My Old Kentucky Homesite

Archive for December, 2009

You Take the Haiku and I’ll Take the Lowku

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/31/2009

Yesterday, a fellow geezer reran an old post of his, in which he tried his hand at writing haiku. Seeing his effort, I was very glad I didn’t have to study that poetic form back when I was in school. Because – please excuse me, all my Japanese readers – I just don’t get it. Confining oneself to seventeen syllables in a poem is too much like tweeting.

Anyway, most of the verses that I like best are really wordy. You’re not surprised, right?

So I began to wonder: What would have happened if some well-known Western poets had haiku-ed? Well, for one thing, the Norton Anthology would be a lot shorter. But would students have been stuck memorizing the following?

William Shakespeare
Shall I compare thee
to a summer’s day – or not?
That is the question.

Andrew Marvell
Had we time enough,
I’d enjoy your run-around.
But we don’t. Let’s screw!

William Blake
Tyger burning bright,
Your symmetry frightens me!
Who made thee, ol’ puss?

William Wordsworth
When you get lonely,
Picture daffodils dancing.
Believe me, it works!

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Listen, pal, am I
supposed to be all impressed
by this dumb statue?

Edward Fitzgerald
A book, some nice wine,
a little bread, and – yeah – you.
Oy, I’m in heaven.

Edgar Allen Poe
So this bird flies in,
and starts squawking “Nevermore.”
And then … phhht … I’m dead.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Listen to me, kids.
Forget that Harry Potter.
I’ll tell “Paul Revere.”

Robert Browning
That’s my last duchess,
whom I had killed because she
smiled at ev’ryone.

Rudyard Kipling
Boots, boots, boots, boots, boots,
Din, Din, Din, Din, Din, Din, Din.
Goddamn these hiccups!

Ernest Lawrence Thayer
Yay! Casey’s at bat!
Hit it out of the ballpark!
Why’d you strike out, jerk?

T.S. Eliot
Michelangelo!”
Why don’t those women shut up
and pass me a peach?

Dorothy Parker
Men won’t make passes
At near-sighted young ladies
who don’t wear contacts.

Robert Frost
Two roads through the woods?
Yikes! Decisions, decisions.
I’ll just flip a coin.

Ogden Nash
This will be haiku,
these seventeen syllables.
(OK, so maybe it’ll take me more, like, say, forty syllables altogether, to make this swill be my coup.)

There will be no test on this, so have a Happy New Year!

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Posted in Books & Bookshops, From Bad to Verse | 11 Comments »

Cull Me Ishmael

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/29/2009

When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.
Desiderius Erasmus

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
Dorothy Parker

My alleged friend Srsny gave me nervous palpitations yesterday by sending me a link to a New York Times blog post called “Books You Can Live Without.” A number of litterateurs were asked to identify those volumes that they might cull from their collections if they found it necessary to thin the herd. I’m glad I wasn’t asked, because I’ve been going into a bibliophiliac panic just thinking about it.

As Srsny knows, my household is the repository of about approximately 3500 books. When my wife and I moved from Florida to Kentucky, I packed about 70 big boxes of just my own literary possessions, and another 40-odd of my wife’s. In the process, I did manage – reluctantly – to get rid of some duplicates, and to give away a few blatantly false “true crime” collections. But, basically, I kept everything I had. My little home office looks like a Barnes and Noble, only without any shelves for mugs or totebags.

My wife and I share almost everything we own, but not our books. She has her dictionary; I have mine. If we’re arguing about the definition, spelling, or usage of a word, we have to look it up in both places to see if the authorities concur. Neither of us thinks the other’s atlases are credible, because mapmakers have been known to be wrong. Both of us possess our own copies of the Peterson and Sibley guides to Eastern birds, so we have to check four sources whenever we spot an unfamiliar guest at our feeder. Why four? No offense, but we don’t trust one another’s books. Aside from redundant reference books, the only other volumes found in both our collections are The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Eloise, and our 2002 stocking-stuffer twin copies of Leonard Maltin’s 2003 Movie Guide.

We have a strictly hands-off policy when it comes to our partner’s books, except during research emergencies and packing crises. Needless to say, even though I’d love to get rid of some of her sillier tomes, I would never dare to deep-six anything from my wife’s collection. She, likewise, intolerantly tolerates my dumbest books.

Obviously then, if there’s any culling to be done, I’ll have to hunt through my own shelves. To remind myself in the future of that possibility, I’m listing fifteen books that I conceivably could bear to toss into the literary trashbin.

1. Moby Dick
Despite starting this book seven or eight times, I’ve managed to remain Moby Dickless for the first sixty years of my life. The only way I can see myself finishing it is if someone happens to give me a harpoon for my birthday.

2. The Lord of the Rings in one volume
You’re not getting to be a hobbit with me. Fantasy is supposed to be fun, not pretentious, pseudo-religious claptrap. The only cool ring cycle is the one by Wagner.

3. Any one of my many Perry Mason mysteries
Every few years, when I go into a long-lasting funk, I fight my way out of it by reading about twenty Erle Stanley Gardners in a row. They’re all pretty much the same, except that the names are changed; the minute I close one of these books, I forget who the murderer was. So why shouldn’t I just read the same book twenty times?

