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December 2014

Comment is Free

I rarely have comments here anymore, and I suppose that's all right; I think they're down at most personal blogs except rather widely read ones. And sometimes I have responses to these posts when I share them at Google Plus. But here's a reminder that you do not need to log in here to leave one. The comment field gives you 800 ways to do so, if you like, but it is not required. I'm not part of the password culture except by force. Of course spam is annoying, but it is also easily removed. The one thing I couldn't prevent is that you do have to put in a name and email address, but that address is not viewable. Look below for my comment to see how it is. CameraZOOM-20140918181324449

 


Explaining Me

I woke up with “Elmer’s Tune” in my head on this terrifically bright day. Not Kansas City winter bright, but certainly Cincinnati winter bright. My bedroom and “atelier” windows face east, so it’s warm and cheery in here for now. The light warm blue walls are so much more comfortable than the umber color I put up with for three years.

DSC_0672the young one agrees


So, time to get out my picnic blanket quilt project I started last winter. I’d cut muslin and many fabric triangles, and sewed 1/4 of the triangles before gardening beckoned. But today, the summery blues and reds seemed dissatisfying. I have another piece of muslin that is 36x54, and wondered what I might do with it. But I couldn’t do nothing with the other project; that felt too fickle. I laid out the triangles and began pinning them to the muslin with tiny pieces of fusible web. You iron this between fabrics and they stick together. DSC_0678(1)
While placing and ironing, I thought about a book I might listen to. Or maybe an old movie or TV show in the background. I continued on in silence, though. I thought maybe I’m in a “homefront” mood, or maybe up for Wodehouse. Suddenly I had a vision in my head of being near the escalator of Montgomery Ward at the Blue Ridge Mall in Kansas City. This happens as you start advancing in years. I cannot remember the last time I was there, probably 1987 or so, but I saw it perfectly.

I seem to know all the words to “Elmer’s Tune,” and I enjoy it rolling through my head, but I haven’t turned it on because I’m having some sort of ear/sinus trouble, the tinnitus is worse than usual, and nothing sounds right. “What makes a lady of eighty go out on the loose, what makes a gander meander in search of a goose, what puts the kick in a chicken, the magic in June, it’s just Elmer’s tune.”

Nobody writes like that anymore. They haven’t since before I was born. The words were just part of the music, of course, not intended to mean anything that mattered.

Back in the 70s, Mom sewed calico chickens, in various sizes. She’d found a pattern in a magazine and went bonkers for it, making them from tiny to quite large, and giving them away. It wasn’t much longer until we saw them for sale, not as attractive as hers, for quite a bit of money. Mom’s life went that way, and mine tends to, as well. I had this great idea about a decade ago after we first got Netflix, for all kinds of monthly subscriptions people could sign up for, that would be mailed to them, like little craft kits or gift baskets, toiletry samples, that kind of thing. I couldn’t get anyone else interested in the idea. They sure are now, though.

I’m doing most of my sewing by hand, because I like the slow quiet nature of it. I’ve spent too much of my life in a hurry, and even though I might have to again soon, I just don’t want to anymore. When you’re in a hurry, things don’t taste or smell or feel as good. Our huge array of conveniences have begun to bore me. I quite like contemporary plumbing, paying bills online, and having books I want to read appear on my Kindle Fire. I love having the Met Opera streamed to my movie theater. There’s just too much of everything else, though, and it all comes too easily. I am continually seeking balance between ease and effort.

I remembered that of course I can work on an old and new project at once, and I gave myself permission to do so. I used to worry about being the sort of person who would start things and not finish them. Well, that was about deadlines, which are not good friends of mine. I don't have any deadlines for these things; I do them wholly for myself. It's exciting to start something new. It feels rewarding to finish. And the middle, while sometimes monotonous, is more often a kind of reward of its own; meditative and rhythmic. It's fun, therefore, to start and finish small projects while working through the middle of a larger one. That's the best way for me.

PS: I was looking for pictures of Wards and it got kind of depressing kind of quickly. And then seeing a photo of The Landing, and a King Louie Bowl ad, I grew too nostalgic to carry on. But here are a couple little things.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 1.24.38 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 1.26.06 PM

Post PS: Here's the song.
 

My Opera Era

This is mainly just for me to have a good set of lists. But you can have a look. I dabbled in opera interest for many years, but mostly just listening, occasionally looking in on a TV broadcast. Then I moved to Cincinnati in 2011, and by the next year, realized I could now afford to see the Met Live in HD transmissions. Weird to have lived so close for 11 years without being able to go. But such is often the way of things on the east coast. Then at the end of 2012 right after my first one, Otello, I saw two movies that drove me to take it all more seriously: Quartet, and Amour (better if you, like me, know little about it going in.) Only I don’t go all in swiftly on much these days; I have to work up to it.

So anyway, now that’s the plan for 2015; heavier opera immersion. And here are some lists. There’s overlap, but I didn’t repeat them. I mean, I’ve seen a few of them more than once from different sources, and I’ve listened to some without seeing them, others I’ve both listened to and seen. I just added where I’ve seen some since 2012, and also didn’t add who the principals were, because that’s better as a whole separate list. I am learning about the styles I like and who sings in them.

