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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

High Rolling in the Bahamas

Three-Day Vacation, Day Two Dept.: Time to get off the beach for a while and try our luck at getting the most important information about a Bahamian casino, viz. how much must you gamble to get a free room for the night?


BEYOND THE PULSING LIGHTS and the kik-kik-kik of the slot machines is the Salon Prive, a dignified little room of green-topped tables. The gambling within is also dignified – more dignified than the whooping and “Awwriiight!” you hear on the main floor.

Here, in the casino part of the Paradise Island Resort & Casino, the high rollers gather to place their bets.

Between them and the tourists who yank the slots is an economic gulf wider than the social one that separates peon and king. This is the aristocracy of casino gambling, a select club with only two requirements:

A lot of money.

An indifference toward losing it.

The second is the tougher of the two. This is a men’s tradition, harkening to a time when the satisfaction of a gambling debt could become a gentleman’s ultimate challenge.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Paradise (A Kind of Library)

Three-Day Vacation, Day One Dept.: I'm taking the next three days off, so I'm leaving you with a Bahamas vacation. It's a vacation conducted twenty-two years ago, before the great falling-off of tourism there in the 1990s, and it celebrated (among others) a couple of resort hotels that no longer exist as such. Merv Griffin's Paradise Island Resort is now the Atlantis; the Carnival Crystal Palace is a run-down Wyndham Hotel. Enjoy the first leg of this nostalgic adventure.


YOUR FIRST SIGHT of the islands probably will be from several thousand feet above them. You took a seasoned traveller's advice and got a window seat on the right side of the plane. The day is cloudless.

The captain murmurs that the Bahamas are coming into view. You’ve read about them, seen them in movies or on TV – and you’re still unprepared for a sight that looks like a painter went crazy with turquoise, green, and blue.

And even after you’ve settled into your hotel and swum and snorkeled and donated a little to the Bahamian economy by way of one of the casinos – even after that you’ll catch yourself studying the beachfront in astonishment. It really looks like those incredible photos. With the artistic touches of the palm trees and coral that have flourished there since long ago, and a parasailor or two hanging over the water to remind us of the silly stunts humans dream up to celebrate such an area.

Landing in Nassau places you near two friendly resort centers: Paradise Island and Cable Beach. If you want to look at the beach all day, your hotel will probably provide access. But a Bahamas vacation offers more. Tourists are the major source of income for the area, so tourists are treated very well.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Toscanini Casanova

Did Somebody Mention Toscanini? Dept. | As promised in yesterday's post, I can and will hold forth on the subject of conductor Arturo Toscanini with little or no provocation, as people who have fled my harangues can attest. Here's a review I wrote of a couple of significant Toscanini books in 2002 for the lamented


FIFTY YEARS FROM NOW it will be comparatively easy to judge the worth of the conductors we now see and hear at work: they’re well documented on crisp recordings and videos, examined in close-up, interrogated at length for books and magazines, debated concert-by-concert on the Internet.
Fifty years ago, as Arturo Toscanini neared retirement, he too was documented by plenty of recordings, but the sound quality was (and remains) inconsistent – nothing like the crisp stereo or surround-sound we hear today. A single short film and a series of ten foggy kinescopes allow us to see him at work. Yet he remains the most hotly debated conductor in history, and may continue to remain so a half-century from now.

His legend and his reputation are so mixed that it’s difficult to assess the truth of his greatness. We who never saw a live Toscanini concert have only recordings and written accounts to go on. Some who saw him in performance insist that the recordings barely approach what the concerts revealed of his mastery; in his book Understanding Toscanini, Joseph Horowitz blasts the marketing hype that unduly influenced what’s been written about the conductor.

The Letters of Arturo Toscanini
comes as a relief. Whether complaining to an impresario, bragging to a girlfriend, or sucking up to Richard Strauss, Toscanini’s missives have a consistency of character that reinforces the legend and makes the Maestro engagingly real.
“For three days I’ve been leading a dog’s life,” he writes in 1896 to Carla De Martini, his fiancée (and eventual wife). “I leave home at 8:30 [a.m.] and get back at midnight. Three days of eating lunch and supper out and running all over the Bergamin Agency listening to singers of every sex and genre, and as if that weren’t enough I’ve had to go through the martyrdom of two sessions of three and a half hours each to audition two new operas.”

