Happy Birthday.

Everybody sing!

It’s The Journey.

It’s my birthday today and, well, I always have trouble with the question, “What do you want?” Obviously I appreciate the thought and I want to be realistic, but if I could be completely unrealistic I’d want to take a train trip from Portugal to Singapore. I realize that’s not completely unrealistic since it is now possible, but I don’t want to wish for the impossible or even nonexistent.

The world’s longest train trip. For now, anyway. Source: BoingBoing

A three-week train trip sounds amazing to me. Maybe parts of it would be tedious or boring but part of the fun of train trips, and, I think, adding to the romance of train travel, is that there’s a constantly shifting landscape out there. Trains also offer a certain amount of freedom within their confines. Unless you’re the conductor you’re not driving so you can wander up and down the cars. There’s usually more space than there is on an airplane, and it’s easier to change seats.

And consider this: if an airplane’s engines stop working that’s it. The pilot or pilots will do the best they can to make a safe landing but it’s still at the mercy of gravity. Even a boat has its downside—specifically if it goes down and you end up hoping there are enough lifeboats to hold everyone. I don’t mean to downplay the severity of train crashes, which can be terrible, but if a train’s engine breaks down or it’s just stopped by leaves on the tracks then you still have a pretty good chance of walking away. Train travel may be slower but keeps you close to the ground.

Thirty years ago I took an overnight train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, Russia, specifically—a train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Florida would have been more than just one night, not to mention a spectacular feat of engineering, but that’s another story. It was an old style train, mostly wood, rickety, and a tall, thin gentleman came by and brought me some tea in a glass cup with a metal holder.

I read some but I also spent a lot of time just watching the snow-covered countryside, dotted with lights of small towns off in the distance, slip by, and I wondered what was going on in those homes that kept their fires burning all night. I slept some, and at one point I went to the end of the car and stood in the cold, wintry air. I could look down and see the tracks and gravel, and how fast the train was moving, but when I looked out at the snow it all seemed impossibly still.

Yeah, I definitely want three weeks of travel like that.

 

I Love The Theater.

Source: Nashville Downtown

Live theater’s had a rough couple of years obviously, and it’s something I miss even though I didn’t really think about it until I read that the Nashville Children’s Theater is celebrating its 90th anniversary. So it’s almost as old as I am! And it’s really responsible for instilling a love of theater in me. Or maybe I always loved theater and the NCT just gave me what I wanted.

My memory is hazy but I think from kindergarten through sixth grade we had a school field trip to see at least two shows a year there. One of the earliest, maybe the earliest, was a production of Pinocchio that I saw in kindergarten and remember vividly because, much as I hate to say it, it was awful. Pinocchio was a whiny little jerk, and while the point of the story is that he starts out bad and ultimately redeems himself, thus becoming a real boy, the stage Pinocchio was still so annoying even at the end I wished he’d stayed a puppet. The Fox and the Cat, the story’s main villains, weren’t outsiders but life-size toys Gepetto had made and that somehow turned evil, and the giant whale that swallows Gepetto and Pinocchio wasn’t giant at all. It was another toy that Gepetto had built and was set against the stage wall. To go inside it Gepetto and Pinocchio had to get down on all fours and crawl in through the mouth, and it was about then that I started wondering why Gepetto had filled his workshop with psychotic toys that were all out to murder him, but that’s another story.

Fortunately the theater redeemed itself with a production of Really Rosie! that I loved even without knowing that it was a collaboration between Maurice “Wild Thing” Sendak and Carole King, whose album Tapestry is almost as old as I am.

Every other play I remember seeing at the Nashville Children’s Theater was great. They put on a wide range of plays, from standards, like an adaptation of The Emperor’s New Clothes, set in China and, if I remember correctly, with an all-Asian cast, to a contemporary drama about a girl dealing with her widowed father dating a new woman, to a series of extremely avant-garde mime sketches. And again and again the plays I saw taught me that, with a bit of suspension of disbelief, anything is possible on stage.

And even if they hadn’t been great they were still field trips so they got us out of school for a couple of hours. That made them something to look forward to even though we usually came back more wound up than when we left, so I’m sure the teachers dreaded that. I remember coming back from one and as I stepped off the bus I said, “I’m so happy to be back I could kiss the ground!” Then I got down and kissed the ground and got up with dirt on my face.

“Aren’t you too old for that?” my teacher asked.

Never.

Check out some scenes from their amazing production of A Wrinkle In Time which I didn’t see because I was too old.

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 put Sweeney Todd’s customers in pies, 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.

Falling With Style.

