The Providence Journal recently featured a list of the official Rhode Island state symbols on the front page.  Here are a few:



State motto: “Hope.”  Nice.  Brief, and thoughtful.



State drink: coffee milk.  Well, hm.  Unique, anyway.  There was a political struggle over this honor between coffee milk and Del’s Lemonade some years ago; finally someone pointed out that the state shouldn’t be getting behind any particular trademarked brand, and coffee milk – of any brand! – won out.



State song: “Rhode Island, It’s For Me.” I’ve never heard it.  Hang on a minute and let me chug over to YouTube to see if I can find a version of it.  Yikes! Save yourselves, kids.  I’m not even gonna give you a link to it.  “Waters rich with Neptune’s life”? “Rhody stole my heart – you can keep the forty-nine”? Narsty gluey stuff.  One of these days I’ll post “Rhode Island Is Famous For You,” which really ought to be the state song.



State mineral: Bowenite.  State mineral: Cumberlandite.  I believe I have seen samples of both at the Roger Williams Park Museum of Natural History.  They are okay, as rocks and minerals go. 



State bird: Rhode Island Red.  Yes, we are one of the two states with a chicken for a state bird.  (I will email you a cookie if you can tell me the other.)  The children’s zoo in Roger Williams Park has a couple of Rhode Isand Reds strutting around; they’re more auburn than red, but they’re perfectly nice chickens, and I’m sure they’d be delicious fried.



State flower: Violet.






It is now spring in Rhode Island, and there are violets everywhere.  They are in the grass outside our apartment complex.  They are in the weeds alongside the road.  They poke up through the cracks in the sidewalk.  I was walking alongside Grace Church (built c.1850) in downtown Providence the other day, and there were throngs of violets in the patches of earth alongside the building: purple, lavender, white.



This is the perfect symbol for our state.  Violets are small and modest and lovely.  Even the leaves are pretty, when the flowers have finished blooming.  People don’t mind when they invade their lawn; they’re fresh and colorful, and they thrive.  They are fragrant and charming.  The flowers last no time at all, but they leave a pleasant memory behind.



Now there’s a state symbol I can feel good about.



For Sunday: “Show Me The Way,” sung by Peter Frampton


I was in the generation that didn’t quite get George Frampton.  He was just a bit after me.



But he’s wonderful.







Ann Romney, the average American housewife


Here is a brief excerpt from a presentation given by Ann Romney a few days ago in Stamford, Connecticut:



Romney also recalled raising her boys solo until the birth of her fifth son.



“I didn’t have help for many many years. As a matter of fact I didn’t have help at all until the fifth baby was born and I had emergency surgery when he was four months old,” Mrs. Romney said. “And I was in bed and realized I couldn’t take care of five boys with Mitt working so hard and needed a little extra help. “



She offered more detail than usual about her life at home.



“I know what’s like to finish the laundry and to look in the basket five minutes later and it’s full again. I know what’s like to pull all the groceries in and see the teenagers run through and all of a sudden all the groceries you just bought are gone,” Romney said to the crowd. “And I know what’s like to get up early in the morning and to get them off to school. And I know what’s like to get up in the middle of the night when they’re sick. And I know what’s like to struggle and to have those concerns that all mothers have.”



Romney alluded to the fact that not all women can stay at home saying, “I love the fact that there are women out there who don’t have a choice and they must go to work and they still have to raise the kids. Thank goodness that we value those people too. And sometimes life isn’t easy for any of us.”



Did you get that?



Ann loves the fact that some of us don’t have a choice, and can’t hire outside help – even after our fifth child! – because we don’t have enough money.  (Why exactly she loves that is a little beyond me. She loves the fact that people struggle?)



The husband was pulling in mucho cash, and we are told to believe that Ann was worried about grocery money, and exhausted from doing so much laundry.



Give. Us. A. Break.



How much household help do you have, reader?  (Partner and I have only stuffed animals, who are utterly useless when it comes to household chores.)


We Democrats are hoping Mitt brings Ann out a lot more often on the campaign trail.  She really speaks to women.


In all the wrong ways.



An aspirin a day keeps cancer at bay


 A new study shows that a low-dose aspirin a day keeps cancer at bay.



Sorry, I didn’t mean to rhyme.  But that’s what the study said.  A low-dose (under 100mg) aspirin once a day not only assists in ongoing cancer treatments, but seems to help in preventing cancer.



I love simple solutions to heavy problems.  If this will help, then by god I will do it.  My mother’s family (and Dad’s too) is rife with cancer; both my parents and both my sisters died of it.  If this will help, then I will by god do it.



That’s this year’s conclusion, of course.  Last year, it was found that the problems caused by aspirin (including internal bleeding) were significant enough for the medical authorities to caution people from taking the drug.



Internal bleeding?  Hell, that’s like a paper cut, or a scraped knee.  That’s an everyday occurrence for me.  If I lose the same amount of blood because of one aspirin, and I gain some traction against cancer, then sign me up!



