For Sunday: Toto’s “Africa,” sung by Perpetuum Jazzile

africa perpetuum


I love this song. This is a jazz group in Slovenia (Perpetuum Jazzie!) doing it a cappella.







Movie review: “Dodsworth”


Dodsworth” is a gem from 1936, directed by William Wyler, based on a subtle little Sinclair Lewis novel. Walter Huston is Sam Dodsworth, head of an automobile-manufacturing firm in Ohio, who’s retiring so that he can enjoy the Good Life in Europe. Ruth Chatterton is his silly shallow younger wife, who’s fairly drooling to get to Europe so that she can misbehave (and she does).



And Mary Astor is the nice divorced lady that Sam meets on the boat going over to Europe, who lives in Italy “because it’s cheap.”



Sam adores his silly young wife, even while she cheats on him with a variety of men: English, French, Austrian.



Finally Sam and his wife part ways.



Do you think Sam will find the nice lady in Italy whom he met on the boat?



Hmm. I wonder.



Mary Astor wrote about it in her wonderful autobiography, “A Life on Film.” She especially remembered creating the scene in which she sees Sam Dodsworth coming to her from the steamship in the Naples harbor. She recreates it for us: the chalk marks on the scenery, and the silly stuff (an ashcan labeled PUT YOUR BUTTS IN HERE that was in her eyeline). And she imagined herself the heroine, and waved to an imaginary man in a boat in the harbor, and made herself believe that it was real.



And it was real. “At every theater, at every performance,” she wrote, “the audience clapped their hands. It sounded like applause, but it was sheer joy.”



See “Dodsworth,” kids. It is sheer joy.


Radio scripts, 1939 – 1942


While browsing through the (unpeopled and lonely) stacks of the Providence Public Libraryrecently, I found a couple of gems: “The Best Broadcasts.” They are collections of the best radio scripts aired between 1939 and 1942.



Oh my god what nostalgia! George Burns and Gracie Allen (Gracie was running for President in 1940, as the nominee of the Surprise Party). Fred Allen, doing a spoof of Clifton Fadiman’s “Information Please” showDame May Whitty doing a grim little dramatic monologue written byW. H. Auden. Bette Davis as Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s sponsor / imaginary girlfriend. Clark Gable in a very funny romp about an adventurer marring a wealthy woman.

And Jack Benny!



(Now listen, Jack Benny was before my time, but he was still around in my childhood; he died when I was seventeen years old, and I remember feeling very solemn when I heard the news. I think I realized then, for the first time, that there was an older generation and a younger generation, and that one of these days I’d be promoted into the older generation. And then – uh-oh!)

The Jack Benny show had everything. He had his regulars – Don Wilson the announcer (who also read the commercials for Jell-O, which were part of the show, and are included in the script), and the young goofy singer Dennis Day, and Jack’s wife Mary Livingston, and Jack’s black butler Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and the singer / bandleader Phil Harris, who was too cool for words (in the 1960s he was Baloo the bear in Disney’s “Jungle Book” movie).  Also Jack’s polar bear Carmichael who guarded his safe in the basement, and his ostrich Trudy in the back yard, who ate all of the bills Jack received. (Rochester: “Trudy ate so many bills yesterday that she’s laying eggs in her sister’s name.” I don’t even know what that means exactly, but it’s pretty funny.)

Hysterical, right?

Then there was a radio script about childbirth, from 1939 or so. I was a little startled that it actually mentioned having a Wassermann test (for syphilis). And there was this tender dialogue after the birth of the child:

Mary: Hank, do you care that it’s a girl?

Hank: No, Mary, that’s swell, I don’t care a bit.

Also there’s some talk in the preface to the 1939-1940 book about “the German race” and “the British race” and (get ready) “the American race.” Is there such a thing as the “American race”? If so, I don’t know of it. But, you know, I dimly remember in my 1960s childhood hearing and reading that same expression.

