Saturday, July 29, 2006

Chancing upon a Chicago Television Legend: A Vignette

I met my dad at the nursing home this afternoon to take my grandpa out to lunch. When I arrived, Grandpa was waiting at the door, ready to go, eager for lunch at Gramma Sally's Pancake House, where he always gets the same thing--strawberry crepes. The servers there know my dad and grandpa by now, as this is their Saturday ritual, and so when our waitress set a heavy-laden plate of crepes covered with a mess of strawberries in front of Grandpa--at least twice the regular serving size--she gave Dad a wink and explained that she asked the kitchen to throw in a little extra today. Grandpa, oblivious to this exchange, just picked up his fork and got started. Honestly, I think they're just amazed at how much food my grandpa can put away at his age (which is 97 1/2). Who knows, maybe the cooks and bus boys are back there in the kitchen placing bets on whether or not whether or not Grandpa will clean his plate that day. What I do know is that anyone who bets against my grandpa's appetite is a fool.

Anyway, on the way back to the nursing home Grandpa tells us that he has a new roommate who will draw pictures of us. My dad and I aren't entirely sure what this means. (Grandpa remains lucid, but sometimes he leaves out the details that make things make sense.) Grandpa asks us to talk to his roommate and find out exactly who he is and what he's all about, since with his hearing loss he's only been able to catch a few things here and there.

So, we get back to Grandpa's room and meet Bruce Newton, the new roommate. We shake Bruce's hand, pull up some chairs, and he begins to tell us bits and pieces of his story. Born in Michigan. Fought in WII. Occupied Japan after the bomb was dropped, got cancer because of the radiation, and in a paradox of medicine, underwent 48 radiation treatments to beat it. Attended seven different colleges in order to learn about radio, television, stage design, and puppetry. Moved to Chicago. Got his start with a morning show on WGN, Chicago's home town station. Met his wife. A few years later, handcrafted the puppet that would become Garfield Goose, co-star of a children's show with a 25 year run. (I learned my dad grew up watching Garfield Goose and his contemporaries on an 11" TV my grandpa won in a 10 cent raffle at the barbershop.) Went on to work for several other TV stations, working on various kids' shows and creating additional puppets that live on in the nostalgic memories of my parents' generation. Played the role of Shorty in "Shock Theatre," a program that aired horror movies from the 30's and 40's. And...did a lot of other stuff, including design the very first set for Soul Train.
He tells us all of this with the air of someone used to reciting his story. He is not arrogant, though, and humbly accepts the fact that I am young and not at all familiar with his famous goose or any of the other characters he crafted, controlled, or played over the years. He points to his bedside table, where there's a picture of his wife, Claire. "She died three weeks ago," he tells us. "We were together every day. It hurts so much to be apart." And he starts to cry.

Regaining his composure, he reaches for his sketchpad and says, "Here, I'll draw you. It helps take my mind off my wife." He begins a caricature of me, while I begin to look through a red album with the word "Memories" on the cover in black felt letters, where the "s" has come loose and curls a bit to the left. The book holds an assortment of yellowed newspaper clippings, invitations to Chicago events, employee IDs, certificates of commendation, photographs of his home and family, a document stating his service in WII, and scattered throughout, the autographs of people he met while working in television. Humphrey Bogart. Fred Astair. Shirley Temple. Ed McMahon. Mae West. Along with a host of other names I don't recognize or can't make out. My dad fills me in their role in American celebrity-dom, repeatedly surprised that I don't know who the people are.

Bruce finishes his drawing of me, adds Garfield Goose on the left with "Hello Suzanne" in a speech bubble floating between us, finishes the whole thing off with his signature ("It'll get you more on E-bay that way," he tells me with a wink), hands it to me, and starts in on my dad. When he finishes and my dad has received his Bruce Newton original, we say our goodbyes to Bruce and grandpa leads our exit parade down the hallway to see us out, shuffling his feet to make the wheelchair go. "So," he asks my dad as we near the lobby, "what part did he have with Garfield Goose?"

Friday, July 21, 2006


sluggish adj. averse to activity or exertion; slow to respond; markedly slow in movement. see also: torpid (adj. sluggish in functioning)

Today is a sluggish day. My computer is uncharacteristically slow. My brain feels like mush. A nap sounds positively dreamy.

And it's only lunchtime.

Maybe some fresh air would do me good.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Does the Bible Need to be Hip?

High up on the list of things I really appreciate are Books and Free Stuff. So when announced they would send a free copy of a forthcoming book to people who'd agree to read and review the book on their blog, I signed up. That book is Pocket Guide to the Bible: A Little Book about the Big Book (hereafter PGTTB), by Jason Boyett (2006 Relevant Books), and this is my review (and then some).

I started reading PGTTB during a flight to Nashville, and finished reading it a couple weeks later while being driven around Columbus, so while its dimensions make it larger than any but the most spacious cargo pant pocket, I will attest to its portability and shoulder-bag friendly size. (As a bookseller I find it amusing to note the various sizes of books purported to be "pocket" sized, my favorite being the 4" thick foreign language "pocket" dictionaries that weigh at least half a pound, easy. I also know that I'm a nerd and probably the only one to be amused by that. Anyway, back to the review...)