By the way. I love the Met Live in HD transmissions for several reasons. First, there are multiple cameras, so we get to see several points of view, inside the orchestra pit, and lots of close-ups. Between acts there are interviews with performers and production people, and a look at the stage being set for each scene. And it’s in a movie theater with 10-20 other people who are delighted to be there. At least where I live; there might be more in other places!

Operas I have watched:

1786 Le nozze di Figaro Mozart (Met Live in HD 2014)
1790 Cosi fan tutte Mozart (Met Live in HD 2014)
1816 Il barbiere di Siviglia Rossini (Met Live in HD 2014)
1817 La Cenerentola Rossini (Met Live in HD 2014)
1847 Macbeth Verdi (Met Live in HD 2014)
1851 Rigoletto Verdi (Met Live in HD 2013)
1887 Otello Verdi (Met Live in HD 2012)
1893 Falstaff Verdi (Met Live in HD 2013)
1859 Faust Gounod
1868 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg Wagner (Met Live in HD 2014)
1870 Die Walküre Wagner
1876 Siegfrid Wagner
1876 Götterdämmerung Wagner
1882 Parsifal Wagner (Met Live in HD 2013)
1875 Carmen Bizet (Cincinnati Opera live 2014)
1879 Eugene Onegin Tchaikovsky (Met Live in HD 2013)
1892 Pagliacci Leoncavallo
1892 Werther Massenet (Met Live in HD 2014)
1896 La bohème Puccini (Met Live in HD 2014)
1900 Tosca Puccini (Met Live in HD 2013)
1904 Madama Butterfly Puccini (Cincinnati Opera live 2014)
1901 Rusalka Dvořák (Met Live in HD 2014)
1929 The Nose Shostakovich (Met Live in HD 2013)

Other operas I have listened to in full:

1791 Die Zauberflöte Mozart
1805 Fidelio Beethoven
1853 La traviata Verdi
1865 Tristan und Isolde Wagner
1869 Das Rheingold Wagner
1893 Manon Lescaut Puccini

Operas I plan to watch in 2015:
 
(Met Live in HD; will be added to when the new season is announced)
The Merry Widow Lehàr 1905 (Planning a separate post soon for this because you should go, too.)
Les Contes d’Hoffman Offenbach 1881
Iolanta Tchaikovsky 1892
Bluebeard’s Castle Bartok 1918
La Donna del Lago Rossini 1819
Cavalleria Rusticana Mascagni 1890
Pagliacci Leoncavallo 1892

(Cincinnati Opera if I save well for it, otherwise I’ll find another way to hear or see them)
Il Trovatore Verdi 1853
Don Pasquale Donizetti 1843

(Other sources via recommendations; this is a repeat of the “have listened to” list, for now.)
1791 Die Zauberflöte Mozart
1805 Fidelio Beethoven
1853 La traviata Verdi
1865 Tristan und Isolde Wagner
1869 Das Rheingold Wagner
1893 Manon Lescaut Puccini

I want to start with those, because I am familiar with the music. After that, I will move on to find recommended singers and performances.


Pause button inspiration

I study him as a discipline, an endless fascination. Maybe I think if I can figure out Frank Sinatra, I can figure out men. Maybe I just wonder what's really going on behind those deep blue eyes, both wide open and hidden at the same time, like a theater with double front curtains.

I never try to figure out Bill Holden. He wasn’t complicated, anyway. His intellect took direct paths, for better and for worse. And for me, he was just attractive, until he wasn’t, but because I love the younger man, I love the older one, too. That’s how I love. Bill is like one of my first boyfriends I broke up with badly, only he’s older than me and gets there first, because I can’t imagine it any other way. We don’t get a happy ending, though there is a sweet, sad parting in my mind, a lingering fond farewell, and I learn to smile when we run into each other now and then, even when he calls me “kid.” I keep loving him even when I don’t need to anymore.

I don’t love Frank Sinatra. At least, not like that. I find him mesmerizing, but I don’t want him in bed or at breakfast. I want him next to me on the bench in front of Abraham Lincoln, on the subway heading all the way downtown from the 80s, or across the dinner table with plenty of other people around. In those places he’s a man I’ve seen everywhere, almost unnoticeable until he speaks, and then everybody listens. He commands the room and you can’t look away.

But when you start imagining someone that way, you make him bigger than life, bigger than other people, which is a dangerous thing to do. He must have known that about himself sometimes, maybe pretty often. We take ourselves seriously in a certain particular way that nobody else can. There’s still a struggle that other people don’t see anymore.

CameraZOOM-20141219213844729


Deconstructing Baby It's Cold Outside, correctly

(edited to reflect an updated lyric.) Could you write this song now instead of the 40s (50s, 60s, 70s?) No, not with the same cheeky sense of fun. (Which is why, I suppose, people like me cling so fervently to the nice parts of the past.) And of course that might not be a bad thing in our world in which people must be suspicious of each other at all times, but it doesn’t make the meaning of it as it was created in the past no good now. Judging the hundreds of people who've recorded this song as if they've got no sense until you come along and straighten them out is just foolish.

 

This has upset me so much because it means much more than just getting it technically wrong. It means all of our recent past is subject to revision, to the point where everything I knew growing up is now “for all intensive purposes” to someone who doesn't see it in perspective.

