The scrappy, short-haired one

Deborah improv 2015

“I am so goddamned sick of yogurt.”

Thus spoke Deborah Holzel, my older sister. She was on stage at Second City Hollywood performing improv with a group dubbed the Class of 1898, a name that makes me think of William McKinley and the sinking of the Maine, but not a troupe of elders who came of age in the 1950s and ’60s.

Given the prompt of “frozen yogurt shop” and paired with another actor, Deborah’s cry of desperation could have been that of a teenager working her first low-paying job, or of a retired clinical social worker who has experienced some things too many times. (That’s her on the right in the multicolored vest.)

“As you get older, you don’t have as much to lose,” she told me, explaining what gave her and the others the freedom to stand in front of an audience and tempt failure. The only other age as creatively free as seniors, she said, are children under 10.

In our family, Deborah is more associated with the classics than blackout sketches. At 16, she played Medea at Cass Technical High School. Three at the time, I was too young to appreciate Euripides’ tragedy.

The last time I saw her act was about 1970 in a production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” This being Boston at the end of the ’60s, the theater played the new Beatles album, Abbey Road, during intermission.

Deborah soon gave up theater for social work, so it was fun to watch the video of the Second City performance and see my big sister in action. In one skit, everyone played a different type of radio station. Deborah was the  well-modulated voice of NPR calmly announcing disasters in Texas and Florida.

In another skit, where Deborah and two other women were told they were baseball players, Deborah was described as “the scrappy, short haired one.” Deborah laughs at that. The lowest-keyed Holzel, she’s never been called scrappy.

The class was taught by Second City actor Celeste Pechous, whose Linked In page describes her as “SAG Actor, improvisor, Apartment Building Manager.”

Deborah wants to keep at it. Maybe next time she’ll be the one ordering the frozen yogurt.



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So buttons


So around the time I was realizing that Star Trek had a “some kind of” problem, I noticed that practically everyone on NPR who is  asked a question begins their answer with “So…”

Diane Rehm: Okay. But how does that adult get Toxoplasmosis?

Guest: So we know that that’s probably not the case in most cases of schizophrenia…

Robert Siegel: And I’m a lot older than you are. So I want you to tell me your encounter with the “Our Gang” comedies – when and where?

Guest: So I grew up in Los Angeles. And, you know, my parents were Korean immigrants. They worked a lot. And so my sister and I would often watch television at home in the afternoons, and often “Little Rascals” was on…

Can’t they answer the question without it? Why do they need that little word to propel their answer into motion?

So then I realized that I do it too.

But why? And when did I start doing it?  And what was I doing before I did it?

The scholars at Lake Superior State University don’t have the answers, but they do recognize the problem. They’ve put “So” at the top of their 41st Annual List of Banished Words, released today.

“So the word that received the most nominations this year was already banished, but today it is being used differently than it was in 1999, when nominators were saying, ‘I am SO down with this list!'” the list’s editors wrote in their annual announcement.

Among the other words on the list (and a few of the accompanying comments):

Conversation (CNN: Join the conversation: What’s ok to wear on a plane?)
“This word has been increasingly used by talking heads to describe every form of verbal communication known to mankind,” writes Richard Fry, of Marathon, Ont. “It has replaced ‘discussion,’ ‘debate,’ ‘chat,’ ‘discourse,’ ‘argument,’ ‘lecture,’ ‘talk’….”

Stakeholder “A word that has expanded from describing someone who may actually have a stake in a situation or problem, now being over-used in business to describe customers and others.” Adds Gwendolyn Barlow of Portland, Ore.: “Often used with ‘engagement.’”

Price Point “Another example of using two words when one will do.” “It has no ‘point.’  It is just a ‘price,’” commented Guy Michael of Cherry Hill, N.J.

Presser A shortened form of “press release” and “press conference.” To which Constance Kelly of West Bloomfield, Mich, points out: “This word already has a definition: a person or device that removes wrinkles.”

