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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.

Here Comes The Sun.

A friend of mine lives in an old farm house with a single hallway that goes from the front to the back, and once a year the rising sun is perfectly framed by the back door so that it shines all the way through the house. He calls it “House Henge” and, being a farmhouse, you’d think the builders might have planned for this and placed the house so it would fall on one of the equinoxes or one of the solstices—a time with some significance, perhaps, especially with regard to planting or harvesting. But, no, it just happens sometime in August. It’s still a pretty cool thing, though, and always reminds me how strange it was when I was a kid and realized the sun doesn’t just rise and set. It moves from north to south. I’d always heard “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west” but that’s not really true. Watching sunsets from my more or less west-facing bedroom window I’d see the sun set over some distant hills in the summer and behind a stand of trees in the winter, and when I saw a picture of an analemma I wasn’t surprised that people had documented the motion of the sun.

This motion can sometimes be annoying too. When I rode the bus home from work regularly I traveled more or less west, and there was always a time of year when, in the afternoon, the setting sun would be directly in front of the bus, pretty much blinding the driver. I’m sure it still happens; I see buses along my old route all the time. Bus drivers have a little bit of a shade they can pull down but there’d be at least a day or two when the sun is low enough that pretty much all they can do is put on some sunglasses and keep their eyes low.

A few months ago it looked like I’d be going back to work in my office, and I was even making plans to resume riding the bus, probably going both ways since my wife and I let our parking passes for work expire. Then all that fell through and for now I plan to keep working from home. And we’re getting to a time of year when the afternoon sun shines right in through the window where I work. It would be annoying but, hey, I can pull the shade all the way down. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

End Of The Season.

Three things mark the end of summer for me: school starting, which hasn’t really been an issue for me for a few decades, Labor Day, and county and state fairs. In the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s Nashville also used to have a festival called City Lights, designed to draw people downtown, and huge crowds would go to see free concerts and visit booths for local restaurants and businesses and then downtown would be deserted again because there was nothing to stick around for.

This year I haven’t gone to any county fairs, for the same reason I didn’t go last year, or even to the state fair which used to be in Nashville but has since moved to a neighboring county. The Nashville Fairgrounds have been used for several things over the years, most recently a homeless shelter, which some people have complained about because some people have no compassion. Giving someone who’s lost so much a place to sleep seems more important than a sheep-shearing exhibit–at least that’s what I think.

One of the last years the fair was held here my wife and I went, leaving work early because she wanted to see the mule pull, and I did too but lost interest when I found out it was the mules doing the pulling, but that’s another story.

So I wandered off to the midway. We’d gotten there so early that even though the mules were already pulling and some of the animal events were happening the rides were all still closed and empty. It was as though some terrible cold had descended and frozen even time itself as I walked through a place where there should have been noise and lights and crowds, and where, in a few hours there would be.

The only predictable thing about time is its unpredictability. What next year will be like is still unknown. Even the changing of the seasons is itself changing. Walking through the empty midway I could imagine the crowds to come, but not precisely, and there would be joy and sadness and wins and losses I’d never know about. Time moves on without repeating, sometimes without rhyming, but what does it leave behind?

We All Have To Go.

Coincidences are funny things. The other day I discovered a trove of old pictures, mostly ones I’d taken back when I first got a smartphone, and of course there were several pictures in there of men’s rooms. I had this idea at the time that it would be funny to take pictures of public restrooms and post them online, and maybe even put together a book of them—a bathroom book, not that I’d want to compete with The Great American Bathroom Book. I had an idea that it could be an art project. I could even consider restroom design—what makes one good or bad, and maybe highlight the best ones.

And I would call the project Dear John.

Tumblr was still pretty popular at the time, especially for pictures, but Tumblr’s design made uploading, well, such a pain in the ass I created one post and quit. And, to be fair, that was only part of the problem. The other part is bathrooms aren’t the easiest places to photograph. Most don’t have a lot of space so composing a good shot could be difficult. A lot are also designed for multiple people and out of a general respect for other people’s privacy and a specific desire to not get punched or worse I would only take the pictures when I was alone. Sometimes I’d get interrupted and you can imagine the awkwardness of trying to explain why I was crouched in the corner of a public bathroom with my phone out.

