DEREK JETERThe coverage this week of Derek Jeter receiving the Roberto Clemente Award got me to wondering again about how he will be regarded a few decades from now. I’m not questioning Jeter’s qualifications; the performance and the stats are there. But baseball immortality, if that’s the right word, comes in more than one form. Many players of at least Jeter’s ability are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and their statistics are indelibly spread upon the record book, but they are largely forgotten except by people like me who have nothing better to occupy their minds.

Jeter isn’t done, and his career base-hits total promises that his name will come up again and again when that category is open for discussion. But whether he will take on a more transcendent presence in the baseball conversation of the future — especially outside the New York area — is not at all certain.

JOE SEWELLA player who comes to mind in this regard is Joe Sewell, who was a starting infielder in the American League from 1920 to 1933, the last three years with the Yankees and the rest with the Cleveland Indians. Sewell got into the Indians’ everyday lineup as a replacement for Ray Chapman, who was killed by a pitch thrown by the Yankees’ Carl Mays. A couple of Sewell’s batting statistics compare favorably to Jeter’s. His lifetime batting average was .312 compared to Jeter’s .317, and his on-base percentage was .391 compared to Jeter’s .388. But hidden in that on-base percentage was a factor that made Sewell one of the most remarkable players in history.

plaque_122023Sewell was the hardest man to strike out in the history of the game. Not by a little bit, by a lot. No one else comes close. He came to bat 7,132 times, and he struck out 114 times. Nick Swisher, to pick a convenient example, strikes out more than  that every year — 129 times in 2009, for instance. There were four seasons in which Sewell played every day and struck out only four times — only three times in 1932, which is the all-time record. He once went 115 consecutive at-bats without a strikeout — also the record. Over his career, he averaged one strikeout per 63 at-bats. The closest challenger is George Stone who, over seven years in the early 20th century, struck out once in every 50 at-bats.

It’s always risky to talk about sports records that will never be broken, but it’s safe to say that I’ll be shagging flies with Shoeless Joe and “Moonlight” Graham long before anyone makes contact better than Old Whatshisname.

PLACIDO DOMINGOWe have attended several of the Metropolitan Opera’s live theater broadcasts — most recently “Aida” last Saturday. If you haven’t tried it, you should. Not an opera fan? That could be just the point. Seeing these operas on the big screen with cinematic camera shots is a different experience from the crow’s nest at the Met. For anyone who has been thinking of taking a first look at opera through this program, I strongly recommend “Carmen” on January 16. Buy early and show up at the theater an hour before the broadcast. These broadcasts all sell out.

ENRICO CARUSOThe next opera we’re going to see is “Turandot” on November 7, and we’re very interested in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” on February 6, both because we’ve never seen it and because Placido Domingo will appear in a baritone role. He sang it for the first time last week in Europe.

This business of a singer switching ranges is rare but not unheard of. Enrico Caruso, is should be no surprise to learn, could sing well in all three male voices and made a recording, which is still available, of “Vecchia Zimarra,” a basso aria from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme.” That aria is often overlooked — after all, the tenor doesn’t sing it — but it is touching, especially in the context of the story. Colline is about to sell his old coat to buy medicine for the dying Mimi.

Caricature of ANDRES de SEGUROLA drawn by ENRICO CARUSOWhat’s even more interesting than that recording is that Caruso once sang that aria during a performance in Philadelphia. The basso, Andres de Segurola, had complained earlier of a sore throat, and Caruso — who was singing Rodolfo — anticipated trouble. Sure enough, de Segurola signalled that he couldn’t sing “Vecchia Zimmara,” so Caruso sang it while the basso mouthed the words. The audience, for the most part, was unaware of what was occurring. That’s de Segurola at the left in a caricature drawn by Caruso.

There’s more about Enrico Caruso at this link:

http://medicine-opera.com/2009/04/03/the-recordings-of-enrico-caruso-1914-1916/

The Times of London reports on Domingo’s debut as a baritone:

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/music/article6889879.ece

DP ends itDuring the last ALCS game, I got this lyric stuck in my head: “So who would want these diamond gems? / They’re diamonds in the rough. / A baseball team needs nine good men. / One guy just ain’t enough.”

