|reading the obits
I live in Los Angeles. I have a morning routine
that begins with breakfast at the Farmers
Market and here I read the paper—the Times.
That’s the routine. The paper doesnt take long.
I no longer concern myself with world or
national affairs—or the business page either
because all my stocks are in the toilet.
That leaves sports and the entertainment page
I saw my last movie 7 years ago. The movie
was Heat with deNiro and Al pacino. I sat
watching the film and one scene followed
another and one character spoke to another and
one exploding car followed another exploding
car and there was something about it all that
left me in a state of zero suspense. I had seen
this movie before. I had seen it 50 times. I left
the theater and said to myself: no
more movies—-for $7.50. I declared a
moratorium. Now its seven years later, the
tickets are $10.50 and the moratorium remains
Thank god for sports-—and stories about people
like Julio Ortiz, pitcher for the Cubs, who went 8-
11 last year with an ERA of 5.34 and has
rejected the clubs latest offer, a 3 year contract
for 1.9 mil per. Ortiz wants a 5 year contract for
3.2 mil per. He has filed for
I finish the paper and that is the cue for an old
woman who sits nearby to shuffle over and ask
to borrow the Metro section. She says: “I like to
read the obituaries”. She says this every day
and every day I say, shoving the paper over:
“take the whole thing”. Its part of the routine.
I am 66. You hit a certain age and somehow
stories about babies in Africa dying of starvation
with flies crawling around inside their eye
sockets and psychotics who chop off the arms of
young girls and CEOs who have wangled a
$9,000,000 severance agreement from a
company they have just finished running into
the ground, etc, ect, have lost their appeal.
One day I turned to the obits.
You may recall a story, circa 1996, the city was
Oakland Ca, and the subject involved the
teaching of English to black kids. It was the
Oakland Unified School District—OUSD--that
after many meetings and much informed
debate decided to induct into the curricula a
subject called Ebonics--black English.
Black kids had a problem, their English was
horrendous, spoken and written both and there
was a reason: they learned from the parents,
who learned from their parents, etc, and it all
went back to the old days, on the plantation,
where very little time was spent conjugating
Instead a natural lingo featuring such quaint
grammatical howlers as “somebody bin lef him
head up de tree an de crows done gobble ebery
bit of de meat off”, etc had evolved and
continued to evolve, it evolves to this day and
now we have all these kids attending school
who view the many dos and donts of
standard English as hopelessly unlearnable.
The argument as presented by OUSD went
something like: Lets make Ebonics a legitimate
subject taught in the classroom to give these
kids a little confidence and self-esteem and in
this way a smoother transition into proper
English will begin to occur—-maybe. It was
something like that.
The story broke and the reaction was
unfavorable. Maybe that isnt the word. Maybe
savage ridicule and devastating scorn--from
white and black alike-—was the word. The
media went nuts. It was a bloodbath. There was
feedback from another direction: the standup
comic. You know when your project quickly
finds its way into the repertoire of every
standup comic in the country that you are
The preferred routine, a George Carlin routine,
featured a high school English teacher taking a
class in Ebonics, now required for certification,
and taught by a 13 year old black kid who was
patiently clearing up any confusion in the mind
of the teacher between the perfect tense—“I
gone done it”--and the pluperfect—“I bin gone
A month passed, and OUSD retreated from view
to lick their wounds and reconsider this move
and they reconsidered it right out of the
curricula. that was the great Ebonics
Now it turns out, according to the obit page, that
Ebonics goes back a few years, to 1960, when a
guy named WA Stewart, a white guy, a
professor of linguistics, became interested in
something called Gullah, an obscure southern
dialect that derived from Creole.
