Duck: A Version

It was late summer, 1986. I'd soon be starting ninth grade. But, more important, Howard the Duck was now, finally, in theaters. For weeks, I'd been eagerly awaiting the film's arrival. I plunked down my money and attended a screening. Afterward, the disappointment I felt was roughly the size of Lake Huron. Why had I so looked forward to seeing this famously terrible movie? I'll tell you why: earlier that summer, I'd read the novelization of Howard the Duck, and, I'll be honest, I loved it.

Fifteen to twenty years later, in a used-book store, I found a book called Decade of the Year, a collection of funny essays by a guy named Ellis Weiner. The book, published in 1987, featured blurbs from Veronica Geng and Paul Shaffer. That was good enough for me, and I snapped it up. I enjoyed Decade of the Year, and I became curious about this Ellis Weiner fellow. As it turns out, he used to be an editor at National Lampoon and a columnist for Spy, and he's published several other books, including the novelization of Howard the Duck. More recently, he wrote this Shouts & Murmurs piece, which appeared in the October 19, 2009, issue of The New Yorker.


Photo, Finish

This photo of S.J. Perelman was shot by the great photographer Irving Penn, who died yesterday at the age of 92. Perelman, who died in 1979, displayed a dazzling command of the English language in his humor pieces, which appeared in The New Yorker for 45 years, starting in 1930. He also contributed to the scripts of two of the Marx Brothers' best movies: Monkey Business, which was released in 1931, and Horse Feathers, which came out a year later. Woody Allen once called him "the single funniest human of my lifetime." The Paris Review interviewed Perelman in 1963; that interview can be read here.


Gates of Heaven

I wouldn't really be me if it weren't for Woody Allen, not just because of his own work but also because of the work of others he's led me to. When I was in high school, learning about Woody led me to discover some of my favorite things: Robert Benchley's funny essays, Buster Keaton's silent comedies, the Marx Brothers. (In Eric Lax's 1975 book On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy, Woody says that the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup is the only funny movie he can think of that doesn't have any slow spots. In Hannah and Her Sisters, seeing Duck Soup leads Woody's character, who's been fretting about his mortality, to decide that life isn't so bad after all.)

In the summer of 2008, I listened to this interview with Woody, in which he discusses his love for the early jazz recordings of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton.

I'd heard the interview before, but this time I thought, "You know what? I should listen to those old recordings. If Woody likes 'em, I bet they're great." So I immediately set about finding as many of those old recordings as I could. Those three guys and their music became my new obsession.

I'm always obsessed with something or other. I've always been that way. My childhood was one long string of obsessions: Disney animation, magic, the Beatles, juggling, breakdancing, the Rubik's Cube. I'll get interested in something and it'll take over my life. Then one day something else will catch my attention and suddenly I'll have a new obsession. A couple of years ago, I was obsessed with Stanley Kubrick. Now my days are spent listening to, and reading about, Armstrong, Bechet, and Jelly Roll.

I've been obsessed with this music for over a year now, and in that time I've heard a lot of recordings. I've collected 37 of my favorites in a playlist, Playlist 2 it's called, on my MySpace page, which can be found here.

From Playlist 2 I selected 10 songs for my profile playlist. They are listed below, with notes to enhance your enjoyment.

1. "Everybody Loves My Baby" by Clarence Williams' Blue Five
(Recorded November 6, 1924, in New York City)

On this song, the cornet (an instrument almost exactly like a trumpet) is played by Louis Armstrong, who was 23 at the time. On some Blue Five recordings, the soprano sax is played by Sidney Bechet, but on this one it's played by a fellow named Buster Bailey. The vocalist is Eva Taylor. She was married to Clarence Williams, who played piano on the Blue Five records and organized the recording sessions.

2. "Lazy River" by Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
(Recorded November 3, 1931, in Chicago)

This is one of just a handful of recordings Armstrong made in the early '30s. During that time, he was on the run from gangsters, so he largely avoided Chicago and New York. In Chicago some months prior to this session, a gangster pulled a gun on Armstrong and made him agree to be on a train to New York the next morning for a gig. Armstrong wasn't on that train, and ended up spending much of the next few years in Europe. He returned to America in 1935, at which point he hired as his manager his old friend Joe Glaser, a tough cookie who, it was said, had worked for Al Capone. Glaser resolved Armstrong's problems with the gangsters, and remained Armstrong's manager until he, Glaser, died, in 1969. Armstrong died two years later.

