The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

One More Thing…

Source: New York Times

There’s been a major revival of interest in the detective series Columbo, and since I’ve been a fan ever since I was a kid and discovered late night reruns watching my black and white TV in my bedroom, and since September 16, 2021 would be Peter Falk’s 94th birthday let’s talk about it and why the possibility of a reboot needs to die. Right now. Even if I have to kill it myself.

What hooked me from the very beginning, and why I still love Columbo, is really Peter Falk’s charm. He was rarely angry and had a quiet, unassuming demeanor that set him apart from other detectives of the era, which is also why I think he’s still popular today. Other ‘70’s detectives—Kojack, Rockford, McCloud!—were darker and grittier and, well, there’s a lot of that around, which may be why they don’t get as much attention. It’s telling that one of the other exceptions, Murder, She Wrote, is also getting a new surge in popularity, with its stories of a mystery writer who lives in the quaint New England town of Cabot Cove where the leading cause of death is living in Cabot Cove, maybe because Angela Lansbury is also the woman who murdered Sweeney Todd, but that’s another story.

There’s also Columbo’s appearance. He spends most of his time in a shabby raincoat and smoking cigars, although at least once he switched to cigarettes and coffee when he was up all night doing research. Some people point to the show’s fashions as being very ‘70’s, but some of the same looks are still around today. I think it’s more a sign of when it was made that Columbo could smoke indoors and there was an ashtray every three feet. He’s also different in that he pretends to be absent-minded, wandering around, frequently talking about his wife, whom we never see, and, as an aside, I’m going to say Kate Mulgrew deserved better. And got it, first in space, then behind bars.

The fact that we never see Mrs. Columbo has spawned a fan theory that she doesn’t exist, which is funny, but the evidence doesn’t back it up. Other people in the series also talk about her and, once, she tries to replace Columbo’s trademark gray raincoat with a bright yellow slicker that he “forgets” and leaves behind several times.

And while Peter Falk became a producer, working hard on the show behind the scenes, Columbo deliberately makes himself small, staying out of the way, often hunched over. Even the show itself frequently makes use of long shots in big rooms or outdoors, making Columbo appear even smaller. When asked what his first name is he only says, “Lieutenant,” although sharp-eyed fans know his first name is Frank, from one of the few times he flashes his badge.

The show also has a not so subtle anti-establishment streak, which I think is a product of its time but also part of the show’s ongoing appeal. Most of his suspects are wealthy, powerful people, and though there’s always a deeper motive—a fear of losing their wealth or their position, mainly—they still feel they can get away with murder, and it’s satisfying to see them get taken down. In spite of that Columbo does seem to like, or at least respect, some of the suspects he trailed. In “Any Old Port In A Storm”, when the murderer is a high-class winemaker played by Donald Pleasance,  Columbo seems to enjoy showing off his newfound knowledge of wine. Drinking while on duty—and, let’s face it, Columbo is always on duty, even when he’s on vacation—may be a violation, but in every other respect Columbo stays well above the law. And, okay, he goes out drinking again in “The Conspirators”, when he joins the Irish poet (and IRA sympathizer) Joe Devlin, and tries to impress him by reciting some limericks, including “The Pelican”:

A rare old bird is the pelican.
His bill holds more than his belly can.
He can take in his beak
enough food for a week.
I’m damned if I know how the hell he can!

And then there’s “Swan Song” in which the murderer is played by Johnny Cash, who starts with a good performance of “I Saw The Light” and ends with him being arrested for sending his wife down in a plane crash. But what also makes the episode memorable is how Cash and Falk have such natural onscreen chemistry, complimenting and complementing each other, that it’s not hard to believe actor and singer hung out together after the filming.

Even in “Murder Under Glass”, which is notable for being one of the few times Columbo comes out and says he dislikes his suspect, a professional food critic, but still wants to impress him with veal scallopini a la Columbo.

