May 28, 2003

This is Montgomery. Say hello.

Montgomery Clift

I don't own him anymore. It's a long story.

I miss him, but I don't think Mildred does.


Meanwhile, Many Sims Found Dead

I'm not much for PC games. I own several, but I've spent very little time playing them. There is, frankly, no "inner game geek" here.

And I'll admit this: Although I think I could enjoy "Civilization III," the recommendation to purchase it coming from a normally dependable source, I'm completely inept at playing the game.

I keep trying, but I'm just not getting it. And even when I seem to be doing well, I'm not sure why exactly it is that I’m "winning" or "progressing" at "Civilization III."

I'll tell you one thing, though, my skill, such as it is, at "Civilization III" beats the hell out of my attempts to maneuver through "The Sims."

I've killed so many people and burned down so many houses over there I'm not sure the CD will let me enter the neighborhood the next time I try. Gee whiz, I can't even figure out how to get the damn urns with the victims' ashes out of their houses.

I'm left wondering whether there's some kind of particular personality profile possessed by those who grasp these games more quickly than others. Am I just not mentally wired for this form of entertainment? Is my situation hopeless? Should I just give up? Or do I need a tutorial, some kind of guidebook? Or perhaps some wunderkind -- or more likely, your typical 12-year-old -- could teach me the obvious elements of strategy for both games?

I'm getting desperate.

May 27, 2003

I knew they were doing it to cans of tuna. You've probably noticed as well. There are now 6 ounces of tuna in a can that once contained 7 ½ ounces, though the size of the can has remained the same. Over the years I watched the allotted portion of tuna steadily decline in narrowing increments: first by ¼-ounce, then 1/8-ounce, and then 1/16-ounce.

Now I see they've done it with my dog food. (Well, not my dog food, the dog food I buy.) Or maybe they've been doing it all along and I just never noticed.

The bag that at one time, and I assumed still did, contained 20 pounds of dog food now holds only 17 ½ pounds of food. That's a 13-percent reduction in volume and yet I didn't notice a similar reduction in the retail price. In fact, I didn't notice any reduction in price at all.

This is inflation, pure and simple, albeit in a hidden form. I wonder whether the consumer price index catches this kind of chicanery?

May 25, 2003

I finally watched "The Sixth Sense." (Set in Philadelphia, by the way.)

Cool flick. Very cool flick.

Solid performance by Bruce Willis. Amazing performance by Haley Joel Osmet.

And, no, I had no idea until the very end.

Those of you who have seen the movie know what I mean. For those of you who haven't, that's all I'm going to say.

Except this: When that extremely thin little girl who was dying finished vomiting in Cole Sear's tent, the thought that came immediately to mind was Calista Flockhart after a bulimic binge.

May 24, 2003

Below is a conversation I overheard once while shopping with a friend at Saks Fifth Avenue in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Shopper: Do you have this in my size?

Saleswoman: We might. What size are you?

Shopper: Well, usually between an 8 and a 10.

Saleswoman: So, a 9 then?

Shopper: It varies, you know, depending on the designer.

Saleswoman: Well, more like an 8/9 or more like a 9/10?

Shopper: More like a 9/10 probably.

Saleswoman: So you're a size 10?

Shopper: Yes, size 10.

Saleswoman: I'll check.

[Note: Edited slightly post-publication. I initially remembered the store location incorrectly.]

May 23, 2003

What kind of person would arrive, in public, for a media interview, even one for a throw-away like an alumni magazine, wearing her pajama bottoms?

The kind of person like Norah Vincent.

May 21, 2003

Writing about my fellow Philadelphians, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Eils Lotozo observes ("Philadelphians True to 'Penny Saved' Adage," May 21.):

We spend far more on cigarettes and cigars than the health-conscious denizens of Los Angeles. We eat out less than people in Chicago -- but more than those in Boston. We shell out more for books and magazines than they do in Houston, but vastly less than folks in San Francisco. And we're well above the national average in spending on fruits and vegetables.