3. "Cake Walking Babies From Home" by the Red Onion Jazz Babies
(Recorded December 22, 1924, in New York City)

The Red Onion Jazz Babies and Clarence Williams' Blue Five were basically the same band. Both were organized by Clarence Williams and they featured most of the same musicians. Alberta Hunter, rather than Eva Taylor, sang on the Jazz Babies records. (On this tune, she's joined on vocals by Clarence Todd.) And, instead of Clarence Williams, the pianist for the Jazz Babies was Lil Hardin, who'd recently become Armstrong's second wife. (His first wife was an insanely jealous New Orleans prostitute named Daisy Parker. Daisy always carried a razor and wasn't shy about pulling it out.) Seventeen days after this Jazz Babies session, the Blue Five did their version of "Cake Walking Babies," which you'll find in Playlist 2. On both versions, Armstrong plays cornet and Sidney Bechet plays soprano sax.

4. "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me" by Sidney Bechet
(Recorded November 5, 1951, in New York City)

Woody Allen and his wife, Soon-Yi, have two adopted children. Both are girls; one's Asian, one's white. The Asian one is named Bechet, after you-know-who; the white one is named Manzie, after Manzie Johnson, the guy playing the drums on this recording.

5. "Potato Head Blues" by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
(Recorded May 10, 1927, in Chicago)

Toward the end of Manhattan, Woody's character lists 11 things that, in his opinion, make life worth living. This recording is one of them.

6. "Polka Dot Stomp" by Noble Sissle and His International Orchestra
(Recorded August 15, 1934, in Chicago)

Sidney Bechet plays clarinet and soprano sax on this jaunty number, which he wrote with bandmate James Tolliver, who plays clarinet and tenor sax on this. Woody Allen once called a Bechet concert he attended in the '50s "the most fulfilling artistic experience of my life." "Bechet was a startling musician," he said. "His ferociousness was incredible. I was struck by the intensity and total majesty of his playing." After watching one of his friends buy his first Bechet album, Woody told him, "I'd give anything to be you and hear that for the first time."

7. "Squeeze Me" by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
(Recorded June 29, 1928, in Chicago)

Armstrong did some scat singing on "Lazy River," but on this recording his entire vocal is scat. Another good example of Armstrong's scatting can be heard on "Hotter Than That," which is in Playlist 2. Before Armstrong popularized it, scat singing was virtually unknown outside New Orleans.

8. "Muskrat Ramble" by Louis Armstrong's Hot Five
(Recorded February 26, 1926, in Chicago)

The Hot Five that recorded "Squeeze Me" was a different Hot Five from the Hot Five that recorded this tune. The only musician who was in both bands was Armstrong himself. When trombonist Kid Ory left this earlier version of the Hot Five, Armstrong replaced him with John Thomas and added a tuba player and a drummer and the band became the Hot Seven. The Hot Five and Hot Seven records were Armstrong's first recordings where he was in charge. They're widely considered to be the most important records in jazz history. The Hot Seven recording "Melancholy Blues" was included on the Voyager Golden Record, which was launched into space in 1977. The Golden Record's contents were selected by a committee led by Carl Sagan, who wrote, "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet."

9. "Wolverine Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers
(Recorded June 10, 1927, in Chicago)

This recording features a scaled-down version of the Red Hot Peppers. It's just three musicians: Jelly Roll on piano, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and Johnny Dodds's little brother, Baby Dodds, on drums. Johnny Dodds was a member of the original incarnation of Armstrong's Hot Five, and both Dodds brothers were members of the Hot Seven. They'd known Armstrong in New Orleans, where they'd spent a few years playing alongside him on a riverboat called the S.S. Sydney.

10. "Too Busy" by Lillie Delk Christian with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Four
(Recorded June 26, 1928, in Chicago)

Lillie Delk Christian, who sounds a bit like Snow White, was nothing special as a singer, but at the time of this session Louis Armstrong was at the height of his powers. Near the end of this song, we get a little sample of the kind of scat singing he'd do on "Squeeze Me" just three days later.

Foreign Correspondent

Paul Simms was a writer for the funniest talk show in history, the late, great Late Night With David Letterman. More recently, he wrote the following humor piece, which appeared in the September 21, 2009, issue of The New Yorker.

Attention, People of Earth

We are on our way to your planet. We will be there shortly. But in this, our first contact with you, our "headline" is: We do not want your gravel.

