Monthly Archives: January 2014

You’re Welcome

If you watch live news shows where people get interviewed, you may have noticed that most of them don’t know how to answer when somebody says, “Thank you.”

When an interview ends, the moderator will usually say something like: “Secretary Auchterturra, thank you very much for your time this morning.” Almost always, the good Secretary will pause, as if “thrown” by the comment, and then reply almost timidly: “Thank you.”

There are times when such a reply is called for. You would use it if someone gave you a vintage Corvette that they no longer wanted, and after you loaded it onto your truck they said: “Thank you for coming by and getting the Corvette.”

This is a clear case of the giver being way too gracious, and though you might reply with: “You’re welcome,” most people would consider it fitting if your benefactor reneged on his offer, or at least lamented his poor judgment in handing over his collectible sports car to an ungrateful imbecilic.

The appropriate reply is: “No, thank you!” and to emphasize “you,” to acknowledge your understanding that you have done this person no favor, and that it is they who are doing one for you.

The other time it’s appropriate is if you’re someone who is never asked for their opinion, or to give their side of the story — especially if wrongly accused. After going over the perfectly legitimate reason(s) why you were found walking naked through Grand Central Station at four A.M., and the interviewer thanks you for clearing things up, the only appropriate way to answer is to say, “No, thank you!”

In all other cases, the correct, well-mannered way to respond to someone saying, “Thank you,” is: “You’re welcome,” or something like it.

You might be thinking: Why isn’t it okay for anyone to say “Thank you” for being interviewed? Couldn’t it be said that they might also appreciate being given a chance to speak their mind, share their thoughts, show everyone how smart they are, etc.? It is, but not when you’re getting thanked at the end of the interview.

If interviewees have a great need to show appreciation, it should be worked into the interview itself. After the first question, they could say: “I am so happy you’ve asked me here to explain the benefits of again allowing cigar smoking on airplanes,” or whatever topic or cause you’ve been invited to comment upon.

People who are paid to answer questions or offer opinions should avoid thanking their inquisitors, even though this is the sweetest of gigs. When the Fox News producer calls and offers to pay you to go on air and explain why the pulse rates of Republican men increase when Sarah Palin wears a red leather mini-dress, you would be crazy not to emphatically thank whoever it was who thought to call you.

But after you dazzle everyone with your articulate explanation of RMRTRLDP (Republican Male Response to Red Leather Dress Psychosis), you will appear to be a little more credible and professional if you graciously say, “You’re welcome,” when thanked for such enlightenment.

The most confounding of unjustified thankers are famous or important people whose opinions are highly valued and often sought. When interviewers thank these people, it’s because they really appreciate their showing up. Usually they’re not getting paid, and are there because they genuinely believe their two cents might be of some benefit to some person, place or thing.

All have fielded the interview-ending “thank yous” before, but still seem unprepared. I have watched current and former presidents and vice-presidents fumble for an reply, as though they’d been asked to name and spell all the Balkan Territories. Secretaries of state, defense attorneys, murder suspects, congressmen and women, aldermen, sex offenders, political bloviators, leading men and ladies, dictators, despots and royalty, all similarly bumbling when faced with the simple social grace of being thanked for doing something.

It should not be this way and the solution is easy: Settle on something that is always offered when someone says: “Thank you.” For me, those words are: “You’re welcome.” For those who want to get creative, try: “My pleasure,” or, “Happy to.” It’s even okay to add something like: “I appreciate your asking me about this,” as long as it comes afterwards.

Except as noted, the only reply to “Thank you,” that makes a person look like an ill-prepared, dullard is: “Thank you.”

Okay?

You’re welcome.

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Junk Drawer

Since my Johnny Angel post, I’m more aware of things that are presaged or connected in some way to other things. Or could it be they’re happening more often?

There’s a drawer in the kitchen that holds various items, like tape, rulers, pens, pins, picture hooks, sticky notes, pliers, tape measures, screw drivers, etc. A couple of days ago I was in it because I needed a paperclip that I was going to straighten and use its tip as a probe to clean some built-up minerals from one of the drip holes in the coffee maker.

