the Academy Awards:  "And now, the award for best actor who happens to be female"); "reality" television, in all its ugly forms; increasingly wacky recipes (sardine ice cream); and the disappearance of Man-Size (or Big Nose) Kleenex.  I was going to add political chicanery, but that is so forever. 

Okay, did it, Bowtie Bogey.  But now on to what we at this desk consider the biggest story of the year:  the Grammy Award to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for Best Musical Performance by a Sitting World Leader.  Steve ("Leave it to Steve") pulled it off with his rendition of "With a Little Help from My Similarly Ideologically Inclined Friends." 

We spoke to him backstage at the Awards Gala, and he said, "I wanted to show that I am every bit as hip, possibly hipper, than Mr. Iggy Pop." 

"Wow," we said, "this may be the biggest triumph for a world leader since Harry Truman played the Missouri Waltz and Lauren Bacall sat on the piano."

"Well," said Steve, "I could have done that.  I could have had Rona Ambrose or Bev Oda or even John Baird sit on the piano, but my inspiration comes from a later pianistic president.  I refer, of course, to Dick '88 Keys' Nixon, the Thelonious Monk of the White House."  

"Did he have big feet and wear funny hats?"

"Huh?  Listen, I love this, but you have to excuse me.  I have to call the Governor-General. Hello, Michaelle?  Okay if I call you Mickey?  Listen, let's do the pro thing again.  You know, the prorogue?  Cool!  Dedicating my next number to you:  'Little White Lies.'  Peter Mackay on bass, Jason Kenney on drums, Peter van Loan on nose flute.  Hit it, guys!"

"The moon was all aglow
   And heaven was in your eyes
   The night that I told you
   Those little white lies."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I Would Prefer Not To

Whenever I feel I should post an entry, but fail so to do, I think of Bartleby.  Bartleby the Scrivener, as he is usually called, the curious character at the centre of an 1853 story ("A Story of Wall Street") by Herman Melville.  

Bartleby is a copyist in a Manhattan law office--copyists being essential in a pre-Xerox age.  But whenever Bartleby is given an assignment, a brief to copy, he responds "I would prefer not to."  

This is, in fact, all we ever hear from Bartleby, and that he continues to hold his job is a puzzlement. (We have all known people who remained employed while seeming to do nothing, but few have been as up-front about it as Bartleby.)

Herman Melville, best known for "Moby-Dick" (of which Harold Ross famously asked "Is Moby-Dick the man or the whale?") was both the most transparent and most enigmatic of writers, depending on which page you're on.

I asked Bartleby if he would fill in for me, while I recover from a surfeit of Yuletide cheer, but he responded as usual:  "I prefer not to."

And that is why there is no entry today.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Ten Commandments Lite

A British priest--Tim Jones, of the parish of St. Lawrence and St. Hilda in York--told his flock that stealing is not only okay, but recommended.  "My advice, as a Christian priest," said Father Jones, "is to shoplift."

The clerical Fagin was addressing, primarily, people in need, and suggested that his followers should pilfer not "from small family businesses, but from large national businesses." Like the church (editorial note).

I am not making this up.  But I am grateful to Fr. Tim-Bit for loosening the sanctions Moses carted down from the mountain.  Now that we have scuppered "Thou shalt not steal," we could move on to "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife--unless she is a real babe."  

Suggestions for further deviations will, I'm sure, be welcomed.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

Good evening, and a merry Christmas to all those out shopping at 24-hour service stations. Jumper cables make a lovely gift.

For what seems to have been a very long time, I have been cobbling together a story about an Anglican priest. What follows is an excerpt from an early passage.  The priest is young and naive and earnest, and has his first parish in a small Prairie city.  The period is the late 1930s.

     Then it was Christmas eve, a half-hour until midnight, the people of St. John's coming through the snow to Holy Communion.  The gravedigger's wife and mother and red-headed children filled the front pew.  In rows behind them sat Major Tully; Mr. Bloor, the beekeeper, and his son; the McCauley sisters; a row of youngsters confirmed by the Bishop that spring; the Nortons (Harry in a pool table-green shirt); a middle-aged man pushing a nut-colored woman in a wheel chair; the deeply spiritual Mrs. Broughton, pale and soignee in a black, fitted coat, with her husband, the alderman (and would-be mayor) beside her, chewing gum and looking uncomfortable; a trio of college boys, home for the holidays, with their dates, the boys a little drunk, mickeys bulging in the pockets of their tweed coats, the girls candy-pink and fuzzy in angora mittens and tams; Mrs. Duggan, with her distressingly large goiter; a few uniformed men from the RCAF base; a small, grey man needing a shave, slumped in a dark corner; and many other persons I had not seen before and might not see again.  At midnight the pews were full, the candles lit, the prayer book and hymnal racks empty, and the sidesmen seated on Sunday school chairs by the doors to the narthex.

     Standing behind the choir, I spoke the words "Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given."  Miss Williston, our rather shrill lead soprano, began the opening carol, and the crucifer--big, 16-year-old George Starkey, who had not been quite the same since being kicked in the head by a horse--led us down the aisle. 

     It is right, I thought, to be here tonight--not in a metropolitan cathedral of stained glass and incense, but in this frame and stucco church set where the sidewalks have given way to weeds and the kneeling people are red-faced, rough-palmed diggers in soil and keepers of cattle.  I thanked God for sending me here.

     "...Christ's blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.  The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee..."  I moved along the altar rail of communicants, their heads bowed, hands extended, holding the silver chalice to their lips, drawing a white, cross-embossed linen cloth across the cup's rim.  "...preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life."  I thought of writing to Mother, perhaps before going to bed, to tell her I had celebrated this first Christmas eucharist with the chalice she had given me.  "Drink this in remembrance..." the last person was before me, the small, grey man, collar buttoned to his bristly neck, who had sat in shadows through the service "...that Christ's blood was shed for thee, and be thankful."

     The last hands had been shaken at the steps; even the choristers had gone, putting away their cassocks and mortarboards and stepping out into the snow, now flaking in lemon light. There were puddles in the narthex where galoshes had stood.  The server had snuffed the candles, the sidesmen had counted the collection (Christmas offertory, traditionally a gift to the priest--I would have to find some good way to use it) and I was alone.

     I walked back to the white and gold draped altar and looked around me.  What was I looking for?  Then I knew.  The silver chalice.  It was gone.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Chestnut Roasting

For several years, at the arrival of each new season, Vancouver's Four Seasons Hotel sent whimsical gifts to media folk.  The first gift, at around this time of year, was a bag of chestnuts (probably the idea of clever Dunc Holmes) with instructions for roasting.  Not all the recipients read the instructions, or read them upside down after an evening of wassailing, with the result that two morning deejays and one gossip columnist were felled by exploding chestnuts, and had to be revived with lashings of rum-filled eggnog.  

But, as Wass would have said, that is not the item.  The item involves "The Christmas Song," which, as you all know (possibly know too well) begins "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire."

The song was written by Bob Wells (lyrics) and Mel Torme (music) in the middle of a blistering Los Angeles summer.  Torme had come to Wells's digs for a round of tennis, and while waiting for his friend to change into tennis whites, saw--well, let Mel tell it:  "I saw a spiral pad on his piano with four lines written in pencil:  'Chestnuts roasting...Jack Frost nipping...Yuletide carols...Folks dressed up like Eskimos.'  Bob didn't think he was writing a song lyric.  He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter, he could cool off.  Forty minutes later that song was written."

"There's a song for you, Mel," said Wells.  "Naw," said Torme, "let's take it over to Nat."

That was 1944.  Torme didn't record the song himself for another ten years.  Since then, of course, it has been recorded by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Alvin and the Chipmunks.

In 1944, the term "Eskimos" was acceptable (except to the people so designated).  No one has thought to alter the original lyrics, but try this:

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
  All the Christmas candles lit.
    Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
  Folks dressed up like Inuit."

You know where to send the royalties.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Steve Goes Green

Prime Minister Stephen Harper surprised world leaders at Christiansborg Palace, at a dinner given by Queen Margrethe II, by sitting at the piano and delivering a medley of "green songs."

"Hi, your Royal Highness and all you commoners," he began.  "It's great to be here in Copenhagen.  I chew your snuff all the time.  'Snuff said?  Ha ha, only kidding folks.  I don't even chew Juicy Fruit, name makes me uncomfortable.

"But seriously, fellow giants of the global stage, I want to say how thrilled I am on behalf of my fellow Canadians to accept the award of Fossil of the Year.  But you know, we are pretty green in Canada.  Look at me--green tie, green socks, I'm even wearing green boxers.  And to show how green we are, I'm going to warble a medley of green songs, beginning with the Oscar-wining 'Evergreen,' by Barbra Tarsand.  Ha ha, I mean Streisand.

"Then I'll move on to 'Green, Green,' 'Green Eyes,' 'Greensleeves,' and close with one I hope you'll all join me on, because it may be the one thing on which we all agree:  'It's Not Easy Being Green'."

President Barack Obama, speaking for other delegates, looked at his watch and said, "Wow, is it that time already?"

In other news, two candidates for appointment to federal cabinet ministers' posts in Ottawa were rejected for having scored too high on I.Q. tests. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Celebration of the Orange

Hands up, all who remember the often musty oranges we were given at Sunday School Christmas concerts, along with sticky hard candies and potentially toxic nuts, after we had paraded in our bathrobes as the Three Kings of Orient.