Friday, January 27, 2012

I’d Rather Not Bond with You, Thanks

The author strikes
a ruminative pose.
THERE'S A NOXIOUS TYPE of party guest, usually male, whose attempts to be the life of said gathering include commentary he believes to be hilarious. We know this because the guest – let’s call him Petomane – finishes each riposte with the kind of explosive laugh that includes a sneezy spray. At the same time looking wildly from person to person to make sure all are joining in the mirth enjoyment.

I’m the guy standing stony-faced. I don’t need Petomane’s cues as to what constitutes a punch line. And it’s a given that he who laughs at his own joke-attempts is the enemy of wit. In fact, I find that there’s usually an element of frat-boy insult built into the chatter, a style that sends me hurriedly back to the drinks table. Unless that’s where Petomane is holding forth.

No, I don’t want to participate, Petomane. I can see that you’re lonely and long ago hit on this  bullshit bonhomie in order to persuade people to like you. I won’t be one of them. I find such desperation dispiriting.

I know that sense of loneliness. It’s especially poignant at social events, and I have to fight at all times to keep myself from turning into another type of party scourge: the aged bore. Believe me, I can hold forth. If you’re female and attractive, it’ll be all I can do to stop myself from finding an excuse to recite the fascinating statistics of Toscanini’s career, which I’m happy to admit makes me ten times more annoying than your common-or-garden sports-statistics bore.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Guest Blogger: P.G. Wodehouse

For One Night Only (A Tragedy)

P.G. Wodehouse
I MET him in a crowd:
    As if with care ’twas weighted,
His shapely back was bowed,
    His brow was corrugated.
I asked him “Why so pale?
    What grief your soul has cankered?”
And gleaned his painful tale
    Over a friendly tankard.

“ONCE,” the sad wight began,
    “I knew not what the blues meant:
I was a genial man,
    And never shirked amusement.
I shot, I rode, I rinked,
    I trod the mazy measure:
My life, to be succinct,
    Was one long round of pleasure.

“IN those delightful days,
    I do not mind confessing,
That, if I had a craze,
    It was for perfect dressing.
One night – it serves to show
    How labor omnia vincit
I tied a perfect bow:
    I’ve not been happy since it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Becoming a Dad

Today is my daughter's birthday, a good time to recall her arrival fifteen years ago. The legal issues of homebirth have improved since I wrote the piece a decade ago, but the perception of birth as a medical emergency persists. The women who attended the birth risked severe consequences at the time, so their names remain changed. 


NERVOUS DADS PACING outside delivery rooms once were so much the stuff of cliche that no comedy seemed complete without them. We knew the anxiety of helplessly waiting while the doctor performed his magic, and the scene got its laughs from that instant recognition.

And why not? Dads are pretty helpless where birthing is concerned. The sight and sound of the experience are so dreadful that it’s best locked away in a hospital room. Watching your loved one’s transformation from sexpot wife to snarling mama can unman the most testosterone-enriched male. But the overall experience is so compelling that birth has been creeping back into the family. Dads (and other family members) now can be found in attendance in hospital birthing rooms and even, heaven help us, at home.

Home is where we ended up – or, I should say, remained, but it’s more accurate to note that at no point during those many months of pregnancy did I really believe I’d end up being a dad. Watching my wife turn into a beach ball was amusing, but I didn’t connect it with humanoid output. Even the hard evidence – kicking, heartbeat – seemed cheerfully abstract. For forty years I’d been childless, and the prospect of living otherwise was too sensational to take seriously.

Long ago I theorized that the birth of a child releases in the parents a chemical agent that causes those parents not only to regard a baby’s disgusting habits as cute, but also to find the disgusting-looking baby itself attractive. At twenty minutes past one on the morning of Saturday, January 25, 1997, I was on the brink of discovering how absolutely correct that theory was.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Ineluctable Whiteness

WHOEVER INJECTED ME with my liberal-tinged middle-class whiteness left a scar. It’s the place where my supposedly enlightened thinking ends, replaced with gut fear. Leaving me very much in line with the folks Phil Ochs mocked in “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” Heaven knows I try to fly the equality banner, but I’m not always comfortable saluting it, as the following incident affirms.

This took place last night. I left a friend’s house at about 6:30 PM to head to a meeting in downtown Schenectady. I had no dinner, and feared that this would be a problem for one as food-addicted as I. With nothing to eat and at least two hours of meeting-time to sit through, I would quietly obsess about food to the point where I’d beeline to some fast-food emporium as soon as I was sprung, taking care to pay in cash and eat quickly enough to be able to stash the bag in a Thruway rest area trashcan so that my wife wouldn’t discover my dietary transgression.