We are better at a lot of stuff than they were 80 years ago when this song was written, yet that doesn’t mean they didn’t know how life worked. We can do Earth and universal goodwill and women getting great jobs in a way they didn’t do just then. But to take what they made and enjoyed and interpret it as something different now is doing them a disservice. You can never understand any history if you look at it only through your own current view. History revisionists are all on the wrong sides of things; don’t be one of them.

 

People who have no solid view of history, perspective, context, or songwriting style are interpreting this song as he says/she says, and also don’t even know how people used to talk before the 90s. But it isn’t like that. Each pair of lines works together.

(I really can't stay) But, baby, it's cold outside
(I've got to go away) But, baby, it's cold outside
(This evening has been) Been hoping that you'd drop in
(So very nice) I'll hold your hands they're just like ice

This verse means she went to the man’s apartment and has been having a good time. Now it’s both a little late and getting on toward clutch time. You probably don’t remember life before Britney and Justin were briefly a couple, but back when our parents (your grandparents) were young, and he’d just gotten back from his tour in Germany or Korea, they were celebrating the free world like you didn’t know they knew how.

(My mother will start to worry) Beautiful, what's your hurry
(My father will be pacing the floor) Listen to the fireplace roar
(So really I'd better scurry) Beautiful, please don't hurry
(Well, maybe just half a drink more) Put some records on while I pour

 

Look at what’s been going on. They’ve been sitting here talking in front of the fireplace. You might not remember that, either, unless you live in a cool old building, but apartments had fireplaces if they were big enough and in the north. She sat and watched while he made one, or maybe she made the first round of drinks, only her round was a little weak, because it’s maybe 1949, and she’s a girl like that. Why would she sit and watch him build a fire? Is she stupid and doesn’t know he’s setting a comfortable scene? No, people born before you knew the score. They just liked to pretend they didn’t. So now he’s freshened her drink, and she has put on a record. It was probably a ten inch long-playing record; twelve-inchers ended up taking over, but not just yet. Know how I can say that? Because I know stuff about before now that I didn’t get from a CBS crime procedural marathon or a Tumblr page. All these details add up to a more complete picture than the one you've got in your head.

(The neighbors might think) Baby, it's bad out there
(Say what's in this drink) No cabs to be had out there
(I wish I knew how) Your eyes are like starlight now
(To break this spell) I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell

Are you thinking she’s been sitting there in front of the fire with her second drink but has a woolen toque on her head like she’s about to fight with the storm? No. It’s a cute hat perched on her head to match her outfit. Her coat might have had a big hood that fit over it, or it might have been super impractical in order to look nice. (You might have wondered why hoods on women’s coats were and sometimes are still gigantic. It was to accommodate hairstyles and hats.) And all she notices about the drink is that the bourbon to soda ratio is narrower than hers was. It was a running joke before it got ruined by a few creepers. Not just women to men, but any old body takes a drink and says, “Wow, what’d you put in here? Everything?” That kind of thing. Maybe she set it down, maybe she kept sipping. We don’t know, but we also know the next line wasn’t “Shh, I demand you toss it back.” But did you think she never had a drink before? That’s no good, either. This isn’t the watered-wine and rataffia era, after all.

 

(I ought to say no, no, no, sir) Mind if I move in closer
(At least I'm gonna say that I tried) What's the sense of hurting my pride
(I really can't stay) Baby, don't hold out
[Both] Baby, it's cold outside

Her hat is now off. Know how I know? Because she isn’t saying no. She’s saying “she ought to.” People say ought to about things they really don’t want to do. “I really ought to get on that, clean that up, make that call, get to bed.” They’re trying to talk themselves into doing something when they would rather not just now, thanks. It’s a way of appearing diligent without having to be so, like if you see your neighbor is coming over and you haven’t cleaned yet, so you set the vacuum cleaner in the hallway. At the same time, she’s feeling him out. Will he give her a good reason to not have to say no?

Know how I know that? Because it’s basic human nature, and I’ve lived long enough and seen enough to know that. She’s going to say she tried? Not really, but if she did, nobody would be screaming at her that he took advantage of her. They’re gonna shake their heads a little, grinning, and saying things like, “Sister, what are you up to?”

And then both of them sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” together, because they are in this together. She doesn’t want to go out there yet, but is keeping up a pretense because she’s supposed to, and so he’ll know they can carry on, but maybe not all the way. It’s code, which people have always used, only it’s a little different in each era.

 

(I simply must go) Baby, it's cold outside
(The answer is no) Baby, it's cold outside
(The welcome has been) How lucky that you dropped in
(So nice and warm) Look out the window at the storm

Now here she says no, but it’s the kind of no he understands, not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s set a boundary. He was going too fast. But does she get up? No. She’s pressed up against him, that’s why, still performing her ought tos. She doesn’t stand up so he’ll stop kissing her, and he hasn’t pinned her down so she can’t move, because they are singing this thing together. Remember, this was written by a married couple, who performed it at a party for their friends. Their friends laughed because they understood it like you don’t. They knew the score.

(My sister will be suspicious) Gosh your lips look delicious
(My brother will be there at the door) Waves upon a tropical shore
(My maiden aunt's mind is vicious) Gosh your lips are delicious
(But maybe just a cigarette more) Never such a blizzard before

This is the verse that tells you the truth you don’t wish to know. He moves in for a kiss. She’s murmuring at this point, as their faces meet, and then when they do kiss, she decides maybe she can hang around a little longer, timing it with however long it takes to smoke an unfiltered cigarette. The cigarette was important, even though it seems really grosstastic now. She can sit up and he’ll light one, but at the same time, she can let him know that kiss was so good, she’ll be around for a few more. It’s another piece of cultural code. And the sister, the brother, the aunt? Now she’s just making up stuff. It isn’t a firmer defense, it’s a weaker one, but she is required to make it in this game.