Stewart was a Scot, born in Hawaii who grew
up speaking English, Spanish, Portuguese and
Hawaiian. He traveled, teaching here and there
and picking up more languages along the way:
German, French, Dutch and a handful of exotic
off-beat lingos such as Wolof, Sranan,
In 1960 he found himself in Washington working
at the Center for Applied Linguistics where he
did some tutoring of inner city kids with reading
problems. He taped some conversations of
these children and assembled simple readers
that utilized some of their nonstandard
expressions. Using these primers the children
quickly learned to read.
That was the beginning of Ebonics—black
English. The idea was to use Ebonics as a
device—not to replace English but as a bridge to
facilitate transition to the standard
The mistake made by OUSD was to insist, as
Stewart himself had insisted, and lived to
regret, that Gullah is a legitimate tongue that
applies itself to specific rules of grammar in a
judicious way that is as rigid and formally
sound grammar-wise as standard English. etc,
etc. That was the story.
Another obit: Did you know that in 1994 a
publication, Entertainment Weekly, assembled
a list of the 100 greatest moments in TV
history, including classic episodes from
shows such as I Love Lucy, the Honeymooners,
All in the Family, etc and among these glittering
creations was a TV commercial, a Volkswagen
commercial, the funeral commercial that begins
with a procession of gorgeous cars—-Rolls
Royces, Lincolns and Cads, ect, with a battered
VW Bug bringing up the rear.
Cut to the will, involving a fortune of 100 million
and its all left to Harold, a distant nephew and
owner of the Volkswagen. Why? Because the
deceased, the old man, knew the value of a
buck, thats how he got his bucks and now in
the writing of the will he decides to teach a
memorable lesson in thrift to the immediate
heirs--a bunch of worthless profligate wastrel
The spot was created by Roy Grace, art director
at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach advertising, dead at
Heres another: Wilfred Thesiger, dead at 91.
Who was Wilfred Thesiger? He was an
Englishman, born in Ethiopia where his father
was a member of the British legation. Here the
son spent a marvelous childhood, along with his
mates, the privileged and non-privileged alike.
The main activity was to tag along on native
lion hunts. In those days it was considered
more sporting to dispense with guns and to rely
instead on the spear.
At age 13 he was returned to England to attend
boarding school. It was a difficult time for him.
He was an obvious misfit and brutally hazed and
to end the hazing learned to box.
He went to Eton and Oxford and emerged a well
educated English gentleman type. But this was
a pose--a mask. He wasnt the English
gentleman type. He was the native African lion-
hunting-with-a-spear type. He itched to return
to the bush and he did return.. He embarked on
a series of expeditions, in Africa and Iraq and
his reputation began to grow.
During the war he served in the Sudan and
Ethiopia as a commando for the British army.
The stage was set for his most spectacular
feat—the crossing of the empty quarter in
Saudi Arabia. This is the desert that occurs in
the movie Lawrence of Arabia and is described
as “the suns anvil”.
The English travel writer Eric Newby mentions
an encounter with Thesiger. Newby was in
Pakistan, traveling with a friend, scrambling up,
down and around in the Hindu Kush range and
one night, bedding down in their tent, the tent
flaps part and standing there is Thesiger.
Newby and his mate are stretched out on an air
mattress, that they preferred to sleeping on
rocks, and now receive from Thesiger a
withering look and he says: youre a couple of
pansies! He also said: all this jabber about
sterilizing water with tablets is nonsense. Ive
never sterilized water in my life. I drink it
straight from the ditch!
And he also said: the worst misfortune to befall
the human race is the invention of the
It was all set down in a handful of books--
Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs, The Life of My
Choice—and well worth reading not only for the
flavor of the subject but the clarity and precision
of the style—a natural writer.
What is the function of journalism?
There are two functions—of equal import-and
1) to piss you off; and 2) to create fear.
To inform, enlighten, entertain, to give
pleasure—such as the reading of a gifted
journalist—all these things occur from time to
time but priority-wise, they are way down the
list. The list follows:
Screwing the poor
Sexual perversion such as: pedophilia,
necrophilia, zoophila (sex with animals)
The surgical boner
Hookers for politicians
But the obits are different. The obits depart
from the average journalistic coverage in a
significant and much more satisfying way. There
is no need to pump things up—-to unleash the
hype or belabor an angle because the people
are dead. Death is the angle.