4. Chess: 5344 Problems, Combinations and Games
Chess is not a good game for a person who has no spatial sense, so why would I think I’d be able to master it when I can’t even put my socks on frontwards? I’ll stick with Scrabble, where the worst thing you can do is place one of your tiles upside-down.

5. The Hero With a Thousand Faces
And not one of them interesting.

6. The God Delusion
Richard Dawkins is a great science writer, and has penned a number of excellent books for the intelligent layman (my favorite is The Selfish Meme). He can also chug out essays of great charm and literary merit (like the ones collected in Unweaving the Rainbow). But there’s nothing in this book that I hadn’t thought of myself at least forty-five years ago, when I was a skeptical teenager. The author’s thesis: it’s ridiculous to believe in any gods. Yup. What else is new?

7. A Concise History of Kentucky
The first paragraph of chapter one should give you an idea of how sophomorically written this book is: “One meaning of the word frontier is a border between places. But those borders can be very different at different times.” Passing itself off as a work of popular nonfiction for adults, this is essentially a textbook aimed at people who, although they themselves may be very different at different times, all read at a fourth-grade level. 

8. The New York City Cab Driver’s Joke Book, Vol. 2
I’ve taken thousands of rides in New Yawk City cabs, and not once has a driver told me a joke. Which is a good thing, because he would have lost his tip if he’d come out with some unfunny drivel he’d found in this paperback. Ten years ago, my son gave me this book as a birthday gift. We’ve both outgrown it now.

9. Match Wits with the Harvard MBA’s
The cover blurb says it all: “Test your financial savvy! You can win a bundle – or lose your shirt!” Now that we’re all shirtless, I don’t think a Harvard MBA has any information of value to offer me.

10. 100 Incredible, Provocative, and Fascinating Real-Life Cases: You Be the Judge
OK, I will. This book sucks.

11. The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche
I picked up this book used, and the choice of excerpts is fine. But there are a few things wrong with my particular volume besides the coffee stains and roach droppings. The bottom quarter of page 246 is blank. To tell the truth, I can’t really see myself curling up with Leibnitz, anyway, but if I did do so, I’d want to hang on his every word. There’s something else annoying about this copy, even worse than the missing paragraph. The previous owner chose to write pithy comments in the margins. I’m not convinced that “Meditations on First Philosophy” is helped by observations like “I agree,” “SO true,” or “right!!!!!!”

12. Profiles in Courage
In the current political climate, the title of this book makes me want to scream. Any senator writing a similar book today would have to call it Profiles in Getting Elected. Of course, my howling impulse isn’t eased any by the knowledge that John Kennedy wrote no more of Profiles than Sarah Palin did of Going Rogue. Still, as the titular author, JFK accepted a Pulitzer Prize for the work – having courageously paid ghostwriter Ted Sorensen to keep his mouth shut.

13. The Great American Bathroom Book
Been there, done that.

14. The Armchair Angler
That’s right, 400 pages of essays about fishing. I bought this when I was researching an article I wrote in the mid-90s about catching snook in Tampa Bay. That was the first and last time I communed with my inner Opie. I know that many people find fishing relaxing, but to me it’s an activity for the brain-dead. And really, how lazy do you have to be to just read about it?

15. Leonard Maltin’s 2003 Movie Guide
It’s seven years out of date, f’chrissake. My wife and I need to buy ourselves two copies of the newest edition.

Posted in Books & Bookshops | 6 Comments »

Who Created THESE Numbers?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/28/2009

The High Holy Days are finally over. Once again, I’ve survived the Solstice Shopping Frenzy (thank you, Amazon!) and My Wife’s Birthday. So, in this half-week preceding the New Year, it’s my time for some serious rumination.

My philosophical odyssey started during our family Christmas dinner, when my niece was trying to describe her street in Lexington. “There’s a church on the corner,” she said.

“That’s no help,” I replied. “Every street in Lexington has a church on the corner.” That’s true, by the way, within acceptable limits of hyperbole. Driving in this city on a Sunday morning means hitting stop-and-go traffic at almost every block.

According to polling data conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Kentucky is the 10th most religious state in the union. (The question was “How important is religion in your life?”) The nine states ahead of us are also in the Ignorance Belt: Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Georgia.

Oddly, Kentucky is only 11th in “church attendance,” knocked out of the top ten by both Utah and Kansas. (Georgia, at 13th, was also displaced by them, and by Texas as well.) There’s no data on “number of churches per capita,” but I’d bet Kentucky is way up there. I suspect it would also be in the top fifth of the country if the poll had a “church to arts venue ratio.”

When it comes to “frequent prayer,” Kentucky jumps way up to 5th. My guess is that most of those numerous entreaties to the deity concern the fate of the Wildcats. But I would be surprised if there weren’t also a ton of requests for a glimmer of sun once in a while.

There seems to be some negative correlation between religion/church attendance/ frequent prayer, and kids’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Kentucky is 39th in the national assessment. Among those states ranking even closer to the bottom are some of our old friends from the fourth paragraph: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The other five lower-rankers are New Mexico (29th in religion), West Virginia (15th in religion), Hawaii (23rd in religion), Nevada (34th in religion), and California (35th in religion). Eight of the bottom twelve in Educational Progress ranked above – most of them, well above – the national average for “religious.” By contrast, of the top twelve states in Educational Progress, only Nebraska polled above the national average for “religious.”

