Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Summer (really, all season ) Talk Shows

This being summer camp season it was inevitable someone would write about “care package wars,” the one-upsmanship parents engage in to be recognized as the best providers of treats and tech products to little Johnnie or Janie to make their stay more comfortable at sleep-away camp. They're also engaged in spy worthy subterfuge to get around camp restrictions on sending care packages to their little loved one (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/fashion/the-care-package-wars.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).

I had low expectations during my nine camper years. My parents were not the type to indulge their kiddies with goodies beyond what they brought with them when they visited camp. I settled for letters or post cards as visible evidence they missed and cared about me. Truth is, my parents weren't big writers, either. They did, however, trek to the Poconos more often than the two visiting days sanctioned by Camp Massad Aleph. They’d spend several weekends during my first five years at summer camp soaking up the culture and heritage of our Zionist camp, enjoying the singing Friday night and the leisurely pace of each Saturday. 

Our son Dan went off to Camp Laurelwood when he was nine. I don’t recall if it was his second or third year there that we copied an ingenious plan to overcome our loneliness at not hearing his voice and possibly his sadness at not hearing ours. We sent him to camp with a tape recorder with instructions to mail back eyewitness audio reports on what was happening in camp. We, in turn, would ship tapes to him of our daily activities. 

A quarter of a century later we updated this idea for our grandson Finley. Browsing through the Hallmark store one day I came across a book of nursery rhymes, each page of which could be recorded by the reader. Gilda and I took turns reading and recording the ditties. Finley has independently taken the book off the shelf to listen to our voices, Allison has told us. 

On the subject of summer camps, I found it quite incredulous to believe this next item, that a Massachusetts camp expelled a teenage girl for kissing her boyfriend. Her parents at first sued the camp and then withdrew the suit. The story has made headlines and newscasts over the last two days. I am sure there is more to this story, but the idea that camp romances could result in expulsion (she was led out of camp by a police officer) besmirches most of my summer memories. 

More From Mel: Here are two more assaults on my given name by Mel Brooks. 

During a February 13, 1975, broadcast of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, Brooks was talking about his movie Young Frankenstein. He said it was an homage to James Whale who directed “all those wonderful Frankenstein movies: Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Son of Frankenstein, The House of Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s Friend, Murray ...”

During one of his 2,000-Year-Old Man routines with Carl Reiner, Brooks recounted how he knew Shakespeare. After insisting Shakespeare was a lousy writer (because of his poor penmanship), Brooks disputed Reiner’s assertion Shakespeare wrote 37 plays. 

Thirty-eight, Brooks insisted. The additional play was titled “Queen Alexandra and Murray.” It bombed. “It closed in Egypt,” said Brooks.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Derek Jeter to the Rescue?

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? 
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” 

Today's “Mrs. Robinson” lyric might substitute Derek Jeter for Jolting Joe.

Derek Jeter might play again for the NY Yankees this weekend. It’s not just the Yankees who need his bat and presence back in the lineup. Major League Baseball needs Jeter. With his clean cut image and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, his drug-free career, Jeter will be called upon to rescue America’s one-time pastime from its steroid and performance enhanced nightmare. 

Forty-five years ago, when Paul Simon included Joe DiMaggio in his iconic send-up of Mrs. Robinson, it perplexed many, including DiMaggio. Simon, who attends many games at Yankee Stadium, explained in a March 9, 1999, New York Times Op-Ed piece after the “Yankee Clipper’s” death a day earlier, that the line was meant as a sincere tribute to DiMaggio's unpretentious heroic stature, in a time when popular culture magnifies and distorts how we perceive our heroes.  

"In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters,” wrote Simon, “we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his (former) wife (Marilyn Monroe) and the power of his silence” (http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/09/opinion/the-silent-superstar.html).