Despite that memory, I find this a fine time--indeed, the best time--of year for oranges.  The wonderful Cara Cara oranges (named for Hacienda de Cara Cara in Valencia, Venezuela) have just arrived, and Tom, the Emperor of Citrus Fruits at the Burnwood Drive IGA Marketplace, assures me that the Carmenesque blood oranges are but two weeks away.  I can hardly wait.

If you haven't discovered the Cara Cara orange, you will, I think, be surprised and delighted when you slice into it and find the richest, sunniest, most vibrant orange you have ever seen. This wondrous orange may be, it is posited, a cross of Washington and Brazilian varieties.  As for the blood, what gives it a distinctive deep burgundy color is the pigment anthocyanin, more common to flowers than to fruit.  

Some years ago, John McPhee wrote a book called, simply, "Oranges."  One reviewer wrote "You may come to the end of it and say to yourself, 'But I can't have read a whole book about oranges!'  But the chances are you will have done so...It's a delicious book."

And that's the news 'til now, from the produce section.  As soon as the bloods arrive, I will spend happy weeks squeezing together the juices of Cara Caras, bloods, and red grapefruit. Ambrosia!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Gate Crasher Nabbed at White House

The White House confirmed today that thanks to heightened security measures, another gate crasher has been apprehended.  The following report comes from Sgt. Beeps McGonigal:

"Suspect was spotted descending from fireplace in midst of White House Christmas party.  Claimed to have descended through chimney.  'Hey,' I said, 'are you on the guest list?'

"'I should be,' he said.  'Look, I have this handwritten note, asking me to come.  Said there would be cookies and milk waiting for me.'

"Loony, I thought.  Rotund man of indeterminate age, wearing red suit.  Bushy white beard, thought to be fake, until I attempted to remove it.  Carrying large bag, possibly filled with weapons of mass destruction.  'Okay, fella,' I said.  'Whatcha got in that bag?'

"'Why, gifts, of course,' he said.  'Likely story,' I snapped.  'No, no,' he said,  'look.  Here's a garden trowel and a package of heirloom tomato seeds for the First Lady, Mo'Def CDs for the little girls, a chewy toy for Bo, and a Lakers tee-shirt for the President.  Plus a little surprise.'  

"'Uh-huh.  And what might that be, Pops?'

"'Glenn Beck's hairpiece.'

"'Okay, I figure we've heard enough.  I'm taking you in, Buster.'

"'But what about my reindeer?'

"'Your what?'

"'Up on the the roof.  Pawing around.'

"'Um.  Finster, you go up on the roof.  Maybe you should take a shovel.'

"Finster asked, 'Whatcha gonna do with the little fat guy, Sarge?'

"'Put him down in the holding cell.  Along with that big rabbit we caught with a basket of eggs."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Spelling, Poltergeist

I was alarmed to see, reading a recent entry, that the Spelling Poltergeist had been at its mischievous pranks, changing the word "raced" to "raised."

You know the Spelling Poltergeist?  This is the nasty-humored spirit that pulls the well-known word out from one, leaving a laughable misspelling in its place.  F. Scott Fitzgerald was a favorite target of the relentless Spelling Poltergeist.  Fitzgerald was said to write to friends spelling their names three different ways, all wrong, on the same page.  This did not prevent him from becoming one of the twentieth century's most admired authors, creator of "The Grate Gatsby" and "Tender is the  Nite."

One is amazed that the Spelling Poltergeist does not swoop down on the now widely televised spelling bees, and one can only conclude that the words are too difficult for any but precocious nine-year-olds.  The persons who compile the list of words to be spelled enjoy coming up with many that no one, including the examiners, have ever heard.  "Pogamoggan," for example. Contestants, to buy a little time while running the alphabet through their tiny but brilliant heads, often ask the examiner to use the word in a sentence.  This is a challenge for the examiner, who frequently has no idea what the word means, and is reduced to ad libing something like "Uh..I left my pogamoggan in the garage."

The Spelling Poltergeist is a constant threat to the writer, but I am determined to stand firm against its depredations.  I will triumph, I'm convinced, because as everyone knows, I am normily a flowless spieler.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Anyone Can Whistle"--Stephen Sondheim

I was stunned to discover that  my whistling teakettle had stopped whistling.  "What is the problem, dear kitchen appliance?" I whispered.  "What has happened to your sunny disposition, your joie de vivre, your dedication to melody?"

No answer.

I should have known something was wrong.  For several mornings, the whistle had grown more subdued, ending, finally, in a pathetic "Pfft."

The Home Hardware Therapist would have the answer, I was sure, so I wrapped the kettle in a tea cosy and raised off to my neighborhood store.

The therapist was in his usual place, between the plungers and the plumber's snakes.  He could see at once that my kettle was in distress.  "Maybe," he said, running his hands over the kettle's glossy surface, "it's the tea you're making.  Or perhaps it's the music you're playing in the morning.  What have you been listening to?"

I had to confess that I had switched from my usual mix of Count Basie and Maria Callas to a heavy metal band called the Chocolate Brassiere Strap.

"Ah," the therapist nodded knowingly, "there's your problem:  heavy metal.  Too stressful, too intense, for this fine and delicate kettle.  Try some string quartets--Mozart, Debussy, not Shostakovich.  And you might switch to Moroccan mint tea."

I am delighted to report that the therapist's remedy worked!  Within days, my teakettle was not only whistling again, but whistling better than ever!  Whistling challenging pieces from the Paganini caprices to Charlie Parker's "Scrapple from the Apple"!

And, a wonderful and unexpected blessing:  my coffee percolator has joined in, providing a solid bass line for numbers like "C Jam Blues".  

Stephen Sondheim may say anyone can whistle, but not everyone can whistle like my teakettle, not everyone can perc like my coffee pot.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Never Coming to a Theatre Near You

For years I have had running thru the Cineplex of my mind a number of films that should be made, or should have been made, but weren't and probably won't be.  To begin, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara should have played LBJ and Lady Bird in "Pedernales Romance."  Okay, so the physical resemblances aren't great, but they would have brought it off.  My favorite scene:  LBJ asking Sarah Vaughan to dance, after a performance at the White House, and her pianist, wondering what the appropriate thing for him might be, deciding to dance with Lady Bird.

At a certain time, James Garner would have been perfect for a Jack Teagarden biopic, possibly called "Big T," which was the trombonist-singer's nickname.

And it's time for another run at the Charlie Parker story.  Forest Whitaker played Parker in Clint Eastwood's "Bird," and Whitaker is a very good actor, but the performer who could really project Parker's great and powerful and perhaps even frightening charisma is Lenny Henry, best known for British TV's "Chef."  We're ready for "Bird Lives."

At least three of Dashiell Hammett's novels were turned into successful films--"The Maltese Falcon," "The Glass Key," "The Thin Man"--but no one, so far as I know, has adapted "Red Harvest" for the screen.  There was one Coen Brothers film that seemed to parallel the story, but what we really want to see is Hammett's unnamed Continental Op, described, in "The Big Knockover" (another terrific story) as "the biggest-hearted dick in San Francisco.  This little fat guy will do anything for anybody, if only he can send 'em over for life in the end."  The role Danny DeVito was born to play.

Another film ready for a re-make is "Pete Kelly's Blues."  I suggested to Dal Richards that Diana Krall would be right for the Peggy Lee role.  "That's true," said Dal, "but who would play Pete Kelly?"  "How about you, Dal?" I said.  "Are you free?"  "I'm not free," said Dal, "but I'm cheap."

And finally--I think--the ideal pair to play Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald would be Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  Seriously.  Think about it.  

I'm ready with treatments for all these projects.  Major studios may reach me thru my agent.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"The Lower and Poorer Sort"

Henry Fielding, author of "Tom Jones," noted "One reason why many writers have totally failed in describing the manners of upper life may possibly be, that in reality, they know nothing of it. The bad trade of writing is generally entered upon by the lower and poorer sort, as it is a trade which many think requires no kind of store to set up with." 

Gotta love it.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

St. Nicholas Day

This is the feast day of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (Asia Minor, today's Turkey) in the early fourth century, and remembered today as the patron saint of Russia, Aberdeen, children, merchants, sailors, travelers, parish clerks, scholars, pawnbrokers, and thieves.

It was the Dutch who, to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas and his kindness to children, began the tradition of giving presents to children on his day.  They brought the custom to the New World, and Sant Nikolaas soon became Santa Claus.

And so, we wish a splendid day to all Hollanders, Russians, Aberdeenians, children, merchants, sailors, travelers, parish clerks, scholars, pawnbrokers, and thieves.  I am now searching around for something I can pawn.  Or steal.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Steve Sings Again

Hi there, music fans!  This is your ole buddy Steverino, tinkling the ivories at the Jade Dragon Lounge in Hong Kong.  To quote longtime Conservative supporter Irving Berlin, "I know a fine way/to treat a Steinway."

Did I hear someone say, "Play it again, Steve"?  Well, we're gonna get the show going tonight with a Hoagy Carmichael classic, appropriate to my visit.  It's Hoagy's "Hong Kong Blues." Sorry if any of the lyrics offend.  This song was written before the era of political correctness, which as far as I know has not yet reached Alberta.  Political correctness--kind of an NDP thing, really.  You know what my friend Jack Layton says NDP stands for?  "No Ditzy Prime Ministers."  Ha ha, that's rich.  Jack is such a card.  Got any plans for your next career, Jack? Okay, here we go.  Music, maestro, please.

"This is the story of a very unfortunate colored man
  Who got stranded down in old Hong Kong.
  He got twenty years privilege taken away from him
  When he kicked old Buddha's gong."