But above all, when it comes to the latest survey of how much Americans spend on everything from dairy products to motor oil, there's one thing that stands out about the Philadelphia region: We're cheapskates.

According to Lotozo, those are among the conclusions of a study recently released by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics that examines consumer spending patterns in 28 U.S. metropolitan areas. He adds:

[A]mong major cities, only people in Boston -- land of the Puritans -- underspend people in Philadelphia, land of the Quakers.

Did we say cheap? We meant frugal.

Yeah, frugal. That sounds much better.

Among the study's other findings, summarized by Lotozo:

No surprise…that in the New York metropolitan area, fashion capital of the country, people spend more on clothing than anywhere else -- $3,000 a year per household, nearly twice the national average.

But who would have guessed that the nation's biggest spenders on cars would reside in Tampa and Dallas-Fort Worth?

I think I might have guessed Dallas, at least by my third try. Tampa is a bit of a surprise, though I've only been there once.

Or that Houston would be the vanity capital, where households spend $820 a year -- and snagged the No. 1 spot (far ahead of the glamour-pusses in Los Angeles) -- on hairstyling, manicures and other personal-care products and services?

Lotozo obviously has never been to the River Oaks Country Club or a benefit for the Houston Grand Opera. Big hair abounds there -- on a large number of the women and more than a fair share of the men.

In the end, as is so often the case with studies like this, the answer is in the demographics, and this angle holds up well as an explanation for Philadelphia's thriftiness. "We have a generally wealthier population than average, and a generally older population than average," [Mark Zandi, chief economist at] says. "And wealthier, older groups have generally higher rates of saving."

Lotozo continues:

Zandi thinks our nonspending habits may also have something to do with our Quaker roots: "The Quakers valued thrift and frugality," he says. "It hearkens back to Benjamin Franklin and 'a penny saved is a penny earned.'"

Go ahead, blame it on Ben.

May 19, 2003

I sometimes have occasion to walk past a beautiful but modest old building in Center City Philadelphia, the old Western Union Telegraph building (photo) at 11th and Locust Streets.

The building appears to have been abandoned years ago, and each time I looked at it I thought, "What a shame." It's an incredible location that would work well as either a residential or commercial development. "Why is nothing happening here?" I thought time and again.

Late last week I passed the Western Union building again. I was pleased to see three construction workers in front, taking their lunch break. I approached them and asked what they were working on, thinking the building most likely was being converted into loft condominiums or into a mixed retail, restaurant, and residential sort of complex.


This is, after all, Philadelphia. The construction workers informed me the Western Union building is being converted into a parking garage for nearby Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

What a waste.


Today I learned, yet again, that there truly is a God.

The latest evidence: The demise of one of the worst, one of the stupidest, TV shows ever produced.


Each day at my front door there appear, as if by magic but most likely from an underpaid courier, one copy each of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News.

But not today. For reasons unknown I didn't receive my copy of the PDN. And sitting on the top of the Inquirer was a dead beetle.

It kind of weirded me out. (The dead beetle, that is, not the missing PDN.)

Is this an omen of some kind? Should I be concerned? Or maybe hopeful?

(Note: Spare me the trite, tiresome, and hackneyed mafia jokes.)

May 16, 2003

I've never done a "Friday Five" before, but what the hell, it's a slow afternoon, so let's give it a shot.

1. What drinking water do you prefer -- tap, bottle, purifier, etc.?

Tap water run through a Brita filter. I became a Brita convert only earlier this year. I'll never go back, despite the resulting chlorine deficiency that has caused a major neurological disturbance.

2. What are [sic] your favorite flavor of chips?

Just the regular old kind, though once in a while I get a hankering for salt-and-vinegar chips.

3. Of all the things you can cook, what [sic] dish do you like the most?

Chicken cutlets, egged and breaded, laced with Romano cheese, and pan fried in olive oil.

