Friday, November 27, 2020

TV Quote of the Day (‘Seinfeld,’ on Music and Madness)

(George Costanza enters Jerry’s apartment singing "Master of the House," a Les Miserables show tune)

George [played by Jason Alexander]: "Master of the house… doling out the charm, ready with a handshake and an open palm. Tells a saucy tale, loves to make a stir, everyone appreciates a.."

Jerry [played by Jerry Seinfeld]: “What is that song?”

George: “Oh, it's from Les Miserables. I went to see it last week. I can't get it out of my head. I just keep singing it over and over. It just comes out. I have no control over it. I'm singing it on elevators, buses. I sing it in front of clients. It's taking over my life.”

Jerry: “You know, Schumann went mad from that.”

George: “Artie Schumann? From Camp Hatchapee?”

Jerry: “No, you idiot.”

George: “What are you, Bud Abbott? What, are you calling me an idiot?”

Jerry: “You don't know Robert Schumann? The composer?”

George: “Oh, Schu-MANN. Of course.”

Jerry: (Trying to scare George) “He went crazy from one note. He couldn't get it out of his head. I think it was an A. He kept repeating it over and over again. He had to be institutionalized.”

George: “Really? …Well, what if it doesn't stop?” (Jerry gestures "That's the breaks." George gasps.) “Oh, that I really needed to hear. That helps a lot!”— Seinfeld, Season 2, Episode 3, “The Jacket,” teleplay by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, directed by Tom Cherones

Even Jerry’s scare tactic isn’t enough to prevent George from breaking into song at an inopportune moment, prompting the fearsome father of friend Elaine Benes to bark, “Pipe down, chorus boy!”

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Photo of the Day: Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, Pittsburgh PA

The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum is dedicated to honoring the men and women of all branches of service, from all generations and conflicts. From this photo I took a year ago while visiting in Pittsburgh, I think you can see why it was called “this grand edifice” during its 1910 opening ceremony.

Inside, themed displays range from the Civil War through America’s most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Objects displayed include uniforms, medals, firearms, artwork and equipment.

There is a strong local component inside, such as the oak-paneled “Gettysburg Room” (originally a meeting room for members of the Grand Army of the Republic, of Civil War veterans) and the Joseph A. Dugan, Jr. Hall of Valor, focusing on narratives and photographs of 84 Pennsylvania Medal of Honor recipients.

This institution is temporarily closed to walk-in business as part of an international effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Until it can safely reopen, the museum will offer guided tours of the museum by appointment only.

Quote of the Day (Desmond Tutu, on the Blessing of Families)

“You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you, as you are to them.”—South African Anglican Archbishop, human-rights advocate, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (2004)

Happy Thanksgiving, for all our families.

(Photo of Archbishop Tutu taken by Elke Wetzig at the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag in Cologne, Germany, in 2007.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Photo of the Day: Quackenbush Barn, Mahwah NJ

I came upon this barn in early October, in Winter’s Park, Mahwah, NJ. Dating back to around 1850, it was originally located on Sparrowbush Road in the Masonicus section of the town. 

Once belonging to the Wey family, it was sold to Cornelius A. Quackenbush in 1868 and continued in that family’s hands for nearly 75 years. During this period, the barn looked and functioned in a different manner than now, in a two-level structure with animals below and produce and equipment kept above.

The barn was moved to its present site on East Ramapo Avenue in Winter’s Park in 1998 by the Mahwah Historic Preservation Commission.

TV Quote of the Day (‘New Girl,’ As Jess Ponders a Novel Method of Turkey Thawing)

Jess [played by Zooey Deschanel] [unable to thaw a frozen turkey]: “Maybe if I take off all my clothes and I get in bed with it, the heat of my body will warm it up.”—New Girl, Season 1, Episode 6, “Thanksgiving,” original air date Nov. 15, 2011, teleplay by Berkley Johnson, directed by Miguel Arteta

This post is for a friend of mine (AND HE KNOWS WHO HE IS!!!!) who is a great admirer of Ms. Deschanel.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

This Day in Literary History (O’Hara Returns to Short Fiction in ‘Sermons and Soda-Water’)

Nov. 24, 1960—Eleven years after angrily abandoning short fiction after a negative review in the principal outlet for his work, The New Yorker, John O’Hara marked his return to the form that was his strength (and to the magazine’s fold) with a boxed set of three novellas, Sermons and Soda-Water.

From his first (and usually considered best) novel, Appointment in Samarra, in 1934, O’Hara had brought an excellent ear for dialogue and an encyclopedic knowledge of his characters that helped him depict class distinctions with pinpoint accuracy. But a decade’s departure from the short story brought with it new strengths: a renewed commitment to “get it all down on paper while I can,” a greater desire to depict the social circumstances of his time for a new generation, and an empathy enhanced by the losses and misfortunes of friends.

The collection’s title, derived from Lord Byron’s Don Juan ("Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, / Sermons and soda-water the day after"), suggests its subject: the journey of O’Hara and his generation from their riotous youthful excess in Prohibition through the cataclysms that brought them up short: the Depression and World War II.

Though I consider O’Hara’s novels in his last two decades to be, at a basic level, pleasurable, they were not always consistent, and many critics regard them far more skeptically, as loose, baggy monsters.