Better, I figured, to buy a snack. Something to go with the thermos of coffee I was packing. To that end – and to top off my car’s gas tank – I pulled into a Mobil station and used my Speedpass to activate the pump. As I did so, a beat-up pickup pulled alongside another of the pumps. A young man hopped down from the passenger seat. He was African-American, sporting baggy jeans, a puffy jacket, and walking with a slouch.

He looked into the truck and pantomimed smoking a cigarette, mime-asking if cigs were on the shopping list. He collected money from the driver and went into the convenience store.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Classical CD Roundup

Get those credit cards out! Here's a recent Metroland piece listing my favorites of the 2011 classical recordings -- and one coming out very soon. 


IF YOU FOLLOWED MY suggestion last year and purchased the 103-CD Jascha Heifetz box set, your investment is now appreciating. The set is out of print and its price is climbing. All the more reason to consider the forthcoming Arthur Rubinstein: The Complete Album Collection. With 144 CDs, packaged in miniatures of their original LP releases, two DVDs and a hardcover book, it’s selling on Amazon right now for $259, a price that surely will climb by the Jan. 31 release date. [It did, to $294.] Its predecessor, a Complete Rubinstein in jewel boxes, was released for $1,600, and the expense of producing the set pretty much killed the RCA Red Seal division. Evidently the original jackets approach is more economical.

It’s been a good year for great pianist. Martha Argerich turned 70 and was celebrated by EMI with three multi-disc sets: Solos & Duos (6 CDs), Concertos (4 CDs) and Chamber Music (8 CDs), much of it drawn from her Lugano Festival collections—to which was added another excellent installment, Live from Lugano 2010, which includes Chopin’s Concerto No. 1 and a charming quintet by Granados among its three discs.

Glenn Gould: In Concert 1951-1960 (West Hill) is an elusive six-CD set that features a fascinating array of broadcast recordings, including yet another Goldberg Variations and such other Bach works as the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and the Keyboard Concertos 1 and 5; also works by Beethoven, Schoenberg and others.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


From the Vault Dept.: One of those can-you-do-something-with-this-topic? pieces, it's a vintage Schenectady Gazette story I wrote about the history and joy of peanut butter. Reminding us that there were peanut butter-enhanced candy wars a dozen years ago!


Photo by Piccolo Namek
Used under a GNU Free Documentation License

THERE ARE A hundred calories in a tablespoon of peanut butter. Seventy-five of them (I'm reminded by a nagging nutritional guide) from the sheer fat content.

As it happens, I navigate the peanut butter jar with a tablespoon, a habit developed after I heard a radio program that sternly told me to use only a spoon with the stuff.

So when I'm putting a sandwich together I can count exactly how many calories I’m accumulating. In other words, I’m aware of it, I’m taking responsibility for it. If you don’t like it, lump it. (Hardly an appropriate castigation when discussing peanut butter, however.)

And if you don’t like it, you’ll also want to avoid membership in the Adults-Only Peanut Butter Lovers Fan Club, which has a roster of about 40,000. And a potential for plenty more when you consider that peanut butter is consumed by 83 percent of all Americans.1

I do try to surround the snacktime sandwich with “natural” items, lathering the spread on wheat bread and pairing it with fruit juice-sweetened jellies. A brief, too-hearty flirtation with Marshmallow Fluff sickened me of that combination forever (I won’t even eat my former-girl-scout wife’s campfire s’mores).

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bustles of Spring

Even as we ponder our seasonal root vegetables, let's look ahead to planting season. Here's a Metroland piece from 2008 that has me already thinking fondly of breaking out the hoe.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson
THINK OF YOUR SUPERMARKET not from the inside, with its bins of plenty, but from the outside rear, as a row of loading docks. The destination of trucks rumbling over the highway, whose drivers are beset by the same transportation problem we face: gasoline is unprecedentedly expensive. And diesel fuel tops all.

We commute to work, run errands, schlep kids, and eat that increased price as a cost of living. Trucking companies don’t. Supermarkets don’t. We eat that price difference, too. 

It’s rarely a single reason that pushes me to change a long-standing habit, and if you’re similarly wired, gas prices ought to break the camel’s back. But the more discerning diners among us already have been focusing on local food for several other reasons.

“There have been many problems with what’s in the supermarkets,” says Gwen Hyde, whose Windy Willow Farm shares produce with subscription members. “People are concerned with e. coli, among other things, which reflects the larger issue of who’s growing your food and what are that person’s values.”

