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There’s Always Next Year.

Carmarthen Christmas decorations. Source: Wales Online

Thirty years ago, almost exactly—it was 1990 and even in late November—I attended the Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the small Welsh town of Carmarthen. It wasn’t something I’d planned, although it was my second time in Carmarthen so I had a slightly better idea what I was doing than I’d had the first time. The first time, on my pilgrimage to the home of Dylan Thomas, I’d set out from Grantham, England early on a sunny Saturday morning and ended up in Carmarthen in a rainstorm in the dark about twelve hours later. After wandering the streets for about another hour while eating some fish and chips I met a couple of guys coming out of a pub. I explained that I was lost and, having finished my plaice, I was looking for a place to spend the night.

“Well pilgrim,” said one of the guys, doing the worst John Wayne impersonation I’ve ever heard, “it sure does sound like you’re not from around here.” And then they directed me to the Old Priory Guest House which, I’m happy to see, is still running, and probably still has the room where I stayed that looked out over a cemetery, and has also added a website which they didn’t have when I stayed there.

The second time I set out from Grantham early on a sunny Friday morning and arrived in Carmarthen in the cloudy afternoon and caught a rickety bus to Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas spent his last years and wrote his best poems, and where I had a pint at his regular pub, which now has a website which it didn’t have when he drank there, and visited his grave. Then, in the dark, I caught the last rickety bus of the night back to Carmarthen and, on my way to the same fish and chips place from my previous trip, I joined an enormous crowd. The mayor was on a dais at the town center announcing the beginning of the Christmas season. Then he flipped a switch and the Christmas tree and lights all around lit up. Everyone cheered and then we milled around and I think mulled wine was handed around, and I got to shake hands with the mayor, and his John Wayne impersonation was pretty good, but that’s another story.

The unplanned nature of it—for me, anyway; I’m pretty sure the people of Carmarthen put a lot of work and planning into it—made it special, but someday I’d like to go back. Maybe I’ll even plan it, but this year they’ve cancelled the big events. It’s sad but it’s still the right decision, and is the right one not just for Carmarthen, and will be part of the history of the area. Since I couldn’t remember the name of the mayor I shook hands with I went looking and found a list of Carmarthen mayors dating back to around 1300. That’s more than seven hundred Christmases, and I’m sure they’ve had their ups and downs.

Maybe next year, pilgrims.

Lucky In Love.

It’s been several months since I’ve gone looking for graffiti, mostly because I’ve been staying close to home, but I was running an errand and happened to spot this sign nailed to a telephone pole. Telephone polls used to be covered with photocopied signs advertising local music shows. That had declined even before current events caused the cancellation of most live performances in the area; I think the internet became the preferred way for bands and their venues to get the word out. I remember seeing one of those signs once announcing a performance by a young musician and someone had written on it, “Go so you can say you saw him when,” which was ambitious and confident and I thought, wow, I hope he really does have success someday even though the odds are against it. It was quite a message, and even made me want to go to the show. I didn’t. In fact I’ve even forgotten who the musician was, and it’s been long enough that his star may have risen and, for all I know, fallen. I hope he’s doing well, though, even under the current circumstances which are making things hard for all musicians.

Anyway there was something really great about seeing a sign with a single, simple message. It was so great I had to stop and pull over and take a picture of it. So I could do more than just say I saw it.

Thanksgiving 2020.

This repost is one of my annual traditions. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone except those in countries that don’t celebrate it and the Canadians who are heathens who have Thanksgiving before Halloween , and this year we could really use it.

It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863, when, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.

–Wikipedia

November 25th, 1864

It was even worse than last year. I know every time my family gets together we fall into certain patterns, but that never makes it easier. This time it was even worse because just getting to my parents’ house was such a pain. I thought I’d carriagepool with my younger brother and his wife, but they went up early so that fell through. Then I thought I’d beat the traffic by setting out at dawn, which was such a great idea everybody else in Richmond had it at the same time and the horses were nose to tail, stop and trot, for miles. Finally I got there a little after ten in the morning and my older sister came out already holding a glass of blackberry wine and when she hugged me I could tell it wasn’t her first one. She asked me how things were going and then didn’t wait for an answer and ran back into the house to tell everyone I was there.

