Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Big Jules

For no really good reason, I thought I'd post a home movie made of my family during the Yuletide season.

Hey, it's a home movie -- you expected quality? :-)

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Magpie 101

I don't usually do reruns. But the prompt this week seems to demand re-posting the following from several years ago.
You see, I was once pleased to be given an interesting assignment: I was to make a movie about a top American corporation. The film would involve some shooting in Japan.

So I flew to Tokyo, ready to go to work. As I got off the plane, I believed that the Japanese were really taking this motion picture project seriously because, as I was surprised to see, I was being met at the airport by a large limo. And not just a limo; the car had a uniformed driver and another chap, also uniformed, who rode shotgun - though in Japan I suppose it would be shogun :-) - in the front passenger seat.

I was able to cruise through the world-famous Tokyo traffic jam in comfort. In fact, I had never had a job, of any kind, that started off so auspiciously. They drove me to their head office and I got to meet everyone. They were all friendly and welcoming; there was a lot of bowing, me doing my share, of course.

It was lunchtime, so they asked if I would prefer going to a steak-house or would I like to try some authentic Japanese food? Well, of course, we had steak-houses back in the Stytes and besides, I thought it would be a good political move to opt for the indigenous cuisine, so we headed off for what I would today recognize as a sushi place.

I say I would recognize it today; I didn’t recognize it then. Truth is, a few decades ago there weren’t many sushi joints in the U S of A, and you certainly didn’t see sushi for sale in just about any American grocery store. Most Yankees of that era didn’t know from sushi; the idea of eating raw fish was regarded as just sort of weird.

However I could see that this restaurant I was being taken to was elegant and upscale – i.e., expensive – so I looked forward to an excellent meal.
But there was a fly in the saki. Something had been worrying me, and it had nothing to do with raw fish. It had gradually dawned on me, as time went on, that I was inadvertently sailing under false colors.
The reason for the great welcome I had received? I came to realize that they thought that I, a humble artisan, a simple, rather impecunious documentary-maker, was actually one of the top executives of the American corporation in question. That explained the limo and its two charioteers.
That was bad enough. Just as bad was the question, how on earth do I go about telling them of the mistake? I had heard all about the importance of saving face in the Orient; would they think I had intentionally tried to trick them? Would hara kiri knives be involved in any way?
At this point the waiter served the meal. I felt like I had just come into the big city from Mayberry; I recognized absolutely nothing that was being served. But one thing struck me forcibly. Among everything else on the plate there was a little creature there – who was walking around.
I had never gone in for ambulatory victuals. However, when in Rome… I took up my chopsticks and went after him. He valiantly fought off my preliminary attack. This was followed by a certain amount of thrusting and parrying. Fortunately, I remembered the rules of fencing from my college days. What was odd was that he seemed to know them too.
Then, while I sat there planning my next move, the little fellow climbed over the edge of the plate and headed off to the left. The Japanese are a polite people; the two guys with me were trying desperately not to laugh, but not succeeding. The waiter took pity on me and swooped the whatever-it-was away with a towel. In a way I was sorry to see the little chap leave; he had fought well, and with a certain panache.
Well, long story short – it’s been long enough – the gentlemen I was visiting took the explanation of the misconception well enough and, as that great Japanese playwright Shakespeare used to say, all was well that ended well.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brief Encounter

In 1985 my boss, Mr. Grandfromage (not his real name), wanted me to become a technical writer. “You write film scripts, right?” he said. “Well, we need someone to write technical scripts. There’s a demand for technical films.”

“But I’m not really a technical person,” I replied.

“Don’t worry about that. We can get technical people and they can give you the basic information. Trouble is, it’s never in film form. So you take their info and write a suitable film script.”

“Well, if you say so.”

“There’s a Technical Writers Convention in Houston next week. I want you to go there and see what you can pick up.”

So I flew to Houston. I couldn’t make head or tail of many of the highly technical topics and subjects that were to be discussed at the convention so I picked one I thought I’d be able to understand. It was a seminar – six people around a small table – discussing how to staple reports.

That was the topic; the boring discussion went on and on. Should one just use staples on the report or should one create a sort of spine to make it look a little more like a book?

I kept eyeing the door, wondering if I could make a dash for it. Suddenly something remarkable happened.

An astronaut appeared in the doorway. Not just an astronaut, a very attractive young woman astronaut. In full fig, as our British friends say – in full astronaut uniform. And she sat next to me.

It seems that, as part of their duties, astronauts had to visit various meetings and conventions that were held in Houston; evidently it was good PR for NASA. I wondered if the astronauts knew about this requirement when they signed up. :-)

Well, she listened dutifully to the seminar discussion and after a suitable period of time the PR person who was taking her around said the astronaut had to visit some other seminars, so she got up to leave. I was sorry to see her go.

She couldn’t resist making a small wry comment as she stepped out the door. “I hadn’t realized your work was so complex,” she said.

We had been talking about how to staple reports.

Back in New York I was working on a film in an editing suite in January of ’86. We stopped work to see a blastoff on the TV monitor because this was to be a special rocket launch: for the first time there was a civilian, a high school teacher, to ride into space with the regular astronauts.

As they filed out to board the spaceship named Challenger I was startled to see my astronaut was among the group, one of the two women.

The catastrophe that followed, 73 seconds after liftoff, happened before my eyes, before the eyes of the entire world. The sleek space machine Challenger erupted into a fireball and clouds of smoke that were seared into my brain forever.

Judith Resnik was a remarkable person. She had a PhD in electrical engineering, she was a classical pianist and she was beautiful too. Her family handled her death with quiet dignity. There was a lot of publicity after the explosion about the other astronauts who had died; the Resniks sought no publicity.

No question, my encounter with Dr. Resnik had been brief; I never had the opportunity to really get to know her.

But I’ll never forget her.

