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Friday, April 13, 2012

Books in Brief

When I was in college, I worked in the circulation department of the Tampa Public Library. One of my many duties was to empty the book drop. It was a drive-by book drop, so people could, and did, put things in there that they never would have delivered to the front desk. I should have been issued a full hazmat suit to perform this task, because people would use the book drop as both a trash can and a toilet (even though those things you probably wouldn’t flush in your home john). So in addition to pulling out books we also had to fish out and discard a lot of moist unmentionables.
People also used the book drop to donate books. The library would sell a lot of those books. You could get five paperbacks for a buck. Readers’ Digest Condensed Books were often donated and went straight into the dumpster. We, as literature snobs, referred to as these tomes as Condemned Books.
Condemned Books were made for people who didn’t enjoy reading. These were people who thought, “I’d like to know enough about the book in case it ever comes up in conversation, but I don’t want to sit through the whole thing.” Each volume of Condemned Books had four or five full length books significantly abridged of material that was viewed by editors as insignificant.
For a while, my mother subscribed to Condemned Books, but she also took Dexedrine. Talk about speed reading. Once my Uncle Harvey Horace Greeley Spaulding Derby (and if you think that’s weird, you should have met my grandmother) gave me a Condemned Book for Christmas. I am sure that it was one that he either read and regifted or didn’t like, so he pawned it off on his nephew. I remember being underwhelmed. He could have given me a Matchbox car or batteries for my Motoriffic cars, but nooo! All I remember about the book was that one of the slashed selections was The Good Earth by Pearle S. Buck, which is a really tough sell to a ten-year-old boy.
I always wondered about Condemned Books editors. They were probably people who really hated English class and found their dream job in taking a great piece of literature and mutilating it. I picture someone with a red pen crossing out all the adjectives in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, leaving only a three-panel brochure about life in the South. Take THAT, Mrs. Terry, my sophomore English teacher who forced me to read A Separate Peace and deny the fact that it contained homosexual overtones!
I’ll bet the Senior Editor in charge of those “books” was just a blocked, unpublished novelist who outsourced all the assignments to a summer intern who worked in the broom closet while he swilled Scotch on the rocks in his windowed office while periodically cursing at his arch enemy, the typewriter.
To: Kahil Gerbil, Senior Editor, Readers Digest Condensed Books
From: Harmonia Munk, Junior Abridger
Thank you for the books you have assigned me to read and make suggestions regarding what we can cut/modify. I have read (or at least scanned through) all of them, and here are my conclusions.
The Bible: Adam & Eve, blah, blah, blah, sleeping with a man as a woman, abomination, blah, blah, blah. To everything, Turn, Turn, Turn, etc.
Moby Dick: Call him Captain instead of Ishmael. Then just cut to the chase.
The Catcher in the Rye: Let’s skip all that stuff when Holden’s running around in New York. Change point of view to sister Phoebe’s, but in third person.
Love Story: Let’s cut out all that upper class/working class crap. Give Jenny Chronic Fatigue Syndrome instead of Leukemia. Throw in kids. Think: Preppy, I need to take a nap. You nurse the twins again.
1984: First of all, let’s change the title to 2084. Remove outdated technology. Instant pamphlet!
Deliverance: Readers’ Digest is a family publication, so we’ll pull the rape scene and give the guy poison ivy instead. And that gets relieved with some aloe the boys find now that nobody’s being raped.
The Hours: We can change it to The Hour and delete all that past hokum that makes it more than an hour read. Let's just deal with the man who jumps out the window and call it a day.
Sophie’s Choice: The Nazis agree to kill Sophie and let the kids live. We can cut out a lot of book with that one small change. Change title to Adolph’s Choice.
The Joy Luck Club: Way too much redundancy what with all those Chinese. Instead of rotating between all those families, just have one family and throw in some Uncle Ben's "best quality" rice recipes.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman: The lieutenant floats up on shore on a log. After she nurses him back to health, Miss Woodruff/Mrs. Roughwood marries him. Again, throw in a kid or two. It always works in sitcoms. Forget the back story about the actors. That’s just distracting.
The World According to Garp: Again, family publication. Remove the penile dismemberment and those annoying Ellen Jamesians. Make Roberta Muldoon, the transgendered chick, a male homosexual. They are so much more loveable.
Brideshead Revisited: First of all, where’s the prequel to this called just Brideshead? Shouldn’t we butcher that one first? If not, change one of the dudes to a chick, and make the family agnostic instead of Catholic.
In Cold Blood: Change the setting to a state where there’s no death penalty.
To Kill a Mockingbird: Can’t we just make Tom Robinson white? Cut the dog shooting scene (PETA pressure). Take Dill completely out. He serves no purpose. And make Scout a boy; otherwise the readers will think she’ll grow up to be a lesbian. Isn’t Jem redundant?
Lord of the Flies: Just give Piggy some extended wear contact lenses.
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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Games People Played

