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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The real "Rain Man" dies...

... and he was incredible!

Remember the movie "Rain Man" with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise? It was based on an autistic savant who couldn't deal with the demands of daily living but was gifted with the extraordinary powers of memory that a small number of otherwise mentally disabled people possess, perhaps as a side effect of their disability. It won four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor--Dustin Hoffman, Best Original Screenplay for its two authors) and wowed audiences who typically asked, "Is that for real?"

Well, it was.

Kim Peek died last week at age 58. According to the New York Times, "Peek was not autistic -- not all savants are autistic and not all autistics are savants -- but he was born with severe brain abnormalities. He could not dress himself or brush his teeth without help. He found metaphoric language incomprehensible and conceptualization baffling."

Yet, Peek not only taught himself to read but could, with astonishing speed, read facing pages of a book at once -- one with each eye -- and remember everything he read... in all of the 12,000 books he did read! He possessed a wide range of interests and expertise in math, chess, art and music. He could answer diverse questions on history, sports, geography and movies. He knew every calendar date specifically and all the ZIP codes in the U.S. as well as the TV stations serving those ZIPs.

He was better than Mapquest as he knew all the roads and mileages. If you asked him how to get from Toledo to Tupelo, he could not only give you the route but tell you all the things you would see on your way.

He knew classical music... every detail of every composition... and in mid life, taught himself to play it. He knew it so well that his father had to stop taking him to performances... as a stickler for accuracy, he would correct the actors or the musicians. "He'd stand and say" 'Wait a minute! The trombone is two notes off,'" his father recalled.

He knew Shakespeare... oh, yeah.  "He was the Mount Everest of memory," said an expert on savants who knew Peek for 20-years. And he never used computers.

When he was nine-months-old, a doctor judged him so severely retarded, he recommended the boy be institutionalized since he would never walk or talk. At age six, another recommended a lobotomy. By that time, however, he had read and memorized the first eight volumes of the family's encyclopedias. So much for the lobotomy.

Dustin Hoffman (who spent time with Peek to learn his characteristics, movements and utterances before the filming), accepting his Oscar for the portrayal of Raymond Babbitt (the name used in the movie), thanked, then gave it to Peek. Peek carried it with him to public appearances for the next 21 years. His father estimated that some 400,000 people have hugged that Statuette. "We called it the world's best-loved Oscar."

Kim Peek... hmmm. That name rings a bell.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What if the Hokey Pokey is what it's all about? *

*The most profound thoughts are often seen on tee-shirts... or not.

Sometimes you have to look deeper... like now. Christmas is what it's all about for most of us... especially Andy Melkshan of England. He celebrates Christmas every day of the year... as he has for the last eight years. He even sends himself Christmas cards. He usually starts his daily celebration opening presents he has bought himself, delighting in each and every surprise. ("OOOH... just what I always wanted... my size and color too. How did I know?") Then he has his Christmas meal of Turkey and mince pie and watches the Queen's Christmas speech on video... every single day. And if Santa doesn't bring him what he wants... well, there's always tomorrow. The credit crunch has gotten to him though, as it has a lot of us. He had to cut down on the gifts this year, hoping he wouldn't notice.

By his own admission, "people do think I'm nuts." .... and thus qualified for this blog, especially at this time of the year.

While we typically celebrate Christmas just one day of the year... the spirit of the season often has a longer life. I propose a contest. Let's see who can keep the spirit going the longest. What can it hurt?

Merry Christmas all... and to those who don't look at Christmas like me, good tidings to you too.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ted Williams' head... and other stuff

In reviewing all the happenings in sports over the past decade, perhaps the strangest is the 2002 headline: Ted Williams Dies. Head Frozen. What an ignoble end for perhaps baseball's all-time greatest hitter who, twice in his career, took time off and, as a Marine pilot, become a World War II hero. The Splendid Splinter, or Ted, as I like to call him, was the last man to bat .400 in 1941. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but Ted died in 2002 at age 83.

Now here's where the weird part comes in. Ted wanted his body frozen so that many years down the line, when science comes up with a way to cure "old age," Ted could be brought back from his state of er, brittleness, and live again... perhaps even bat .400 once more. Let me tell you right now... ain't gonna happen.

You see, even when technology allows (wink, wink,) word has it that someone at the cryogenic plant bashed (perhaps accidentally--benefit of the doubt) a wrench into his frozen head, which had been perhaps accidentally separated from his body. Poor Ted. Post death, he could see the stitches on a baseball pitched to him at 100-mph. Now, he didn't even see this coming.