The writer is merely obliged to present the facts
which are allowed to speak for themselves. And
speak they do, eloquently, of people, the
ordinary and extraordinary both, but with one
thing in common: they found something to do
and they did it-—full speed ahead.
The obits can also be broken down into
Lets go first to miscellaneous where we find
Janet Malcom-—the cake lady. Janet was the
Babe Ruth of cake decorating.McCalls Magazine
called her “the goddess of sugar”. She won
the coveted New York Confectionary Association
Cake Decorating Contest 14 times—a record.
You name it Janet designed a cake to celebrate
it. She did public works (Hoover dam) historical
events (the Lindbergh New York to Paris flight),
movies (Jaws- that featured a shark of white
chocolate devouring the Robert Shaw character,
heavily bleeding strawberry juice). She did
cartoon characters, athletes, architecture (the
Guggenheim museum in NY). Dead at 74
Show biz: Shecky Green
My father loved a good comedian and of them
all his favorite was Shecky green. Shecky had
a joke about Frank Sinatra. He said: Frank
saved my life. It happened in this way. I was
doing a show at the Sands in Vegas and Frank
was in the audience and I made a joke—a
Sinatra joke, very funny but I noticed Frank
wasnt laughing. Later, when I was leaving the
casino two guys grabbed me and started beating
me up. They were quite violent. I said to
myself: this is it--Im a dead man. Now Frank
comes walking by. He stops and says: thats
Shecky, dead at 76
Sports: what is the greatest nickname in
sports? is it the “Sultan of Swat” (Babe Ruth),
the “Galloping Ghost” (Red Grange), the
“Manassa Mauler” (Jack Dempsey)? No--it is
“Little Poison”--Paul Runyan.
Paul was a golfer and the nickname derived
from his size--5’9 140 lbs--and the devastating
effects of his short game in a match play
Its nice to hammer one off the tee but you are
better advised to tune up the short game—
pitching, chipping, putting--where the strokes
Arnold Palmer said: a pitching wedge in the
hands of Paul Runyan is like giving a grenade to
For example: the 1938 PGA finals. Pauls
opponent was Sam Snead—Slammin Sammy. It
was a 36 hole match that Runyan closed out at
the 29th hole—8 up with 7 to play--the
golfing equivalent of a rout. Snead was
routinely 30-40 yards past Runyan off the tee
and just as routinely lost the hole.
He stood by watching Runyan plunk down one
perfect pitch shot, chip shot, explosion shot
from the bunker after another and drill a series
of long, short and medium range putts that
prompted Sam to say: this isnt golf; its some
sort of mystical occult type thing.
Runyan won 29 tournaments as a player and
followed it up with a second career as teacher.
He died at 93. In the hospital a friend came to
visit and as they spoke the question that always
formed on Runyans lips formed one last time.
He said: how are you playing?
The friend launched into a dismal tale of putting
woes. Runyan said: move the thumb of your
left hand more over to the side of the shaft.
Then he died.
Sports #2: Eddie Feigner—softball pitcher.
Eddie was one of the phenomenal athletes of
his time—or any time. He threw a softball 104
miles an hour. He threw 10,000 games to
record 141,000 strikeouts that included 930 no
hitters and 238 perfect games. Eddie
barnstormed the country with his team—“The
King and His Court”—4 players— Eddie, the
catcher and 2 outfielders. You dont need 9 men
when you throw a softball 104 mph. He also
pitched from second base, behind his back,
between his knees and blindfolded. In 1964
during an exhibition game at Dodger Stadium
he struck out Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Maury
Wills, Harmon Killebrew, Roberto Clemente and
Brooks Robinson—in order. Dead at 81
Sports #3: Lou Thez—-wrestler. Lou learned to
wrestle from his father, an amateur champ in
Hungary. It was real wrestling—-Greco-Roman
style. Lou wasnt an entertainer. His father said
to him: you must hurt them—then they will
Lou wrestled for 55 years. His last match
occurred in 1990 age 71. His opponent was 27.