Nothing on 60’s TV spelled entertainment to me more than a Mark Goodson-Bill Todman production. I was very fond of the celebrity panel game show format. On To Tell the Truth, the celebrities were introduced, and there was nothing more contrasting than Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle. Peggy Cass would waddle out wearing what looked like a homemade shift, Miss Gooch glasses, a lesbian haircut and flats. She would smile, nod and take her seat. Then after Orson Bean (who always made art out of his paper vote), Kitty Carlisle would blow out wearing some flowing chiffon evening gown and over-curtsy. Her brunette hair was always perfect, sprayed stiff and looked like a mannequin wig. Her Kabuki makeup was applied with the backside of a tablespoon, and you just know she was over-saturated in some pungent eau de toilette. The panel would try to weed out the two lying impostors from the person whose life was too, too interesting. Sometimes all four panelists hit it right, and the trio of guests would go home with no cash to divide among themselves. Sometimes they were dead wrong, and the real person who, say, saw everything upside down and backwards (and proved it by writing in cursive that way) would go home and question her identity and start psychotherapy not much later.

I’ve Got a Secret was also a big hit in my book. It wasn’t so much the panel that made the show, but the freaks that they brought on with some kind of “secret” that the panelists would try their damnedest to figure out. They would flash the secret on the screen so that folks at home could see it or close their eyes until the caption disappeared. That was always the highlight of the show for me. I always kept my eyes open, because I couldn’t wait for secrets like: Raised By Pygmies, Bastard Child of Bill Cullen and Betsy Palmer, and Born with Displaced Olfactory Nerve; Can Only Smell Through Her Right Knee, Yeah, guess that secret in fifteen seconds, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. I dare ya.
On What’s My Line, a celebrity panel tried to guess the bizarre occupation of the contestants. In the last segment, the panel was blindfolded, and a celebrity Mystery Guest came out to thunderous applause, signed in and disguised his/her voice during the panel interrogation. 

If there was extra time left over at the end of the show, written questions from people out there in TV land and “our studio audience” were read to the panel in a segment called “Honest Answers”.
In one episode, a viewer claimed to have seen Arlene Francis (with her ever-present diamond-encrusted heart pendant dangling from her neck) peeking out from underneath the bottom of her pearly blindfold at the mystery guest. You have never in your life seen such a sweet, mild-mannered panelist turn from Eve White to Eve Black so quickly. And then she got into a fight with Soupy Sales, because he was laughing. She went from tame former radio hostess to Leona Helmsley before you could say, “cheater.” Sadly, there is no YouTube documentation of this, but here is a similar incident: Arlene Controls Herself.