This week, I thought you might be interested in checking out A Little Blog About Nothing, where an interesting question has been posed: What's the best advice you've received?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Odd Santa

Try to picture this setting.

First off, it’s very hot, the sun’s beating down; we’re in the tropics. There’s a beautiful beach and the ocean, it’s the Mediterranean, is dazzling.

This is what they call the Turkish Riviera, and the name is justified; it can hold its own with the French Riviera.

Reason I’m telling you about this place is that this is, after all, the Christmas season. And some years ago I was in this tropical paradise and had a chance to meet Santa. The real Santa.

Everyone knows that ol’ S. Claus lives up in the frozen north with Mrs Claus and a houseful of industrious, non-union elves, not to mention a stable of reindeer, and that Santa has always lived there.

Not true.

Santa Claus was originally Saint Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century and who never saw the North Pole (and maybe never saw any snow). He was born and lived right here in the hot, sunny Turkish Riviera, though the name would not have been familiar to him.

I was there working on a tourism-promotion project for the Turkish government and I thought it would be interesting to show Santa’s real home, where he was born and raised.

As for the actual saint, Nicholas, he had been famous for his generosity, for the way he gave gifts to the needy. (Well, he should have; he was a saint.) He became known throughout the Christian world.

He wound up in Holland, where they changed his appearance somewhat. They also took his name and sort of Dutchified it: St. Nicholas became Sinterklaas.

When the Dutch lived in New Amsterdam they celebrated Christmas with Sinterklaas and all the English folks living around them thought the old fellow was sort of cool so they adopted him for their Christmas too.

They couldn’t quite pronounce “Sinterklaas” however; the closest they could get to it was “Santa Claus.”

So somehow the old fellow had metamorphosed from a 4th-century saint to a corpulent chap in a red suit who was always smiling about something.

One day I was standing on that beach, working, when an Orthodox Christian priest approached and asked if I would like to see the bones of St. Nicholas? Of course, I said.

He returned with a small case, beautifully made, lined with satin, that, he assured me, contained some of the bones of the Saint. I was aware of the thousands of kids who go to see Santa at Christmastime and here I was getting to see the real Santa.

For a fleeting moment I thought of saying that I wanted a pony for Christmas, but I couldn’t be sure Orthodox priests had a sense of humor. 

This week, if you’ve had the experience, the joys as well as the plain old hard work, of raising a teenager – and yes, I’ve been there, done that – check out the clever comments of A Mom on Spin.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Remembering Miss Gustafsson

Scene: Stockholm, Sweden, a few decades ago.

I was making a tourism-promotion film for the Swedish government. Included in the list of things to show in the movie was Stockholm’s magnificent department store “NK” -- pronounced “Enkaw.” A huge place, some 12 million visitors annually, and with a staff of 1200. The client very much wanted it in the film.

So I’m standing across the street taking its picture. As I was working an employee of the store came over to me with a strange question: “You’re American? Would you like to meet an old man who was a good friend of Miss Gustafsson way back when they were both teenagers?”

Of course I would. Any friend of Miss Gustafsson would be a friend of mine.

He took me upstairs and I met the old gentleman in question. He told me how they had both, right around the time of the end of World War I, worked together at NK, a couple of kids, in the same department.

Of course, he didn’t call her Miss Gustafsson; he called her by her first name, Greta.

One day an ad agency person – yes, they had ad agencies in Sweden even then, nearly a century ago – an ad agency guy came through their workplace. He was looking for a comely female employee they might be able to use in their newspaper advertising.

Truth is, Miss Gustafsson was then a bit more on the plump side than she was later, but she was selected to pose for the ads.

It could only happen in Hollywood – or in Stockholm. A movie director liked her pictures in the paper and she suddenly found herself embarked on an amazing film career. It was clear that the name “Gustafsson” had to go; she became Greta Garbo.

“Anna Christie,” “Grand Hotel,” “Anna Karenina,” “Camille” and “Ninotchka,” among other film classics, turned Miss Gustafsson into one of the great legends of screen history.

She later stated that she had never said “I want to be alone,” though that had become sort of her trademark. What she had said, she carefully explained, was that she wanted to be left alone, which was quite different.

This week, because of the huge snowstorms in various parts of our country, I recommend Willow's winter poetry over at Willow Manor. (As the child said in "The Winter's Tale": "A sad tale's best for winter.")

Monday, December 7, 2009

An Award from Raisin Chronicles?

My thanks, Jeanne. I'm new enough as a bloggoist -- tho old enough as an egoist -- to be quite pleased with such a gift. Joyeux, as they say in Bordeaux, Noel!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright,
In your Cadillac that night.
It's clear - no need for judge or jury -
'Twas "woman scorned" who brought the fury.
--William Blake (sort of)

Bicker Stumper:
(Michael, that is)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I’ve always been a fan of recliners – got one in the living-room and one in the bedroom.

I come home at night and there’s this friend, my recliner, good to look at with its sharp, traditional styling, welcoming me with the promise of deep comfort. But truth is, the one in the bedroom, after years of faithful service, had reached a state of near collapse. It was pretty well worn out.

Look who’s talking. :-)

So I shopped around for a new one – on the internet, naturally.

The price range for such items surprised me. Some good-looking recliners were advertised for under 200 dollars; others were over the thousand-clam mark. Yet they looked about the same.

I decided to get a cheap one; a recliner is pretty much a recliner, Ned’s pa? I bought from a well-known business organization that will be nameless except that its advertising motto is “save money, live better.”

Well, I saved money. As for the rest…

When I filled out the order, there was one line of small print that should have represented to me a huge red flag waving energetically in the breeze. It read: “Some assembly required.”

As Alfred E Newman used to say: What, me worry? There should be no problem, I thought to myself; I’m as good a handyman as any average guy – which is probably, unfortunately, true.

