Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Off to Sea

‘Come, sir, cannot I prevail upon you to go to sea? A man-of-war is the very thing for a philosopher, above all in the Mediterranean: there are the birds, the fishes—I could promise you some monstrous strange fishes—the natural phenomena, the meteors, the chance of prize-money…’

Lured by the call of deep-water adventures I have once more taken up the first book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels, wherein the reader is swept up in life aboard an English sailing ship during the Napoleonic Wars. O’Brian and his books have been the subject here on a few other occasions, usually popping up about the time I begin another reading of the long series. With the thickness of pages involved some would call me obsessed, and it’s not a label I object to regarding the writing of Patrick O’Brian. The 6,500 pages of the complete Aubrey/Maturin series are with each reading richer and more satisfying. O’Brian’s popular roman-fleuve is gorgeously textured, an endlessly fascinating tale set among officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as great ships close in battle.

The first novel, Master and Commander, was published in 1969 and the last complete novel in 1999. The twenty-first novel was left unfinished by O’Brian’s death in 2000, but published as is in 2004. The books were written and published in the chronological sequence of events they describe, beginning with Master and Commander in 1800 and carrying through to the final novels, set shortly after Waterloo. W.W. Norton & Company discovered the Aubrey/Maturin novels twenty years after their first British publication and for some reason their later editions were taken more seriously by critics, enjoing greater success. The novels sold over 400,000 copies in 1989-90, reaching over two million by 2000. Norton released the novels in e-book format in December of 2011.

To repeat a warning offered in an earlier post, more than one reader has complained that the abundance of puzzling nautical terms sets the head spinning, discouraging the reader. In defense, the words of Stephen Maturin, Captain Aubrey’s friend and ship’s doctor help explain how O’Brian took this problem to hand. Early in the first book, the doctor says, “No man could easily surpass me in ignorance of naval terms.” This ignorance is a continuing fount of humor throughout the books, but at the same time we laugh, it subtly aligns us with the character. Maturin’s ignorance about the workings of ships is reassurance to the reader, telling us we don’t have to know or remember the details.

As far as the language goes, O’Brian once commented, “Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene.” But such considerations do not concern the reader; the writer’s narrative voice is contemporary with his setting. One critic has suggested that O’Brian’s naval officers would be at their ease speaking with the characters in a Jane Austen novel. The language transports us to another time and place in the sense that it seems to have been written there and then. In reading the Aubrey/Maturin series there is always the feeling that the writer is a contemporary of his characters, and the books not historical novels at all, but classic tales reinvented.

O’Brian shunned typewriters and word processors or computers, writing all of his books and stories by hand. For those of us curious about the author’s favorite pen, the answer remains clouded, but we can at least know that whatever the pen, O’Brian filled it with black cartridges. In the unfinished last novel, 21 there is the handwritten note, “If I go back to [illegible] I might look for pen-cartridges.” The handwritten manuscripts for eighteen of the Aubrey/Maturin novels have been acquired by Indiana University’s Lilly Library. Only two in the series—The Letter of Marque and Blue at the Mizzen—remain in private hands.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Making the Bed

The mechanics of a good night’s sleep have come a long way since the days when a hard floor or cold ground was about all there was to choose from. The concept of a special room and furniture for sleeping was not considered very important in antiquity. Even for wealthy Greeks and Romans arrangements were spartan and involved none of the cushiness we are familiar with in our modern homes. But there’s no question that conditions were much better before the fall of the Roman Empire and arrival of the Dark Ages.

From about 500 AD and continuing over the next few centuries bed and bedroom went into a decline and most people were happy enough with a hard bench above the damp and the foraging rats. For the austere conditions describing life for people in Britain, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, a ‘bed’ was nothing more than a location on the floor. Sleeping indoors was considered luxury enough and on cold nights better to be huddled together in the company of others. It was a lawless time when there was some measure of safety in numbers. If available, straw could easily be stuffed into coarse cloth sacks and spread on a table or bench, emptied in the morning and then remade at bedtime. In this way hardship was subtly incorporated into custom and the absence of comfortable beds was viewed as a way of strengthening character and body. Soft beds made soft soldiers and soft surfaces led to effeminacy and weak character. Undressing for sleep was viewed as a coddling affectation.

It was this absence of a true bed that saw the term ‘make the bed’ come into use, a literal statement throughout the Dark Ages. No smoothing of sheets and blankets or the fluffing of pillows, but more a case of gathering straw or leaves to stuff inside a coarse sack and then locating a dry spot to lay your head. It was from the routine making and remaking of these sack-beds that people began to speak of making beds.

Long before the arrival of spring mattresses in late eighteenth century England, people had begun sleeping on mattresses stuffed with straw, leaves, pine needles and reeds. Of course, over time all of these organic stuffings mildewed, rotted and nurtured bedbugs. Medieval writings tell of mice and rats nesting in mattresses and physicians recommending garlic in the stuffing to repel nesting animals. It was for this reason that making a bed anew each day became the custom of many.