Statistics can lie, so there’s not necessarily any conclusion to be drawn from these numbers. But there does appear to be some evidence showing that the more you pray, the stupider your children will be.

Posted in Freedom from Faith, New to Kentucky | 14 Comments »

The Best of the Aughts

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/27/2009

It’s only December 27, but I’m already totally bored by the endless end-of-decade lists of ten best whatevers. In my opinion, nothing has been any good since 1959. Except maybe for (1) a bottle of 1982 Cos d’Estournel I bought in 1988, (2) Philip Roth’s “Zuckerman” series, (3) the Beatles from Rubber Soul to Sergeant Pepper’s, (4) the ubiquity of Sudoku, and (5) the Bitty Schram seasons of Monk.

I’ll bet you’re glutted on these ridiculous lists, too. But the blogger’s oath requires it, so I apologize in advance that you’ll have to suffer through this.

Ten Best Whatevers of the Aughts

  1. Decade only ten years long.
  2. Beano sometimes works.
  3. Possible to avoid watching American Idol if you don’t care to have any conversations with friends, relatives, casual aquaintances, or strangers.
  4. Terrorists prevented by Bush Administration from hiding in my refrigerator. Proof: from 2001-2008, no terrorists found hiding in my refrigerator.
  5. The French still make at least 265 kinds of cheese, 243 of which have been found hiding in my refrigerator.
  6. Squeaky Fromme oiled before release from prison in 2009.
  7. Rock ‘n’ roll continues to be here to stay.
  8. Obama first president in 16 years to speak without Southern accent.
  9. Useful word “octomom” no longer limited to female cephalopods.
  10. Bank bailouts shared equally by all indigent Americans, rather than being charged solely to my wife and me.

Readers, feel free to add any items to this list.

Posted in Useless Lists | 2 Comments »

Nite b4 Xmas

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/24/2009

There’s some controversy over who wrote “The Night Before Christmas.” Most people have learned that it was Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy but dour bible scholar.  However, he didn’t claim authorship until more than two decades after the verse first made an anapest of itself in the Troy Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. The other contender for poet, according to various literary experts, is fun-loving Henry Livingston, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and a jolly, happy soul. Unfortunately for holiday historians, Livingston never disputed Moore’s claim.

In any case, whoever wrote it, I’m glad that it was penned before the days of texting. If it were composed today – by my college-age son, for instance – it might look something like this. (A translation dictionary might be necessary for old farts like me.)

twas the nite b4 xmas
& all thru the hous
not a crEtur was strrng
IMHO

the stkngs were hung
@ the chimnE with care
in hopes that SC
wud soon b ther

the kids were zzzz
dreamng of sugR plums
ma & me wore
geezer pjs

out on the lawn
there arose such a clatR
i sprang out of bed
to see WTF!

Away to the window
i flew like a flash
tore open the shutters 2C
OMG!

the moon on the breast
of the new-fallen snow
made Ething look
gr8

when what to my wondering
i’s should appear
but a minislay
& 8 raindear

with a lil ol driver
so lively & quik
I nu it woz
SC

more rapid then Egls
his coursers they came
& he :-”d &  :-O
& called them by name

Now DashR DancR
PrancR VixN
On Comet Qpid
DonR BlitzN

OTT @ the porch
OTT @ the wall
now – away – away
– away all

reminded me of
dry leaves b4
some storm like
H Katrina

so ^ 2 the house top
EVRE1 flu
with a slayful of toys
&SC2

& then in a twnkling
i herd @ the roof
the prncng & pwng
of each lil hoof

as i dru in my hed
& woz turning ATW
SC FDGB

his clothes? FGDAI!
a bundle of toys
he’d flung on his bak
& he looked like some1
with a USP

his i’s twinkled
his dmpls merry
his cheeks roses
his noz cherry

his lil mouth bow
beard wite
pipe in teeth
smoke @ hed = wreath

broad face
rnd belly
shook when LOL
like PBJ

chubby plump jolly elf
I wuz LMAO!
his ‘-) sed
DWBH

He STFU
& GBTW
& filled all the stkngs
then turned w/ a jerk

finger @ noz
nod
^ chimnE

he sprang to his slay
gave a :-”
& away they flu
like the down of a thisL

but i herd him Xclaim
b4 he roz out of site
merry xmas 2 all
& 2 all CUL8R

Posted in Christmas | 6 Comments »

Johnny Depp and the Coal Industry

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/22/2009

Coming from New Yawk, which offers very little hometown rah-rah in its newspapers or on its local TV and radio stations, I find it difficult to understand why I should care if a notable or infamous person ever happened to live in my locality. Yet here in Kentucky, no opportunity is missed when it comes to announcing that an actor hails from these parts. Thus it was that about a week ago, I opened the entertainment section of my local newspaper, and saw a still from the famous flick White Christmas. In the caption, performers Bing Crosby, Vera-Ellen, and Danny Kaye were joined by “Kentucky native Rosemary Clooney.” An ad for a TV movie noted that it featured “actor and Lexington native Josh Hopkins.”