Funny, Bacall loved it in "To Have and Have Not."  Well, moving right along, I've got a tune here for my old pal Iggy.  I was going to do "Harvard Blues"--you know, "I don't keep no dogs or women in my room"--but being as we're here, I thought this Frank Loesser number might be more apropos.  Comin' at you, Ig:

"I'd like to get you
 On a slow boat to China...."

Wait a second, how did Bob Rae get in here?  Okay, Bob, you just keep that up.  We'll send Mike Duffy over to sit on you.  

"...out on the briny,
  The moon big and shiny...."

Wow, that's the first time I've been pelted with pork dumplings.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Chicken a la Nose Candy

News item:  Man taken from plane in Guatemala and arrested, when found to be carrying a roasted chicken stuffed with several thousand dollars worth of cocaine.

Man says he got the recipe from Bon Appetit and his lawyer claims it is an old family favorite, but prosecutors sniffed at these stories.  The question now:  Is it safe to consume the chicken? Arresting officers need to know.  Right away!

Meanwhile, we are open to receiving your innovative recipes for new ways of dressing up traditional fare.  

Christmas Singalong

Disheartened by the latest Yuletide heavy hip-hop hit, "We Three Dudes of Orient Are," I ask: where are the grand old, traditional Christmas songs, those familiar melodies that speak to the heart? 

I'm thinking of "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," a particular favorite of orthodontists.  And "I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus," very big with lawyers.  How about Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," a song that brilliantly encapsulates the spirit of acquisitiveness? 

And then, my personal favorite, a seasonal song steeped in beauty:  Yogi Jorgensen's "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas."  Perhaps Bob Dylan will cover it.

And now, must run.  The Mistletoe Twins, Holly and Ivy, are going to record my offering for the season:  "Let's Put the X Back in Xmas."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Professional Gift Certificates

Gift certificates are always appreciated, especially those to Wines-R-Us, but some fear they may be considered--well--lacking in imagination.

If you are one of these, take heart!  This Christmas, we are proud to introduce the Professional Gift Certificate Collection!

Think what joy you would bring to those near and dear to you with one of these:

* The Orthodontist's Christmas Smile:  A gift certificate for one root canal.

* Strictly Legal:  A gift certificate good for one law suit.

* Accountant Angels:  Professional help for your Canada Revenue tax audit.

* Lovely Liposuction:  'Tis better to lose than to gain.

* Degree Delight:  Good for one honorary doctoral degree, university of your choice.

Our family has embraced this new concept in gift-giving.  In fact, my wife has already revealed her gift certificate for me:  ten hours of basic instruction at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Dreaded Christmas Letter

I'm terribly sorry, I haven't had time to prepare anything today.  I've been working on my annual Christmas letter, my one-communication-fits-all.  As usual, I will type it single-spaced on a manual with a faded ribbon and then run off copies on a 1928 ink-smearing Gestetner, to make it as illegible as possible.  Hey, it's traditional.

I'm sure you, too, love receiving letters like these at Christmas.  However, I often find  myself sympathizing with their writers.  Especially those who have committed themselves to composing their Yuletide letters in rhyme.

As you know, these letters are commonly a wrap-up of the year's events--who graduated, who had liposuction, who came out of the closet--that sort of thing.

Well, I think, it must be very difficult for people when they have news to relate that is less than cheery.  Allow me to quote from a letter I received last December: 

"Did you hear of the investigation?
  Frank had to leave the force.
  When we were near starvation
  We barbecued his horse.
  Then we tried a separation,
   But settled on divorce.
   We hope your celebration 
   Is untarnished by remorse."

Good luck with your Christmas letters.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Are You Ready for a Throwdown?

So there I was in my kitchen preparing la specialite de la maison:  a peanut butter and cheese sandwich.  Suddenly, the door was flung open, and I heard a familiar New York voice cry, "I'm here to challenge you to a peanut butter and cheese throwdown!"  

Yes, it was Bobby Flay, looking like James Cagney's grandson, and accompanied by his equally daunting assistants, Stephanie and Miriam.  What could I say?  I said, "Uh--okay."

"Great," he said.  "What kind of peanut butter are you using?"

"My usual, " I said.  "Adams Crunchy."

"Sounds terrific," he said, "but I am roasting and grinding my own specially harvested peanuts. And, for an extra dash, I am adding macadamias, cashews, and the rare Nepalese Nugget, grown only in the Himalayan mountain tops.  Whaddya got for cheese?"

"A sharp, extra old cheddar from Armstrong."

"Yeah, that's good, all right.  Adding anything to it?"

"Maybe a little mayo.  Couple of pickles."

"Uh-huh.  Well I'm using this yak's milk cheese from Mongolia.  Then I'm spreading on my own beet root aioli, and for a little punch, some minced poblano and habanera peppers.  It all goes together on this poppy seed challah, which Miriam and Stephanie baked this morning. Whaddya got to drink with that?"

"I usually like a glass of milk."

"Very traditional, and I commend you for that, but I think I'll make my Tequila Surprise. Couple of jiggers of silver tequila, Triple Sec, juice of the rare Saudi Arabian oasis melon, and a sprig of saguaro cactus as garnish.  Okay, let's call in the judges!"


"That's right.  Steph and Miriam found two for us.  Tell us your names, judges." 

"I'm Todd Fruehling, I'm ten years old, and I love peanut butter."

"Good for you, Kid.  And you, sir?"

"Mah nom ess Phil Foosher and ah jess cum from mah dentish.  Mah jaw ess froshen."

"You'll be fine, Phil.  Okay, now the moment of truth.  My spectacular and innovative take on an old favorite, labeled A, or my friend's humble offering labeled B, although personally I would label it F.  What do you say, judges?  Todd?" 

"I go for A, Mr. Flay.  I loved it!"

"Thanks, Kid."

"And thanks for the five bucks you slipped me."

"Okay, now let's hear from our second judge.  Phil?"

"It's definitely sandwich A!  Those poblano and habanero peppers completely unfroze my jaw, and the tequila has removed all pain!  Bless you, Chef Flay!"

"Well, Steph and Miriam, another triumph.  Let's move on to our next challenge:  pork rind and marmalade casserole.

"All you awesome cooks out there, keep doing what you're doing.  But ask yourself this:  are you ready for a throwdown?"

And then, quickly as they had appeared, they were gone.  I had hoped they might have left some tequila, but no such luck.  I was preparing to bite into my sandwich when the door burst open again.

Could it be?  Yes it was.  Gordon Ramsay.  "Where," he bellowed, "is the #%$*& kitchen?"


Monday, November 30, 2009

Drive Like a Pro

Now!  Your chance to drive like a pro!  Sign up for lessons with instructors from the internationally accredited Tiger Woods Driving School!  

Learn all the skills of tactical, defensive driving; e.g., how to deal with an aggressive fire hydrant, and how to play chicken with your neighbor's tree.  Included with your course:  a nine iron, for use in breaking the window of your Cadillac SUV in an emergency.  

Don't end up in a traffic sand trap--enroll now!  Then, watch for the instructor in the green jacket pulling up on your lawn.

Special offer:  Your enrollment in the Tiger Woods Driving School gives you a $10 gift certificate for the Serena Williams "Poise & Etiquette" correspondence course.   

Saturday, November 28, 2009

On to the Grey Cup, one more time

The first Grey Cup game was played in 1909.  The University of Toronto team defeated Parkdale Toronto, 26-6.  The now traditional East-West contest didn't begin until 1921, when the Edmonton Eskimos played, and lost to, the Toronto Argonauts, 23-0.  The first western team to win Earl Grey's cup was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, in 1939.  A very tight game: Winnipeg 8, Ottawa 7.

The big turnaround for the west came in 1948, when Les Lear took the Calgary Stampeders to Toronto.  He also took, or was followed by, hordes of white-Stetsoned Calgary fans, who cooked pancakes on the steps of Toronto's city hall and rode horses into the Royal York Hotel.

The Stamps won that game 12-0 and established the Western Division of the CFL as a contender to be respected and feared.  It was a great team, including Normie Kwong, "the China clipper," later Alberta's Lieutenant-Governor, and Woody Strode, later the King of Ethiopia in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments."

And the man for whom the trophy was named?  Albert Henry George, fourth Earl Grey, Governor-General of Canada 1904-11.

Which is the reason, of course, that the coach of the winning team is always doused at the end of the game with a pot of Earl Grey tea.

Cream or lemon?

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Greening of Calgary

Good afternoon, football fans!  This is Phil Wolochuk, broadcasting from Calgary, scene of this Sunday's Grey Cup showdown.  As expected, Cowtown is full of Melonheads.  That's what they're calling Saskatchewan Roughriders fans, who, to demonstrate their allegiance to the Big Green Machine hollow out watermelons and wear the shells as helmets.  You might say "they're shell-shocking."  Ha ha--a little humor there, sports fans. 

There have been times when cities have run out of watermelons, which, to a diehard Roughie fan is on a par with running out of Number One Hard Rye.  But to prevent such a catastrophe on the eve of Canada's gridiron classic, Canada Safeway has pulled watermelons from produce bins all over the country and sent them to Calgary.  Here's one fan who's cheering that move--Bert Fuldheimer of Slow Leak, Saskatchewan. 

"That's right, Phil.  I remember one time the Roughriders were playing the Argos, and you couldn't find a watermelon anywhere.  I was frantic."  

So what did you do, Bert?

"I hollowed out a lime, and wore that instead.  Fortunately, I have a very small head."

Quick thinking, Bert.  Now let's talk to this lovely lady beside you.  Tell us about your costume, miss."

"I made it myself, Phil.  It's a body suit constructed of thirty-thousand green Smarties."