All game show contestants received a copy of the Home Game. All Home Games came with this subtitle: Warning: Don’t buy this because it is more fun just to Watch it on TV. Someone once gave me the home game of Concentration. It took an hour and a half just to set it up. You had to stick sixty miniscule pieces of paper into thirty slots on the board. And then for the next week you would have to pull the slot number paper out to reveal something that said “Dishwasher” or “Range” and try to remember where else on the board you’d seen that appliance. When the time came for you to guess what the once-hidden pictogram said, it was too late, because you already had thrown the whole thing at your sister and were made to vacuum up 60 paper bits, while your mother backed the station wagon over the plastic game board and made you vacuum up those shattered slivers as well.
Even if you did win the Home Game of Concentration, you didn’t really feel any sense of accomplishment. You didn’t go home with the washer-dryer, Steamset rollers or the trash compactor. First of all, you were already home. Secondly, all you got was a piece of paper that said “Blender”, “Garbage Disposal” or “Trash Compactor.” How is that fun? Take that to school for Show and Tell and see what happens.

A lot of those game shows were presented live before a studio audience, and there was always someone behind the board who had the task of turning a tile or pulling out a cardboard Jeopardy! card to reveal the question. Since everything was manual and nothing electronic, inevitably something would go wrong. You sometimes got to see the hand of the Concentration tile turner (or even his very embarrassed face if you were lucky), or the card puller’s finger probing through the grid trying to capture the torn piece of cardboard.

The remakes that cable channels produce these days always stink. The remake of I’ve Got a Secret on the Game Show Network in 2006 lasted for seven episodes before it was axed. It had a B-list panel of gay people barely in the closet. (Get it? Secret? Nudge, nudge; wink, wink.) Some shows, like The Match Game were just insipid from the very beginning. The original Match Game had two teams of three, each team led by a celebrity. When Liza Minnelli was on, the teams were asked to “Name a song that Judy Garland made famous.” I only remember this because I am a gay man. So how many contestants do you think wrote down “Easter Parade”? Even Judy’s daughter, in the ultimate sellout, wrote down, “Over the Rainbow” instead of the homosexual favorite, “Clang, Clang, Clang went the Trolley.” And if anyone knows her homosexuals, it’s Liza with a Q. The newer, bawdy version of the game, which starred Charles Nelson Reilly and Bret Somers (who the hell was she, anyway, other than Jack Klugman’s wife and Match Game employee?) was totally unwatchable, because every other word was “Boobs.” 

Goodman-Todman shows were usually funny and upbeat, (except when Arlene started snarling). But none of their shows could touch the pathos of Queen for a Day. Originally broadcast as a radio show, Queen for a Day dragged out three run-down old women and in front of everyone had them describe their suffering and tales of woe. These were miserably unhappy ladies, usually widows, their husbands dead from black lung from working in the mines, and they were left without a dime but with twelve children. They always were unable to work because they were fat diabetics confined to wheelchairs and bought saltines and lard from the money they got for the ironing they took in and pressed at a neighbor’s house because they had electricity. And they all had bills piled up and worried that their other 11 kids would come down with small pox just like the youngest one.

After all three women were paraded out and blubbering to the best of their ability, the audience voted, based on the highest volume of clapping reported by the Applause-O-Meter. The winner was given a velvet robe and rhinestone tiara and wheeled up to the throne while the host read out her list of prizes, all of them useless, like a fur coat and a new washing machine, but no extension cord to plug in to the ironing hangout. The other slightly less desperate women went home with, I don’t know, the Home Game I guess. Probably a photograph of the winner’s mink stole as well.

I’d give one of my left digits if they would bring this back as a reality show in the American Idol format. It would take weeks until the most desperate of all the down-and-out would win the season. I would love to see Jennifer Lopez say to a contestant, “Well, you sound pretty destitute and you’re a professional weeper. And I saw your brood of children backstage, and certainly all of them could be introduced to soap, warm water and a good delousing, but I also saw you with a genuine Louis Vuitton handbag, and that was no knockoff, sistah!”