The most sobering volume is the 1939-1940 book, which covers a period in which Europe was at war, but America hadn’t entered the war yet. It includes an FDR speech in which he talks about the need for neutrality and pacifism, but also the need to be prepared for – hm – eventualities. (There’s a note in the book about Senator Borah of Idaho, who said that FDR was too convincing when you listened to him live; Borah insisted on reading FDR’s speeches in the paper the next day, to get them unemotionally. I know what Senator Borah meant. I don’t like to listen to political discourse; I prefer to read it. It’s less inflammatory.)

Also in the 1939-1940 book was this note about why so many comedy shows were included in the text: “It is a hard year, and it is going to get worse.”

And it did.

But there were still comedies on the air.

Coming up next: “Fibber Magee and Molly”!

Robert Heinlein


Do you remember Scholastic Books? Jake, one of my student employees, informs me that they still exist. They sell cheap paperback books to public-school students. (In my day, it was maybe twenty-five cents. Jake tells me that, in his day – maybe ten years ago – it was more like $1.99. Still very cheap.)



Around the sixth grade or so – when I was ten years old – I acquired a Scholastic Books copy of Robert Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth.”



It was my first science-fiction book, and it blew my ever-lovin’ ten-year-old mind.



It is a book of short stories, set mostly in the 21st century. Earth has colonized the Moon and Mars and Venus. It’s full of –



Well, but was I remembering the stories correctly? I didn’t have my old copy to refer to, so I went on eBay and bought a cheap copy.



It turns out that I remember it very well.



It is extremely sexist. (A woman’s competence is summed up this way in one of the stories: “She can count to ten.”)



It manages to be xenobiologically racist. It describes the Venusian (alien) natives as silly amphibians who will do anything for tobacco, which they call “thigarek.” (“Cigarette.” Get it?)



Men are the heroes in these stories. They are burly, and they brawl. They have names like Sam Houston Jones and Humphrey Wingate and Johnny Dahlquist.



But there are glimmers of hope in these stories. The first story in the collection, “Delilah and the Space-Rigger,” is about how a woman can do as well as a man in space. Another, the title story, “The Green Hills of Earth,” is a subtle story of how the image of a rough Whitmanesque space poet was romanticized for the sake of the media.



But the best story is the last one: “Logic of Empire.”


It’s the story of a Earthman who gets shanghaied and shipped to the Venus colony against his will, after claiming that the Earth government can’t possibly do such evil imperialistic things.



Most chillingly of all, it predicts that American culture will be taken over by a Christian religious dictator, the “Prophet,” Nehemiah Scudder.



When I read this in the 1960s, the story seemed outrageously unlikely on all counts.



How does it sound to you now, kids?



rainbows garland minnelli

People are often unhappy, but they don’t think it’s socially acceptable to let it show. So they pretend to be happy.

I don’t pretend to be happy very often; if I’m unhappy, I let it all hang out.  Once in a while in the office, when absolutely necessary, I fake being happy. But not very often.

My coworkers (mostly younger than me) know this, and come to my office and close the door and bemoan the fact that they have to play along with the majority.

I commiserate with them.

And sometimes I share this story with them:

For a while, Judy Garland and her daughter Liza Minnelli did a two-person show in Vegas together. One evening, after a show, they went to the restroom together. They were followed by a drunk fan. Judy went into a toilet stall and locked the door, but it didn’t slow the drunk fan down. “Remember the rainbow, Judy!” the fan kept yelling, hammering on the outside of the stall. “Remember the rainbow!”

“Okay, honey,” Judy said weakly from inside the stall. “I will.”

This went on for some time. Finally the drunk fan left. All became silent. “Ma?” Liza said at last. “Are you okay in there?”

Long pause. Finally, Judy Garland’s voice from inside the toilet stall: “Honey, I got rainbows comin’ out of my ass.”

As do I, every second.

Shelley Winters

shelley winters

Let’s all take a moment to remember Shelley Winters.

Shelley was born Shirley Schrift in St. Louis, Missouri. She became a big star, who won not one but two Oscars.

And she was a hot tomato and a sharp cookie to boot.

