The acclaimed film and stage director Mike Nichols died of a heart attack last Wednesday at the age of 83. I remember him from the comedy sketches he performed with Elaine May many years ago. Reading the obituaries, I learned some other details I hadnt known before.
His familys ancestral home had been in Siberia. They fled from Nazi Germany to the United States in 1939, when Mikhail was only seven. His physician father, known as Pavel Nikolaevich, became Paul Nichols in this country. Albert Einstein was a distant cousin.
At the University of Chicago, Mike enrolled as a pre-med student, and he joined classical radio station WFMT as an announcer. There, in 1953, he created a folk music program on Saturday nights that he called The Midnight Special, playing records but also inviting guests to perform live in the studio. Ive quoted Ronald Cohen in another article (about the radio station on my own college campus, where our live folk music program aired on Friday nights). Cohen writes that Nichols show combined "folk music and farce, showtunes and satire, odds and ends." With different hosts over the years, it continues on WFMT to this day.
Two decades later, Garrison Keillor started a similar radio program in Minnesota that he called A Prairie Home Companion. It also endures to this day. PHC plays no records but has been hosted by Keillor for all 40 years. Like many, he must have been inspired by classic Nichols & May routines like this one, in which a mother lays a guilt trip on her successful son. Many times have I heard Keillor and Sue Scott perform variations on this sketch.
Listening last night, I was reminded of long-gone television variety shows that blended music and comedy and even topical references. This week, for example, Keillor sang about a New York city where some neighborhoods have been buried under seven feet of snow. In Buffalo, Buffalo, thats how conditions are, he observed to the tune of Camelot.
Later, a performers brief Bob Dylan impersonation included the following lines that rang true for this bachelor. Mere hours before, having returned home from nearly 17 continuous hours in a TV truck telecasting four high school football championship games without a meal break, I had exhaustedly peeled off multiple layers of winter clothing, many of which had still not been properly put away.
Also last night, Keillor joined a guest for a medley of Cole Porter songs with some lyrics adjusted. As a boy, I used to see this type of specially-arranged entertainment on TV all the time. No expensive scenery was required, only a pair of stools. Heres an example from half a century ago, and heres an even more impressive combination of tunes.
May classic entertainment live on, even if only on YouTube and public radio.
OVEMBER 17, 2014 YUMMY
I always wondered about the slogan used by an Ohio jam maker: With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.
#1 Do they mean that theyre saddled with a founders name so unimpressive that they have to overcome that handicap by producing a superior product? With a name like Wurst, well never be able to sell anything unless its the best.
#2 Or do they mean that their company has earned such a high reputation that they have to meet that expectation of excellence? With a name like Rolls-Royce, we cant afford to let our customers down.
Those schmucks at the company claim the original connotation was #1 but has now grown into #2.
NOVEMBER 11, 2014 SORROW FOR FORMER INDIVIDUALS AND THANKS
The TV behind me was tuned to a college football game. I heard a commercial come on, but there were no words, only a mournful dirge being played softly by a brass choir. I wondered who died.
Later, I heard the somber music again, and I bestirred myself to turn and actually look at the screen. The commercial turned out to be a recruiting spot for the United States Marine Corps.
During the Vietnam War, I was in college. Soldiers and Marines, many of them my age, many of them drafted against their will, were being cruelly sentenced to suffer and die in the jungles of Southeast Asia. To me, therefore, the scenes in the commercial did not have the desired effect.
I saw footage of serious-faced sweaty men and one or two women, swinging from ropes in basic training and handling deadly weapons on a battlefield. A row of young people, former individuals but now wearing identical dress uniforms, stood stiffly at attention. Armored personnel carriers tore recklessly across a meadow. Silhouetted helicopters flew toward an apocalyptic sunset.
As noted, this peaceful senior citizen was repulsed by these scenes. I have never wanted to sweat, or kill, or destroy, or stand at attention. I have never wanted to go to war. But I am not the commercials target audience. Its aimed at young people who aspire to be proud Marines.
Fortunately for our country, there have been more than a few such brave souls, now veterans, who have been inspired to do the work Im glad not to have to do.
NOVEMBER 6, 2014 JUST ASKING
Can someone be good without Gods guidance?
In my latest article, a Southerner named Tucksey is not shy about offering his opinion.
OCTOBER 31, 2014 THUS BE IT EVER!
It was an unnerving couple of days in Canada last week. First two soldiers in Quebec were deliberately hit by a car. One died, and the driver was killed by police. Then a gunman launched another fatal attack in Ottawa before eventually being shot by Parliaments sergeant-at-arms.
Around the National Hockey League, teams showed their sympathy and support for the nation where their sport began. They emulated the Pittsburgh Penguins example with emotional pre-game performances of O Canada, the Canadian national anthem.
Unfortunately, we cant completely eliminate all the terrorist madmen who want to make war on the West. The next time a similar incident happens in our own country, I imagine the following ceremony.
