Monthly Archives: March 2009

A. Purl Fuel

Got any errands for me?

Got any errands for me?

One of the reasons you have trouble sleeping is that you’re haunted by the question, “what is the origin of April Fools’ Day?”  The answer won’t cure your insomnia, I’m afraid, because it’s “no one really knows”.  There are many theories, most of which have to do with the change of seasons around this time of year.  The most frequently suggested hypothesis has to do with the change of calendars.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII tossed out the Julian calendar, which had been a pet project of Julius Caesar.  The pope modestly allowed people to call his creation the Gregorian Calendar, and it’s the one we still use today.  Gregory decreed that the new year started on January 1st, while under the Julian calendar, the Rose Parade was held around April 1st.

The connection to April Fools’ Day is that there were some people who either resisted changing to the new calendar or hadn’t gotten the word about it yet.  These people were considered prime targets for pranks or hoaxes.  Since they were presumed to be fools, they were sent off on “fool’s errands”.

The problem with this hypothesis is that the whole world didn’t adopt the Gregorian Calendar at the same time.  The British (and their American colonies) didn’t get around to it until 1752, but April Fools’ pranks were already a long-established practice in England by then, dating back several centuries.

Incidentally, the French call April 1st Poisson d’Avril, which literally means “April Fish”.  To Parisian prankster purists, the joke is supposed to be fish-related in some way.  This is reputed to be an old favorite:  While in a phone conversation, ask the other party to “hold the line”.  Then, after a minute or two, punch back in and say, “have there been any bites?”  (As if it was a fishing line, get it?  Hilarious.)

So I can’t fix your sleepless nights, but the following story might make you drowsy…

My father was what you could call humor-impaired.  He had a grab bag of stale jokes he had memorized, but there was very little in life that genuinely struck him as amusing.  Once a year, though, his funnybone regained some feeling; on April 1st he would attempt an April Fool prank.  It was usually the same one.

Dad was the branch manager of a bank for many years; this was back in the ’50s and ’60s — pre-computer days.  Account records were all kept on paper and stored on library shelves in the bank’s basement.  As you might imagine, there was a huge quantity of paperwork on file down there.

So this is how my father’s prank worked.  On a slip of paper he would write this “name”:  A. Purl Fuel.  He would give it to an unsuspecting employee and instruct them to bring up the account records for the person whose name was on the piece of paper.  The employee would obediently go search in the archives, sometimes for an hour or more.  Once in a while the victim of this prank caught on fairly quickly, but usually the employee would return to my dad empty-handed and frustrated.  The employee would insist — correctly — that there was no such account.  “Are you sure?” my father would ask, and then say something like, “there was nothing under that name on the paper?  Look again, what’s the name?”  Once the employee said it aloud, they caught on.  And my dad would have his annual laugh.  Good one, huh?  Because he or she needed to keep the job, the employee didn’t stab my dad in the neck with a fountain pen.  

If you’ve been the victim or perpetrator of an April Fools’ Day prank, feel free to share it under “Comments”.  I promise I won’t do anything tricky or mean.  No, really, I won’t.

Advertisements

Poll Results

Florence, one of many beautiful places in Italy

Florence, one of many beautiful places in Italy

The way the question was phrased — “Where would you like to go next?” — didn’t take into account where you’ve been recently.  That might have some bearing on why Hawaii came in last, with 6%; maybe a lot of you just got home from there.  Tied for third, each with 12%, were A Caribbean Island and Southeast Asia.  Paris had 24%, good for second place.  Almost half of you — 47% — want your next destination to be Italy, making it our winner.  We may revisit this poll topic in the future, offering different choices.  After all, when it comes to travel, there are so many appealing places to visit (we’ll rule out countries whose names end in “stan”).

Our new poll is a bit more fanciful, but we’re not striving for scientific breakthroughs here.  So as they used to say on Election Day in Chicago:  Vote early and often!

You Need How Much?

