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Pope Brock

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One Man’s (sorry) Opinion

Herewith the cover of Writers’ Chronicle for Jan/Feb, slugged “A Room Without Men,” and my letter to the editor regarding it published in the Mar/April issue.

Dear Editor: I am appalled by your latest cover (“A Room Without Men”) featuring women painting out a man’s face. What about A Room Without Blacks? Or a Room Without Whites? If your cover showed the reverse — men painting out a woman’s face — your headquarters would be attacked. This kind of exclusionary, anti-male propaganda helps no one and makes a mockery of the ideals of diversity and community toward which we the enlightened are supposedly striving. Diversity — make that life — includes men, even white men. An irritating state of affairs, but there it is.

Song of the Day: Invisible Choir, Kris Delmhorst

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Can Wildlife Be Solved?

For your delectation and amusement here’s a riff I did in response to an item in USA Today last week:

              “Civilian flights based in the USA reported 14,661

               collisions with wildlife in 2018…. That’s more

               than 40 a day, tying the previous year’s record.”

“Tying! I know it’s an embarrassment!”

Those were virtually the first words out of the mouth of Elmo Klein, the Interior Department’s Undersecretary for Wildlife Obliteration, when I visited him in his office last week. In fact, he almost refused to do the interview, concerned that I was going to do a hatchet job on him. When I assured him that on the contrary, I was there to publicize the problems he’s up against, to get his side of the story, his face took on a look of gratitude rarely seen in a public official.

“Okay then,” he said, “let’s talk birds. I don’t like pointing fingers, but here’s why the numbers aren’t moving. One, the airline manufacturers. Boeing and those guys, they’re so busy writing manuals they’re not even distributing, they’ve taken their eye off the ball. The planes we’ve got in the air now, they’re bigger, faster, quieter, which gives birds less time to get out of the way. Full marks for that. But it doesn’t mean the job’s done. You need to keep pushing the technology. Two, the folks in the cockpit. That’s the other piece. A lot of these planes now virtually fly themselves. But if a pilot puts the thing on cruise control so he can whatever, I hate to imagine, he’s not alert to the opportunities. Whole flocks get by. Where’s management on this? These birds aren’t going to eliminate themselves.”

But of course the feathered population is just one sliver of Klein’s immense portfolio, the size of which weighs heavily upon him.  As he knows too well, it’s one thing to announce a zero-tolerance policy vis a vis wildlife and another to achieve it. Much of the problem, Klein told me, is lack of resources.

“Which surprises me frankly, given the rhetoric out there, the promises made. I realize we’re not the only scorched-earth program competing for funds. Still, you’d think ours would be higher on the list. For example, I’ve got people in twelve states shooting fish in barrels. Everyone assumes that’s easy. Well, the fish don’t get there by themselves. It requires money and personnel, and we need more of both.” He sighed. “Everywhere I turn it’s a struggle. Zoos. They’re hard to burn down. You can’t just ask any arsonist. Sure, a child can torch a monkey house, but the flames don’t spread, you know? All the wide-open spaces. It’s a job for specialists. You need weapons-grade accelerants and guys who know how to use them. Everything’s expensive.”

“Where do you think the money should come from?”

“We’re taxpayer-funded. Where else would we get it? As far as I’m concerned, that last tax cut for the rich was a big mistake. I mean, I don’t want to get myself fired, but I’m fighting for my department. We’ve pretty much sucked the poor dry on this, the middle class. And then some tycoon comes up to me and says ‘Hey, how come I’m still seeing this antelope?’ Well, look in the mirror, pal.”

“What should your budget be then? Perfect world.”

“I’m not a numbers guy. All I know is the pressure’s ridiculous. People go out, see a chipmunk, the phones light up. And I get vilified. Meanwhile the EPA gets all the love. Toxic this, cancer that. Like what they do is hard.”

“You don’t know how much money you need?”

“All I can say is every bit helps. I saw the other day, some X number of millions going to funding for the arts. A pittance, they say. Do you know what I could do with that money? I’d have a team in the field tomorrow taking out the last of the red wolves. There are still more of those left than people realize.”

“What other challenges are you facing?”

“Bounce-backs drive me crazy. God, buffalo. They’re like the measles. You think they’re eradicated, you turn around, boom, they’re back.”

“What kind of cooperation are you getting on the international front?’

“Spotty. Kenya’s an inspiration, but in some other areas…. Whales! How can people not see the size of that problem? It’s a whale for Christ’s sake. God bless the Japanese, but they’re like the lone flag flying. Almost every other nation looks the other way. Can’t be bothered. Leave it to the next guy. With that kind of mentality….”