But it is hard to find fault with his short stories of the 1960s, which, for breadth of characters and depth of social observation, is virtually unrivaled in American literature.

In a post from nine years ago, on O’Hara’s 1961 story collection, Assembly, I discussed how more fully the nature of this achievement, as well as the nasty Brendan Gill review that precipitated his break from The New Yorker and editor William Maxwell’s shrewd judgment in securing his services again.

The story that convinced Maxwell that the notoriously touchy O’Hara was worth dealing with again was one of the novellas from Sermons and Soda-Water, “Imagine Kissing Pete,” a kind of American “Scenes From a Marriage.” A union begun as an act of spite (sexy Bobbie Hammersmith weds possibly the least desirable member of her circle, Pete McCrea, to get back at a former beau) is followed by mutual infidelity, arguments and straitened circumstances. Yet against all odds, after 30 years, the couple arrive at not merely accommodation but respect and even affection for each other.

As I discussed in this post from 12 years ago about Robert Montgomery, O’Hara missed out on a chance to have that talented writer-director adapt “Imagine Kissing Pete” because of a boorishness that often alienated many admirers.

The other two novellas in the trilogy, "The Girl on the Baggage Truck" and “We’re Friends Again,” though not as superb as “Imagine Kissing Pete,” are similarly distinguished by an elegiac tone and compassion for how his characters dealt with fate that was missing from his earlier short stories.

Typical in this regard is the conclusion of “We’re Friends Again,” in which the narrator ponders what he has learned about his best friend and the latter’s wife:

“I realized that until then I had not known him at all. It was not a discovery to cause me dismay. What did he know about me? What, really, can any of us know about any of us, and why must we make such a thing of loneliness when it is the final condition of us all? And where would love be without it?”

The linked trilogy also marked a return of O’Hara’s alter ego, Jim Malloy, a hard-drinking young writer who had appeared in the 1934 coming-of-age novella “The Doctor’s Son” and the novels BUtterfield 8 (1935) and Hope of Heaven (1938). He is not unlike Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman—a reappearing literary stand-in for the author who, having experienced his own reverses (controversial books, failed relationships, brushes with mortality), functions as a moved observer of friends over time.

The comparison might seem surprising at first, but the turn that O’Hara took in his short fiction in his fifties resembles in some ways that of Henry James:

*Both were writers of manners who, in the fifties, began to write longer fiction as their literary ambitions expanded;

*Both used their disappointing attempts to break into the world of entertainment (James, on the London stage; O’Hara, on Broadway and in Hollywood) as fodder for character creation; and

*Both, terribly saddened by the deaths of loved ones (O’Hara, second wife Belle and close friends Robert Benchley, James Forrestal and Philip Barry; James, sister Alice and brother Willkie), increasingly considered mortality in their work; and,

*Both found the novella an artistically satisfying vehicle.

 Good introductions to both writers can, in fact, be found in such collections (Great Short Novels of Henry James and The Novellas of John O'Hara). They allow for extended treatment of character and theme without the elaborate plot requirements of a longer novel. Above all, they exhibit his sense of verisimilitude, the sense of authority and honesty conveyed by what he called “special knowledge” of social customs.

Quote of the Day (Alice Munro, on the Constant Changes During Childhood)

“Every year, when you're a child, you become a different person. Generally it's in the fall, when you reenter school, take your place in a higher grade, leave behind the muddle and lethargy of the summer vacation. That's when you register the change most sharply. Afterwards you are not sure of the month or year but the changes go on, just the same. For a long while the past drops away from you easily and it would seem automatically, properly. Its scenes don't vanish so much as become irrelevant. And then there's a switchback, what's been all over and done with sprouting up fresh, wanting attention, even wanting you to do something about it, though it's plain there is not on this earth a thing to be done.”—Canadian Nobel Literature laureate Alice Munro, “Child's Play,” in Too Much Happiness: Stories (2009)

Monday, November 23, 2020

Photo of the Day: Korean Hornbeam, Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh PA

When I visited Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens on a trip to Pittsburgh a year ago, I was enthralled by the vast variety of flowers and plants in this wonderful site. One of the visual delights that I photographed then was the Korean Hornbeam, a deciduous tree native to North America and Asia. Slow-growing, this is considered a fine specimen for beginning bonsai enthusiasts.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Duck Soup,’ As Groucho Demonstrates a Unique Diplomatic Style)

Ambassador Trentino [played by Louis Calhern]: “I didn't come here to be insulted!”

Rufus T. Firefly [played by Groucho Marx]: “That's what you think!”— Duck Soup (1933), story by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, directed by Leo McCarey 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Photo of the Day: Gray Skies and Fountain, Roosevelt Common, Tenafly, NJ

Though I live more than two miles away, Tenafly’s Roosevelt Common has been a constant in my life for 45 years. The site’s memorial to Theodore Roosevelt holds its interest, but above all, its pond has been a source of tranquility and even beauty for me.

The fountain at the center of the pond especially drew my interest today—enough, obviously, that I photographed it.

The thermometer may have read 49 degrees but with no sun, it felt cooler. Elsewhere in town, even as seats and tables remained in place for outdoor dining, they were largely unused, with potential patrons no doubt discouraged by the plunging mercury.