(For now.  Until they find otherwise.)



(Remember my kidney stone?  Until very recently, doctors were recommending cranberry juice as a preventive measure against kidney stones. My student employee Noah, only last summer, told me that his father drinks gallons of the stuff for kidney stones, on the advice of his doctor. Now, however, there’s reason to believe that cranberry juice is (at best) useless, and (at worst) a contributor to kidney stones.)



(This is how medicine works: a step at a time.)



(We work with what we have.)


The Idaho Spud


There is a nice website called Hometown Favorites, which markets grocery items from around the country: items that are generally only available locally.  In Rhode Island, for example, we’re talking about Eclipse Coffee Syrup, and Kenyon’s Clam Cake Mix, and New England Frozen Lemonade (sorry, kids, I don’t like Del’s). 



And sometimes I long for the candy bars of my Pacific Northwest childhood, and Hometown Favorites has them.



They have Mountain Bars.  They have Rocky Road bars (my favorites: chocolate-covered marshmallow bars, with bits of cashew in the chocolate).  They have Zero bars (white chocolate).  They have bags of Brach’s Chocolate Stars, which, inexplicably, you can’t buy in the Northeast.



And they have the Idaho Spud.



What?  You’ve never heard of it?  It’s only “the candy bar that made Idaho famous.”  It’s made in Boise (I checked the wrapper), by the Idaho Candy Company.  It’s an ovoid-shaped bar, rather like a used bar of soap, and it has a nubbly chocolate-coconut coating.  The inside is marshmallow mixed with something else I’ve never quite figured out. I gave an Idaho Spud to a coworker not long ago, and she described it this way: “The outside was delicious. The inside was – just flavorless.  Like a husk.”



And yet: I still buy them, five or ten at a time, and I eat them, or I give them away. I tell people: “Even if you don’t like the candy bar, the wrapper is a novelty.”



But, sincerely, I like them.  They remind me of my childhood, for one thing.  And there’s something profoundly simple about that brown wrapper.  And I like giving them to people who’ve never seen them before, who invariably say: “What is this thing?”



Why, it’s an Idaho Spud, you silly goose.



Just close your eyes and surrender to the experience.


The Turkish toilet


Ah, my dears.  If you have never visited the Third World, you will probably never have seen a Turkish toilet.



It is just a hole in the ground, with two ceramic footholds on either side.  You plant your feet on either side of the hole, and you squat, and –






It is, for an average American, difficult to welcome something like this into one’s daily life.  It took me a while, god knows.  But the body is very insistent about its own needs, and one does what one has to do.



At a Halloween party in Tunisia in 1985, a friend of mine dressed as a Turkish toilet.  She put a big piece of cardboard around her neck, and glued a pair of flip-flops to it, one on each side of her head.  See, her head was sticking out of the hole –






I was lucky in both Morocco and Tunisia; my apartments in both had regular Western-style toilets.  Nevertheless, one had to use Turkish toilets from time to time, in public places.  One got used to them.  One thought noble thoughts and did what one had to do.





Once, in Morocco, I was attending a training session in a big old-fashioned school that didn’t have Western amenities.  It was a warm afternoon, and I was going back to my room for something.  Walking down the hall, I encountered a kitty-cat –



It wasn’t a kitty-cat.  It had a long hairless tail.  It was a rat.



It ran away from me.  Don’t ask me why, but I ran after it.  It ran straight into the bathroom, and I ran after it –



The last I saw of it, it was diving down the hole in one of the Turkish toilets.



Now: imagine how much I enjoyed using Turkish toilets after seeing something like that.



The only upside of this was telling people about it, and watching their faces, and knowing how they were going to feel whenever they used a Turkish toilet in future.



Book report: “Trout Fishing in America,” by Richard Brautigan


I was feeling a little down lately, and old, and depressed. 



Prescription?  Run to the bookshelf, and find my 1970s copy of “Trout Fishing in America.”



This (if you don’t know) is a little shapeless novel by Richard Brautigan, published in 1967.  The chapters are anywhere from one to four pages long.  It really doesn’t matter what order you read them in (although you should read the final two chapters in their place, last of all).  It’s kind of about trout fishing in America, although it’s kind of not.  The narrator roams all over the western United States, fishing in trout streams, describing small towns, rural locations.  There’s a character named “Trout Fishing in America,” who seems to be a person, but he’s also (literally) Trout Fishing in America.  There’s also a character named “Trout Fishing in America Shorty,” who’s a foul-mouthed guy in a wheelchair (sometimes).



My friend Ardy gave me my first Brautigan novel when we were both in high school: “In Watermelon Sugar.”  It’s a slightly more traditional novel, strange and spacey, but haunting.  (I think you had to be there in the 1960s/1970s to really get these novels.)