As I rummaged, I came across a box of staples, which I picked up and examined. The box was almost full. It’s there to supply the stapler that’s on the small counter above the drawer. I returned the box to the clutter, found a paperclip and went to work on the coffee maker. As it turned out, what I thought was blockage was just the reflection off a water droplet.

I walked upstairs to my office and started doing some work, which involves reading and writing emails. I still print out some of this correspondence, and occasionally staple related items together. I inserted a couple of papers into my Swingline stapler and gave it the light punch that’s necessary to seat a staple.  When I withdrew the paper, however, I didn’t see a staple in the upper left-hand corner. I was not overly surprised, as a staple is a pretty small thing. Maybe my eyesight was at a point where I just wasn’t able to see it.

But that was not the reason. I didn’t see it because it was not there. I had run out of staples — no more than an hour after handling the box from the junk drawer.

This is not the kind of coincidence that elicits cries of, “No way,” or “Hey, Martha, you’re not going to believe this!” For those, the tying together of incidents has to bridge greater degrees of separation.

Still, the events are more than casually connected because they happened in close chronological proximity. To illustrate the value of time to coincidence, imagine I go to the refrigerator and have an apple and a month later I read a report that refrigerated apples are not as good as ones left at room temperature. Chances are, I wouldn’t even make a connection between the two events. If, however, I see the same report while eating that apple, now it’s noteworthy, yes?

Skirting a cairn of cat turd

Yesterday morning I was reading a book review in the New York Times on my Kindle. The book was “Orfeo,” which was written by Richard Powers and reviewed by Jim Holt. In the course of the review, the following quote was called out: “skirting a cairn of cat turd.” The great thing about Kindles is that when you come to a word you don’t know, you can look it up by just highlighting it. I didn’t know what the word “cairn” meant, and went to it’s definition.

carirn

It’s a pile of rocks

The definition is: “n. A mound of rough stones built as a memorial or landmark, typically on a hilltop or skyline.” Okay, so I learned a new word, but I also noted that — uncharacteristically — the Oxford Dictionary of English did not include the pronunciation. I briefly held this thought: “It would be nice to know how to say it.”

I hit the screen to make the definition go away and continued reading from where I left off. The review continued as follows: ” — the full horror of which is apparent only if you realize that cairn is pronounced kern.”

Mmm. Do you think that’s a little stranger? I think it is, but I know a cynic would say that because of the great, untapped powers of the human mind, I had somehow “read” those words without being consciously aware that I had, and that is why I thought about it’s pronunciation. Maybe, but if I saw it on a subliminal level, then I would have known how to say it, so I hereby reject that possibility, especially since it is improvable either way.

What does it mean?

Whenever I think of this question, I’m reminded of the Underground comic by R. Crumb: Mr. Natural. In it, someone asks the bearded wise man what “it” all means, and he says that it doesn’t mean shit. Since this sardonic and cynical observation can be made about almost anything, it’s best not to give it too much weight, lest it drain life of all its joys.

So maybe in isolation these little things don’t mean you-know-what, but when taken together, I see them as evidence that something unseen is at work, and there exists connections and associations between events and people that no one understands.

Maybe that’s another way of saying they don’t mean shit, but I hope not.

Everything Reminds me of something else

When I was growing up on Long Island, occasionally I would take the Long Island Railroad to New York City. The train ride took us through Brooklyn and Queens, which were once huge manufacturing centers.

One of the building we passed was the Swingline Stapler Company, which had a gigantic neon sign with a stapler where the neon was rigged to make the stapler look like it was opening and closing. I was fascinated by this sign, and if you like such things, there’s a cool website called New York Neon, that catalogs it and other such signs.