The opponent weighed 270. Lou weighed 215,
the same weight he wrestled at as a youth.
But as a youth he didnt have an artificial hip. He
lost the match when he got slammed to the
floor and the hip caved in—painful.
He said: something told me not to take that
match. But I did it anyway.
Lou—-down for the count at 84.
Isaac Asimov, author. Maybe author isnt the
word. Thats like calling Hitler chatty. Asimov
wrote—this is not a typo-—300 books. This was
the era of the typewriter, before word
processing, so you can add another 30% labor
to the rewriting process. He owned two
typewriters because one was always in the shop.
And these are real books—not to be confused
with some cutesy novelty type production that
clocks in at 60 pages set in 14 point type.
Asimov wrote novels and sci-fi and biographies
and essay and story collections and books
on science---physics, chemistry, astronomy,
and educational texts requiring, in addition to
the actual writing, vast amounts of research.
Do the math. 300 books over a 30 year career
equates to 10 books a year or one book every
Gino Merli—war hero, the Congressional Medal
Merli was defending a roadblock against a
German patrol. The rest of the squad was
dead. He fought the Germans off 3 times and
the fourth time the Germans found him dead at
the bottom of his foxhole. They knew he was
dead because when they poked him in the hind
parts with a bayonet there was no response.
Its easy enough to play dead, less so when a
German soldier is poking with his bayonet into
your hind parts. The Germans moved on. Now
Merli returned to life and machine-gunned
them from behind.
Time passed—a couple hours. He stayed put in
the foxhole, tending his bleeding tush and
imploring God to provide salvation. God sent
more Germans. The scenario was repeated; he
plays dead, the Germans move on, he machine
guns them from behind. In the morning the
Americans regained the roadblock and Merli
was retrieved from the foxhole. Scattered about
here and there were 19 dead Germans.
Plant biology: A tomato is a tomato is a
tomato—but not for Charles Rick, 60 years a
professor of plant biology at UC Davis. Rick was
a pioneer in the study of tomato genetics,
served as curator for the Tomato Genetics
Resource Center at Davis and as such was
responsible for the archiving of many unique
mutant tomato stocks developed by researchers
world wide that might otherwise not have
survived. Inducted into the Horitculural Science
Hall of Fame in 1997 andknown thereafter as
“Mr Tomato”. Dead at 87
Loren James, movie stuntman. Loren as a
youth starred as a gymnast and high platform
diver, briefly considered a career singing opera
and was teaching high school math when he got
a call to fill in for a stuntman who backed out
of a cliff diving stunt. Thus began a 40 year
career as a stuntman—the stuntman of
When was the last time you hurled yourself
from the roof of a train into the waiting arms of
a giant saguaro cactus.How about inviting a
monstrous snake, a python 26 feet long, to
wrap itself around you and squeeze you to
death, and to nearly succeed until—count ‘em—
19 men were obliged to jump in and pry the
beast from your body. Or to: offer your throat
to an enraged rottweiler, pitch yourself from a
horse over the edge of a cliff, leap from one
truck doing 70 to another truck doing 70 in the
Etc, etc. Loren—dead at 83, of natural causes.
Dentistry: Charles Goldstein. Goldstein
attended dental school at UC San Francisco and
earned a masters in public health at UCLA. In
1970 he took charge of a mobile dental
program operated by USC—suffering from
neglect. The dentists were students who worked
out of a trailer and the patients—migrant farm
labor types—sat in cardboard dental chairs.
These were patients who hadnt seen a dentist in
20 years and were ashamed to laugh because of
the condition of their teeth.
