Death on the Cheap

     Recently I received a solicitation from a funeral home outlining the benefits of pre-arranging my last rites and highlighting their *$5,000 complete funeral. The small print accompanying the asterisk explains what this minimum service does not include: vault, cemetery charges, clergy/church fees, newspaper notice, flowers, death certificates or prayer cards. There are undoubtedly additional caveats I would discover if I mailed in the postage-paid card requesting more information.

I wonder how long it will be before I will find in my mailbox an offer from a mortuary who will undercut competitors by offering a $4,000 package payable after death which is bereft of asterisks. Then I could compare my options between Pre and Post.

With Pre I get the minimum steel casket. Post might supply me with the Moses basket casket with multiple handles on all sides so they get me coming and going.

Pre offers the luxury of an on-site crematorium, a service which undoubtedly means more money. At no extra charge Post could allow survivors to pick up ashes after a complementary meal at The Embers Restaurant.

Pre provides 24-hour monitored security in the event some ghoul wishes to bodynap the carcass. Very likely posted outside Post’s headquarters/warehouse is a retired crossing guard who will not allow anyone to cross his path without saying the password: “What do you know, Joe?”

The photo of Pre’s bright, spacious parking area looks appealing because it was taken on a bright summer day, but what about cloudbursts and wintry evenings? Guests can always find shelter from the storm in Post’s deep underground garage, giving the departed assurance that no matter how depraved their existence, mourners can descend to their level.

Pre supplies snapshots and names of its *licensed funeral directors, **licensed funeral apprentices, and ***unlicensed funeral apprentices. Post will not qualify the qualifications of its employees, all of whom are almost certainly to be card-carrying graduates of the Hinchley and Trumbull School of Skullduggery.

Five will get you ten that when some of the hidden costs are revealed, Pre’s funeral will get you closer to ten grand than to five. At least with Post, four will get you six–six feet under.

















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Right Between the Eyes

This year will provide further proof that we never far from the scowling countenance of Frida Kahlo. During this month of March the Michigan Opera Theatre is saluting the artist in Frida and from May to November the New York Botanical Garden will feature the exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life.” The unibrow is back, front and center.

While others honor a woman who brought eyebrows together on canvas, I pay homage to the actress who kept hers widely apart on the screen: Helen Broderick, owner of some of the snappiest lines in 1930s musicals and comedies and possessor of one of the broadest bridges in film history. While Kahlo’s beetling brows chanted “Come Together,” Broderick’s spacious glabella warned “Cross Over the Bridge.”

Whether providing support for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat and Swing Time or counseling Danielle Darrieux in The Rage of Paris, Helen could be counted on to deliver tart lines with aplomb. She memorably stirred the romantic plots of musicals and comedies with her deadpan delivery of no-nonsense observations on the battle of the sexes such as “The only difference in men is the color of their neckties” and “All women are dishonest. If they weren’t, the world would be divided into two classes of people: old maids and bachelors.”

Helen’s roles became less significant in the 1940s, her career ending in a thud in one of Deanna Durbin’s lesser films, Because of Him (1946). Today, if she is remembered at all by some, it is for being the mother of tough-talking Broderick Crawford, who inherited a wide bridge from mater but little of her subtlety as evidenced by his barking interpretation of parts.

In 2015 there will be no celebrations of character actors like Broderick and Edward Everett Horton who enlivened many a movie during Hollywood’s golden age. Let the madding crowd congregate under Frida’s glowering glare; give me the wide open spaces and wit of Helen Broderick.





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Give Pease a Chance

Near the beginning of the catchy tune “Bhindi Bhagee” when Joe Strummer encounters a New Zealander “looking for mushy peas,” the natural assumption is that the visitor is yearning for a foodstuff. However, this curious listener wonders if that man was not inquiring about the availability of a vegetable dish but rather the whereabouts of a quaint character with a peculiar moniker. Instead of stopping someone along the High Road, he might have had better luck along the Low Road.