We are coming to Earth, first of all, just to see if we can actually do it. Second, we hope to learn about you and your culture(s). Third—if we end up having some free time—we wouldn't mind taking a firsthand look at your almost ridiculously bountiful stores of gravel. But all we want to do is look.

You're probably wondering if we mean you harm. Good question! So you're going to like the answer, which is: We mean you no harm. Truth be told, there is a faction of us who want to completely annihilate you. But they're not in power right now. And a significant majority of us find their views abhorrent and almost even barbaric.

But, thanks to the fact that our government operates on a system very similar to your Earth democracy, we have to tolerate the views of this "loyal opposition," even while we hope that they never regain power, which they probably won't (if the current poll tracking numbers hold up).

By the way, if we do take any of your gravel, it's going to be such a small percentage of your massive gravel supply that you probably won't even notice it's gone.

You may be wondering how we know your language. We are aware that there's a theory on your planet that we (or other alien species from the far reaches of the galaxy) have been able to learn your language from your television transmissions. This is not the case, because most of us don't really watch TV. Most of our knowledge about your Earth TV comes from reading Zeitgeisty think pieces by our resident intellectuals, who watch it not for fun but for ideas for their print articles about how Earth TV holds a mirror up to Earth society, and so on. We mean, we'll watch Earth TV sometimes—if it happens to be on already—but, generally, we prefer to read a good book or revive the lost art of conversation.

Sadly, Earth TV is like a vast wasteland, as the Earthling Newton Minow once said. But, for those of you who can understand things only in TV terms, just think of us as being very similar to Mork from Ork, in that he was a friendly, non-gravel-wanting alien who visited Earth just to find out what was there, and not to harvest gravel.

Speaking of a vast wasteland, you might want to start picking out and clearing off a place for our spacecraft to land. Our spacecraft, as you will see shortly, is huge. Do not be alarmed; this does not mean that each one of us is that much bigger than each one of you. It's just that there were so many of us who wanted to come that we had to build a really huge spacecraft.

So, again, no cause for alarm.

(Full disclosure: each of us actually is much bigger than each of you, and there's nothing we can do about it. So please don't use any of your Earth-style discrimination against us. This is just how we are, and it's not our fault.)

Anyway, re our spacecraft: it's kind of gigantic. The deceleration thrusters alone are sort of, like ... well, imagine four of your Vesuvius volcanoes (but bigger), turned upside down.

We don't want to hurt anyone, so, if you could just clear off one continent, we think we can keep unintended fatalities to a minimum. Australia would probably work. (But don't say Antarctica. Because we'd just melt it, and then you'd all end up underwater. Which would make it virtually impossible for us to learn about your hopes and your dreams, and your culture, and to harvest relatively small, sample-size amounts of your gravel, just for scientific study.)

A little bit about us: our males have two penises, while our females have only one. So, gender-wise, if you use simple math, we're pretty much identical to you.

And, as far as protocol goes, we're a pretty informal species. If you want to put together a welcoming ceremony with all your kings and queens and Presidents and Prime Ministers and leading gravel-owners, that's fine. But please don't feel like you have to.

Technically, it would be possible for us to share our space-travel technology with you, so that you could build a spacecraft and travel to our planet also. But, for right now, it just feels like it would be better if we came to your place.

Speaking of gravel, one thing we can't tell from our monitoring of Earth is how your gravel tastes. It's just something we're curious about, for no real reason. Is it salty? It looks salty.

Maybe you could form a commission of scientists/gravel-tasters to look into this and let us know. Just have them collect all the gravel you have and put it in one big pile. (There are some pretty big empty parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Russia that might be good spots for such a large gravel pile, but that's just an F.Y.I.)

Then, if you could have your top scientists/gravel-tasters go through this gravel pile, tasting each and every piece, that would be great. Also, if it's not too much of a hassle, have them put all the saltier-tasting pieces in a separate pile.

Anyway, that about wraps up this transmission! Looking forward to seeing you very soon. (Sorry we couldn't have given you more notice, but we didn't want you Earth people going crazy and looting stuff and having sex in the streets out of panic about losing all your delicious gravel, which is something that is definitely not going to happen, because, when it comes down to it, what is gravel really but just a bunch of baby rocks?)

Our E.T.A. on Earth is sometime in the next four hundred and fifty to five hundred years, which we know is a blink of an eye in your Earth time, so start getting ready! Let's have fun with this.