(I got to get home) But, baby, you'd freeze out there
(Say lend me a comb) It's up to your knees out there
(You've really been grand) I thrill when you touch my hand
(But don't you see) How can you do this thing to me

Do you borrow a comb from a man who creeps you out? And she put her hand on his when she asked. Why is she touching him and asking to put something in her hair that he has had in his hair? Because she likes him, that’s why, not because rohypnol is taking over .

She knows he knows she’s into him, and he also knows she’s not taking him too seriously, and so he’ll ask again, because she’s not offended, she’s just going by the rules she’s set for herself, which are more about pacing than anything else. She’s indicating to him that she’s got people looking out for her, but at the same time, is making her own choice about what position she is taking with him on the couch.

 

(There's bound to be talk tomorrow) Think of my life long sorrow
(At least there will be plenty implied) If you caught pneumonia and died
(I really can't stay) Get over that old doubt
[Both] Baby, it's cold
[Both] Baby, it's cold outside (Sung together again)

That was the truth about 1949 or so, and is sometimes still the truth now. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You draw your own line, but everyone else reads it according to their own, though sometimes they’re hypocrites about it, making their own decisions while judging others for making the same one.

You know how “they” say everyone thinks they’re an above-average driver? It is a truth not universally acknowledged that people think everyone else but them is dumber and needs life explained to them. The internet has made this worse. You Google a thing and learn a few talking points, and it never crosses your mind that the person you’re explaining it all to has maybe actually read whole books on the subject or has first-hand experience at it. Your insular confirmation bias bubble leads you to believe you’re the one who uncovered the truth, only actually, not only has it been there a lot longer than you knew, you have only a few pieces of the picture in the frame, and not the whole thing. Sometimes you don't even understand the frame, like when I first saw Impressionist paintings in a museum, and wondered why they were in big ornate gilded things, until someone explained to me that those frames were correct for the period, even though they didn't match the new painting style. That taught me something.

 

People take old texts like the Bible, and they translate them into modern languages. But they can’t make direct one-to-one translations without knowing what the writers meant by certain words (and phrases, since a word could mean something different when used with another,) because they aren’t what they mean now. Shakespeare is the same way. People who study the language of Shakespeare must decode it according to how he used words and how they’d be taken then, not how they wish for them to be taken now. We put on a play with Shakespeare’s intent, by understanding the context in which he wrote. We don't say, "Sorry, Hamlet doesn't get to mean that anymore; we changed what his words meant."

We can play with it a little, though, without ruining it.

 


Happy Holidays to you

This is from a Google Plus post, December 24, 2013.

Troll some ancient yuletide carols, rest you merry if you can, and embrace history, which has the wonderful word "story" in it. Life, the universe and every little thing is a story. In the northern hemisphere, especially in the areas where it is cold at this time of year, the season of holidays is a season of lighting lights and creating warmth, shutting out the long dark cold nights. In the U.S., the holiday season lasts about six weeks, and is a combination of many stories and traditions passed along over the centuries. It's a weird and wonderful thing.

Six weeks later, we reach the mid-point of winter, and six weeks after that, our axial tilt starts pulling its downward shift as the sun rises higher in the sky overhead.

These are the things to embrace, even in our artificial environments. These are things still worth noting and celebrating. No matter whatever else changes, the seasons are bound by our position in the sky, and they were so before we populated the land; thus, the very idea that they are subject to this or that narrow band of thinking is absurd! It is just as personally meaningful or meaningless as we each choose, but it remains what it is regardless of that. It's the star stuff of which we are all composed.

Life is mystery, magic, physics, and wonders still to behold: a rich tapestry of history to which we are always adding. The dictionary of the universe, and of God as you like, is so much bigger and broader than the one in all our heads. It's limitless, unbound by any one person's or single group's petty definition or understanding of How Things Are. No matter how much we seek to understand it, and how much we learn, it's still more than we can ever grasp. So let's have some fun while we're at it.

 


Personal Favorite Classic Holiday Films

This is partly a "best" list, but I can concede there are some good ones I left out, because they aren't personal favorites. If I were to make a real "best" list, I'd make it longer, to include a few more you might expect. Hover over the links to see which are video and which are text. Also, at least half of these are available complete on YouTube.

Perennial favorites I never miss:

It’s a Wonderful Life 1946: I've never not loved this movie, and I could watch it several times a year. I have it on DVD now, because I wanted to always see it without commercial breaks. We watch it every year on Christmas Eve while drinking eggnog and eating cookies.  I think it's kind of a perfect movie.

Holiday 1938: I first saw this as a teenager as part of a double feature with Bringing Up Baby, but to me, it pairs better with The Awful Truth, one of the funniest movies ever made. Holiday has more pathos and tension, and is not a perfect movie, but it is still very funny, and one to hug and adore. TCM is showing it three times in the next three months; watch or record it when you can.