The swimming pool had two diving boards over the deep end. There was the low diving board that hung about three feet above the water. The only difference between jumping from the low diving board and jumping from the edge of the pool was that the low diving board put you a little farther out over the water. And it was kind of springy so you could bounce at the end of the board and it would propel you upward slightly. I liked to jump from the low board into the deep end and swim all the way to the bottom, twelve feet down, and look up. The watery surface overhead was like a shimmering screen, and the sun was like a sapphire. Then I’d have to come up. Or, on slow days when the pool wasn’t crowded, I could jump off the low board and swim all the way across the pool without surfacing. The first time I did that it was exhilarating. I felt like I’d really accomplished something, and what I accomplished was nearly hyperventilating at the edge of the pool because I was breathing so hard, which reminds me of the time I was at my grandparents’ house and my grandmother picked up the phone. She listened for a moment then said to my grandfather, “All I hear is heavy breathing.” My grandfather grabbed the phone and began sternly lecturing the person at the other end about decorum. Then he got quiet and listened and said to my grandmother, “Jim’s car broke down and he just pushed it two miles uphill to the service station.”

Anyway the high diving board, twelve feet high if I remember correctly although it seemed like it loomed a hundred feet overhead. It might as well have been that high. I wasn’t going up there. Well, I did. After all it was there, a mountain to be climbed, or rather a ladder to be climbed and jumped off of. I told myself that I was interested in swimming, not airing, and that if I really wanted to drop twelve feet I could by going from the surface of the pool to the bottom. It drew me, though. I had mastered everything else at the pool—not that there was much to master. After swimming from one end of the pool to the other without taking a breath about the only other thing that was left was talking the guy who ran the concession stand into letting me have a full cup of orange soda without ice so I got more orange soda and spent about half an hour sitting in a beach chair feeling bloated and miserable, but that’s another story.

The same summer I made the first swim from one end of the pool to the other I made up my mind I was going to jump from the high dive. The worst that could happen, I figured, was that I’d fall in the water.

It was about that time, on a slow, hot afternoon when there was hardly anyone around, when even the lifeguard was barely paying attention, that another kid walked out to the end of the high dive, bounced a couple of times, lost his balance, and fell sideways. He landed flat on his back on the concrete below. I didn’t see it happen. I just saw him stretched out as though sleeping, and the emergency team with the stretcher that took him away. He survived, and word got around that he recovered, but he never came back to the pool.

Later that summer, on a busy day when the pool was crowded, I got in line with all the other swimmers who were going off the high dive. I climbed the ladder, walked onto the board, and gripped the handrails. The handrails ended about halfway. Beyond them was just the board and open air. I stood up there holding the handrails for what seemed like an hour, then climbed back down. No one laughed or made fun of me. The next person in line, an older guy, just nodded at me, climbed the ladder, and did a spectacular dive off the board.

The next summer I watched a couple of my friends go off the high dive. Sometimes we’d do synchronized jumps, me going off the low dive and, of course, hitting the water much sooner, or I’d wait and try to time it so we’d hit the water at the same time. And finally one day I decided I was going to do it. I climbed the ladder. I gripped the handrails as I walked out toward the end of the board, then let go. I didn’t bounce and I walked slowly, and when I got to the end of the board I jumped, feet first. It wasn’t an impressive dive, or even a dive really, but I plunged into the water. That was all I wanted—to make that leap.

Twenty-six years ago, on June 27th, 1993 I married my wife. It wasn’t as frightening, probably because the justice of the peace who performed the ceremony looked so much like John Cleese that my only regret is that when he read the vows I didn’t say, “What was the thing in the middle?” It was really her by my side that assured me, though, and every day I look forward to a new leap.

Preacher Woman.

Source: Wikipedia

If, like me, you started watching Whose Line Is It Anyway? in its original run as a British program, which, on this side of the pond, ran on a fledgling comedy network that wasn’t up to making shows of its own yet, but that’s another story, you probably remember Sandi Toksvig, whose birthday is today. At least you should because she was brilliant. I remember that when the group improvised a gospel song she didn’t sing. She got down and preached, and not just to the choir.
Since then she’s taken over as host of QI, because she has that special gravitas that makes you feel like your IQ is going up just listening to her, was the host of The News Quiz and 1001 Things You Should Know, founded the Women’s Equality Party, co-hosts The Great British Bake Off, has written a slew of books for children and adults, and gave an amazing TED Talk, all of which makes me wonder where she finds the time, but of course she makes it look easy because she’s brilliant.
Preach on, Sandi Toksvig, preach on.

 

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