The golden years of television I loved so much are dead, as are most of those contestants and celebrities, with the possible exception of Orson Bean. According to Wikipedia, Arlene Frances had her diamond heart yanked off her neck by a mugger as she got out of a taxi in 1988. Talk about the end of an era. She died in 2001 from cancer and Alzheimer’s. Chronic crankiness could also have been a contributor.

But I secretly wonder that near the end, in a semi-lucid moment of clarity she might have thought, “Maybe I did cheat.”

(photo credit:
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Monday, April 2, 2012

Choose Your Poison

The 70’s were a reckless, unfortunate time in America. I seem to remember that the minimum drinking age in Florida was changed to 18 as a result of a campaign that insisted that if you were old enough to go to Viet Nam and smoke dope and maybe die for your country, then you should be old enough to consume alcohol responsibly.

What a joke. A lot of the people I went to high school with still don’t know how to consume alcohol responsibly. Of course, in 1973 when the law was changed, there was no Mothers Against Drunk Drivers organization. Back then MADD’s acronym stood for Mothers Are Drunk Drivers. Drinking and driving among youngsters was not taken seriously, either. A lot of us who got pulled over and had booze on our breath were just dismissed by cops. I know I was, anyway. I even had an open quart of rum under my Volkswagen seat at the time.

Having started drinking at the age of 14, I was delighted when the law was changed. That meant a less than two-year wait for me until I could drink with government approval. Unfortunately, my mother (a platinum member of Mothers Are Drunk Drivers) would then start insisting that I buy my own alcohol and stop diluting her bourbon with water to make it look like I hadn’t stolen any. (When bourbon starts to look like gin, you know something is up.)

On my eighteenth birthday, I left school at lunch time with a couple of friends, because you could actually go off campus to eat back then (again, the 70’s). I drove us to the nearest liquor store (a block away from my high school) and bought a bottle of cold duck. The clerk rang it up ($1.99, as I recall, plus tax), bagged it and gave me a receipt.

“Aren’t you even going to card me?” I asked.

He shrugged, lit a cigarette and said, “Okay.”

I pulled out my driver’s license and handed it to him. “Happy fuckin’ birthday then,” he said and went back to studying his racing form. We went to my house to use my mother’s fancy champagne glasses and returned late to English class to slur aloud our essays on Canterbury Tales.

Here’s another reason why the 70’s were a decade rife with irresponsibility: Our driver’s licenses were typed up on a small, rose-colored piece of card stock. If you had a safety pin and a pica-fonted typewriter, you could easily pick out the black ink and make yourself older with just a peck of a typewriter key. The licenses were not laminated; they didn’t have our pictures on them, and holograms hadn’t been invented yet. Several people could use one forged license to get into discos and bars in one evening.

For those of us under 18, it was easy to find an older sibling or friend who would buy you the stuff as long as you gave them a buck or two.

Where I grew up, there was a liquor store that was lit up like a theme park. Enormous in size, Liquorama had actual grocery carts in the front of the store to simplify your case hauling.

When you were 18, you didn’t really have a refined enough palette to know good liquor from bad liquor. The only requirement we had of our alcohol was that it give you a nice buzz. Instead of paying a big price for Bacardi rum, we always bought Jose Gaspar rum, which was distilled and bottled in Auburndale, Florida. This is only funny if you’ve ever been to Auburndale. Who needs smooth Puerto Rican rum when for less money you can get alcohol named after a local pirate? A quart, I believe, ran 2.99, but Liquorama published coupons in the newspaper, so you never had to pay full price. And rum was the preferred booze at the time, because it naturally complimented any kid-friendly beverage, such as Coke, Hawaiian Punch, Kool-Aid, Yoo-hoo, or milk None of us drank Mad Men-style highballs at that age. My friend Richard’s favorite cocktail was Scotch and root beer. Whenever I think of that, my face wrinkles up as if I am chewing up spoiled seafood.