A Species from a Galaxy You Haven't Even Noticed Yet

P.S.—We saw that you sent some people to your moon recently. Good job! But, just to let you know, don't waste your time with the moon. There's no gravel there. We already checked.


Little-Read Writing: "Hood"

In 1925, Ring Lardner published a handsome little volume called What of It? Here's that book's preface:


Readers of this book, if any, may get to wondering before they are through with it, why it was named What Of It? instead of What For? Well, the name was not selected by the writer, but by Grantland Rice, the poet, and the circumstances were as follows:

We were waiting for something to eat, at Nassau or somewhere, and the conversation had sort of flopped, so I said I was about to publish another book. Mr. Rice started to say something, but didn't. I went on that the publishers were after me for a suitable title and I couldn't think of one.

"It ought to be on the order of 'Hash' or 'Melange' or 'Medley,'" I said. "The stuff in the book is miscellaneous magazine and newspaper stuff, on all kinds of subjects."

Mr. Rice seemed to be pondering, after which he said:

"Didn't you write a thing for 'Liberty' called 'What of It?'"

"Yes," I replied.

"Well," said Mr. Rice, "I think 'What Of It' would be a good title for that kind of book."

So the suggestion was sent in and approved, and the boys at Scribners' thought Mr. Rice ought to be congratulated for what they considered a stroke of genius. But it wasn't much of a strain on my mind to figure out that when I told Mr. Rice I was publishing another book, the thing he started to say and politely didn't was "What of it?" and that's how the phrase happened to be in his head.

It has been my favorite phrase since back in 1913 or '14, or whatever year it was that Hank O'Day managed the Cubs. A modern big league baseball manager is supposed to observe the social amenities, but Mr. O'Day had been an umpire so long that the chip on his shoulder had become a permanent growth.

The Cubs were making their first eastern trip of the season, and with them went their owner, Charles W. Murphy. Mr. Murphy and Mr. O'Day were standing by the desk in the Aldine Hotel at Philadelphia one evening when the hotel's genial manager, whose name I have forgotten, joined them.

"Hello, there, Mr. -----!" said Mr. Murphy cordially. "Have you met my friend, Mr. Henry O'Day?"

"I haven't had that pleasure," replied Mr. -----.

"Mr. -----," explained Mr. Murphy to Mr. O'Day, "is the manager of this hotel."

"What of it?" said Mr. O'Day.

R. W. L.
March, 1925.

Here's a story from What of It? It comes from a section called "Bed-Time Stories."

Red Riding Hood

Well, children, here is the story of little Red Riding Hood like I tell it to my little ones when they wake up in the morning with a headache after a tough night.

Well, one or two times they was a little gal that lived in the suburbs who they called her little Red Riding Hood because she always wore a red riding hood in the hopes that sometime a fresh guy in a high power roadster would pick her up and take her riding. But the rumor had spread the neighborhood that she was a perfectly nice gal, so she had to walk.

Red had a grandmother that lived over near the golf course and got in on most of the parties and one noon she got up and found that they wasn't no gin in the house for her breakfast so she called up her daughter and told her to send Red over with a bottle of gin as she was dying.

So Red starts out with a quart under her arm but had not went far when she met a police dog. A good many people has police dogs, and brags about them and how nice they are for children and etc. but personly I would just as leaf have my kids spend their week-end swimming in the State Shark Hatchery.

Well, this special police dog was like the most of them and hated everybody. When he seen Red he spoke to her and she answered him. Even a dog was better than nothing. She told him where she was going and he pertended like he wasn't paying no tension but no sooner had not she left him when he beat it up a alley and got to her grandmother's joint ahead of her.

Well the old lady heard him knock at the door and told him to come in, as she thought he must either be Red or a bootlegger. So he went in and the old lady was in bed with this hangover and the dog eat her alive.

Then he put on some pajamas and laid down in the bed and pertended like he was her, so pretty soon Red come along and knocked at the door and the dog told her to come in and she went up to the bed to hand him the quart. She thought of course it would be her grandmother laying in the bed and even when she seen the dog she still figured it was her grandmother and something she had drank the night before must of disagreed with her and made her look different.

"Well, grandmother," she says, "you must of hit the old hair tonic last night. Your arms looks like Luis Firpo."

"I will Firpo you in a minute," says the dog.

"But listen grandmother," says Red, "don't you think you ought to have your ears bobbed?"

"I will ear you in a minute," says the dog.

"But listen grandmother," says Red, "you are cock-eyed."

"Listen," says the dog, "if you had of had 1/2 of what I had last night you would of been stone blind."