I should have known I’d be walking into an argument in the foyer, the way my family is. It’s just what it was about that threw me. My kid brother had this crazy idea for a new way to cook a turkey, leaving the feathers still on and roasting it in the coals of a fire. Well, it sounded pretty stupid to me, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the neighbors tried the same thing last year and burned down their stable. But I didn’t want to side with my father either. So I said it had been a long trip and I needed to visit the outhouse and slipped out. Well, there was a line at the outhouse: two of my nieces, three cousins, all four of my brothers, and my sister was already in there getting rid of some of that blackberry wine. So I went back inside to see what was going on.

In the parlor my mother was putting together some kind of monstrosity with dead leaves and dried berries that she said she was going to put in the middle of the table.

“Where’s the food going to go?” I asked.

“Well, we’ll move it before we eat.”

I was going to ask why she’d bother to put it in the middle of the table if she was just going to move it again but decided against having that discussion, so instead I sat down and leafed through a broadsheet that was handy.

“The other men are organizing a game,” she said. “It’s some new sport called foot-ball. You should go and join them.”

Well, she knows I’ve never been athletic, but when I protested she got put out with me and said, “It’s your Uncle Wilkes’s idea. You know you’ve always been his favorite. You really should go and do it just to please him.”

FINE.

Well, when I came back in my sister just cackled and toasted me with another glass of blackberry wine. All my mother could say was “Don’t get any blood on the carpet,” and my older brother kept telling me to stop being a sissy and just put some salve on it. Then Aunt Gerda said pinch the back of my neck and tilt my head forward and Uncle Wilkes said no, put pressure between the eyes and lean back, and then my cousins got into it so there had to be a family brawl about that. A day later and I’m still bleeding. So much for the salve. I’ll have to make an appointment with Dr. Samuel Mudd when I get back.

 Then Uncle Aloysius had to start in Daniel about supporting the Whigs and Elizabeth about Suffragettes, just trying to start an argument. Fortunately they didn’t rise to the bait.

Then I tried to head off another argument about who’d have to chaperone the kids’ table by volunteering, but my father cut that off.

“No, no, I want John seated here on my left. After I sent him to that fancy and very expensive school so he could waste his time studying the dramatic arts and oratory he should be well-equipped to deliver the traditional Booth family prayer of thanks.”

Traditional since last year, he means. Then my kid brother kicked me in the shins which I know was his way of saying “Don’t start anything”. I kicked him twice as hard in the shins which was my way of saying, “I wasn’t going to,” and then kicked him again to say, “Hurts, don’t it?”

All this might have been a little more bearable if my sister had let me have some of the blackberry wine.

I swear I’m going to get that Lincoln for making us do this.

Staying Put.

So my wife and I are staying at home for Thanksgiving, not something we originally planned to do, but it seemed like a good idea, and I also decided to take the week off from work–not something I originally planned to do, but then it’s been kind of hard to even think about taking time off. I’ve tried to keep home life and work life separate, maintaining a regular schedule, but at the same time it’s hard when my commute is less than fifty feet and most days I don’t get farther than the mailbox.
In normal times when I’d take time off it was usually because my wife and I were going somewhere, so doing it when I’m not going anywhere is already a major change from routine, but it also got me thinking about vacations in general, and I realized that all my vacations have had one thing in common: they’ve all ended. Most have ended too soon. I’m sure there have been a few where I must have said, “I can’t wait for this to be over so I can go back to work” but I can’t remember them. Well, there was one time when I was in college when I went home for Thanksgiving break and when I came back the fish I’d had in my room had died and I thought maybe if I hadn’t been gone so long it would have lived but then I thought, I have no idea how old it was and it might have croaked five minutes after I left, not unlike my relationship with the girl who gave me the fish, but that’s another story.
Anyway the other thing I realized about most of my vacations is I went into them with very little planning. I’m just not a planning kind of guy. I like to let things happen and be spontaneous and go with the flow and I keep thinking I’ll figure out how to finish this sentence if I just keep typing long enough. And I always end up feeling like I missed something I might have been able to do if I’d had at least a vague schedule. For this vacation I really should have a plan. Well, Thursday is Thanksgiving so that’s covered, but that leaves me with, er, a bunch of other days. Under normal circumstances if I had a staycation like this I’d probably jump on a random bus route just to see where it goes, and spend some time at my favorite coffee shop, but these aren’t normal times. I’ll probably take a hike one day, and, well, I’m sure I’ll figure something out for the rest of the week. I would let you know how it goes but that would require a plan.