It started off badly. The thing arrived in two huge boxes, each weighing a ton. By the way, have you noticed that many businesses these days describe delivery of their products, especially the large ones, as “curbside delivery.” In other words, they just dump the stuff in front of your house or garage and what happens after that is somebody’s business else.

After I had struggled to get the two huge boxes inside, I began the job of putting the various pieces together. After an hour or so I remembered a documentary I saw recently about the building of Hoover Dam. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate – assembling that recliner was not as difficult as building that dam – but it was only a matter of degree.

As Plato, or maybe it was Archimedes, once remarked: cheap is cheap. With a more expensive recliner if there were some assembly, my guess is that pieces that were supposed to fit together would actually FIT TOGETHER!

That, I was to learn, was not necessarily the case with cheap recliners. But I had saved money.

It was just as well that it was for the bedroom; the lashup that resulted, a recliner with one arm-rest drooping down in a forlorn way and the other sticking up at an odd angle, would not have contributed to the artistic and sophisticated, not to mention upscale, décor of my living-room – which has little enough such décor as it is.

I’d invite people over to see my new recliner, but I’d be afraid someone might try to sit on it. :-D

Each week I'd like to mention a blog I especially enjoyed. This week it's the way the Peach Tart spontaneously burst into dance while in line at Urban Outfitters. Check it out.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Hong Kong Adventure

A number of years ago I was shooting a film in Hong Kong.

The script called for a sequence with a Chinese farmer and his son, to be shot on a farm well outside the city. I had permission to shoot on the farm for only one day, Sunday, so we had to start early Sunday morning.

The actor playing the farmer was already at the location. With my crew I was waiting for the arrival of the boy who had been hired to play the part of the farmer’s son and who was to come with his mother. The mom, luckily, spoke good English. She would spend the day taking care of the boy while we worked. But they were late.

We sat there and waited.

Whoever first said that time was money must have been thinking about film production. We waited some more.

Finally, I could see the two of them hurrying toward us. The mother apologized profusely; the lad had slept late. Fine, I said, get in. Let’s go.

As we started off, the woman had a request. Her son had had no breakfast. Couldn’t we get something? He could eat it while we drove to the location.

If you’ve ever spent a very early Sunday morning in Hong Kong – and who hasn’t? – you are aware that the town is closed up just about as tight as a drum. However, I did espy a small hole-in-the-wall sort of place that seemed to be open. It had a sign in front that read “Portuguese Cakes.”

I had no idea what those were but any port in a storm, as the saying goes. I gave some money to my assistant and told him to get something for the kid’s breakfast.

We waited some more.

When the assistant showed up I was startled to see that he had a large tray loaded with half-a-dozen containers of the aforesaid cakes. It seems that a Portuguese cake, at least in Hong Kong, was a variation on the cream-puff theme: each container had a sizable piece of cake on the bottom with a whopping amount of thick whipped cream on the top. It was difficult just to have to look at such stuff early in the morning.

I believe that kid had never tasted anything like those “cakes” before; he ate them all, and with gusto.

To get back to our production, no one had told me that the farm, our location, was on top of a hill. Nor that the only way to get to it was on a small winding road – which zigged off to the left, then zagged off to the right, etc., etc.

The inevitable happened.

Our boy actor suddenly let loose with a monumental upchuck, probably of a dimension never before seen in that part of the Orient.

The rear seat of our vehicle – and unfortunately not just the rear seat – was covered with gobs of partially-digested gateaux portugais, which had somehow become transmogrified into something rather like Elmer’s Glue, except that the smell was far worse.

As we continued toward the location, I could only wonder if Scorsese ever had problems like this. :-)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Car Shame

I’m ashamed of my automobile.

How do you think it makes me feel? To have to drive around in a ten-year-old vehicle without a sun (or, as far as that goes, moon) roof, with doors that have to be opened with a key, and without a system that would show me my global position?

It’s humiliating, that’s what it is.

I don’t have any strange woman with a soothing, cultivated voice emanating from my dashboard telling me how to drive. I don’t have digital maps to study (while I drive) that indicate where my favorite restaurant is to be found; I don’t have basics like a huge, ear-shattering surround-sound speaker system. (My car doesn’t even have a heated steering wheel.) The list of things my present vehicle doesn’t have goes on and on.

All I have is a 10-year-old vehicle like the above that is good to look at (the design of the ’99 model was classic and holds up nicely today), works well, never causes headaches or problems, and gets top highway mpgs.

And I'm fairly convinced that it could last another 10 years.

Surely a highly successful business entrepreneur like me (ha!) should instead have a very expensive, spiffy, luxury car with all the panoply of gadgets, gizmos and other often useless accessories that so many of the newer models have. Without such items, how will I impress people as I drive around?

As I say, it’s humiliating. But I guess I'll put up with the humiliation for a few more years. :-)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Death of Cordelia

Fourteen years, that's an elderly lady in cat years, a long life -- and in this case a happy one.
The vet referred to her as a "kitty." Look at her. Stately, dignified, Cordelia was not a "kitty."

Definitely a member of the family, she will be missed.

She was named after King Lear's favorite daughter. Lear: "Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low." Very true.

If there is a cat heaven somewhere, she, of all felines, will have made it in.

"If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans." James Herriot

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Gourmet Cuisine

Dedene recently published a post about the problems she sometimes has with the French language. Took me back a few decades.

The first day I arrived in France, years ago, my knowledge of the language was -- 'ow you say? -- rudimentary. Later I was to work in France and live in France and I became reasonably fluent, though I still manage to make my share of grammatical errors I assure you.

Anyway, that first day, knowing very little French, I went to a restaurant. I was starving. I was ready for one of those great French meals I had read about. I stared at the menu. There was nothing resembling an English word anywhere to be seen. I wanted to order something typically French but I had literally no idea what any of the dishes were that were listed on that sheet.