Goldstein was a can do type—the type that does
whatever it is that needs to be done. He swept
the floor, emptied the garbage, cleaned the
toilets and gradually under his direction and
tireless labors the program began to thrive
and receive decent funding. The cardboard
dental chairs were replaced with a mobile type
Goldstein designed himself, along with other
equipment including a trailer to transport it all
to whatever site where the poor were in need of
dental care. The program continued to expand
and satellite versions began to appear
throughout the state. Goldstein established free
dental clinics for Synanon, one for native
Americans and another at Union Rescue Mission
on skid row in Los Angeles.
Goldsteins son said: “My father thought a
persons highest calling was to serve others. He
did that as a dentist”.
And Goldstein said: “Self-esteem begins with a
decent mouthful of teeth”.
EJ Cossman—salesman. EJ started out selling
encyclopedias door to door and then it was on
to hustling reproductions of famous art works at
trade shows. One weekend at a trade show he
looks over to his neighbor in the next booth-
-peddling shrunken heads for $2.98. EJ chuckled
to himself at this sorry enterprise but then he
noticed, during the 3 days of the show, that
while he had sold 27 copies of D’Vinci, van Gogh
and Ruebens paintings the shrunken head guy
sold 3000 shrunken heads. He thought it
over and did the sensible thing: to go into
partnership with the seller of shrunken heads.
The following year he sold 2 million shrunken
heads. Next--the potato gun a huge seller,
conceived during a potato surplus, a toy for
children to fire these little spud pellets into the
heads of playmates. And then it was on to the
ant farm, selling like blazes to this day, and
there was this novelty and that novelty and the
other novelty, all in the same vein,the useless
but irresistible vein and everything sold via
mail order to keep the overhead down and
when you add it up equates to a palace on your
own island in the Bahamas.
Jack Taylor. Taylor was a tailor--a celebrity
tailor. He dressed Cary Grant, jack Lemmon,
Sinatra, Babe Ruth, Harry Truman, the Duke of
A Jack Taylor suit started at $2950 or you could
buy the pants only for $750. It was all done by
hand, the sewing, the stitching, the lapping and
basting of the seams, and for the pants a
special touch—a cotton insert that attached
to the crotch to be cleaned separately thus
sparing the garment from excessive wear and
tear over at the cleaners.
Jack said: That was a different time. Men knew
how to dress. They appreciated quality and
were willing to pay for it.
Cary Grant was his favorite. He said: Cary
Grant was born to wear a suit—a Jack Taylor
suit. His problem was paying for the suit. Cary
was cheap. He saved used string.
And there was Richard Buffum, columnist for
the orange country edition of the times who
started out editing a small weekly paper and
made the horoscopes up himself when the
regular staffer was sick or hungover; and there
was Ellwood Perry, inventor of the spoonplug
fishing lure –the “bass assassin”; and Tung-yen
Lin, Chinese civil engineer, a pioneer of pre-
stressed concrete that revolutionized the
building of bridges, dams, skyscrapers, the
freeway overpass, of whom it was said by a
colleague that Lins studies and researches into
the design of this material “changed the history
of building”; and John Weitz, fashion designer
who doubled as a spy for the OSS during world
war 2; or ____, actress in the films of Mike
Leigh, dead at 41; and Cuesta Benberry, quilt
scholar; and Robert Aplanap, philanthropist
who patented the valve controlling operation
of the aerosol spray can; and Momofuku Ando
who perfected the drying, packaging and
rehydrating of the noodle, Ramen, noodles in a
cup, 4 or sometimes 6, for $1, and currently
registering annual sales of 92 billion units.
I could go on but you get the idea. My point is
this: if you suffer from newspaper burnout and
have overdosed on the follies, stupidities and
appallingly squalid behavior of your brethren, if
you prefer to laugh, not throw up, or at least
have your thirst for information satisfied in a
more edifying way-—check out the obits.
Remember: no news is good news, life is short,
and ignorance is bliss.