Very chic!  And delicious, too.  Yum!  Of course, it wouldn't be football if there weren't lots of fans packing Thermos bottles.  What do you have in yours, big fella?

"I call it my Sack the Quarterback Cocktail, Phil.  It's a blend of Creme de Menthe and spinach juice."

I bet it packs a punch.  Well, football fans, that's it for now.  I just want to make one personal comment:  after Sunday's game, Montreal fans are going to be green with envy.  

Going to turn the mike over now to my Montreal colleague Jacques Blancmange.  Did you get that one, Jacques?  Green with envy.

"Ah yes, mon ami.  But may I remind you of the wisdom of Kermit the Frog?"

Uh--what's that, Jacques?

"It's not easy being green."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Real Bach

This week a CBC Radio 2 host asked listeners to spot the fake Bach--one not among JSB's platoon of kinder--in this group:  Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christian Bach, and Oscar Meyer Bach.  

A trick question, of course, as there are two impostors in this trio.  The real Bach, heir to his father's genius, was Oscar Meyer Bach.

Oscar Meyer Bach, best known for his Hot Dog Cantata (with the famous aria "Will You Have Onions or Sauerkraut With That?") was for several years kapellmeister in the Court of Friedrich the Fat and his consort, Griselda the Gross, in Frankfurt. Oscar Meyer soon became the world's most renowned Frankfurter.  

When Friedrich and Griselda were overthrown in the great Vegan Revolt and forced to go on a grapefruit and quinoa diet, Oscar fled to Nashville, Tennessee, where he composed the rock 'n' roll classic "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hot Dog."

Ultimately, Oscar Meyer Bach retired, having become too old to cut the mustard.  But his music lives on, and you may hear it hummed by curbside vendors everywhere.

I'll have Sauerkraut.  And a Lowenbrau.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

So Long, Tom

One afternoon, in the offices of Young & Ross Advertising, I noticed that Tom Huntley was wearing mismatched cufflinks.  "Tom," I said, "you have a different cufflink on each sleeve." "That's right," he said, "and I have another pair at home just like them."

By this time we had known each other for a dozen years, since meeting in the studios of radio station CKNW.  Tom was a salesman, I was a writer, and I had written a series of commercials in which Tom and Jim Mantell played a Wodehousian pair dubbed Cholmondoley and Smythe.

We often made client calls together, and one of Tom's remarkable tricks was to sketch while talking.  He would have a pad in his lap, and while he looked straight ahead at the prospective client, the pencil in his hand would keep moving.  At the end of his pitch, Tom would say "And the design for the campaign might look something like this," and hold up whatever he had been drawing.

One of the campaigns we worked on was a radio series for a pepper grinder.  Tom said to me, "Malkin's Table Pepper Shaker--cha cha cha!"  The commercial, based on that line, won an International Broadcasting Award, presented by the Hollywood Advertising Club.  Another product to get Tom's touch was jam--Malkin's Fresh-Packed Strawberry Jam.  "Oh, what a jam to be in!" chorused Tom.  The wonderful Eleanor Collins and her then young children sang the commercial's lyrics.

Tom was a remarkably facile artist, but he had other enthusiasms, primarily the church and golf, the order depending on the day.  He also had a flair with a Martini shaker.  Unafraid of challenges--in fact, invigorated by them--he took on the task of carving from wood a life-size statue of Jesus as Christ the King,  for a parish of that name.  It was Tom's first foray into wood carving, but the result was majestic and overwhelming.  (After some decades, the wall behind the altar where the 300-pound carving was mounted began to sway, and the rector worried that she would become known as "the priest who was squashed by Jesus.")  

Walking to Tom's memorial service--held, appropriately, at a golf club--I reflected that I have almost as many friends in the great hereafter as I have still functioning on this planet.  (Two of those friends made their exit in the midst of telling a joke.  To their credit, the people around didn't bend down and cry, "Quick!  Give us the punch line!")

Well, I thought, at least when I arrive, they'll have the Martini glasses chilled.  And Tom will be wearing his mismatched cufflinks. 

Friday, November 20, 2009

Then and Now

The high school from which I did not graduate will celebrate its centennial next summer, and alumni and alumnae from places as distant as Trinidad-Tobago and Tuktoyaktuk are expected to dig their scarlet and gold sweaters out of trunks and attics and attend.  It is not known how many of the first graduating class will be present.

The school has developed a website which includes many "Then and Now" photographs of graduates.  Possibly the less said about these the better.

There are also notes from many graduates, summarizing the decades that have passed since they departed what are invariably termed "the hallowed halls of learning."  I, too, have fond memories of those days, particularly of the teacher who raced wildly around the room to demonstrate infinity, the student who brought a billiard ball to class and presented it as a petrified orange, and the entire male class of 4B who arrived one morning munching cloves of garlic.  The memory lingered on for a very long time. 

One would think that a school reunion might make a great story, and it would,  but it has been done too often.  One of the first accounts, and still probably the best, is by Merle Miller in his book "Only You, Dick Daring."  Ask for it at the out-of-print desk at your neighborhood library.

And now, I must get my "Then and Now" photos ready to send.  For "Then" I am using Ron Howard as Opie; for "Now" I am using Brad Pitt.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When West is East

Much football excitement this Sunday, in the Eastern and Western Division finals of the Canadian Football League (CFL).  Calgary Stampeders will meet Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Western Final at Regina's Mosaic Stadium, braving the high-decibel hoots of watermelon-wearing Roughrider fans, while in the Eastern Final, in Montreal, the Alouettes will be challenged by the BC Lions.

British Columbia is about as far from the east as it is possible to get, but a relatively recent CFL wrinkle allows the last-place team from the west to cross to the East Division playoffs, if it has more points than the last-place eastern team.  The irony in this is that the BC Lions replaced the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the eastern playoffs--Winnipeg (which, as far as I know, still qualifies as a western Canadian city) having been moved to the Eastern Division after the Ottawa team folded.  

Should the Lions win their game against the Alouettes, it would mean that, for the first time, two teams from the west would meet in the Grey Cup.  

"Only," says my 6' 5" tackle son, "in the CFL."

Get the vat of chili simmering.  We have a full day of football Sunday.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Buckley, Pere et Fils

Your correspondent did not endure the double whammy of Oprah and Sarah (not to mention the hysterical audience, all of whom have been given do-it-yourself electrolysis kits and handbags filled with Ecstasy).  To steal a line from Terry Garner, I have a closet full of ten-foot poles to avoid touching shows like this.  Instead, I read, with a certain hesitation, Christopher Buckley's "Losing Mum and Pup."  

I wasn't entirely comfortable picking up a book about the demise of Buckley fils' parents, but I remembered with pleasure his laugh-out-loud "Thank You for Smoking" (movie's okay, book is terrific) and his classic imaginary debate between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton over Martinis (right up there with Andy Borowitz's imagined exchange between Alan Greenspan and O.J. Simpson).

Buckley begins his book with a kind of apology for writing it, but says, "when the universe hands you material like this, not writing about it amounts either to waste or a conscious act of evasion."  He is aware, as are most people who push words around for a living, that (in Louis Auchincloss's felicitous phrase), "a writer's experience is his capital."

One wouldn't imagine a book with death as its subject could be funny, but this often is.  And what it finally amounts to is a lovely, intimate family portrait.  Do not be frightened by it.

Closing note:  Buckley pere, working to the end, has had three books published posthumously, leading his son to observe that WFB produced more books dead than many people alive.  In this corner we especially admire the final book, a collection of items from the author's decades as founder of the influential periodical National Review.  Buckley pere's title for this last work: "Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Radio 2 Island

Some CBC listeners (and former listeners, those who fled following the switch to songs that have only one line in the chorus; e.g., "Oh yeah, babe, my heart is weepin'," repeated 412 times in Radio Two's version of the Chinese water torture) may wonder what has happened to familiar voices no longer heard, the vanished hosts of canceled programs. 

The answer, provided by our team of investigative reporters, is that they have been ferried to a small island in the Gulf of Georgia, secured by the CBC expressly for this purpose.  There, on the Island of Dead Air, they continue to produce their programs, unaware that their mellow tones and flawless pronunciation are not transmitted through conch and scallop shells.

Delbert Willingham, spokesperson for the Corporation, says, "All the Island folk are happy and serene, delivering their once famous programs to a nonexistent audience.  They no longer have worries regarding listener ratings or executive interference."

Meanwhile, there is talk of a band known as the Cultural Renegades seizing a ship and sailing to the island to release the hostage hosts.  "They are," declared one Renegade, "an endangered species."  The Cultural Renegades are awaiting a response to their application for a government grant. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mocha Dick

Mocha Dick is not something you might get from a barista at Starbucks, but there is a connection: Mocha Dick was an eighty-foot sperm whale which, in the early 19th century, was said to have up-ended twenty-seven crafts in the Pacific and sent thirty men to Davy Jones's Locker.  Herman Melville was led by the account to write "Moby-Dick," published on this date in 1851.  And Starbuck, of course, was first mate to Captain Ahab on the Pequod.  

Starbucks' founders, "Moby-Dick" buffs, wanted a name out of Melville's novel for their coffee shop venture.  One that narrowly missed being chosen:  Queequeg, name of the elaborately tattooed cannibal harpooner.  How does this sound:  "Let's go down to Queequeg's and get a latte."  

John Huston's 1956 film of "Moby-Dick" may not be all that Melville readers would wish, but one memorable scene is Father Mapple's sermon on Jonah and the whale, delivered magnificently from the prow-shaped pulpit of Nantucket's Whaleman's Chapel by Orson Welles, fiery as an ancient Hebrew prophet.  