The gray sky seemed an appropriate reflection of the gray spirits so many have felt in this region of the Northeast in recent days as COVID-19 cases increase, along with the probability of tighter restrictions on business and private gatherings.

Given these circumstances, then, seeing this pond and fountain didn’t make my heart soar. But it was a sign of life, the way water always is, even amid a contraction of nature that has felt more severe this year than ever before.

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Mark Twain, on Dominican Bravery During a Cholera Epidemic in Italy)

“I have heard of many things that redound to the credit of the priesthood, but the most notable matter that occurs to me now is the devotion one of the mendicant orders showed during the prevalence of the cholera last year. I speak of the Dominican friars—men who wear a coarse, heavy brown robe and a cowl, in this hot climate, and go barefoot. They live on alms altogether, I believe. They must unquestionably love their religion, to suffer so much for it. When the cholera was raging in Naples; when the people were dying by hundreds and hundreds every day; when every concern for the public welfare was swallowed up in selfish private interest, and every citizen made the taking care of himself his sole object, these men banded themselves together and went about nursing the sick and burying the dead. Their noble efforts cost many of them their lives. They laid them down cheerfully, and well they might. Creeds mathematically precise, and hair-splitting niceties of doctrine, are absolutely necessary for the salvation of some kinds of souls, but surely the charity, the purity, the unselfishness that are in the hearts of men like these would save their souls though they were bankrupt in the true religion—which is ours.”—American humorist Mark Twain (1835-1910), The Innocents Abroad: or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869)

As a religious skeptic for much of his adult life—and particularly in the case of Roman Catholicism—Mark Twain would have been among the last people I would expect to include in my Sunday “Spiritual Quote of the Day.”

But the circumstances surrounding the package tour to Europe that inspired his Innocents Abroad were extraordinary, as was the courage of the Dominicans he encountered in Naples, Italy, during a cholera epidemic in 1867. In a season when the COVID-19 pandemic rages again worldwide with renewed force, it does not hurt to pay tribute to an earlier group that many people a century and a half ago regarded as “essential workers.”

In Italy as a whole, an estimated 100,000 people died of cholera in 1867. The fear and frustration were particularly virulent in Naples, where mobs, enraged at prior broken pledges to improve the city’s sanitation and infrastructure, attacked government offices.

In March of this year, a Charles Collins post on the Catholic Website Crux Now gave further details on the trip in which Twain saw how the Dominicans bore witness to their faith. It is well worth reading.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

This Day in Baseball History (Birth of Stan Musial—Batter of Consistency, Model of Decency)

Nov. 21, 1920— Stan Musial, who through 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals earned the respect of teammates and opponents alike with consistent ferocity at the plate and unwavering kindness to those in contact with him, was born in Donora, Pa.

The son of a Polish immigrant who died from breathing fumes from a local zinc factory, Musial was used to personal setbacks. That might be why, when he damaged his left shoulder as a young pitching prospect in the Cardinal minor-league system, he accepted his manager’s advice and transitioned, like Babe Ruth two decades before, into becoming an outfielder.

In St. Louis, Musial became the linchpin in the best years of the franchise between the Dizzy Dean’s “Gas House Gang” of the 1930s and the Bob Gibson-led team of the 1960s. From the early-to-mid 1940s, that squad won four National League pennants and three World Series titles. During those appearances, Musial established a reputation for clutch hitting, batting .315,.357, .347 and .365 in the “Fall Classic.”

Even as he established a reputation for geniality in St. Louis, Musial filled opposing fans with dismay for the way he crushed the hopes of their hometown heroes. That was especially the case in Brooklyn, where Dodger diehards groaned at what “that man” was doing to their pitchers. That gave rise to the affectionate nickname he kept for the rest of his life: “Stan the Man.”

(Such was the reverence felt in St. Louis for “Stan the Man” that in 2012, the mainstay of the franchise for the prior decade, Albert Pujols—now relocated to the California Angels—objected to the title bestowed by his new team’s marketing department: “El Hombre.” "No, I'm not comfortable with that, because I believe there's one Man and, believe it or not, it's God," Pujols said in an ESPN “SportsCenter” interview. "God is the Man and there's another Man, Stan 'The Man' Musial in St. Louis. I know six years ago, when people first started making jerseys, I wasn't comfortable with that because of the respect I have for Stan Musial.")

In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the statistics maven compared Musial with Carl Yastrzemski, another All-Star of Polish descent who spent two-thirds of his career in left field and the rest at first base. But the most interesting similarity between the two Hall of Famers is that they began as contact hitters before experiencing power surges at age 27, when they achieved career highs in home runs. Each remained a power hitter throughout the rest of their long careers.

Time—and let’s be frank, players’ increased use of performance-enhancing drugs—has decreased the number of major league records (55) held by Musial upon his retirement in 1967. But the following statistics testify to his extraordinary consistency:

*His 3,630 hits (still fourth overall, behind only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron) were divided exactly between home and the road;

*He walked more than twice as much as he struck out (696 times vs. 1,599 times)—and most contemporary players would kill to strike out so little while hitting his number of home runs (475);

*Even when not clubbing homers, Musial made outfielders sweat, as he earned more than 900 doubles and triples (a total exceeded only by Tris Speaker);

*His 24 All-Star Game selections are second only to Hank Aaron;

*He was named Most Valuable Player three times and was among the top five in the vote counts another five times.