I’m guessing that this phenomenon is related in some way to the sports mentality that pervades my new home. Today, the local rag went nuts with the news that the U.K. Wildcats had won their 2000th game. That world-shaking information was on the front page and on the second page, although there’s a sufficiently big sports section – which, this morning, also managed to spread the good news. In Lexington, even during this holiday season, if Jesus Christ himself showed up in town, he wouldn’t make it to the headlines unless he’d managed to score a few baskets.

Apparently, here in Kentucky, the triumphs and accomplishments of complete strangers magically redound to the benefit of everyone who shares their two-letter postal abbreviation. The team’s defeats and embarrassments also reflect on us. And why not? It’s a proven fact, isn’t it, that if the locals don’t pray hard enough, if they don’t wear the right colored clothing, if they don’t shout sufficiently loudly, or honk their car horns at the necessary moment, or perform their daily ablutions in a distinctively success-producing manner, the gods will not allow the blue-and-white to vanquish their opponents. And then what would the rest of the world think of us, huh?

In this bastion of chauvinistic hoopla, the U.K. pennant (Go Wildcats!) is almost as popular as the American flag (U.S.A.! U.S.A.!) It is critically important to most Lexingtonians – who invest so much of their mental activity toward this goal – that the University of  Kentucky team win, win, win. Otherwise, the city’s entire population becomes despondent and/or angry. Many people in the region have been hard hit by the recession, but what does that matter if a bunch of overstretched athletes can sink a free throw? Go Wildcats!

I suppose that if the local team doesn’t come out on top –  O ye divines, protect us from such shame! – we can turn to our very own homegrown movie stars to buck us up.

That kind of irrelevant “pride” reminds me of those lists of famous Jewish celebrities that my parents used to love reading when I was a kid. In what way did it matter to me if Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, or Lauren Bacall were Jewish? Were any of them going to come to my house to deliver knishes?

So that’s pretty much how I feel about actors who just happened to spend a few childhood years in the same state in which I now live.  What’s it to me? Are they going to arrive at my doorstep with fried chicken? (I hope not, because I hate fried chicken.)

I did, however, look up some Actors from Kentucky on Wikipedia, the world’s greatest authority on everything. To be honest, many of the names included are meaningless to me. I’ve never heard of Becky Ann Baker (born in Fort Knox), Nicole Scherzinger (went to a performing arts high school in Louisville), or Rumer Willis (born, by happenstance, in Paducah – where  her father, Bruce, was making a film). I can, however, identify George Clooney (born in Lexington) and Johnny Depp (born in Owensboro), Jeri Ryan (went to high school in Paducah) and Ashley Judd (attended U.K. Go Wildcats!)

But in what way are my neighbors’ daily lives improved – or affected at all – by the fact that they may shop at the same grocery as did any of those people. I can’t imagine George Clooney picking up a 12-pack of store-brand toilet paper at my neighborhood Kroger, or Ashley Judd cutting out coupons for the latest Meijer special on Honey Nut Cheerios. But even if they did, how would those actions affect the bowls of any other Kentuckians?

My wife points out that Lexington is not unique in its hometown chauvinism. According to her, everyplace that isn’t New Yawk shares a sense of glee when a native son or daughter earns a positive mention on the news. But, I retort, I don’t have to put up with that kind of nonsense elsewhere. I’m here. If folks in Morgantown, West Viriginia want to brag about Don Knotts; if the citizens of Green Bay, Wisconsin feel that they somehow share in the glory of Tony Shalhoub; or if the denizens of Cheyenne, Wyoming choose to go crazy over Acquanetta: I don’t have to read or hear about it over my Cap’n Crunch. I’m not bothered by the nonsense found in other towns’ news media.

The problem with the parochial mentality – wherever it occurs – is that it extends into other areas of endeavor besides sports and entertainment, areas that affect us all. Every day, I read letters to the editor about Kentucky’s coal. The writers say, in essence: Who gives a crap if coal is bad for the environment? It’s good for our economy. People would lose their jobs, f’chrissake,  if governmental restrictions were applied. And just think of how much it would cost us to warm our houses in the winter or cool them in the summer if we had to convert to a cleaner, more efficient energy source. Screw the Earth. Coal is our friend. Go Wildcats!

Anyway, here’s what I really want to know about all those Kentucky celebs: Are they Jewish? What teams do they root for? And do they really enjoy the soot they’re forced to sprinkle onto their breakfast cereals?

Posted in New to Kentucky, Random Rants | 7 Comments »

O Come, All Ye Faith-free-ful

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/19/2009

So yesterday afternoon I was sitting at the ol’ piano, playing tunes from a collection called “The Every Christmas Song You Can Think Of and Then Some Fake Book.” For me, as a faith-free person, the melodies – not the lyrics – rule. Lots of those songs are really catchy, and I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t sing or play them just because they have words about imaginary entities and events. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is a much better tune than “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and no more offensive. To tell the truth, I never believed that the itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout, either.