A Frenchman in the 1500s devised something he called a ‘wind bed’ made of heavy waxed canvas with air valves for inflation by mouth or pump. His invention turned out to be short-lived because it wore out so quickly. When spring mattresses appeared, the strength and design of the springs made them very uncomfortable and often dangerous with broken springs poking up through the mattress cover. Spring technology was difficult at first considering that a spring sturdy enough to support the hips was unyielding to the head and one yielding to the head could not support the hips.

The early innerspring mattresses were all handcrafted and expensive, making them more common in luxury hotels and ocean liners—a great number of innerspring mattresses went down on the Titanic in 1912. Along about 1925 Zalmon Simmons came up with a “Beautyrest” innerspring mattress, but its price tag of $39.50 was still too high for the average American. Undaunted, Simmons had an idea that rather than a mattress, he should sell the idea of sleep, or what he called ‘scientific sleep.’ To that end he designed an advertising scheme pairing his Beautyrest mattress with a cast of creative geniuses that included Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. His advertisements informed the public that sleep research had proven that people do not sleep like logs, but move and turn as many as forty times a night to rest first one set of muscles, then another. The public bought it and on the endorsement of such great scientific minds made the Simmons Beautyrest mattress a top seller. By 1929 the old-fashioned hair-stuffed mattresses were being discarded in such numbers trash collectors couldn’t keep up.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Rise and Fall

The name came up in something I was reading and though I never saw any of her movies I recognized it as that of an old movie star. Who was she? It turned out she was a hard luck actress.

One night in 1961 a reporter for the New York Post was having a drink in the bar of New York’s Martha Washington Hotel and recognizing something familiar about the barmaid asked, “Have you always been a waitress?” The barmaid replied, “No, I was a movie star.” The barmaid was Veronica Lake, one of Hollywood’s biggest and most glamorous stars in the 1940s.

Constance Frances Marie Ockelman was born in Brooklyn in 1919. Her father died in a work accident when she was thirteen and her mother remarried and moved the family to Montreal. Constance attended a girls’ school for two years but her strange behavior led to expulsion and diagnosis as a paranoid schizophrenic. They moved to Miami but a year later relocated once more, this time to Hollywood.

With some small success as a beauty queen back in Florida, Constance began to daydream about acting and enrolled in an acting school at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. She tagged along with a friend to an audition for a bit part in the film Sorority House (1939) and got a part in a crowd scene. As Constance Keane she followed that with other bit parts, leading to a small part in Forty Little Mothers (1940), directed by Busby Berkeley. That same year she married her first husband, art director John Detlie.

During a screen test for a supporting role in 1941 her long blonde hair kept falling in her face obscuring one eye. The problem turned into a bonus when the producer liked the look and gave the young actress the leading role and a new name, Veronica Lake. The movie was I Wanted Wings, starring William Holden and Ray Milland and was a big hit. It made the newly christened Veronica Lake a movie star.

A petite four feet eleven inches tall, Lake was a perfect co-star for the famously short Alan Ladd and the two made six films together in the 1940s, becoming one of the most popular film couples of the decade. After making So Proudly We Hail in 1943, Life Magazine named her the top female box office star of the year.

From the beginning of her stardom, Lake’s peekaboo hair style covering one eye had been copied by thousands of female fans. So many fans were copying the “Veronica Lake Look” that eventually, because long hair sometimes got caught in machinery, the government asked the actress to cut her long hair to inspire safety among the female workers in defense plants. Lake ultimately agreed, but her patriotic sacrifice spelled doom. The new look of shorter hair was unbecoming to the actress and her career declined steadily.

Lake’s marriage to John Detlie produced two children and a divorce. In 1944, she married director Andre de Toth. Lake was earning $4,500 per week with Paramount but was drinking heavily and people began refusing to work with her. The studio cast her in a string of forgettable films, a notable exception The Blue Dahlia in 1946, once again with Alan Ladd. Disgusted by her condition and poor performance, screenwriter Raymond Chandler often referred to her as “Moronica Lake.” About her own talents, Lake once said, “You could put all the talent I had into your left eye and still not suffer from impaired vision.” Paramount declined to renew her contract in 1948. This brought on an increase in Lake’s drinking and by 1951 she had made only one more film with a different studio. The government seized the remainder of her assets for unpaid taxes and she divorced Andre de Toth. In 1955 she married a songwriter and fellow drinker.

Abandoning Hollywood, she and her third husband lived in a Greenwich Village apartment mostly fighting and drinking until their divorce. Alimony was not enough to cover the bills and Lake was evicted. She went on tour in a musical earning very little money but suffered another setback when a dancing partner fell on her leg and broke it. Unable to work, she ran out of funds and relied upon friends for food and other necessities. In time, the one-time movie star was drifting from one cheap hotel to another in Brooklyn and New York, arrested more than once for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct.