Swingline NYT ArticleAnyone who traveled between Long Island and New York saw the sign many, many times, but it doesn’t seem like they took a lot of pictures. The only depiction of it that I could find was this old newspaper article from the New York Neon Website. The sign was put up in 1952, the year I was born. I mention this as an example of a low  grade coincidence that I would have remained unaware of hadn’t I started this article. While the two incidents have a small, imprecise measure of chronological proximity, there is nothing more that connects them. While I was fascinated by the sign, so too were millions of other people. If my research uncovered that the sign was formally dedicated on my birthday, or that my uncle helped build it, I’d feel differently (and curious about when it would be decommissioned).

vintage stapler

I remember the color of these

I was familiar with their product because every teacher in our school had one on their desk, which in my easy-to-impress view, were really rather remarkable pieces of equipment. I suppose that if you took care of a stapler, it would probably perform its function forever — as long as you could keep getting the right sized staplers.

For a while, the sign’s superstructure on top of the building was changed to advertise a bank. In 1999, ACCO Brands (the company that owns Swingline) decided to stop making staplers in Long Island City (and move production to Mexico). In preparation for the shutdown, the superstructure was dismantled.

Between 2002 and 2005, the factory housed the Museum of Modern Art, whose normal home in Manhattan was being renovated. After MOMA moved out, it was reported that the building’s new owners were successful in finding new tenants.

Coney Island New Year’s Swim

In New York, the last gasp of local holiday reportage is coverage of the Polar Bear Club’s annual New Year’s day swim at Coney Island. It’s up there with the Macy’s Parade, lighting the tree at Rockefeller Center and dropping the ball in Times Square.

My first memories of it are snowy black-and-white television broadcasts, or large-dot photos in the daily news, of a couple dozen people — mostly white, out-of-shape men — dashing into the water to casually splash themselves as a handful of onlookers watch and shake their heads at their craziness.

Not sure why, but I’ve been meaning to see this for myself, and 2014 was my year. I was surprised by what a big event it is — two or three thousand people, maybe more.

The actual swim starts at 1:00, but swimmers and celebrants start collecting on the boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue well before that — some coming off all-nighters in the City.

I hate to be the one to break the news, but if you have your heart set on joining the Polar Bears, there are no open positions for full membership. For a suggested twenty dollar donation (more if you wish), you can sign up to swim as a guest, and all the proceeds go to Camp Sunshine in Maine, which is a retreat for children (and their families) with life-threatening illnesses, a very worthy charity.

It’s a party atmosphere, with lots of costumes, and a fair amount of drinking, but nothing excessive. All age groups are represented, with a surprising number of families incorporating the swim into their New Year’s routine. There were a few really old people (over seventy is my new definition), who I thought might be there to check off a bucket-list entry. As I watched some of them come out of the water shivering and turning blue, I worried that I might actually get to see some bucket kicking. Luckily, there wasn’t any.

If you register, you’re assigned a group with whom you join in an en masse charge across a section of the beach that is marked for the occasion. My guess is that more than half of the swimmers registered, and for those that didn’t, they just congregated on either side of the reserved area and took their plunges when the time seemed right.

I took some photos:

The water temperature was reported to be forty-one degrees, which was better than the air temperature of thirty-four. Most of the dips are brief, and exits are hurried. Many bring thick terry cloth robes, which are quickly donned and provide adequate cover for removal of wet swimsuits. Others had friends and family hold up towels as they changed. A few were less modest and publicly stripped, but the change was performed quickly and drew little attention.

This year I was strictly an observer and have to admit to having a notion that maybe next year I’ll go in. Chances are good to excellent that I will not.

The Polar Bear Club was founded in 1903 by Bernarr MacFadden, who is considered by some to be the father of physical culture.

Everything Reminds me of something else

As a child I lived with my family in Brooklyn, and we took the subway to Coney Island a few times. It was the biggest and most wondrous place I had ever seen. To my inexperienced, five-year old eyes, the beach went on forever and was so packed with people, I would have believed that everyone in New York was there. There were these poor guys walking through the crowds in white suits carrying coolers filled with Ice Cream, shouting out the name of their products. I remember a guy calling out, “Hey Fudgie Wudgie,” over and over.

Before places like Disneyland, Coney Island was considered the world’s center for seaside entertainment. The streets that ran from Surf and Mermaid Avenues to the Boardwalk were lined with a hodgepodge of amusements and attractions run by independent operators. There were a couple of larger “parks” that offered rides, games and food. The two most famous ones were Luna Park, that burned down in the forties, and Steeplechase, that I went to before it was torn down in 1966 by Fred Trump, who is noteworthy for making a millionaire out of one of the worlds largest windbags: Donald Trump.