4. How do you have your eggs?

Usually scrambled, with either bacon or roast beef hash (As reader L.M. once put it, "I heart Mary Kitchen Roast Beef Hash."), though I'll admit you'll win my heart forever with a simple, unadorned egg-salad sandwich made with Miracle Whip and the softest white bread you can find.

5. Who was the last person who cooked you a meal? How did it turn out?

Greg. I can't remember what it was, but if it was that pasta dish he created out of thin air -- garlic, black olives, garlic, artichoke hearts, and more garlic, in a cream sauce -- it turned out very well. I was pretty impressed.


Tom of the indispensable TBogg, is, as he himself says, a "faithful husband, soccer dad, basset owner, and Peggy Noonan stalker," but he's also one of the best bloggers out there and one of my favorite straight men in the world, even though he's obviously very happily married -- and a Godless atheist.

Tom's writing on politics is sharp, incisive, and witty -- nay, hilarious. Dave Barry's got nothing on this guy.

But I often like Tom's writing more when he offers up slices of life, as I try to do here at TRR. Tom's most recent such piece is "It Was a Dark and Snorey Night...," posted yesterday. A simple tale of a laptop, a ring, and a snoring basset hound.

May 15, 2003

You know, sometimes it's hard to feel really, truly proud of Mildred.

One of Mildred's Many Favorite Sleeping Positions

May 13, 2003

Yesterday I ventured off my usual path and headed to the local Kmart, which is in The Gallery, an urban mall on Market St. here in Philadelphia, in search of carpet-cleaning liquid to use in my new Bissell steam vacuum, which is one of the great inventions of all time, by the way.

I'll tell you, except when I was going through the Martha Stewart Everyday collection, I truly felt out of my element there. I say that not to be a snob -- I've recently drastically downscaled my lifestyle, and despite the difficulties of doing so (which have been far more challenging than I expected), I'm happy to have made the change -- I say it only to set the tone for the remainder of this anecdote.

Shortly upon arriving on Kmart's second floor, a noisy scuffle broke out between a man and a woman, both probably in their early thirties. Apparently the gentleman, a misnomer if ever I've used one, was angered by a purchase made by the lady, another misnomer, while he was not present.

Oh, boy, and it got nasty quite quickly.

These two were wailing on each other -- big time. They were screaming and yelling, punching and slapping each other. He kicked her, she pulled his hair. Another woman stepped in trying to break it up, and before long all three were on the floor, creating, if I must say, quite a disturbance, and distracting me from my perusal of Ms. Stewart's latest offerings.

Naturally, a crowd developed, a crowd of which, I'm not entirely ashamed to say, I soon became a part.

To my surprise I noticed a security guard standing near the entrance from Kmart to The Gallery, not more than 50 feet away from the fight. Although apart from the crowd, he might as well have been standing among us. He did nothing. Absolutely nothing, other than to watch the ensuing and rapidly escalating brawl. I shared my astonishment at this with two women standing nearby.

About five minutes into the fight, which by then was getting really ugly, a woman's voice came over the loudspeakers: "Security, please report to area X. Security, please report to area X." (Note: She didn't say "area X," she actually said "area _____," but I'm keeping that to myself for reasons that may soon become clear.)

Then, some two minutes later, the gentleman extricated himself from the altercation -- which was just as well for him, because the lady was at that point beating the crap out of him -- and left the store, walking right past the aforementioned security guard, who again, did absolutely nothing. He just stood and watched as the disgraced pugilist waltzed into the mall.

It was not for another five minutes before even one security guard arrived at the scene of the bout.

I have to say I was pretty shocked by the staff's lack of timely response. When I went downstairs to pay for my carpet cleaner I asked the cashier where "area X" is. She pointed toward the back of the first floor of the store.