Living at the Martha Washington Hotel for Women in New York City, she took a job in the hotel lounge as a barmaid in order to pay the rent. It was here that the newspaper reporter recognized her and wrote a widely distributed article for his paper. This led to a television job and later the part of an aging movie queen in the 1963 off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward starring Liza Minnelli. Hoping to revive her film career, Lake made two low-budget movies but both received poor notices, doing more harm than good. With her physical and mental health in decline she hid out in Hollywood, Florida claiming the FBI was stalking her. She later spent a short time in England where she appeared in two plays and married her fourth husband, Robert Carleton-Munro. But soon enough Lake filed for divorce and returned to New York, where she was immediately hospitalized. After her release from the hospital, the alcoholic former star was often drunk and broke.

Veronica Lake passed her final days in the Burlington Vermont Medical Center signing autographs and enjoying her notoriety. None of the Hollywood friends who had once showered her with love and attention attended her funeral. She did however get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and today her autograph and memorabilia continue to command high prices.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Potter and the Poet

Digging through the disarranged piles in a thrift shop recently I came upon a piece of hand-turned Japanese pottery that looked at first glance like an interesting piece. Not wanting to betray too much interest to the shopkeeper standing close by counting her money, I circled the clay pot pretending interest in the surrounding clutter on the same shelf. The object of my pretended disinterest was a Japanese sake bottle or tokkuri with a handsome blue-green glaze. In calling it a sake “bottle” I mean to say that it is a kind of bottle or carafe used for serving Japan’s customary rice wine. It was the traditional curved shape that caught my eye, a design of grace and function that allows for an easy grip when pouring the sake.

When I finally did sidle over and pick up the tokkuri, the potter’s stamp on the bottom showed a name I recognized, but not in the field of ceramics. Very clearly scratched into the center was the name ‘Dôkan.’ Well, I knew I wasn’t holding a piece of work made in the fifteenth century by the samurai-poet Ôta Dôkan and with a nine dollar price tag. Were that the case I might have fainted dead away with my good luck. Not much question the bottle was old, but nothing even close to fifteenth century. Whatever its provenance, there was no question is was worth the asking price. One tiny drawback (you can’t have everything) was the missing cups. Tokkuri are always made with a set of sake cups and this one had only one remaining. Small and breakable, the others had been lost along the way.

Dôkan, the name on the sake bottle could be explained by a number of guesses and mine is that whoever the potter was, he used the name as an artist, perhaps paying homage to the historical Ôta Dôkan—not an unusual practice in the Japanese arts. To my knowledge the well-known Dôkan was not a potter, though impossible to say he didn’t try his hand. Had he done so, his signature or stamp would not have been applied in the carefully stroked style of Chinese characters on my bottle. But for a while I did wonder.

Ôta Dôkan (1432-1486), was a Japanese samurai warrior-poet, military tactician and Buddhist monk. Born Ôta Sukenaga, he became a Buddhist priest in 1478, and adopted the Buddhist name, Dôkan, by which he is known today. Dôkan is best known as the architect and builder of Edo Castle (now the Imperial Palace) in what was to become the city of Tokyo. As a samurai general, he had a reputation as a bold military strategist but political intrigues proved deadlier than any battlefield. Despite years of distinguished service, Dôkan’s clan leader proved fickle and sentenced the warrior-poet to death after hearing false accusations of disloyalty during a conflict within the clan. In his death poem he wrote: Had I not known that I was dead already/I would have mourned the loss of my life.

With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in the early seventeenth century, Edo Castle became the center of the shogunate government. When the shogunate was displaced at the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the newly named Tokyo became an Imperial capital with an Imperial Palace rising from the former shogun’s castle stronghold. Each year on October 1, Tokyo celebrates the anniversary of its founding with a festival in honor of the memory of Ôta Dôkan, the man recognized as the founder of Japan’s modern capital.

An interesting story of how Dôkan began to write poetry…

One day while on a hunting trip Dôkan was caught in a sudden shower. Seeing a shabby dwelling nearby he dashed to the doorway and shouted to the girl inside to lend him a straw cloak. Without speaking, the young girl offered instead a branch of the flowering kerria tree, whereupon the hunter returned home wet and angry at the girl. Later that night he related the story to one of his followers, who in turn told of an old poem by Shinno Kaneakira in which the kerria is compared to poverty and suggests something like, “I am sorry. Being but a poor girl I have no raincoat to offer.” Shocked by the story and shamed by his lack of wit, Dôkan began to contemplate poetry.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Laughing with the Queen

Alan Bennett could easily become a habit. In the past couple of weeks two of his books have brought pages of laughter and pleasurable reading, and here I am scanning the list looking for a third. An earlier post several days ago, described Bennett as familiar to many as a playwright. Aware of his success in that field, I am only now coming to know him for his long stories and novellas. Completely charmed by two stories published together under the title Smut, a small book that had me laughing on every page, I read the last page and without missing a beat clicked on Amazon looking for more Alan Bennett. Having now raced through Bennett’s 2007 novella The Uncommon Reader, once again my hand moved automatically to the online buy-a-book button. I sit here impatient for the next delivery.