I was practicing my own ragtime version of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and trying to work out how to swing “The Little Drummer Boy” in 5/4, when the mail arrived. Nestled snugly among three or four scroogy bills was a greeting card with an illustration of the manger scene and the caption “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Now, that’s of course nonsense, despite how many underlines it has. The winter solstice was the inspiration for cold-weather celebrations and gift-giving long before Christianity was even a gleam in its father’s eye. Not only that, but there’s absolutely no gospel evidence for the time of year in which the protagonist was born. None. The early church fathers piggy-backed their big guy’s birthday onto various other seasonal festivities and called the day “Christmas.” Later, they adopted the yule log, the decorated tree, the holly, the mistletoe, the stockings, the overeating, the giant inflated snowman, and the chipmunks. Even the sending of cards has no biblical authority. So Jesus certainly isn’t the reason for the season; rather, the pre-existing holidays are the reason for the church’s usurpation of the season.

But I wasn’t annoyed merely because our senders had not gotten their facts straight. What irked me was their audacity. It’s harassment to mail a highly religious card, particularly one with a not-so-covert agenda, to people who may not agree with its message. The card was a solicitation, a political advertisement, not a sincere greeting. It irked me that some people would want to ram down my throat their own narrow interpretation of a universally enjoyable holiday.

For about fifteen minutes, I took my anger out on my own taste. I closed the songbook that was so entertaining to me, and I went into my office and put Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, one of my most beloved books, back on its shelf. I refused to take part in the same holiday that our sender was celebrating. Maybe I’d pull out my songs and my story again sometime in February, when Washington and Lincoln and Cupid, not Jesus, were the combined reason for the season.

But then I thought: the hell with that. I’m not going to let Christians ruin Christmas for me. So, glorying in the snow falling outside my window, I re-bookmarked Stave 2 in Dickens, bit the head off a chocolate reindeer, and returned to the piano to see if I could turn “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” into a scary Schubert lied: “Der Weinachtsmann kommt in die Stadt.” Eventually, I also managed to feel pity for the people who so strictly limit their seasonal cheer – and, out of a veiled malice, would like to force me to likewise limit mine.

Posted in Christmas, Freedom from Faith, Music | 6 Comments »

Lions, and Tigers, and Pterodactyls – Oh, My!

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/18/2009

I’ve subscribed to a free list called birdky, on which people from all over the state of Kentucky write short emails whenever they spot an interesting bird. In the last few days, I’ve received three or four notes by bragging birders who have seen dozens of sandhill cranes flying overhead. At nearly four feet tall, sandhill cranes are among the largest birds in the United States. Their red crowns and grey plumage make them easy to identify from a distance, even for an ornithological idiot like me, who might otherwise just point upwards in awe and yell “Duck! Duck!” Not the noun, the verb.

Unfortunately, sandhill cranes do not come to backyard feeders, just as lions do not eat Meow Mix from a bowl labeled “Princess.” So you won’t see one (a sandhill crane or a lion) if your main contact with nature is the view through your sunroom window. My main contact with nature – really, my only contact with nature – is, in fact, the view through my sunroom window, and even that makes me sneeze. So my avian friends tend to be little guys, like sparrows, titmice, and misidentified squirrels, none of which is the kind of sighting that makes a person scream “Duck!”

My consolation is that I can still clearly conjure up my first encounter, back in the Bronx of my boyhood, with an enormous flying creature. It wasn’t a bird exactly, and you’d never find it on Audubon’s list of North American species, but I knew what it was as soon as I saw it. And it did make me scream.

Until that evening, I never fretted about being attacked from the sky, because I knew Mom was vigilant. She spent a lot of time imagining awful things that might happen to her children, and acted beforehand to prevent them. I was never allowed to have chunky peanut butter, even though I begged and begged her to change over from the boring “creamy smooth” kind. Mom was sure I would forget to chew the small pieces of nuts, and choke.

Pez fell into the same category. I was permitted to have a dispenser, but forbidden to fill it with candy. Instead, I was encouraged to use it as a puppet, opening and closing the lid to make it talk. What I usually had it say was, “Help! I’m empty!”

Besides gaggable foods, there were dozens of other perils lying in wait for me. Mom was constantly on the lookout for friends who were “bad influences.” In the Bronx of 1956, any kid who showed an ounce of independence was a potential corrupter. If Jerry went outside without a jacket before May 1, he was a bad influence. If Shelley stopped at the local bakery for an appetite-ruining cookie on the way home from school, he, too, was a bad influence. Stevie, who was the smartest child in my grade, maybe even the entire school, became, briefly, a bad influence because one day Mom saw him riding his tricycle faster than one mile per hour. He was forgiven only when she learned later that he was in a hurry to get home and kiss his mother hello.

Mom would have been horrified to discover that the other mothers thought her son was a bad influence because he was such a mama’s boy. In those days, people still believed that sissiness was contagious.

Wherever I went, Mom made sure that in my pocket I always carried a small card with my name, address, and phone number, as well as her name. “You never know,” she’d say. “What if you, God forbid, get run over. God forbid.”  Even when I was on my way to play at a friend’s house in the same building, she would remind me to take my identification.

“Do you have your ID card with you?”

“I’m just going over to Shelley’s to read comics. It’s raining. We’re not gonna go out. We’re just gonna sit around and trade Supermans. His mother knows your number.”

“Well, take it anyway. You could fall down the stairs on the way over. You’re not Superman.”