Hmmm…Different level, other side of the building. That sounds like a good strategy. And there are cameras all over this place! Nobody saw what was going on? They needed to huddle before breaking up the fisticuffs?

Anyway, I feel most sorry for the little boy who was in the lady's company. No more than four years old he was terrified, crying, shaking, almost traumatized, and with good reason. I hope he is sleeping well. Tonight, at least.


I am bewildered by the book recommendations is offering me lately: At least a third are by the existentialists -- Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, etc. -- none of which I care for now nor have I appreciated them much in the past, nor have I purchased anything by any existentialist since I was in college.

And recommending Virginia Woolf to me? Please. She's virtually unreadable.

I wonder from where they're getting these absurd notions. True, I have great respect and admiration for the works of Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann, and their books are continually offered up as recommendations, but I've never bought their writings at Amazon. And besides, the link between Kafka and Mann and Sartre and Camus seems tenuous to me.

That's all. Just a random thought.


Off the Associated Press wire today: "U.K. Doctors Took 20,000 Brains."

A few excerpts:

The brains of at least 20,000 people, many of them depressed or mentally ill when they died, were removed without their families' consent over a 30-year period, a senior government doctor reported Monday.

Some brains were removed to help diagnose cause of death, while others were collected for neuropsychiatric research, Dr. Jeremy Metters, Her Majesty's Inspector of Anatomy, said in a report that followed an 18-month investigation….

The 20,000 figure may be far lower than the actual number of brains taken. It includes only brains still held by hospitals and universities in England, and Metters said many more could have been examined and destroyed….

The removal of organs without consent was outlawed [in 1999] after it was discovered that 3,500 organs from babies and children had been retained by the Royal Liverpool Children's Hospital in northwest England without the parents' knowledge.

And people wonder why I generally distrust doctors.

Besides, didn't their mothers ever tell them not to take something without asking first?

May 12, 2003

Hey, this short piece from yesterday's Boston Herald reminds me of an episode from "The Golden Girls":

Women at a rowdy bachelorette party in Jerusalem hired a male stripper dressed as a policeman to perform for the bride-to-be, but they didn't know the cop who showed up at the door was a real officer who was there in response to neighbors' complaints about the noise.

The ladies started removing his clothes and fondling him, thinking his protestations were part of the act. They had gotten his shirt off when his partner intervened and put a stop to it.

The details vary only slightly from the episode in which "the girls" gave Dorothy (played by Bea Arthur) a bridal shower, and Blanche (played by Rue McClanahan), mistaking the policeman who arrived on the lenai for the stripper she hired, pinches the cop's butt, yelling, "Honk! Honk!"

May 11, 2003

At auction: Couture, accessories, furniture, letters from and to Diana Spencer, all once belonging to the late Elizabeth Tilberis, past editor of British Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

Sotheby's? Christie's? Seventh on Sale?

No. By the Cyr Auction Co. of Gray, Maine (population: 6,820), on April 30.

The New York Times reports the collection of Spencer letters failed to reach their reserve.


When I first glanced at the photograph of a new piece by designer Marc Newsom, published in today's New York Times ("The Gem in a Modern, Sleek Crown," by David Colman), I thought it was a toilet.

Called the Zenith, it's actually a chair: a low, sleek, cushionless chair made of highly polished aluminum. It's certain to be a collector's item as only 10 Zenith chairs will be made. (Retail price: about $47,000.)

To say the Zenith looks like a toilet is not to disparage the design. It's a beautiful chair.

But I'm convinced the Zenith could be adapted to serve as a toilet. It would make a striking addition to any ultramodern bathroom, provided, of course, one found a way to heat an aluminum seat to just the right temperature.

May 06, 2003

I just finished reading a remarkable book, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, by Diana Preston. Published in May 2002 the book apparently is now available in paperback, though I read it in the hardcover edition that I bought some time ago.

Let me throw out the customary, but in this case, very well deserved accolades: Brilliant, haunting, captivating, gripping, authoritative, fascinating.