I decided to go with one of the items that seemed to be perhaps more French than anything else listed. It was "choucroute." It had such a Gallic feel to it. I could pronounce it okay, even if I didn't know what it was. I was sure it was a classic example of gourmet cuisine -- a piece, as the saying goes, of resistance.

When the waiter brought it to me I nearly fell off my chair. My first day in France, my first meal in a fine, expensive French restaurant, and I had ordered -- SAUERKRAUT!

Took a few days to get over that experience. :-)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

My Friend Sybil

I'd like you to meet my friend Sybil.

She's our state's, Connecticut's, version of Paul Revere.

During the American Revolutionary War, Sybil Ludington rode her horse through the night for some forty miles...

Alerting everyone to the attack on the town of Danbury.

You'll find her here, right in the center of town. No need to hurry; she's here every day.

In 1777, the British landed near Westport and took this road north.

At the time, Danbury was a sleepy farm village but it had been selected to play a significant role in the Revolution.

It was an important supply depot, a town loaded with stores of all kinds desperately needed by the Americans, and the Redcoats were out to destroy it.

On the night of April 26, 1777, after hearing of the attack on Danbury, 16-year-old Sybil took it upon herself to ride her horse named "Star" to alert the countryside.

Members of the militia, farm boys, everyone in the area, heard her shout, "They're burning Danbury!""

A proper young lady of that era, she rode sidesaddle all the way.

When she returned home the next morning, soaked from the rain and exhausted, the soldiers had assembled and marched to the Battle of Ridgefield.

The Redcoats fired their cannon down the main street of Ridgefield.

One of their cannon balls struck Keeler Tavern...

Where it remains to this day.

Sybil was later congratulated by just about everyone, including George Washington.

Much later she was put on a stamp, back in the days when you could mail a letter for eight cents. :-)

Sybil Ludington, a name to remember.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"La Mordida" Lives!

In a recent post about bribes, I mentioned the various names that exist for the process of extracting money from you -- when you don't want to pay up.

In Italy it's "La Bustarella," the little envelope. In West Africa they call it "A bit of dash." Latin America employs the term "La Mordida," the bite.

And it seems to be still going on.

Recently some American tourists, driving around Cancun, were stopped by the police and charged with drunk driving, though they had not been drinking. It was explained that the cops would have to take them to jail unless they came up with three hundred dollars.

They paid up. The N Y Times reports that "The officers' 'mordida,' which translates as 'a little bite,' is standard practice in Mexico."

But one of the women in the car was a state senator from Minnesota; she began a campaign, writing officials and news organizations on both sides of the border. She ultimately received a check for 4,000 pesos, about $300.

So it seems you can still get bitten, but you can also get unbitten.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


There’s an interesting piece in the N Y Times today by Peter Mayle. You remember Peter Mayle – “A Year in Provence”?

He’s writing about the strange custom we have called “Halloween,” something that, up until a couple of decades ago, the French had never heard of. But they have it now; they call it “l’alowine.”

I remember that years ago we had French au pairs over to help take care of the children. Toward the end of October each au pair would be mystified by all that was going on at that time of year: folks with ghoulish costumes, wearing masks, a strange emphasis on pumpkins, etc.

I would try to explain. You have the same holiday we do, All-Saints Day, also known as All-Hallows Day. In France you call it Toussaint. Well, the evening before a big holy day it’s sort of normal to have some fun; you weren’t supposed to have fun on a big holy day. So we have this celebration that is known as All-Hallows Eve, now known as Halloween.

When I mentioned pumpkins, they would say: I see, soup. No, I explained, you cut up the pumpkin and place it in the window. That wasn’t much help for them to understand the holiday.
I didn’t tell them of my belief that three-quarters of the children over here taking part in these shenanigans have no idea why or what the holiday means.

But gradually this custom of ours has drifted across the Atlantic. Mayle mentions the first time, years ago, a French friend of his heard someone at the door toward the end of October and when he opened it he was astonished to see bloodstained ghouls and vampires, witches, a variety of evil spirits and even one tiny kid dressed as a pumpkin, all calling for bonbons.

Today, evidently, the celebration has firmly caught on in France. Mayle recently saw a sign in a store window: “N’oubliez pas l’alowine!” “Don’t forget Halloween!”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Paris Portraits

I’ve never actually dipped a madeleine in my tea – primarily because I don’t have any madeleines (and not much tea) – but I had a distinctly Proustian reaction to the “Paris Portraits” exhibition that ran at a local museum some months ago. It took me back to memories of an earlier time as I walked among the pictures of famous Parisians of the past.

Flash back a number of years. An eager young writer-producer, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, was on a first assignment for a major production company: I was to write and produce a film on Paris, which would have a sequence devoted to the American expatriates of the 1920s. It was for Universal-International and was to be titled “One Man’s Paris.”

Doing my research on the scene, I was pleased to learn that Sylvia Beach, another famous name from those Parisian roaring twenties, was still around. I phoned her and asked if we could get together. She suggested meeting at the cafe named Le Select. The Select! That rang a bell. There couldn’t have been a better place for such a meeting.

“’Café Select,’ he told the driver, ‘Boulevard Montparnasse.’” (Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”)

Cafes then were, and to a degree still are, central to Paris life – writers wrote in them, painters painted them – and the Select (which has only been around for eighty years or so) represented the best traditions of the Parisian café. Sylvia Beach arrived and we had a wonderful conversation. She was then an elderly lady, but was full of youthful energy and vitality and she became very interested in the documentary I was there to make. She knew everything about the era in question, about all those earlier expatriate Americans, where they used to live and the cafes where they used to hang out.