Footnote:  Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplayfor "Moby-Dick."  When he had completed it, Huston called him and said, "That's pretty good, Ray, but it needs a love interest."  The director let Bradbury fret about this for two days before telling him he was kidding.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Communications Pandemic

Some years ago, employees of Canada Post went on strike, and mail ceased to be delivered. Terry Garner, with whom I then shared an office, sighed wistfully and said, "Now if only the phones would go out, too."

A few years later, they did, but by that time, it was too late; communications technology had spread like an invincible electronic virus.  First came the fax machine.  Fellow word arranger Ian Alexander lamented, "We used to be able to say 'I'm about to put the copy in the mail,' and that would give us two or three more days to begin writing it.  Now people say 'Just fax it right now.'"

And the fax machine, soon to be as forgotten as the typewriter, was only the beginning.  E-mail followed, and now we have Facebook and Twitter and Tweet.  

Further to this, we are told (warned) that electronic communications never vanish, they are out there forever.  Gone are the days when one could say "Burn all my letters!"  This is good news only for biographers and people tracking possible lawsuits.  The CBC's Tom Allen, commenting on this unsuspected technological phenomenon, said it should give pause to anyone who, at some hour past midnight, having consumed a cask or two of wine, decides it would be a swell idea to e-mail an old flame.

I would be among the first to say that e-mail is a marvelously enabling development in the history of communication, much advanced from clay tablets and papyrus scrolls.  But, at the same time, one must recognize that chipping out cuneiform letters on stone does provide time for sober second thoughts.   

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

CHEK mate

Excellent news, perhaps unprecedented in Canadian broadcasting, is the successful acquisition of CHEK-TV in Victoria by its employees.  Supported by private investors, the CHEK group saved the station, and their jobs, from dissolution by CanWest Media, its financially beleaguered former owner.  Now, to add one more triumph, CHEK has been granted a seven-year renewal of license by the CRTC.

This is in sharp contrast to the fate of CKX Brandon, which has fallen into the black hole of broadcasting.  And CKCK Regina, which went to dead air some years ago.  

As a longtime toiler in broadcasting, I found it incomprehensible that a radio or television station could drop out of existence.  My business naivete, I suppose, and lack of attention to the winds of change. 

But for now, congratulations and huzzahs to John Pollard and his crew at CHEK-TV for having won the day in the always tough arena of broadcasting.  I'm tuning in Channel 6.  

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tippin' In (old Erskine Hawkins number)

A reader writes:  "Is it ever permissible to leave a restaurant without leaving a tip?"

Short answer:  "No."

Reader persists:  "What if you're leaving on a stretcher, suffering ptomaine poisoning?"

Answer:  "Is that the waiter's fault?"

There are situations that test one's willingness to be generous.  A friend of mine once had a pot of steaming tea poured down his back in a Chinese restaurant.  "Was it all right in that case," he asked, "not to leave a tip?"  Certainly trying to rip the  shirt off your scalded back in a crowd of dim sum diners could distract you from calculating the 15 percent gratuity.  

(Interjection from waiter: "We prefer 17.5 percent, and in some circumstances--if, for example, you become engaged, or successfully break up, 20.")

Another friend--and I was on hand to see this--once poked around on his plate and found something that looked like calamari, but turned out to be a band-aid.  A used band-aid.  My friend paled and lunched only on his Martini.  (Which I have always found to be a nourishing meal.)

A woman friend asks:  "What if the waiter tries to pick you up?  If you leave a tip, will that simply encourage him?  If you don't leave a tip, will it reflect badly on women diners in general?"

Tough questions, I know.

Then there are those legendary tippers who score a major business deal and give the valet parking attendant fifty dollars or offer to buy bicycles for all the waiter's children.  I don't know if there are any of those left.  They may have vanished with the three-Martini, two-Remy lunch and the drop in tax credits for business entertaining.

Is it ever okay to leave a restaurant without leaving a tip?

Only if you can get to your car in a hurry.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Medal Contender Wines

You may have heard, at your neighborhood Nerve Tonic outlet, that a number of wines have been produced especially for the 2010 Winter Olympics.  Here are some sampled by our resident sommelier, Biathlon Bob:  

De Luge:  Recommended for those wishing to go downhill in a hurry.  (Attempts to acquire rights to "I could drink a case of Luge and still be on my feet" unfortunately have failed.)  

'Sno-border:  Bouquet of hockey equipment bag, hints of ski wax and Zamboni fumes, finish of muscle liniment. 

Bob-slay:  Party beverage of choice for team drinkers. 

Skeleton:  Named for the Olympic event that requires athletes to lie prone, nose down, on toboggans.  This wine is an ideal preparation  for this position. 

Watch for these medal contender wines at a store near you.  All personally recommended by Gold Medal vintner Jacques Corque (now in rehab). 

Thursday, November 5, 2009


As the CFL season rolls toward its Grey Cup conclusion in Calgary, this aging onetime sports reporter feels called upon to relate a football story.  A good year, in many ways--with the brilliant Anthony Calvillo out-performing even himself, the renaissance of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats under Marcel Bellefeuille, the return to the BC Lions line-up of Casey Printers, and the boom in watermelon sales through Saskatchewan Roughriders fans' use of them as helmets.

But I am thinking of older stories--the Grey Cup played in fog at Vancouver's Empire Stadium;
the bone-crunching crack as Saskatchewan's Bobby Marlowe hit Lions back Al Pollard, a sound heard clearly in the upper bleachers; the tales told by the legendary Annis Stukus; the astonishing play of Jackie Parker (dubbed "spaghetti legs"), and his billiard parlor partner Eagle Keys playing with a broken foot; Eskimo QB Tom Wilkinson reading his Bible in a hot tub; sportscaster Bob Pickell referring to Lions head coach Clem Crowe as "Head Crowe Clem Coach;" and the cheer improvised by running back Jack Hutchinson (Lions, Roughriders): "Rickety rickety ree, kick him in the knee; Rickety rickety rass, kick him in the other knee." 

The story for today is of the broadcast of a game by Bill Good, Senior, the sportscaster with the Vaughan Monroe pipes, and the impeccable CFL statistician Moe Simovitch.  

On game day, Moe turned up at Bill's hotel room complaining of a splitting headache.  "Bill," he said, "do you have any pills?"

Bill did have pills, but not necessarily what Moe had in mind.  He had a vial of diuretic pills, prescribed to reduce blood pressure and which, among other things, but primarily, and I quote from The American Pocket Medical Dictionary, "increases the flow of water from the kidneys."

"Why yes, Moe," said Bill.  "I do have some pills.  Have one."

"Thanks, Bill,  It's really bad."

"In that case, you should take two."

The broadcast began, and at some break in the play-by-play action, Bill turned to Moe and said, "Looks as though Reed is going to set a new rushing record today.  What are the stats on that, Moe?"

"Well, Bill--uh--excuse me."  Moe fled from the press box.

This happened with regularity throughout the game.  Every time Moe was called on for information, he would feel an uncontrollable need to rush away.  

In fact, on that afternoon, Moe set some rushing records himself.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Dream's on Him

By happy accident, your correspondent stumbled on "Johnny Mercer:  The Dream's on Me," a film biography of the great lyricist produced by Clint Eastwood, probably the world's most active 79-year-old.  

The film was shown on TCM--Turner Classic Movies--and it is just fine, filled with great clips of Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Harold Arlen, Lena Horne, and a dozen others, with narration (and very tasty piano) by Bill Charlap, and learned commentary from Jonathan Schwartz, Andre Previn and Stephen Holden, among others.  I am pleased to report that the film will be released on DVD, with a companion CD of Mercer songs. 

There is a choice collection of Merceriana recorded by Rosemary Clooney with her usual mob (Scott Hamilton, Warren Vache, Ed Bickert, John Oddo, et al.), but still the most fun is in "An Evening with Johnny Mercer," in which he tells many stories of his Hollywood and Broadway days.  A favorite:  he and Henry Mancini were asked to write a song for Audrey Hepburn to sing in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."  When early rushes of the scene were screened for studio executives, one said, "Well, one thing for certain:  that damned song has to go."  The song was "Moon River." 

If there are old movie buffs out there, they will be pleased to learn that TCM is screening twenty-one films with Mercer songs over the next two weeks.  

And have you heard Clint Eastwood sing Mercer's lyrics for "Accentuate the Positive"?  He does, on the sound track for "In the Midnight Garden of Good and Evil." 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Paranoid GPS

Boarding a cab the other evening (no longer being trusted behind the wheel of anything but a shopping cart) I found I was in a taxi guided by GPS.  These initials are said to stand for Global Positioning System, but in this instance they signified Grossly Paranoid Screw-up.

As we neared my destination, I attempted to give the driver directions, but he was tuned only to the GPS.  "Oh no, sir.  GPS says go 150 metres, turn right."  "In which case," I said, "you will go down a steep slope and into Burrard Inlet."

We continued on, GPS giving us directions that led down a cul de sac, across railway tracks in front of an angry locomotive, and finally onto the 18th green of a golf course.  "Wonderful invention, the GPS," said the driver.

I, meanwhile, thought of Hal 2000, the paranoid computer in Kubrick's "2001:  A Space Odyssey" (easily the most interesting character in the film) and the evil sheep dog in "Far from the Madding Crowd" that led its trusting, wooly flock off a cliff.

I am told that GPS voices now come in various languages and sometimes even in celebrated tones.  Think what it might have been like to hear Gielgud or Olivier giving directions.  And how about Bogart?  Or Brando?  You might end up in some dangerous situations, but it would be fun.

