Books: I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This

June 7, 2014

I rarely read biographies, and I only picked up this one because it came up in a search I did in the library catalog. I’m working on a humorous speech for Toastmasters, which requires me to include material I have heard or read, along with personal experiences of my own.

I started working on a speech about names, but had trouble finding material. So I decided to switch my topic to golf. I was sure I could find plenty, but it wasn’t showing up in the books in the humor section of the library. So I used the online catalog. This found me a book by Bill Murray and another by Bob Newhart.

I associate them with humor, but not necessarily with golf. In the end I found two other books on golf humor, which turned out to be in the golf section, along with serious books on how to improve your game. The book by Newhart has only one short chapter about golf, which didn’t look helpful to my speech. But I decided to read the book anyway, just for a change of pace.

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November 30, 2013

Working at a college doesn’t always mean getting an education myself (though I am seriously considered taking a class in German next year, since my 8th grade son says that’s the language he wants to study in high school). But now and then I do learn something new in the course of my work – quite aside from the constant process of learning how the software works that is the focus of my job.

With Thanksgiving approaching, a colleague forwarded an article about turkeys and Big Bird. I really had never thought either about what happens to a turkey’s feathers when it is slaughtered to become Thanksgiving dinner (or any other time of the year), or about where in the world those bright yellow feathers come from that make up Big Bird’s costume. But apparently the two are connected.

While Big Bird is not a turkey (according to Muppet Wiki, Oscar has claimed Big Bird is a turkey, Big Bird has claimed to be lark), his costume is made from turkey feathers. Approximately 4,000 of them – unless you want to take the Count’s word for it that there are over 5,961.

This article, written during the 2012 presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney said he wanted to cut funding for PBS, describes how feathers are prepared for Big Bird’s costumes. This introduces a whole new subject to learn about, which gets into the challenging topics of economics and politics. (I’m inclined to agree with this article.)

I doubt that any feathers from the turkey we ate on Thursday (and yesterday, and today, and probably tomorrow) will ever find their way to Sesame Street. Most poultry feathers are either used in low-grade animal feedstock or thrown out (incinerated or consigned to landfill). But scientists have been working on ways to recycle the feathers into useful products.

Books: Same Time, Same Station

October 17, 2012

I ended up reading this book about the early history of television because I had been reading a book about teaching Sunday School. I know that seems like an unlikely jump, but there was a logical connection. Honest!

(The book I was reading about teaching Sunday School recommended, more or less in passing, that if you use puppets, not to have them talk about God. I emailed the author to ask why. Her response – that puppets are not real so they can’t have a relationship with God – did not entirely satisfy me, so I found an internet forum about puppets and found someone who seemed to use puppets in Christian ministry. I joined the forum so I could contact him by email, and asked him about this. He not only saw nothing wrong with having puppets talk about God, he told me that the word marionette comes from the name Mary because early Christians used puppets to teach. Wanting to learn more about that history, I looked for books in the library catalog about marionettes. One was about Howdy Doody, a show I’ve heard about but never seen. I wondered if I could find a DVD I could borrow with episodes from Howdy Doody. My search didn’t turn up much in the way of DVDs, but it did list Same Time, Same Station, a book about the early decades of television.)

The topic  of the book was interesting, but just barely enough to motivate me to finish reading the book. Despite what the flyleaf says about “Baughman’s engagingly written account,” I found it far from engaging. The flyleaf also reveals that Baughman is a historian and a professor; perhaps he wrote this with students of Journalism and Mass Communication in mind.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with so many endnotes. They take up over 25% of the book! That means, of course, the that text is chock-full of quotes, historical details, and other data that may be of interest to the historian but probably not to the average reader. Often I thought Baughman could easily make his point with a single quote. But he piled one on top of another. I wondered if he was trying to use every possible historical citation, and if so why.

I did learn some interesting facts about the early history of TV, however. Having grown up in the 60’s and 70’s, I took the division of stations into VHF and UHF for granted. I had no idea why I watched NBC on UHF and CBS on VHF. (The third network, ABC, had no local station, and only came in very fuzzily on one VHF station and one UHF station – and then only on a good day.)

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Movie: The Muppets

November 30, 2011

Our 12-year-old son treated us to a trip to the movies this weekend. (He won first place for his Ent costume at a Halloween program at a local church, the prize being a gift certificate to the local movie theater.) I checked out what was available, read some reviews, and suggested The Muppets. He has enjoyed all the Muppets movies we have watched on DVD, as well as the episodes of the original Muppets show that we watched on DVD. So we went to see the new Muppets movie.