His inside-out swing and “corkscrew” stance (in which his back actually faced the pitcher) were, to say the least, unusual. But it didn’t matter: As teammate Joe Garagiola once joked, “Musial could hit .300 with a fountain pen.”

Nobody could play like this without a burning rage to compete, but Musial never took it out on opponents or umpires. (Astonishingly, he was never thrown out of a game.)  He was held in such high regard by teammates that second baseman Julian Javier named his son Stan after him.

Yet even rivals benefited from his kindness. Chuck Connors recalled how, during his 1951 season with the Chicago Cubs, he followed up on teammates’ suggestion that he ask Musial for advice on how to break out of a slump.

“I was a bum of a hitter just not cut out for the majors,” Connors—later famous as a TV actor— remembered. “But I will never forget Stan’s kindness. When he was finished watching me cut away at the ball, Stan slapped me on the back and told me to keep swinging.”

In 2011 Barack Obama awarded Musial the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the United States can bestow on a civilian. The great slugger passed away in 2013, mourned by true aficionados of the National Pastime.

(For the best short treatment I have come across on “Stan the Man,” I urge you to read this November 2012 post by blogger Joe Posnanski on Medium.)

Quote of the Day (The ‘Mayflower’ Pilgrims, With an Early Model for American Self-Government)

“Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”—Text of “The Mayflower Compact,” signed by 41 males aboard the Mayflower, Nov. 21, 1620

Next week, as they have taken to doing each year at this time since Abraham Lincoln, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. The holiday will serve as a kind of wish fulfillment for a country that looks to a past event—aid from Native-Americans that helped the Pilgrims survive hunger in their settlement in Plymouth—as a celebration of how different races, ethnic groups and religious sects can live together in harmony.

But 400 years ago today, an even more auspicious event occurred: the signing of the Mayflower Compact, America’s first experiment in self-government. That document was the product of desperate improvisation in a strange, perilous new country.

The Pilgrims—or, as they were known (more properly) then, “Separatists”—had been ceded land by King James I. Better to have them halfway around the world, he figured, than closer to home (even if, in this case, they had felt it expedient to migrate to Holland to escape his persecution of them), where they could spell trouble with their agitation for removing all traces of Roman Catholicism from the Church of England and the government.

But bad storms blew the Mayflower away from their destination: territory claimed by the Virginia Company near the mouth of the Hudson River. Assessing what passenger and future governor William Bradford called “dangerous shoals and roaring breakers,” the captain decided to disembark at Plymouth Rock, in modern Massachusetts.

The original signed in Europe, then, was null and void, and the group called the “Strangers”—the merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers and indentured servants, and several young orphans on board that were unrelated to the religious sect—were making noise about breaking off on their own.

To increase the new colony’s chances of success, the Pilgrims needed to keep the “Strangers” in the fold. The Mayflower Compact, with its 41 signers—virtually the entire adult male population on board—sought to cool these tensions while giving the majority Pilgrims the most significant voice in the settlement.

A “democracy” as we know it was the last thing on these settlers’ minds. But thousands of miles away from the authority they took for granted, they needed to create their own structure. The practical experience in self-government that took root then—a secular covenant—led eventually to the notion of the “consent of the governed” in the Declaration of Independence.

(For a concise but informative account of the circumstances surrounding the Mayflower Compact, see Melissa Love Koenig’s November 2010 post on the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.)

(The image accompanying this post is Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, an 1899 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.)

Friday, November 20, 2020

Will the Fox ‘Twin Galahads’ Lay Down Their Trump Lances?

Mr. [Seamus] Colonnity’s valiant colleague, Mr. Corky Fartmartin, was joining in Fox's defense of the president. So we had on our hands twin Galahads tilting lances. But Mr. Fartmartin's efforts to link Hillary Clinton to all of Mr. Trump's calamities weren’t quite getting traction. Still, one had to applaud the passion with which these two ‘Lions of Fox’ defended their president. If only more members of the media were as patriotic. Mr. Trump returned the favor by inviting them frequently to golf with him, and told me to comp them whenever they stayed at Trump properties. Naturally, the media even managed to make these friendly gestures by Mr. Trump seem criminal.”— American author and political satirist Christopher Buckley, Make Russia Great Again: A Novel (2020)

Among the many joys of Christopher Buckley’s fake memoir by "Herb Nutterman"—President Trump’s seventh chief of staff—are the hilarious names created for their very thinly disguised, real-life counterparts. (Do I really need to tell you that Colonnity is Sean Hannity and Fartmartin is Tucker Carlson?)

The difficult aspect of writing this satire, though, lay in spinning out a plot more absurd than what has been happening in the Age of Trump—very much including at the media outlet that helped propel him to the White House.

The irony in Buckley’s passage above extends well beyond those names for the Fox prime-time stars. As any fan of Lerner and Loewe (or, for that matter, T.H. White and Sir Thomas Malory) would remember, pure-hearted Sir Galahad was loyal to King Arthur, a wise, judicious monarch who ruled Camelot with wisdom.

But “Colonnity” and “Fartmartin” follow—for reasons best known to themselves and their boss, Rupert Murdoch—a President governed not by reason but by rampaging resentment.