“Well, here at home anyway, what about getting the public involved?”

“How so?”

“I understand there are still some holdouts, people hiding species on private land.”

“What are you saying? Send in volunteers?”

“Exactly.”

“I can see the argument, but…. I mean sure, this country’s got armed maniacs coming out of its ears. They’d do a spectacular job. But would they stop there? That’s the problem. Besides…. What’s that cartoon, I forget what it’s called, the one where the big foot comes down on Bambi? That’s the central function of government right there, to crush. The top regimes like to do it themselves.”

“I get it.”

“Actually though — cute story — I got a call the other day. Older gentleman. Lovely guy. He’s trying to do his bit. ‘Mr. Klein,’ he says, ‘I get up every morning, go out back and see what I can shoot for you, but I always miss. It’s discouraging.’ Isn’t that sweet? I sent him a pin.” Klein pulled a box toward him and poured some of its contents onto his desk: lapel pins of everything from hares to herons with red diagonal lines through them.

“I love these,” he said.

“How’s the morale in your department?”

“Up and down. Depends on the day. But I’m always right there encouraging my troops. Reminding them of the victories in sight. Condors, we’re close.”

“You’ve been close for a while.”

He gave me such a look of pained reproach I apologized at once.

“Birds are the worst,” he said. “You don’t understand. There are millions of them, and they’re shifty. But I’ll tell you one thing. If I do nothing else in this life, I’m going to clear out the parks. Yellowstone, Glacier National Park — that’s still there, isn’t it? — places like that. They’re sanctuaries. They’re supposed to be. But are they really? Let’s just say there’s peace, and there’s peace with twittering, which as far as I’m concerned is no peace at all.”

As I stood to leave, Klein expressed warm thanks for my visit and offered me a button. “How about a nice polar bear?”

I told him that unfortunately I couldn’t wear it. “A reporter becoming part of the story he’s covering, it crosses a line.”

“Line?”

“It’s an ethical thing.”

“Really?” he said. “That’s fascinating. Journalism, ethics. I never put the two together.”

“Just kidding,” I said. “Pin it on.”

Song of the Day: Gone Gone Gone, Robert Plant & Allison Krauss

 

 

 

Blog

Blackface, Age 6

Like all old saws, the old saw that the past is another country isn’t always true as the convulsions in Virginia re blackface vividly remind us. It reminds me too of my own turn in blackface, which is how I broke into show business.

A minstrel show was our first-grade play so we all corked up. This was in rural Maryland in the 50s. I don’t remember much from that year. I remember the smell of mimeograph paper, and I remember a kid in the corner. He was sitting on a stool with a dunce cap on his head like a mule in the rain. (Okay, that past is another country. I hope.) Anyway, in an environment like that it’s not amazing how the teachers chose to showcase our cuteness.   We performed a full slate of minstrel sketches of which I recall two in particular. One was the Tambo and Bones routine — one squirt piping to another, I swear to God, “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?” — and the other one a dance routine in which I participated.

I participated in two ways. First, I was given some kind of loose-limbed, jivey dance to do. Second, I was told I wasn’t good enough so they gave it to Billy Groff and I had to stand there clapping for him instead. It was one of those moments of searing humiliation a kid never forgets.

So that’s two shots of poison in one hypo. And they stay in your blood. They dilute and diminish over the years, but CSI could still find them.

Eons later, my kids’ fourth-grade play was a parable about environmental awareness. A wood-chopper in the rainforest fell asleep and the spirits of the forest appeared and fluttered and whispered to him and he woke up a changed man who would no longer chop down (yay!) trees. It was brutally boring. It also pissed me off. Elementary-school plays should be kids having a big old silly ball. I will brook no argument on this.

Miles better than a minstrel show, absolutely. Still…

Past and present: no and no. We need another another country.

Song of the Day: The Diamonds

 

 

 

Blog

Poetry in Motion

A new book about the ad business, The Adman’s Dilemma, brings to light a cool attempt to monetize poetry far from the halls of Hallmark.  In 1955 the Ford Motor Company was so flummoxed about what to name their fabulous new midsize model that Robert B. Young of the Marketing Research Department reached out to  Marianne Moore, the iconic poet, for help. It was all balls of paper around the office, and the guys were wondering if she might have some ideas. For inspiration, Mr. Young wrote, “you might care to visit with us and muse with the new Wonder which is now in clay in our Advance Styling Studios….All we want is a colossal name (another ‘Thunderbird’ would be fine.”