Coney Island HorsesSteeplechase was named after the ride where you rode on a wooden horse that ran around the building on an outdoor track. There was a leather belt that was supposed to hold you on, but it seemed to me that if you fell off, you would probably be run over by the other horses, of get dragged across the ground until you were a bloody mess. This ride and many others would be shut down in today’s litigious society — and it’s a damn good thing because they were unbelievably dangerous.

Tornado Roller CoasterWhen I was about five, I remember begging my mother to take me on the Cyclone, which at the time was one of the biggest roller coasters in the world. She refused, saying it was too extreme, but agreed to take me on the Tornado, which was pretty damn big, too. She warned me that once I got on, I would not be able to get off, and as evidence of how naïve (okay, stupid) I was, I took this to mean that we would be on the ride for the rest of our lives, which was perfectly fine with me. My mother taught me how to properly ride a roller coaster that day, which includes screaming and laughing, and holding your hands over your head when you’re on a steep decline.

When I was around twelve, I was a paperboy for Newsday in the Long Island town of Islip, NY, where our family had moved a few years before. The Paper would have contests to encourage us to sign up new subscribers, and a couple of times the prize was a trip to Coney Island. Once we caravanned to the place with parents of other carriers, and another time we took a bus. Both times we were let out to run wild, with a warning to find our way back to the arranged rendezvous at a specific time, or risk being left alone on the mean streets of Coney Island, into which we would almost surely disappear forever.

And that seemed quite possible, as there were all manner of creepy people wandering around, and there were plenty of dive bars and unsavory characters going in out of those places. One of the attractions were called “Fun Houses,” where you would walk through cramped, dark passageways and people would jump out from behind corners and scream at you — and they were terrifying! I was convinced that these were real ghouls, some probably off the street and getting paid enough for a beer to scare the punks from Long Island.

There was a penny arcade with a machine that even then was ancient, and for a nickel you would look in a visor as you turned a crank and watch a flip-card movie of a scantily clad woman who danced and flashed her breasts at the end. I kept waiting for somebody to stop us from dropping our nickels into the machine, but no one did. Part of Coney Island’s allure was an undercurrent of something a little illicit. Years before there was a place on the boardwalk where a blast of air would come from below when girls walked over it, which blew their skirts up in the air. Anywhere else this would have been scandalous, but at Coney Island it was okay, it was just fun.

Through a friend, I knew some guys who were a few years older than us, and they were pretty wild. One night they went to Coney Island and had their picture taken, all of them wearing leather coats, looking tough and holding liquor bottles. I didn’t know then, but Coney Island had long served as a Photo Studio for people of limited means. I found this out after being presented with this picture of my grandparents proudly holding their infant son, my dad, posed in a dinghy sporting a Coney Island pennant. Off to Coney Island

The Coney Island of today is barely a shadow of its former self. Steeplechase and Luna Park are gone. A minor league baseball stadium stands where Steeplechase was, and there are some pretty big empty lots abutting the boardwalk, for which there’s talk of development. There is a place with a bunch of rides that looks like fun, but the attractions that used to line the streets are gone. Nathan’s is still there, and the Cyclone, too. I am committed to taking a ride on it as soon as it opens in the spring — it’s looking a little rickety.

Cyclone Rollar CoasterHappy New Year

Joe

Johnny Angel

jacketsOn New Years Day I was watching the annual Twilight Zone Marathon and getting a familiar and increasingly uncomfortable feeling that I had never seen some of the episodes. After watching the show for — God, I had to say this — nearly fifty years, shouldn’t I by now have seen every one? Well, I haven’t, and am starting to think that maybe this would make for a pretty good Twilight Zone premise. Something like:

Aging guy watches old TV show marathon and tries to convince others that someone’s inserting new, never-before-seen episodes, but can’t because everyone believes he is a doddering old fool who is losing his marbles and is no longer able to remember what he has seen in the past.