Like Facebook, Fox News has fashioned a monster out of Frankenstein: an audience that has turned angrily on its creator. A quarter century after Murdoch gave free rein to Roger Ailes to whip viewers into a lather of bitterness over the liberal elite, the network’s prime-time pundits have not seriously tried to convince them that Donald Trump lost the election fairly and that no amount of challenges based on nonexistent evidence can reverse that outcome--even as many of their colleagues have admitted the obvious.

How dismally they must have felt over a week ago to hear crowds in Washington chant, “Fox sucks!”—all because the network finally attempted to live up to its “Fair and Balanced” moniker by calling Arizona for Joe Biden.

As my friend Joe Ferullo noted in a recent piece for The Hill, Fox is hardly alone as a channel that traded objectivity for editorializing—it is part of a larger trend towards “the tribal journalism of cable news,” mirrored on the left by MSNBC and CNN.

But, in the current needlessly fevered transition, Fox bears unique responsibility for the belief of 70% of Republican voters polled by Politico/Morning Consult that Joe Biden's victory was not "free and fair." Their evening stars—Hannity, Carlson, and Laura Ingraham—have been particularly reckless in giving a forum for the Presidential voter fraud narrative.

All of this might be amusing, in its odd way, if Hannity and Carlson weren’t aware that Trump isn’t missing a few brain cells. But they are, and that knowledge opens them up to a charge of journalistic malpractice.

According to an article in Vanity Fair by CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter, Hannity has grown tired of the 24/7 burden of being on call as an off-camera sounding board and on-air booster of a President desperately needing attention. “Hannity would tell you, off-off-off the record, that Trump is a batshit crazy person,” one of his associates told Stelter.

But Hannity dares not say anything remotely like this publicly. Doing so would not merely end the friendship of the President with his “shadow chief of staff,” as Stelter suggests; it would also mean that progressives would remorselessly chide him for shameless cheerleading for the President, that the network would lose access to and patronage from a still-powerful figure in American politics, and that Hannity would open himself up to the same kind of retaliation experienced by two other media personalities formerly friendly with Trump, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.

And so, Hannity tries to leave minimal daylight between himself and the President. "Americans will never be able to believe in the integrity and legitimacy of these [election] results," he told viewers as Joe Biden built an electoral and popular vote advantage that Trump did not enjoy in 2016 over Hillary Clinton. He has taken to retailing the President’s baseless charge that an electronic voting system used by election authorities across the United States has cost him millions of votes.

Carlson has had to perfect a similar balancing act of publicly embracing the President while privately stressing out over the President’s fecklessness. 

In early March, after backing Trump to the hilt during the impeachment fight, he felt compelled to fly down to the Trumps’ Mar-a-Lago resort to tell the President that COVID-19 really WAS a big deal. That warning, the commentator said, was based on a tip from a non-partisan figure in the U.S. government with access to intelligence, who claimed that the Chinese authorities were concealing the severity about the outbreak (advice, it should be noted, that the President could have availed himself of if he paid attention to his daily intelligence briefing).

The President’s shift in tone after their talk was short-lived, as Trump went back to downplaying the seriousness of a pandemic that, as of this writing, has claimed more than 250,000 American lives.

Nevertheless, Carlson feels obliged to give oxygen to the conspiracy theories of this lazy, lying excuse for a manager. The broadcaster has claimed that the "outcome of our presidential election was seized from the hands of voters" and put in the hands of "clearly corrupted city bureaucrats."

The problem is that Trump keeps devising wilder and wilder tests of the loyalty of his Galahads. One would have thought that Carlson, for instance, would have gotten a lifetime pass from the President by inappropriately comparing critics who think Trump contracted COVID-19 through his own reckless behavior with those who say women in provocative clothing ask to be raped.

(In a blog post right after that statement, Wonkette properly gave Carlson's insanely offensive analogy the back of her hand: “There is, in fact, no known outfit in the world that is scientifically proven to prevent sexual assault. Masks, on the other hand, are known to reduce the transmission of COVID-10. We all know this. It's been proven.”)

But Trump’s multi-state electoral challenges—knocked down, one by one, across the country—may be too much for even Carlson to stomach.

First, Carlson was embarrassed into offering an on-air apology about ballots illegally “cast” by dead people when one cited case, James Blalock of Georgia, turned out to be correctly—and legally—cast by his widow, Mrs. James Blalock.

Second, after offering Trump lawyer Sidney Powell as much time as she wanted to exhibit her “evidence” of voter fraud, she angrily declined, leading to Carlson’s on-air explanation of the brush-off.

It’s one thing when Fox personalities elsewhere on the schedule are finding it increasingly difficult to hide their impatience over the endless and pointless electoral lawsuits. It’s another entirely when even the “twin Galahads” are showing signs of cracking under the strain.

Yet Murdoch, Hannity and Carlson may have no choice but to follow through, as long as they can, with their daily nighttime charade, even as the most brazen challenge to Presidential election results in American history continues unabated.

Like any major company, Fox fears a competitor that can slice into its market share. Trump has already called on his supporters to watch Newsmax and One America News Network, two rivals that have been out-foxing Fox as purveyors of outlandish conspiracy theories.