I remember hearing that on television about 50 years ago. It was sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” and it got stuck in my head. Every once in a while it comes to the surface.

When it came to the surface the other day, I decided to do what I always tell my students to do — look it up. In the Internet age, that’s a lot easier than it used to be, although this song seemed so obscure that I didn’t expect to track it down.

BBCL0201By searching on a phrase from that lyric I actually found one reference to it. It turns out that it’s part of a jingle that was used in one of a series of public service announcements sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. An application for a grant to help fund the series turned up on a site that houses the archives of the AJC. Among the documents was a page from an issue of TV Guide dated April 28, 1951. On the page was a short article about this animated short that was part of a larger, award-winning anti-bigotry campaign by the AJC. The short was designed to reinforce the idea that people of many backgrounds contributed to life in the United States.

TOM GLAZERThe animated cartoons were by Fred Arnott and the song was written by Lynn Rhodes. I could find out nothing more about either of them. However, the song was sung by Tom Glazer, who had a decent reputation as a folk singer. A lot of people of a certain generation will remember his novelty song “On Top of Spaghetti,” a children’s song he recorded in 1963. He also wrote “Because All Men Are Brothers,” which was recorded by the Weavers and by Peter Paul, and Mary, and “Talkin’ Inflation Blues,” which was recorded by Bob Dylan. Glazer wrote idiotic and kind of racist lyrics to “Skokian,” a Zimbabwean song that was popular in multiple versions. Glazer’s version was recorded by the Four Lads.

Anyway, the song he sang for the AJC went like this:

Though every player is top flight / Our team just falls to pieces / With every game they have to play / The number of flubs increases.

To figure why they fall apart / You needn’t be too clever / With no teamwork the team’s big star / Will die on third forever.

The shortstop simply cannot play / With the jerk who’s second sacker / The pitcher can pitch to anyone / But certainly not to his catcher.

So who would want these diamond gems? ‘/ They’re diamonds in the rough / A baseball team needs nine good men / One guy just ain’t enough.

A nation’s like a baseball team / It’s run by teamwork too. / And every race and every creed / Works with Y-O-U.

Play ball with all your neighbors / Pitch in a little more / Americans, join your teammates all / Roll up a winning score.

ELLE FANNING

ELLE FANNING

We watched “Phoebe in Wonderland,” a 2008 fantasy written and directed by Daniel Barnz.

This film is an off-beat tale about a nine-year-old girl, Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning), who is brilliant and creative, but who confounds her parents and her rigid teachers and principal with outbursts of inappropriate remarks and behavior.

Phoebe’s mother, Hillary (Felicity Huffman as a brunette), is frustrated by her inability to find time — amid housekeeping and raising two little girls — to convert her academic dissertation on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” novels into a book. With her mother’s encouragement, Phoebe has immersed herself in Carroll’s fanciful neighborhoods to the point that she has frequent imaginary encounters with his characters. The competing forces in Phoebe’s psyche are effectively portrayed by Barnz through the blurring of identities between people in Phoebe’s real life and Humpty Dumpty, the Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, and the Mad Hatter

PATRICIA CLARKSON

PATRICIA CLARKSON

Coincidentally — or not, depending on your point of view — Miss Dodger, the new, idiosyncratic drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) is mounting a musical production based on Carroll’s stories. This enterprise becomes a kind of sanctuary for Phoebe — the one place where she can overcome her compulsive outbursts. But there is too much amiss with the little girl, and with her parents, and with the management of the school, to stave off a crisis and an unexpected if not totally comfortable resolution.

Like the film “Millions” which I wrote about here on October 19, this is not for viewers who take things literally or insist on reality in their movies. The film is blessed by a talented cast — also including Bill Pullman as Peter Lichten, Phoebe’s father, and Bailee Madison as Olivia, Phoebe’s sister. The beautiful Tessa Albertson has a brief but haunting non-speaking role as Alice.