In increasing order of exertion, the non-supermarket alternatives include shopping at farmers’ markets, subscribing to a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm or growing your own.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Through the Silence: Cage and Beyond

From the Vault: 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of John Cage's 4'33", and I feel the need this quiet morning to heighten my awareness of these pleasant surroundings. Here's a decade-old review I wrote for the sadly defunct about a significant tribute concert.


Margaret Leng Tan
(piano, toy piano, toy instruments, teapot)
Saturday 24 August 2002
Maverick Concert Hall,
Woodstock, NY, USA

“Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town,” said a disgruntled local during the question-and-answer session that followed the premiere of John Cage’s 4'33".

Fifty years later, in the same venue and almost to the day, pianist Margaret Leng Tan paid tribute to that anniversary with a concert almost to the day in the old barn of a concert hall that stands in the midst of a forest near Woodstock, NY, reminding us that portentous musical events took place there long before Hendrix & Co. showed up.

The length of the three-movement work was determined by chance, a newly discovered technique for Cage. The movements themselves require the artist to play nothing. It’s a listening experience that long since has vindicated Cage, not only offering an aural canvas of the intricacies of what we think of as silence, but also sharpening the ears.

Cage himself recounted the experience of hearing the rain on the roof of the theatre gradually supplanted by whispers from the audience – and then the sounds of people leaving.

Nobody left this time. In fact, the crowd sat obediently, adding little noise except for the sound of a water bottle hitting the floor – and the inevitable crinkle of cellophane, now a legal requirement at all concerts. No longer can this piece be considered a joke on the audience: it’s a listening experience the power of which was demonstrated during the work that followed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Our Corporate Masters . . .

. . . know what's best for us. 
Support SOPA and PIPA! 
The internet was getting too damn sassy anyway. 

(Image: aftermath of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory  fire. The regulations instituted in the wake of that tragedy have been significantly eroded in the wake of the Reagan era, as anyone working in the meatpacking industry can tell you.) Take some action.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Drive (Past) My Car

CALL IT ANTI-CAPITALIST guerilla theater. Call it urban terrorism. I think it’s great, mean-spirited fun.

Yesterday’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations involved a lot of staying home from work for people, but that didn’t keep them off the streets. My early-morning coffeeshop visit was one of surprising quiet until about ten o’clock, when folks poured in and packed the place.

I had joined my wife on her day off in a succession of errands that took us next to Colonie Center, an older shopping mall on which some new facades have been slapped within the past decade, increasing business to a point that strains the front-of-the-mall parking lot some weekends and in the run-up to Christmas.

When we arrived – it couldn’t have been much before eleven – there still were plenty of spaces. When we emerged after a lousy food court lunch, the lot was jammed with space-seeking cars circling the aisles, the drivers no doubt fortified by all the coffee they’d consumed while annoying me earlier in the day.

This was where I turned evil. I have no excuse for this behavior except that it satisfies some hobbledehoy urge for mischief.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tips on Tipping

 Vintage Stuff Dept.: Although nearly a decade old, the numbers in this Metroland piece remain fairly current. And it remains a popular topic, as the number of reprints this article has enjoyed would indicate.


WE WERE AT A sit-down deli on 7th Avenue in Manhattan, a bustling place where prices are high and service is frantic. It was about 25 years ago. Four friends and I were en route to a concert and running a little late.

One by one, we paid our checks—separate checks, because if we tried to assemble funds for a combined result someone invariably would get away with underpaying—and hit the sidewalk. Not surprisingly, the fellow in our party most notorious for underpaying was last. As he approached the rest of us outside, the deli door burst open and a waitress flew out after him.

“I don’t know where the hell you come from,” she screamed, “but in New York City it’s customary to leave a goddamn tip!”

Abashed, he dug in his pocket and produced some more money.

Although that waitress may have imagined that some backwoods community exists where tipping is unknown, in this country at least you’re expected to pony up with gratuities just about everywhere. If it isn’t written into the tab, it’s an unspoken expectation.

And it used to be a whole lot simpler. In a nice restaurant, you tipped 15 percent for lunch, 20 percent for dinner. You threw a buck or two to your hairdresser, delivery person, bellhop. If you lived in an apartment, you knew the rules for doorman, super and such.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Rear View

A trip to the Berkshires. The family car.
Electronic message: Your door is ajar.
I slump in the driver’s seat, patience worn thin;
My wife tries to buckle our three-year-old in.
We drive through the village, wave to our friends;
Smile into smile this happiness blends.
The Thruway is silent. My wife rubs her eye.
Stick forests of saplings bounce greyishly by.
Another Jeep Cherokee, sparkling blue,
Is passing my window. Inside I can view
A couple in front, some children in back,
And all the way back is a Labrador, black.
I’m tempted to turn on the radio. No.
There’s been enough talk. Let it go.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Guest Blogger: Robert Benchley


I am mortified to discover that the unpleasant
looking man is none other than myself.
AS A RULE, I try not to look into mirrors any more than is absolutely necessary. Things are depressing enough as they are without my going out of my way to make myself miserable.