Alan Bennett has been described by more than one critic as among England’s most celebrated writers. He has written nineteen plays that have been produced on the West End and Broadway, sixteen television plays, six screenplays, three books of autobiography and six books of fiction in the form of stories and novellas. There seems no end to the stories of his prodigious imagination or the ink in his pen, and let us all be thankful for that. The Uncommon Reader was only the second Bennett book in my experience and it may well have been the best of all possible choices.

One day while trying to corral her romping corgis, the Queen comes upon a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace. Unfamiliar with such a thing, she investigates and after speaking with the driver-librarian and feeling it would be unkind to do less, she borrows a book. From this chance encounter she discovers a previously unknown joy of reading, and in no time begins to read widely and intelligently. Working her way through a range of popular titles, histories and classics her view of the world gradually begins to change, and with increasing impatience in her role as monarch she begins to question the prescribed order of her life. The palace staff is alarmed, puzzled over the changes in their Queen, seeing her as having grown dotty and assuming it is a sign of Alzheimer’s—all leading to comic consequences.

The book is of course a fairy tale, but one that captures the reader on its first page with Bennett’s knack for dialogue and his ability to find polite humor in someone as staid as the Queen of England. Through Mr Bennett’s eye humor is of the humane brand, never rude or insulting, and his uncommon protagonist Queen comes across as a thoroughly likeable woman. Basically a witty meditation on the subversive pleasures of reading, The Uncommon Reader is sharp-witted amusement.

Friday, February 24, 2012


On some nights, sitting over a meal or drinks with friends the subject has turned to the circumstances of living here in Florida at the edge of a surf hammered paradise, the reasons we do and the reasons we occasionally consider folding up the beach umbrella, shaking the sand off our feet and heading off to bluer skies. The start of these discussions, and perhaps it is more accurate to call them musings, is not from any real dissatisfaction or quandary, but more from the perspective of alternatives. Is the grass greener or water bluer on the other side? Probably not, but that idea hasn’t done much to interrupt my pondering.

Having recently come home from spending a few days in another part of Florida, return sight of the familiar east coast came with the kind of heart tug typical of country western songs. It was good to be home. No question a lot of it lies in the fact that we get used to things, familiar sights and the relaxed comfort of routine choices. Returning to those sights and choices is in some way like the return to a temporarily denied sedative. Home sweet home they call it. Expressing this feeling in a book of short letters remembering home, one person wrote: ‘The place where I don’t need a map, when I walk within my heart—I would like to walk along that road again.’ It is a brief description that cuts to the core of what we call home.

On Thursday I walked along that road again and with ardor made fresh by temporary absence, the Atlantic looms bluer, the clouds spell out welcome and the faces smile hello, welcome back. Anyone living in Florida’s warm coastal climate will tell you that the months between January and April are the snowbird season, a time when rental condos are mostly full and the restaurants and shops are bristling with customers. One snowbird season has been enough to prove that quiet takes a holiday, that boisterous grandkids will rattle the rails and bingo will reign. And yet Thursday morning found me uncaring of that minor deprecation, happy on my patio with breakfast and the familiar sight of pelicans skimming across the heave of ocean that seems bluer than anywhere else.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Full Court Press

Like many other youngsters, a part of my youth was spent on either a football field, baseball diamond or basketball court, and even now when they are very probably long deceased, I am able to recall the names of coaches in both junior and senior high school, am able to remember the excitement and purity of our team play in those years when the euphoria of winning and tears of defeat were so finely balanced, when either one seemed to be the most important thing in our still green lives. There is something so genuine and throat-catching about the play of young athletes, and too often that passion dissipates when it builds to professional sports where everything is “Show me the money!”

Rare to open a collection of poems by a single author and find that as you read from front to back, each successive poem is one that grips from first line to last. Of course, there are many books of poetry that include an impressive number of memorable poems, but for this reader at least, those that hit a homerun, throw a perfect game—those collections are the unexpected find. The winning collection before me now is one called Losing Season by Jack Ridl.

Jack Ridl is the author of eight poetry collections and for thirty-six years taught poetry and literature before his retirement from Hope College in Holland, Michigan. His work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, The Denver Quarterly, Chelsea, Free Lunch, The Journal, Passages North, and Poetry East. Ridl lives with his wife along a creek that winds into Lake Michigan.