I thought also of the pilots whose airplane drifted 150 miles off target.  Perhaps they should have blamed the error on a demon-possessed GPS. 

Ultimately, the cab arrived at my destination.  "Wonderful GPS, sir," said the driver.  "See?  We are here, safe and sound.  Sir, you can get up from the floor where you are cowering.

"The fare, sir:  seventy-five dollars and fifty cents.  

"And did I tell you that my wife, our thirteen children, and my aged mother-in-law depend on the generosity of tips?"

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mercer's Autumn

The song we know as "Autumn Leaves" was originally "Les feuilles mortes."  Its familiar English lyrics ("...those sunburned hands I loved to hold") were written by Johnny Mercer; written, it's said, while Mercer was in a cab on his way to the Los Angeles airport.

Johnny Mercer knew a lot about autumn, as shown in many lyrics, including "Early Autumn" ("there's a dance pavilion in the rain, all shuttered down" to "The Summer Wind" ("...softer than a piper man, one day it called to you") and there is a sense of loss in these songs. 

But Mercer was much more than that.  Dubbed "The Colonel" by Harold Arlen, because of his Savannah, Georgia accent, he wrote an extraordinary number of lyrics, from the elegant "Skylark" and haunting "Laura" to the rowdy "G.I. Jive" and "Jubilation T. Cornpone;"from the silken "Emily" and "Dearly Beloved" to the barroom classics "Blues in the Night" and "One For My Baby."

He composed some of the songs ("Dream, "Something's Gotta Give") and he sang, charmingly and quirkily.  Hard to find many of his recordings now (including "Two of a Kind," a romp with Bobby Darin) but one treasure on CD is "An Evening with Johnny Mercer," a live performance in which he runs through dozens of his songs, including "The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish" and "Poor Miriam, Neglected Using Irium" (his one singing commercial, for Bob Hope's radio show).   

One of his last lyrics was "When October Goes."  When Mercer went, he left it behind, and Barry Manilow set it to music.  It's an aging man's song.  There are recordings by Rosemary Clooney and Nancy Wilson.

"And when October goes,
 the same old dream appears,
 and you are in my arms,
    to share the happy years.

"I hate to see October go."

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Traveling Salesman's Halloween

"It's a rich territory, Milt, plenty of potential.  After what you accomplished up north, we think you're the man to really open it up."

Milt Belaris grinned and shook the ash off his cigar.  He had set some sales records and he wasn't surprised when the district sales manager called him in.

"I'm ready to give it my best, George," he said, calling the manager for the first time by his Christian name.

"I know you will, Milt.  We always said you could sell ice cubes to Eskimos, ha ha.  But"--he paused--"there is something I should tell you.  Something--well--peculiar about that territory."

"They're all a little funny, George, 'til you figure them out.  What's so odd about this one?"

"Well, it's strange, but drummers who go down there seem to disappear."

"You mean they skip?"

"Maybe.  But why?  Three or four companies--Watkins, Fuller, Raleigh--have sent men down there and they don't hear from them again.  Like they took their sample cases and just vamoosed."

"Farmers' daughters, maybe?"

"Beats me, Milt.  Have another cigar.  Take a couple for the road, stick them in your pocket."

"Don't mind if I do.  Fine cigars, George."

"White Owl, two for a nickel."

Milt was on the nine p.m. train out of Moose Jaw.  He jawed with some of the other travelers, read the sports page, watched the moonlight falling over wheat fields and pumpkin patches.  He took a few sips from a mickey of rye and calculated his commissions.  Looked like there'd be a lot more coming up.  And if he did good, why hell, he might be sitting in George's office.

Mist drifted over the prairies, clouds covered the full orange moon, and winds began to make farmyard scarecrows dance.  Turning to Alf, the Massey-Harris man, Milt said, "Looks kinda spooky, don't it?"

"Well, whaddya expect?  It's Halloween."

Milt had dozed off when the train jerked to a stop, waking him.  The conductor was in the aisle, saying, "Folks, got a bit of unexpected news.  Mechanical problem.  Gotta stop here until a crew comes out to fix it.  Probably be tomorrow morning before we get going.  Sorry about the delay, but there's a hotel in town and the railway will pay your bill."

"What town is this?" someone asked.

"Called Inferno."

"Never heard of it."

"Well, it's pretty small.  Not even on many maps.  Okay, folks.  Get a good night's sleep." 

Milt lugged his sample case off the train and went into the small wooden depot.  It was dark and cold and looked deserted.  But then he hard a voice.  A woman's voice.

"Good evening," it said.  "Welcome to Inferno."

Milt turned and saw a woman sitting in the shadows.  Slim, skinny even.  Long black hair, hanging down her back.  Couldn't tell her age.  "Thanks," said Milt.  "Which way to the fleabag in this burg?"

"You mean the Princess of the Plains Hotel?"  She laughed.  "Not really your style."  She lit a dark brown cigarette, and in the flame from her match Milt saw emerald eyes in a chalk white face.  Not bad, he thought.  

"What are you doing here, around--what is it, midnight?  No train coming through, is there?"

"No," she exhaled smoke.  "No, I like to come down here sometimes at night. Meet some interesting people.  There's not a lot to do in this town."

"Don't suppose there's somewhere you and I could go for a drink?"

"No bar or saloon open, if that's what you mean.  But I don't live far from here, and I'd be pleased to pour something to refresh you after your trip."

"Sounds good to me," said Milt.  He stuck out his hand.  "Milt Belaris, kitchenwares."

"My name," she said, "is Lily."  Her hand was cold.

The small house was down a narrow winding road, and they walked quickly through the rain. When Lily opened the door, a black cat reached out a paw to her.  "This is Lucifer," she said. "Lucifer, this is Milt."

"Well," said Milt, "looks cosy," although the scarlet decorations were not something he would have chosen. 

"Take off that jacket," said Lily, "it's wet.  I'll hang it up to dry and bring you a drink."  

Milt settled himself on a sofa and took out one of George's cigars.  Almost at once Lily was back with a tall glass.  "Try this," she said.

He drank some, and said, "It's good.  Don't know what it is--I'm a rye man, mainly--but this has a nice punch to it--yes, indeed."

"It's my own special cocktail," said Lily.  "Why don't I get you something to eat?  Some nice hot soup?  You're probably hungry."

"Well, I could tie on the old feedbag," said Milt.  "And look, glass is empty."

"I can fix that," she said.

Halfway through the second glass Milt began to feel light-headed, even began to imagine shapes moving in the room, shapes of things, of people, he knew weren't there.  Well, he thought, it's been a long day.  Might as well relax and enjoy it.

"Milt," said Lily, "those trousers are soaked.  Why don't you crawl into bed, under that big, warm comforter, and I'll press them for you and hang them with your jacket."

This is turning out even better than I hoped, thought Milt, and while Lily turned her back he pulled off his soggy trousers.  He was glad he was wearing the boxer shorts with the hearts and diamonds, and his best garters on his socks.  He crawled into bed and noticed Lucifer sitting in the doorway.  "What are you staring at?" he said.

Soon the aroma of soup drifted in from the kitchen.  "Smells good," Milt called.  "My special recipe," said Lily.

Wonder what's in it, thought Milt.  Maybe I'll take a peek in the pantry.  Might even see if she could use some new kitchenwares.  Could be a sale, along with everything else.  He slipped out of bed and started for the door.  Lucifer hissed.  "Get outa my way," Milt hissed back.

He pulled back a curtain that led to the pantry.  Beyond it, in the kitchen, lily was stirring a huge, steaming pot.  Milt began looking at the jars of spices and herbs.  The usual stuff, curry, cinnamon, nutmeg, rosemary.  But--what was this?  Eye of newt?  Toe of frog?  Adder's fork, lizard's leg?  Milt shuddered.  He closed the curtain and crept back to the bedroom.

Wonder if my clothes are dry, he thought.  Milt opened the closet where Lily had hung them and saw not just his suit, but half a dozen men's suits, all shapes and sizes.  Wait a minute, he thought, I recognize that yellow checked jacket.  It's just like the one Fat Lew Wilvers had.  He checked the size:  52 short.  Milt could hear George's voice:  "Something peculiar--fellas went down there and just disappeared."  

Behind the suits were stacked suitcases.  No, not suitcases--sample cases.  Milt started opening them.  He found Fuller brushes, Watkins liniments, Raleigh spices, veterinary supplies, electric gadgets, yard goods.  Lucifer was scratching his bare leg, but Milt hardly noticed. 

"Soup coming up!" called Lily.  The smell was overpowering, menacing.

Milt grabbed his jacket and pants, and ran for the door, Lucifer after him all the way, leaping up, clinging to his leg.  Milt shook the cat loose and got outside.  

It was still raining as the moon appeared and disappeared behind the clouds.  Milt didn't care. With his clothes bunched under his arm, he ran all the way back to the railway depot.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pass That Peace Pipe

"Pass That Peace Pipe" was a song in the musical comedy "Good News," a film written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who said it ranked as one of "the Big Three of Cinema" along with "Birth of a Nation" and "Battleship Potemkin."

This item is, however, not about passing the peace pipe, pleasurable as that might be.  It is about the custom in churches of passing the peace by handshakes.  Since the arrival of H1N1, and a renewed emphasis on hand washing, many congregations have felt uneasy about shaking hands.  Some churches have installed hand sanitizers.  Seen recently on television was a minister demonstrating her flock's alternative to shaking hands at the peace.  It seems to call for the worshippers to stand side by side, arms around each other's shoulder, while swinging and bumping hips.  It looks remarkably like a 1960s disco dance. 