I’ve been using all this to lead up to why I want to kill a proposed reboot. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reboots in general—I even think some have been great—but, while Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and even Sam Spade, among other famous detectives, have been played by other people, and while Peter Falk didn’t originate the role, he made it his own. It’s hard to imagine the producers originally wanted Bing Crosby, and I just can’t picture Columbo as a blue-eyed sophisticate standing over a corpse crooning, “Bet she was a beautiful baby, buh buh buh…”

It’s because of Peter Falk that Columbo makes such effective use of the inverted detective story in which we know from the beginning who the murderer is and how they did it. How the detective unravels the mystery is supposed to be what draws us in, although, really, it’s just the pleasure of hanging out with Columbo for an hour or two.

What would a reboot look like? Even the innumerable Law & Order clones that have firmly planted the idea that most crimes are committed by the special guest star look ridiculous when we have darker, more complicated dramas like Broadchurch and The Sinner that explore how crimes don’t happen in a vacuum and are never really resolved, especially after just an hour.

Source: Atlas Obscura

And let’s not forget that part of the appeal of Columbo is that it’s always funny, or at least tongue-in-cheek. The murders may be serious but Columbo isn’t. He drives a broken down Peugeot, and occasionally brings along his Basset hound named “Dog”—I’m pretty sure Mrs. Columbo has given their pet a more elegant name. Columbo and Dog both are immortalized in a funny statue in, of all places, Budapest. Columbo even has his own amusing theme song, “This Old Man”, which he occasionally whistles to himself. Outside of Columbo Peter Falk is best known for comedic roles–the grandfather in The Princess Bride, opposite Alan Arkin in The In-Laws, and an aging performer in a made-for-TV remake of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys.

The show also sometimes really strains credibility with Columbo picking up on farfetched clues like a pair of not sweaty socks, or an episode like “Troubled Waters”. While it’s a great story with a great cast that includes Robert Vaughn and Dean Stockwell, what are the odds someone would commit a murder on the same cruise ship where a great detective just happened to be taking a vacation?

A reboot would almost certainly heighten the comedy, but then it would be too much like the MAD Magazine parody “Clodumbo”, where the punchline is that twenty-seven innocent people have turned themselves in just to get away from the detective pestering them.

Source: Columbo Site

Columbo himself says it best at the end of the best episode, “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case”, when he’s asked if he’d ever consider another line of work. ““Me, sir? No. Never. I couldn’t do that.”

Let that be one last thing.

TV Or Not TV?

Late fall always meant going back to school for me, and going back to school always meant the end of my summer tradition of watching too much TV even when the weather was nice enough to be outside, at least until
I got home in the afternoons. So that prompted this question: do you recognize the lyrics from the themes to these classic TV sitcoms?

(Note that some of these shows used instrumental versions but originally had lyrics written for them while others had extended versions that never made it to the air.)

  1. A smile is just a frown that’s turned upside down

So smile, and that frown will defrost.

 

  1. Memories help me hide my lonesome feelin’

Far away from you and feelin’ low

It’s gettin’ late my friend, I miss you so

Take good care of you, I’ve gotta go

 

  1. My heart was under lock and key,

But somehow it got unhitched.

I never thought that I could be had

But now I’m caught and I’m kinda glad

 

  1. Roll out of bed, Mr. Coffee’s dead

The morning’s looking bright

And your shrink ran off to Europe

And didn’t even write

 

  1. Fish don’t fry in the kitchen

Beans don’t burn on the grill

Took a whole lotta trying

Just to get up that hill

 

  1. We’ll have no need to call the roll when we get to The Fishin’ Hole,

There’ll be you, me, and Old Dog Trey, to doodle time away.

 

  1. Take me in your arms and hold me tight,

Tell me that your love is mine tonight,

Say that everything will turn up right,

It hurts to say goodbye.