Among other bizarre sports happenings, the U.S. mens basketball team finished SIXTH in the '02 world championships on its home court in Indianapolis! So much for world dominance there.

Fan turned villain, Steve Bartman reached for an almost-in-play foul ball at one of the rare Cub post-season games and probably cost those lovable losers their first-- and perhaps only-- shot at the World Series in my lifetime. And to rub it in even more, Boston won.

Pro quarterback Michael Vick killed dogs. NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on games he officiated. And  hundreds of major league baseball players were caught, or thought to use performance enhancing illegal steroids, setting records that some believed were unbreakable  (except for Cub favorite Sammy Sosa, who spoke poor English and no doubt, didn't understand the situation). Yes, it was the birth of the footnote in the record books: "Asterisk denotes records broken by cheaters."

Oh yeah, The Detroit Lions had their first perfect season, 0-16, about the same time all the auto plants in the neighborhood bet their shirts on a Super Bowl... and lost, big time. And a Dallas high school girls basketball team won a game 100 to nothing, once again proving a good defense is hard to beat.

Thank God we still have that bastion of honor sports, golf. Whoops. Scratch that.

Friday, December 18, 2009

His death leaves big shoes to fill... and other '09 departures you may have missed.

Coco the clown, a circus favorite and the man who helped create Ronald McDonald (and played Ronald in the early commercials for the fast-food giant), died at age 86. "He was very serious about being funny," said the president of the International Clown Hall of Fame. Coco made folks laugh for more than 80 years. He could handle 16-foot stilts and take a pie in the face as well as anyone... except maybe Soupy Sales, who also died this year. Makes you wonder... what in the heck are we going to do with all those custard pies now? His death leaves big shoes to fill... size 39-EEEEEE actually.

Bill Lister, the man billed as "Radio's Tallest Singing Cowboy," also died at age 86.  He will long be remembered for that old favorite, "There's a Tear in My Beer," or not. He was 11 feet, 9 inches tall... (or 6 feet, 7 inches without his gun).

We also lost Benson, the world's biggest carp. He died at 87 pounds.

His Highness, Giorgio Carbone died at age 73. In 1963, he proclaimed himself the Prince of Seborga,  the only leader the 320 people in that 'mini-state' have ever known. Claimed by Italy, Seborga sits at its nearest point to Nice. It has been recognized by the Vatican as an independent state which has never formally been made part of any country. The Seborgan army consists of a single individual, in a ceremonial uniform (with epaulettes no less!), who served as His Highness's personal 'gofer' and bodyguard. Since Seborga pays taxes to Italy, the Italians don't really care what Seborga calls itself. His Serene Highness Giorgio I (his self-named official title) was beloved by his people.

Waldo Hunt, the man who invented the pop-up book, died at age 89. True to his creation 'til the end, Hunt kept "popping up" every time they tried to place him in his casket, causing great consternation among the 'neatnik' morticians.

The smile died in Arkansas, Indiana, Nevada and Virginia this past year as those states forbade drivers to smile for their license photos. Smirks, however, might be 'snuck in' when no one is looking.

Actress Jennifer Jones who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Bernadette in the 1943 movie, The Song of Bernadette, died at age 90. The real Bernadette, a French peasant girl who saw the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, was cannonized a saint by the Catholic Church in 1933. It was reported that Jones, playing Bernadette, actually had a personal revelation on the set of that movie... She felt a spirit telling her, "You are going to die." Then, just last week, the spirit came again to her and said, "See. I told you so." (Please tell me God has a sense of humor.)

Harold Bell, the marketing agent for the "Lassie" show, died at age 90. He is better remembered as the man who created the character Woodsy Owl, the plump bird in a red-feathered hat who told children to "Give a hoot, don't pollute."

Frank Coghlan Jr. died at 93. Who? The kid who played Captain Marvel's alter-ego, Billy Batson, of course. It is Billy Batson who meets a shaman in Siam who teaches him to transform himself into our superhero, Captain Marvel. Coghlan was the  perfect example of a homeless waif, said Cecil B. DeMille who directed the Captain Marvel serials in 1925. And when Billy Batson saw injustice, he said the magic word which transformed him, through a bolt of lightning, into CAPTAIN MARVEL! The magic word was S-H-A-Z-A-M which stood for - the wisdom of Soloman - the strength of Hercules - the stamina of Atlas - the power of Zeus - the courage of Achilles - the speed of Mercury. His powers included super strength, of course, speed, stamina, physical and magical invulnerability, courage and wisdom... the usual stuff. While Billy Batson was a young, crippled newspaper boy with a crutch, Captain Marvel became this Arnold Schwarzenegger-like Adonis in a red, tightly-fitted outfit with a big yellow M on his chest, a flowing red cape with yellow piping and knee length yellow boots. What a guy? My favorite power... lightning. He could control lightning. You shoulda seen him smite those bad guys. Good night Captain Marvel, or as they say in comic land, M-A-Z-A-H-S (Shazam backwards, of course.)

And finally, Claude Levi-Strauss died shortly before his 101st birthday. Known by many as the man who shaped Modern Anthropology and revered by all, he often lamented the disappearance of a simpler time. " We live in a world where I feel out of place. The one that I knew, that I loved, had 1.5 billion inhabitants. The world today is made up of six billion humans.  It is no longer mine."

I can relate to that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Does the name Titiya Plucksataporn ring a bell?

I really didn't make it up... and I'm pretty sure I spelled it right. She is a professional woman golfer from Thailand. Actually, different cultures, different sounds. We do, however, all share Uranus, or, as they say in France, something else.

All this to lead into the latest from baby-naming experts Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz and their list of the top baby names for 2019... as if we can hardly wait.

By the way, what constitutes a baby naming expert?  I know:

Linda has a Ph.D from Harvard in Baby Namology and drinks tea with her little finger extended. Pamela, on the other hand, has 29 children.

Anyhow, in less than 10 years, these two say we will all be naming our newborn girls Ava, Amelia, Ella, Violet, Lila, Grace, Ruby, Matilda, Harper and Evelyn. 

The boys will be Ethan, Aiden, Milo, Charlie, Oscar, Ryder, Cash, River, Kai and Maximus.

Apparently Joacamo, Drucilla and Bruce have fallen out of favor.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sorry to keep bugging you...

... but God, isn't this incredible?

I guess I'm somewhat impressionable when it comes to the enormity of space. We (me and the rest of all the people on earth) have just discovered an infant solar system in the Orion Nebula. It is relatively close to us, a mere 1,200 light-years to the north. (That is, 5.9 trillion miles x 1,200-- why that's even more, if it were dollars, than our national budget!) This cloud of newly discovered hydrogen gas shows the birth of 42 new stars.

And no, I don't have a clue as to what all these terms mean. I just know that there are a lot of stars and a lot of space. In fact, if our earth were to be represented by a tiny grain of sand, there would not be enough room to produce a scale model of our solar system on the face of this very small, eensy-weensy planet! Whew.  (PS: the photo came from NASA.. it would have been less blurry but somebody moved.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It's a miracle! ... and other curious stuff

God works in strange ways, it is often said. It could be as simple as his image on a piece of toast... or a  leaf of lettuce (or potato) shaped like the head of The Blessed Virgin, Mary... or, perhaps curing the crippled. Such is the divine incident in Texas recently.

Texas guards were transporting a wheelchair-bound prisoner serving a life sentence for two stabbings and an aggravated assault. Just to be sure, the poor invalid was also shackled to his chair. Then, miracle of miracles, the man pulled a gun from out from nowhere! He ordered the guards to stop the van and unshackle him. After cuffing  the guards together-- miracle number two-- he rose from the wheelchair and WALKED... er, ran away. Said a police spokesperson, "Supposedly, he was paralyzed on his left-hand side. He had been in a wheelchair for something better than a decade. Certainly, that's something we're gonna look at."

Speaking of miracles, SNL's Vatican spokesperson of times past, Father Guido Sarducci, was somewhat disgruntled at the ease of Italians to be elevated to sainthood while America has so few saints. To be considered, he said, a saint must have solid evidence of at least three miracles... and the Italians, he groused, get to count card tricks.

Lacking a miracle, a visually impaired man has sued Sony for not making its video games accessible to the blind. Bummer. (By the way, why DO they have braille instructions on every ATM?)

But then again, to end this post on a miraculous upnote: the BALL has finally been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, at long last. The ball joins the jump-rope and stick (true story) as legends of their time.

Now, if you truly believe, pray for a Pete Rose Hall of Fame miracle. "Pete, see the ball... be the ball."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How much is that in real money?

I remember spending all day one summer Saturday when I was about eight or nine-years-old, collecting, with the help of my best friend, paper, scrap metal, bottles, etc., and taking it all, in my red Radio Flyer wagon, to the scrap iron junkyard, across the tracks, about a mile from my childhood stomping grounds.

We worked from hot morning through hotter afternoon gathering wagon-loads of stuff to sell at the junkyard. You see, it was my mom's birthday and I wanted to buy her a birthday card. (I know... "aaauw, isn't that just adorable?")

We watched, sweaty and disgustingly dirty, as our "golden cargo" was weighed. "OK boys," the junkman said. "That comes to 24 cents."  I couldn't believe it. All of our hard work had earned the enormous total of 12 cents each! (OK, so 24 cents in 'the olden days' would have been more in today's cents, but even then, it wasn't much.)

The card I coveted... the one with 'just the right message,' cost 15 cents. I can still remember, it had a rose on the front and some kind of mushy message inside. So here I am, a mess and still 3 cents short. But my buddy came through and made up the difference.

Bought the card, signed my name and proudly took it home to mom, who was napping on the bed at the time. I flopped beside her, proud and beaming. But before I could open my mouth, she flew off the bed and hollered, "JERRY! GET OFF... RIGHT NOW! YOU ARE JUST FILFTHY."

Fighting tears, I meekly pushed the card into her hands and said "Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you." Then I cried.

Well, I have to tell you, that 15 cent card was probably the most valuable 'real money' I ever had. It brought me a big tearful hug from mom, my favorite fried chicken dinner and special status for the next few days... until I did something kid-like and life went on.

I know that the less you have, the more it means. That's kind of what triggered this thought as I read today that Bank Of America is set to repay its $18.4 BILLION taxpayer subsidy. Now here's what I don't get... just a short time ago, BofA would have gone out of business if they didn't get the loan. Then, within months, they made it back and repaid. Well, good for them and us. But hey, how much is $18.4 billion in real money? Seems like it should take a longer time to generate that kind of cash and regain solvency than mere months. And where's the sweat? It's a non-attainable goal for almost all of us. One just doesn't live that long. I suppose it is the volatility of today's world, and it scares me.

I just know that my 12 cents earned probably meant more to me then than this $18.4 billion does to BofA today. And to us taxpayers who footed the loan, it's real money out of our pockets. What this really means, according to the Wall Street Journal and other experts in these kinds of matters, is that BofA can now, without government interference, again pay millionaires big, BIG bonuses and go back to life as usual.

Somehow along the line, I lost the concept of 'real money."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Be a sport!

In the premier event in the world's most popular sport, the French team qualified for the World Cup finals. (Yes, the sport is something the rest of the world calls football but we in the USA call it soccer.) How did the French beat the Irish for this most coveted berth in the World Cup finals? They cheated, that's how. The captain of the French team purposely and admittedly used his hand to deflect the ball which lead to a deciding score.

Everyone but the referee saw the infraction. It was  played and replayed in the world's media... especially in Ireland, the victim country. Everyone agrees (including the Federation Internationale de Football Association or, FIFA) that it was not fair, not legal and not right. The French are embarrassed and, from what I read, almost ashamed... "Qualifying for the finals through a foul, violating the spirit of the sport--it almost makes us lower our heads in shame."  The key word here is "almost." They are not ashamed, but almost ashamed.

The official ruling: Nada. Nothing. Or nil, as they say in football. The worst of the outcome though might be what the French team captain and cheater, Thierry Henry said: "I will be honest, it was a handball. But I'm not the referee. I played it, the referee allowed it. That's a question you should ask him." In other words, it wasn't my fault. If the referee didn't see it and call it, then it didn't happen, right?

Oh, soccer isn't alone in the world of cheating. This is just the latest good example of a bad example.

It has long been admired by fans as a "good play" if an athlete can fool the referee, or umpire. In baseball and football, a player who 'traps' a ball that has bounced on the turf tries to make it look like a great catch. How about the cagey pitchers who throw a 'spitter' or 'rough up the ball with a hidden emery board or piece of sandpaper. (Some of these guys are in the Hall of Fame.) Do hitters cork bats or is Sammy Sousa just darned good? A basketball player that 'flops' to dupe the ref into a call is cheered by the fans if it works. This is especially true in the NBA which is why some of those games start to resemble pro wrestling.  

Don't even get me started on steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. I guess the best way we neatly handle it is to put an asterisk beside the records those guys have broken.

Next thing you know, they will be trying to tie a tin can around Tiger Woods' tail when all the poor guy ever did was make a diaper run at 2:45 am and accidentally brush a fire hydrant and tree. What will they dream of next?

OK, so that's a little sarcastic. But don't we deserve some honor in our sports... and in our world? I'm more than a little tired of reading every day about people in sports who cheat, lie, justify bizarre actions and want to be called role models... and that goes double for politicians and hungry millionaires too. Aren't you?

Say it ain't so, guys. Or since you can't do that, why do we continue to be the saps who pay to see them play or re-elect them. Maybe we are the problem.