The Man Who Came to Dinner 1942: has a wonderful cast and lots of funny moments. It's staged very much like a play, which is enjoyable. And it has a lot of in-jokes that are extra funny if you know the references, but are still funny if you don't. It was written by Kaufman and Hart, who also wrote the hilarious You Can't Take It With You, which was adapted for the screen in 1938.

Desk Set 1957: This movie is gorgeous. It teams Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, a pairing I'm not overly fond of, but I like the offbeat nature of it, and all the supporting cast. As not a Tracy fan, this is my favorite role of his. It looks like one kind of movie, but behaves like another. I have this one on DVD as well, and watch it a couple times a year.

The Bishop’s Wife 1947: This is more of a true Christmas film than the previous entries, and I think it's one of the best, because of the cast and the nearly gross sentimentality. It's tender and meaningful, but also humorous. Monty Wooley has a sweet role, completely opposite his role in The Man Who Came to Dinner.

The Shop Around the Corner 1940: I love the setting of this film, and the real caring nature of it. It also feels like a play, and could have been too stagey if not done just right, which it was. When I was younger, I really disliked Margaret Sullavan's character, but I appreciate her more now. I always appreciate Jimmy Stewart. Deeply.
 
I like these next four, but need to be in the mood, because I'm terrible at watching certain kinds of tension. Honestly, though, it's mainly me. I've watched them all with other people who don't get the same sensation from them, and I do make sure to see them each year.

It Happened on 5th Avenue 1947: In this movie, people without homes for various reasons all end up in a mansion together for the winter. Don't look up too much about it; the story is really fun if you don't know how it will go. I always have this "fear of discovery," but of course, it's a comedy. You know it will eventually all come right for every one. It's got kind of a ham-handed message, but that's part of its charm.

Holiday Affair 1949: This is really good; I'm just never a fan of Robert Mitchum. It's a charming light romance in which a woman ends up choosing the man I would turn down, but that's how these things go, and everyone else is happy in the end. The mother and child scenes are really very good.

Bachelor Mother 1939: David Niven and Charles Coburn are in this film, and I love them both. Ginger Rogers plays the woman mistaken for a single mother, and finds herself going along with the narrative assigned her. I don't generally enjoy stories which go that way, but she's so good and they're so good, and if you've never seen it, you'll laugh.

Remember the Night 1940: This stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, who are devastating together in Double Indemnity, which was released a few years later. This one's mostly light-hearted, and they have real chemistry between them, which is why, I suppose, they did three more films together. But it's another thing wherein someone has to pretend to be someone they aren't, and a little of that goes a long way with me (which is why I hardly ever watch Christmas in Connecticut.) There's a fairly recent remake of this story, but I don't recall the name because I didn't like it.

And that reminds me to mention sometime this week I'm going to share a "contemporary" Christmas film list, but it will be all TV movies, because I enjoy those far more than the broad comedy ones that tend to appear on the big screen these days.


A story excerpt because we were just talking about this

Okay, two. I'm warming up to write some little vignettes and want to share two here up top for someone who asked. These are from several years ago, but I do a few each year. 6-7 minutes total average read.


Jack walked into the front of the store from his office, where he'd been busy all morning preparing end-of-month details for the accountant, and as he walked he whistled the tune to "Innamorata" by Dean Martin. "I'm at heaven's door, innamorata, want you more and more, innamorata."

"Sounds like someone had a good weekend, Vinny," Tommy chuckled.

Jack shot him a dangerous look, and Tommy grinned, but didn't say anything else.

Jack said, "Can't a guy enjoy a little good music in the morning?"

"Sure, sure," Vinny said. "But that song is from a Martin and Lewis movie. And that Jerry Lewis was a putz. To use one of his own terms. He wasn't cool, or funny. Right, Tommy?

"Yeah, I don't know. That was Artists and Models, right? That's not a bad movie, I think. Shirley Maclaine was in that one."

"Yeah, I know you love Shirley Maclaine, Tommy, but we're supposed to believe a girl like her, even all goofy like that, is all hot and bothered over Jerry Lewis? Never would happen." Vinny shook his head in disgust.

Jack said, "All I knew of Jerry Lewis for a long time was his appearance on the telethon. He was always sweating, and he took himself very seriously, and I couldn't believe it when my parents told me he was a real comedian. So when I finally saw him as one, he was doing some horrible Chinaman act or something, it was embarrassing, even for a kid. And then, you know, the French."

"You figure that's true, how they loved Jerry Lewis in France?" Vinny mused. "Cause I don't really get French movies, so much. And that might explain a few things..."

Tommy said, "I think you were encountering Jerry Lewis during his bitter period. Kind of like Sinatra, you know?"

"Yeah, when I was a kid, I didn't understand at all how anybody could like Frank Sinatra, that bitter old has-been. I think it's why I started to love Dean Martin. He was never not cool, until he got old and sad. But Frank, he spent a good fifteen years just resenting the fact that it was no longer his world with the rest of us just living in it. He probably resented Dean, too, for not even caring."

Tommy said, "I doubt if he resented him. But he might have been jealous, you know, that Dean could just take it easy and nobody made fun of him for it. You know, he never really was a has-been. He just sort of drifted away. But Frank, man, people loved ragging on him. Until New York, New York, then he was suddenly cool again."

"What about Jack Lemmon?" Vinny said suddenly. "Did that make sense, her going for a guy like him, twice in fact?"