"But listen grandmother," says Red, "where did you get the new store teeth?"

"I heard you was a tough egg," says the dog, "so I bought them to eat you with."

So then the dog jumped out of bed and went after Red and she screamed.

In the mean w'ile Red's father had been playing golf for a quarter a hole with a couple of guys that conceded themselfs all putts under 12 ft. and he was $.75 looser coming to the 10th. tee.

The 10th. hole is kind of tough as your drive has to have a carry of 50 yards or it will fall in a garbage incinerating plant. You can either lift out with a penalty of two strokes or else play it with a penalty of suffocation. Red's old man topped his drive and the ball rolled into the garbage. He elected to play it and made what looked like a beautiful shot, but when they got up on the green they found that he had hit a white radish instead of a golf ball.

A long argument followed during which the gallery went home to get his supper. The hole was finely conceded.

The 11th. hole on the course is probably the sportiest hole in golfdom. The tee and green are synonymous and the first shot is a putt, but the rules signify that the putt must be played off a high tee with a driver. Red's father was on in two and off in three more and finely sunk his approach for a birdie eight, squaring the match.

Thus the match was all square coming to the home hole which is right close to grandmother's cottage. Red's father hooked his drive through an open window in his mother-in-law's house and forced his caddy to lend him a niblick. He entered the cottage just as the dog was beginning to eat Red.

"What hole are you playing father?" asked Red.

"The eighteenth," says her father, "and it is a dog's leg."

Where-at he hit the police dog in the leg with his niblick and the dog was so surprised that he even give up the grandmother.

"I win, one up," says Red's father and he went out to tell the news to his two opponents. But they had quit and went home to dress for the Kiwanis Club dance.


Sacha Barin' Baron Cohen

Sacha Baron Cohen's grandmother, a ballet dancer, fled Nazi Germany in 1936. Years later, Sacha studied history at Cambridge University and wrote his thesis on the American civil-rights movement. In this Fresh Air interview, originally broadcast on January 4, 2007, he discusses his characters, his comedy, and prejudice. His new movie, Brüno, opens on July 10.


Benny Ha-Ha

This photo shows the stars of Jack Benny's radio program, which debuted in 1932 and ended in 1955. From left to right, we have Eddie Anderson, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny, Don Wilson, and Mel Blanc. You can listen to many, many episodes of the program here.


Addendum: This episode, from May 9, 1943,features the great Louis Armstrong.


Addendum: This episode was broadcast, on April 30, 1944, from the Puget Sound Navy Yard, in Bremerton, Washington, the city where I was born. My dad worked at the navy yard from 1957 to 1992.


The Finish Master

Robert Benchley (pictured) wrote the following essay in 1930, for the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. It can be found in the 1949 collection Chips Off the Old Benchley, where it's accompanied by the Gluyas Williams illustration seen below.

How to Get Things Done

A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. My answer is "Don't you wish you knew?" and a pretty good answer it is, too, when you consider that nine times out of ten I didn't hear the original question.

But the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country are wondering how I have time to do all my painting, engineering, writing and philanthropic work when, according to the rotogravure sections and society notes, I spend all my time riding to hounds, going to fancy-dress balls disguised as Louis XIV or spelling out GREETINGS TO CALIFORNIA in formation with three thousand Los Angeles school children. "All work and all play," they say.

The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.

The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

Let us see how this works out in practice. Let us say that I have five things which have to be done before the end of the week: (1) a basketful of letters to be answered, some of them dating from October, 1928 (2) some bookshelves to be put up and arranged with books (3) a hair-cut to get (4) a pile of scientific magazines to go through and clip (I am collecting all references to tropical fish that I can find, with the idea of some day buying myself one) and (5) an article to write for this paper.

Now. With these five tasks staring me in the face on Monday morning, it is little wonder that I go right back to bed as soon as I have had breakfast, in order to store up health and strength for the almost superhuman expenditure of energy that is to come. Mens sana in corpore sano is my motto, and, not even to be funny, am I going to make believe that I don't know what the Latin means. I feel that the least that I can do is to treat my body right when it has to supply fuel for an insatiable mind like mine.