The “twin Galahads,” then, may represent Murdoch’s best chance of warding off trouble from a President whose candidacy he endlessly promoted four years ago, despite privately dismissing him as an“[expletive] idiot,” according to an April 2019 article in the Daily Beast.

(The accompanying photo of Sean Hannity was taken May 29, 2014, by Michael Vadon; the photo of Tucker Carlson, speaking at the 2018 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, FL, was taken Dec. 22, 2018, by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ.)

Quote of the Day (Robert Benchley, on Hating to Ask Questions of Strangers)

“I can't quite define my aversion to asking questions of strangers. From snatches of family battles which I have heard drifting up from railway stations and street corners, I gather that there are a great many men who share my dislike for it, as well as an equal number of women who...believe it to be the solution to most of this world's problems. The man's dread is probably that of making himself appear a pest or ridiculously uninformed. The woman's insistence is based probably on experience which has taught her that anyone, no matter who, knows more about things in general than her husband.”—American humorist and film actor Robert Benchley (1889-1945), "Ask That Man," in Pluck and Luck (1925)

Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, Robert Benchley died, triggering ennui among his old Algonquin Round Table friends about an end of an era. But before that, the chief emotion aroused by the last medical crisis of this talented, gentle, alcoholic humorist sadly disappointed in himself was an overwhelming, desperate desire to help.

Christopher Buckley noted, in reviewing a 1997 biography of the man sometimes confused with his grandson, Jaws novelist Peter Benchley: “As he lay in the hospital, hemorrhaging to death from cirrhosis, forty people showed up to volunteer to give blood. How many writers could make that posthumous boast?”

I can’t think of all the times that I have posted quotes from Benchley. But I would do it countless times more if I could get even one of my readers to hunt down one of his humor collections from a library, an antiquarian bookstore, or Amazon. I can think of few better ways to raise a chuckle during a year when we all need it so badly.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Robby Cano, Doncha Know! (About His Second Failed Drug Test, That Is)

In the first half of the career of Robinson Cano, John Sterling would often let loose the home-run exclamation, “Robby Cano, doncha know!”

More than a few listeners groaned when they heard the longtime New York Yankee radio announcer unleash this and similar hosannas created for each player. But it was hard to be displeased with this particular subject.

With his smooth fielding, the sweet swing seen in the accompanying photo, and overall consistency, Cano easily sustained comparisons with Bobby Richardson and Willie Randolph, two quiet but key pillars of past Yankee championship teams. When he became a free agent after the 2013 season, he was in position not merely for a hefty salary increase but, if he remained on his trajectory at the time, for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Fans like me had plenty of reason to lament Cano’s decision to spurn the team’s seven-year, $160-million contract offer for the Seattle Mariners’ 10 year, $240-million proposal.

His move across the continent, coinciding with the deterioration of more celebrated aging stars like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, marked the team’s steepest fall from grace since its millennial glory days. Replacements Starlin Castro, Brian Roberts, Donovan Solano, Stephen Drew, Jose Pirela, Gregorio Petit and Tyler Wade exhibited none of his staying power or steady brilliance, even as Cano earned three more All-Star appearances.

These last couple of days, that gloominess appears wildly misplaced. It wasn’t only that, through seven subsequent seasons with the Mariners and New York Mets, Cano never played in a single postseason game, as he had done in all but two of his nine years with the Yankees.

No, it’s because, following a second failed drug test that this time triggers a season-long suspension, his career may be over, along with any chance of entering Cooperstown as anything more than a tourist.

It’s hard to feel sorry for a player who acted so myopically and maddeningly, in multiple ways:

*By watching what happened to Yankee teammates and friends Rodriguez and Melky Cabrera, Cano should have realized he ran a grave risk of being caught for using substances banned by major league baseball;

*When he was suspended for 80 games after testing positive in 2018 for using Furosemide, Cano said in a prepared statement that it was not a “performing-enhancing drug,” even though it has been used to mask the presence of steroids and other banned substances, and insisted that it was “given to me by a licensed doctor in the Dominican Republic to treat a medical ailment,” without naming either the physician or condition—a lame contention similar to a past President’s insistence that he “didn’t inhale” when he smoked pot;

*When he resumed his career, this time after being traded to the Mets, Cano should have known that the scrutiny he would endure in the nation’s media capital would be even more intense than before;

*With his second failed test resulting from the presence in his system of Stanozolol, the same drug leading to the suspension of Rafael Palmeiro 15 years ago, Cano ignored the lessons of history—and used a substance even easier to detect than Furosemide;

*With the increased drug testing following the 2013 Biogenesis investigation that ensnared A-Rod and Ryan Braun, Cano should have understood that his chances of avoiding discovery for a prolonged period were growing ever more limited.

In a statement released after the test results were released, Mets President Sandy Alderson could barely conceal his extreme irritation with the star once considered a cornerstone of the team’s future pennant hopes:

“We were extremely disappointed to be informed about Robinson's suspension for violating Major League Baseball's joint drug prevention and treatment program. The violation is very unfortunate for him, the organization, our fans, and the sport. The Mets fully support MLB's efforts toward eliminating performance enhancing substances from the game."

At least, by forfeiting his entire salary for 2021, Cano has given the Mets $24 million that they can use on coveted free agents—and the ability to place Jeff McNeill, a player 10 years younger than the veteran, into his natural position at second base.