Ladies and gentlemen, would you please rise and remain standing as we pause to remember those who have protected us, these brave first responders. The audience stands in silence. After half a minute, the voice of a lone vocalist rings out.
The audience thinks, I know that melody. Its the national anthem, isnt it? But what are these words?
Ive never heard them before, but theyre appropriate. Better than asking whether we can see.
Many in the audience begin to sing along, louder and louder, as the anthem concludes with the time-honored words.
The words are in fact part of our national anthem. Theyre the neglected fourth verse of the poem that Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814.
OCTOBER 27, 2014 HALLOW-EEK
Youre probably familiar with the phrase eke out a living. Eke, pronounced eek, is a verb that means to achieve with difficulty.
There was once a different English word also spelled eke, except it was an adverb and was pronounced ache. Like the German auch, this eke meant also. William Shakespeare sometimes used it. Geoffrey Chaucer eke employed it two centuries earlier:
Mickey Rooneys passing earlier this year prompted me to watch his 1935 appearance in the film of Shakespeares A Midsummer Nights Dream. Comic actor Joe E. Brown eke was in the movie, playing the character called Flute. In Act III, he had a punning line describing the young Pyramus: most brisky jew-venile and eke most lovely Jew.
And eke? There are alternative possibilities like and also or and at the same time or as well as. However, those would not have fit the iambic meter, so Shakespeare chose and eke though the word had already begun to fade into obsolescence. (He also spelled the preceding word juvenal.)
But Flute must not have been familiar with Middle English vocabulary. He knew not eke (ache), but only eke (eek) as in Eek! A mouse! The actor raised his pitch and squeaked the word as eek! The meaning seemed to be most animated juvenile and horrors! most lovely Jew. I cringed slightly.
Herewith, I wish you ghostly dreams and eke a happy Halloween!
OCTOBER 24, 2014 BUZZED BY BASEBALLS BY THE BAY
Have you ever been unable to read your own writing? Theres a dry-erase board on my wall over the dresser, and on it I keep a to-do list for the next five weeks: hockey telecasts, doctors appointments, payments due, and so on.
Looking at it yesterday morning, I discovered I was scheduled for something called Btored. I had no idea what that meant.
In my defense, writing on the vertically-mounted board is difficult because of the angle, and I was trying to write small. But what did I write? Well, what might I have wanted to remember? Pondering this weeks chores, I finally realized the mystery scrawl was Bronco. Only two of the six letters are what they appear to be.
(Ive heard that archaeologists have similar difficulties deciphering ancient manuscripts. That letter looks like a dalet but I dont see a yud, so maybe its a reish, which would change the meaning of the entire sentence.)
Bronco refers to the 1974 Bronco League World Series, and my task was to replay to an e-mail from a player in that series, Bob Kruemmel. Hes #9 on the far right of this picture of the Linthicum Ferndale Youth Athletic Association team from Maryland.
Bob happened across my article about televising that Series. Been trying for years to get pictures and maybe even some video clips of the games. Don't know if you would remember [I dont] but I hit a home run late in the game against Venezuela that bounced off of the roof of the concession stand in center field. They were showing replays of it when I got back to the Washington-Jefferson College dorm that we stayed at. Also remember being interviewed by the guys running the play by play on radio. He met league founder Lew Hayes and got a ball signed by him, and he returned to Washington with the same LFYAA team for the Pony League World Series in 1976. Had a great time, he writes.
OCTOBER 16, 2014 TODAY'S NEWS
A newspaper could print those tragic headlines every day. Those are the average daily U.S. gun violence statistics, according to this from Tom Begnal.
Thats a major reason I dont share some peoples love of firearms. Another reason: Ive watched nature documentaries on TV. They celebrate the lives of the wildlife with which we share the planet.
On one, an English barn swallow literally feathers its nest. There are ducks in the barnyard, and occasionally a downy white feather is shed and the breeze carries it off. In slow motion, we watch a swallow fly toward the feather floating in the sunshine, grab it in its beak, take it to its home in the rafters of the barn, and drop it into the nest. So charming.
Or weve all seen scenes of bear cubs playing with each other. Their mother comes by and starts to teach them how to catch fish. So cute.
Once, changing channels, I came across a scene of an adult bear standing up leaning against a tree, scratching his back. Aaah, that feels good. The bear relaxes, contented. Suddenly, BANG! The defenseless animal flinches, stumbles, falls to the ground, and dies. We cut to two hunters with their rifles and sniper scopes, congratulating each other on the ambush murder theyve just committed. So disgusting.
OCTOBER 10, 2014 TICK TICK TICK TICK
Ages ago, CBS News introduced a series called 60 Minutes, anchored by Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace. They needed a graphic design.