As I lie in bed on Monday morning storing up strength, I make out a schedule. "What do I have to do first?" I ask myself. Well, those letters really should be answered and the pile of scientific magazines should be clipped. And here is where my secret process comes in. Instead of putting them first on the list of things which have to be done, I put them last. I practice a little deception on myself and say: "First you must write that article for the newspaper." I even say this out loud (being careful that nobody hears me, otherwise they would keep me in bed) and try to fool myself into really believing that I must do the article that day and that the other things can wait. I sometimes go so far in this self-deception as to make out a list in pencil, with "No. 1. Newspaper article" underlined in red. (The underlining in red is rather difficult, as there is never a red pencil on the table beside the bed, unless I have taken one to bed with me on Sunday night.)

Then, when everything is lined up, I bound out of bed and have lunch. I find that a good, heavy lunch, with some sort of glutinous dessert, is good preparation for the day's work as it keeps one from getting nervous and excitable. We workers must keep cool and calm, otherwise we would just throw away our time in jumping about and fidgeting.

I then seat myself at my desk with my typewriter before me and sharpen five pencils. (The sharp pencils are for poking holes in the desk-blotter, and a pencil has to be pretty sharp to do that. I find that I can't get more than six holes out of one pencil.) Following this I say to myself (again out loud, if it is practical) "Now, old man! Get at this article!"

Gradually the scheme begins to work. My eye catches the pile of magazines, which I have artfully placed on a near-by table beforehand. I write my name and address at the top of the sheet of paper in the typewriter and then sink back. The magazines being within reach (also part of the plot) I look to see if anyone is watching me and get one off the top of the pile. Hello, what's this! In the very first one is an article by Dr. William Beebe, illustrated by horrifying photographs! Pushing my chair away from my desk, I am soon hard at work clipping.

One of the interesting things about the Argyopelius, or "Silver Hatchet" fish, I find, is that it has eyes in its wrists. I would have been sufficiently surprised just to find out that a fish had wrists, but to learn that it has eyes in them is a discovery so astounding that I am hardly able to cut out the picture. What a lot one learns simply by thumbing through the illustrated weeklies! It is hard work, though, and many a weaker spirit would give it up half-done, but when there is something else of "more importance" to be finished (you see, I still keep up the deception, letting myself go on thinking that the newspaper article is of more importance) no work is too hard or too onerous to keep one busy.

Thus, before the afternoon is half over, I have gone through the scientific magazines and have a neat pile of clippings (including one of a Viper Fish which I wish you could see. You would die laughing). Then it is back to the grind of the newspaper article.

This time I get as far as the title, which I write down with considerable satisfaction until I find that I have misspelled one word terribly, so that the whole sheet of paper has to come out and a fresh one be inserted. As I am doing this, my eye catches the basket of letters.

Now, if there is one thing that I hate to do (and there is, you may be sure) it is to write letters. But somehow, with the newspaper article before me waiting to be done, I am seized with an epistolary fervor which amounts to a craving, and I slyly sneak the first of the unanswered letters out of the basket. I figure out in my mind that I will get more into the swing of writing the article if I practice a little on a few letters. This first one, anyway, I really must answer. True, it is from a friend in Antwerp asking me to look him up when I am in Europe in the summer of 1929, so he can't actually be watching the incoming boats for an answer, but I owe something to politeness after all. So instead of putting a fresh sheet of copy-paper into the typewriter, I slip in one of my handsome bits of personal stationery and dash off a note to my friend in Antwerp. Then, being well in the letter-writing mood, I clean up the entire batch. I feel a little guilty about the article, but the pile of freshly stamped envelopes and the neat bundle of clippings on tropical fish do much to salve my conscience. Tomorrow I will do the article, and no fooling this time either.

When tomorrow comes I am up with one of the older and more sluggish larks. A fresh sheet of copy-paper in the machine, and my name and address neatly printed at the top, and all before eleven A.M.! "A human dynamo" is the name I think up for myself. I have decided to write something about snake-charming and am already more than satisfied with the title "These Snake-Charming People." But, in order to write about snake-charming, one has to know a little about its history, and where should one go to find history but to a book? Maybe in that pile of books in the corner is one on snake-charming! Nobody could point the finger of scorn at me if I went over to those books for the avowed purpose of research work for the matter at hand. No writer could be supposed to carry all that information in his head.

So, with a perfectly clear conscience, I leave my desk for a few minutes and begin glancing over the titles of the books. Of course, it is difficult to find any book, much less one on snake-charming, in a pile which has been standing in the corner for weeks. What really is needed is for them to be on a shelf where their titles will be visible at a glance. And there is the shelf, standing beside the pile of books! It seems almost like a divine command written in the sky: "If you want to finish that article, first put up the shelf and arrange the books on it!" Nothing could be clearer or more logical.