"Jack Lemmon could always get the ladies, Vinny. There was Kim Novak, and that one Italian, you know, the bombshell, Virna something. I don't know. And Judy Holliday, too."

"I know this," Vinny said. "Jack Lemmon was much funnier than Jerry Lewis, any day of the week."

"Yeah, but Judy Holliday was better for William Holden. You know about him, Jack? He was good but he was a drunk."

Jack answered, "Yeah, he died when I was in high school. Mom was crushed. She made a videotape of Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and watched it over and over again, crying every time. Dad thought she was nuts."

 

This one is actually in a post here somewhere, but here's a slightly edited version:

Over at the card table, Tommy and Vinny were arguing again. Today it was about who put on a better show; Tom Jones or Engelbert Humperdinck.

“Did you know that Engelbert Humperdinck’s real name was Arnold? Who goes from Arnold to Engelbert? Somebody who takes himself way too seriously, that’s who!” Tommy shook his head mournfully. “Tom never did that. That’s why he still has a career.”

Vinny laughed, shuffling the cards slowly and deliberately, as he always did. He’s never in a hurry. “Some producer or agent named him that, that’s all. It’s what they did back in those days. Didn’t you ever think about what name you’d take to become a big star, Tommy?”

“And what’s wrong with my name, then, huh? You think there haven’t been plenty of famous people named Tommy before? Tommy Smothers, Tommy Dorsey, uh, Tommy, I don’t know, it was good enough for Tom Jones, wasn’t it?”

“That’s just my point. It’s a belly button name. Too common, too ordinary. And your last name, Gagliardo, nobody would have gone for it back then, too Italian, too hard to spell. They all changed their names, except Sinatra.”

“He didn’t have to.”

Vinny said, “Damn straight. But everybody else did. Dean did it, Tony did it, Bobby, too. And plenty of others. A whole lot of Italian people on TV, but you can’t tell by their names. Look at Alan Alda.”

“Alan Alda? He’s Italian? I guess Alda might have started out longer, eh? But you’re so out of touch, Vinny. Alda ain’t been on TV in years. People don’t change their names so much anymore, either.”

“True enough, but they did. Jack over there, he might be Alda’s cousin. You know about his famous dad, right? Robert Alda?”

Tommy nodded. “Of course. He played Gershwin, back in the day.”

“Yeah, the Jewish guys, they had to change their names, too. He used to be Gershowitz, matter of fact.”

Vinny’s fact bank was overflowing with such information. Tommy was used to him spilling it all out now and then, and provided just enough questions or argument to keep Vinny talking. Tommy won a lot of card games that way, melding left and right while Vinny chattered away.

“Those Jewish guys changed their names, made it big, then Italian guys played them in the movies,” Vinny went on, “Anyway, you ever hear of Alfonso D’Abruzzo?”

“Is that Alan Alda then?”

“Yes, and his father, too. In fact, Robert’s name was Alfonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo.” Vinny leaned back with a satisfied look on his face.

Tommy demanded, “Why do you know this? Why do you know this stuff? And who has four first names, anyway?”

Vinny answered, “I just know. I read a lot. And my mom had four first names. Well, she had a first name, and two middle names, and then her confirmation name. So.”

“Why did she have two middle names?” Tommy asked. “I never heard of anybody else who did.”

“Well, now you know two. My mother, and Robert Alda. My mother said she had hers because they had her name all picked out but then her parents wanted to name her after the nurse who took care of her in the hospital. So they added it onto the rest. But probably lots of people have two middle names. You’ve got no culture, Tommy, so you don’t know about this kind of thing.”

Tommy yelled over to Jack,”Hey, Jack, is Alan Alda your cousin or something? Vinny here says you have the same for-real last name.”

Jack yelled back, “I dunno, could be. We’re probably all cousins, Tommy. All our grandparents and great-grandparents came from the same places, right?  They just emptied Sicily and Southern Italy onto boats and sent them over. ”

Tommy said, “This is true, sure. But Abruzzo is a whole place, not even in the south.”

“Yeah, but D’Abruzzos, those were undoubtedly some people who left there, went south sometime, and that’s how they were known. ‘From Abruzzo.’”

Vinny said, “What I wonder is if Jack is related to Bobby Darin. Not so many Cassottos around, I think.”

“No, I think there are a lot of those. Jack’s mom’s a Cassotto? Sure, I’ve known a few. Plus, you know, the accordion.” Tommy looked smug as he said this, sure that he was about to one-up Vinny on the trivia field.

“Accordions, sure, my uncle had one. He played it at my wedding, matter of fact.” Vinny had a blank look on his face. He knew Tommy knew something he didn't, but he was not going to ask.

Jack had come over to listen to the conversation, and looked from Tommy to Vinny, back to Tommy, before finally going ahead and asking, “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s an accordion got to do with Cassottos, Tommy? Did a Cassotto invent one?”
 
Tommy beamed. “No, a cassotto is a box inside the accordion where they put extra reeds, to make it sound better. Though I personally do not think there is much you can do to make an accordion sound better, this is apparently a good thing for one to have.”

Jack replied, “Sure, okay, I think cassotto just means box in Italian anyway, that makes sense.”

“Edward.” Vincent spoke suddenly. “That’s what I picked.”

Tommy asked, “You wanted your name to be Edward? What’s wrong with Vinny, Vincenzo?”