But every once in a while it is unavoidable. There are certain mirrors in town with which I am brought face to face on occasion and there is nothing to do but make the best of it. I have come to classify them according to the harshness with which they fling the truth into my face.

I am unquestionably at my worst in the mirror before which I try on hats. I may have been going along all winter thinking of other things, dwelling on what people tell me is really a splendid spiritual side to my nature, thinking of myself as rather a fine sort of person, not dashing perhaps, but one from whose countenance shines a great light of honesty and courage which is even more to be desired than physical beauty. I rather imagine that little children on the street and grizzled Supreme Court justices out for a walk turn as I pass and say "A fine face. Plain, but fine."

Then I go in to buy a hat. The mirror in the hat store is triplicate, so that you see yourself not only head-on but from each side. The appearance that I present to myself in this mirror is that of three police-department photographs showing all possible approaches to the face of Harry DuChamps, alias Harry Duval, alias Harry Duffy, wanted in Rochester for the murder of Nettie Lubitch, age 5. All that is missing is the longitudinal scar across the right cheek.

I have never seen a meaner face than mine is in the hat-store mirror. I could stand its not being handsome. I could even stand looking weak in an attractive, man-about-town sort of way. But in the right hand mirror there confronts me a hang-dog face, the face of a yellow craven, while at the left leers an even more repulsive type, sensual and cruel.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Wine & Dine for the Arts: The First Year

The third Albany Chefs' Food and Wine Fesitval has kicked off at the Crowne Plaza. Two years ago, I worked behind the scenes at the inaugural event and wrote about the experience for Metroland.


ANY CHEF, whether a culinary school grad or someone who worked through the ranks, has worked the various kitchen stations. No manner of prep is unknown or undignified. It only stands to reason, but I had stunning proof of this during last Saturday’s Grand Dinner at Albany’s Crowne Plaza Hotel, when I witnessed the amazing way in which chefs both accomplished and new to the game can quickly bond to work together to deliver an amazing product.

The Albany Chefs’ Food and Wine Festival was a three-day event that began individually at 16 Albany restaurants and culminated in the Saturday dinner, with wine tastings and seminars along the way. It recalled the glory days of the Desmond Hotel’s Wine Weekends, so it was no surprise to learn that Gary Smith, who created those Desmond events, was a driving force behind this one as well.

And the event was created as an arts-funding device, in this case to benefit Capital Repertory Theatre. Although the numbers aren’t yet official, Festival co-founder Donna Purnomo believes that at least $30,000 was raised. “I’m absolutely thrilled,” she said. “This went way beyond my expectations.”

Thursday, January 12, 2012

You Must Remember This

Uses of Theater, Adolescent Division Dept.
If I excelled at nothing else as a 14-year-old, it was the ability to shrink from any social gathering out of the fear that they’d see through my translucent hide to the nothing that cowered within. I was tall for my age, overweight, clumsy, not particularly well-spoken; I liked classical music, Thomas Wolfe, the Goon Show. Into this soup of insecurity was injected that cocktail of hormones called adolescence, so now I was all of the above and obsessed with girls.

All of a sudden at least half of every high-school class I attended was made up of girls. Girls of such oppressive nubility that I spent most of the day with a hand in one pocket, overtenting.

I started ninth grade with a number of dull electives on my schedule, one of which proved unavailable. “What do you want to do?” my guidance counselor asked. “Go home” was the correct answer, but I mutely shrugged. “There’s an opening in Theater Arts. I’ll put you in there.” Thus, very inauspiciously, did my passion for theater begin. Thanks to the time I’d put in mimicking Peter Sellers and the other Goon Show actors, I could do a passable enough Irish accent to land me as Rooney the cop in Arsenic and Old Lace. This would be my most significant time on stage, and to be sure I did well, I colluded with the fellow playing Dr. Einstein to rent a copy of the movie of the play.

(Back then, renting a movie meant paying the 25 or so bucks to secure a 16-millimeter print from Willoughby-Peerless in Manhattan, which we were able to do through the high school’s AV club.)

