Thursday, May 06, 2004

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (5/06/04)


A reader has inquired whether these occasional pieces have a central theme or purpose. The answer is yes; they are meant to be relevant, entertaining, informative. Irish-American humorist Finley Peter Dunne thought it the duty of a newspaper "to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." That's another aim of this column.

What's in a name, especially if it's Arabic? Newspapers, magazines and TV stations show great variation in spelling the name of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization. The most frequently used spelling is Al Qaeda, with the ae diphthong. But Arabic only has three vowels--and e isn't one of them. The Arabic vowels are a, i and u. Other spellings of the name include Al Quaida and al-Qaida. The U.S. State Department prefers the latter spelling. (Translated, it means "the base" (from al, "the," and Qaida, "base").

To pay for college expenses, I worked summers as a helper on an express truck in the city. You could count on it that the poorer the neighborhood the bigger would be the tips.

You never know who your friends are until you get into trouble. Rush Limbaugh, a frequent ultra-conservative critic of the American Civil Liberties Union, must have been surprised when that organization filed a "friend-of-the-court" motion on his behalf. The ACLU argued that state officials in Florida were wrong in seizing his medical records in a drug probe.

Do women ever wear the outlandish outfits exhibited by fashion models at designer's showings? My theory is that most designers actually hate women and attempt to make them look ridiculous.

Living in interesting times: In a speech at Cape Town in South Africa in 1966. Robert F. Kennedy said, "There's a Chinese curse that says, 'May he live in interesting times.' Like it or not, we live in interesting times." Stephen De Long, a researcher in Albany, N.Y., diligently investigated this quotation. Its first appearance in print was in a science-fiction story, "U-Turn," by Duncan H. Munro, the pseudonym of Eric Frank Russell. It was published in the April 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. According to Torrey Whitman, President of New York City's China Institute, no harm is intended to the object of the curse. "The point of the phrase has long been meant to be ironic. But what is most noteworthy about the expression is that it is not Chinese. There is no such expression in Chinese. It is a non-Chinese creation, most probably American."

In the 1930's, a distance runner from the University of Pennsylvania named Gene Venske had running form so precise and perfect, sports writers dubbed him "the picture runner." As a young runner, I studied his style and emulated it. Late in life, both my deteriorated hip joints were replaced by metal prostheses, enabling me to trigger airport detectors. (I carry a card explaining the reason.) Interestingly, the new hip joints influence my dreams. They say that amputees dream of themselves as whole again. In my dreams I frequently see myself running, smoothly and effortlessly, usually through crowded city streets as a "picture runner" once again.

Nothing is too good for them. Until 1940, when the draft was started, our armed forces were made up volunteers. Since 1973, our armed forces have again been made up exclusively of volunteers. In the armed forces of what is now the richest nation in the world, therefore, it comes as a surprise to learn that more than 25,000 military families of service men and women are on food stamps. Constituents of Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have reported that the Army now includes applications for food stamps in its orientation packet for recruits. The Bush tax cut for the wealthy did not extend a child tax credit to some 200,000 military personnel. Yes, indeed, nothing is too good for them--and nothing appears to be what they are getting.

If you learn a skill like bike riding or ice skating when you are young, they say you always retain those abilities. Funny thing, though--I no longer can whistle, although I loved to whistle as a kid.

Anyone familiar with the art field is aware of the current epidemic of thefts of fine art from museums, galleries and public buildings. Paintings are especially susceptible because of their portability. Recently, I called the Village of Croton's attention to the vulnerability of the framed works of art lining the second-floor hallway of the Stanley H. Kellerhouse Municipal Building. Many are by artists now deceased and so are irreplaceable. At my suggestion, the Village took photographs of these works, which hang on ordinary picture hooks. The paintings are insured under the Village's blanket policy, but no appraisal was made. Thus no dimensions were recorded or descriptions written, which are useful in the recovery of stolen art works. Even better would be a TV surveillance camera monitoring the hallway and connected to Croton police headquarters, downstairs in the same building.

I have never seen a woman riding on the backseat of a motorcycle who seemed to be enjoying herself.

As if we didn't have enough problems in Iraq, another commotion has arisen. Our hand-picked Governing Council has approved a new flag for the country, scrapping Saddam Hussein's old design that had red and black bands across top and bottom and a white band in between with three green stars. Saddam later added the words Allahu Akbar ("God is great") to boost the religious credentials of his secular regime. The already unpopular new flag has a blue crescent moon on a white field at the top. At the bottom are two parallel blue stripes with a yellow stripe in between. (The only other country in the Middle East with blue stripes on its flag is Israel.) The new flag's colors actually duplicate those of the Swedish flag. It's only a matter of time before some comic dubs it, "Moon over Stockholm."

Believe it or not, there really was a Philip Morris, not the unresponsive hotel guest that bellhop Johnny paged so raucously in radio and TV commercials. The real Philip Morris opened a tobacco shop on Bond Street in London, England, in 1847. It remained a simple retail operation until 1854, when he began making cigarettes. The company introduced its cigarettes in the United States in 1902. American investors purchased the rights to the Philip Morris name in 1919. The Marlboro brand was introduced in 1924--as a woman's cigarette!

My father took issue with Mark Twain's observation that "Frankness is a jewel only the young can afford." "Nonsense," he would say, "it's a jewel only the old can afford. We old farts have nothing to lose by speaking plainly."

Did you know that the 3-M Company (Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company) was founded in 1902 at Crystal Bay, Minnesota, to mine corundum, an abrasive. After selling only one ton of material to grinding wheel manufacturers, the mining business failed. No other purchasers could be found. To stay alive, in 1905 the company shifted to sandpaper production. It couldn't afford to pay its president, Edgar Ober, a salary during his first eleven years. Experiments with adhesives for its sandpaper products eventually led to Scotch Tape and Post-Its. The rest is history.

I may be dating myself, but one of the funniest comedians I ever saw perform was Dick Shawn (real name: Richard Schulefand). Another was Ronnie Graham (real name: Ronald Montcrief Stringer). Their brand of comedy may not have been for everyone--but it was for me.


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