 

  1. Everybody knows in a second life

We all come back sooner or later

As anything from a pussycat

To a man eating alligator

 

  1. Skin yourself alive, learn to speak Arapahoe,

Climb inside a dog, and behead an Eskimo.

Now you’ve heard it once, your brain will spring a leak, 

And though you hate this song, you’ll be humming it for weeks!

 

  1. And when we both get older

With walking canes and hair of gray

Have no fear, even though it’s hard to hear

I will stand real close and say

 

  1. This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.

We’re almost to the part of where I start to whistle.

Then we’ll watch…

 

  1. I spend my nights just howling at the moon

Or hanging out in a creepy black lagoon…

 

  1. That game of life is hard to play

I’m gonna lose it anyway

The losing card, I’ll some day lay

So this is all I have to say

 

  1. Just like the light of a new day

It hit me from out of the blue

Breaking me out of the spell I was in

Making all of my wishes come true

 

  1. You’re all invited back again to this locality

To have a heapin’ helpin’ of their hospitality

Scoring:

12-15: Your mother told you more than once that if you didn’t stop sitting so close to the TV you were going to grow square eyes.

10-11: Every once in a while you stop on one of the nostalgia channels before you go look for something better to watch.

7-9: You found an old TV in your parents’ attic once, plugged it in, and assumed all the color seeped out years ago.

5-8: If you rolled your eyes at this list and said, “Okay, Gen-Xer” give yourself ten bonus points.

2-4: You have never lived in a time when DVR didn’t exist.

0-1: Congratulations on having done something useful with your summer vacations.

The Answer Key is below the video.

Answer Key:

1-The Dick Van Dyke Show

2-WKRP In Cincinnati

3-Bewitched

4-Cheers

5-The Jeffersons

6-The Andy Griffith Show

7-Alfred Hitchcock Presents (not a sitcom and the lyrics are of questionable provenance since the original was an instrumental piece by Charles Gounod but are taken from The TV Theme Song Sing-Along Songbook by John Javna)

8-If you said “My Mother The Car” you guessed WRONG. This was never a classic sitcom.

9-Not a theme song but the infamous Chicken Song from Spitting Image.

10-The Golden Girls

11-It’s Garry Shandling’s Show

12-The Munsters

13-M*A*S*H

14-The Greatest American Hero

15-The Beverly Hillbillies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Good Day.

Who says Friday the 13th has to be bad? Most days I brought my lunch to school with me—peanut butter and jelly, sometimes baloney, sometimes tuna fish. First we went into the narrow kitchen, separated from the main dining area. There was a metal box by the door filled with cartons of milk and we each picked up one on as we went by. For lunch it was always regular milk; we’d get a carton of chocolate milk for our afternoon snack. Then I walked along with everyone else, carrying my lunchbox while the kids on either side of me picked up trays of, well, whatever was being served. It didn’t bother me that I was a little different, and no one else brought it up. After I paid ten cents for my carton of milk I filed out with everyone else to the main dining area where we all sat at long tables. At the far end of the dining hall was the stage where once in a blue moon there’d be a school play or some kind of presentation, but mostly it was blocked off by a heavy dark green curtain.

The exception was Fridays when the cafeteria served fish. Or rather the cafeteria served something that they called fish. It was a breaded square, with a slice of melted cheese on top, of something that was definitely white and flaky and probably at one time was once in contact with water. Whether it was really fish or not didn’t matter to me. I loved it anyway. I loved it so much I don’t even remember what else was served with it. Macaroni and cheese, probably, and maybe peas, and probably some kind of dessert. It was the one meal where I didn’t care about the dessert or anything else. I was all about the fish.

When I was in kindergarten we ate lunch early, before the rest of the school, and we were pretty quiet. In later years lunch could get loud with kids yelling at each other, throwing things, blowing up plastic bags and popping them. There was a woman whose job it was to supervise us which had to be the most thankless job ever. Sometimes she’d yell at us to be quiet and say, “I want to be able to hear a pin drop!” I never understood why. Sure, I got why she didn’t want us screaming at each other or popping bags, but shutting down all conversation seemed futile and unnecessary.