The coincidence is that the day after I found those pictures a friend sent me the article I Stopped Taking My Phone into the Bathroom for a Month by a guy who says leaving his phone out of the bathroom changed his life for the better.

It was a coincidence, right? My friend’s not looking over my shoulder or following me everywhere I go, is he? There are some places we should all just be alone.

A Snail’s Pace.

Source: Deutsche Welle (DW)

So a snail won a race in the city of Oldenburg, Germany, in an event to promote the city’s international film festival and why they thought that would be a good way to promote a film festival is beyond me. If they had an auto race or something like that then it would make sense because they could tie it in with the “Look at that S-car go” joke, but then here I am talking about it so I guess it’s working. The snail that won the race is named Speedy Gonzales and the prize was a head of lettuce, so there’s a snail who can really get a head. The entire track was 33 centimeters which Herr Gonzales covered in three minutes and twenty-eight seconds, and that comes out to about 9.5 centimeters per minute which is a pretty good clip for a snail.

I love snails. I’ve always loved snails. When I was a kid I put snails in jars, mostly because it’s really cool to watch them climb glass, but I’d also put some dirt and leaves and sticks in there, building them a little home, and sometimes I’d put two snails in there together and, being hermaphrodites, it wasn’t long before there was a cluster of pearly little eggs in tucked in one side of the jar which I’d carefully place outside, which fortunately our neighbor who was growing lettuce in his backyard never found out about.

In fifth grade I even made a pretty big terrarium with snails and some lichens and moss and a local sedum called star plants or widow’s cross for a class science project, which was a fun thing to carry on the bus, and if you think I got beaten up for that you’d be wrong. In fifth grade I had a really cool teacher who encouraged an interest in science and all the kids were into it and I didn’t get beaten up until the sixth grade when everybody started hitting puberty and I had teachers who mostly encouraged us to leave them alone so they could sneak off to the lounge for a drink, but that’s another story.

The snail race also reminded me of an event that always ended summer camp: the Critter Crawl. Any animal we caught during camp could be entered. The counselors would then draw a ten foot circle on the ground and all the critters would be put in the middle and let go. The trick was that to win your critter had to cross the finish line then you had to catch it and be the first to bring it to the judges, which made snakes and turtles popular choices because they could move at a pretty good rate and were also easy to catch. The kid who thought he was sure to win because he’d caught a damn squirrel was stunned when his contestant disappeared into the woods. That same year I had a turtle who came in third place.

I never did try entering a snail, but then I never had one like Speedy Gonzales.

 

There’s A Story Here.

Lately I’ve really been struggling to write. It’s difficult because even when the flesh is willing—and, let’s face it, I’m always up for sitting down—the spirit is weak. I know some writers claim to have found ways to overcome writer’s block and, well, good for them. I’m not sure I really believe it’s true. After all it’s in the nature of writers, especially fiction writers, to invent.

Speaking of overcoming writer’s block I once heard Neil Gaiman tell a story of how he was at a convention, hanging around with some other writers early one morning trying to shake off their hangovers, and his old friend Terry Prachett came bounding into the room.

“What are you looking so happy about?” Gaiman muttered.

“I’ve just written two thousand words for the day,” said Pratchett and, according to Gaiman, all the other writers glared at him.

It’s a funny story and it reminds me that even for those lucky enough to write for a living it’s not easy. In fact it can be really hard work, and even for Pratchett it wasn’t always easy. His essay “Thought Progress” starts:

Get up, have breakfast, switch on word processor, stare at screen.
Stare at screen some more.

Anyway now I feel guilty because I’m not really writing, just stealing stuff from other writers. Once in a writing class I was given an assignment to write about a place and I ended up describing the room where I tried to write the essay while writing about how hard it was to come up with something to write. The professor wrote, “There’s nothing more boring than writing about writing. Don’t do it.”

And now I feel even worse because not only am I writing about writing but also padding this out with someone else’s quote.

What I really want to get to, though, is this bit of stuff I saw in a grocery store parking lot. There’s a pair of folded jeans, a case of what looks like phone stuff, a red glass bowl with chains, and a…thing. That looks like the bowl might go with it.

How did they end up there? Who left them? Why? And why, while I was in the store, did someone take the thing and the bowl and leave the phone stuff case and the jeans?