Mushy Pease might be found trading punches down at the local gym with the likes of Boom Boom Mancini, Bobo Olson, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom or listening to the birdies sing with Red Skelton’s Cauliflower McPugg. Next, try any racetrack in Damon Runyonland where Mushy might be rubbing elbows with Rusty Charlie, Bookie Bob, Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, Sam the Gonoph, Dream Street Rosie, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Madame La Gimp, Hat Horse Herbie, Society Max, Angie the Ox, Dave the Dude, Sorrowful Jones, Louie the Lug, Upstate Red, and Little Mitzi.

But if Mr. Pease really wanted to feel at home he would be living in Crooper, Illinois, the town Paul Rhymer created for the denizens of radio’s Vic and Sade. There Mushy might be playing indoor horseshoes with Vic in Ike Kneesuffer’s basement, dozing on a cart at the railway station with ne’er-do-well Hank Gutstop, chatting through a mouthful of shingle nails with Dwight Twentysixer, riding shotgun on the garbage wagon with Mr. Gumpox, listening to Rush unspool the wheels within wheels of high school life involving chums Smelly Clark, Rooster and Rotten Davis, Bluetooth Johnson, and Cracky Otto, or conversing on the phone with Gus Fuss, Charlie Razorscum, Robert and Slobert Hink, or Rishigan Fishigan from Sishigan, Michigan.

The search for the elusive Mr. Pease would probably end in Crooper at the foot of Sade’s garrulous Uncle Fletcher, who seemed to have a tale for all seasons and all reasons. After detailing in his usual roundabout fashion the missing person’s tenuous relationship with old acquaintances Cliff Dirtshirt and Virgil Dejectedly, Fletcher would likely conclude his folksy reminiscences by remarking that “Mushy Pease was born in Syracuse, Nebraska, moved to Dismal Seepage, Ohio at the age of eight months, married a woman named Flossie Toothpowder, went into the galvanized peanut brittle business, invented a butter churn that would print counterfeit postage stamps, and later died.”

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Education on the Rebound

     An issue of an alumni magazine I received this year provides some interesting contrasts between generations as a two-page spread devoted to current basketball players precedes an article about four elderly graduates reflecting on their experiences teaching in one-room schoolhouses.

The three student-athletes, garbed in school sweats, are photographed lounging on sofas in a cozy setting resembling a living room more than a locker room. Behind them is a team theater area, a “perfect place for the team to review footage from past games and analyze their opponents.” My hunch is that such videos will yield remarks like “Here’s where I start my dunk from the free throw line” and “You clown! You should’ve passed it there instead of dribbling it off your knee into the third row.”

The comments of the three players are instructive. A forward claims “You have to have the mindset that you have to take advantages of the privileges we have” before stating that he gets psyched up for a game by listening to Lil Wayne, which is probably where he gets inspiration for his repetitive speech pattern. A shooting guard chimes in with “There is not a lot of down time which is good, because we don’t like a lot of down time.” Yes, opening books and studying for tests can be a real downer after a double OT win. A junior point guard who has been playing basketball since he was five years old spends the majority of his day in the locker room, a place he finds to be “a kind of home outside of home.” That home is no doubt where he contemplates his nebulous major, university studies, which could one day lead, not to a B.A., but rather to a 10-day contract in the NBA Development League.

The reminiscences of the four alumni who graduated in the 1930s suggest that the emphasis of their academic training prepared them well for the challenges of teaching multiple grades. “I felt very much able to teach,” said one. “All of my teachers had been excellent motivators and kind, compassionate persons. I was determined to be like them.” Another long-retired educator stressed that, beyond teaching the core subjects, she made certain her students learned Latin and Greek origins of English words and the importance of nature study as it related to local agriculture. She also taught them interpersonal skills like how to introduce oneself to others and how to answer the telephone properly. “Lessons covered such topics as good character, industry, obedience, punctuality, good manners, frugality, courtesy, and truthfulness.” One centenarian recalled how children would compete “for the chance to clean erasers.”

In those days students fought for the privilege of cleaning blackboards. Now they fight for the joy of crashing backboards.