Shelley Winters Story #1:

Back in the 1980s, a director wanted her for a movie, but insisted that she read for the part. Fine, she said. She arrived at the reading with a backpack. She sat down and removed from the backpack: 1) a copy of the script; 2) an Oscar, which she put on the floor to the left of her; 3) an Oscar, which she put on the floor to the right of her.

She got the part.

Shelley Winters Story #2:

Elizabeth Ashley, the memorable actress who revived Maggie the Cat on Broadway, was wondering whether or not she should marry James Farentino. She asked Shelley’s advice. “Honey,” Shelley said, “if you ever have the opportunity, you should marry an Italian. I’ve done it twice, and I’ve never regretted it.”

(In case you’re wondering: Shelley married both Vittorio Gassman and Tony Franciosa. Neither marriage more than a few years, but I’m sure a good time was had by all.)

Shelley Winters Story #3:

Shelley went to Italy to film a movie, and asked a writer friend to housesit for her. After being in Italy for a week or so, she realized with horror that she hadn’t given her friend instructions on what to do with the garbage (the local rules were very strict). She called her house, and a strange man (with a strangely familiar voice) answered. “Is George there?” Shelley asked.

“George went out for a few minutes,” the strange man said. “We’re working on a book together.”

“Okay,” Shelley said. “I don’t care. As long as you’re there, can you do me a favor? Go out and drag the garbage cans to the curb. The neighborhood is very strict about this.”

The man on the phone paused and then said: “Okay.” He came back after a few minutes. “All done.”

“Would you do me a favor?” Shelley said in her most kittenish voice. “Would you go out and hose off the sidewalk? They’re kind of fanatical about that in the neighborhood too.”

Another pause. “Okay,” the strange man said. And he came back in a few minutes and said, “All done.”

And Shelley thanked him, and hung up the phone.

Guess who the strange man was?

Richard Nixon.

Shelley Winters made Richard Nixon take out her trash, and then made him hose off the sidewalk.

My kind of woman!

Movie review: “Admission”


Partner and I saw “Admission,” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, yesterday. Tina is a Princeton admissions officer; Paul is the hipster principal of a funky New Hampshire school that teaches cow-birthing and water purification alongside other subjects. Paul has a student he thinks ought to go to Princeton, and he contacts Tina, and –



Well, if I tell you that the movie is at least sixty percent romantic comedy, you can write the rest yourself.



It’s pleasant enough. There are some funny moments, and some well-acted moments. Tina is always funny and really very pretty, and Paul is an all-purpose romantic leading man: cute without being overwhelming, cheerful, smart. There’s a nice supporting cast, including Michael Sheen (who was one of Tina’s boyfriends on “30 Rock,” and who has wonderful anti-chemistry with her), Wallace Shawn (doing his funny squinting schtick, but always welcome), and Lily Tomlin (more on her later).



But the movie goes in too many directions. Sometimes it wants to be a commentary on college admissions; there’s a running gag that, when Tina or one of her colleagues reads an application, the applicant appears in physical form before them. All of them are good kids, one way or another. How do you choose between them?



But it muddles the issue. American college and universities can’t admit every applicant, so they try to balance everything: test results, transcripts, extracurriculars, essays, recommendations. They want the kids who are most likely to succeed. The movie tries to make this point, but then lets sentimentality fudge the issue. A minor character makes an icy comment early in the movie: “In England we rely on test results. Why can’t you do that here?” (She’s supposed to be a unpleasant person, so it’s assumed that she’s heartless, and we’re supposed to disagree with her. But: why not indeed?)



Also there’s a lot of foofaraw about parentage. Tina has an ambivalent attitude toward being a parent, and maybe has a kid, and maybe not. Paul has an adopted African son and a crazy alcoholic mother who thinks lawn jockeys are cute. Tina’s mother is an unrepentant 1960s feminist, of whom Tina is not very fond.



This is supposed to be interesting and meaningful. But: meh.



Overall, this movie is a minor effort.



Now let’s talk about Lily Tomlin.



Manohla Dargis in the New York Times pointed out that Tina Fey has a knack for being clear-eyed about what it means to be a feminist, both the positives and the pitfalls. On “30 Rock,” Tina created a comedy writer (played by Carrie Fisher) who was way ahead of her time, but who was now living nearly-penniless in a filthy apartment and was still writing 1970s-style comedy.