TESSA ALBERTSON

TESSA ALBERTSON

This film argues that a person cannot be defined by one or two aspects of her personality. The world around Phoebe — her parents, her siblings, her peers, and most of her teachers — failed her as long as they embraced only the “acceptable” parts of the girl or hoped to make the whole girl acceptable to them by badgering or ridiculing her.

The inscrutable Miss Dodger and the fleeting figure of Alice — who may be better acquainted than they let on at first — provide the only unqualified reassurance Phoebe receives that she, with her strengths and her weaknesses, is a person of value.

FELICITY HUFFING, ELLE FANNING, and BILL PULLMAN

FELICITY HUFFING, ELLE FANNING, and BILL PULLMAN

CHLOE SMITH and WILLIE JEFFERSON / Copyright StoryCorps

CHLOE SMITH and WILLIE JEFFERSON / Copyright StoryCorps

The custodians at Memorial School when I entered kindergarten in 1947 were Charles Dunkerly, Archibald Brown, and George Schmidt. Mr. Dunkerly retired a couple of years later, and there was a tear-filled party for him in the lunchroom. He was replaced by Henry Knoblock.

While I was there, Memorial School mounted a production of “The Marriage of Tom Thumb” which, as the name implies, was a wedding in miniature. Staging this wedding was, I think, a popular diversion in schools at that time. It got its name from an historic event — the marriage in 1863 of Charles Sherwood Stratton and Livinia Warren Bumpus at Grace Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Both were diminutive performers who were employed by showman P.T. Barnum. Stratton’s professional name was “General Tom Thumb.”

CHARLES STRATTON and LIVINIA BUMPUS

CHARLES STRATTON and LIVINIA BUMPUS

The school program used the name “Tom Thumb” but did not otherwise allude to the 19th century ceremony beyond the fact that the whole wedding party and all the guests, not just the bride and groom, were little people — namely we kids. Jackie Carroll, who lived about six blocks from us, was picked to appear as my father, who was chief of the fire companies in our town. At that time, I was put off by that decision, but it has occurred to me since that whoever cast the wedding went to a neutral party rather than choose between my brother and me. They needn’t have bothered. I would have nominated my brother, who shared our father’s name.

My brother and I were chosen to appear as Mr. Brown and Mr. Schmidt — the custodians. I took that as a compliment, because these men were treated with great deference at school and they were very patient and friendly with me, even when I haunted their room in the basement. They gave me little jobs to do around the building — sometimes even getting me out of class to help with some project. With their warmth and self-assurance, they helped create, for me at least, an atmosphere of welcome and safety in that school. When I circulated my autograph book just before graduation, I made sure the custodians signed along with my other friends.

I thought of those men on Friday when I listened to the latest installment in StoryCorps on NPR. The subjects were Chloe Smith, 13-year-old girl who attends a Catholic school in Atlanta, and Willie Jefferson, a custodian she has known since she entered that school in kindergarten. Their conversation is sweet and its implications are profound. You can hear it at this link:

http://www.storycorps.org/listen/stories/chloe-smith-and-willie-jefferson

glf-mantis-27bSo there was a praying mantis on the screen outside our kitchen window this afternoon. When Pat first spotted it, the mantis appeared to be about to grab a lady bug, and we tapped on the window and expressed our disapproval. The mantis desisted and the lady bug went on its way.

I was glad, because I like both lady bugs and praying mantises. Well, I did anyway. Many people cringe at the site of a mantis, but I’ve always thought of the mantis as kind of regal, introspective — sort of a symbol of peace.

I got to wondering why it is that one sees only one praying mantis at a time. When was the last time you saw two of them together? I always tell my students that when a question like that arises in their minds, they shouldn’t let the moment pass without searching out the answer and adding to their store of knowledge.

praymantisI took my own advice and looked around the Web for the answer. I didn’t find an answer to my original question, but I learned a lot of other things, disgusting things, about these creatures. I guess I knew they were carnivores, because they get credit for keeping the insect population under control. I didn’t know that they can get as big as six inches long — not in the United States, fortunately, and that they will attack and eat almost anything. I found a video of a mantis devouring a mouse.

praying mantis 2And then … then I came to the part about cannibalism — including sexual cannibalism. Trust me, you don’t want to know.