Hey Turkey!

There’s a story that Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey, not the bald eagle, to be the national bird of the United States. When I was a kid some people told it to me to say they thought Franklin was goofy which I never believed. He was obviously a very smart guy who flew kites in thunderstorms, wrote an essay called “Fart Proudly”, and not only invented the Franklin stove but had the foresight to name it after himself so he could make money off of it forever. Other people told me they thought it made sense because wild turkeys, unlike their domestic counterparts, are pretty smart birds. They haven’t invented stoves or written any essays about farting but in 1940 they figured out how to brew their own bourbon and more recently discovered a free buffet over at River’s World, but that’s another story.

This got me wondering about turkeys and whether it was just a coincidence that they share a name with the country Turkey. In fact it’s not just a coincidence. The term “turkey” was originally used for a West African bird, the guinea-fowl, which was imported to Europe through Turkey and which looks, well, kind of like a turkey even though the two birds are unrelated. So when Europeans settled North America they called the large birds they found turkeys and the name stuck.  

Anyway it turns out Benjamin Franklin never suggested the turkey for a national bird. He really wasn’t happy with the bald eagle either, though he never said so publicly. He did, in a letter to his daughter, say,

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly… Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.

Fair enough, Ben. It was, in fact, the figure on the obverse side of the Great Seal of the United States with its eagle holding an olive branch in one claw and thirteen arrows in the other that set him off.

Source: Wikipedia

He said,

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

It’s just as well he never seriously suggested making the turkey the national bird because he does make a pretty good argument for it and the other Founders probably would have taken him up on it and then we’d never eat them which would be a terrible thing because bald eagles are pretty gamey while turkeys are delicious. That’s why we don’t just have turkey on Thanksgiving. Every deli offers turkey sandwiches and turkey salad. Most stores and many restaurants offer turkey sausage and turkey bacon which I think don’t just taste better but are kosher to boot, not to mention ground turkey, turkey cutlets, and turkey burgers. In a sense turkeys have become our national bird. We’re absolutely stuffed with ‘em.

I’m Never Late.

A school in Avignon, France, has asked parents to stop throwing their children over the fence when they’re running late. For security reasons the school closes and locks its gate at eight a.m. which, actually, makes some sense, and it still sounds funny that some parents were actually resorting to throwing their kids over the fence. If people can just throw whole children over the fence that seems like the school still has a security problem in spite of the locked gates.

It also reminded me that in four years of high school I was only late once and even then I was only technically late. I remember it because my school had a policy that you got two extra points for perfect attendance and, well, in algebra those two points could mean the difference between passing and failing, which is pretty much the only math question I could get right. And the worst part is I wasn’t even really late. It started the previous afternoon on the bus ride home. A bunch of kids got rowdy and decided it would be funny to throw books. I know our science books had lines like “Someday man will reach the moon” and a chapter on how demons cause disease but still it was a pain if you had to replace them. One hit me in the head, I threw it back, the bus driver stopped the bus and yelled at me, and I got off and walked the rest of the way home.