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What’s Not in a Name?

     Let the pundits wonder if the days of print media are numbered with their leading question “Who reads newspapers and magazines anymore?” My query to the staffs of magazines is “Who is checking the spelling of names?” Have publishers fired all their copy editors and proofreaders, believing that in a cyber world of abbreviations and corrupted spellings, no one cares how names are spelled?

The most egregious instance of sloppiness in name-checking in recent years occurred in Benjamin Schwarz’s essay “When Men Lost Their Charm” which appeared in the June 2013 issue of The Atlantic. The venerable literary editor of that magazine for a number of years should have known that the actor featured in a number of films with Orson Welles was Joseph Cotten, not Joseph Cotton. Yet the actor’s last name was misspelled eight times in Schwarz’s assessment of The Third Man.

The December 2013/January 2014 Art & Antiques reviewed an exhibition at the Morgan Library of work by and inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. The article, entitled “Under the Raven’s Wing,” was apparently not under a proofreader’s wing because the caption under a portrait on page 45 read “Daguerreotype of Edgar Allen Poe.”

The same inconsistency seems to plague the staff at The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles. The “Name This Famous Person” feature on page 62 of the January 2014 issue offered two spelling options: the caption below the 1848 portrait claimed the famous person is Emily Dickinson while the name attached to the poem “Not in Vain” at the top of the page is Emily Dickenson.

In a profile entitled “The Take-Down Artist” Andrew Goldman described filmmaker Alex Gibney for readers of the December 2013 Men’s Journal as looking a bit like Vladimir Lenin, “but then he’ll laugh, revealing a gap-toothed smile, and he suddenly seems about as menacing as Alfred E. Newman.” Andrew, take this down: the correct spelling of the Mad mascot is Alfred E. Neuman.

Having the same last name as the creator of the Peanuts comic strip, I am about to tee off on writers who still misspell his name: get the t off. Look at the last frame of any of the daily strips and below the title of any of the Sunday spreads: there in bold, printed letters is the correct spelling: SCHULZ.

Is this laziness or carelessness? Nicholas Carr in “The Great Forgetting” indicates how the dependency upon computers to fly planes and cars leads to a reliance on automation, trusting machines to be more precise than humans are. “Most of us have experienced complacency when using a computer. In using e-mail or word-processing software, we become less proficient proofreaders when we know that a spell-checker is at work.” Carr concludes that automation turns us from actors into observers.

The Yankee Doodle Dandy may soon have reason to regret declaring “I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right.” It will be the day an article appears with the title “Over There: A Salute to George M. Wright.”







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Shapes of Things

“Whiskey’s Craft Revival,” which appears in the November 2014 Men’s Journal, praises the virtues of a handful of small distilleries now producing that classic spirit. The same adjective is employed for two of the four whiskeys pictured: Koval Millet has a “round, bright flavor” and Low Gap is described as a “smooth, round whiskey.”

Why does the taster select a modifier usually reserved for globes and balloons for a beverage? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to use round in describing Bowlball Fillitup that comes in a crystal decanter with holes for thumb and two fingers and High Handicap in dimpled fifth jar with a corked tee for a stopper?

Let’s take the rough edges off the next big thing by shining a spotlight on “Crafty Mouthwashes.”

1) Gudgeon–Aged in balsa rain barrels for three weeks, this tangy antiseptic leaves the mouth with a clean, oblong feeling.

2) Inculpate–Distiller/refiner/coal miner Caleb Morrissey blends thymol, menthol, grain alcohol, and a proprietary mixture of boysenberry juice and pappy’s corn squeezings that deliver a sharp square dance flavor to the taste buds. Caleb’s promise: “It’ll cure what ails ya better than any ale that kills ya.”

3) Nonce–Clinically proved to reduce plaque, plague, ague, and achoo, this triple-malted trapezoid treat prevents gingivitis, freshens breath, and dissolves warts.

