Archive for February, 2009

To the folks at the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest: Hurry up and find me funny already.

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Seven times I have tried to get the New Yorker magazine to recognize my cartoon-caption-writing prowess.  Seven times I’ve been snubbed.  Not one of my seven entries has been crowned with the laurels of finalist (for each contest three finalists are chosen), let alone winner.  Each stinging rejection was unfair.

Demonstrably unfair.

Let me demonstrate.

Below are the seven initially silent cartoons, each followed by four captions suggested by contest entrants.  Every set of four includes my own submission mixed in with the three finalists. See if you can spot the the one — mine — that somehow just doesn’t belong in the same class.

. . .

“Have you considered writing this story in the third monkey rather than the first monkey?”

“This page — the one that begins, ‘Who’s there?’ — keep working on that.”

“We’ll have to run it by our infinite number of editors.”

“Sorry, guys. It’s another rejection letter. ”

. . .

“You want to impress me? Drive to the store and get me more beer.”

“Lemme tell ya — and this is from personal experience — knowing how to roll over and play dead comes in much more handy. ”

“Don’t worry—they’ll never actually build it.”

“Trust me, my lessons have way more real-world applications.”

. . .

“He’s always thinking outside the rock.”

“His heart is set on finding a vintage woolly Plymouth.”

“He needed a place to park his wheel.”

“Yeah, but the weirdest thing was, once he built it I suddenly felt compelled to give him a list of things to do around it.”

. . .

“I hate connecting through Roswell.”

“Just a mild case of the sniffles, she says.”

“I don’t care if he’s single-celled, he should have bought two seats.”

“This guy’s wife lets him drink on the plane!”

. . .

“Oh, now you want to talk, when all week it was ‘Do Not Disturb.’”

“Final warning, Mr. Weber. We don’t take kindly to shampoo thieves.”

“I can fluff your pillow the easy way or the hard way.”

“The time is 11:59. You have one minute to check out.”

. . .

“On what planet do you imagine this would be funny?”

“Lemme put it this way — when it comes to funny, me and you don’t see eye to eye.”

“It would work better with an alien.”

“It’s just not funny if she looks so sexy.”

. . .

“The seller is extremely motivated.”

“According to the listing, there’s also a full basement.”

“The heating system is pretty old but very reliable.”

“I strongly recommend that you read the fine print on this one.”

. . .

If the judges at the New Yorker are to be believed, in each instance above you’ve encountered, amid the glorious sounds of three Stradivarius instruments, the raw bleat of a kazoo. You spied a set of rings finely crafted by Tiffany, Cartier, and Harry Winston, to which I contributed a cigar band. Below each cartoon are three sweet flowers, plus a sprig of crabgrass from yours truly.

OK, I’ll stop now and proceed to the question:

Can you tell in each instance which is the dud caption?

Isn’t it obvious?

No?  You say . . . no?

Oh, thus am I vindicated, and bitter no more.


Answer: In each set of four captions, the winner as selected by the New Yorker is first, my own rejected entry second, and the two non-winning finalists third and fourth.

Jesse the Golden Retriever

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Look, I swear I’ve been resisting this.  But when I learned there’s actually a popular blog kept by a golden retriever named Max, what was I to do — remain mute? 

Max calls his blog, Max the Golden Retriever.  (Ooooh, how original!)   Aside from the blog, he’s also got a Newsletter — or, as he himself breathlessly announces: “Yep, that’s right… I have my very own newsletter.”  Apparently Max thinks he’s superior to those poor schnooks Addison and Steele, who had to share theirs.

But there’s something fishy about Max’s blog. 

First of all, wouldn’t you expect a real adult golden retriever, one ostensibly male, to say “Yup”  instead of a lame “Yep”? 

Second, why does Max’s home page feature only one photo of him — and a blah looking photo at that?  Not quite ready for Hollywood, are we, Max?

Third, where are the links to Max’s YouTube videos?  Oh, there aren’t any?  Hmmm.  Not ready for direct-to-video either, Eh?

You want handsome?  I’ll give you handsome.  You want a leader who brings a crowd to attention, a smile-spreading smiler, a retrieving golden retriever, a dog poetically searching beyond the horizon, a YouTube star?  I’ll give you all that too.   Ladies and gentlemen, Jesse the Golden Retriever:





Jesse is featured in 28 short videos on YouTube, most 30 seconds or less, showing his antics from puppy to adulthood.  A link to the entire video list is here.  In total, these have been watched over a million times. 