La Coupole was just across the street, and that was just steps away from La Rotonde and Le Dome at the next corner, but Le Select was the jewel of the crown – not just for the Americans but for people who came from all over the world. It was indeed a pleasure, sitting in that famous café, to have pointed out to me just where in the place Henry Miller used to meet Anais Nin for afternoon drinks, where Luis Bunuel sat, and which was young Pablo Picasso’s favorite spot. In our 21st century groups of Japanese tourists continue to show up, asking to see Hemingway’s table.

No question, the Select had its attractions, but it was no more interesting than the lady I was talking with. Living in Paris at the end of World War I, a New Jersey girl named Sylvia Beach had opened an English language bookstore and lending library that thousands came to know as Shakespeare and Company. She started her store just as the franc dropped in value and the exchange rate became very favorable so the shop flourished. It became a hangout for Americans.

As I spoke with her, I remembered that Shakespeare and Company had gained considerable fame after she more or less single-handedly published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922, as a result of Joyce's inability to get an edition out in English-speaking countries. She had gone into debt to bankroll the publication. Joyce would later show his gratitude by financially stranding her when he signed with another publisher, leaving Sylvia Beach in debt and suffering severe losses from the publication of that book.

Things went from bad to worse for her because of the depression of the thirties. She managed to stay open because André Gide organized a group of writers into a club called Friends of Shakespeare and Company, which got a lot of publicity and helped the business to improve.

Then came World War II. The shop tried to remain open after the fall of Paris, but by the end of 1941 Sylvia Beach was forced to close. She kept her books hidden in a vacant apartment. It’s now a fable of our time that, as Paris was being liberated, Ernest Hemingway – reckless, flamboyant, heroic – drove up in a jeep to liberate Sylvia and her bookstore.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bribing Letterman

We’ve had quite a discussion of bribes recently within these four walls, and while it was going on I got to thinking there was another bribe case, a famous one, taking place at the same time out in the real world.

Of course, the David Letterman situation has more to do with criminal extortion than just a bribe, but the similarity was striking.

Money was demanded of a person. This called for a decision: should he pay or not pay?

If he did not pay, he was assured there would be bad consequences; personal information would be released that could be disastrous for his career, as well as threatening for his family life.

Letterman decided not to pay. I have no idea what the personal info was. Surely there must be one or two other cases where showbiz celebrities have fooled around with members of the opposite sex, so that can’t be it. Perhaps it has to do with things of a more serious nature. I suppose this will all be coming out in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, this much is true. David Letterman was told he had to pay up – in a way it was very similar to being forced to pay a bribe – and he refused to do so.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


We’ve been reading a lot about the bribing of politicians lately; seems to be a lot of it going on. And not just in Chicago.

They tell me that bribery is a crime. What I don’t understand is this: if it’s a crime to solicit, to ask for or demand, a bribe, is it also a crime to pay the bribe – even if you have no choice in the matter?

Let’s go back a few years. I had a great job at the time, traveling around the world making motion pictures for major film companies and business organizations. I loved it. To be given interesting, challenging assignments, to stay in the best hotels, all expenses paid by happy, smiling clients and sponsors – surely there wasn’t a better way to earn a living.

It was great, but there was a fly in the vichyssoise. To get in to these various countries you had to deal with the local bureaucracy and that meant, among other things, you had to go through customs.

For the tourist in those days, going through customs overseas was a simple process. The American passport, the sincere smile, and you usually won yourself the little chalk mark on your luggage that showed you had passed the test and were allowed in the country.

Ah, but when you tried to waltz through with seven or eight cases of motion picture and sound equipment, which is the way I used to travel…

It was then a fairly common sight in foreign airports: groups of sweating, worried-looking men and women struggling to load large, shiny metal cases into the micro-Renault or mini-Fiat or whatever other transportation was all that was available for rental at that particular airport.

They were easily identifiable as film-makers – back when professional movies were made with film cameras, not tiny digital devices like today’s camcorders – because that meant lugging large, expensive, sensitive equipment all around the world.

And they also had to have with them a number of cases loaded with 35mm wide-screen color negative, which was needed for the production of theatrical-distribution motion pictures.

In addition to all this, there was that difficulty I mentioned earlier: going through customs.

Whether it was the douane or the zoll, or whatever other term that was employed in the local language, you had to pass through customs to get into the country, and the wonderful thing about customs was that you never knew what would happen.

There were always little men in weird uniforms waiting at the airport to shake you up.

The customs service, in any nation you cared to name, was an official organization of considerable importance. It often came complete with some sort of Captain Midnight uniform for the personnel, along with a little pennant to hang up on the wall which usually featured a Latin phrase.

I offer the following examples. First, this happened in a German-speaking country. “Guten Morgen,” I said. I speak fluent German, as long as it stays on this level. “Guten Morgen,” replied the customs officer, who you would have sworn was Sig Rumann in an old Marx Brothers movie. He had a broad smile. Customs officials smile a lot, when they know they’ve got you.

I explained, at a somewhat slower pace due to the dismaying intricacies of the language, that I had come to pick up my cases of equipment. I handed him official-looking document. He stamped it with official-looking stamp and gave it to official-looking flunky. Flunky wheeled in equipment.

“All is in order,” he said. “Come back Tuesday and you can have it.”

“Tuesday!” I cried. “This is Friday!”

Another broad smile. “The man who must sign has left, since it is late Friday afternoon. He does not work Saturday or Sunday. Monday, of course, is a national holiday. Come back Tuesday and you can pick it up.”

So I went to the hotel and spent four days running up the expense account. I had hoped to hire people and have the entire sequence, the most important scenes in the movie, completed in a week. The production schedule was pretty well shot and I hadn’t even started.

But the truth is, the problem usually had to do with money.

In a number of countries, there was a routine you had to go through, and it was often pretty much the same: one of the men would say that everything was in order but there was just one thing: a little something for the customs officer.

The request was never a surprise. In my years of handling various film assignments in all the European countries, throughout the Far East, the Middle East, South America, etc., I had frequently been asked for “a little something.”

In Latin America they call it “la mordida,” the bite. In Italy, it’s “la bustarella,” the little envelope. In West Africa it’s known as “a bit of dash.”

And what did I do about it, when they put this mordida on me? I went along. I handed over the money. Fighting City Hall was tough enough back home, but in a foreign land an angry customs official could easily “lose” a case or two of expensive camera gear.

Or a few handfuls of sand thrown into the cases was all that it would have taken to have brought the entire expedition to a grinding halt.

The question I’m wondering about today is, if this was extortion, a crime, was I also committing a crime by paying the money? It’s worth mentioning that the sums in question were distinctly minor-league: in those days something like forty dollars or so was the usual demand, easily covered by the production budget. But I never felt I had a choice, to pay or not to pay.

Well, if it was a crime, I suppose the statute of limitations has run out by now.

But again, it was the variety of the customs experience that made it challenging, and interesting. In Lisbon, no “bite” was asked for, but the officials spent what seemed to be an hour adding up figures for the customs charges, which included a number of additional impossible-to-understand assessments, and they then presented me with a bill for the total – which came to $9.38 in American money.

In Denmark they charged me nothing but before letting me through, the customs officer told me a joke. (All Danes knew of the success of Victor Borge in the States and would tell you a joke immediately upon learning you were an American.)

The other problem with customs was created by the film I brought with me. Surely the customs chaps should have realized that if you’re there to shoot a film you’ve got to have some film to shoot. But there was something about a sealed box, a box that could not be opened, that went against everything they believed in.

(If the film was unexposed, the average customs official would display an intense desire to open each roll and examine it to make sure it was unexposed.)

One sat down to play the customs game with trepidation; it was a game they usually won. As I mentioned, the customs services often would have an official Latin phrase on the pennant that was hanging on the wall behind them. They all seemed to have an unofficial one, too: “Omnes Chartas Tenemus.” (“We Hold All the Cards.”)

Ever find yourself in a similar situation, where you had to pay a bribe and felt you had no other choice?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I always enjoyed reading “Winnie the Pooh” to my kids; it gave me a chance to act out the parts.

They’ve grown past Winnie the Pooh age now and would no longer be interested, but when they were small they got a kick out of such readings. Eeyore was easy; you just dropped your voice an octave or so and added overtones of melancholia and weltschmerz. Pooh, humble and naïve, wasn’t difficult either. Piglet’s lines were delivered in a higher register as he was lively and full of spirit.

So I was interested indeed to read that A A Milne has published a new book of the series: “Return to the Hundred Acre Wood.”

Seemed a bit odd since A A Milne died a half-century or so ago.

Turns out that it’s a new book in the series all right, but it’s by someone else, David Benedictus. If you’ve got to do a sequel of a classic, his is the way to do it. He has done a remarkable job of capturing the tone, the voice, the spirit of the original work, and the new illustrator does the same – you’d swear the pictures in the new book are by Ernest Shepard, the original artist who turned Milne’s creatures into world-famous icons.

But there’s a question.

Should a great classic be rewritten? Why? After all, the original stories are available to today’s youngest generation; the Pooh characters and their activities seem fresh and new to little kids, even though they may be a bit tired and outworn to us oldsters.

The only change in the new version is this: there’s a Pooh Corner newcomer. Lottie the Otter fits right in with the other critters.

They’ve done sequels of classics many times. “Peter Pan” was recreated in this way, and of course there was a kerfuffle when a sequel to “Gone With the Wind” was published.

What’s your opinion? Should they have left the “Hundred-Acre Wood” alone, or is it a good idea to come up with a new, well-done version of the stories?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Traitor -- But a Connecticut Hero

Just about everyone today is familiar with Benedict Arnold, the American general of Revolutionary days, and how his very name has become synonymous with the word “traitor.”

But not everyone is aware of Arnold's record of true heroism in the history of my state, Connecticut.

After his heroic service at the Battle of Ridgefield, he was made a major general; no officer in the American army had a better record of courage and leadership.

History cannot tell us the exact moment when Arnold later turned against the United States (and tried to sell West Point to the British), but it is clear that over time he had developed a deep hatred for things American. His attack on New London in 1781 was astonishing: that was his home – he was born and raised there – and he put the entire region to the torch in an attack that was a notoriously cruel and vicious operation.

Benedict Arnold is no longer a hero in the Nutmeg State, but there's no question that he was a giant of a man and a fascinating figure of Connecticut history.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Who Wrote Shakespeare?

News comes that Shakespeare's church, Holy Trinity in Stratford, which houses the Bard's burial site, is in danger of caving in. Funds are sought to keep this from happening.

This raises the question of his grave -- and the strange poem carved on it.

There are four lines of doggerel, which end like this: "And curst be he that moves my bones."

The fact that the little epitaph is of such poor quality lends support to those who claim that someone else, not the person buried in Shakespeare's grave, wrote the Shakespeare plays.

Afer all, they claim, could anyone capable of writing this trivial, poor-quality doggerel possibly be the person who wrote the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that are the greatest works in our literary history?

It doesn't convince me, but it's an interesting question. Do you have an opinion?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hudson Second; French First

This month there has been quite a to-do, not to mention a brouhaha – in other words, a fuss – over the fact that it’s an anniversary: it was in September four hundred years ago that Hank Hudson sailed up the river of the same name.

From the local paper: “A fleet of 18 Dutch boats sailed into the New York harbor on Tuesday to begin month-long celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of New York by Dutch Captain Henry Hudson.”

The claim is often made that it was Henry Hudson who was the first European to discover New York; that seems to be what is taught in schools.

But it’s wrong.

The score card should read like this: Hudson second; French first.

It’s simply a fact that not many people are aware that long before Hank H. showed up in New York in 1609, the French Navy had much earlier been there, done that.

