Monday, May 31, 2010

R.I.P. Jane Jarvis and the American Pastime

On January 25th of this year, accomplished jazz pianist Jane Jarvis passed away at the age of ninety-four. Although she was tickling the ivories in Manhattan hot spots almost until the day she died, I never heard her play in jazz clubs. Jazz rhythms and sounds just don’t electrify my synapses the way they do aficionados of the genre. For me, Jarvis’s genius was on display while serving as the New York Mets organist. With genuine aplomb, the "Queen of Melody" played her "Thomas organ" at Shea Stadium from 1964 through 1979.

While I wouldn’t walk a mile for a Camel; I would walk five miles, up hill, for a “Best of Jane Jarvis Organ Hits" CD. Jarvis's Big Shea organ repertoire included a few jazz tunes, like "Scrapple from the Apple," along with many familiar standards. But she also composed original music, including a memorable melody she played before the Mets took the field for the first time at each home game. Its impeccable timing met the moment, if you will, as did her select tunes for individual players. When reliever Skip Lockwood entered a game, both he and the fans at the ballpark, as well as those watching on television and listening on the radio, were serenaded with the maestro’s "Skip to My Lou." Her seventh inning stretch favorite was a unique version of the "Mexican Hat Dance."

Being a rare and devoted little boy Met fan on the mean streets of the Bronx, surrounded and hounded by Yankee fans—inside the family and out—earned me the childhood nickname of “Mr. Met,” or “Met” for short. Mr. Met, by the way, is the team's baseball-headed mascot. It’s a moniker that has stuck with me to this day, even as my fanaticism for the Mets and the game of baseball—as performed today by self-absorbed, disloyal, greedy multi-millionaires—has been wholly exorcised.
Both Jarvis and her organ playing personify a time lost—a better time for professional baseball, when it was still a game and not overwhelmed by the color of money, din, and gossip-column celebrity unrelated to the goings-on between the white lines. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Great Pretender

I guess I’d been pretending to be a writer for the last decade or so—in some people’s eyes at least. It little mattered that I had been contracted by, and completed manuscripts, for royalty-paying, bona fide publishers. Nor did it matter—apparently—that the finished products turned up on the shelves of bookstore leviathans like Barnes & Noble. You see, I had chosen the hardscrabble life of a freelance writer, and not the blood, sweat, and toil of a real job—i.e., working for a corporate master who could, at the drop of a hat, toss me aside like an old shoe. Pardon the mixed metaphor....

But then a miracle came to pass. A third party intervened on my behalf and bestowed—at long last—the imprimatur of writer on my forehead. Via the handiwork of Harry Hurt III and the Old Gray Lady, otherwise known as the New York Times, a book of mine entitled No Job? No Prob! was reviewed in the paper. It appeared in the Sunday, November 18, 2008 edition’s business section. And while Mr. Hurt took a few swings at the book and its author—some of them justified, I concede—he nonetheless enthusiastically recommended the book to the jobless minions, which was more than I could have asked for, and certainly more than I ever expected.

Life is full of surprises. Unfortunately, in all too many circles, it’s also about status and trophies acquired along the way. This review brought me a round of plaudits from many folks who barely—or not at all—acknowledged my prior credits. I had, at long last, arrived as a writer after all these years in the wilderness. If the New York Times says so—by reviewing my book—then I must, in fact, be what I purport to be.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Harry Hurt III and the "Paper of Record" for including my book among “All the News that’s Fit to Print” for one brief shining moment at least. Who, in my line of work, wouldn’t kill for that? But, alas, although legitimized in some skeptical circles, in the bigger picture, that review and $2.50 will buy me a slice of pizza. These are tough times for the unemployed…and frazzled freelancers, too. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Vis-a-vis Myriad and Other Words

There are lots of words—myriad words as a matter of fact—in the dictionary. So why confine ourselves to a select and overused few? Why not say “myriad” once in a while rather than “many” or “numerous?” What’s wrong with “vis-à-vis” now and again instead of “in relation to?” Is there something wrong with calling a “dawdler” a “pokey slacker?"