With all Mom’s concerns about my fragile physical and mental state, it was no surprise to Dad or me that she was dead-set against his taking me to see Rodan, a Japanese sci-fi movie about a rubber pterodactyl threatening Tokyo. For a weeny boy like me, it was definitely a trauma waiting to happen.

Dad dug in his heels. Sitting through a horror flick was a necessary rite-of-passage for a male child. F’Chrissake, he was about the same age when he and his buddies had gotten the crap scared out of them by Dracula and Frankenstein. A little healthy fear would make a man out of me.

“Don’t compare yourself to Larry,” my mother said. “You lived in Brooklyn.”

Brooklyn was considered the tough borough, the borough where Jewish boys grew up to form Murder, Inc. The Bronx was where Jewish boys grew up to form orthopedic shoes.

“He’s too young for a movie like that,” Mom insisted. “He still gets a nervous attack from the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.”

“Listen, Elaine,” Dad said, “don’t tell me about monkeys. When I was his age, I saw King Kong. But I survived, didn’t I? Let the kid grow up, f’cryinoutloud.”

Then, turning to me, he asked, “You’re not scared of some Judy Garland movie, are you, Mr. Cowardly Lion?”

“Um … no,” I replied, trying my best to shrug nonchalantly, although my heart began racing at the very thought of the winged creatures. “I just think they’re … um … ugly.”

“Well, they’re no worse than Uncle Jack, are they?”

Mom was adamant. “Keep Uncle Jack out of this. He’s not going, and that’s final.”

It looked like Mom would prevail. “That’s final” usually was. But Dad still had one trick up his sleeve; he played the Pansy Card. “You know, Elaine, you’re gonna turn him into a homo if you’re not careful. A good scare’ll give him some real balls.” Dad gestured to show the immense size he had in mind. “It’ll put some hair on his chest.”

It’s hard to imagine why the image of a third-grader with freakishly large testicles and body fur won Mom over, but she finally said OK. With conditions. She made Dad promise that we’d take the bus instead of walking to the theater. “He’s a little afraid of the dark, and besides, you never know who’s out there.” She made us swear that we wouldn’t even think about popcorn. “It could get stuck in his throat. Yours too, Murray.” And she couldn’t resist a parting zinger at Dad: “Go ahead and put some hair on his chest, but if my child has nightmares for the rest of his life, it’ll be on your head.” Which is exactly where Dad needed some hair, so he was gonna be winner whatever happened.

The short bus ride over to the RKO Marble Hill was an emotional journey; one moment I was euphoric about my venture into manhood, the next moment I was panicked that I might wet myself in terror. At Mom’s urging, I had already used the bathroom twice before we walked out the door, but I was worried that there was still some residual fear-pee waiting to be released. I had learned in the schoolyard the story of the boy who had pissed out all his internal organs during The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and I dreaded the possibility of losing my essence in an ignominious series of puddles.

Once inside the movie house, we headed upstairs. Dad always staked out territory at the extreme end of the last row of the balcony, where he could smoke or snore without any disturbance. The rest of the people in the theater were teenagers on dates, busy with anatomy lessons.

Monster movies of the ’50s followed a formula. You never got to see the critter until the picture was about two-thirds over. Then he would make some half-hearted attempt to eat a major city, until a human (yay!) figured out a way to blow him up.

But I had no clue about the routine. As Dad sat beside me, contemplating his eyelids, I watched the story unfold and worried about bladder control. A piece of popcorn was lodged in a back tooth; I was sure that if the sight of the monster didn’t immediately kill me with fright, it would cause the kernel to pry loose and cut off my breathing.

And then — oh no!

“Dad? Wake up. I have to go to the bathroom.”

He was not one to coddle me. In those innocent days, you could still send a small boy to urinate by himself, so he gave me explicit instructions for how to get to and from the men’s room. I could hear the blood pumping through my head as I raced down what seemed like a million steps, ran into the toilet, whipped myself out in record speed, and peed as if I were in time trials. Mom always taught me not to “force it,” I could rupture something, but this was a crisis situation.

Ominous music came roaring out of the speakers as I hurried back to my seat. I dared not look at the screen, but I dared not ignore it either. It wasn’t until I had gotten entirely into the theater’s darkness that Rodan surfaced.

“DAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!”

“I’m here!” A cigarette beacon shone in the distance.

“It’s RODAAAAAAAAAAN!”

Adolescent boys are extremely witty, and so the theater filled with echoes of “DAAAAAAAAD! RODAAAAAAN! Watch out, little boy, it’s gonna EAT you! Oh, no, a big CHICK-ENNN!” This was the only downbeat necessary to start a huge clucking chorus. Some of the clucks were meant to be parodies of Rodan, but many more of them were meant to be me.

“Look, it’s no worse than Uncle Jack,” Dad argued. If we had stayed, I would have learned that our species always wins. But my eyes were shut tight, my hands were over my ears, and my air passages were blocked by a handful of popcorn basketballs. I told Dad I had a bad bellyache.

During the ride home, I calmed down slightly. But I did sneak peeks out the bus’s rear window to make sure we weren’t being followed by any monsters. Dad put on an act, but I could tell that he was afraid, too. Mom was going to kill him.