Below are excerpts from the review published by Booklist:

The destruction of the liner Lusitania in 1915 is two stories rolled into one: a Titanic-type tale of personal catastrophes and a still murky diplomatic incident of the first order. And that applies, too, to Preston's brilliant account of the episode that so poisoned American attitudes toward the German Empire, preparing the way for the declaration of war two years later. Her thorough research is elegantly conveyed by a humanizing narrative that covers everyone involved, especially the two captains: William Turner, of the Lusitania, and Walther Schweiger, of the U-20. Both the British and the Germans doctored their files -- leaving it to this astute historian to assess what really happened….A captivating and conscientious narrative of the disaster and its consequences. (Gilbert Taylor)

I've always found the story and history of the Lusitania to be far more interesting than that of the Titanic. I'm probably in a minority with that view, but if everyone who is familiar with the sinking of the Titanic read Preston's book, I'll bet they would change their minds.

Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy is of course available "at fine bookstores everywhere," as they say. I strongly recommend it.

May 02, 2003

Back in November I posted a piece here as part of TRR's intermittent series, "Philadelphia: Love It or Hate It," in which I discussed the city's financial district (under "love it," expressing my gratitude, as a former New Yorker, that it's small enough that you could walk through it and not realized you had done so), and parking lots and garages (under "hate it," noting, among other things, that "Philadelphia is where parking garages and parking lots go to die, or to live forever, or something, I don’t know what.").

I was grateful, then, to see in today's Philadelphia Inquirer a terrific piece by Inga Saffron, "Longing for [the] Empty Lots of Philadelphia."

Saffron writes:

I couldn't help noticing during a recent junket to the Netherlands that Philadelphia looks a lot like Amsterdam, minus the canals. The houses are also supermodel-thin (just like the Dutch), constructed of brick and squeezed onto narrow streets that don't admit cars gladly.

(Stop snickering, you sneering New Yorkers and Washingtonians. Philadelphia is a great, beautiful, and exciting -- albeit somewhat unusual -- city, and I won't have you saying otherwise. I've lived in all three cities, I'll have you know.)

She continues:

But the more I looked, the more I felt that Amsterdam lacked something as a city. Where were all the surface parking lots?… Try as I might, I couldn't find a single asphalt clearing in the whole of Amsterdam's central city, which is roughly the size of ours….Meanwhile, I returned to [Philadelphia] to find that two new lots had opened for business in Center City. I had been gone eight days. [Emphasis added.]

How on earth do the Dutch they live without these lots? They proliferate here in Philadelphia; they even breed, I think, mysteriously generating one after another, uncompetitive proximity to each other notwithstanding. Gee whiz, within just one block of my building there are three surface parking lots and three parking garages.

And almost nobody here seems to "get it." If I recall correctly, the plans for a proposed residential tower near City Hall call for something like a 40-story building of which the first 15 stories will be a parking garage.

Only in Philadelphia.

Saffron has a few suggestions, though, regarding Amsterdam's much needed remediation, particularly in light of the problems experienced during the last, oh, four decades in Philadelphia, here hinting at the raging debate in this city over how to spark growth:

But density just breeds more density. Despite the limited parking in Amsterdam, there were times I couldn't get my usual cafe table because crowds of tourists had come to gawk at the old buildings. They clogged the museums, spent like sailors in the shops, and added to the lava flow of pedestrians and bicyclists who interfered with decent drivers looking for parking.

By the end of my stay, I knew it didn't have to be that way. All Amsterdam needs to do is pare the clutter. Let's say it razes every other block. Then it, too, could have easier parking and fewer tourists. I wonder if anyone over there ever thought of that?

I'm certain Saffron isn't being naïve, she's making a joke. And I'll bet she would agree that Amsterdam wouldn't consider the notion, though there are dozens of developers in Philadelphia who would jump at the chance to do the exact same thing here.