The book has five main sections: a glossary (or "Biblicabulary"), a list of characters, book summaries ("the Bible at breakneck speed"), a brief history of the canon, and a guide to modern translations. To fit all of that into a 191 page 5"x7" tome is a feat to be applauded, no doubt. It would have been a refreshingly brief, unstuffy, and perhaps even helpful supplement to my Bib Lit texts back in college, particularly when it came to differentiating between the minor prophets. (e.g., Zechariah: "One of Haggai's prophetic contemporaries who leans more toward the crazy Ekekiel vein than the prophecies-we-might-actually-understand vein."

Even though the book starts out with the Biblicabulary, "a handy glossary for the scriptural noob," I'd say the primary audience for this book is young (as in teen through mid-30s) Christians who have been in church and reading the Bible for many years, or even a couple decades, as in my case, who need a punch in the arm to get out of the "easy" Epistles and go back and read some of the more obscure--and at times weird and shocking--passages found in the rest of the Bible. While someone outside of or new to the faith and/or the Bible will certainly learn a lot of helpful (and perhaps not so helpful) Biblical info by reading PGTTB (and indeed, even those with gold-star Sunday school attendance and a degree from a Christian college will gain some knowledge), I admit I'm a bit leary that they could come away from reading PGTTB with the impression that the Bible is more an intriguing and at times amusing curiosity than the trustworthy, holy, God-breathed, true Word of Life. Now, I am confident that's not at all the author's view, but still, it makes me a little uneasy.

PGTTB did make me laugh out loud on more than one occasion (so beware if you choose to read in public). A couple of my favorite quips: "Apostle...Not to Be Confused with Aeropostale, a mall-based retailer of casual apparel for teenagers. One sells hoodies. The other wears robes and sandals. It's not hard." Or, in reference to the time Elisha sicced some bears on kids jeering at him for being bald, "You know the saying, 'Mock the bald and get violently mauled'?(1) That's where it comes from. [footnote] (1) Not a real saying. But it should be." Or, "Jesus and his followers share a Last Supper together. (Though at that time they probably just call it 'supper.')"

Unfortunately, for every comment that made me chuckle or want to grab my Bible and read up, there was a comment that made me cringe. Obviously, when one's intent is to bring a little levity to the reading of holy scriptures, there's a thin line between what is considered wit and what may be called bad taste at best, sacrilege at worst. The truth is that among Christians, where that line lies and what crosses it is going to differ. What bothered me might not make others blink, and what made me laugh might make others grimace with disdain.

That said, while there were parts of PGTTB that I enjoyed, learned from, and will probably go back to, what made me uncomfortable is that this book seems to play the game of "How Close." Now, I realize I'll have to explain myself because it was reading this book that made me think about and put a name on this game. How Close is played out in a lot of Christian media and Christian lives, mine not excluded. Basically, the unspoken objective is, "How close can I get to [speaking like, dressing like, spending like, drinking like, etc.] the world without being "worldly"?

As I was reading this book, there were several times that I felt like there was such an effort on the part of the author to be "hip" and "relevant" that he went too far and ended up emulating the language and values of a perverse culture. Yes, to simply call Jezebel evil does seem like an understatement, but is it necessary to sanitize the common epithet and call her a "beeyotch"? Or describe Nebuchadnezzar's wilderness lunacy by adding "izn" to the colorful "apeshit"? (Which, by the way, I am apparently not "hip" enough to have in my vocabulary, so I had to turn to to confirm the context clues.) Does relevance make it acceptable to dishonor the dead by taking their name in vain? Yes, I realize that only God's name has a commandment attached to it, but "most angels in the Bible scare the bejudas out of people" and "once his boss has Cobained himself" just seem in really bad taste.

I acknowledge that my sensibilities lie on the conservative side. I know that I am far more concerned with diction than the average person. And I realize that I have now gone way beyond the scope of a book review, but seeing this book play How Close with its speech made me realize, again, how big a temptation that is for Christians, including me, and how so much of the stuff marketed by and to Christians is really just a supposedly salubrious imitation of an idea the world had first. It brings to mind a quote from one of the books I did some freelance work on, which said something to the effect of (and the author of course said it much better), "The Christian's greatest temptation is so often not this or that particular sin of indulgence, but the draw to be 'normal' at the cost of being holy." Ouch. On how many occasions (thousands, at least) have I desired and chosen fitting in over being set apart?

Okay, I have left the realm of review altogether and entered the realm of commentary, and even conviction, and this post is far longer than I intended. If you've read this far you're either (a) really bored; (b) still trying to figure out if I'd recommend that you read this book; or (c) wrestling with How Close a bit yourself. To (a) I say, "log off and go read a book;" to (b) maybe this one; and (c) let's chew this over together.

I'm with Jane.

"What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance." - Jane Austen

Monday, July 10, 2006

Rapid Fire Weekends

So, it turns out the rigging of the Santa Maria replica in Columbus, OH is a pretty fabulous frame for a fireworks show. I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend with the Pizzi family, even though I lost at both Scrabble (I know-gasp! What can I say, Allison brought her A-game) and pinochle (also sad, but not as surprising).

This past weekend was another busy one, seeming to arrive ridiculously fast after only a 3-day work week, and go by equally fast, being on the heels of a 4 day weekend. Highlights included cheering Berto Ramon on to victory and a trip to Germany at the Chicago final for the Emergenza Music Festival (thanks Bekah, that was fun...loud, but fun); getting "lost" at the arboretum; and reconnecting with my friend and college roommate, Michelle, after 4 years of her being out of the country.

Summer = good.