The American experience of high school sports is the focus of Losing Season, Jack Ridl’s latest collection of poems chronicling a year of hope and defeat on and off the basketball court in a small town. Like a basketball game, the book is divided into four quarters, the poems tracing the season in a cycle that follows the hope, the enthusiasm and disappointment of the team players. At its center is the coach, now in middle age and struggling with the tension between his job, his marriage and the widening gulf between himself and his daughter. The youthful exuberance of daily practices with his high school players serves to remind the fifty-year-old of his own aging.


Coach hurls the ball against the garage door,

grabs it on the rebound. He’s missed ten

in a row. He steps to the line, bounces

the ball twice, hard, and the fans from

thirty years ago send their hopes across

their weary lungs. He listens to the hush

of the home crowd while the taunts

of those from out of town float through

the rafters down across the backboard,

spinning around and around the rim.

He slams the ball one more time, feels

the leather, eyes the hoop, shoots.

The ball caroms off the back of the rim, rolls

across the driveway into the herb garden

his wife planted the year they found this house.

Once he could drop nine out of ten

from the line, hit half his jumps shots

from twenty feet. Coach sits down at

the top of the key, stares, sees himself

bringing it up against the press, faking,

shaking his shoulders, stutter stepping, shifting

the ball left hand to right , then back, then up,

his legs exploding, his wrist firing, the ball

looping up, down, through the hoop, making

the net shimmer, the crowd roar. He gets up,

goes over to the garden, reaches for the ball,

stops and pulls some weeds growing through

the oregano, basil, sage, and thyme.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cause for a Fertile Pen

Reading in a new book a chapter on prominent writers of the 1950s, there was unsurprisingly a long section on playwright Tennessee Williams, and mention of a particular novella he wrote. The name was vaguely familiar and in trying to run it down I flipped through Tennessee Williams Notebooks finding a couple of mentions, and from there went to an anthology of collected stories by Williams. Among the stories in those pages was the object of my search.

In addition to twenty-nine major plays, two novels and ten screenplays, Tennessee Williams published fifty short stories in his lifetime. His first story, “The Vengeance of Nitocris” was published in 1928 when Williams was seventeen. His last, The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen” in 1978 when the author was sixty-seven. All fifty of his stories have been published in the 1985 book Tennessee Williams: Collected Stories.

Gore Vidal once said about Tennessee Williams, “…He is not a great story writer like Chekhov but he has something rather more rare than mere genius. He has a narrative tone of voice that is totally compelling.” Almost feverish in his dedication to writing, Williams worked every morning on whatever was at hand. If there was no play to be finished or new dialogue to be sent round to the theater, he would open a drawer and take out the draft of a story already written (sometimes already published) and begin to rewrite it. A compulsive writer from early age, his need to write was much like the smoker’s need to smoke or the alcoholic’s need to drink. His friend, the writer Donald Windham once said, “He put writing before knowing where he was going to sleep or where his next meal was coming from.” Tennessee Williams enjoyed the marvelous talent of being able to write about what he felt rather than what he knew or understood. In an uncommonly sensitive artist that surely was cause for a fertile pen.

“The Knightly Quest” is a long story begun in 1949, written mainly in 1965 and published the following year in the collection The Knightly Quest, which included four stories along with the novella. It was published again in 1968 in a volume that included twelve stories. The story is partial basis for Williams’ unpublished play The Red Devil Battery Sign.

“The Knightly Quest” is a near-science fiction story about how fear and rage can be whipped up in the minds of people, and how the powers that be deliberately channel that fear in a way to distract them from real problems. Written mostly during the 1960s, the reader is led to recall such examples as the Vietnam War, Watergate and the doomsday prophecies of political candidates. Some have read the novella as an antiwar satire dealing with cold war issues, others as a Kafka-like parable set in a secret weapons factory. However it may be described, it is also a scathing indictment of small town morality. The hero of Williams’ novella is an outsider, an outcast in struggle against a society intolerant of those who are different. He is named Gewinner, German for ‘winner’ and he is named after the town of his birth, a place the protagonist recalls from childhood as “a romantic ballet setting.” The name is ironic in the sense that ultimately material prosperity swallows up the town’s original spirit. Not a name Williams devised, Gewinner was the name of a real friend, Holt Gewinner.