“No, no, I wanted to be Vincent Edward. That was my trumpet-playing name, back in high school. Only then I got drafted, and Vincenzo Mancaruso was good enough for the army, then for getting married, you know.”

Tommy looked annoyed now. “Vinny, nobody ever called you that in high school. I remember, I was there.”

“Yeah, you weren’t in the band, though. We all had names like that, two first names, you know. It was a little trick we all did when we played at dances and clubs.”

Jack interrupted. “Have you ever noticed how many people around here have two first names? Also two last names. It gets confusing sometimes, especially when they go by their last name instead of their first name. Like Officer Craig.”

“Actually, Jack,” Tommy spoke politely, “I never did notice that. Do tell.” He looked over at Vinny and shrugged.

“Oh, well, I just thought of it, there’s nothing else to tell. Think about it; there are a lot of people around like that. And there’s Dean Martin. He had two first names.”

Vinny and Tommy looked at each other with eyebrows raised.

Vinny said, “I never thought of it that way. Huh. I wonder why he picked it.”

The idea that Vinny didn’t know all there was to know about Dean Martin surprised everyone within hearing distance. But that just brought him back to his original subject, which had been the inferiority of Englebert Humperdinck to Tom Jones, both in name and in talent.

“Who gives a guy the name of an obscure German opera composer, anyway? And why such a long weird one? I guess they thought it would make his music sound more interesting but it didn’t work.

“But here’s the real proof that Tom Jones is better, Tommy. He bought Dean Martin’s Bel Air mansion, back in the early 70s. He knew what a good thing that was, and it probably rubbed off on him, that’s why people still like him now.”

“What rubbed off on him?”

“The coolness of Dino, that’s what.”

“Tom Jones is not cool, Vinny.”

“No, he kind of is, I think,” Jack spoke. “He never really took himself too seriously, except maybe for a little while. That’s what being cool is, pretty much. Knowing when not to take yourself so seriously. Knowing how to be amused at the world and what it thinks of you.”

Tommy frowned. “He had the longest sideburns ever grown. Never was that cool.”

“So did Humperdinck. We all had sideburns that long 35 years ago, Tommy. Even when there wasn’t much hair on top, everybody had plenty growing down the sides of their face. We thought women liked it. I don’t think they really did, though.” Vinny mused over this. “We wore our shirts unbuttoned too far down, to show our chest hair, too. We were making sure everyone knew how masculine we were. And nobody was more masculine then than Tom Jones.”


All The Things You Are

We often heard the term “Ol' Blue Eyes” without any consideration for what it meant. But think about it now. Millions of people have blue eyes. What made one man known for his? They were astonishingly blue, that’s what. Unforgettably, piercingly blue. What else could they be on one of the most unforgettable men of the 20th century? The person who coined the phrase “go big or go home” was probably listening to a Frank Sinatra song at the time.

He was born big, over thirteen lbs. A great big baby with shocking blue eyes; destined to become one of the biggest men of his generation. Physically, Sinatra was a big baby, but he did not grow to be a big man, except where it counted, in his voice, and perhaps if the rumors were true, a certain elsewhere...

Sometimes he had a chip on his shoulder about people who didn’t see his bigness right off the bat. He was demanding from the start, and nobody likes that from a young punk, or wants to take it seriously. But sometimes the reason we don’t like it is because we see in that guy something we don’t see in ourselves. And then he convinces us we were wrong not to listen to him. He wasn’t perfect, but he knew perfection when he heard it, and he learned how to create it for us to hear, too.

Frank Sinatra’s heyday coincided with, as well as helped form an extraordinary period of time for the recorded music industry, but I don’t know if anybody knew it then. Maybe they did, and maybe they thought they were creating something that would last forever. Well, part of it has at least lasted into a new century, only not in a way anyone could have imagined back then.  

With a few keystrokes or voice commands we can all access a Frank Sinatra recording. The bulk of music history is now at our fingertips. And we can read about when he had a cold, or about his near destruction after his breakup with Ava Gardner. We can infuse ourselves with an overwhelming amount of material, eventually rendering it less special because it’s so easy to fill up on it, oversaturating our senses.

Recently, I stopped listening to Sinatra recordings for nearly three whole months because I stopped having to look for them, and it’s been so long since I hoped for one, I wanted to relive the sensation of one Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg at Easter instead of year-round multi-packs. Honestly, it wasn’t just Sinatra; it was everything I had access to through the internet. That's a topic of its own to discuss soon.  

So let's envision...

You earn the minimum wage in 1952; 75 cents an hour. For $2.50 or $3.00, you could buy a 10 inch long-playing record that held 35 minutes of music, but that’s assuming you have a player for it. You’re renting an apartment for $65 a month, which is half your wages before taxes. A radio is a better investment for you, so what they play is all you hear.

You’ve seen only a few color photographs of Frank Sinatra, but you know that he has the bluest blue eyes in his movies with Gene Kelly; those photos aren’t lying. So when you hear this on the radio—before his voice disappeared and came back, before he revived his career by demanding begging for a serious role in From Here to Eternity, before the post-Ava wreckage he climbed out of by launching the concept album into view and jerking our tears with In The Wee Small Hours, but you didn’t know the days of future past the way we do now—you hear this and all you know is that he seems to be saying what he is singing. And he makes you feel just the same way he does.  
You don’t know the story of this final Columbia recording or that it was chosen to make a statement about who Frank Sinatra intended to be. You just hope you’ll hear it again tomorrow night and often, and in the meantime, you look more closely into every masculine pair of blue eyes you meet, hoping to see what you might see if you could look into his. You imagine it would be quite a rarified view...