Miss Moore said she’d give it a shot, which frankly makes me like her poetry better. Over the next few weeks they exchanged several letters — in which, to give him his due, Mr. Young’s literate and sprightly style outshone hers. But I’m taking too long to get to the names. Herewith a sample of her suggestions:

Mongoose Civique

Ford Silver Sword

The Impeccable

Thunder Crester

Pastelogram

Varsity Stroke

Turbotorc

Triskelion (three legs running)

Pluma Piluma (hairfine, feather foot)

Andante con Moto (description of a good motor?)

Turcotinga (turquoise cotinga — the cotinga being a solid indigo South American finch or sparrow)

Tir a l’arc (bull’s eye)

Resilient Bullet

Intelligent Bullet

Bullet Cloisone

Bullet Lavolta

Ford Faberge (that there is also a perfume Faberge seems to me to do no harm, for the allusion is to the original silversmith)

The Intelligent Whale

Hurricane Hirundo (swallow)

Hurricane Aquila (eagle)

Hurricane Accipter (hawk)

….43 in all.

Separate and last she sent in on December 8, 1955:

Mr. Young, May I submit UTOPIAN TURTLETOP? Do not trouble to answer unless you like it.

On December 23 Miss Moore received a bouquet of roses, eucalyptus and white pine with a note from Mr. Young:

Merry Christmas to our favorite Turtletopper.

December 26, her reply: Dear Mr. Young, An aspiring turtle is certain to glory in spiral eucalyptus, white pine straight from the forest, and innumerable scarlet roses almost too tall for close inspection. Of a temperament susceptible to shock though one may be, to be treated like royalty could not but induce sensations unprecedented august…..

Nearly a year went by. Then in November 1956 Miss Moore received a note from a Mr. David Wallace in Marketing telling her the company had, as we would say today, gone in a different direction:

“We have chosen a name out of the more than six thousand-odd candidates that we gathered. It has a certain ring to it. An air of gaiety and zest. At least, that’s what we keep saying. Our name, dear Miss Moore, is: Edsel.”

Song of the Day: Dead Man’s Curve

 

Blog

Titanic Under Alles

I’m fresh from seeing a very strange movie called Titanic. It is indeed another film about the sinking, the difference being that this one was made in 1942 under Hitler’s regime and all the characters speak German. The movie elevates English greed and bumbling to towering heights, and the lone voice of sanity is (totally fictional) First Officer Pederson, the only German on board, who practically begs the stupid owner and the stupid captain to slow down because if we hit an iceberg at this speed then oh the humanity. Production notes: the film was conceived and propelled by Goebbels despite the enormous costs as a great propaganda vehicle. Partway through the filming the director, Herbert Selpin, made some complaint about the regime so Goebbels had him killed. A new director came in to finish filming the traumatized cast. Finished at last! Time for the premiere! But by then the Allies were bombing Germany all up and down so  Goebbels blocked its release on the theory that the public might be  demoralized by a film full of death and panic when they were getting so much of it right outside.

But, to return to first principles, it’s watching characters like buffoon John Jacob Astor and his idiot countrymen freaking in German that stays with you. The sinking stuff (water pouring in etc.) is very well done.

Song of the Day: Norah Jones, Sinking Soon

Stolen Rembrandt — keep your eye out — big reward

 

Books, Fiction

Too Misty

Outstanding creative writing advice via Muriel Spark. This is the opening of her novel Finishing School:

“You begin,” he said, “by setting your scene. You have to see your scene, either in reality or in imagination. For instance, from here you can see across the lake. But on a day like this you can’t see across the lake, it’s too misty. You can’t see the other side.” Rowland took off his reading glasses to stare at his creative writing class whose parents’ money was being thus spent: two boys and three girls around sixteen to seventeen years of age, some more, some a little less. “So,” he said, “you must just write, when you set your scene, ‘the other side of the lake was hidden in mist.’ Or if you want to exercise imagination, on a day like today, you can write, ‘The other side of the lake was just visible.’ But as you are setting the scene, don’t make any emphasis as yet. It’s too soon, for instance, for you to write, ‘The other side of the lake was hidden in the fucking mist.’ That will come later. You are setting your scene. You don’t want to make a point as yet.”

Song of the Day: In a Mist, Bix Beiderbecke

Blog, Music

Wondrous Italian Clarinet Player and Some Russians in Evening Wear

Now and then I come across a song on Youtube I’d love to play on my radio show, but something vital would be missing without the visuals.  So I happily bring you here:

First, Hetty and the Jazzato Band, an Italian swing outfit. They’re all good, but the clarinet player is the coolest thing ever:

Tu Vuo’ Fa’ L’Americano

The second group is called The Sexican (I think). From the comments section I’m guessing they’re Russian though I don’t usually picture Russians doing this stuff with their bodies:

Cuarto de la Banda

Weird and expensive.