It was in 1524 that the French arrived in what is now NYC. Think of it. That’s 85 years before Hudson!

With the warship La Dauphine leading the fleet, the French, who had been sent by the French King Frances I, arrived in New York harbor and gave what is now New York City the name New Angouleme (in honor of the French King, who came from there). It was New Angouleme long, very long, before it was New Amsterdam.

You learn almost nothing about this in schools. Most New Yorkers have no idea that New York was once New Angouleme. But that’s okay; I’ve been to Angouleme and asked around. Most people there don’t seem to be aware of it either.

So here’s a toast of cognac (from the Angouleme region) to Henry Hudson and his trip, 400 years ago, up the river that bears his name. But as far as what the local paper recently wrote – that he discovered New York – that is simply not true.

Vive la Nouvelle Angouleme!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ad Campaigns that SELL!

When I was a boy – back during the Franco-Prussian War – my mother would occasionally take me to the store to pick up some ice cream for dinner that evening.

The guy behind the counter, enthusiastically digging into one of the tubs with his scoop and then packing the ice cream into a cardboard container, remarked to me, “It’s the fact that it’s hand-packed that makes it taste so good!”

Well, I was only nine (or maybe seven), but I was already beginning to question what was said to me by older folks, also known as adults. Surely, I thought, it’s the quality ingredients that make it taste good; whether it’s packed by hand or not would probably not make all that much difference.

Reason I’m thinking about this today is that I have been impressed again with the never-ending desire of salespeople and advertising folks to come up with hot sales points to sell their products -- something special and exclusive about their item that no other product has.

But of course there aren’t all that many exclusive features, so they have to make up stuff.

Surely everyone must be familiar with Bud Light’s newest slogan: “Drinkability.” I worked a lot with ad agencies over the years, and I’m sure the agency working on this account sweated for many hours to try to come up with something special, something unique, about Bud Light.

Not all that easy since it’s pretty much the same as other light beers.

But they hit pay dirt. “Drinkability,” shouted someone in on of those meetings. Everyone loved it. It was something, they claimed, that no other beer had. (Presumably other light beers had Chewability.)

And today I noticed that Michelob, a beer I had previously respected, also has a new slogan: it has a Smooth-Pour Bottle. This might seem to the uninitiated to be not all that important, but it’s evidently vital; it makes all the difference.

It “pours easy for a smooth taste,” claims Michelob. Other beers pour roughly, making them taste bad.

And you may have seen the beer bottle whose label changes color so you know it’s cold. What a step forward. Some of us old-timers remember when you actually had to feel the bottle to see if it was cold. And what a disappointment it was, after you had a bottle of beer in your fridge for a day or so, to notice that there was no change of color in the bottle’s label, thus giving you no hint as to its temperature. Or, as far as that goes, its drinkability.

Can you suggest any other ad campaigns based on wildly irrelevant claims?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ford Ad

The Ford Motor Company has released a carefully planned Ford ad campaign to an eagerly-waiting world.

Their slogan, currently appearing everywhere – in print, TV, the works – is “Why Ford. Why Now.”

Which leads one who taught English for years (i.e., me) to ask: How come no question mark at the end of a question? Why not? Why not now?

Or am I being too difficult?

What’s your opinion?

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Ever feel a bit hesitant ordering a meal in an ethnic restaurant? Well, next time you find yourself ordering in a Russian restaurant, say, here’s a simple way to amaze your friends and startle the waiter.

(Though it could, of course, amaze the waiter and startle your friends. Either way, you come out of it looking good.)

You see, there’s a huge, little-known secret about the Russian language. Little-known except perhaps to eighty billion Russians, or whatever the population number currently is.

Most Americans don’t know about it. Those who do don’t seem to care. Well, it’s time all that changed.

Russian has a letter in its alphabet, a letter that we don’t have. It’s the letter “shch.” That’s one letter. This incredibly important, not to say vital, part of the language of the old Romanov dynasty is easily available to anyone of the Yankee persuasion, even those of us who don’t indulge much in foreign languages – which is to say, just about everybody.

If you say “fresh cheese,” you’ve pronounced it. So you can see how easy it is.

Example: surely we all know the word “tovarich,” which means comrade. Only the Russkies don’t say tovarich; they say tovarishch. And it’s just as easy to say it right.

Now, as for that meal in the Russian restaurant. Amaze your Russian waiter by saying that, unlike the others in your group who enjoy beet soup and who have ordered borsht, you’ll have the borshch. He may burst into tears, suddenly recalling the halcyon days in the dear old Soviet Union, but there’s no question he’ll be impressed.

He may give you an extra dollop of sour cream.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


In a recent story about the life and times of Teddy Kennedy, a reporter wrote that in various parts of the country during his campaigns some people would come up to him, pleased to report that they had actually understood some of what he had said, in spite of his Boston accent.

Ah, that New England twang.

Takes me back a few, quite a few, years. In those days I did a daily radio show. (Strictly small time local broadcasting, I hasten to admit; not coast-to-coast.) I was from California, but I emcee’d a radio quiz show in a Massachusetts city.

I would ask a question and folks would phone in their answers. If they answered correctly, they would win a fantastic prize – like twenty bucks or so.

One day one of my questions was, “If you studied semiaquatic amphibians of the order Anura, what would you be studying?”

The answer was frogs.

Nobody phoned in with the correct answer. After a suitable period, I gave the answer on the air: “You’d be studying frogs,” I said. We then went into music to get ready for the next question.

The switchboard operator rushed in: “You can’t go on to the next question till you give the answer to the current question!” she shouted. Seems the switchboard had lit up with a huge number of calls, all from people who had not understood the answer.

I picked up a phone and spoke with one of the callers. “What would you be studying?” she asked. “You’d be studying frogs,” I replied. "F-R-O-G-S.”