The following is an excerpt from the novella…

‘One of these new businesses, between big and little, was the Laughing Boy Drive-in, situated on a corner diagonally across from the Pearce family mansion, and this drive-in provoked Gewinner Pearce’s sense of personal outrage more strongly than any other vulgarity which had appeared in his home town during his absence. The drive-in was built on property that belong to the Pearces. Gewinner’s younger brother, Braden, had leased it for ninety-nine years to a boyhood chum whose portrait in golden neon smiled and laughed out loud with a big haw-haw, at ten-second intervals, from early dusk to midnight. And this, mind you, was on the finest residential boulevard in the city and the haw-hawing neon portrait of its owner was almost directly facing the Pearce mansion. Gewinner, of course, had no misapprehensions about the elegance and dignity of the Pearce place, but the fact remained that Gewinner was a Pearce, and the Laughing Boy in neon seemed a personal affront. It laughed so loudly that it punctuated all but the loudest passages of the symphonic music he played on his hi-fi at night to calm his nerves, and in addition to the haw-haw at the drive-in there was the honking of cars from morn to midnight, appealing for immediate servings of such items as King-burgers, barbecued ribs, malts, cokes, coffee and so forth. The carhops were girls and sometimes they’d lose control of their nerves under the constant pressure of their jobs and would have screaming fits; then, more than likely, there’d be the siren wail of an ambulance or a squad car or both. When the hysterical carhop had been rushed off to the Sunshine Center, the Laughing Boy would seem to be splitting his sides over the whole bit, and though Gewinner could understand how it all might seem ludicrous, in a ghastly way, the mechanical hew-haw somehow would kill the joke, at least for the prince of the Pearces.’

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The First Junk Food

Wandering through the supermarket on Monday I came upon a snack display of what may be the original junk food, a name swimming up out of childhood. Snacks aren’t always a regular item in my shopping basket and apart from Chex Mix and potato chips, what’s available in that line is pretty much a mystery these days. What a surprise to come upon a tall rack of the old Cracker Jack snack with Sailor Jack and Bingo still smiling out from the package. Couldn’t stop myself and a bag of this ‘blast from the past’ ended up in my basket.

A German immigrant named Frederick Rueckheim arrived in Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 to work on the massive clean up of the city. When not busy with the clean up he and his brother Louis sold popcorn from a cart. They came up with an idea of combining candy, popcorn and peanuts and the first Cracker Jack snack was born. The Rueckheim’s original mixture was made up of popcorn, peanuts and molasses, and rather blandly called “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.” It was a small street cart business for a number of years, their product not made in very large quantities.

The Rueckheim brothers first mass-produced and sold their product at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and it was a big success, with the exception of one problem: the popcorn stuck together in chunks because of the molasses. It took three years but Frederick finally came up with a solution by adding a small amount of oil to each batch as it was mixed in a large drum. Around the same time a customer unwittingly came up with the name Cracker Jack, when he exclaimed after a mouthful, “That’s crackerjack!” using an idiom of the time meaning ‘of excellent quality.’

In 1899, businessman Henry Eckstein developed a wrapping he called the ‘wax sealed package’ or the ‘Eckstein triple proof package’— a revolutionary new paper package that kept dust, germs, and moisture out. A few years following this the company was reorganized as Rueckheim Bros & Eckstein. The snack became a favorite at baseball games and in 1908 Cracker Jack achieved immortality via the popular song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Jack Norworth wrote the lyrics to the song and first came up with the line, “Buy me some peanuts and a Tootsie Roll” but felt that just didn’t work. He came up with the alternative, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” The song is still sung during the seventh-inning stretch at most baseball games.

Prizes were first included in Cracker Jack boxes in 1912 and the mascots Sailor Jack and Bingo were introduced in 1918, becoming official a year later. Sailor Jack is based on Rueckheim’s eight year-old nephew who died of pneumonia shortly after his image appeared on boxes. Interestingly, the image of Sailor Jack & Bingo is carved on Frederick Rueckheim’s tombstone.

The company was sold to the Borden Food Corporation in 1964 and bought by Frito-Lay 1997.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tea Cup Kama Sutra

An amusing story from English writer Alan Bennett…

In 2010, Bennett described being mugged by two women who sneakily splashed him with ice cream in Marks & Spencer, Camden Town. As they made a show of wiping off the ice cream with tissues, the two stole from his coat pocket £1,500 cash he had withdrawn from the bank a short time earlier. Initially grateful the women had helped clean his coat Bennett said later that the experience made him less likely to believe in the kindness of strangers.

Though not working on anything in particular right now, Bennett continues to write everyday, always in longhand. He bought a computer not long ago but hasn’t yet taken it out of the box. “It sits in the corner of my study like an unexploded bomb,” he says. “I’m not looking forward to using the display though…when you’re typing and you see it going up on the screen, it’s finished, but I don’t regard it as finished at that stage.”

On my bedside table this past week was the latest book (2010) from Bennett, two longish short stories published together in a slim volume called Smut. Bennett says the title is meant to give his readers a little rattle, but really should be taken with an understanding that what’s inside will not be obscene, if a little racy. Actually, this book of two stories is a good healthy laugh from beginning to end and rather than smut, much more about people’s misconceptions about themselves and the masquerades they act out in covering up who they really are.

The main characters in each story are British matrons, Mrs. Donaldson and Mrs. Forbes. Bennett credits his ability to get into the mind of a middle-aged woman to his childhood years of listening to his aunts talk endlessly. And he replicates that quality with great panache in these two stories.