“Let’s not tell your mother, huh? Just say you had a good time. OK?”

Mom was waiting for us. “Short movie,” she commented.

“Well,” Dad answered, “how long does it take to tell about a big bird?”

Mom looked me over until she had satisfied herself that nothing was wet or broken. “So?” she asked me. “Were you scared?”

“Not really,” Dad said, quickly. “But I think he’s got those winged monkeys in better perspective now.”

That was more than five decades ago, and I still haven’t seen any airborne simians. But I do have high hopes of spotting a flock of sandhill cranes one of these days. I trust they’ll be better looking than Uncle Jack.

Posted in Memoirs, Old Movies, Watching Birds | 2 Comments »

Please Ask Someone Else, Virginia

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/15/2009

DEAR LARRY WALLBERG—
I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, ‘If you see it in MY OLD KENTUCKY HOMESITE it’s so.’
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
VIRGINIA O’HANLON

Virginia, your little friends are right.

MR. WALLBERG,
What’s the big idea, moron? I fully expected, when I asked my kid to write to you, that you’d gladly play along. What are you, some kind of jerk? She’s 8 years old, f’Chrissake! What’s the point of telling her that there’s no Santa Claus? Now I can’t get her to stop crying, you unbelievable a-hole.
PAPA O’HANLON.

Mr. O’Hanlon:
Please reread your daughter’s letter. I wasn’t the one who told her there’s no Santa Claus; her “little friends” did. Please don’t hold me responsible for playground chatter. You do know, don’t you, that those other kids were right? Actually, I’m wondering if the girl’s mother didn’t put the neighborhood children up to it; perhaps Mom understands that Virginia’s getting a little too old to believe in such nonsense. So why do you, her father,  insist on continuing to fool the child? If her peers know there’s no Santa Claus, they’ll certainly make fun of her when she insists there is. Think of your daughter’s self-esteem, why don’t you? Remember: Children can be extremely cruel when they make fun of each other. I’m sorry she’s crying now, but imagine how much worse it would be if all her little friends started calling her “Ginny the Ninny.” Anyway, a decent computer gaming system ought to dry her tears.

DEAR LARRY WALLBERG—
WTF!  I’ve known there’s no Santa Claus since I’ve been five.
Papa wants me to believe because he’d like to infantilize me forever.
Normally, I don’t go for all that goo-goo crap, but at Christmas I don’t mind batting my cute eyelashes and pretending I’m clueless.
Can’t you read between the lines, genius? Jesus, what kind of half-assed writer are you?  I thought if you said there IS a Santa Claus, Papa would feel obliged to buy me all the stuff I put on my list, including a new iPhone with about thirty expensive apps and tickets to see Lady Gaga in Miami on New Year’s Eve.
We wouldn’t want Santa to disappoint a good little girl, would we?
Papa would even have to spring for that pony I want. Good luck making believe it came down our chimney, Dad!
For your information, I have absolutely no need of a computer gaming system because I already own three different kinds.
And I’ve got to tell you something. Nobody under 100 uses the word “ninny” anymore. So why don’t you mind your own friggin’ business, you old fart?
By the way, my mother didn’t put anybody “up” to anything. She’s dead!
VIRGINIA O’HANLON

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. Make sure your papa sees what I wrote. Is that better? Can you live with yourself now that you’ve made me fib to your father? Sorry about your mother.

MR. WALLBERG,
Why would you lie to me, idiot? I, know very well that there’s no Santa Claus. It’s Virginia who asked you the question. I think she has grave doubts about his existence, but I’d like her to stay sweet and innocent for just a few years longer, at least until she’s 21. If you had any kind of a brain – which you clearly don’t – you would have sensed why I suggested she ask you. Until you wrote your unfeeling and incredibly stupid answer, she seemed to be under the impression that you were some kind of soulmate. Virginia talked about you almost as much as she babbled on about the Jonas Brothers or this Lady Gaga person, whoever the hell she is. (I hope she puts on a  better show than Barney did a few years ago, because we’re flying all the way to Florida  just to see her.) Every night at dinner, Virginia would go on and on: “My Old Kentucky Homesite” this, “My Old Kentucky Homesite” that. But did you care? No! God forbid you should bring joy to a child’s heart, you and your Scroogy journalistic ethics. Frankly, I think your blog sucks, and I think Kentucky sucks, too. So thanks a lot, moron! I hope you’re proud of yourself, because you’ve stolen my child’s youthful sense of wonder. Oh, and in case you’re curious: The kid has a perfectly beautiful stepmother, who caters to her every whim, so there’s nothing for you to be “sorry” about. Virginia and my wife, Mona, are very close. More than once, my daughter has even said to me, “I bet Mona is  a herm-afro… something or other … just like Lady Gaga.” Of course, Mona is not black at all, but why burst Virginia’s bubble? In future, please leave our family out of your ridiculous blog! Stick to writing about cereal and Jews.
PAPA O’HANLON.

Mr. O’Hanlon:
Next time, why don’t you have Virginia write to The Huffington Post? Maybe Arianna will go along with your dumb charade.