All of this came flashing back to me the other day when I walked in front of a liquor store window and saw a sign for cotton candy-flavored vodka. GACK! The last time I bought anything in a liquor store was 25 years ago, and I found the concept of this flavored vodka to be appalling. As far as I know, the ingredients of cotton candy are a) sugar, and b) dye. So in the interest of full disclosure, shouldn’t it be called “colored sugar flavored vodka?” Talk about younger generation appeal! I wonder if it comes in pink and blue. I can’t wait until I go to Chuck E Cheese and order up some cotton candy dipped in cotton candy flavored vodka. Oh, hey, and can I get a glass of Gerber’s strained-peas-flavored vodka for my infant here?

If they had that cotton candy vodka back when I was a teenager, I would have been their best customer, assuming, of course, that it was distilled and bottled in Auburndale and cost three bucks or less.

Take a look at the following list. Does it sound like something an ice cream parlor would serve?

Apple, Atomic Hots, Banana, Berry, Blueberry, Butterscotch, Cake, Cherry, Cherry Lemonade, Cherry Whipped, Chocolate, Chocolate Whipped, Citrus, Coconut, Cookie Dough, Grape, Gummy, Kiwi-Strawberry, Le Double Espresso, Mango, Marshmallow, Orange, Orange Whipped, Pineapple, Pomegranate, Raspberry, Tropical Punch, Vanilla, Whipped Cream, and Whipped Key Lime.

Oddly enough, this is not the lineup at your local Baskin-Robbins, but in reality they are all flavors of vodka offered by French distiller Pinnacle. So many flavors they have to alphabetize them. This brings up a few questions. What kind of Cookie Dough? What kind of cake? What kind of berry is Berry? What exactly is Gummy vodka? Something you chew? Do they even have cotton candy in France? Did someone have to fly over and go to a state fair to do research? With what beverage would you mix “Atomic Hots” vodka? Don’t say root beer, or I’ll make that face again.

I used to work for a beer company, and from time to time we would be fighting off charges that we were directing our advertising at underage drinkers. It was true that our target market was at the toddler end of the legal drinking age scale, but we never offered Rootin’ Tootin’ Raspberry infused beer. So what does this say about Pinnacle Vodka? Coming soon: Pinnacle Breast Milk Flavored Vodka. In a bottle with a nipple.

Maybe I sound like a founding member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (which, oddly enough, is still an active organization. Check out their Facebook page!) I am not a prude or a stuck-up judgmental recovering alcoholic who turns his nose up at anyone enjoying their libations. I believe that anyone should be able to drink themselves under the table, as long as they stay home and don’t drive or have children, spouses, siblings, parents or friends.

And I’m not singling out Pinnacle. Stoli and Smirnoff and other vodka makers offer Lemonhead, Sugar Babies, Blow-Pop, Necco Wafer, Pop Rock, Goober, Raisinette, Butterfinger, Teaberry, and Zagnut flavored vodkas. Or something like that. I tried looking them up, but my employer has disabled Internet access to liquor websites. And I forgot to check when I got home.

All I’m saying is this whole thing is out of control, but it’ll never be regulated, because the freedom to market dangerous things to children is guaranteed under the Constitution. That’s why we have Flintstone and gummy vitamins and Dimetapp Get Better Bears sore throat pops. Not to mention Coricidin that can easily be mistaken for M&M’s and Tums that look like Sweet Tarts.

You never see spirits flavored with things that the elderly would like. There is no vodka infused with Interferon, Viagra, prune, chewing tobacco, estrogen, testosterone, liver and onion, Botox or Just for Men. We have wants and needs too. We should start a letter-writing campaign to distilleries. And I know my friend Richard would support this. He has already written to, or someone demanded from Pinnacle root beer flavored vodka, which I did not include in list above. Now all he has to do is convince Glenfiddich or Johnny Walker to do the same thing. There goes my face again.

Luckily, I consumed my lifetime allotment of alcohol at age 30. That was also probably the last time I had cotton candy, too. Some things were just meant to be.

Photos: Women's Christian Temperance Union (
and Pinnacle (

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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