We watched it after the final dress, right before opening night. James Gleason and Peter Lorre played our respective roles, and had much funnier business than we’d developed. So, at that first performance, we put it in. It got us a laugh, and got us a tongue-lashing from our long-suffering teacher-director. Right off the bat, I learned valuable lessons.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cabaret is a Life

Bebe Neuwirth
I have long pursued cabaret theater shows in the hope of finding hip performers mixing familiar songs with well-chosen new-to-me stuff, contextualized in a way that personalizes the evening both for the singer and for me. The best of them leave me feeling singled out for special treatment.

But too much of what passes for cabaret these days is a jukebox of standards, dutifully presented in full so that the audience can signal its own hipness by applauding at verse (oh-so hip) or refrain (so-so hip). One evening at the Algonquin’s Oak Room, the suffering inflicted by that phenomenon was intensified by one business-suited son-of-a-bitch who intoned along with the lyrics while giving his date the ain’t-I-impressive? eyeball. I strangled him with his own necktie to a refrain of “Miss Otis Regrets.”

When she isn’t performing on Broadway (“The Addams Family,” “A Chorus Line,” “Damn Yankees” and the Bob Fosse shows “Chicago,” “Dancin’,” “Sweet Charity,” and, of course, “Fosse”) or in movies (“Bugsy,” “Celebrity,” “Fame”) or on TV (“Law and Order,” “Frasier,” “Cheers”), Bebe Neuwirth brings her very personal world of song and story to the cabaret stage, and does it the way it’s intended to be done. She melds well-chosen music and lyrics into an experience through which she’s guiding you, and it’s not always pretty.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Worth a Thousand Words Dept.: Yet One More Inspired Step on the Road to Puzzling Out the Meaning of Life

Building Better Burgers

Here's a piece I wrote in 2002 for Metroland, but which never saw print. I can't recall why; I may have written it to have an emergency article in my pocket, so to speak, and then forgot it was there. I'll be judging a sliders contest Friday at the Albany Wine and Dine for the Arts Festival, so this will serve me as a good refresher.


Five Guys, Schenectady, NY  |  Photo by B. A. Nilsson
BIG MACS ARRIVED on the culinary scene in 1968. Within four years, my high school friends and I were so addicted that we’d risk detention by skipping an afternoon class, piling into somebody’s car and gorging on the tasty, greasy burgers. And it wasn’t even the meat itself that tasted good – the negligible portion of cheap chopped beef was tricked up with cheese and pickle slices, Russian dressing and a dab of pale mustard. Lots of bread, too, in that double-decker package, and the things were cheap. Cheap enough for a high school-kid budget.

As teen-aged rebels, we were aligning ourselves with the Tartars of old, who wrenched their dinner meat from tough Asian cattle, shredded it and cooked it over their shields. By the 14th century, this practice had been introduced into Germany, where the meat was eaten raw or cooked by the poor folk. It picked up its moniker in Hamburg, but it was known, with a touch of irony, as a Hamburg steak.

From there it made 19th-century trips to England and America. In England it became the pet of wacky food doc J.H. Salisbury (yup, the Salisbury steak guy), who insisted that all food be shredded and who wanted you to eat beef three times a day. In America, it arrived with German immigrants, and its name shortened and casualized from Hamburger steak to hamburger. Its companion bread bun also appeared around this time, and the two were firmly connected by the time of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where the sandwich was called, simply, “hamburg.”

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Spike Milligan: A Tribute

My sole appearance alongside Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Barry Humphries, Richard Lester, and a number of other comedy luminaries occured in a book published ten years ago. Spike Milligan: His Part in Our Lives collected over 40 reminiscences about the legendary Goon Show creator, and editor Maxine Ventham discovered me through the Goon Show Preservation Society’s American archivist, Dick Baker, who generously passed along to me the task of writing something from a Yank’s point of view. 


SPIKE MILLIGAN WAS no more than a name rattled off at the end of each Goon Show when I first fell under his influence. I knew that he wrote, or co-wrote, each episode, and provided one or more voices, but the first few shows I heard were so difficult to understand that I couldn’t begin to appreciate his contributions to them.

Sadly, this reflected the general lack of Milligan appreciation in the U.S.A. in the early 1970s. My journey from curious Yank to ardent fan probably mirrors that of anyone else in the States who discovered and enjoyed the Goon Shows. It’s a lot of work, or was back in those pre-Internet days, but it also meant you were part of an eager, exclusive club. Which meant that (as is true of any collection of Americans with discriminating taste) we’re few but we’re great company. Spike’s books and recordings get next to no American distribution, and the Public Broadcasting Systems, our non-commercial television network, helped Monty Python achieve cult status while ignoring the “Q” series entirely.