Before I had the wisdom to stop reading, I found out that the mantis is thought to have evolved from the roach family, which now strikes me as fitting.

For a couple of generations, kids have been told by presumably well-meaning adults that it is a crime to kill a praying mantis. I found several sites, including Snopes, that claimed that there is no such state or federal law. I also found sites that claimed that the mantis is protected in Connecticut, where it is the state insect, but the Praying Mantis Page on the state’s official Web site doesn’t mention that.

You can read Connecticut’s rationale at this link:

http://www.ct.gov/ctportal/cwp/view.asp?A=885&Q=246504

ALEX ETEL

ALEX ETEL

We watched “Millions,” a British fantasy from 2004 in which a seven-year-old boy finds a small fortune in English pounds and learns a few things about the good and bad potential in money.

Frank Cottrell Boyce adapted his novel for this screenplay and the film is directed, with a lot of whimsy, by Danny Boyle.

The story revolves around a fictional event, the deadline for Britons to either deposit their pounds in the bank or convert them into euros. A very large amount of the obsolete currency is being shipped by rail to a destination where it will be burned. A ring of thieves conspire to steal the money and toss it off the train bag by bag to be recovered by colleagues who are waiting trackside. One of the bags goes bounding into a cardboard “rocket ship” and brings it crashing down onto young Damian Cunningham (Alex Etel), who constructed it out of  cartons and was playing inside.

LEWIS McGIBBON

LEWIS McGIBBON

Damian confides in his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), and the brothers immediately disagree on how to dispose of the cash before it becomes worthless. Damian, who is obsessed with saints to the point that he regularly meets and converses with them, wants to use the money to help the poor — though he isn’t quite sure what condition qualifies as “poor.” Anthony wants to spend some of the money on creature comforts and invest the rest — in real estate, for instance.

The windfall, and the manner in which the boys handle it, eventually brings their father, Ronnie (James Nesbitt), to grief — as though he didn’t have enough trouble, what with being recently widowed and trying to shepherd his sons on his own. The domestic and financial matters are further complicated when Ronnie meets and connects with, as it were, an attractive woman named Dorothy (Daisy Donovan), who met the boys — and inadvertently discovered their wealth — while conducting a charity drive at their school. In the end, thanks to filthy lucre, all the principals learn something about themselves and about each other.

KATHRYN POGSON

KATHRYN POGSON

This is a difficult film to categorize, because it mixes some childhood hijinx with some serious themes. I have found some heated debate on movie web sites about whether it is even suitable for children, although the two boys dominate most of the scenes. Among the most ingenious and entertaining passages are Damian’s encounters with saints, including Joseph, Peter, Francis of Assisi, Nicholas, and Clare. These are not necessarily reverent portrayals, although the insight Damian gains from these conversations is usually therapeutic. And, after all, these are not presented as the actual saints but the saints as they exist in the imagination of a seven-year-old boy. Kathryn Pogson as St. Clare (“patron saint of television … it keeps me busy”) and Enzo Cilenti as St. Peter (“I’m on the door”) are especially hilarious.

Approach this with an open mind, and it’s a worthwhile experience.

LEWIS McGIBBON and ALEX ETEL

LEWIS McGIBBON and ALEX ETEL

RICHARD NIXON

RICHARD NIXON

The AARP recently pointed out in its monthly bulletin that President Richard Nixon in 1972 proposed a health-care reform program that was shot out of the sky, with U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wielding one of the guns.

“Nixon’s plan,” editor Jim Toedtman wrote, “required employers to provide health care insurance for their employees. It provided federal subsidies for the poor and created rural health clinics and a network of state committees to set industry standards, guarantee basic coverage and coordinate insurance for the self-employed. In the process, it would have extended health care coverage to almost all Americans.”

SEN. EDWARD M. KENNEDY

SEN. EDWARD M. KENNEDY

According to Toedtman’s commentary, Kennedy told the Boston Globe earlier this year that Nixon’s initiative was a “missed opportunity” and that, “We should have jumped on it.”