In “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson” a recently widowed mother finds that she has need for a little more money, as well as company. To this end she rents out a room in her house and takes a job at a hospital demonstrating medical conditions to students. Mrs Donaldson says of her new occupation, “It’s a way of not being yourself.” It isn’t long before Mrs Donaldson becomes a hospital Meryl Streep, acting out a sundry of gripes and afflictions. Her repertory includes the role of a depressed daughter of a demented mother, a stroke victim, and finally going as far as a male patient in drag with a bad knee. Her life at home takes a less dramatic but different form of role playing when her student lodgers propose an unusual form of rental payment—watching the two of them make love in Mrs Donaldson’s own bed. But she makes for an odd sort of voyeur, distracted by dust on the floor, comparing sexual positions to vases she’s seen at the British Museum and in one shaky moment, reaching out from her chintz-covered bedside stool to steady the headboard in an effort to prevent a lamp falling to the floor. Such farce might seem contrived or excessive, but Bennett is challenging the expectations of both his characters and his readers.

The second and shorter story is "The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes" in which Mrs Forbes’ son Graham is mostly gay and in the closet but marries Betty for her money, who in the mother’s eyes is an unsuitable bride. After his marriage Graham continues to carry on with Gary, who blackmails him. At the other end is the browbeaten father, Mr Forbes who takes a liking to his daughter-in-law Betty who reciprocates, leading to some clandestine business with them. Graham’s ‘friend’ Gary finally connects with Mrs Forbes and that relationship too leans toward the unusual. The whole is a witty comedy of repression, role-playing, transgressive sexuality and blackmail.

A close look at the photo of the Picador paperback above reveals a cleverly designed cover showing three rows of paired white teacups, each pair joined in a pose from the Kama Sutra.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Legacy of Charlotte

Not sure what it was exactly that made the word ‘Hokaron’ pop into my head. Maybe it was connected to Saturday morning’s local forecast for cold weather. It’s not very likely that the recollection would come at a time other than winter since Hokaron is a cold season product. The word refers to a brand of pocket warmer popular in Japan and there at least, about as common in February as caps and gloves. I wasn’t sure whether a similar product is available outside of Japan, but pocket warmers are a lot more prevalent worldwide than I first thought.

Chemical pocket warmers are popular with many living in cold climates, but especially so for those who ski, snowboard, or work outdoors for long periods. These lightweight easy-to-use warmers are a great way to keep hands and feet warm. They are sold in a variety of shapes and sizes and all work pretty much the same way. Just tear open the cellophane bag exposing the warmer to air and presto—instant warmth that lasts for hours. Put one in each pocket to keep fingers from getting numb, or choose the kind that fit in the soles of your boots. I have even known older people in Japan to use them for relief of arthritic pain.

Hokaron pocket warmers work through a chemical reaction similar to rusting that occurs when they are exposed to air. For that reason, keeping them unopened until needed is vital. The warmer is composed of a mixture of iron, water, cellulose, vermiculite, activated carbon and salt inside a cloth-like bag. When the iron is exposed to oxygen in the air, it oxidizes. In the process heat is created. The salt acts as a catalyst and the carbon helps disperse the heat through the warmer. The vermiculite works as an insulator, keeping the heat from dissipating too rapidly. This chemical reaction occurs slowly enough to allow the heat to last for hours, but gradually the iron converts to iron oxide and the warming process is exhausted. On a cold day, this simple chemical reaction can do wonders for cutting the edge off winter’s cold.

Very popular among the Japanese, the idea of a modern pocket warmer grew from the early practice in Japan of heating rocks and placing them in a pocket. As the years passed new methods were invented which eventually led to a chemical pocket warmer developed in 1978 by Lotte Health Products Co. In 1989 they came out with a type that sticks to the body. Today the Lotte Hokaron series of warmers is one of the most well-known in Japan. The average warmer measures about five inches by four, maintains a temperature of between 154° and 129° F with some types lasting as long as twenty hours. The makers will tell you that, but I can’t say that in my experience one Hokuron pocket warmer has ever lasted as long as that.

A closing note about Lotte, the company that manufacturers Hokaron—It was founded in Tokyo in 1948 by Korean businessman Shin Kyuk-Ho, also known by the Japanese name Shigemitsu Takeo. And the interesting part—the source of the company’s name is neither Japanese nor Korean, but German. The founder was so impressed by Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, he named his newly-founded company Lotte after the character of Charlotte.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lady Sings the Blues

JC Penny has a commercial running on television now that has caught the attention of millions, and generated over 40,000 hits on YouTube. For many of the younger viewers seeing the commercial for the first time, the reaction is, “Wow! Who’s that singing?” For the older folks watching, the answer is easy: It’s the legendary Billie Holiday who died in 1959, but not before creating a sound that had profound influence on singers and musicians too many to count. The song is an Irving Berlin tune titled, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Should be no surprise if this new JC Penny commercial results in the rise of Billie Holiday album sales and iTunes downloads. Twenty-five years after the death of English musician Nick Drake, a Volkswagen commercial featuring one of his songs catapulted sales of his three albums. Holiday recorded something like forty-three albums and almost as many singles.