Ah, but the “Marty Feldman Comedy Machine” crept in as a summer replacement on a commercial station in 1972, and there was my first glimpse of Spike in his glory – and by then I was 16-year-old Goon Show fanatic, eager to immerse myself in Milliganiana.

As a teenager growing up in suburbia – the New York City suburbs, to be exact – I inherited the community’s sense of rootlessness. Few of my friends and none of my neighbors were born in this town; almost none of those who were my age then live there now. Fathers worked in the city, and so did some moms, although most tended home and kids during the final generation that could afford to live that way.

Developing a sense of self was difficult. Developing a sense of humor was vital. Movies were funny, of course, and I soon discovered the Marx Brothers. I note with some pride that my first high school detention, for skipping a class, was earned when I went to a friend’s house to watch “The Cocoanuts” on television. That’s also the time I discovered Peter Sellers as a film comedian during a late-night TV encounter that changed my life. He shared the screen with Alec Guinness and others in “The Ladykillers,” and the surprise ending was my introduction to black comedy. It gave me a sense of hope.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Song-Poems: The Art of Song Sharking

Vintage Stuff Dept.: Cool and Strange Music Magazine was published from 1996 to 2003, the handiwork of multi-talented musician and writer Dana Countryman. I contributed a few articles and reviews, including this history of the song-poem. More collections have been issued since the article appeared, and there's even a fun documentary out there about the subject. More info at the article's end.


HOW ABOUT THIS for a song hit? “Can our government/Be competent?/Jimmy Carter says yes!/Jimmy Carter says yes!/Can our government/Be honest?/Jimmy Carter says yes!/Jimmy Carter says yes!/Can our government/Be decent and open?/As the thirty-ninth President/He has spoken, yes!/Jimmy Carter says yes!”

It may not rank up there with “Stardust” and “Louie, Louie,” but as far as Waskey Elwood Walls, Jr., was concerned, it was a sentiment worth setting to music.

Even though he had to pay someone to do it. Someone he discovered through an ad in the back of a magazine. It might have been Popular Mechanics or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Or the National Enquirer.

The ad is small but enticing. Send us your poems and – if they’re good enough – you’ll collaborate with the industry’s top composers and musicians as your poem is set to music, recorded, and submitted to major record companies. Fame, of course, and untold wealth will follow. All you need is that one big break.

Here’s the kicker: your poems are good enough. They always are. After all, you’re paying for the recording session. “People are in awe of the idea of the recording studio,” says Byron Coley, whose Carnage Press has issued three CDs of song-poem compilations. ‘They think, ‘Oh, the Rolling Stones will be in the studio tomorrow, but today musicians are in there recording my song!’”

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Growing Brahmsian

Tom Paxton summed up aging eloquently: “A few less hairs / A need for chairs / A dread of hearing fortunes told.” I can add another telling characteristic: fully enjoying the music of Brahms.

I can’t say it suddenly happened. In fact, it’s probably been sneaking up on me over the past couple of decades, but it was only a few days ago when an ardent longing came over me to hear the Piano Trio in B Major, the opening theme of which drifted into my head and wouldn’t leave until I listened to the piece.

My introduction to classical music came through symphonies by Schubert and Beethoven. I took up the violin in fourth grade, which predisposed me to the fiddle’s corner of the repertory, and it was the Mendelssohn concerto that became my first favorite. When I discovered that I’d rather hear it played by Heifetz than any other violinist (sorry, Oistrakh and Francescatti), I went Heifetz crazy, with a passion only given to adolescents.

Amidst its reliable array of toothsome lingerie ads, the Sunday New York Times magazine section carried ads from the RCA Record Club (choose 12 records for 1¢!). You saw these in other periodicals, but the Times offered its rarefied readers a classical music-specific version (choose 4 records for 1¢!). And there was a four-record Heifetz set among the offerings.

Mendelssohn was coupled with Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2, a strident piece that took some getting used to. Each of the other LPs featured a single work: the concertos by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Software Bugged

From the Vault Dept.: Twenty years ago, I wrote for a number of computer magazines. Good money, but it robbed me of time and imaginative brainpower. Here's a 3,000 word piece I wrote for PC/Computing magazine. Don't get bugged if you can't make it to the end.