The next day I was in my first class of the day which of course had to be gym. It was a terrible way to start every school day, and it got even worse when I was called to the office. Class had already started. Why couldn’t they call me before class started, or at least early enough that I wouldn’t have to sit in the office in my gym shorts and t-shirt. The gym teacher hadn’t taken attendance yet but I explained that I had to go to the office. He sort of waved me away because he was busy dealing with a bunch of runaway basketballs. I went to the office and the assistant principal said, “So I understand you were throwing books at people on the bus yesterday.”

I calmly and quietly explained what happened and I have to admit the assistant principal was a reasonable and understanding guy and dropped the whole thing, and also actually trying to prove anything would be too much trouble.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I learned the gym teacher had marked me absent for the day and it was really too much trouble to try and prove I’d really been in that day, so I just accepted barely failing algebra.

Shot In The Dark.

Ten years ago there was an outdoor exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass works at Cheekwood, Nashville’s botanical garden and art museum, which is one of those places you should see if you’re ever in the area. My wife and I went and it was fun—Chihuly’s works are weird and gorgeous and it’s amazing to think that they’re all glass. And it’s even more amazing that I used to know a woman in charge of installing art works at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and she dropped a Chihuly bowl and it broke and she just quietly said, “Well, there goes five thousand dollars.”

Anyway there’s another Chihuly exhibit at Cheekwood now. It’s not exactly new—some of the works are very much the same, but this time we went at night which made them seem very different.

Ten years ago the Fiori Boat exhibit was in the main pond at the bottom of the hill. Now it’s been placed in the reflecting pool next to the house and, well, it just seems too gaudy, too busy. The pond now has the Blue Polyvitro Crystals which is my favorite of all the works on display. Most Chihuly works are loud, over the top, even excessive, but the Crystals are quieter, almost subtle, casting an ethereal reflection.

 

Food For Thought.

Dog’s breakfast-Disorderly, messy. This British slang term originated in the late Sixteenth or early Seventeenth century with fox hunting and the hastily thrown together breakfast dogs were served before setting out.

 

Couch potato-A person who sits around watching TV. American in origin, apparently from the early 1970’s, the term may derive from the appearance of slothful individuals but also from the growing consumption of potato chips during the Watergate hearings.

 

Piece of cake-Extremely easy. The exact origins are unclear but use became more widespread with the development and distribution of commercially manufactured cakes in the 1920s that led most people to binge on whole cakes.

 

Tough nut to crack-A very difficult problem or undertaking, or a difficult person. Probably derived from nature and the difficulty of cracking certain types of nuts. The first known appearance in print is from A.F. Doni’s Morall Philosophy, published 1570, but came into wider use during World War II when German Enigma machines used Brazil nut code.

 

Selling like hot cakes-Extremely popular, in high demand but with limited quantities. Of North American origin the earliest recorded use is from 1839, but why hot cakes specifically is unclear.

 

Fruit Basket turnover-Complete disruption of the established order. This term derives from the children’s game of the same name and is primarily used by spinster history teachers from Poughkeepsie.

 

Cream of the crop-The very best of a particular group. Presumably derived from the fact that cream rises to the top of unhomogenized milk it reached urban areas in the mid-19th century with the rising popularity of creamed corn, creamed spinach, the less successful creamed eggplant, and the disastrous creamed cotton.

 

Icing on the cake-An added bonus to something that it already good. The origins are obscure since cake without icing is just chocolate bread.

 

In a pickle-A dilemma or difficulty. Derived from the use of empty pickle barrels to hold local lotteries with unpicked tickets left “in the pickles”.

 

Gravy train-A means of making a great deal of money with very little effort. Derived from actual trains that carried gravy West to feed Mack Sennet’s insatiable appetite for pork drippings.

 

Spill the beans-To reveal a secret. This is derived from a 19th century practice of storing prophylactics in containers of dried beans but since it was the Victorian era no one admitted to ever having sex.