Many thought Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers was cut in the mold of Jeter. We have learned otherwise. We already knew Alex Rodriguez was no Derek Jeter. Fans of the NY Mets and baseball were caught off-guard when pitching sensation Matt Harvey said in recent interviews that he wanted to be like Jeter, not the Jeter who has conscientiously led his team to five World Series championships without a hint of scandal or bravado, but rather he wanted to date fashion models like Jeter, to own the best bachelor apartment in Manhattan like Jeter, to sign a $200 million contract like Jeter (http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/mets-ace-matt-harvey-derek-jeter-model-article-1.1401745). Some have excused the 24-year-old’s comments as the musings of a still immature player who has yet to complete his first full year in the big leagues. Of course, Jeter never publicly made any such pronouncements after he joined the Yankees just before his twentieth birthday. Harvey also posed nude for ESPN The Magazine. Harvey seems to be channeling A-Rod, not Jeter.

Jeter is not the only star who can soften the glare of the negative spotlight baseball is under. His teammate Mariano Rivera, who received the adulation of fans and other players during last week’s All-Star Game, showed again why he is respected. WFAN reported Wednesday that when Rivera noticed a portrait of 2011 MVPs Ryan Braun (National League) and Justin Verlander (American League) hanging in the visitors’ locker room of the Texas Rangers Monday, he told an attendant the picture should be removed. It was gone the next day. 

It might be, probably is, asking too much of Jeter to be an impact player during the last third of the season. He’s already a freak of nature for performing at the level he has these last few years as he approaches his fifth decade of life. Perhaps we should be content that Rivera has defied Father Time. Jeter has earned his place as an honored and honorable face of baseball. Then again, unlike Alex Rodriguez, as the post-season has shown, Jeter does not let pressure affect his game. He just might be the catalyst the Yankees and baseball need to make this season memorable in a good way.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Parlez-vous Français

Did you see the "Lives" article in last Sunday’s NY Times magazine section, “Those who can't teach”? It recounted the woefully inadequate experience of a budding author trying to tutor a near 40 year old immigrant woman to pass the English section of the GED test so she could become a cosmetician.

The “tutee,” as the writer called her, repeatedly failed the essay portion of the test. Eventually, the tutor moved away. Under a new tutor the tutee passed. Here's how:  

“Together they would construct a vaguely worded essay. My tutee would memorize it, and depending upon the test’s essay question, she would alter it slightly. Weeks after I moved away, she used this method, and it worked; she finally passed.”

As I read that scheme I was reminded of Gilda's experience with college French. As part of its liberal arts degree, Brooklyn College required proficiency in a foreign language. Gilda took French at Erasmus Hall High School. She passed the Regents after her junior year. She took art instead of French as a senior, not realizing she would need to take a language placement exam when she enrolled in Brooklyn College. As luck would have it, she recalled little of her French come test time. It was a mostly multiple choice exam, so Gilda fell back on a tried and true formula—answering questions in sequence, a b c d a b c d a b c d ...

She was flabbergasted when she was ranked at the second highest level. She was assigned to a French literature class. Easy enough to hide out during class but tests were in essay form. What to do?

One of her Russell House (like a sorority) sisters, a French major, volunteered to write a flawless essay for her based on the book the class had read. Gilda would memorize it. Even if it didn't exactly correspond to the teacher’s question, she  was bound to get a passing grade just for form. Indeed, she copped a B in the class.

Gilda was reluctant to disclose this aberration on her stellar academic record but I assured her the statute of limitations had long passed on this transgression. Her diploma would not be rescinded. I hope.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Jackie Robinson Story vs. 42

Having just seen 42, the biopic of Jackie Robinson’s struggle to break the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947, last Sunday, I was intrigued to watch the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story starring Jackie Robinson that was aired on Turner Classic Movies Friday afternoon. 

Biopics are usually quite syrupy. They play loose with some facts. Comparing two cinema treatments of the same story left me perplexed as to which one was more accurate. In some instances, both films produced shoddy history.