Things always seem to go wrong when it’s hot. In this case, some of the heat came from the large vacuum tubes powering the new Mark II computer, but most of it came from a brutally warm day.

The year was 1945, and Grace Hopper, a Navy lieutenant assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University, was helping build this new computer to meet the nonstop wartime demand for gunnery calculations.

There’s a special sense of confidence you get when you know you’re doing everything right. Great athletes know this; it can also come from writing that perfect piece of programming code. When the machine came to a stop that hot day, Hopper knew it wasn’t her fault. She suspected something in the machine. She and her assistants inspected the monster, peering into its viscera of wire and glass, and found the problem: a failed relay. Looking closer, they found the cause: a two-inch-long moth. The carcass was tweezed from the machine and scotch-taped into the logbook, and Hopper quipped that worktime had been lost because they were “debugging” the computer.

That incident gave the computer industry a term that now describes a figurative problem so perfectly that it’s easy to forget to credit Hopper and the hapless insect for it. Software bugs are amazingly lifelike. They seem to creep from an unseen lair, causing anything from a minor headache to a major disaster. The bugs we’re considering aren’t viruses: There’s nothing deliberately malicious about these critters. They’re simply the unexpected conflicts that cause an application to take an unforeseen turn.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Words, Words, Words

“You have no idea what it’s like to be a ‘just between you and me’ person in a ‘just between you and I’ world.” This is a corner-of-the-barroom confession from a New Yorker cartoon by William Haefeli. It hangs in my office. It reminds me, as I write, to use the tools – the language and its rules – to the best of my ability so that I’m communicating as effectively as I can. The fact that what I’m seeing is a cartoon also reminds me to have fun, which the shrewd use of language invites.

In the January 2 edition of The Globe and Mail, Toronto’s Diane Amato has an essay titled “I’m a Stickler for Proper Grammar.” It’s an amusing, insightful 900 words explaining the nuts-and-bolts tightrope writers tread.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Amato writes. “I’m not a perfectionist, a language snob or even a high-school teacher. I’m not too hung up on the proper use of semicolons and commas, or whether one should ever start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’”

Then, continuing with just the right measure of self-effacing charm, she describes the challenge of steering her two children, aged three and five, through grammar’s challenging jungle.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Guest Blogger: Guy Wetmore Carryl

How Rudeness and Kindness Were Justly Rewarded
by Guy Wetmore Carryl (1873-1904)

        ONCE on a time, long years ago
        (Just when I quite forget),
        Two maidens lived beside the Po,
        One blonde and one brunette.
        The blonde one's character was mild,
        From morning until night she smiled,
        Whereas the one whose hair was brown
        Did little else than pine and frown.
        (I think one ought to draw the line
        At girls who always frown and pine!)
        The blonde one learned to play the harp,
        Like all accomplished dames,
        And trained her voice to take C sharp
        As well as Emma Eames;
        Made baskets out of scented grass,
        And paper-weights of hammered brass,
        And lots of other odds and ends
        For gentleman and lady friends.
        (I think it takes a deal of sense
        To manufacture gifts for gents!)

Sunday, January 01, 2012

In Search of H. Allen Smith

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: One of the stops my wife and I made during our 1989 cross-country journey was in Alpine, Texas, so that I could find the home of one of my literary heroes, H. Allen Smith. Cold weather has me thinking about hot chili, so here's a piece I wrote about the experience along with a recipe.


What would make a successful writer living in Westchester County suddenly pull up stakes and move to a remote town in Texas?

Chili con carne.

With the spirit of a Texas braggart, northerner H. Allen Smith wrote an essay 30 years ago for Holiday magazine in which he claimed to make the best chili, period. He was challenged to prove this claim by Texan Wick Fowler. The result was a cookoff that became the first of many, and the tradition continues today.

Smith was an old-school newspaperman who worked his way from Denver to New York in the 20s and 30s. In the early 1940s he collected a series of humorous writings in a pair of books titled Low Man on the Totem Pole and Life in a Putty Knife Factory which revealed him as skilled humorist in the style of his own hero, Mark Twain – but with a more contemporary perspective.

He left the newspaper business and moved to Mount Kisco, NY, although he travelled extensively, always sharing news of those travels in books and occasional pieces.

Then the chili event took place. Smith tells the tale in his book The Great Chili Confrontation, now long out of print. And you won't find a copy of it anywhere in Alpine. In fact, in this, the last place Smith called home, you'd be hard pressed to find any of his books.

All because of chili.

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