There’s a story there. I just can’t quite get it down. Can you? Bonus points if you can identify the thing.

Don’t Bring Me Down.

So my wife and I didn’t drive one of our cars—specifically the Honda CRV—for several days. We got it in 2019 exactly twenty years to the day after our last Honda CRV died in the driveway. The old one’s fuel pump just gave out, and if the engine is the heart of a car the fuel pump is the aorta. I have no idea where I’m going with that metaphor except to show off how much I remember from seventh grade biology.

Anyway the new one, being two decades younger, has a few more bells and whistles. Actually it doesn’t have any bells or whistles but it does sync up to our phones, which is a nice feature and is why I don’t miss that it doesn’t have a CD player or, like the old one, a slot for cassette tapes. Offhand I can’t think what other new features it has but it must be more technologically advanced than the old one which leads to some occasional weirdness.

As I said it had been sitting in the driveway for several days because we’d been doing a lot of going back and forth that required carrying stuff, including the dogs, that our other car—a van—was better suited for. And when all that was done and my wife decided she needed to put her feet up she sent me out to pick up dinner. On the way I opened one of the windows to let out an errant fly which may or may not have triggered what happened later.

When I got home I parked the car, turned it off, patted it on its hood, and went in without looking back.

The next morning all the windows were open.

It occurred to me this had happened once before, and only once. After all we’ve only had the CRV for two years and only once gone more than a couple of days without taking it somewhere. We’d taken the van on vacation so the CRV was left on its own for a week, and when I drove it somewhere and brought it back the next morning all the windows were open.

The only difference between the last time and this time is this time it rained overnight.

My wife often tells me not to extrapolate. Usually she tells me this when we’re going on a trip and she’s got every part of the preparation planned out and if I try to think ahead and do steps she’s not ready for, even if they’re the right steps, it can throw her off. I’m going to extrapolate anyway and say that this small bit of weirdness makes me wary of self-driving cars. I can think of a lot of great things about self-driving cars. I’d love to be able to take a nap in the backseat while the car went on its way, but they’d have to be much more technologically advanced, and with all that extra hardware and software, well, there’s a lot more that could go wrong.

Addendum: Since Mona of Wayward Sparkles mentioned the terrible flooding that’s devastated areas of Tennessee, including Waverly, where I have some family, I wanted to mention that this post was written well before the rain even started falling and I didn’t mean to sound callous or like I was making light of that. But I did think about something important: if your car is caught in a sudden flood and the engine shuts down you may not be able to open the windows the way you could with the old manual rolling handles. So please keep a safety device in your car and stay safe out there.

It’s A Sign.

Source: Google Maps, because I wasn’t fast enough with my own camera.

My wife and I were driving through my old neighborhood recently and as we went by a strip mall she said, “Oh, the upside down sign is still there.”

I’m not sure when exactly the upside down sign was first installed. I remember seeing it a lot, though, because I lived nearby and we passed it regularly.  I’m pretty sure I was in my early teens. Maybe I was even younger. It was there when there was a miniature golf course behind that strip mall—a miniature golf course where my friends and I spent a lot of summer Saturdays before it finally shut down. It was there when there was an arcade in that strip mall where my friends and I played a lot of video games, and when there was still a Radio Shack there. It was there when there was a small market that, for reasons no one ever understood, carried a lot of different imported beers from around the world—and this was in the ‘80’s, long before the craft beer craze. Also long before I started drinking beer. I only know about the market that carried a lot of imported beers because I’d go in there sometimes to buy a candy bar and I’d see this unusual stuff called “Guinness” in the refrigerator case, and I’d always think, well, if it’s beer it must not be that different from the Michelob my father drinks, and it would be several years before I’d discover Guinness resembles Michelob about as much as, well, a miniature golf course resembles a Radio Shack, but that’s another story.

The first few years it was there, every time my friends and I passed it, I’d say, “What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they fix that sign?” And my friend John would say, “Well, maybe it’s working for them. It’s getting attention.”

He was right too. The sign must be working. It’s still there, and the business it advertises is still there. In fact it’s the only thing that hasn’t changed. Well, there’s probably at least one place nearby where you can still get Guinness.  

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