Take, for example, the simple facts of when, how and where the Brooklyn Dodgers clinched the pennant in 1947. In The Jackie Robinson Story, the Dodgers clinched in front of their home fans at Ebbets Field. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning and a man on second base, Robinson tied the score with a double. He scored the deciding run when the next batter singled him home. 

In 42, the Dodgers were shown playing the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Robinson hit a late inning home run to win the game. General manager Branch Rickey, the driving force behind baseball integration, was not at the game. He was depicted back in Brooklyn listening to a broadcast as he never played in or watched a baseball game on a Sunday, a promise he had made to his mother, a devout Methodist, as was Rickey. 

So here’s the truth—Robinson had little to do with winning the pennant-clinching game. Actually, no Dodger deserves credit. The Dodgers captured the National League flag that year after the second place team, the St. Louis Cardinals, lost a night game at home on September 22 to the Chicago Cubs. For good measure, the Dodgers went out and won their game the next day against the New York Giants. The score was 6-1. Robinson played only part of the game. He went hitless in two at bats. He had no runs batted in. He was removed from the game after batting in the fourth inning, with the Dodgers leading 2-1. 

September 23 was a Tuesday. Rickey would have been at the game. It was, after all, a home game, at Ebbets Field. 

FYI, Dan Bankhead picked up a four-inning save for the Dodgers on September 23. Bankhead was an Afro-American teammate of Robinson. 

In The Jackie Robinson Story, a spring training exhibition game between the Dodgers and their farm team, The Montreal Royals, had to be cancelled because the city of Sanford, Fla., would not permit white and Negro players to be on a field at the same time. In case you’re a little startled, yes, that’s the same Sanford, Fla., that George Zimmerman hails from. I’ll let you draw any conclusions as to how prejudices have changed, if at all, in the ensuing 66 years.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pitching Our of a Funk

I was in a funk most of Sunday afternoon.

Before you jump to any conclusions, I was not depressed about our new bed. My back was almost free of pain after just one night. 

The other day my friend and former research partner Leo, who celebrated his 92nd birthday last week, sent me a note from Tucson asking how I was doing, as he said my “blogs tend to portray your life in nostalgic and depressing fashion.” To which I replied, “I will admit to nostalgia, Leo, but not to depression, though In checking the dictionary definition of nostalgia it might infer some sadness ("a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time"). 

“Could be also that I am depressed about GOP efforts on the state and national levels to return our society to one that is less caring and compassionate and more unequal and intolerant. I've avoided writing about politics for the most part over the last few months because of the never-ending march backward. Not being a paid commentator I can choose to take a vacation from the encroaching reality.”

I should have said I was “distressed,” not depressed, as I am about the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman verdict, another example of an unjust but probably judiciously correct outcome given the known facts in the case, the need to prove guilt beyond a shadow of doubt, and Florida’s insane “stand your ground” law. 

No, I was in a funk for a very superficial reason. It was because I stunk up the softball field Sunday morning (and couldn’t even blame my back for a lousy pitching job). In just three-plus innings, before I wisely took myself out of the game with the bases loaded, I walked more batters than I have in all the games I pitched this season combined. I put my teammates into a three-run hole they could not overcome. I was angry at myself because I did not measure the distance between home plate and the rubber before the game started. It was at least two feet too long, so pitches that normally would have crossed the plate as strikes came in too low, hence the many walks. It wasn’t until the third inning that I mentioned it to the umpire and the home team pitcher. We corrected the distance, though by then I had already damaged our chances. 

I stayed in that funk until the evening when Gilda and I enjoyed a showing of the film 42, about Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut as a Brooklyn Dodger, as the first Afro-American to play in the major leagues. The movie was emotional and inspiring, but what truly elevated me from my funk was the appearance of one of Jackie’s teammates, a pitcher who perhaps more than anyone else would have reason to have remained in a funk since 3:58 pm October 3, 1951, when the pitch Ralph Branca threw to NY Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson in the bottom of the ninth landed in the left field stands for a game-winning, National League pennant-winning home run. 