(In a blog post for station NBC Chicago, Gordon Wittenmyer can barely restrain himself in considering how this Cano-generated maneuvering might lead to an intense round of calls between the Mets and a Cubs team seeking to offload expensive contracts.)

Cano has also given Bronx Bomber fans two things: gratitude, with Thanksgiving only a week away, that Brian Cashman didn’t make Cano an A-Rod-style albatross with a decade-long contract seven years ago, and  the freedom to speculate about the Yankee GM's reluctance to offer a more whopping salary because of Cano’s rumored source for his prodigious power numbers.

(Cashman’s 2018 disclaimer to USA Today reporters Pete Caldera and Steve Gardner that he would have been “compelled to tell'' major league baseball about Cano’s PED use, or incur a fine in excess of $1 million and possible loss of his job, does not resolve that question, given the GM’s carefully worded follow-up: "Knowledge is one thing, suspicion is another.'')

As for Cano, his acceptance of responsibility for “everything that goes into my body” comes too late for a player whose career statistics—including a .303 batting average, 334 home runs and 2,624 hits—would have made him a near-certainty for eventual enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. I guess maybe he’s banking on the short memory of Cooperstown voters, just as he once believed he could evade tougher drug-testing regimens for as long as it took.

(The accompanying photo of Robinson Cano, then playing for the New York Yankees, was taken on May 17, 2008, originally posted to Flickr as "DSC_0049"and cropped by UCinternational.)

Quote of the Day (Thomas Babington Macaulay, on King Charles I)

“Charles [I] bore no resemblance to his father [King James I of England]. He was not a driveller, or a pedant, or a buffoon, or a coward. It would be absurd to deny that he was a scholar and a gentleman, a man of exquisite taste in the fine arts, a man of strict morals in private life.

“His talents for business were respectable; his demeanour was kingly. But he was false, imperious, obstinate, narrow-minded, ignorant of the temper of his people, unobservant of the signs of his times. The whole principle of his government was resistance to public opinion; nor did he make any real concession to that opinion till it mattered not whether he resisted or conceded, till the nation which had long ceased to love him or to trust him, had at last ceased to fear him.”—English historian and essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), The History of England from 1485 to 1685 (1987)

Over the years, I have had my issues with the smugness of Thomas Babington Macaulay, but when it comes to King Charles I –born on this day in 1600 in Dunfermline Palace, Fife, Scotland—his conclusions seem indisputable.

Charles did not commit any offenses not done by either his father or, for that matter, any of the Tudors. But he was fatally insensitive to how his kingdom was changing and how much he was alienating a significant proportion of his subjects. That blindness led to the English Civil War, defeat at the hands of Oliver Cromwell, and execution for treason in 1649.

In a post for the “Yesterday Channel” for UK TV, a blogger posed the question, “Did King Charles I Deserve to Die?” After offering the case for the prosecution, the blogger, I would say, makes a more compelling case for the defense, noting that Cromwell and the military arrested any MPs in favor of negotiating with Charles at the end of the civil war. In other words, they engineered a military coup, echoing Macaulay’s charge.

(The image accompanying this post is by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst in 1628.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Photo of the Day: Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park, Washington DC

I took this photo from a tour bus while vacationing seven years ago this month in Washington, DC. This portion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park is in the Georgetown section of our nation’s capital.

Construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio began in 1828, only three years after the wild success of the Erie Canal sparked serious interest in what we now call “infrastructure” in the United States. It was not finished until 1850. At its height in the early 1870s, more than 500 boats were in frequent operation on the canal.

Thereafter, a series of blows—floods, a depression, and competition from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad—undermined the canal’s effectiveness and business. No repairs were made following yet another flood in 1924, and 14 years later the canal was sold to the U.S. government and placed under the National Park Service.

Unlike most canals built in the 1800s, the canal remains virtually unbroken for its entire 185-mile length, from Rock Creek Park into Maryland. It is a picturesque reminder of an important era in the nation’s commerce.

Quote of the Day (Harold Ramis, on the Original Dream Cast of ‘Animal House')

“The cast we had picked was Chevy Chase as Otter, Bill Murray as Boone, Brian Doyle-Murray as Hoover, [Dan] Aykroyd as D-Day, and [John] Belushi, of course, was Bluto. None of them wanted to do it except for Belushi. They were very competitive. Chevy thought he was onto a big movie career, and he wasn’t going to share the limelight with Belushi.”—American actor-screenwriter-director Harold Ramis (1944-2014), quoted in Chris Nashawaty, “Building ‘Animal House,'” Entertainment Weekly, Oct. 9, 1998

Take a look at the guys in the above picture. Now, imagine them replaced by the prominent names mentioned by Ramis. Quite a difference, eh?

By “we” in the above quote, Ramis had in mind himself, his co-writer Chris Miller, and co-producers Ivan Reitman and Matty Simmons. John Landis, brought in to direct, had his own ideas—and sounds like he rubbed the original creative team the wrong way by calling the project “my movie.”

In general, Landis desired to cast straight dramatic actors—quite a contrast from those mentioned above. But some of his other choices were, shall we say, unusual. He sounded out Jack Webb to play Dean Wormer and Meat Loaf for Bluto, in case Belushi wouldn’t or couldn’t take on the role.