New York City On $7,600 a Day

New York City On $7,600 a Day

The Associated Press recently reported on divorce proceedings involving the chairman of the board of United Technologies Corporation.  George David is 67; his soon-to-be ex-wife Marie is 36.  Both accuse each other of extramarital affairs; apparently the young woman was having special sleepovers with a “friend”.  Mr. David, meanwhile, was presumably meeting someone and using his AARP card to get discounts on hotel rooms.

This is pure speculation on my part, of course, but I can’t help wondering if the significant age difference between George and Marie was a factor in their growing disenchantment with each other.  It may have annoyed him that, like so many people of her generation, Marie incessantly used the phrase “it’s all good”.  People in their late sixties know that it’s not all good; in fact, some of it is now way below average, and even painful.  Marie, on the other hand, may have begun to have second thoughts about George because of the generational gulf in their musical tastes — the last group he’d heard of was Captain & Tennille.

What is a matter of record is that they were married in 2002, but by 2004 the marriage was in trouble.  Attempts at reconciliation were made, and in October 2005 a post-nuptial agreement was signed; it called for Mr. David to give Marie $43 million in the event of a divorce.  Then he went ahead and had an extramarital affair anyway!  If the judgment of the chairman of a major corporation is so poor that he thinks some extracurricular slap-and-tickle is worth $43 million, it’s no wonder the U.S. economy has turned to rubble.

Well, they both agree that the marriage is irretrievably broken, but Marie now says she can’t live on a mere $43 million.  She has filed papers to have the post-nup invalidated, and is asking the court to make George give her about $100 million in cash and stock, plus $130,000 a month in alimony.

Marie itemized her weekly expenses, which included her Park Avenue apartment and three residences in Sweden.  Other weekly expenses include $4,500 for clothes — weekly, remember — $1,000 for hair and skin treatments, and $1,500 for restaurants.  Having lived for a while in New York, I’m not sure $1,500 a week is enough for food, but she may be one of those super-thin model types who can get by on a stalk of celery and a smoothie.  If you’re eating in real NYC restaurants, though, your $1,500 for food is gone by Wednesday night.

Marie also itemized expenses for limousine service and for travel ($8,000 weekly).  I noticed that she failed to include anything for charitable donations, but when you’re struggling to get by, I guess you have to cut back somewhere.

Gentlemen, let’s admit it — from time to time we’ve grumbled that our wives have squandered on shoes or clothes or whatever.  But this sad story of George and Marie just goes to show how lucky we are — by comparison, our wives are misers.  So here’s my recommendation:  show your better half how much you appreciate that she’s not a spendthrift.  Treat her to dinner tonight.  And not just the drive-through, either — take her inside and get seats at the counter.

Turtle Walk

 

Consider yourself warned

Consider yourself warned

The Caribbean coast of Mexico teems with hotels, resorts, and timeshares that cater to tourists in what has become known as the Riviera Maya.  The beaches are beautiful, to be sure, and there are many opportunities to watch attractive people cook their skin — if you love being in crowds, this is paradise. 

About an hour’s drive south of Cancún is a little village called Akumal (Ah-coo-MAHL) that’s more to my taste.  It’s still a bit scruffy, although developers are doing their best to purge its charm.  Eventually every square inch of beachfront will probably have a home or resort on it.  For now, though, the reason for going there isn’t a luxury hotel; it’s what is in the turquoise water of Akumal Bay.

In addition to undersea clouds of tropical fish, there are lots of sea turtles that swam up to check us out while we were snorkeling; often they would come within a few feet of us.  It turns out that this stretch of coastline — and this bay in particular — is where the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.  In fact, in the Mayan language, Akumal means “place of the turtle”.  A local environmental group is working to preserve their habitat; Sally and I volunteered to help one night.  Here’s what I wrote about that experience in a journal entry dated May 23, 2005:

Someone, somewhere, had proclaimed this World Turtle Day.  By coincidence, we had signed up through the Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA) to take a “Turtle Walk”.  This is the time of year when the turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, and the objective of the walk is not just a late-night stroll, but to identify and protect the nests.

We were instructed to report to the Centro at 9 p.m. wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts (for protection from the bugs).  The first item of business was a PowerPoint presentation giving an overview of turtle anatomy, behavior, natural enemies, etc.  It was pretty much what one would expect at an ecological center, although this was rather challenging to follow because the speaker used heavily-accented English — and was suffering from laryngitis.