I went on to read all of Brautigan’s hippie output: his other novel, “A Confederate General at Big Sur” (which is very good), and his early poetry (collected as something like “The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster”).  There’s a wonderful early poem sequence – “The Galilee Hitch-Hiker” – that’s really excellent.



But now you have to explain what it was like in the 1960s / 1970s. 



I tried to explain this twice over the past few months.  I failed both times.  Both people thought that “Trout Fishing in America” sounded like a stupid concept for a book. One of them was very young, in her early twenties. She invoked the Tet Offensive at me, for god’s sake! (Does she think the Tet Offensive was begun by American troops?)  Anyway, I said to her: “We thought, in the Sixties and Seventies, that the world was actually getting better.”



“Sure,” she said scornfully.



“I’m serious,” I said, feeling suddenly very hippyish.  “We thought we were changing the world.  Eighteen-year-olds could vote.  The Vietnam war was grinding to an end, and we were doing something about it.  There was something called the Equal Rights Amendment (which came to a bad end, but that’s a different story). Roe versus Wade happened.”



“And then what?” she challenged me.



Oh, kids, she was right.  We didn’t follow through.  Reagan happened.  George H. W. Bush happened. 



We thought the revolution would be self-perpetuating.



We were wrong.



(Go read “Trout Fishing in America.”  Maybe it’ll inspire you.  Or at least make you feel that there’s hope for the future after all.)



Movie review: “There’s No Business Like Show Business”


Recently TCM showed “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” with Dan Dailey and Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe and Donald O’Connor and Johnnie Ray and Mitzi Gaynor.



About halfway through, Partner – who was, I think, watching “The Good Wife” in the next room – got up and very quietly closed his door.  Too much Mermanization, I assume.  She really does fill a room, doesn’t she?



This film is big and bloated, a regular Baby Huey of a movie.  It’s the story of a show-business family through the years, from vaudeville to Broadway, with radio along the way.  It pulls out all the stops: a son (Johnnie Ray) who becomes a priest, another son (Donald O’Connor) who runs away and joins the army, and – ahem – Marilyn Monroe (extremely unconvincingly) as a big Broadway singing star.  (Her big number – “Heat Wave” – is one of the most entertainingly embarrassing musical numbers ever filmed.)




Then there’s the gay angle.  Seeing Dan Dailey (the father of the all-singing / all-dancing Donohue clan) and Johnnie Ray (the son who aspires to become a Catholic priest) performing together, along with gay icon Ethel Merman – well, I’m surprised blood didn’t start spurting from my ears.  (For those of you who wonder how I know that Dan and Johnnie were gay: well, sadly, Johnnie was arrested several times in the benighted 1950s for soliciting sex with men.  Dan was fingered by the 50s Hollywood gossip magazines, and it seems to be pretty much accepted that he was gay.  Information from those days is obscure, certainly.)



But, oh my dears, the musical numbers!  And the goofiness of the production!  This is Hollywood at its Velveeta cheesiest. 



Which means also, perversely, that this is Hollywood doing what it does best. 



Please put it on your list.  One way or the other, whether you think it’s terrible or wonderful, it’s a must-see, a classic.



(Some other time we’ll talk about Ethel Merman and her short-lived marriage to – gasp! – Ernest Borgnine.



(Essay question: what do you suppose that honeymoon was like?)


For Sunday: Jonny McGovern sings “Texting on the Dance Floor”



This one is very NSFW, but pretty good nonetheless.







Movie dialogue


“You know that great John Goodman line from ‘The Big Lebowski’?” Apollonia asked me recently.



I’ve only seen “Lebowski” once.  “Which line?” I asked.



“You remember,” she said:



Smokey, this is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”



Okay.  That’s pretty good.



So often, a really good line of movie dialogue needs a lot of setup.  In the movie “Jumbo,” for example. Jimmy Durante is trying to hide an elephant.  It’s right behind him!  The policeman says something like, “We’re here to take the elephant.”  And Durante (with the elephant right behind him, remember) says, with great innocence:



“What elephant?”



Sometimes it’s tone of voice.  The young Hayley Mills, in “The Trouble with Angels,” was able to deliver this line at least twice, in an unforgettably passionate teenage British-accented voice:



“I’ve got the most scathingly brilliant idea!”



Maybe Katherine Hepburn as the scheming Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter”?:



“Of course he has a knife!  We all have knives!  It’s 1183, and we’re barbarians!”



You’ve got to ask yourself: will it mean anything to the people who haven’t seen the movie?  We movie-lovers are, after all, a very odd lot.  We speak in code, like any mysterious medieval guild. 



Okay.  “Sleeper,” with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.  He’s wearing this ridiculous inflatable suit, and she’s riding on his back as they speedboat across the river, and the police are shooting at them as they’re escaping, and she’s crying and pounding her fists on his back and shrieking: “I hate you I hate you I hate you!”  And Woody says, very calmly:



“Try not to get upset.”






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