But, for my money, his most unusual idea was Kim Novak as Mrs. Wormer. She had, by this time, fled Hollywood without completely abandoning her film career.

But the hard-drinking, libidinous dean’s wife would have been quite a change from the far more restrained roles that the blond Fifties goddess played in films like Bell, Book and Candle, Pal Joey and Picnic.

What might have happened if she decided to go through with it? Might other roles have come her way? Would she have played the wild cucumber scene with the same uninhibited delight that Verna Bloom did, or would she have tantalized Otter by staying just out of reach, aisle after aisle in the supermarket, as she did with Jimmy Stewart early in Vertigo?

We’ll never know. But it’s as startling an alternative casting idea as the original choice for Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate: Novak's fellow blond Fifties star Doris Day.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Photo of the Day: ‘Queen of The Meadow,’ Hancock Shaker Village, MA

Hancock Shaker Village, as I noted previously, is an attraction worth visiting for its wide-ranging insights into the culture of one of the most unusual religious communities ever to take root on American soil.

Yet, for anyone drawn to all that is visually pleasing, this living history museum in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts is especially delightful through its function as a working farm, with vegetables, herbs and a barn full of livestock.

In prior posts, I discussed some of these products of the soil, including monkswood, lungwort, and creeping thyme.

But I also photographed the “Queen of the Meadow” herb. It was not coincidental that I spotted its lavender-purple flowers on purple stems in August, because this herbaceous perennial plant blooms in late summer and fall.

Quote of the Day (H. G. Wells, on How ‘Each Moment of Life is a Miracle and Mystery’)

“We must not allow the clock and the calendar to blind us to the fact that each moment of life is a miracle and mystery.”—British science-fiction writer H. G. Wells (1866-1946), In the Fourth Year: Anticipations of a World Peace (1918)

This year, with friends and relatives aging—and increasingly vulnerable to dangerous medical conditions (including COVID-19)—this quotation has taken on unexpected meaning for me. Life is, as Wells writes, “a miracle and mystery”—and a gift, in no way to be taken for granted.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Photo of the Day: Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, Beaufort SC

On vacation in Hilton Head, SC, six years ago, I took a one-day excursion over to Beaufort. There are many reasons to enjoy this Lowcountry community, but the multi-acre Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park is an especially appropriate way to appreciate its charms.

The park, named for the longtime mayor who secured federal funding for the project, was built along the Beaufort River / Intracoastal Waterway in the middle 1970s and renovated from 2006 to 2008. Locals use the park for the Taste of Beaufort, Water Festival and the Shrimp Festival, but it can be appreciated year-round—including by tourists like me—for the green space and riverfront walkways that I photographed here.

Walking around here, it’s easy to understand why favorite son Pat Conroy continually evoked this waterside community, including in his bestselling novel The Prince of Tides. Experienced once, the sea breeze, palmetto trees and gracious antebellum architecture linger forever in the memory.

TV Quote of the Day (‘Bewitched,’ In Which Darrin Marvels—Not for the Last Time—At His Wife’s Magical Powers)

Darrin Stephens [played by Dick York] [to wife Samantha]: “You took a cat, and turned it into a girl? I can't believe that!” [Stops, then reconsiders] “Why can't I believe that? I'm married to a witch, and a witch can do anything with anything. So she took a cat and turned it into a girl, and my friend Wally fell in love with her. What's so hard to believe about that?”—Bewitched, Season 1, Episode 21, “Ling Ling,” original air date Feb. 11, 1965, teleplay by Jerry Davis, directed by David Orrick McDearmon

It may have been inspired by the success of films like I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle that featured lissome blondes who hooked up with hapless mortals, but Bewitched left its own enduring imprint on American culture, as you might expect from a sitcom that lasted eight seasons.

In a prior post, I already considered how this series first aired on TV with two other series, The Addams Family and The Munsters, that had a comic take on the supernatural. But watching the episode from the first season of Bewitched that I quoted above has sparked some additional considerations.

*Watching the show as a child, I found it pleasant and amusing; viewing it as an adult, I see it as slyly subversive. Darrin Stephens, the breadwinner of this nuclear family (completed with the arrival of babies Tabitha and Adam), is so—well, stupid.

*Most episodes in the show’s run were in color, but this particular one was in black and white. I found that I didn’t miss color a bit, even though its use here—for an ad campaign for a hunt for a female Asian model—would have made sense because of the high fashion used.

*For health reasons, Dick York had to be replaced with Dick Sargent in 1969. Elizabeth Montgomery remained friendly with Sargent for years after the show left the air, but I remain a firm York advocate. It has to do with his ears. What better outward sign of Darrin’s inherent dorkiness?

*The wide variety of supporting characters also appealed to many viewers, then and now. A longtime friend, for example, used to refer to a nosy neighbor as “Mrs. Kravitz.”

*Rather than offer a head-on comparison with the show through a straight remake, Nora Ephron took a meta view of the source material with her 2005 film Bewitched: an egocentric actor takes on the role of Darrin Stephens, only to find that the actress playing Samantha actually is a witch.

*Affection for the show continued to be high enough that a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha became quite a tourist draw when TV Land donated it to Salem, Mass., in 2005.