This same guy — whose name was Pablo — was also our leader on the turtle walk, which began at 10:00 p.m.  The patrol consisted of (besides Sally and me) Pablo, a young couple from Colorado, and two volunteers from CEA.  We were to maintain silence — no problem for Pablo, who by now had been rendered virtually mute — and to use no lights that didn’t have a red filter.

Our route took in the entire sweep of Akumal Bay, and farther south around Jade Bay.  We walked in single file; occasionally Pablo would stop and point out tracks in the sand that gave evidence that turtles had been here.  He and I followed one track up the beach and into the back yard of a private home.  We saw no turtle, just a middle-aged woman wandering inside her house in a bra.

From time to time a security guard would suddenly appear; Pablo would have whispered conversations with them and then we would trudge on.  Despite the late hour, it was quite warm and muggy.

So the rain felt good for a while.

Pablo signaled that we were to take a 20-minute break when we reached the southern point of Jade Bay.  We sat in the sand and silently perspired.  Then we got up and walked back toward Akumal.  At the edge of Akumal Bay, he gave us a choice — we could continue on patrol, or return to our hotels.  The couple from Colorado had had enough and said their goodnights, but Sally and I decided to stick it out a while longer.  Again we walked in the dark to the south end of Jade Bay, then took another break.

On the northbound trek, we finally had a turtle sighting.  She was just coming out of the water!  Pablo was excited and rushed closer.  The turtle picked up his scent and retreated back into the bay.  Damn.

Pablo had one more turtle sighting; he crept closer and then remained perfectly still.  So did the turtle — it was a rock.  It was well after midnight when we were again given the option of staying on patrol or calling it a night.  We chose the latter.  We were sweaty and sandy and had fresh bug bites, but we’d certainly had an adventure.  It was quarter-past-one in the morning when we fell onto our bed and waited for the ceiling fan to take effect…

(May 24)  A postscript to last night’s Turtle Walk:  during our errands, we stopped in at CEA and found Pablo.  We asked him if they’d had any sightings after we retired.  “No,” he said, confirming that we had made the right choice. 

That next day, though, we were swimming with the turtles again, just as we did almost every day of the trip. 

March Madness

The object of our affection

The object of our affection

The National Collegiate Athletic Association is holding its annual basketball fundraiser over the next couple of weeks, providing hundreds of student-athletes the opportunity to justify their scholarships.  The “student” component isn’t emphasized, of course, and with good reason:  the school administrators who organized this tournament apparently weren’t so hot in the classroom themselves — they all seem to have flunked Geography.  Why else would they hold East Regional games in Boise, Idaho; South Regional games in Portland, Oregon and Kansas City; West first-round games in Philadelphia; and Midwest contests in Miami?

But let’s move on to the games themselves.  Here are some observations and predictions, many of which will be proven wrong by early April…

WEST REGIONAL:  Every year for over a decade in this tournament, at least one upset has occurred in the 5 vs. 12 matchup, or the 6 vs. 11.  In some years there have been several.  With that in mind, I’m picking #12 Northern Iowa to shock Purdue, and I also think #11 Utah State could take down #6 Marquette.  The Aggies went 30-4 this season, and Marquette G Dominic James is out of the tournament with a broken foot.  Either way, Missouri will win the second round game…

Favorites in this bracket are Connecticut and Memphis.  UConn has a dominating player in the middle, 7’3″ Hasheem Thabeet.  Connecticut also has injury issues, though:  they’re missing G Jerome Dyson.  The Huskies have gone 4-3 since Dyson went out.  Memphis has a lot of great athletes and plays suffocating defense.  I’m picking the Tigers to win this regional.

Sweet 16 participants from this region:  UConn, Washington, Missouri, Memphis

MIDWEST REGIONAL:  Here’s a little-known fact about Siena College:  that it exists.  But it’s there, all right, tucked away in a suburb of Albany, New York.  Siena, a #9 seed, gets Ohio State in the first round, and I’m going with the underdog in this one.  All five starters from last year’s team returned; it’s the same Siena that knocked off #4 Vanderbilt in the 2008 tournament.