Posted in Christmas | 12 Comments »

Does Chardonnay Go with Wheaties?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 12/13/2009

Some people have pointed out that my blog doesn’t seem to have a theme. Well, actually “some people” is my wife. Last night, we watched the film Julie and Julia, which you may already know is about a woman named Julie Powell who decided to blog as she cooked her way completely through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

“Why can’t you come up with something inventive like that?” my wife suggested. “I have a huge cookbook collection.”

“I hate cooking,” I reminded her. “And, also,  I’m terrible at it. You can’t even stand the way I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

“Yeah, that’s because you use half a jar of everything. And who ever heard of spreading marmalade with a slotted spoon?”

“The forks were all in the dishwasher. Anyway, I held my hand underneath it, didn’t I? But, if you don’t like the way I operate in the kitchen, how about if we go to a different restaurant in Lexington every night, and I write about that?”

Our neighbors might have wondered what that mysterious dice-like noise was shortly after midnight. Answer: my wife’s eyes rolling. “And who’s going to pay for our meals?” she asked.

“Well, maybe we can get restaurant owners to give us dinner in exchange for the free advertising they’ll get on my blog.”

“Oh, yeah, they’re just dying to reach your five readers. Remind me again how many of them live in Kentucky.”

We continued going back and forth this way for about half an hour. My wife thought I might try my hand at shopping for fresh produce and whipping up a different salad each night. I had the great idea to blog about my experiences microwaving TV dinners and frozen pot pies. She wondered if readers would like watching me struggle with The Idiot Child’s Step-by-Step Picture Cookbook. I thought maybe it would be cool if she worked her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and I blogged about my reactions.

Finally, we arrived at a mutually agreeable solution. I would blog about a food that I already make myself every day. Of course, by “make” I mean “pour into a bowl.” So here are the first few entries of “The Larry/Julia Cereal Serial.”

Sunday Morning, December 13, 9:00 a.m.
Still sleeping.

Sunday Morning, December 13, 10:00 a.m.
Still sleeping, but I’ll be up soon. I promise.

Sunday Afternoon, December 13, 1:00  p.m.
I always hated Cheerios when I was a kid because they were kind of bland. They still are, but I’ve invented a recipe to make them more palatable. I’m confident that Julia Child would have loved it, and you will, too!

Cover the Cheerios with about three huge handfuls of raisins. If you like, add a tablespoon of  honey, maple syrup, or Cabernet Sauvignon.  Fill a thimble with milk and pour it in slowly, stirring vigorously as you do. For a real treat, tear apart four Oreos, scoop out the creme filling and set it aside for later use. Then, holding the cookies firmly in your palms, bring your hands together as hard as you can, as if clapping for a really great meal. If you do that correctly, you’ll hear a smashing noise, and see a few crumbs drop to the floor. Don’t worry about those little fallen pieces right now; you can wait a few minutes before you sweep them up and set them aside for later use. In the meantime, brush the remaining crispy chocolate bits from your palms directly onto the cereal.

I can almost hear the spirit of Julia saying “yum,” although I’m certain that she would have found a way to add butter.

Sunday Afternoon, December 13, 1:15 p.m.
Well, this blog might be fun after all. Since I’m still hungry, I’ve decided to pour myself a bowl of Barbara’s Bakery Peanut Butter Puffins. These are little low fat, wheat-free pillows of corn meal, dehydrated cane juice, natural peanut butter, oat flour, rice flour, sea salt, and – of course – soy, which adds nothing except authority. I had a little difficulty keeping the nuggets from bouncing as they flowed from box to bowl; Julia doesn’t address this issue in any of her cookbooks. I’m guessing that perhaps the answer is to hold the carton a bit closer to the countertop, rather than over your head. My wife thought this dish was delicious, although she keeps complaining about the crunching under her feet as she walks through the kitchen. So here’s an important lesson that every cereal cook must remember: It doesn’t pay to try to please everyone.

Sunday Afternoon, December 13, 2:30 p.m.
Snack time. I was hoping to try my hand at pouring some Trix or Cocoa Puffs, but the only other cereal we have in the house is Nature’s Path Organic Optimum Blueberry Cinnamon. Blueberry Cinnamon what? Don’t the people at Nature’s Path know that you can’t have a couple of adjectives standing alone like shmucks without a noun to modify?  How about “Crunchies” or “Crispies” or “Pops”? The problem is: the cereal has a lot of different textures mushed together. There are flakes and bits that look like Grape-Nuts and others that resemble Smacks and even some little chunks of fruit, which, as Julia would surely have known, should have been raisins, but which are actually dried blueberries. I sensed I was really in trouble with this cereal when I read “Now with 25% LESS Sugar.” Why would anybody do that? Worst of all, the fifth ingredient is “organic flax,” which always tastes like sardines to me, and overwhelms all the grainy fruity goodness of the other stuff. You can forget about matching this dish with an appropriate wine; vintners have yet to discover a varietal that works well with cinnamon, wheat, blueberries, soy (you figured that, right?), and anchovy flavoring. Even adding a cup of butter failed to make this palatable.

Sunday Afternoon, December 13, 3:00 p.m.
I’ve decided to cancel The Larry/Julia Cereal Serial. My wife made BLT’s for lunch, so this blog will now return to its pristine themeless state. Bon appétit.

Posted in Food and Drink | 2 Comments »