Jesse is my golden retriever.

(Move over, Max.)

Manet, Asparagus, Prius

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

Edouard Manet is my favorite non-American 19th century artist.  Even his  lesser works, his tossed-off pieces, his sketches and studies, his failed works (when reach exceeded grasp), intrigue me, as they reveal even more than his masterworks the turns of a brilliant mind. 

Here is a still life:










It is said the original purchaser was so pleased with the painting that he sent Manet a bonus on top of the agreed price.  Whereupon Manet sent him a package containing two items:  a short note saying, “There was one missing from your bunch,” and an additional panel for the happy collector to delight in:









A fine story to share, and a segue to an update to last week’s blog posting of a bunch of cell phone photos.  I inadvertently omitted the following  photo — a picture that may prompt, in some, a contemporary bout of salivation:  



Yes, this is an actual, unretouched photo of the display in my Prius, snapped at the end of an 87-mile road trip last summer. It was a combination of city and highway travel, and the car achieved an MPG of over 70.  What helped?  These things: 

Never going over the posted speed limit, not ever, not even a little, which demanded a painful self-restraint.   

Taking my foot off the gas whenever a distant traffic signal turned red.  (I did this only on stretches where the road was uncrowded and had a passing lane on the left, since most fellow drivers hate your guts  for slowing down, since the point of life is to hurry up and to get to a stop, right?) 

Not gunning the gas but gently accelerating when a light turned green. 

Trying, overall, to be a more conscientious driver.

Some cell phone photos

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

My prior cell phone, an LG, could store 20 photos.  My iPhone can store, what, tens of thousands?  Here are four from 2008. 

1.  First up, a photo that could be titled “Museum Dog.”  A couple of years ago, while visiting the Getty Museum in LA, I saw a woman on a Segway roaming through the galleries.  From time to time she would pivot and halt in front of a painting that caught her eye.  I said to myself, “Now this is a museum with an enlightened admission policy; they’d never allow that back East.”  Well, here’s evidence that when it comes to disabled visitors, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC does “enlightened admissions policies” just as well.



2.  Although probably not as museum-worthy as a Klee or Miro, the bold, primitive rendering below has, I believe, an equal claim to be trimmed with an explanatory label, like this:

Figure with Small Companion, created 2008, anonymous child artist, colored chalks on concrete, approx. 36 by 36 in. (destroyed 2008, by rain).”



3.  Moving on to sculpture, in October I myself took a stab at carving Dick Cheney as a Halloween pumpkin.


The day after his first night on the porch, Cheney suffered a cruel fate: extraordinary rendition into the paws of  ravenous squirrels.  Nibbled beyond repair, he had to be put down.

4.  Lastly, a photo of a parking garage at night.  In the corner rests a seductive red sports car, as if awaiting the start of her starring role in a film noir.


John Updike: Intimate relations with the world

Friday, February 6th, 2009

John Updike died January 27, 2009, at age 76.  Some thoughts:

It was always easy to acquire Updike’s books on the cheap, especially after Couples became a monster best-seller and his publisher, Knopf, got in the habit of printing each subsequent book in an overly-optimist quantity, large enough to build ample stacks on book stores’  remainder tables.   Also, at used book sales organized by libraries and charities in suburban Philadelphia you usually could find copies of earlier and rarer items (poetry, non-fiction), though sometimes sans book jackets. 

As physical objects, the books Knopf produced for Updike were things of delicate beauty, Shaker-like in the simple dryness of their cloth-and-board bindings and crisp clear print on clean paper.  A long marriage of quality writing and quality presentation ensued.  I’m sure Updike, who had a thing for the “thingness” of objects, must have had something to do with this. 

Also notable was the traditional stitch-sewn binding of the books released in the first half of Updike’s career, a mark of quality whose discontinuance sometime in the 1980s could well be cited as a marker of cultural decline.  Let me stop to go downstairs and see if I can tell when this occurred.   (…)  I’m back to report that Updike’s 30th book, the novel Roger’s Version (1986) is stitch-sewn, while his 31st, a 1987 collection of short stories entitled Trust Me, begins the post-lapsarian glue era.