The rest of the games in this region follow form in the first round, and I’m reluctant to say that because it means I’m predicting that my alma mater, USC, will lose early.  Beyond that, I think # 7 Boston College is capable of winning a couple of games, knocking out #2 Michigan State in the 2nd round.  #1 Louisville is deep and talented and should cruise through to the Midwest final.

Sweet 16 participants from this region:  Lousiville, Wake Forest, Kansas, Boston College

EAST REGIONAL:  Some experts are predicting that #11 Virginia Commonwealth will upset #6 UCLA in the first round, but I disagree.  I do believe that the Bruins’ participation in the tournament will be relatively brief this year; I see them losing to #3 Villanova in the 2nd round.  UCLA guard Darren Collison is not 100% physically, and even if he was, this team is not as strong as in the past three seasons.

#5 Florida State has been playing well of late, and stands to win a couple before getting knocked out by #1 Pittsburgh.  #2 Duke’s main strength is perimeter shooting; one off night and they’re done.  I’m guessing that off night is going to come against #3 Villanova.  The Wildcats and #1 Pittsburgh are the class of this bracket, with the Panthers winning the regional.

Sweet 16 participants from this region:  Pittsburgh, Florida State, Villanova, Duke

SOUTH REGIONAL:  My way-out-on-a-limb pick here is the #12 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.  I’m not only predicting  they’ll beat #5 Illinois in the first round, I see them defeating #4 Gonzaga in the second.  Western Kentucky has 4 players averaging double figures in scoring, beat Louisville during the regular season, and has overcome the embarrassment of playing its home games in something called Diddle Arena.

My favorites in this bracket are #1 seed North Carolina and #3 seed Syracuse.  North Carolina’s fortunes depend to some extent on whether G Ty Lawson has recovered from his toe injury — the Tar Heels are much, much better with him in the lineup.  I’m guessing he’ll be able to play.  #2 seed Oklahoma has only been so-so in its last ten games; #3 Syracuse will defeat them in the round of 16.  North Carolina wins the regional final.

Sweet 16 participants from this region:  North Carolina, Western Kentucky, Syracuse, Oklahoma

Final Four:  Memphis, Louisville, Pittsburgh, North Carolina

Champion:  Louisville

That’s what I think, anyway.  But I’ve been wrong before.

Source Material

Fodder

Fodder

Several times over the course of my television writing career I was asked by civilians, “Where do you get the ideas for stories?”  The truthful answer, I suppose, would be “We steal them wherever we can.”  Everything is potential source material for a roomful of writers who need to come up with twenty-some episodes every season.

I’ll sheepishly admit that basic story ideas, which TV writers call “notions”, were appropriated not only from our own life experiences, but from family and friends, too.  By way of example:  Over dinner one night, a couple of friends mentioned a misunderstanding they’d had years before, about her engagement ring; I embellished the basic facts into an episode of Cheers called “Diamond Sam”.  In every writers’ room I was ever in, a lot of personal stuff got shared, and it wasn’t always our own personal stuff.

I also regularly searched newspapers and magazines for possible story ideas.  Writers for drama shows — especially the police procedurals — do that too, but they favor a ripped-from-the-headlines approach, the sensational crime stuff that makes the front page.  For comedy shows, on the other hand, I ripped obscure items from page 27.  I’d clip out those little oddities that often go overlooked in hopes that they might be useful sometime, and occasionally they were.  While going through my file cabinet the other day, I came across a folder full of yellowed clippings that for one reason or another never morphed into a television script.  I should probably throw them out, but some of them are just too good to abandon.

Consider this little nugget that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 18, 1987.  The headline was You Can’t Teach an Old Thief New Tricks:

An elderly man whom prosecutors called “an interesting guy but an irredeemable crook” was facing yet another prison term Wednesday for his latest arrest in a criminal career stretching back to the years before World War I.  Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles Boag said Ronnie Winston Fairbanks, 88, who has been arrested at least 137 times and used more than 80 aliases during a long life of petty crime, was arrested again on suspicion of shoplifting June 10 at a Robinson’s department store in downtown Los Angeles, where a store security agent said he had stuffed $174 worth of women’s earrings in his shirt and a duffel bag.