In order to put up the shelf, the laws of physics have decreed that there must be nails, a hammer and some sort of brackets to hold it up on the wall. You can't just wet a shelf with your tongue and stick it up. And, as there are no nails or brackets in the house (or, if there are, they are probably hidden somewhere) the next thing to do is to put on my hat and go out to buy them. Much as it disturbs me to put off the actual start of the article, I feel that I am doing only what is in the line of duty to put on my hat and go out to buy nails and brackets. And, as I put on my hat, I realize to my chagrin that I need a hair-cut badly. I can kill two birds with one stone, or at least with two, and stop in at the barber's on the way back. I will feel all the more like writing after a turn in the fresh air. Any doctor would tell me that.

So in a few hours I return, spick and span and smelling of lilac, bearing nails, brackets, the evening papers and some crackers and peanut butter. Then it's ho! for a quick snack and a glance through the papers (there might be something in them which would alter what I was going to write about snake-charming) and in no time at all the shelf is up, slightly crooked but up, and the books are arranged in a neat row in alphabetical order and all ready for almost instantaneous reference. There does not happen to be one on snake-charming among them, but there is a very interesting one containing some Hogarth prints and one which will bear even closer inspection dealing with the growth of the Motion Picture, illustrated with "stills" from famous productions. A really remarkable industry, the motion-pictures. I might want to write an article on it sometime. Not today, probably, for it is six o'clock and there is still the one on snake-charming to finish up first. Tomorrow morning sharp! Yes, sir!

And so, you see, in two days I have done four of the things I had to do, simply by making believe that it was the fifth that I must do. And the next day, I fix up something else, like taking down the bookshelf and putting it somewhere else, that I have to do, and then I get the fifth one done.

The only trouble is that, at this rate, I will soon run out of things to do, and will be forced to get at that newspaper article the first thing Monday morning.

By Hook or by Crook

The following is from Love Conquers All, a 1922 collection of essays by Robert Benchley (pictured).


I never knew very much about trout-fishing anyway, and I certainly had no inkling that a trout-fisher had to be so deceitful until I read "Trout-Fishing in Brooks," by G. Garrow-Green. The thing is appalling. Evidently the sport is nothing but a constant series of compromises with one's better nature, what with sneaking about pretending to be something that one is not, trying to fool the fish into thinking one thing when just the reverse is true, and in general behaving in an underhanded and tricky manner throughout the day.

The very first and evidently the most important exhortation in the book is, "Whatever you do, keep out of sight of the fish." Is that open and above-board? Is it honorable?

"Trout invariably lie in running water with their noses pointed against the current, and therefore whatever general chance of concealment there may be rests in fishing from behind them. The moral is that the brook-angler must both walk and fish upstream."

It seems as if a lot of trouble might be saved the fisherman, in case he really didn't want to walk upstream but had to get to some point downstream before 6 o'clock, to adopt some disguise which would deceive the fish into thinking that he had no intention of catching them anyway. A pair of blue glasses and a cane would give the effect of the wearer being blind and harmless, and could be thrown aside very quickly when the time came to show one's self in one's true colors to the fish. If there were two anglers they might talk in loud tones about their dislike for fish in any form, and then, when the trout were quite reassured and swimming close to the bank they could suddenly be shot with a pistol.

But a little further on comes a suggestion for a much more elaborate bit of subterfuge.

The author says that in the early season trout are often engaged with larvae at the bottom and do not show on the surface. It is then a good plan, he says, to sink the flies well, moving in short jerks to imitate nymphs.

You can see that imitating a nymph will call for a lot of rehearsing, but I doubt very much if moving in short jerks is the way in which to go about it. I have never actually seen a nymph, though if I had I should not be likely to admit it, and I can think of no possible way in which I could give an adequate illusion of being one myself. Even the most stupid of trout could easily divine that I was masquerading, and then the question would immediately arise in its mind: "If he is not a nymph, then what is his object in going about like that trying to imitate one? He is up to no good, I'll be bound."

And crash! away would go the trout before I could put my clothes back on.

There is an interesting note on the care and feeding of worms on page 67. One hundred and fifty worms are placed in a tin and allowed to work their way down into packed moss.

"A little fresh milk poured in occasionally is sufficient food," writes Mr. Garrow-Green, in the style of Dr. Holt. "So disposed, the worms soon become bright, lively and tough."