The patrician William F. Buckley, Jr., expressed his horror at the very custom of exchanging the peace.  While attending a service at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, he reported, "some man to whom I had not been introduced turned around and presumed to shake my hand." Buckley added "I am only glad for Evelyn's sake he is not around to endure this."  (Evelyn being Waugh.)

And writing of crusty English gentlemen, one is reminded of a distinguished professor of Middle East studies at the University of British Columbia.  At a church service while visiting England, he turned and offered his hand to a tweedy squire of the Colonel Blimp era, and said "Peace be with you."  To which the resident worshipper responded "Go to hell!"

"And also with you," said the UBC prof. 

Pass that peace pipe.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Crisp, golden October day

     "The only day that was ever as good as you thought it was going to be was an October day."

--John P. Marquand, "So Little Time."

Monday, October 26, 2009

High Station in Life

Most audiences may remember Eric Peterson best for his television roles in "Street Legal" and "Corner Gas," or perhaps for his long run in "Billy Bishop Goes to War."  But I remember Peterson most happily for his performance in Larry Lillo's production of John Gray's "Health: The Musical." 

"Health" is a play for one character and body parts, the body parts being played memorably in the Vancouver Playhouse staging by Ian McDonald, Ross Douglas and Stephen Miller.

I began thinking of various productions in which I have admired the work of Peterson--probably the best known thespian to emerge from Indian Head, Saskatchewan--when I read a conversation between him and Gordon Pinsent in the National Post (October 8, 2009).

Peterson was about to receive the Pinsent Award of Excellence from Toronto's Company Theatre, and the two veteran actors were exchanging on-stage and back-stage stories.  Which brings me to the quotation which prompted this entry.  Pinsent had suffered some unfortunate experience on a Winnipeg stage, and was sent this note:

"Never mind.  High station in life is earned by the gallantry in which appalling experiences are survived with grace."

Peterson said, "I'm getting that tattooed on my chest."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Blog Wisdom or: A Nicol for Your Thoughts

Some newspaper columnist (maybe Jim Taylor) once wrote a piece about a nugget of wisdom handed him by an elder scrivener (maybe Eric Nicol).

The younger writer had just been given a column a day.  The older writer said, "Five columns a week, eh?  Well, two of them should be good, perhaps three."

The younger writer reeled back against his Underwood portable.  "Oh no, sir," he cried, "I'll make all of them good."

"You may think so," said the sage, "but it's impossible to write a good column every day."

Same with blogs.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

70-Year-Old Cigarette Ash

Browsing through the library of a camp on Shuswap Lake several summers ago, I came upon a 1943 edition of John P. Marquand's "So Little Time," a Marquand novel I hadn't read.  The camp director was persuaded to sell me the book, along with a collection of Dorothy Parker's poems, and I brought it back to Vancouver and set it on a shelf with other Marquands.

Finally, now having plenty of time,  I pulled "So Little Time" from its place between "B.F.'s Daughter" and "Point of No Return," and began to read.  There were no surprises in the style--it's vintage Marquand--but what did surprise me, what I found more evocative--were traces of cigarette ash caught here and there along the spine.

The book was published in 1943, and showed no signs of having been read since then.  I began wondering about the smoker who had enjoyed this novel almost seventy years ago.  An artist friend had given me another novel, "People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks, in which a book conservator finds elusive and tantalizing clues--a fragment of a butterfly's wing, wine and blood stains--in a rare and ancient volume.  There is slim chance of ever finding the people of the book, or the cigarette smoking reader of "So Little Time," but it does engage one's curiosity (as did the Chinese writing I found the other day in a library copy of Harold Bloom's "Hamlet: Poem Unlimited"). 

As many people have, I have pressed flowers and leaves in books, and am pleased when I find, for example, a sprig of still bright yellow forsythia from a house where we once lived.  So perhaps I will leave some unexplained souvenirs in my books.

Meanwhile, I go back to pondering the identity of the person behind the 70-year-old cigarette ash.  I thought at first I should brush the ash away; now I think I should leave it where it is.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Olympiad: The 2010 Religion

The religious fervor stirred by the approach of the 2010 Olympics to Vancouver and environs will be inflamed further by the lighting tomorrow of the sacred Olympic Torch by a suitably semi-clad "High Priestess" in Olympia (Greece, not Washington).

But perhaps even more significant is the Olympic scarf worn by BC Premier Gordon Campbell, which strongly resembles a priestly stole or a Talmudic prayer shawl.  He wore it to his NBC interview and he wore it when he and John Furlong presented UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon with a pair of Olympic mittens ("Now you too can be caught red-handed, ha ha").

The scarf is also similar to a style made famous by the Middle Eastern fashion-plate Yasser Arafat.  Even so, a scarf has yet to be presented to such powerful figures as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamid Karzai.  A trip to China has yet to be confirmed ("Have some more oolong, Furlong?")   

Despite all this, there are some Olympic apostates, who have failed to embrace the new religion.  But for these dissidents, there is hope:  Pope Benedict XVI has announced that rules will be relaxed to allow non-Olympians to join his somewhat older church.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Einstein: The Movie

Since the revelation that Albert (E=MC2) Einstein played goal for the Canwood (SK) Canucks, furious bidding has begun for the film rights.  Working title:  "Einstein:  Space-Time at the Blueline."

Our casting director immediately thought of Robert Downey, Jr. for the lead.  "Robert Downey, Junior, IS Albert Einstein!" he cried.  But then, Eddie Izzard was suggested.  "Eddie Izzard also IS Albert Einstein!"

"Perhaps," the C.D. continued, "we could get Jennifer Tilly, with a cute little sauerkraut accent, as a young Frau Einstein, who never ceases to believe that Al can one day make it to both the NHL and Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study."  Ms. Tilly or Kirsten Dunst, Elke Sommer now being out of the demographic.

Other key players:  Peter Falk (or possibly Jack Nicholson) as Coach Punch Umlaut, Michael "Kramer" Richards as an early twentieth century Eddie Shack, a bruiser for the Pincher Creek Protons, Lang Lang as the rink organist, John Turturro as Zamboni driver Rick Fermi, and, as sportscaster Ace Pfefferneuse, Don Cherry (also on line as wardrobe consultant).

As Al moves the Canwood Canucks back and forth along the space-time continuum, we see him both as a Stanley Cup goalie (playing under the nom de net Turk Broda) and leading his team to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  

"I smell Oscar," I said.  "So do I," said the casting director.  "Oscar, go take a bath."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Arf! Arf!

An entertaining article on canine names by Randy Shore in the October 19 Vancouver Sun led me to think of the names of dogs I have known.  My first dog, a Scottish terrier, was named, not surprisingly, Bruce.  My wife's first dogs were named Paddy (a springer spaniel) and Billy (a blonde cocker spaniel).  The name Billy was also her father's name, but if he was disconcerted by her choice of that name for her four-legged pal, he did not show it. 

Later, together, we happily housed three generations of miniature dachshunds:  Rudolph (Rudy), Brunhilde (Hilda), Arnold, Pinky (I know, curious name for a black and tan dog) and Gretel.  I was then working for an advertising agency where a senior artist was named Arnold. He was not amused by our choice of name for one of our dachshunds.  "Every time someone wants a funny name for a pet, a dog or a pig," he exploded, thinking of the TV sit-com "Green Acres," "what do they choose?  Arnold!"

Other dogs in our family circle have been christened Sally, Blaze, Miss Dash and Buddy. Occasionally all have been present at family celebrations, and they seemed to enjoy, or at least tolerate, each other's company.

I have been trying to persuade the dogs to start a blog of their own:  The Dog Blog.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Tee Shirt Therapy

I was feeling a trifle overdrawn in the pep and energy department, as Bertie Wooster might say, but then I put on my "Bad Influence" tee shirt, and my mood was instantly elevated!  Astonishing how a change of garb can cheer a chap (and astonishing how easily one can slip into Woosterspeak).

The "Bad Influence" tee shirt, produced to promote a film of that title, was given to me by my movie biz son, who gave me also a "Talk Radio" tee, both of which I enjoyed wearing around a summer church camp.  My jazz saxophonist son gave me a Jazzmanian Devils shirt, heralding "Gangsters of Swing," a tee which has brought me odd looks in the elevator.  My daughter the writer made me a tee lettered "The Blue Streak," which I wear while slogging around the track or the Squint Lake trails.  And the New York dance critic Elizabeth Zimmer sent me a Nathan's Famous tee shirt which shows a jolly frankfurter, swathed in mustard, surfing.

I once gave my wife a tee shirt lettered "Still Perfect After All These Years," which she felt to modest to wear.  So I wore it.

Thinking of tee shirt therapy, I was reminded of a currently mildly popular song, in which the key line seems to be "Everything's okay-I've got my sweater on."  Switch "sweater" to "tee shirt," and I'll sing along.  Wearing my Pavarotti tee shirt.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Archbishop Gives Downbeat for Same-Sax Blessings

In a startling, provocative and unprecedented move, the Diocese of Saint Bechet has voted in favor of same-sax blessings.  Archbishop Coleman "Bird" Mulligan declared he will give episcopal approval to a rite celebrating the union of reed instruments--specifically baritone, tenor, alto, soprano, sopranino and C-melody saxophones. 

"We recognize," he said, "that there still are many who suffer from saxophobia, but we pray that they will remain united with us and discover the beauty in diversity, as demonstrated, for example, in the classic Woody Herman recording 'Four Brothers.'