One came on that I remember, and it’s called “Black Leather Jackets,” with Shelley Fabares, who falls in love with a guy who turns out to be from outer space. Anyway —  and it’s what happens whenever I am reminded of or see Shelley Fabares — I began singing one of my favorite songs (really), “Johnny Angel.”

For those that don’t know anything about Shelley Fabares, when she was a teenager she was on the Donna Reed television show, playing an all American girl named Mary Stone, who was popular, extremely cute, nice to everyone, and owner of many American teenage boy’s hearts, including mine.

It ran from 1958 — 1966 and was set in a bucolic small town somewhere in America, where her father was a doctor who practiced out of his home, which in those days was pretty common. Donna Reed was her stay-at-home mom before there existed a need for such a term.

She was as perfect as her daughter — perhaps even more so now that I think about it. Involved with the school and community, Donna effortlessly fixed everything that wasn’t quite right. The family was kept running smoothly, all while Mrs. Stone looked very good in poufy party dresses, high heels and pearls. Did I mention she also did her own housework? She did.

William Roberts was the show’s producer and decided it would be good for the show, and Shelley, too, to become a popular singer. Thus, Johnny Angel was born in 1962. The record sold over a million copies and was number one for awhile, which indeed made Shelley Fabares a pop sensation. Here are some lyrics:

Johnny Angel, how I want him, how I tingle when he passes by

Every time he says hello my heart begins to fly

I’m in heaven, I get carried away

I dream of him and me, and how it’s gonna be

Other fellas call me out for a date, but I just sit and wait, I’d rather concentrate, on Johnny Angel…

Okay, there is something a little untoward about a grown man singing these words — in more ways than one I imagine — but exposing one of my harmless eccentricities for ridicule isn’t why I mention it. It’s what happened afterwards.

Minutes after seeing Shelley and launching into a Bill Murrayesque rendition of the song, I went to Walgreens for a few things. When I walked into the store, what do you suppose was playing over the store’s PA? If you guessed Shelley Fabares singing Johnny Angel, you guessed right!

Anyone would have to admit that this is really strange and well beyond the boundaries of normal coincidence — but it gets weirder. I left Walgreens and drove to Burger King and was listening to Cousin Brucie (who in the sixties was a big DJ in NY, and for a time considered to be very cool, something I’m still trying to figure out). Without changing his schtick, he has managed to land a show on satellite radio that centers around music from that time, and it includes interviews with people who were at the top of their game back then.

As I waited in the Drive-thru, he was talking to some guy who reminisced about the people he’d worked with over the years. If you are guessing that this guy said he’d worked with Shelley Fabares and was involved somehow with the recording of Johnny Angel, you are right again!

All of this happened within an hour. What are the odds against that? The connections were made first by cable TV, then me (remembering and singing), then Walgreens’ PA system, and finally Satellite radio. These sounds and images all found their way to one set of eyes and ears within an hour, traversing hundreds of thousands of miles.

When something like this happens, eventually I ask myself: So, what does it mean? I never come up with a good reason, though sometimes I think about buying a lottery ticket. I am pretty sure it means something, and that these odd occurrences stand as evidence for whatever that something is.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio. Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Being unable to explain or understand these things is probably what makes them so much fun. These are the real mysteries of our lives, ones where we play a role, ones whose explanations lie somewhere in the cosmos, or heaven, or…who the hell knows where.

I have only a few of these (and treasure them), and will blog about them from time to time. In the meanwhile, I’d love to hear of similar instances, so feel free to send them along.

Happy New Year!

Joe

Everything reminds me of something else

Donna Reed and Jimmy StewardDonna Reed was in a movie entitled: It’s a Wonder Life, She plays Mary Hatch and has a scene with Jimmy Stuart (George Baily) that takes place in her mother’s house and is noteworthy for two reasons: First, she is beautifully photographed and is radiant. Second, it’s one of the most excruciatingly sentimental love scenes I’ve seen on film (or anywhere, I guess). It takes place when she is talking on the phone to Sam Wainwright. Pay special attention to how they look at each other, especially when Sam is talking.

 

Happy New Year!