In kindergarten we went back to our classroom after lunch to lie down on foam mats for a while. Then we could go out to the playground or, if it was too cold, we could play a game inside. Sometimes the teacher would put on a record and some of us would pick up blocks and pretend we were playing instruments. I had a wool cap with a bobble on top and I’d get it and put it on when I pretended I was playing the guitar.

“I don’t know what it is with him and that hat,” I heard the teacher tell a visiting parent. She never asked me directly about it. If she had I would have told her I was Mike Nesmith. Only shorter.

In my memory that was a Friday, but not just any Friday. We took turns being first in line to go to the cafeteria for lunch. It was a special honor to be first in line and the first time I got to do it was a Friday, the 13th. It felt really good to have so much go right in one day. Maybe that’s why it sticks with me.

Sing Along.

Don’t ask me why but I have a bunch of songs from summer camp stuck in my head right now. This is important information and must be shared, if only because it might be the only way to get the songs stuck in my head out, although if anyone knows alternative ways to get a song stuck in your head unstuck I’d be happy to entertain them. I know of one possible way to get a song stuck in your head out and tried it on a friend once. He told me he had a song stuck in his head and I yelled, “OH MICKEY, YOU’RE SO FINE, YOU’RE SO FINE YOU BLOW MY MIND, HEY MICKEY!” which is a technique that really only replaces whatever song is stuck in your head with something worse and doesn’t work if the song you’re trying to get out happens to be “Hey Mickey!” And in fact the only thing that may really illustrate is that I’m a terrible friend who deserves to be punched in the back of the neck, but that’s another story.

Writing about songs stuck in my head also may not seem ideal since music isn’t an easy thing to write about. The saying “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, which has been attributed to everyone from Emily Dickinson to Elvis Costello, going through the alphabet backwards, of course, is so popular because there’s some truth to it, although I’d like to see some dancing about architecture even if I couldn’t live in it.

Anyway the problem is I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and while that doesn’t matter if I’m singing while no one’s around it may be why another technique I’ve been told can get a song unstuck—sing it out loud—isn’t working. The songs stuck in my head know I’m offkey and they’re locked in until I can find the right key. Not that the songs we sang at camp were all that difficult, and being in the right key never really mattered when the real point was to be enthusiastic and also loud enough that everyone around me pretty much drowned me out, like when we sang this:

I like bananas, coconuts, and grapes!

I like bananas, coconuts, and grapes!

I like bananas, coconuts and grapes,

That’s why they call me Tarzan Of The Apes!

And some weren’t even all that musical but were just recited so it didn’t matter that I’m completely tone deaf.

Hey, my name is Joe,

And I work in a button factory.

One day the boss came up to me and said,

“Hey Joe, are you busy?”

I said, “No,” and he said, “Turn the button with your left hand.”

And then we’d start shaking our left hands. This one goes on with the boss asking Joe to turn the button with his right hand, and we’d shake our right hands, then his left foot, so we’d lift our left feet and shake those, and it ends,

“Hey Joe, are you busy?”

I said, YES!

And I’m pretty sure there’s an epilogue that involves Joe punching his boss in the back of the neck.

Then there was the nonsense we sang—or rather that everybody else sang to the tune of “O du lieber Augustin” and that I just sort of belted out like the Queen Of The Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, only worse—that was my favorite:

In de valley in de vintertime

Ven de vind blows on de vindow pane

Den de vimmen in de vaudeville

Ride dere velocipedes in de vestibule

Of de Viking Hotel.

A group of us performed that one at the final evening talent show that always capped summer camp—or rather some other kids performed it and were loud enough to drown me out so I wasn’t responsible for it being stuck in anyone’s head. Then when we were done singing we all introduced ourselves with clever food pun names we’d come up with. There was Sam Handwich and Zack N. Cheese and, well, Olive, and when we got to me I drew a blank about what mine was supposed to be and I just yelled, “Froot Loops!” And everyone laughed and completely forgot the songs we’d been singing.