 

Going cold turkey-To quit a bad habit (usually smoking, drinking, or drugs) immediately rather than gradually stepping down. Possibly derived from a term in a satirical British magazine from 1877 it may also refer to a belief that tryptophan causes unconsciousness making it impossible to indulge, unless your bad habit is oversleeping.

 

Putting money in a Wurlitzer and getting a pita bread sandwich of rotisserie-cooked meat—self explanatory, derived from going to Greek restaurants on Thursday when the musicians took the night off.

 

Think About It.

Source: USA Today

Unlike most other game shows, especially those that proliferated in the 1970’s, Jeopardy! is beautifully simple, almost minimalist. Sixteen categories—or seventeen if you count the final round—and one hundred and twenty-eight questions—or one hundred and twenty-nine if you count the final round—and the only real strategy is be quick with your buzzer and stick to what you hopefully know. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the final round—if you’re far enough ahead you won’t have to do any complicated math for your final wager.

It’s the game’s simplicity that made Alex Trebek the ideal host. I don’t mean he was a simple guy, but he knew that when hosting Jeopardy! less is more and he was perfectly understated and kept the same even tone throughout everything. Yes, I laughed at the SNL parodies, but, with all due respect to Will Ferrell, I don’t think he ever really got Alex Trebek. If Sean Connery—who, sadly, also left us recently because, well, 2020–really had been a competitor on Celebrity Jeopardy! first of all I think he would have been too classy to make crude jokes about Trebek’s mother or draw pictures of him having sex with a horse, but if he had I think Alex Trebek would have chuckled politely, given a sardonic look to the audience, and moved on.

With that in mind I’m reposting this as my way of saying, or rather asking, what is hail and farewell, Alex Trebek?

[Jeopardy! theme music plays. Alex Trebek stands center stage.]

ALEX TREBEK: And we’re back to this very special episode of Jeopardy! Let’s take a moment to talk to today’s contestants.

[He crosses over to the contestants.]

ALEX TREBEK: Count Dracula, you’re an undead Romanian prince. I understand you can assume the forms of a bat, a wolf, and a white mist, and you travel extensively. Tell us a little about the charity you’re playing for today.

COUNT DRACULA: Is blood.

ALEX TREBEK: Can you elaborate on that?

COUNT DRACULA: Of course. Is great need for blood in Romania. I bring people of all kinds to castle in Wallachia. I take blood and dr—uh, give…give to those who need blood.

ALEX TREBEK: That sounds like a great cause. Moving on, Frankenstein’s Monster, you’re an assemblage of body parts from different corpses. Some people call you “Frankenstein” but that was in fact the name of the doctor who first animated you.

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: GAKH!

ALEX TREBEK: Okay then. Tell us about what charity you’re playing for.

FRANKESTEIN’S MONSTER: GRRRRGH! HANNNN! GARGH!!!

ALEX TREBEK: Yes, the Firefighters’ Association is a noble cause. All right, and our third contestant was going to be The Invisible Man but we couldn’t find him.

VOICE FROM AN EMPTY SEAT IN THE AUDIENCE: I’m right here!

COUNT DRACULA: Children of the night, what music they make.

ALEX TREBEK: We were very lucky to get as a replacement the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Creature, I’ve been admiring your suit.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: Thank you, Alex, it’s specially designed to pump water through my gills and keep my skin moist. It’s made by Armani. But I’d really like to talk about my charity.

ALEX TREBEK: Go ahead then.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: It’s called River Run, an organization that purchases, preserves, and reclaims large parts of the Amazon rainforest. Once we lose biodiversity it’s impossible to get it back.

ALEX TREBEK: Well okay. Maybe later we can talk more about that suit. I get a little dry under these lights myself.

[Trebek crosses back to his podium.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, we have one two-thousand dollar clue left in the Double Jeopardy round under the category Sci-Fi Food, and the clue is: Revenge is a dish best served cold, but this Klingon dish should be warm and wriggling.

FRANKESTEIN’S MONSTER: GAGH!