As usual, most of the comments seem unnecessarily fussy and humorless. What bothers me is not that the words have other, older meanings, but they’re used repeatedly and without thinking. And the less people think, the more desolate the public space will be.

What’s worse, that walk it back made the list (“Donald Trump walks back Muslim database comments“)? Or that the word it replaced is back-pedal?




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Some kind of some kind of

Star Trek

Is Star Trek speculative fiction? As I watch episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (Motto: They’re just like us, only without smartphones)  it slowly dawns on me all the speculating that goes on during the average day aboard the Starship Enterprise.

Geordi: “I don’t know, Captain. It looks like some kind of energy field.”

Data: “Unknown, Captain. I’d speculate it is some kind of warp displacement conduit.”

Riker: “Could it be some sort of cloaking device we aren’t familiar with?”

I’m not sure the purpose of “some sort of.” Perhaps in the 23rd century they say it instead of “um” or “like,” but it’s scattered through the episodes like molecules in a transporter beam. Is it something that will catch on in the 21st?

“She appears to be wearing some kind of tank top.”

“It looks like some kind of bowl of cereal.”

“Could it be the Republicans are employing some kind of new candidate we aren’t familiar with?”

It turns out that the “some kind of” blight spread to other Star Trek series as well.

Finally, I found a site called Some Kind of Star Trek. There’s no explanation for the name. It looks like some kind of inside reference, though.





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Six Books

Sally Mann's daughter Jessie with a candy cigarette. "Viewers who knew nothing about us interpreted our lives, and the images were scrutinized under the mantle of scholarship or god-haunted righteousness," the photographer writes in her memoir.

Sally Mann’s daughter Jessie with a candy cigarette. “Viewers who knew nothing about us interpreted our lives, and the images were scrutinized under the mantle of scholarship or god-haunted righteousness,” the photographer writes in her memoir.

Among the books I read this year:

A Gentleman of Leisure by P.G. Wodehouse (1910). The coincidences come thick and fast in this story about a wealthy young man, a jewelry heist, idle doings in a British manor and a romance gone right, vindicating those who maintain that everything happens for a reason.

I always confuse Wodehouse with Evelyn Waugh. So I read Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934), too. More hijinks among the upper classes, and what you had to do to get a divorce. Plus: the downside of reading Dickens in the Brazilian jungle.

The Girl on the Train (2015), by Paula Hawkins. I heard an interview with the author on NPR one night while driving and was hooked. Through a drunken haze, the our narrator sees a married former neighbor dallying with another man. Soon that neighbor disappears and the unreliable narrator makes every wrong choice available to her to try to solve the mystery.

Hold Still, by Sally Mann (2015). I was introduced to the work of the Virginia photographer about a year ago. In this memoir, she shows herself to be a great storyteller, naive, an obsessive artist with a wonderful way with a southernism (“He was in more trouble than a run-over dog.”). She defends her controversial photographs of her children like a mother defends her children. She’s great, albeit gothic, company.

Run, Don’t Walk, by Adele Levine (2014). Walter Reed Army Medical Center as the 4077th.  Washington physical therapist Adele Levine writes warmly and humorously about her six years treating casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee (2015). Scout Finch, all grown up, travels back south from New York City and discovers her father, Atticus, is not Gregory Peck, but an ossified small-town bigot. I have the same reaction every time I go on Facebook.

What did you read in 2015?




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#banish #these #please


Selfie is the past year’s word that would bring the greatest good to the greatest number if it were never used again.

The term for extending your phone to arm’s length and snapping your beautiful self is at the top of the 2014 Banished Word List, published each New Year’s Day by the folks at Lake Superior State University.

Following a trend I noted last year, the comments offered by those nominating the words aren’t sufficiently witty to put overused and annoying usages such as   Twittersphere and Obamacare firmly in their proper place. But none of the nominees made me say, “No, I like that word.”

For instance, I was done with twerking right around the time I looked up what it meant. That was probably the day after Miley Cyrus introduced the concept to  much of the nation.