“Oh,” she cried. “Frags. I see. It would be frags.”

So help me, that’s the way they pronounced “frogs” in that part of Massachusetts. I realized then that, as far as New Englanders were concerned, I was an announcer with a speech impediment.

Ever have a problem with regional accents?

Saturday, August 29, 2009


I guess it’s a sign that I’m getting on in years, but I miss the old grammar rules.

I always thought it was easy to determine the intelligence and education, not to mention the acumen and taste, of various people simply by reading what they wrote and how they wrote it.

If they showed they didn’t know basic English grammar -- when to use “it’s” and when to use “its,” for example (see above title) – I thought I had them pretty well figured out as people, even though I had never met them.

But all this has changed. Seated at my ‘pewter and logged on to the web, I can see that an entirely new language is being created. It’s a strange dialect, presumably based on English, which has taken over, and it pays no obeisance to, or even recognizes, rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling, not to mention capitalization or other outworn concepts. In addition, it relies heavily on acronyms and emoticons.

And yet, the internet folks often seem quite intelligent and manage to communicate very effectively using this new vernacular with their chat friends.

During my pedagogical years I was at times dismayed to find that such usages as “IIRC” and “IMO,” among others, were occasionally used by students writing their term papers. (No one used an emoticon, however, I’m pleased to add.) So are acronyms and emoticons, accompanied by a total lack of rules of English grammar, simply a short-term, ephemeral phenomenon, specific to internet communication, or does all this represent the real future of our written English language?

By the way, scientific research has established that “ACRONYM” stands for “A Crazy Reminder of Names You Misplaced.”

Question is, is this where our language is headed? Will this rough-hewn, stripped-down internet argot become Standard English one of these days? What’s your opinion?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


So the plumber calls and tells me he’ll be at my place next Tuesday some time between 9am and 12noon.

On Tuesday I sit home for a couple of hours waiting for the plumber like a person condemned to house arrest. He calls around 12:30 to apologize, seems he’s running a bit late, but he’ll make it by 2.

As good as his word, he shows up around 2. Evidently he had been too busy to call.

Remarkable. I got to thinking of the business I ran for quite a number of years. If I ever called a client and said I’d come to his office for a meeting next Tuesday and I’d be there some time between 9 and 12, I would never get to see that client again – not even from a distance.

Come on, plumbers, painters, carpet cleaners, refrigerator repairmen, give us a break. Mention a time when you plan to show up and then make an effort to arrive at least within an hour of that time. If you see you’re not going to be able to make it, remember that great invention of Alexander Graham Bell (who invented the Graham Cracker) and give us a call.

Ever have a waiting-for-the-plumber experience?

Monday, August 24, 2009


A propos of nothing, I was thinking recently of a fine dinner I had at a classy French restaurant in New York a few years ago.

You knew it was classy because there was no English translation on the French menu.

As I enjoyed my meal, I noted that there was a table of six nearby; one woman was acting as French translator for the others at the table. She was doing very well till she got to the word “huitres.” (“Huitres” is French for oysters.)

After mulling this over for a while, she said: “Well, it’s eight of something.”


Here’s a movie review of a film I never saw.

I never got around to seeing it, but I’ve often thought of it because it may be unique. The film was “Yes,” released a few years ago, directed by Sally Potter.

We have had scripts before that used verse, usually blank verse. One thinks of Maxwell Anderson and T S Eliot and a few others. But Sally Potter was one courageous director: her movie “Yes” was in rhymed iambic pentameter.

Imagine, a modern film about modern couples and modern problems and situations, in iambic pentameter – Shakespeare’s system, five beats to the line.

The trick, the challenge, for the actors faced with such a verse style was to make highly artificial language sound like natural speech. This was tough enough to do in Shakespeare’s day and it would seem to be a lot tougher for actors today. As one script example, the girl in the film says, “The things they’ve done have not been in my name. I feel no pride. I feel a deepening shame.” You can count out the five beats as you read the line.

I have the feeling – and I could of course be wrong – that the average moviegoer felt such dialogue was simply stilted and rather wooden, perhaps not really caring much about the revolutionary thing the director was attempting to do.

Some critics loved it; others thought it was kind of a mess. “Say ‘No’ to ‘Yes,’” was the way one put it.

But who knows? The movie might ultimately turn out to be some sort of cult classic, in spite of, perhaps even because of, its iambic pentameter approach. In any event, it does seem to be unique.

What’s your opinion?


In my Shakespeare studies, I came across something surprising: hats can talk; they have a language; they can say things.

First off, it’s a bit of a surprise to learn that in Will Shakespeare.’s day people wore their hats indoors. When the Shakespeare acting company, back in the 16th century, put on “Hamlet,” as a f’rinstance, the actors all wore their hats, even though they were supposed to be inside a castle.

So modern producers of Will S.’s plays should have all their actors equipped with headgear, even for the interior scenes.

This, of course, will never happen; no one in a modern audience would understand the reason for it. But it would be authentic.

There’s a fascinating scene in “Hamlet” that points this up beautifully. In Act 5 Osric, a foppish messenger, comes to Prince Hamlet with a message. As is to be expected, he removes his hat – after all, he’s speaking to a Prince.

Hamlet then chides Osric for having his hat off. Modern audiences usually find this scene difficult to understand; isn’t Osric supposed to have his hat off when speaking to royalty?

Well, it’s complicated. Hamlet knows Osric should remove his hat when he first addresses him; that’s normal protocol. But then he should put his hat right back on -- wearing a hat indoors (see above) is normal. So when Osric, in spite of Hamlet’s order to put his hat back on, keeps his hat off, the Prince gets irked. An expected show of respect for authority is now being irritatingly overdone; Hamlet suspects the sincerity of such exaggerated obsequiousness.

Do you think that today it's possible to wear a hat that can convey a message?
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