Every reader of Updike soon learns he is an author who had intimate relations with the world and everything in it.  A fresh reminder of this appears in The New Yorker  this week where you’ll find sixteen pages of excerpts from works that appeared in the magazine from 1954 through 2008.  (Updike made more than eight hundred contributions to The New Yorker !) 

Consider, for example, a man’s visit to a dentist’s chair, described in a 1955 short story, “Dentistry and Doubt”:   

     Burton’s heart beat like a wasp in a jar as the dentist moved across the room, did unseeable things by the sink, and returned with a full hypodermic.  A drop of fluid, by some miracle of adhesion, clung trembling to the needle’s tip.  Burton opened his mouth while the dentist’s back was till turned.  When at last the man pivoted, his instrument tilting up, a tension beneath his mustache indicated surprise and perhaps bemusement at finding things at such readiness.  “Open a little wider, please,” he said.  “Thank you.”  The needle moved closer.  It was under Burton’s nose and out of focus.  “Now, this might hurt a little.”  What a kind thing to say!  The sharp prick and the consequent slow, filling ache drove Burton’s eyes up, and he saw the tops of the bare willow trees, the frightening white sky, and the black birds.  As he watched, one bird joined another on the topmost twig, and then a third joined these two and the twig became radically crescent, and all three birds flapped off to where his eyes could not follow them.

     “There,” the dentist sighed, in a zephyr of candy and cloves.

In most of us a visit to the dentist arouses feelings of trepidation and surrender, a condition you might casually liken to that of a baby strapped into a high chair.  We grown-ups are “reduced to an infantile state.”  But Updike avoids that puerile thought and slyly heads straight  for the provocative, in this passage conjuring up, behind the objective reality experienced by the male patient, the unfolding of a parallel scene:  a bedded woman eyeing the approach of her new lover.  Updike and sex is a subject beyond the limits of this post.  But let it be said that this most knowing writer’s intimate relations with the world did not exclude a close connection to his penis, through which he traces a ritual from Cowper’s fluid (clung trembling to the tip) to penetration (slow, filling ache) to release (sigh).

Drudge Dreck

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

I check out the Drudge Report every day, though I’m getting close to ditching the habit.  Why?  It’s not because the site features the mean and the vulgar (hey, cheap thrills are its main draw), nor that Drudge has lost the talent for news scoops (TMZ wins that race nowadays), nor the overall editorial sloppiness (a recent page has a headline posted on the left side, matched by an only slightly differently worded headline down the right side, both of which link to the same AP story; and then there are those recurring howler typos).

No, it’s because the site’s Adolescent Quotient, once recessive, is becoming dominant — and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Consider a photo posted this week:







Of the gazillion photos of Hillary, that’s the image Drudge chose to illustrate a piece he trumpeted with the headline, “FEELING JAPANESE: Clinton eyes Asia for first trip abroad.”  Back to the photo: Get it?  Hillary squints her eyes to near slits, to form Asian eyes!  Ha! ha! ha! 

Or consider the image Drudge chose to post, top and center, a few days before the Inauguration:








Your eyes move to the center point, an upraised hand in a tight black leather glove.  Got that in your focus?  Now, what memory might it summon up?  Hmmm . . .  Could it be  — ?









Yes, it’s getting embarassing looking at this stuff.   Maybe the time has come, as we were admonished lately, to put aside childish things?

The democratization of pleasure-giving

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

I’ve always admired and been envious of song writers, especially those who create durable works that become known as “standards” — songs that worm their way into the culture and embed themselves into our memories.  Here is a thought experiment:  In what ways would the world be different — how would we as individuals be different — if Irving Berlin, to take just one example, had not conjured up and let loose upon the world his scores of smile-making songs?  I don’t think No Difference is the correct answer.

Happy is the person who departs this mortal coil full in the knowledge he leaves behind a pleasure-giving song.

Until recently, the list of people who have beqeathed enduring gifts (songs, books, picture, movies) was short, especially when you consider an estimated 100 billion people have tread the earth.  So chalk up another revolution thanks to the Internet:  web hosting and distribution empowers previously-unsung millions to add to the communal body of pleasure-giving. 

A father in Sweden records his laughing infant son.  The video is uploaded to YouTube.  The baby will laugh — and make others laugh — forever.