Number 3 on the list is hashtag. I can recall a time when I didn’t know what a hashtag was. I knew what hash is. For a long time that was enough.

Two others, Mister Mom and T-Bone I don’t hear around, except T. Bone Burnett.

Then there are _____ on steroids,

___ageddon and


which are now given to every storm that isn’t getting its own name.

There are a couple more, but you get the picture. I kept putting off submitting my own nominations: hunker down and shelter in place,  and never did. Even so, I’d be mighty happy if nobody used them the during the next snowpocalypse or stormageddon.


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Seven cool books

Labor-Day-Parade-New-York-City-Jewish-Garment-Industry-End-Child-Slavery small

My top 7 for 2013. What were your favorite books that you read this year?

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (2012) American immigrant stories from the Dominican experience.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel  (2012) To hell with Henry. Give us more Cromwell!

Harvard Square by Andre Aciman  (2013) Memory and artifice among North African immigrants in 1970s Cambridge. I’ll never think of Walden Pond the same way again.

Overweight Sensation by Mark Cohen (2013) The rise and bellyflop of the greater-than-we-realized musical parodist Allan Sherman.

War Over Lemuria by Richard Shaver (2013) I’ve written about this chronicle of the pulp science fiction craze and what happened when a writer insisted that his stories were really true.

The Unpossessed by Tess Slesinger (1934) Leftist New York intellectuals, struggle and seduce each other into the modern age. I learned about this book on an NPR review by Maureen Corrigan of a different book.

Jews Without Money by Michael Gold (1930) I’ve known about it since I prepared my bar mitzvah speech. But this is the first time I read it through. One hundred years later, poverty is still poverty.


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Everything but creepy organ music

Too old to be true: University of Michigan Law School

Too old to be true: University of Michigan Law School

During my years at the University of Michigan, I had a special disdain for the law school — not for the school itself, which I knew nothing about, but for the law school building. It was a Gothic heap, with tall windows, parapets, finials, turrets and buttresses, and and it seemed to be pretending to be older than it was. In my mind it was an affront to the egalitarianism of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam 1970s.

It was a visceral dislike. The law school was an emblem of a university that was self-satisfied and elitist, with almost sacred traditions to uphold — I never knew what to make of the obsession with the Wolverines football team, school colors, the fight song. If there had been zombies in those days I might have made such an analogy. What I wanted instead was a stew of people and ideas and passions, a place where we would focus on the new.

You’d no longer get me to denounce the law school and all the rest as part of an Orwellian conspiracy to lure a generation into mindless conformity. Now I tend to think of it more as a marketing gimmick.

That’s the point Robinson Mayer makes in his article “How Gothic Architecture took over the American College Campus,” in the Atlantic.

“The American college campus, and its Gothic filigree, seem timeless, pristine constructions,” he writes. “Nothing could be farther from the truth: They are historical eruptions, made possible by philanthropic economics, continental envy and racism.”

Initially, American colleges were modest places and their hodgepodge of buildings reflected their identities as new, unassuming institutions. But by the end of the 19th century, Mayer writes, state governments were severely underfunding institutions of higher learning. And so they turned to donors and future students to maintain their long-term viability.

“Colleges would stake their case to donors and future students on their own long history, deep tradition and historical importance,” according to Mayer. “An old university was patriotic… So the ‘old’ came to be treasured.”

“But why the Gothic?” he asks.

Mayer writes that American colleges sought to emulate Oxford and Cambridge (where the Monty Pythons went to school). So as they were seeking to reinvent themselves as old, the Collegiate Gothic style was born.

“The newer the campus was,” Mayer quotes historian John Theling, “the older it appeared to be.”

Here’s a shot of the “old” Lawyer’s Club section of the U-M law school when it was new in the 1920s:

University of Michigan lawyersclubconstruction1920s-thumb-646x492-149900

This article describes the law school as an “unusual architectural melange.”

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