Rejected Writing Prompts.

The moisturizer didn’t start working until several applications later.

 

Why aren’t amino acids called “amateur teins”?

 

It wasn’t apropos—it was the propos.

 

Things used to turn on a dime. With inflation they turn on a dollar.

 

Nothing had changed. So had everything.

 

How much power does it take for your phone to warn you the battery is low?

 

Creaky door in a full house on a summer afternoon—no big deal.

Creaky door in an empty house in the middle of the night in late fall or early winter—utterly terrifying.

Creaky door in an empty house in the middle of the night in summer—hey, might as well check it out, it’s not like you have to get dressed or anything.

 

Opening dialogue:

“How can we get people to come to the event?”

“I could give out samples of my wine cake.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

“Oh, it’s not what it sounds like. It’s soaked in vodka!”

 

The dessert known as a Baked Alaska in the United States is called a Norwegian Omelet in France.

 

One-hundred and eighty minutes later we realized it had been three hours.

 

Do cowboys ever pretend they’re 7-year olds?

 

Was “Bingo” the name of the dog or the farmer?

 

Did telegram messengers use stationery bikes?

 

I’ve never run a Marathon but one summer I did work as a clerk at one of their gas stations.

 

You don’t meet a lot of women with “Jr.” after their name.

 

We chose the Czech airport for reasons that were purely Prague-matic.

 

My life was influenced by the Greek philosopher Mediocrites.

 

Why is there lemonade but no grapefruitade, kumquatade, or banananade?

 

Opening dialogue:

“They really treat you like family at this restaurant!”

“Here’s your bill, and as soon as you’re done you can start washing the dishes.”

 

In the end the salmon was a red herring.

 

Ray Bradbury said, “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” Prove him wrong.

Summer Time.

So I found an Argiope aurantia in the yard and if you don’t know what that is you’re probably thinking I should hire whoever handles that sort of thing to get rid of it and if you do know what it is you’re almost certainly thinking I should hire whoever handles that sort of thing to get rid of it because you know it’s a great big spider. She wasn’t that big, though—it’s still early in the season, but it did remind me of the time when I was ten and found a fully grown one under the deck of my parents’ house. They’re quite beautiful with shiny black, white, yellow, and green bodies, and they build big circular webs with zigzag patterns. No one’s sure why they weave such obvious patterns into their webs—maybe it’s to warn birds away, or it’s for camouflage, or for some other reason.  They sit in the middle of their webs patiently waiting.

I’d visit the one under the deck three or four times a day sometimes and bring it prey which I know sounds pretty sadistic of me. At least I felt a little bit of guilt but it was also fascinating to watch. I’d catch a katydid, holding it by its leafy wings, and throw it into the web. The spider would rush over, bite the katydid once, injecting a toxic cocktail, and then start wrapping it. Some spiders wrap their prey in a single thread but an Argiope aurantia activates all its spinnerets at once producing a skein of silk that turns its catch into a mummy in seconds. Then it leaves its prey to sit and cook for a while because spiders invented ceviche long before humans did.

Sometimes when I came back later I’d find her sucking the juices from her wrapped meal. Then she’d pluck it loose from the web and let it drop to the ground. By nighttime the web would be gone. They eat part of their webs before going to sleep, recycling the protein, and producing a fresh, neat web the next day.

I spent the summer watching her grow bigger and bigger, but I tried not to get too attached. Even then I knew enough about biology to know that most spiders grow fast and put everything into producing children they won’t live to see. It’s sad but also beautiful.