Lily Tomlin, playing Tina’s mother in “Admission,” is the ultimate 1960s feminist. When Tina walks into her mother’s house, the first thing you see is a poster of a fish riding a bicycle. (If this doesn’t immediately suggest anything to you, just Google “fish bicycle woman.”) Lily’s dogs are named Gloria and Betty. She has a tattoo with the word “Bella” on it. Just to show that some things never change, she has an “Occupy Wall Street” poster framed on the wall. Lily has a double mastectomy without thinking about it too much, and without telling her daughter Tina. “They said it was aggressive,” Lily says. “I’m aggressive too. So I got rid of it.”



I was paying attention to every moment Lily was onscreen. She made the movie worthwhile to me.



It’s not a great movie. But if you like Tina Fey, or Lily Tomlin, you should see this movie.



Because sisterhood is powerful.


For Sunday: Barbra Streisand sings “Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking”

supermarket in old peking

This Cole Porter song was on Barbra Streisand’s first album.  The lyrics are hysterical, and her performance is perfect.

If you want to buy a saw

Or a fish delicious when it’s raw

Or a pill to kill your mother-in-law

Or a bee without a sting –

Come to the supermarket in old Peking!



The aging brain

aging brain

I used to love my brain. It was very dependable. It had tremendous capacity, and a very quick response time.

But all that has changed.

I began to notice it about two years ago, at the advanced age of fifty-three. Proper names were suddenly less easy to remember. Simple facts – Who starred in which movie? What do you call that thing you use to eat ice cream with? – were eluding me.

The pace of the decline has quickened. I was introducing two people to one another not long ago – people I knew very well – and I suddenly couldn’t remember one of their names. I tried to cover for myself, fumblingly. I admitted it to one friend later, and he just grinned. “I noticed,” he said. “You forgot my name!”


Thank god he thought it was funny.

I told my doctor about it, sure that he would say it was more-or-less-early-onset Alzheimer’s. He shrugged. “It’s the aging brain,” he said.

The aging brain.


It progresses. The other day, I looked at a regular analog clock with hour hand on two and minute hand on six. One voice in my head said: “Two-thirty.” And another voice, achier and feebler, said: “What in the hell is that thing?”

Time ticks by, and I get dimmer and dimmer, and more and more feeble.

It’s only a matter of time.

What were we talking about?

Lynda Barry, in person


I wrote a while back about Lynda Barry, the illustrator / writer. Well, she came to the Rhode Island School of Design on January 14 – my friend Sylvia, who works there, was good enough to let me know – and I went to her presentation.

Kids, Lynda Barry is amazing.

She talked about “images.” What’s an image? It’s the thing that children create when they play. It’s an imaginary friend. It’s a binkie. It’s a stuffed animal that you can’t live without. It’s your first crush (come on, you can remember his / her name without even thinking, can’t you?). It’s your first telephone number, which you can still probably remember, and which gives you a little thrill of warmth when you remember it.


Lynda has been partnering with scientists at the University of Wisconsin about these questions. They have found that adults in a state of “creative concentration” and children in a state of “deep play” have similar fMRIs.

She is very funny, and much of her presentation was in anecdote form. Here’s one of the core anecdotes:

She and her husband live in rural Wisconsin. Most of their friends are serious and humorless. But, if one brings a small child into the group, they begin to play with the child. They draw, and sing, and dance for the child. (“I wish,” Lynda said, “I could remove the child. I just want to see the adults dancing and singing, sometimes.”) If you ask them why they’re so carefree with children, sometimes they say: “Children aren’t judgmental.” To which Lynda says: “Nope. Children are incredibly judgmental.”

This is Lynda Barry’s assessment of the situation (I paraphrase, because I can’t quite remember her actual words): “The adults are speaking to the children in the language of play. It’s the basic language. It’s the language that comes before language.”


And then she recited a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, and then she told us a joke about balls.

This is what higher education is really all about.

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