ALEX TREBEK: That’s correct! I have to remind you again that we ask contestants to phrase responses in the form of a question, but since we’re playing for charity we’ll bend the rules again. Frankestein’s Monster, that brings your total up to seven dollars.

And now for final Jeopardy! The subject today is Renaissance Artists. Take a moment to think about that while you make your wagers.

And here’s the clue: this Italian artist was both a painter and a sculptor, known for both the Sistine Chapel ceiling and a statue of David, and he made a mean Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Thirty seconds, contestants.

[Think! music plays.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, let’s see your answers. Count Dracula, we come to you first. You had $200 and you wrote down…“is blood”.

COUNT DRACULA: Is answer to everything.

ALEX TREBEK: And you wagered two-hundred dollars, so I’m afraid that leaves you with nothing. Next we come to Frankenstein’s Monster. You wrote down “Abby Someone”. Interesting, but incorrect. What did you wager? Nothing.

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: GARGHHHH!

ALEX TREBEK: So you still have seven dollars. Finally we come to the Creature From The Black Lagoon who looked like he couldn’t be caught with a score of fifty-four thousand, seven-hundred dollars. Uh oh, you’re shaking your head. It looks like you wrote “Michelangelo” then crossed it out and replaced it with “Donatello”. I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. And what was your wager?

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: I figured go big or go home, Alex.

ALEX TREBEK: You bet it all. Well, that means Frankenstein’s Monster is today’s champion. Congratulations!

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: TREBEK GOOD!

Sleep Talker.

When I was a kid the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving was always the dullest period of the year. School had fallen into a steady groove, which meant I’d gotten past the initial rush of starting a new year and new classes and had now slipped into just barely managing to pass everything, my once neat notebooks scratched and battered and shedding homework as I went through the halls. It was also the time when winter finally kicked in and the weather started to get seriously cold, but not cold enough for it to snow so there was no chance of school being cancelled.

The one break to the doldrums was the occasional field trip. Most of them were day trips, to the theater to see a local production of a Shakespeare play, for instance, or to a local park to collect specimens for biology class. Still there was the occasional overnight trip, usually to somewhere out of state. We’d all pile into the bus and set off. Sometimes we’d go to an all-day, or even all-weekend event. I was taking Latin and would go to Junior Classical League events that would run from Friday through Sunday, usually on a college campus where the undergrads must have been really surprised to see a bunch of kids wandering around in togas and even more surprised we weren’t reenacting any scenes from Animal House, but that’s another story. Because it was late in the year and the days were getting shorter it was often dark long before we’d get to the hotel or dorm where we were staying and the trips could get pretty long. We’d all find creative ways to keep ourselves entertained, trading seats, telling jokes, singing songs. I was so proud when we all finally managed to get to the very end of “Ninety-Nine Bottles Of Beer On The Wall”. Or rather I finally got to the end of it. There was gradual attrition and the only other guy who was still with me dropped off around eighteen bottles but I carried on by myself and finally got to zero bottles of beer. On a few of the longer trips most kids, and teachers, would drift off to sleep, but not me. I had trouble sleeping even under the best circumstances but on a bus rolling through strange territory even if I didn’t have anything else to think about I worried that the bus driver hadn’t had a chance to get a nap before setting off and would fall asleep at the wheel. And it was because I was still awake on one trip that I heard my friend Trav talking in his sleep.

“She was born into the world nude,” he muttered.

This was the same guy who got me in trouble for pointing out that the Latin word for river, “flumen” sounds a lot like “phlegm” and anyway I can’t resist talking back to people who talk in their sleep because they usually say the funniest things, so I said, “Isn’t everyone?”

“No!” Trav was still slumped in his seat but he practically shouted this. “Sometimes pregnant women swallow bits of lint and yarn and the babies knit it into mittens and sweaters and Big Bird stocking caps.”

I’m pretty sure my laughter woke up everyone on the bus, especially the driver.

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