Should have. What were the chances that a Democrat, and a Kennedy at that, would support a sweeping program like that coming from Nixon? Ted Kennedy had his own ideas about health-care reform, and the twain never met. As a result, 37 years later, the problems perceived with health care then — cost and accessibility — are exponentially worse, partisanship still trumps the general welfare, and fundamental reform is no more likely, no matter what bill Congress may pass.

Nixon, meanwhile — if he can hear the debate from where he reposes — is probably as surprised as anyone to learn from his own party that he was a socialist.

"Barber Shop" by Robert Cottingham / www.seavestcollection.org

"Barber Shop" by Robert Cottingham / http://www.seavestcollection.org

I conducted a wake service this week for a man who had operated a barber shop for more than 45 years less than a mile from here. His father operated the shop before that. I hadn’t known either of them, but I appreciated their story as soon as I heard it. Places like that barber shop have always interested me because of the role they play in a community that transcends the immediate purpose of their existence. When I go to the barber, even now, I listen in on the proprietor’s conversations with the Man in the Chair — not because I’m nosy, but because I enjoy being plugged in to this conversation — or, rather, these few links in a conversation that has been going on since, perhaps, 3500 BC — the Bronze Age — to which the oldest known razors have been dated.

I grew up listening to that conversation. There was a barber shop in the building my family owned and lived in, and I hung out in there perhaps a little more than the barbers would have liked. But the Mariano Brothers, Louie and Joe, had been cutting hair there since before I was born — they cut hair there for 62 years all told — and they no doubt thought of me as a small inconvenience within such a broad context. Perhaps, too, they thought exposure to the shop would improve my grooming — something that didn’t happen until I was in my 20s.

barber-shop_14277_smBy my estimate, the customers who contributed to the conversation at the Marianos’ shop were drawn from five generations. If it’s true that all spoken words are still floating around somewhere in the ether, and if it were possible to capture some of the links in the chain forged in the Marianos’ chairs, there no doubt would be observations about what Roosevelt promised Stalin at Yalta, whether the Cardinals would ever win another pennant, what was really going on between Jane Russell and Howard Hughes, why everyone didn’t just get off Nixon’s case, and whether ground beef at 90 cents a pound didn’t mean that the Whole Works was going to the dogs.

I was in the shop one day when a 10-year-old boy “getting his ears lowered” got into a heated argument with a customer-in-waiting, who was old enough to be the lad’s grandfather, over whether Rocky Marciano or Joe Louis had been the Bigger Deal. Anywhere else, the boy would have been thought precocious. But, you see, they were Two Guys Talking in a Barber Shop, so it was OK.

"The Barber" by Nikolaus Gysis (1880)

"The Barber" by Nikolaus Gysis (1880)

THE FORMER MEYER BROTHERS

THE FORMER MEYER BROTHERS

Every time I leave Paterson after teaching my classes, I pass the ornate building that once housed Meyer Brothers Department Store. Before the malls sucked the life out of downtown districts, Meyer Brothers was the place to shop in North Jersey. The big attraction for me when my mother shopped there was the book store, which was located on an elegant little mezzanine at the head of  a grand staircase. Mom could take her time elsewhere, because once she dropped me off in the book store, she knew where she’d find me no matter how much time had elapsed. The keepers of the shop must have a patient bunch, because I used it as if it were a library. We went there fairly often, and I returned to the same books again and again, hoping they wouldn’t be sold out before I had read them through.

Browsing at Meyer Brothers provided my first opportunities to buy books, which had not been part of the routine in our house. Both of my parents read a lot, but they read periodicals. I read the newspapers and magazines, too, but once I got the feel and smell of books into my system, I slipped into a lifelong addiction. Mom accommodated me when I started buying the “Peanuts” anthologies that began to appear in the very early 1950s, and humorous little “history” books by Richard Armour.

When chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble started making it fashionable to hang out in the stacks it seemed as if book browsing had become a post-modern institution, but now the trend toward buying and reading books on line threatens to make that experience a thing of the past — like Meyer Brothers, with its boarded-up windows and its for-rent signs.

Carolyn Kellogg, who blogs about books for the LA Times wrote about the trend this week. Her blog is at this link:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/10/in-praise-of-browsing.html