Boag said Fairbanks has a 37-page “rap sheet” dating back to a juvenile arrest in 1914 and was on probation at the time of his arrest for a June, 1986 incident in which police at Los Angeles International Airport found him in possession of two stolen suitcases.  “He was warned by the judge then that if he violated parole, he would go to state prison for two years,” Boag said.  “I feel sorry for the guy, but what can you do — he just won’t stop stealing.”

Fairbanks, whose colorful list of aliases includes the name “Ivanhoe Boggle”, told police after his airport arrest that he had spent 35 years in prison.  He carried 10 Social Security cards, each bearing a different identity, and his arrest sheet showed arrests and convictions in at least 10 states — though none for a crime more serious than theft.

One of my few career disappointments is that I never found a way to work Ivanhoe Boggle into a script.

“Honestly, Ogg, Is That All You Think About?”

The Venus of Willendorf -- Naturhistorisches, Vienna

The Venus of Willendorf -- Naturhistorisches, Vienna

For a very long time, men have been fascinated by the female body.  (I’ll give you a moment to get over the shock of that revelation.)  I can’t cite scientific studies that have proven that beyond doubt; all I can offer is anecdotal evidence.  Go into any art museum — with the exception of the Vatican Pinacoteca — and you’ll see quite a few paintings and sculptures of women who left the house in such a hurry that they forgot to put on clothes.

Many of those under-dressed women are identified as Venus:  there’s Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”, a.k.a. Venus on the Half-Shell (1482), “The Venus of Urbino” by Titian (1538), “The Rokeby Venus” by Velázquez (c. 1647), “Venus de Milo”, carved by an unknown artist a century or so B.C.E.  There are lots more.

By far the oldest Venus is a sculpture usually called “The Venus of Willendorf”, even though she was created many millennia before the mythological deity came to fame as the Goddess of Love.  The Venus of Willendorf is really, really old.

Now, there are people who can tell you the difference between the Paleolithic Era and the Pleistocene Epoch.  They can tell you what period of time those terms describe, give or take ten minutes.  Luckily for you, I am not one of those people.  “Prehistoric” is close enough for me, although when I’m trying to sound like I know what I’m talking about, I might throw in a fancy term like “Stone Age”.

So we’re just going to have to accept the word of experts that the Venus of Willendorf came into existence  20,000 – 25,000 B.C.E.  Let me interject that I’ve seen her up close and in person, and she doesn’t look a day over 15,000.  She was discovered in 1908 near the Austrian village of Willendorf, and currently resides in Vienna at the Naturhistorisches (Natural History) Museum.

The Venus of Willendorf is 4¼” high, roughly the size and shape of a hand grenade.  She is on display in her own glass case on an upper floor of the museum.  As you look at her, you can’t help wondering (at least, I couldn’t):  What did the artist have in mind?  Was this just an idle pursuit, something to do with his time while waiting for the invention of Checkers?  Was it intended to be a little representation of a goddess; an idol?  Or — more likely — was it supposed to be a fertility symbol, possibly used in some sort of ritual?

A reason art experts believe the Venus of Willendorf was associated with procreation has to do with her shape, which is, shall we say, robust.  When you think about it, the people of 20,000 years ago were on a precursor of the Atkins Diet:  very few carbs, lots of Mammoth-kebobs and weeds.  What that suggests is that it doesn’t seem likely there would be a lot of “plus-size” gals among roving bands of hunter/gatherers, so the artist wasn’t depicting someone he saw every day.  He wasn’t trying to do an anatomically accurate likeness of a model named Ginger or Sophie. 

Rather, whoever carved the Venus of Willendorf was doing a sort of abstract work, emphasizing the external parts of a female body involved with fertility:  The large belly and breasts are an exaggerated representation of pregnancy.

That’s what seems reasonable to me, anyway.  And I have to confess, I’m glad to have had my brief encounter with the Venus of Willendorf.  Personally, I find older women enchanting.