Now 87 and still sharp of mind, able to recall minute details of his and other ballplayer careers, Branca appeared at Pelham, NY’s Picture House with his son-in-law Bobby Valentine, the ex-NY Mets,  Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox manager, and Marty Appel, the former NY Yankees public relations director during the George Steinbrenner-Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson era. They engaged in a 45-minute conversation about the film, for which Branca served as a technical advisor, and baseball in general.  

Over the years I’d read how Branca recovered from the trauma of serving up the fastball that Thomson launched into baseball immortality for himself, infamy for Branca. Indeed, until Thomson’s death several years ago the two would appear together at conventions and other gatherings. If Branca was able to get over it, then so could I. After all, I didn’t have the whole borough of Brooklyn lamenting my existence.  

Aside from observing that your emotional life can go on, here are some comments Branca made about 42 and baseball:

The “shower scene” where Branca asks Robinson to join him in the shower with the rest of the team, where it’s played for laughs to suggest homosexual overtones, did not happen that way, he said. He merely told Robinson go with him to  the showers, that a team showers together. 

Branca was pitching against St. Louis when Enos Slaughter spiked Robinson in the calf at first base. Branca wanted to hit Slaughter with a pitch the next time he was up but Robinson told him not to. Slaughter led off the top of the eighth inning. Branca was pitching a perfect game at the time, 27 up, 27 down. Slaughter singled, the Cardinals’ only hit of the game. Branca was upset he didn’t throw at Slaughter.

Asked who was the best player of his era, Branca didn’t hesitate—Joe DiMaggio. As to who was the best center fielder among Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, Willie Mays of the Giants and Duke Snider of the Dodgers, Branca remained loyal to his teammate, reasoning Snider had the best arm of the trio and had to defend a more difficult turf as the Ebbets Field fence was more irregular with hard to play angles.  

He wasn’t in 42, but there was another Afro-American who played for the Dodgers in 1947. Dan Bankhead, a pitcher, joined the team in late August, Branca recalled.

A native of Mount Vernon, NY, Branca asked a tough trivia question: Which two unrelated major leaguers grew up in the same house at different times? Answer: Branca and Ken Singleton whose family bought their Mount Vernon home from Branca’s family. Singleton played for the Mets, the Montreal Expos and the Baltimore Orioles. He is now a sportscaster for the Yankees. 

Returning to the film, Branca said “Dem Bums” was not written on the side of the Dodgers team bus.
The team’s away uniform should have been grey with Brooklyn written across the chest, not Dodgers. Several pitchers on opposing teams in the movie had their throwing arms mixed up (righties were shown as lefties and vice versa).

When the Dodgers clinched the 1947 pennant in Pittsburgh, general manager Branch Rickey was not at the game. Rather, he was shown listening to a radio broadcast at Ebbets Field. Branca explained that Rickey, a devout Methodist, was fulfilling a promise to his mother not to play or watch a baseball game on a Sunday.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Stark Morning, A Night Without Pain, A Message from Beyond

It was a Stark morning ...

No, that is not the opening line of my Great American Novel. Rather, it was how I spent the better part of the waning hours of the a.m. on Friday. As is my custom in semi-retirement, when I wake up most mornings I turn on the TV to see what’s playing on Turner Classic Movies. Programmers had set aside today as a tribute to Joanne Dru, not an actress I have followed but she did appear in some notable films. First up for me was All the King’s Men, the 1949 movie adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, a not so veiled telling of the rise and assassination of Huey Long, the 1930s populist governor of Louisiana. 

Broderick Crawford played Willie Stark, a hick who takes on the corrupt establishment, but in his ascension to governor becomes as corrupt as those he displaced. It’s a portrayal that earned Crawford an Academy Award and reminded me that the late James Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony Soprano shared many of the same acting traits as Crawford’s Stark, an ability to show ruthlessness and a vulnerable side. Both actors also scored leading man’s roles despite their portly shapes and less than glamorous profiles.  