Today marks the beginning of 100 Earth rotations around the Sun since that big baby was wrenched free of his mama’s tiny womb. I expect to be over-saturated with Sinatra presentations and celebrations. I’d be disappointed if I wasn’t. I might even add something to the crowded picture myself. But tonight I’m going to put an old record on the turntable and let the man sing For Only the Lonely to me alone. Let it be like that for you, too. There was magic behind those ol’ blue eyes.

 


Marzipan Cookie Dough: three pro-tips and a caveat

My mom made these so perfectly, but I’ve had them dull or too hard or too crumbly. They require a light hand, mainly. This v. old Betty Crocker recipe calls for 2 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tsp almond extract. That’s all. Mix, shape, chill half an hour, bake at 300º for about half an hour.

First I double and slightly change the recipe; increasing flavoring and decreasing flour. I use four bowls and into each one I put a stick of softened butter, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/2 tsp almond extract. It’s easier to do this than to divide the dough after adding the flour.
CameraZOOM-20141207144827214Then I color it before adding the flour. That’s tip #2. Tip #3 which my mom didn’t do because it would have been very pricey back then, is to use gel colors. CameraZOOM-20141207145247198
Then I add 1 1/8 cups of flour to each bowl, and stir just until it will all stick together. It does not look as weird as this photo. I don't have an explanation for this. CameraZOOM-20141207150424886
The caveat: I usually use King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour for most cookies. But today I bought an organic variety, and it is darker. So two of the bowls got a darker flour which changed the color considerably. I’ll have to rethink how I shape the cookies, and then I’ll probably roll them in colored sugar, which I dyed myself because it’s easy and cheap and you can do whichever colors you like.

So why am I showing you dough and no cookies? I'll be honest here. I got the cramps. The dough will keep til morning.


Christmas, cookie misnomers, feeling internal

I've decorated a bit extra for Christmas this year. I even bought a second little tree for my front room where I read and listen to music. 20141206_105601

As the kids no longer ask for piles of toys each year, money for gifts is not a big concern. I'm trying to get the boys to just collude on something they'd like to enjoy together, as two of them tend to want very little, and the other one wants everything, yet is not at all greedy or grasping.

I'm lonely; the girls aren't around, and I can't spend any time outside these days. Even getting out to do things that need doing costs me so much energy, it defines the entire day. Today I'm going to Costco, so I need to know in my head every single moment of dinner preparation ahead of time, so that I'm on top of it later on. But inside I'm doing better; I can run up and down the stairs again, and make more of each day. 20141205_140303

So I'm making odd little crafts, doing some weekend baking, working to take pleasure in my surroundings. DSC_0439

It's tough on the boys, because they still all have only learner's driving permits. (It's a long story, and not interesting.) They need more practice than they're getting. Anyway. About cookies...

This morning I was looking at an old BHG cookbook called Cooking For Two, and a recipe mentioned rusks. I looked that up to learn they are twice-baked toasts. Thicker than Melba, more like what we'd call biscotti, only plainer. Apparently, people in the UK used to put them in baby bottles, which freaked me out a little, but most people did survive what parents used to do. A baby will learn to expect what it is given, so we try to do better with that these days.

Of course, what we call biscotti are not really what they call them in Italy (I'm not looking up the name, I think it starts with c) and not what my grandma called them, either. When my grandma, mom, and aunts made biscotti, they used 5 cups of flour and 6 eggs plus a few other things to create soft, round, barely sweet and very plain cookies that were then dipped in powdered sugar icing and sometimes had sprinkles added. They made pans and pans of them. And Grandma would shape some of that same dough into braids at Easter, and bake colored eggs right into them. (You just cook the eggs before dying so they are barely hard-cooked. Mom worried over this, but I have the internet to verify things.)

When we visited their house, we usually brought Stella D'oro Anisette Toasts for Grandpa, and these you'd recognize as biscotti, though actually, they have more of a spongey texture to them when dipped in coffee. The name has changed, I suppose because they aren't like what we are used to now. Or something.

Toast

I'm sure you know by now that the singular of biscotti is biscotto, which is actually just a cookie, after all. If you say you want a biscotti, it's kinda weird.

But today or tomorrow, I am going to make marzipan cookies. How can marzipan be a cookie, you ask? Well, it can't. They are called that because they are little almond-flavored cookies which are colored and shaped to look like marzipan. My mother labored lovingly over them every year. I do not. When I do make them now and then, I tend to cut them like shortbread. But this year, little fruits will be the order of the day.

I also like to make biscotti, by the way, our way in addition to the old way now and then. There's no point now in quibbling over the name; I just call the grandma kind "Easter cookies," but in fact, if you look them up online, you'll also see them referred to as anginetti.

CookiesClick on the photo to see a recipe. Below is the ingredient list I use:

For cookies:

6 eggs
5 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups confectioners' sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons baking powder 

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup butter, softened

1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla (or anise or almond)

For glaze:

1/2 cup warm milk

1 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
 (or lemon or vanilla)
1 (1-lb) box confectioners' sugar (about 4 cups, unsifted)

Colored sprinkles

DSC_0445