It is easy to understand why one should want to have bright worms, so long as they don't know that they are bright and try to show off before company, but why deliberately set out to make them tough? Good manners they may not be expected to acquire, but a worm with a cultivated vulgarity sounds intolerable. Imagine 150 very tough worms all crowded together in one tin! "Canaille" is the only word to describe it.

I suppose that it is my ignorance of fishing parlance which makes the following sentence a bit hazy:

"Much has been written about bringing a fish downstream to help drown it, as no doubt it does; still, this is often impracticable."

I can think of nothing more impracticable than trying to drown a fish under any conditions, upstream or down, but I suppose that Mr. Garrow-Green knows what he is talking about.

And in at least one of his passages I follow him perfectly. In speaking of the time of day for fly-fishing in the spring he says:

"'Carpe diem' is a good watchword when trout are in the humor." At least, I know a good pun when I see one.

Spouse Mountain

The following is from Love Conquers All, a 1922 collection of essays by Robert Benchley (pictured).

Noting an Increase in Bigamy

Either more men are marrying more wives than ever before, or they are getting more careless about it. During the past week bigamy has crowded baseball out of the papers, and while this may be due in part to the fact that it was a cold, rainy week and little baseball could be played, yet there is a tendency to be noted there somewhere. All those wishing to note a tendency will continue on into the next paragraph.

There is, of course, nothing new in bigamy. Anyone who goes in for it with the idea of originating a new fad which shall be known by his name, like the daguerreotype or potatoes O'Brien, will have to reckon with the priority claims of several hundred generations of historical characters, most of them wearing brown beards. Just why beards and bigamy seem to have gone hand in hand through the ages is a matter for the professional humorists to determine. We certainly haven't got time to do it here.

But the multiple-marriages unearthed during the past week have a certain homey flavor lacking in some of those which have gone before. For instance, the man in New Jersey who had two wives living right with him all of the time in the same apartment. No need for subterfuge here, no deceiving one about the other. It was just a matter of walking back and forth between the dining-room and the study. This is, of course, bigamy under ideal conditions.

But in tracing a tendency like this, we must not deal so much with concrete cases as with drifts and curves. A couple of statistics are also necessary, especially if it is an alarming tendency that is being traced. The statistics follow, in alphabetical order:

In the United States during the years 1918-1919 there were 4,956,673 weddings. 2,485,845 of these were church weddings, strongly against the wishes of the bridegrooms concerned. In these weddings 10,489,392 silver olive-forks were received as gifts.

Starting with these figures as a basis, we turn to the report of the Pennsylvania State Committee on Outdoor Gymnastics for the year beginning January 4th, 1920, and ending a year later.

This report being pretty fairly uninteresting, we leave it and turn to another report, which covers the manufacture and sale of rugs. This has a picture of a rug in it, and a darned good likeness it is, too.

In this rug report we find that it takes a Navajo Indian only eleven days to weave a rug 12 x 5, with a swastika design in the middle. Eleven days. It seems incredible. Why, it takes only 365 days to make a year!

Now, having seen that there are 73,000 men and women in this country today who can neither read nor write, and that of these only 4%, or a little over half, are colored, what are we to conclude? What is to be the effect on our national morale? Who is to pay this gigantic bill for naval armament?

Before answering these questions any further than this, let us quote from an authority on the subject, a man who has given the best years, or at any rate some very good years, of his life to research in this field, and who now takes exactly the stand which we have been outlining in this article.

"I would not," he says in a speech delivered before the Girls' Friendly Society of Laurel Hill, "I would not for one minute detract from the glory of those who have brought this country to its present state of financial prominence among the nations of the world, and yet as I think back on those dark days, I am impelled to voice the protest of millions of American citizens yet unborn."

Perhaps some of our little readers remember what the major premise of this article was. If so, will they please communicate with the writer.

Oh, yes! Bigamy!

Well, it certainly is funny how many cases of bigamy you hear about nowadays. Either more men are marrying more wives than ever before, or they are getting more careless about it. (That sounds very, very familiar. It is barely possible that it is the sentence with which this article opens. We say so many things in the course of one article that repetitions are quite likely to creep in.)

At any rate, the tendency seems to be toward an increase in bigamy.


The Sounders, Drew, a Crowd


Pete: Best

This show about Peter Cook features John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Stephen Fry, Jonathan Miller, Eleanor Bron, Ronnie Wood, John Lennon, and Peter's widow, Lin.


Sky Writing


Rock Star