I make it a habit while reading to look up alien words whose meanings I cannot reasonably infer by their use in sentences. I jot them down for posterity, too, because most of these discoveries of mine I would soon forget. Alas, not every brave new word resonates with me like, for instance, "titman."

I recently finished reading Nixonland, a compelling book chronicling the tumultuous political and culture-altering 1960s, as well as Eugene McCarthy, a biography of one of that decade’s most iconic and irascible pols. And authors Rick Perlstein and Dominic Sandbrook employ a full arsenal of words in their tomes, including several that were completely foreign to me.

I was unaware that a "parvenu" was “a person who has suddenly risen to a higher social and economic class and has not yet gained social acceptance in that class.” I personally know a parvenu or two. Also, I did not know that where there is a microphone, a "panjandrum" is very possibly nearby. This noun is defined as a “pompous self-important official.” And as for "jeremiad," which is “a literary work or speech expressing a bitter lament or a righteous prophecy of doom,” well…give me a few more years….

Monday, May 24, 2010

Alfs or Evil Alf Doppelgangers?

Considering the universe’s unfathomable sprawl, and the fact that scientists believe it is literally expanding, it should come as no surprise that many highly intelligent life forms here on Earth—and not just crazy insomniacs—believe in the existence of extraterrestrials. It takes an awful lot of chutzpah to unequivocally hold that our little existence here on this petite planet in a tiny solar system in a sprawling galaxy—one among multiple billions observed—is the sum and substance of thinking beings.

Renowned physicist and best-selling author of A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking, recently commented on the prospect of life beyond our cozy orb, which revolves around a somewhat average star called the sun—one of a guesstimated 70 sextillion, or 7 followed by 22 zeroes, stars in the ether. “We are certainly not alone,” he said. Hawking warned, too, that any evolved creatures in the celestial heavens might just be “looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach.” This is, after all, what intelligent beings have a long history of doing.

Professor Hawking did, however, supply us with a wee bit of comforting salve when he added that “primitive life is very common and intelligent life is fairly rare.” It sort of makes one feel that dumb and dumber outer space civilizations would be to our benefit. Hawking’s portrait of potentially smart aliens from the recesses of space are more the Twilight Zone's  "To Serve Man" types than the warm, fuzzy, and inquisitive kinds that Karen Carpenter so melodiously kibitzed with. The latter crew wanted to Facebook-friend our entire planet; the former wanted to have us for dinner. Food for thought....

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Underground Resistance

With the technological winds of change a-blowing so stiffly, there’s little point in resisting the inevitable. Yes, I know, e-books and e-reading contraptions are here to stay, and will become even more prevalent in the coming days and years. They are even potentially beneficial for authors. After all, readers are notorious for sharing books with their family and friends, or selling them used on Amazon for a penny, which equals sales not made and royalties not earned. And the passing around of iPads and such isn’t very likely, or even practical. Nevertheless, I am happy to report that physical books, newspapers, and magazines maintain a strong pulse—on New York City’s subways at least.

While riding the Number 1 train into Manhattan—and then back to the Bronx—several days ago, I was heartened to observe New Yorkers of all stripes poring over the genuine articles: books, newspapers, and magazines. As I scanned the diverse group of riders, I didn’t spy one e-reader amidst the subway melting pot.

The impassioned ravings of a former publishing bigwig about the industry's death rattle are the wind beneath the wings of this particular scribbling. This fellow confidently predicts that everyone will have an iPad, or an equivalent reading device, in a mere few years time. It is true that most subway riders are members in good standing of the hoi polloi. By and large they are not catching business red-eyes, vacationing in Portofino, Italy, and carrying Zagat’s dining guides in their fanny packs. But the sprawling subway set reads, too, and still purchases tangible objects with words on them that one can touch, smell, and dog-ear.

Take it from this subway rider, who has no plans—and no plans to make plans—to buy an e-reader anytime soon, books and newspapers have not, as of yet, been swallowed whole by that voracious black hole and point of no return hovering in the recesses of Publishing Land. And that’s a good thing. As far as the sweeping and inexorable technological changes in this trade, my personal posture as a writer is—to parrot a Valley Girl—“What-EVER!”