(Spoiler alert) After Stark was whacked at the end of All the King’s Men (a fate we are uncertain befell Tony Soprano), I wandered down for breakfast and decided to watch TCM’s next feature, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. I get nostalgic watching westerns as they were my father’s favorite movie genre. I’ve probably seen She Wore a Yellow Ribbon a dozen times, but it’s a great John Ford movie, with perhaps the best John Wayne performance as U.S. Cavalry Captain Nathan Brittles serving the last days of his 40-year military career on an army post in the Southwest. About two-thirds of the way through the movie the location was identified—Fort Stark! 

Joanne Dru might have been the featured ingenue in both movies, but to me it was a Stark morning.

The Great Experiment Begins Saturday Night: That’s when Gilda and I will end the day on a new Sleep Number bed that can adjust each side to the firmness desired. 

Five years ago Gilda’s back ached. Our bed was too soft for her. We bought a Tempurpedic foam mattress. Her back pain went away. Mine started. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed without hoisting myself aloft on the frame of our iron bed. Gilda attributed my lower back pain to lack of exercise. A reasonable hypothesis, except that my back rarely hurt when we’d travel and slept on non-Tempurpedic beds.

My constant, constant, nagging finally paid off. Two weeks ago she agreed to try out the Sleep Number (it didn’t hurt my case that my brother and his wife have been sleeping on such a bed for the last 10 years). The bed comes with a 100-day trial period. I’m really hopeful a softer bed will alleviate much if not all of my pain, while Gilda can keep her side of the bed as firm as she desires. Without back pain I might even be enticed to exercise more, though let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Message from the Beyond: Another inanimate object signaled me the other evening, but I didn’t pick up the cue. I’ll spare you details of the issue under consideration, but it was provocative enough for me to want to send an immediate complaining e-mail to the members of a synagogue committee with whom I serve. Each time I hit “send” on the iPad the transmission failed to go through. One of the email addresses was wrong, or so the iPad said. 

I had a choice. Either wait till the next day to inquire about the right address or simply strike the offending address from the list of recipients. I chose the latter, only to find out a short while later I had misinterpreted the issue. I wasted no time sending my apologies to the committee, also explaining that “perhaps my iPad was being protective and suggesting I shouldn't send it (the first e-mail) out to anyone. As someone who believes inanimate objects have sent messages to me in the past I apologize for missing the signal.”

For those not familiar with my belief in inanimate object communication, here are a few examples: 

The day I was giving my Chevy Vega to my brother-in-law after 13 years of loyal service, the muffler fell off and the car barely trudged a few blocks without stalling out; 

On my last day of work, as I walked up Park Avenue under the protective cover of a large umbrella given to me by one of the hotels we used for our large retail conference, a wind gust blew the canopy inside out. As I struggled to right the umbrella, the metal shaft broke in two, leaving me the handle and about three inches of shaft. The decapitated handle hangs above my desk at home, a constant reminder that even if people sometimes don’t know when to say goodbye, inanimate objects do;

As I was considering a temporary position in Cleveland shortly after retiring from my employer of 32 years, Gilda handed me an article from The NY Times, “36 Hours in Cleveland”. Was the article telling me to go after the three-month position, or was it saying that 36 hours was more than enough time to spend in the lakefront city. One thing is certain, however. Another inanimate object was sending a message.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Sex and the City (Politic), Curse of the Cursive, Summer Memories

I blame the Yankees. 

You might have noticed I'm blogging less often these days. It's not for lack of something to say, but rather because I'm spending hours watching NY Yankees baseball games. I had every intention of blogging Sunday afternoon but wound up hooked on the Yankees-Orioles game. After Mariano Rivera blew his second save of the season by giving up a two-run homer to Adam Jones in the top of the ninth, I was too depressed to write. 

