Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An Illinois Joke

Q: What did one Illini prison inmate say to the other?

A: I think the food was better in here when you were governor.

Of Illinois’ last 7 governors, 4 of them have done time in prison. That’s 3 Democrats and 1 Republican, if anyone’s keeping score.

Pink Ribbons and Jean’s Opinion

Last year at the Ohio State spring football game, I was surprised to see the players were wearing not OSU’s traditional scarlet and grey, but pink and grey in honor of Stephanie Spielman. For the benefit of anyone not from Columbus, Ohio, Stephanie was an extraordinary lady whose husband Chris was an All-American linebacker at OSU who lasted more than a decade in the NFL. I wouldn’t say that it’s illegal to speak ill of the Speilmans in Ohio, but it’s simply not done.

Back in 1998, Stephanie was diagnosed with breast cancer and got treatment at the James Institute on campus at Ohio State, one of the nation’s finest cancer institutions. I remember meeting Stephanie and Chris once. Stephanie had lost her hair from chemotherapy, and Chris had shaved his head for moral support. Both spent a whole lot of time raising money for breast cancer research. Sadly, early last year, Stephanie’s breast cancer recurred and, despite the best possible treatment, she died early last spring. She left a husband and four teenage children. Stephanie Speilman certainly has left a fine legacy. There’s no one in central Ohio who’s ever raised money for breast cancer who doesn’t know who she is.

There’s a great deal of publicity about breast cancer treatment, with pink ribbons everywhere. A controversy surrounding the publicity is the slogan “Save the Tatas,” a marketing campaign directed towards the raunchier side of men. It occurred to me when I first saw this motto that some guys just *have* to do the right thing for the wrong reason. I once read a column wherein the writer claims the motto demeans both the women who suffer from breast cancer and the men who care for them.

After giving the matter some thought, I called my friend Jean from law school and asked for her opinion. She is certainly entitled to have one, since ten years ago she was afflicted with breast cancer herself. She told me she thought “Save the Tatas” was just plain funny. So I’ll differ to Jean on that question.

To all of my women friends, I sincerely hope Jean is the only one I will ever have who is ever *that* qualified to express an opinion on breast cancer.

Katarina Witt

I always admired Katarina Witt’s beauty and athleticism as she won a gold medal in the Winter Olympics back in 1984. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate Witt’s wit as well.
An apocryphal story has it that Donald Trump once offered Ms. Witt his private phone number, which she declined. Thoroughly miffed, the story goes, Trump told her that *no one* had ever refused his number before. To which Ms. Witt is supposed to have replied, “Well somebody has to set the trend.”

I don’t know if that story is true, but I’d like to think it is. Perhaps we can start calling her the Red Baroness for shooting Donald down in flames.

If I ever meet that particular Olympian beauty, I’ll say to her, “Katarina, I’ve been shot down by every beautiful woman I’ve ever talked to. Wand to set a new trend?”

The Wit of Nellie Gwin

Ms. Gwin was one of Charles II’s mistresses. Rumor has it that Charles’ last words were, “Let not poor Nellie starve.” Charles II is perhaps the wittiest monarch Great Britain ever had. One of his critics, John Wilmot, wrote of him:

"We have a pretty witty king
Whose word no man relies on
He never said a foolish thing
or ever did a wise one"

Charles responded, "That is very true, for my words are my own, but my acts, my ministers'.”

Apparently, Ms. Gwin’s wit made her a good match for Charles. Popular legend has it that once, when a heckler called her a whore, her coachman attacked the foul-mouthed scalawag and was in the process of giving him a beating when Nellie descended from her carriage and said, “I am a whore, find something else to fight about!” No wonder she got a pension of 1500 pounds after Charles’ death.

Crank Yankers’ Best

When I spent a year in London back in the mid-80s, one of my all-time favorites was the BBC show “Spitting Image,” which was a brilliantly savage satire on all manner of public figures using puppets that, after a while, looked more like the people they were satirizing than the people themselves.