The program was described as a news magazine: three separate mini-documentaries within a single hour. Therefore, the background simulated a printed news magazine like Time. (The dark border around Harrys head resulted from the primitive blue-screen Chromakey technique of the time.) And to symbolize the passing of those 60 minutes, they added a ticking stopwatch. The larger hand circled the dial once in a minute, the smaller hand once in 60.
Five years out of high school, during my brief stint as a graduate student on WAER in Syracuse, I experimented with using a stopwatch to become a smoother disk jockey.
Announcers often talked over the introductory portion of a record, back-timing their comments to conclude just before the vocalist started to sing. Ken Levine posted this week, As a former disc jockey, I still talk-up records in my car. Right up to the vocal. Im a master at this. Its maybe my greatest skill ... which is unfortunate since its also utterly useless. KHJ Boss Radio is not coming back anytime soon. Someone named Yekimi commented, Holy crap! I thought I was the only one that did [that. I only] get embarrassed when at a traffic light with my car windows down and someone pulls up alongside and looks at me like I'm a serial killer.
To accomplish this trick, DJs need to know the songs rather well. I didnt. So I used a stopwatch.
During the 1970s, digital stopwatches began to appear. Theyre smaller and easier to read, typically to a hundredth of a second. (But can you push the button that precisely?) Also, you dont have to wind them, and you can more easily measure multiple events.
The old ticking analog stopwatches are obsolete nowadays, except on 60 Minutes.
A mere two days ago William Steven Humphrey, editor of the alternative Portland Mercury, posted this recommendation: "The tweets of Eric D. Snider are a rapid-fire stomp through pop culture brimming with erotic candor and ennui." I'm not sure what that means exactly.
Nevertheless, in my latest compilation you can read Erics opinions about noise pollution from leaf blowers and motorcycles, a crime wave in his neighborhood, Ansel Elgort, minding his brothers kids, and celebrating his 40th birthday . And more.
Peek, if you have the courage!
SEPTEMBER 28, 2014 WHY THIS FAMILY SWITCHED TO SPANISH
I used to visit an on-line discussion board for sportswriters where often a comment would begin, I cant believe what Le Batard wrote in his Miami Herald column.
In French, le bâtard means the bastard. Therefore I first thought the posters were being insulting: I cant believe what that bastard said!
But Dan Le Batards family came to this country from Cuba, where (fortunately) the family name has no meaning in Spanish.
Now I dont watch ESPNs televised talk shows, but via Sirius XM the other day, I finally caught the Dan Le Batard show on ESPN Radio. Turns out he pronounces it LEBB-it-tarred.
And he does have proper parents, Gonzalo and Lourdes Le Batard. In fact, Papi often joins his son on the air.
Therefore, never mind. No son hijos de puta.
SEPTEMBER 22, 2014 THEY'LL BE HERE TONIGHT!
What were they about to hear? A symphony orchestra concert? A performance by a famous rock group? No, something you probably wouldnt expect. Something that swelled with pride this physics major who once played with radio at the campus station.
I explain it all, as well as the ensuing football game, in my article about Homecoming Weekend 2014.
SEPTEMBER 16, 2014 C WHAT I WROTE
When I first went online with this website nearly 14 years ago, it was a collection of articles, some new and some from my archives, typically a couple thousand words in length.
That format didnt allow brief items of a hundred words or less. So when I wanted to express a short opinion, or when I found a short comment in my archives, I called it a C-Note. (To maintain my self-imposed 100-word limit, I carefully counted words using the computer and deleted the excess.) Once I had a dozen of these C-Notes, I compiled them into an article of respectable length and added it to the site.
The situation changed six years later, when I converted my home page (the one youre reading now) into something resembling a blog, updated every few days. Now there is a place for shorter items.
But the old C-Notes still are of interest.
SEPTEMBER 10, 2014 WELLLL, DOGGIE!
The neighbors doggie was named Augie. He was familiar with the old song, a novelty record from 1953 in ¾ time. At a pet shop Patti Page sings:
There are more dog stories, and even a cat story, in the second of two articles on what I did this summer. Last month, I told you about my July trip to New York State. Thie month, I arrive at Syracuse in an article called Cuse Tales.
SEPTEMBER 4, 2014 QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
You claim that people evolved from apes, millions of years ago, says the creationist. But if the monkeys turned into humans, why are there still monkeys? Huh? Answer that one. You dont have an answer, do you?
No, I have another question. If our family is descended from Scottish people who emigrated from Scotland to the New World two centuries ago, why are there still Scotsmen today? Huh? You see, some Scots became Americans, but not all of them.
Clearly, not only have the people at Answers in Genesis not read their biology textbook. The people at Answers in Genesis have not even read Genesis! At least they havent read it beyond the story of Noahs flood.
Scripture clearly does not delineate Gods insistence on a single, exclusive union.
Therefore, Answers in Genesis, has God commanded his people to restrict their sexual activity according to the standards of 18th-century America? The way youd prefer?
No, he has not. The answers are in Genesis.