A lot of long-time fans of the Muppets were concerned about whether this new movie, made without the creative genius (and voice) of Jim Henson, would bring the Muppets magic to life or be a big disappointment. Both from the reviews I have read and our own impressions, this new movie is far from a disappointment. As I saw very little of the Muppets when they were actually on TV, however, I can’t claim to speak with much authority on the subject.

I do have nostalgic memories of watching The Muppet Show a few times with the other residents of on-campus housing at the private high school where I taught in West Simsbury for one year. I really don’t remember much about the show at all, or whether I appreciated its unique brand of humor at the time. My nostalgia is more for the friends I watched it with, and for a particular period of my life when I was still trying to figure out where my life was headed.

My favorite Muppets movie, by far, is The Muppet Christmas Carol. It is also my favorite Christmas movie, and my favorite book-to-movie adaptation. (When I read A Christmas Carol now, I am constantly noticing how surprisingly faithful a movie filled with funny, furry creatures is to Dickens’ story.) Watching it has become a Christmas tradition for me. I couldn’t tell you, though, how much of my pleasure in watching it is for the Muppets and how much for Dickens’ own story.

When it comes to the rest of the Muppets movies and shows I have seen, I enjoy them mostly but there are parts I enjoy more than others. The ones I don’t enjoy as well, I think, are those based on aspects of popular culture that I am not familiar with. There were celebrities who appeared on the show that I had never heard of before. (My husband points out that I grew up “culturally deprived” – my friends in college were amazed at how ignorant I was of popular entertainment and the celebrities who figured prominently in it.)

At least in the case of this newest Muppets movie, that particular issue is less of a problem for me. While I hardly ever watch TV anymore (and then only what is available through the internet), and never listen to the radio (unless someone else has it on), I have been exposed to a lot more of popular culture in the last 23 years (since meeting Jon) than in the previous 26. So while I didn’t recognize all the celebrity cameos in this movie, and no doubt missed a number of cultural allusions, I could appreciate it for the most part – and enjoy it.

The movie asks – very directly – whether the Muppets are still relevant today. I found myself wondering about that as we left the theater. This blog post says they are, and I hope that this blogger is correct. There’s a very interesting article, at Christianity Today, on what made the Muppets so great, suggesting that the truths about the human condition embodied in their shows will make them as relevant now as a generation ago.

Watching Gilligan in color

July 27, 2011

After reading Inside Gilligan’s Island (written by series creator Sherwood Shwartz – who, as it happens died just this month) several weeks ago, I checked out the first season on DVD from the library. It was fun to watch the old shows again, especially as my son Al enjoyed them so much also. Everything looked so familiar, it also brought to mind the cat-clawed red sofa I used to sit on (we called it a davenport, though I don’t know if it was made by the A. H. Davenport Company) and the braided rug on the living room floor.

After watching the entire season, Al remarked that he wished to could get the next season. Yesterday I brought that home from the library (it’s great what you can get through interlibrary loan), and Al and I watched the first three episodes of season 2. From what I had read in Shwartz’s book, I knew that it was filmed in color (the first season was filmed in black and white to save money until they were sure they had a hit). But it was still startling to see all those familiar scenes in bright colors.

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Books: Inside Gilligan’s Island

June 20, 2011

I have often gone browsing through libraries or bookstores when I want to read something but don’t know what. Usually, though, I stick to the fiction section for browsing. If I browse in non-fiction, I at least generally know the topic I’m interested in, most often religion, occasionally cooking.

Last weekend, though, I found myself browsing the non-fiction section of the library, with no idea at all what I wanted to read except that I wanted to learn something. I briefly considering something about gardening, or crafts, but I really didn’t want to learn how to do something. I wanted to learn something just by sitting in a chair and reading.

Then I came to the section on movies and TV. There were books on the making of Jurassic Park and of The Wizard of Oz. Neither of those really interested me, but then I saw exactly what I was looking for: Inside Gilligan’s Island.

I remember clearly the first time I saw the show on TV. Not when it was, but what I saw and what I thought of it. I had overheard some children talking about Gilligan’s Island during recess at school, and I was intrigued. There were some girls stuck on an island, and it was Gilligan who kept them from leaving.