There was a short-lived American take on this show that I was fond of. Apparently a lot of people aren’t familiar with the Comedy Central show Crank Yankers, which uses puppets to portray people involved in prank phone calls. My favorite involved a young woman who called into a strip club and pretended to inquire about a job. After informing the management of her measurements, she told them there was one catch: after a glitter-mascara accident, she was completely blind. She knew this would not be a problem, because she had trained her seeing-eye dog, a German Shepherd named Busch, to go from table to table collecting tips! She went on to explain that she would do just fine as long as the bar did not use strobe lighting, because strobe lights made Butch go ballistic. The management finally began to get suspicious when she threatened them with a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Columbo, Petrovich, and Socrates

I was saddened a few weeks ago to hear about the death of Peter Falk. He did some excellent comedies (check out him and Alan Arkin in The In-Laws), but he was always be remembered as the slovenly, disheveled homicide detective Lt. Columbo. In every episode of the show that bore his name, Columbo investigated murders committed by brilliant people who thought they had committed the perfect crime. At first, the lieutenant seems to be a totally bumbling buffoon, but bit by bit by bit by bit by bit, he methodically destroy their alibis and subterfuges, almost always using his famous tagline “Oh… there’s just one more thing.” (A great clip of him investigating real-life friend John Casavettes can be found here).

I recently read a review of a television production of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in which the reviewer contemptuously derided the portrayal of the inspector as being a “second-rate Columbo.” I laughed out loud. I once read an article by William Link, one of the creators of Columbo. He said he’d been inspired by Dostoevsky’s work from the 19th century, particularly the investigator Porfiry Petrovich from the novel—you guessed it—Crime and Punishment.
If that’s not enough self-reference for you, one commentator pointed out that both Columbo and the other inspector have a forebearer dating back to earliest antiquity: Both use a method originated by Socrates in classical Athens in the 5th century BC.

A Bit of Good News on the Historical Front

As a lifelong student of history, I am frequently exasperated by young people’s ignorance of my favorite topic. I was therefore absolutely delighted when my current collaborator William Hallal, a recent graduate of Ohio State, told me that his sophomore history teacher held a trial in his class over who was the more evil man: Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. I don’t want to try to decide the issue; however, I believe it’s essential for any educated person learn about the evil of both of those regimes. So kudos to Mr. Hallal and to Mrs. Emerson.

Happy Birthday, Baron von Steuben

Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steubenwas born 28- years ago in Madgeburg, Germany. Though he served in the armies of Frederick the Great, he was not, as he claimed to Goerge Washington, a former brigadier general—he never reached a rank higher than captain. He was, however, a superior troop trainer. When he arrived in Valley Forge in 1778, Washington put him in charge of training his soldiers. Steuben set to work training 100 carefully selected men and trained them to, in turn, be trainers. After they’d completed Steuben’s program, each of them was assigned 100 men, and by the springtime, the Continental Army was a completely different organization than it had been in the fall. The moral of the story (as I’m sure a friend of mine who’s a retired Marine D.I., whill appreciate), is never underestimate the impact of what one good drill instructor can accomplish.

Son of David

There’s one bit of history of the British Royal Family that has always intrigued me: Mary Queen of Scots was a red-headed, blue-eyed beauty who stood 5’11”. Average height was a lot shorter then than it is today (paging Nicole Kidman!). Her second husband Lord Darnley, before his unsolved murder, was well over 6 feet. Her secretary David Rizzio was an Italian fellow who was short and swarthy (before his unsolved murder). Her son, James I of England (James VI of Scotland) had dark hair and eyes, and was hardly 5’ tall.

When James came to the throne of England after Elizabeth I’s death in 1863, he rapidly established himself as a wise, scholarly man. It was his idea to produce a translation of the Bible available to anyone who could read. The King James Bible stands as a testament to his reign almost 4 centuries after his death. James’ reputation for scholarship was such that some people referred to him as the Solomon of England.

King Louis of France’s rejoinder was, “Well might he be called Solomon, for he is the son of David.”