I knew she was a she because the males are smaller and less distinctive. The males build a web near a female’s when it’s time to mate. I never did see her partner but one must have come around. By late August I could tell she was slowing down. She sometimes ignored the grasshoppers I threw into her web, conserving her energy while her internal organs slowly turned into eggs. The morning I found her in the upper part of her web next to what looked like a small mottled brown balloon I knew it was time. Summer at that age lasted forever and was also over in a blink.

Her children, if they survived the winter, had a tough time ahead of them, which is one of the sad facts of a spider’s life. They lay a thousand eggs or more as insurance because the world is a harsh place. Most won’t make it to adulthood.

The one I found in the garden earlier this week has been gone for a couple of days now. Her web is still there but it’s tattered. It’s unlikely she’s moved somewhere else. She picked a well-protected place. It just wasn’t protected enough, and there’s a long summer ahead of me.

Let It Commence.

Commencement Address, Catalpa University, May 2021

Class of 2021, congratulations. You’ve made it through significant challenges and unforeseeable challenges which no other graduating class in history has ever had to face. Your struggles and accomplishments are utterly unique. Just like every other graduating class in history. What you’ve been through is the sort of thing that would make great material for a college application essay if you weren’t already graduating from college.

Congratulations on making it here.  Most of you, having made it here as freshmen, were statistically unlikely to graduate. Or statistically likely. Or maybe it could have gone either way. I really don’t know. I haven’t looked at the numbers. Anyway congratulations on being a statistic, but in a good way, and not like somebody who’s been struck by lightning three times which, I think, is pretty statistically unlikely, but also makes you statistically very likely to be the sort of person people move away from at parties.

As I look over and slightly to the left of your faces I, having once been where you are now know exactly what you’re thinking. How long am I going to talk before you can get your diploma and get out of here? Someday, maybe very soon, you’ll be wishing you could have dragged this out for a lot longer. But bear with me. Be patient. I promise to only speak as long as I’m contractually obligated to do so, and sometimes putting in the absolute least amount of effort can lead to great success. College taught me that. Specifically when I I aced a test on statistics.

I would kill time up here by reading the phone book but they don’t have those anymore, and it’s a shame. Tough guys used to demonstrate their strength by tearing phone books in half. Believe me, you don’t have to be that tough to tear a laptop in half. You just have to be fast enough to run away from the guy it belonged to.

You know what you never hear about? Someone being bitten by a shark while mountain climbing. You know what you also never hear about? Someone being mauled by bear while they were at the beach. That’s something you can think about if you can’t think of anything else.

Because you’re here you’ve passed many tests. Those of you who are finally here after five or six years of trying also failed many tests. Once you leave here you’ll face many more tests. With luck, determination, and hard work you’ll pass most of those tests. However in spite of luck, determination, and hard work you’ll also fail many tests. Don’t worry about it. You won’t be graded on most of them.

It’s a shame phone books are no longer around. Once some friends and I called for a pizza. We didn’t know the number for the place so we looked it up in the phone book. There were two listed. We called the first one and ordered a pizza and then we had to go pick it up so we wrote down the address. But we wrote down the wrong address and when we got there they didn’t have any record of our order. We ended up getting two pizzas.

You’ve had to answer many questions as part of your education, but as you’ve already learned, life is full of questions, many of which don’t have clear answers. What will your career ultimately be? What challenges will you face going forward? Why do people make videos of themselves watching videos? Does anyone really know where Suriname is? Why are there no single-A batteries?

These are the kinds of questions you can use to fill up space if you’re trying to fulfill an obligation to take up a certain amount of time, but I don’t recommend using any of them to pad out a resume, but if you’re ever in a position to do so I hope you’ll stick some of them into a job application. Hire anyone who says they don’t understand the question. Hire anyone who has a funny answer. Hire people with eyepatches because you know they’ve got a story to tell.

 Thank you for your time and patience, and and for falling asleep and letting your heads droop forward so I could see the cool decorations on your mortarboards. I’d like to stay longer but I’m pretty sure I see a guy who wants to talk to me about his laptop.

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