Billie Holiday grew up in Baltimore in the 1920s, where as a young teenager, she sang along with records by Bessie Smith in after-hours jazz clubs. She followed her mother to New York and there made her debut in small Harlem nightclubs. Holiday never had any musical training and never even learned to read music, but easily fit into what was surely the most happening jazz scene in the country moving from one club to another, working for tips. She sometimes sang with the accompaniment of a house piano player while other times working with several performers. Spotted by record producer John Hammond, Holiday cut her first record at the age of 18 as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman, at the time just on the verge of fame.

Holiday began working with Lester Young in 1936, who tagged her with the nickname “Lady Day.” Joining Count Basie in 1937 and then Artie Shaw in 1938, she became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra—an impressive accomplishment for that time. She recorded about 100 new recordings on the Verve label from 1952 to 1959. During this period, she also toured Europe, and made her final studio recordings for the MGM label in March of 1959.

Despite the lack of technical training, Holiday’s unique diction, distinctive phrasing and dramatic intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day. White gardenias, worn in her hair, became her trademark. She wrote in her autobiography, “Singing songs like the “The Man I Love” or “Porgy” is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck. I’ve lived songs like that.”

Billie Holiday died at the age of 44 from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. A year before her death Frank Sinatra was quoted in Ebony magazine as saying: “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by Billie Holiday’s genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”

Unfortunately, commercial minutes being so costly the JC Penny commercial only affords us the first five lines of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” The song was originally written by Irving Berlin in 1937 for the movie On the Avenue and performed by Dick Powell and Alice Fay. Here are the lyrics…

The snow is snowing, the wind is blowing

But I can weather the storm

What do I care how much it may storm?

I've got my love to keep me warm

I can't remember a worse December

Just watch those icicles form

What do I care if icicles form?

I've got my love to keep me warm

Off with my overcoat

Off with my glove

I need no overcoat

I'm burning with love

My heart's on fire, the flame grows higher

So I will weather the storm

What do I care how much it may storm?

I've got my love to keep me warm

YouTube is full of other Billie Holiday clips of this song, but for a good comparison listen to an Alice fay version of the song.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Driftwood & Dogs

Mother Nature has conspired of late to turn the ongoing sunny warmth here at the beach into something more like winter. Beginning early Thursday a colder, grayer outlook pushed aside the T-shirt days, reminding all that Florida is not always postcard pretty. Half-dressed breakfasts on the patio sheltering behind sunglasses and baseball cap hit a stop sign and yesterday I had to bear up under a somber sky and chilly wind with jeans and a sweater out of storage. At least I was able to walk on the beach, though strong winds handicapped half the distance, making two miles seem like four.

First discovery was of a large tree trunk washed up onto the beach by recent high tides and strong surf. Approached from a distance it had the appearance of an ordinary driftwood log, but closer inspection revealed an entire colony of attached shells, a living population of a type hard to identify. It was at once both beautiful and sad, a fascinating arrangement of clustered shells filled with creatures drying out and on the verge of death. It lasted only a few hours before being cut up and hauled away by the Beach Patrol. The sharpness of the shells and the possibility of the log being once more submerged by a rising tide made it a hazard on a beach still used by fishermen, swimmers and surfers. Who knows where the tree trunk entered the water and when that might have been?

A mile down the beach was a new sign placed just below the dunes warning animal (dog) owners of the ordinance against dogs on the beach. In my time here it was the first occasion of seeing a notice for something residents at least have long known about. The number of times I have seen people with a dog or dogs on the beach is too many to count, but in most cases those people are visitors unaware of the ordinance. Why such a law? This particular stretch of beach is federally funded and protected because it is historically a nesting site for sea turtles. Understanding the rigidity of local biologists tasked with nurturing, protecting and keeping tabs on sea turtles along Florida’s east coast is hard without an eye to eye meeting and a good measure of patience. By and large, the majority of those biologists would be happiest seeing the entire coastline returned to the pristine conditions of the nineteenth century—Don’t turn on patio lights! You’ll frighten the turtles. Don’t get too close to the nests; don’t use flashlights on the beach. You'll disorient the turtles. Dogs will dig up the nests!

Yeah, well I too want to protect the turtles and their hatchlings, but still prefer something along the lines of a compromise. Admittedly, on rare occasions a dog off-leash might want to dig a hole on the beach, and might use the opportunity to take a whiz, or… But otherwise, what’s the great harm? One of the reasons I don’t have a dog is because of the ordinance saying a dog is unwelcome on the beach. Still, I do accept that there is another side to the question.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America