That afternoon I checked the TV schedule, and turned the TV to the right channel at the right time. What I saw was someone relaxing on the beach, and someone else serving him drinks. Huh? What kind of kids’ show was that? Where were the girls, and where was the giant named Gilligan who kept them imprisoned on the island? I figured someone must have made a mistake in the TV schedule, or made a last-minute programming change.

I don’t remember how long after that it was that I actually started watching Gilligan’s Island, and discovered that the “girls” were grown women, and Gilligan was responsible for keeping them on the island not by force but by sheer ineptitude. From then on, I watched it pretty much every day after school, and I’m sure that over the years I must have seen at least every one of the 98 episodes at least once, most of them over and over again.

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Old TV: Mister Ed

January 14, 2011

When I used to watch episodes of Mister Ed on TV as a girl, I had no idea they had originally been broadcast back when I was a small child or even a baby – and earlier.

This afternoon, I was looking online to find out what events had taken place the day I was born. Apparently, not very much – in the East–West Pro Bowl, the West won 31–30; and the Council of ministers of the European Common Market agreed to organize common farm markets and to move to the second stage of the community.

Among the items my search turned up was the name of an episode of the second season of Mister Ed, “Ed’s Bed,” which aired on Sunday, January 14, 1962. Curious, I looked for more information about it, and found myself watching a preview of the episode (for $1.99 I could have watched the entire episode).

I had forgotten just how much I enjoyed the show, and how wonderfully the voice for Mister Ed fit the character. I found out that the episodes were available on Hulu, and thought watching the one that aired the day I was born would be a fitting and fun way to celebrate my birthday.

Once I mentioned the idea of watching it on Hulu to my husband (over a delicious Chinese dinner), he brought it up on his computer – starting more sensibly with the first episode. I didn’t recognize it at all, and didn’t remember Wilbur ever having tried to convince anyone else he had a talking horse. It was fun to see how the Posts met both Mister Ed and their neighbors the Addisons.

I also noticed things that I had never noticed as a child – for instance, how much more formally people were dressed, Wilbur in a suit and Carol in a dress, even when there was no special occasion. There was the expectation that Carol would do all the shopping and cooking and cleaning, and Wilbur would simply sit down for breakfast in the morning assuming Carol would have it ready for him. The wives would want to spend money, and the husbands would have the final say on the matter (unless they could be manipulated into letting their wives have their own way).

At least on the last point, I imagine the show exaggerated for comic effect. But such things wouldn’t have been funny unless they represented reality to a significant extent. I knew that such things had changed over the course of my lifetime, but seeing those fifty-year-old episodes made such a stark contrast to the attitudes and behavior I am used to today.

Al enjoyed watching the episodes as much as I did, and it was fun to share them with him. After four episodes I insisted it was bedtime, but I look forward to watching more with him this weekend.

TV Shows: Eureka

February 8, 2010

There are several advantages to watching TV shows on DVD instead of when they first air. We don’t have to pay for cable  (and thus are saved from the temptation to watch lots more TV). If we get the DVDs from the library (as we have been doing, using inter-library loan), it costs next to nothing – especially if I can combine the trip to the library with another errand.

 We can fit watching the episodes into our schedule instead of scheduling our activities around the TV schedule. We can watch one right after another instead of having to wait a week to see what happens next. (Of course, the end-of-season cliffhangers are another matter, at least in the case of DVDs from the library.)

Our current family favorite is Eureka, a quirky sci-fi series that one viewer describes as “kind of Northern Exposure for SF fans.” (I’ve never seen Northern Exposure, but since I enjoy Eureka maybe I should look for some DVDs of that show also.) The basic premise of the show is that Eureka is a super-secret town populated by super-geniuses carrying on the most advanced scientific research in the world.

You might think that doesn’t sound like much fun to watch, and that was my initial reaction. But super-geniuses are people just like anyone else, who fall in love, have kids (generally geniuses also), make mistakes, get mad at each other, and provide the basis for some very interesting plotlines even apart from the science. The science, frankly, is probably about as realistic as that on Star Trek a good deal of the time. But the people are what make the show work.

TV series tend to include some pretty odd characters, to generate the humor or drama or mystery needed for a new storyline every week. Sometimes these oddities seem pretty far-fetched. But super-geniuses are kind of expected to be odd, so a town full of very smart but very quirky people doesn’t seem such a stretch.