That explains Sunday. What about the rest of the week? Well, most Yankees games are in the evening, so I while away (some would say, waste away) my time staring at the TV screen. I better finish this blog and post it before the first pitch this evening. ...

Sex and the City: Now that Eliot Spitzer has declared his candidacy for comptroller of New York City on the heels (stiletto heels?) of Anthony Weiner’s bid to become mayor, it is not too presumptuous to say the Big Apple has a taste for scandal-plagued politicians. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I never really followed Weiner’s rise (pun intended) to stardom, but I was a fan of the former governor. Two years ago when Spitzer appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and began writing Op-Ed pieces I foresaw his return to politics. You might not agree with his zeal or holier-than-thou attitude (not really tempered since his fall from grace), but one cannot deny that his positions are progressive and that he voices noble sentiment for the masses not often heard from most politicians.  

Will Weiner’s and Spitzer’s sexual indiscretions hamper their electability? Doubtful. Even in socially conservative areas like South Carolina and Georgia voters supported Mark Sanford and Newt Gingrich despite their failure to live up to their wedding vows. And many New Yorkers still like Rudy Giuliani despite his less than faithful allegiance to his former wife. 

Bottom line—As long as their campaign platforms don’t undermine their name recognition advantage, Weiner and Spitzer are in strong positions to win their contests.

Curse of the Cursive: When I went off to journalism graduate school at Syracuse University back in the late summer of 1971, I took along for hanging on my apartment wall a copy of the Declaration of Independence reprinted on the full back page of the first section of the July 4th edition of The New York Times. (Time out for a short history lesson: for those who might not be aware of it, the Declaration was not in fact signed on July 4, 1776. Independence was voted on and declared on July 2. The text of the Declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4. Most of the signatures were affixed on August 2. And that famous picture of the delegates signing the document, which hangs in the rotunda of the Capitol—never happened. A figment of the artist’s imagination.)

Back to the point at hand. It was, admittedly, not easy reading the text of the Declaration. Written in script common to the colonial era—a large lower case “f” where an “s” would normally be, and other oddities of the day—the document is dense reading, in its appearance and content. When I left Syracuse the following June with my diploma I didn’t take the Declaration with me. No matter. Each July 4 The Times would reprint a copy. Sometimes at Independence Day barbecues my friends and I would read the text out loud, haltingly, to be sure, as we struggled to decipher the cursive writing. 

I’m not sure if this was the first year The Times did it, but it was the first time I noticed the newspaper no longer reprints the Declaration in its original form across the full back page of the first section. Instead, the reproduction is an inset while the text is printed in regular type. Sure, it’s easier to read, but is The Times sending a subtle message that our population’s script-reading skills have deteriorated to the point where a majority of us cannot read cursive writing? For a look at some of the debate on the value of cursive writing, check out these articles and opinion pieces: http://query.nytimes.com/search/sitesearch/#/cursive+handwriting/365days/

Summer Memories: While we’re on the subject of the Fourth of July, I was reminded that for 15 years I attended summer camp but cannot recall with any clarity any celebration of our nation’s birthday. True, these were Jewish, Zionist, sleepaway camps in the 1950s and 1960s, but we did raise the American flag every day and pledged allegiance. 

What I do vividly recall is another commemoration, more somber. Tisha B’Av. The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day attributed to many calamities that befell the Jewish people through the ages, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples in, respectively, 586 BCE and 70 CE. 

Tisha B’Av is a fast day, and since Jewish days begin at sunset, we’d eat dinner early. After the meal the staff would rearrange the dining hall, turning benches over on their sides. Lights were shut off. On top of every bench, four to a bench, candles inside scooped out potatoes, were placed, to provide light by which we sang the Book of Lamentations. You can imagine the first impression this austere ceremony had on a boy of seven, and my subsequent years at camp. The fireworks of the Fourth of July did not hold a candle to the evocative sorrow of Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av will begin next Monday night.