 

Blog, Music

Melodious Veep

You know the song “All in the Game”? (“Many a tear has to fall/But it’s all in the game….”)

It’s been covered by everybody, from Jimmy Witherspoon to Van Morrison to Roland Kirk.

Turns out it was written by this guy:

Charles G. Dawes, vice-president under Calvin Coolidge and recipient of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize.

That is to say, he wrote the melody in 1911. Forty years later somebody named Carl Sigman came along and added lyrics. In 1958 Tommy Edwards took it to #1….

All in the Game

“Shine Little Glow Worm” has a similar history. But that’s for another time —

 

 

 

Blog, Books, Music

The Gone

Yesterday I got in touch with Alicia Mayer, the grandniece of Louis B. Mayer, in connection with some research I’ve been doing on some MGM movies from the 30s. I was having a hard time locating his papers, which I assumed were archived someplace. Not so. According to Ms. Mayer, his papers were all “burnt by his second wife and her lawyer.”

That puts them right up there with Cassandra Austen, Mrs. Stephen Foster and all the other maniacs who have gouged holes in our artistic heritage. But then wonderful stuff has gone missing for so many reasons….

Refused publication, James Joyce threw Stephen Hero into the fire; Nora retrieved 1/5 of it.

From 1856 to 1896 Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann exchanged more than four thousand letters, almost all of which he destroyed just before his death.

Julius Caesar wrote a play called Oedipus — who knew and where is it

Gogol burns Part II of Dead Souls — well-known — rewrites it completely and burns that too — less known

A drawing by Leonardo da Vinci representing Orpheus pursued by the Furies is ruined while being restored in 2001

Emile Zola burns all his letters from Paul Cezanne; Cezanne destroys his portrait of Zola (tiff?)

Check out Henri LeFebvre’s incantatory Missing Pieces for many, many more of the the same. It’s the eeriest book you can imagine.

Song of the Day: Scatman Crothers

 

 

 

 

Blog, TV

Artificial Intelligence

World History for 11 points!

In 1521, after the excommunication of this religious reformer, a Holy Roman Emperor summoned him to appear before a conference. The conference demanded that the reformer recant, but he refused. Tell me:

1 The name by which the conference is known

2 The name of the religious reformer who appeared before it

3 The name of the Pope who excommunicated him

4 The name of the Emperor

Drawing four blanks? In 1958 dairy farmer Harold Craig answered every part correctly on his way to stockpiling $106,000 in winnings. And he did it on live television!

But then he was cheating.

To me there are two amazing things about the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. One is how the producers, sponsors and networks ever believed that an ever-widening conspiracy of several hundred people wouldn’t spring a leak. The other is how riveting the surviving shows are even when you know they’re fixed. Here’s the  famous match-up between Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel on the show Twenty-One. Even when you know they’re acting — when you know the bank vault containing the questions is cardboard — it’s great TV:

Van Doren v. Stempel, brought to you by Geritol

The collapse of the quiz shows — which at the time were bigger than I Love Lucy — began on a May morning in 1958 when Marie Winn stepped onstage to play Dotto. Miss Winn (Janet Malcolm’s sister as it happens) was cute as a button

so it’s easy to understand why the producers wanted to keep her around. Unfortunately while she was on-air, a standby contestant (“Skinny Eddie” Hilgemeier) found her little notebook in the dressing room — the one containing the answers she was giving live at that moment (“‘The Cask of Amontillado!'”). Thus began the quiz shows’ toboggan to disaster. Even Patty Duke, 11 years old at the time, was found to have been pre-fed answers for the $64,000 Challenge by producer Shirley Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s sister as it happens). Two grand juries and a Congressional investigation later….

But fixed or not, look at the level of knowledge contestants back then could plausibly be expected to possess. When Charles Van Doren successfully named the seven British prime ministers between the wars and the three countries that border on the largest lake in Africa and what kind of milk Pecorino and Gorgonzola cheeses are made of (cow, reindeer, goat, sheep, buffalo, zebra [!]), eighty million people thought sure, he could know that.

Shakespeare for 10 points!

Many people who are famous in history and legend appear in Shakespearean plays. Name the plays in which the following famous people appear:

1 Joan of Arc

 

2 Agamemnon

 

3 Cardinal Wolsey

How we doing?

Song of the Day: Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster