Tuesday, July 31, 2007

“Catch phrases” of the English Language

I have always been fascinated with the English language and, in particular, the colorful phrases that we spout off so freely. We all know that “it’s a piece of cake” means that it would be an easy task...but, where did that saying originate? I tried to find the answer but there were many conflicting opinions. It was often paired with “easy as pie” and I was amused to read that many women said it must have been coined by a male since “there’s nothing easy about making a pie...or a cake, for that matter.”

I was reminded of Dorothy Parker, (1893-1967), the controversial American writer who was best known for her caustic wit. While playing a word game with some friends she was challenged to use the word HORTICULTURE in a sentence. She came up with this now-famous sentence: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

Of course this is a take-off from the well known caption “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” …meaning that you can’t make a person (or horse) do what they don’t want to do. Evidently, from my research this is one of the older proverbs in the language and dates back to 1546 when it was included in a book of proverbs in the English tongue, by John Heywood.

Then there is our plain-speaking US President Harry S Truman. He is credited with two phrases that have stood the test of time (since 1949). They are: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” which he often would say to his staff, and: “The buck stops here.” He did not originate the later but had a sign to that effect on his desk for his stint as President so he is usually thought to have coined it.

And, of course, when our carefully prepared plans go wrong we are quick to shrug our shoulders and say: “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go astray”. This can be traced directly to a Robert Burns’ poem entitled “To A Mouse, 1786”. He had upturned a mouse’s nest while plowing a field and the poem is his apology to the mouse !

“Not worth a plugged nickel” is our way to say that something is worthless. Versions of this phrase started to appear in the 1880’s when disreputable people were routinely tampering with American coins. Holes would be made in the coins of all denominations and then they were filled with a cheaper metal. They were literally plugged and not worth a nickel if detected.

Well, I could go on forever, but my research has left me with the feeling that I “need to take everything with a grain of salt” when it comes to colorful phrases. It is indeed true that most foods taste better with a hint of salt, so I guess it would follow that many ideas are made more palatable when a pinch of metaphoric salt is added.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

My Peanut Necklace from the 1939 World’s Fair

Every time I hear the resonant tones of “Finlandia”, by Sibelius, I am transported back to the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, NY. I was only 6 at the time and I don‘t remember how we got there or what we ate or even much of what we saw. But certain memories have stayed with me over the years

I recall standing in a long line in front of the Planter‘s Peanut exhibition. They were giving away necklaces with a little peanut attached (see the picture above) and I made everyone wait until I had mine. I have never seen another like it and wonder if this was the original Planter’s trademark before the little peanut guy of today with the cane and top hat.

"Progress" was the theme of the Fair which depicted futuristic techniques such as television and the interstate highway system. It introduced new materials, new ideas and a new spirit. It also displayed the crafts and products of the day. It was a “vision of tomorrow” which sadly came to an end when it was announced over the loudspeaker that we had declared war on Germany and the Fair was closed down.

The most indelible memory for me was the Pool of Industry. This was the famous musical fountains display. It contained 1,400 water nozzles, 400 gas jets with a mechanism that caused the flames to change color and fireworks that were shot from over 150 launchers. Music was played live by the fair’s band and broadcast by large speakers.

Each night, as the sun went down, the crowds would gather at the pool. This was the finale of the day. I remember being hypnotized by the haunting strains of “Finlandia” as the enormous jets of water sprayed rainbow colors higher and higher into the sky. This was all topped off by a barrage of fireworks. A night-time spectacle almost too grand for one little girl to absorb.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

PORKY & PENNY Peddle Posies

Good morning. My “thinking cap” is taking the day off. I thought I would simply share a little ditty that I wrote many years ago. I always thought I would try to turn it into a book for children…but that has never happened. I hope you enjoy it.


Porky, the penguin and Penny, the porcupine lived in Pittsburgh, Pa.
where Penny played in the park, picking posies ‘til dark
and Porky peddled the posies by day.

At a penny per posy the profits were cozy
and they put piles of pennies away.
But, the problem arose, and the question it posed, was
“How much?” and “Who?” should get paid?

Should Penny, the porcupine, palm all the profits?
She picked the posies, you see.
Or should Porky, the penguin, pocket the pennies,
for the selling was done by he.

Now Penny, the porc and Porky, the pen, were a sensible pair,
that’s a fact.
So they pondered the matter, amid much pitter patter,
and finally signed a pact,
whereby every last bit of the profits they split,
thus keeping their friendship intact.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Memories of my grandfather……HARRY LEE

Papa Lee, as we called him, was a gentle, almost child-like man who lived with my Grandmother, Mary, in Plainfield, NJ. He was a writer and his head was often in the clouds. That may have been of concern to his stoic and hard working wife but for his grandchildren he was a delight.

One of my fondest memories is when he took me to see the movie “The Strawberry Blond” (I was all of 7 or 8 years at the time...1940) and we danced and sang all the way home.
“Casey would waltz with the strawberry blonde,
And the band played on.
He'd glide 'cross the floor with the girl he adored,
And the band played on.
But his brain was so loaded it nearly exploded,
The poor girl would shake with alarm.
He'd ne'er leave the girl with the strawberry curls,
And the band played on".

Papa worked for Warner Brothers, writing movie reviews. His column was in one of the NY papers of the time (in the thirties) and he was also a published author. His first book, written in 1920, was titled “High Company”, and was a book of poetry portraying courage and comradeship in World War 1. He had been a medic in that war and this is a picture of him in uniform standing behind a soldier in a wheelchair.

Shortly after “High Company” came out he produced a play that depicted the life & times of St. Francis of Assisi… “The Little Poor Man” (“Il Poverllo”) It was published in 1920 and actually had a short but successful run on Broadway.

Papa’s best known work was “More Day to Dawn” written in 1941. It is the biography of Henry David Thoreau, written in prose and poetry…dedicated “To Mary”, (my Grandmother) and with a forward by his friend Brooks Atkinson. I love the last page of that book:

“The Sixth of May, 1862
May and morning.. winds that sigh in cool trees yearning
toward the sky.
A couch that pillows a weary head.
'Have you made your peace with God?' one said.
Silence...and then the calm reply:
'We have never quarreled…God and I'."

Papa spent a lot of time volunteering at the Henry St. Settlement House in NY City but he rarely spoke of that. I have often wondered if a tempestuous youth was a fore-runner of the gentle man that I knew. No matter...he was my Papa and he enriched my life immensely

Monday, July 16, 2007


When I was in Italy I fell in love with the religious icons that we would see in churches and museums. These were flat-dimensional paintings on wood, depicting scenes of veneration for sacred subjects. Color played an important part: Gold represented the radiance of Heaven, Red was divine life, Blue the color of human life and White was the essence of God.

Backgrounds were much the same...a mountain scene would indicate that the painting was outdoors, while buildings and walls meant that the event took place inside.

There has always been controversy over the use of icons since it seemed to conflict with the idea of “graven images”. I don’t know much about this aspect except that I’ve read that icons are very symbolic and the flatness of the paintings seemed to emphasize holiness and the divine, whereas three dimensional statuary was seen as sensual and glorifying the human aspect of the flesh.

Icons are used in different ways in different religions...some are kissed, some carried in processions and most are displayed in churches, religious schools & homes. As a non-church-affiliated person I saw them as religious art with the purpose to educate and inspire.

On my journey through Italy I thought about purchasing a few icons but the ones I saw were very commercialized and had none of the charm & the authenticity of the ones in the churches. I decided to compromise and see if I could still retain the flavor of the icons that I loved.

One day in Venice, while visiting the Gallerie dell’ Accademia di Venezia, I came across a large selection of religious prints for sale. It was just what I was looking for and I bought 5 of them. They rolled up perfectly into a slim tube and I was able to bring them home safely in my luggage.

I gave up the idea of simulating icons and settled for wooden plaques instead. I figured the sizes and had my son, Matthew, cut the boards...giving me at least an inch beyond the print’s circumference. Then I custom designed the edging and painted it. After it was thoroughly dry I used rubber cement to adhere the prints to the board. I then gave the entire piece three coats of a finishing varnish.

Now I have Mary and St. Francis, as well as my other plaques, on display. I know they are not icons but they never fail to remind me of those golden days that I spent in my beloved Italy.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

THE GRUNION RUN….on a Southern California beach, 1952

One of the most memorable nights that I can remember was at a beach just north of Ventura, California. My friend Gayle and I were there during our summer break from college. The year was 1952 and we were working as waitresses at The Pierpont Inn.

Our work schedules were quite full but we did manage some fun excursions and this one topped the list. It was close to midnight and a group of us had lit a blazing bonfire on the sand. There was a full moon and the waves were very active, crashing rhythmically on the beach. A feeling of tension was in the air. We had no idea if we would be lucky enough to see the grunion, or if it would be another night climaxed by disappointment.

Suddenly a great cry went up, and was heard to echo down the length of the beach: “the grunion are running”...and there they were. Thousands of small, silvery fish were riding a wave to the shore. As the wave receded back into the ocean, the grunion remained on land, the females drilling grooves into the sand as they twirled on their tails, depositing eggs. The male grunion would curve around her in order to fertilize the eggs and the spawning was accomplished before the next wave appeared to return them to the depths of the ocean. It was a sight to behold.

Suddenly all bedlam broke loose as old and young alike raced for the fish, trying to catch them by hand. They were considered a great delicacy and it was a challenge to harvest them because they were on land for such a short time. The smell of fried fish soon filled the air and I realized that those bonfires were used for more than just alleviating the chill.

Observing the grunion, however, was more to our style than trying to catch them. Gayle and I watched in fascination as the show played out in front of us.. As I understand it, the southern coast of California and the Baja Peninsula are among the very few places where the grunion run so we were fortunate indeed.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

“FROGGY” is back ! !

On July 24th of last year I wrote a blog about my little gray tree frog who had taken up residence in a “for decoration only” bird house attached to the side of my home. He first showed up in August of 2004 when I had come home after undergoing a serious surgery. I dubbed him as my door greeter and protector.

Every year since then he has returned, but has stayed for shorter and shorter visits. I thought I had lost him completely until just a few weeks ago when he appeared once again. What seems to be different this time is that he is almost constantly on view. I guess he must hunt for food at night but the rest of the time he pokes his little head out of the bird house hole and keeps me company.

Today I decided to try out my new dulcimer playing skills and to get his reaction. He didn’t seem to be very impressed but, by the same token, he didn’t cover his ears so I guess I’ll take that as a positive sign. It’s really kind of nice to have an attentive audience that has nothing to say !

Now to the serious part…do I or do I not try to kiss this little guy and see if he’s a Prince Charming in disguise? I’ve missed my good traveling companion, Douglas, and, if Froggy is really a knight in shining armor we could traipse the world together.

But what if I kiss him and find that “he” is actually a “she” … or that nothing happens and he remains simply “Froggy” ? I guess I’d better leave well enough alone …

but it sure is tempting.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

My Mountain Dulcimer Week in Cullowhee, NC

The beautiful woman in the pictures is Betty Smith. She was my instructor for the week that I spent at the Western Carolina University trying to learn the basics of playing the Mountain Dulcimer. It was a great privilege to be so close to Betty. She is the recipient of many honors and is widely known in the musical arena as one of the country’s best known ballad singers. She plays the dulcimer, guitar, autoharp and psaltery.

We arrived in Cullowhee on Sunday afternoon and were pleased to find that the registration was a breeze and our dormitory “digs” were very clean and adequate. The real test came the next morning when 20 of us, all beginners with varying degrees of musical knowledge, attended our first class. Betty introduced herself and then asked that we each do the same. We found that our class members were from all over the United States, so you can imagine my surprise when a ten year old boy gave his address. He came from my own small town (with less than 700 residents) and actually lives next door to a good friend of mine!

The fretted dulcimer is an unusual instrument. It has been handed down to us by the people of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and does not exist, as we know it, in any other folk culture in the world. It was widely used by ballad singers but nearly faded out of existence in the early 20th century. A woman named Jean Ritchie has been credited with renewing interest in the dulcimer in the 1950’s and it has caught on since then. The dulcimer has great appeal to people, like me, who have never played a musical instrument.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at “dulcimer camp” but I found that 20 people all plucking away at the same time made it difficult to learn. I would think to myself “Hey, I sound pretty good” and then I’d try it on my own... talk about “ego deflation” ! It helped a lot when the assistant instructor, Sarah, took me aside for some one-on-one; but, to be truthful, I have a very long way to go. I know it is practice, practice, practice and I will try to keep it up now that I am at home.

The high-lights of the week were the concerts that were held each night. It was amazing to watch our instructors perform for us. What a varied group of people. I had always assumed that the dulcimer was strictly for old-time mountain music but how wrong I was. I heard wonderful renditions of jazz, show tunes, blues and even one classical tune. It was wonderful.

Jam sessions were held every evening in our dorm and I would often drift off to sleep with the strains of “Red River Valley” resonating in the background. All in all it was a wonderful week and an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.