4) Glabella–Here is a barley-enhanced rinse loaded with ellipsoid piquancy that hits one between the eyes and the jaws simultaneously. Used thrice a day, a healthy swish kills germs between the teeth, around the gums, under the tongue, and over the rainbow.

Down what winding yellow brick switchback lined with rectangular greenbacks the trendy winds will blow is anybody’s guess, although I suspect that the words sung by today’s yes men will match those of Yes in 1972: “Roundabout.”


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The Plateful Dead 4

Almost every trip to a local store will bring us into contact with vehicles bearing vanity plates. While most drivers are pondering over what the combination of seven letters and/or numbers mean, my thoughts are far away as I ruminate about the famous folks no longer with us. Surely in some aery realm the status-conscious who reached earthly heights must be navigating from cloud to cloud or sphere to sphere bearing a badge of identification fore and aft. Look up instead of down and see more plates coming into view right now…

Billy Holliday: LADYDAY

Phil Everly: ILBGONE

June Allyson: THOSWEL

Frank Fontaine: CRAZGUG

Jerry Vale: ALDILA

Lauren Bacall: BABY

George Lindsey: GOOB

Percy Kilbride: RUBE

Anne Baxter: BOUTEVE

Tennessee Ernie Ford: 16 TONS

Bob Hoskins: VALIANT

Gloria Grahame: NOIRGAL

Efrem Zimbalist Jr.: LUERSKN

Ralph Waite: PAWALTN

Harry Morgan: COLPOTT

Henry Morgan: BAD BOY

Shirley Temple: CURLTOP

Edward G. Robinson: TUFGUYC

Jo Stafford: UBLN2ME

Clayton Moore: HIYOSIL

Jay Silverheels: TONTO

Jesse Owens: PRONTO

Don Zimmer: POPEYE2

Pete Seeger: HADHAMR

Cary Grant: 3JUDYS

Mickey Rooney: HARDY 1

Alan Funt: CANDCAM


Andy Williams: BUTRFLY

Casey Kasem: AMTOP40

Audrey Totter: LADNLAK

Sydney Greenstreet: GUTMAN

Ben Hogan: PUTTMAN

Robert Culp: I SPY

Julie London: ICRYRIV

James Gardner: GRNDPRE

Eva Gabor: LISDOUG

Harold Peary: GILDY

Shirley Mitchell: LEILA

Russell Johnson: THEPROF

Fontella Bass: RESCUME

Eli Wallach: TUCO

Jean Harlow: PLATBLD

Curtis Mayfield: SUPRFLY

Buster Keaton: STNFACE

William Castle: TINGLER

Larry Lujack: SUPRJOC

Joan Fontaine: CNNYMPH

Tony Gwynn: MRPADRE

Marty Robbins: BIGIRON

Michael Jackson: BAD

George Sanders: CAD

Emmett Kelly: SAD

John Wayne: DUKE

Tiny Tim: FLUKE

Jimi Hendrix: PURPHAZ

Christopher Jones: MXFROST

Orson Welles: CITKANE

Bea Arthur: SITCOM

Chester Morris: BOSBLKE

Alan Freed: HITMAKR

Rachel Carson: MUCRAKR

Jack Klugman: QUINCME

Ed Nelson: DRROSSI

Annette Funicello: PINPRNS

Basil Rathbone: SHERLOC

Andy Griffith: MATLOCK

George Plimpton: PAPRLYN

Ann B. Davis: SHULTZY

Eartha Kitt: PURALOT

John Barrymore: JACK

Dale Evans: QUEEN

Clark Gable: KING

Jimmy Doolittle: ACE

Caesar Romero: JOKER

Red Skelton: IDOODIT

Jimmy Dean: BGBDJON

Henry Mancini: MOONRIV

Laurence Harvey: RMATTOP

Eddy Fisher: OMYPAPA

Amanda Blake: KITRUSL

Nigel Bruce: DRWATSN

Patti Page: TNWALTZ

Jonathan Winters: MAUDMAN

Himan Brown: HIGHMAN

Lee J. Cobb: LOMAN

Dan Duryea: TOPHEEL

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