Then you have Sheriff Carter, who is not one of the geniuses, and the contrast between his “normal” point of view and that of the town’s other inhabitants provides a lot of the humor (always good-natured humor, unlike a lot of TV shows that seem to be able to produce laughs only by making fun of someone). In his own way, Carter is very bright, and often solves a problem using his own common sense, doing something the ultra-smart people around him didn’t think of.

Eureka has its serious side too, and there have been episodes that left me sobered by thoughts of death and loss. Others are especially heartwarming. But it is the light moments sprinkled throughout every episode that really make the show sparkle. It’s just plain fun to watch.

Movies: Shrek the Halls

December 22, 2009

Our local Family Video seems to think I haven’t been there in a long time (they apparently don’t count the free children’s DVDs I’ve “rented” recently), so they sent me a coupon for a free rental plus half price rentals for two weeks. My husband had suggested the other day that we watch The Santa Clause, and we discovered we don’t own it, so I figured I’d go get it as a free rental. It was already out, however, so Al suggested we take Shrek the Halls.

I wasn’t expecting too much from it – Shrek the Third had been so-so and this looked like just another way to milk the Shrek franchise. What I was expecting was something longer than a 22-minute program. If we watched TV, I would probably have realized that this started out as a half hour TV special two years ago (including commercials, of course). I had only seen it as a DVD in the stores.

My reactions are mixed. It has some pretty funny moments, particularly when the gingerbread man and Puss in Boots each tell their version of “The Night before Christmas.” The story itself – Shrek trying to give his family the “perfect” Christmas, and finding it very hard to do so – is a good idea but could have been developed a lot more. Within the confines of the TV-special time frame, I suppose they did what they could. And if they had made it longer, perhaps I would instead be complaining that they drew it out too long with too little to say.

My real problem with it is that it’s about Shrek wanting to know what the meaning of Christmas is, and there’s no real answer given. He learns that it’s about family (including extended family, who may not celebrate Christmas the way you’d like them to),  and that it’s never perfect because no family is — those are good lessons but they are not “the meaning of Christmas.” 

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Old TV shows: Davey and Goliath

December 19, 2009

My memories of watching Davey and Goliath as a girl are pretty hazy. (For one thing, when would I have been watching TV on a Sunday morning instead of getting ready for church?) But I know I did watch it, at least a few times. In my memory, I tended to mix it up with Gumby, though I don’t know if that is because both used stop-action filming, or if I was aware that the same people (Art and Ruth Clokey) created both shows.

I do remember watching it, though, and when I found some Davey and Goliath DVDs for $1 each a couple years ago, I just had to get some. I had no idea whether even my younger son would find it appealing, accustomed as he is to today’s children’s shows. But he does like watching the Christmas specials made back then, so I gave him one and waited to see what he thought before giving him more.

He didn’t seem excited, so the others have stayed on my shelf. Perhaps the shows hadn’t been all that great, and it was only nostalgia that made them seem so special. But today when he wanted to watch something with me, I decided it was time to finally watch them again for myself. And since he was able to tell me what each episode was called and a little of what it was about, before it started, I think he may just have watched these more than once.

I didn’t recognize any of the episodes on the first DVD. I have no idea if that means I hadn’t seen them, or if they just weren’t that memorable. But I decided they really were pretty good, all things considered. As Al pointed out, the “animation” isn’t that good – I explained that it’s actually claymation, and that they didn’t have computers that could do the kind of stuff he’s used to watching. But once you stop paying attention to the painted hair and how odd the mouths look as they talk, they really are pretty good shows.

Reading comments about them at, I can see that I’m far from the only middle-aged person with fond memories of the shows. Most opinions I read praised them as teaching positive moral values without being preachy, though one comment (at another website) found the pastor’s sermonizing in particular to be way over the top. They also praise Davey as being an ordinary boy, far from perfect (I didn’t see it in today’s episodes, but apparently he gets into mischief fairly often), but always learning to be better – with help from Goliath.

Goliath, whose dog-speech only Davey understands (though it is helpfully turned into English for the viewer), apparently acts as Davey’s conscience. (Though in one episode we watched today, about racism, it was Goliath who had to learn to accept a dog who looked different.) Goliath is perhaps the most appealing character on the show – claymation seems to be much more effective with non-human characters.

I think one of those DVDs on my shelf just might wind up in a stocking or under the tree in a few days.