"One must think," he continued, "of our gift of life as a head arrangement, stating the theme in unison, but opening up to allow individual solos and improvisations, then returning to a glorious conclusion, or, as some of my flock might put it, a big finish."

Some traditionalists and dissidents, unhappy since the string bass replaced the tuba, and the electric guitar ("the devil's instrument") took over from the acoustic, threatened to break away and start a paper-and-comb band of their own.  Roving pundit Conrad B. Guelke reported "Deep-seated dissonances rumbled and many of the disaffected trumpeted that they would cease to string along."

However, Archbishop Mulligan, grooving in a major key, hoped that "the time may come when all woodwinds will band together--clarinets, oboes, bassoons, flutes, piccolos, English horns, and saxophones of every persuasion--and join the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.

"As wise Rabbi Goodman, whose centenary we celebrate this year, once said, 'Let all the cats join in.'  Until then, peace--and stay cool."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

In the Kitchen with Wallis

A reader asks, "Is it possible to have too much fennel in anything?"  The answer is no, and I was reminded of the Duchess of Windsor's dictum:  "One can never be too rich or too thin," to which we may now add "or have too much fennel."

The Duchess's personal cookbook was auctioned at Sotheby's some years ago, and reading excerpts from it made it clear why this woman could never have been Queen.  Her various marriages were small potatoes.  Small burned potatoes.  Far more serious are the revelations in her recipe collection.  Undoubtedly this is what Prime Minister Baldwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury were privy to. 

Imagine if Wallis had become chatelaine of Buckingham Palace, and all the crowned heads of Europe had come for dinner, and she served them "Sole in Half-Mourning" (I am not making this up), after an appetizer of "Avocado Pears Tahiti" (avocado halves filled with rum and brown sugar), and ended the meal on a final sugar rush with "Gateau Egyptian."

Here is the recipe, more or less exactly as it appeared in "My Personal Cookbook" by the Duchess of Windsor: 

Make a light sponge cake that is fairly deep.  Scoop out the centre.
Cover the outside of the cake with cold blackberry jelly.  Fill the centre
with whipped cream.  When ready to serve, pour hot blackberry jelly over all.

So when this long-suppressed cookbook was discovered, Wallis and David were packed off to France, where the Duke spent the rest of his days eating her cooking and pondering his decision.

Back at Buck House, holders of the Royal Franchise sometimes suggested punishing the former Edward VIII by reducing his allowance.  But George VI wouldn't hear of it.  "No, no," he said.  "The poor bloke's suffering enough." 

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

fast-breaking Literary News

This day, October 14, is the date on which Victor Hugo, in the year 1822, married Adele Foucher.  The highlight of the wedding breakfast was the sudden leap into violent insanity by Victor's older brother, Eugene, perhaps set off by a sub-standard pain au chocolat.  It was possibly the most memorable wedding reception scene until Steve Buscemi's turn in "The Wedding Singer." 

(Incidentally, Victor Hugo wants to know when the royalties from "Les Miserables" will arrive.)

Also this date, in 1919, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood, forbidden by "Vanity Fair" to discuss their wages, walked around the office wearing signs around their necks revealing their salaries.

Finally, words for writers (this writer, anyway) to cherish, from Katherine Mansfield, the superb short story writer born this date in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand:  "I imagine I was always writing.  Twaddle it was, too.  But better far write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all."

And if you can get paid for it, all the better.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Thanksgiving sans Turkey

Another splendid Thanksgiving repast, with no disasters such as that noted by one CBC Radio host, who complained of too much fennel in his stuffing, if it's possible to have too much fennel in the stuffing.  I was a trifle disappointed that my sea urchin and butterscotch chip muffins were slow to disappear.

But, our gathering was distinguished by many imaginative dishes, including a corn souffle heavy on cream, carrots roasted with walnuts, a chilled squash and onion salad in thyme vinaigrette, possibly an entire farmyard of yams, lobster mushrooms the size of footballs sauteed with butter and garlic, mashed potatoes and stuffing that had to be brought to the table by forklifts, lovely blackened red snapper, tart and crunchy berry-nut squares, and the ne plus ultra of pumpkin pies.  My one regret was my failure to deliver pumpkin ale, my neighborhood Nerve Tonic shop having sold out, but there were some crisp Alsatian whites and a robust Alison Ranch red.  (Alison Ranch--sounds like the heroine in a cowboy  movie.)  

Have I forgotten anything?  Oh, yes--the turkey.  Well, it was a magnificent bird, roasted to a fine golden brown, looking just like the turkeys in Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving covers for the Saturday Evening Post.

But one person suggested that the turkey was really unnecessary--just the reason to bring all these other gustatory creations together.  And other guests chimed in--who needs turkey, they asked.  There were one or two turkey eaters who disagreed, quickly scooping up the last twelve or fourteen pounds of bird, but they were in the minority. 

So, this is where the Turkeyless Thanksgiving Trend may have begun.  You read it here first.  (Pass that drumstick, please.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

In Praise of Re-Reading

I know some people question the value of re-reading books one has read several times before, and their argument that there are so many important books still unread is sound.  When I was very young, sometime in the reign of Ethelred the Unready, to paraphrase John McPhee, I felt I should read every book in the library.  I later realized this was both impractical and unwise; not that it hurts to read really bad writing, as that helps one to develop discrimination (said he, pedantically). 

But re-reading a book has the same value as listening again to a piece of music, or watching a film one has seen before, or re-examining a painting.  There is, if the work has depth and complexity, always something more to find.

Recently I have been re-reading the novels of John P. Marquand, most of which, I suspect, are out of print, although he was a popular author in his time, and several of his novels ("H.M. Pulham, Esquire," "The Late George Apley," "B.F.'s Daughter," "Melville Goodwin, USA," plus his series of Mr. Moto thrillers) became successful films.

Marquand wrote comedies of manners, gentle satires, mixed with an elegiac affection for times past.  My personal favorites are "Point of No Return" (which ran for hundreds of performances as a Broadway play with Henry Fonda), the under-rated "Sincerely, Willis Wayde," and his very funny golf club yarn, "Life at Happy Knoll." 

Most are long, leisurely books, comforting to the reader.  They remind me of the Trollope novels Jack Burden reads to the emotionally traumatized Anne Stanton at the end of Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" as a kind of literary chicken soup. 

So I suppose I will go on re-reading the books that mean much to me, while working my way through whatever is current and whatever past that remains unread and necessary.

And always pleased to read your recommendations, to see what undiscovered treasures there may be on your reading list.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ad-Biz and Decorating with Books

With the sudden and unexpected success of the television series "Mad Men," a saga of life in an advertising agency, circa 1960 ("Mad," in this case, being an abbreviation of "Madison Avenue," the best known turf of NYC ad-people) I began thinking of (a) my own time in the trenches of ad warfare, and (b) Frederic Wakeman's "The Hucksters," the novel that first found glamor in the advertising business.  (Herman Wouk's first novel also was about advertising.  The agency in Wouk's "Aurora Dawn" was named Grovel & Leach.)

But that, as Jack Wasserman used to say, is not the item.  Here it comes:  I was toiling in an agency in Edmonton and lunched one day at a cafe with a name like La Creperie, if French had been allowed in Alberta.  It was a period when restaurants were decorating walls with books. Interior designers would go into used book stores and buy books by the yard.  It didn't matter what they were.  You might find Freud's "Analysis of Dreams" next to "The Dummy's Guide to Septic Tank Installation."

The lunch was pleasant enough, but the great moment came when I spied, in a row of books on the wall beside me, a copy of  "The Hucksters."  When the server asked if I wished for anything more, I said, "Yes.  That book."

She paled, said, "I'll have to go get Dwayne, the assistant manager," and fled.  Presently Dwayne appeared at my table, looking very stern.  "I understand you made an improper suggestion to the waitress," he said.  "I just want to buy the book," I said.  "Whatever price you care to put on it.  Within reason." 

"We do not," he said, "sell the furnishings.  Good day."

Back in Vancouver, I related this story to my colleagues.  A few weeks later, one of the account executives, who had been in Edmonton on assignment, returned, and produced the very copy of "The Hucksters" I had coveted.

"How did you persuade them to let you buy it?" I asked.

"What do you mean, buy it?  I just grabbed it and stuck it under my coat."

I still have this purloined copy of "The Hucksters."  I just hope Dwayne and the Vigilantes aren't reading this  blog.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Obama meets Philip Marlowe

Considering Barak Obama's unique role in a milieu of cynicism and acquisition and violent rhetoric, I was reminded of some lines in Raymond Chandler's classic essay, "The Simple Art of Murder."

Chandler was writing about the qualities of a detective hero (his was Philip Marlowe), but these words--probably the best known of any Chandler wrote--seem to apply equally well to Obama:

"Down these mean street a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  He must be a complete man and a  common man and yet an unusual man.  He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor....If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in"

Do you think the Nobel committee has been reading Raymond Chandler?  

Friday, October 9, 2009

Oslo! Obama! Okay!

Excellent news out of Oslo this morning, and I don't mean a new recipe for lingonberry torte, although that would have been all right, too.

When White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, before setting off for his 5:00 a.m. swim, heard that US President Barack Obama had been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, he said, "Oslo beats Copenhagen."

Andy Borowitz suggested the award may have been given for the President's successful beer summit and cited "the healing power of beer."

When the President told his daughters, they countered with the equally powerful report that today is Bo's birthday--Bo being the girls' Portuguese water dog. 

Bo was okay with the news.  He is a very cool canine.

There are, however, a few right-wing dogs in the manger.


"We shall find peace.  We shall hear angels.  We shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds."

--Anton Chekhov