She surfaces…with a do-not-miss recommendation.

I have been AWOL on this blog for a long time. I’m welcoming myself back with this tip:

This column in The New York Times is beautifully written. Under the bluntly worded headline of “You Are Going to Die,” Tim Kreider writes about life in a way that will resonate with people of all ages. He is funny without being flip, sober without gloom, hopeful and worried at the same time. A lovely accomplishment.

Click here and enjoy.

Writers in passing: Hugh Prather, Norris Church Mailer.

Two deaths reported in The New York Times give me pause. Both were considered accidental authors by their critics. Both found their gifts in unusual ways.

Hugh Prather wrote Notes to Myself as a journal in the early 1970s; it was a surprise bestseller. Norris Church Mailer was a fashion model who married Norman Mailer when he was more than twice her age. While insisting she was no intellectual, Ms. Mailer created fine art, theater and prose that showed intelligence and spirit.

Prather came from privilege and discovered his literary and artistic talent through manual labor; Ms. Mailer climbed out of childhood poverty as a beauty-pageant contestant and became the glue in the lives of the much-married writer, her two sons and seven stepchildren.

Both artists used inner strengths to empower countless others. Prather was the first contemporary journal writer I read, and his gentle reflections helped me make the feminism of my twenties part of my heart, not just my rhetoric. Ms. Mailer I came to admire in middle age, for her ability to be both helpmeet and writer–in the shade of Norman Mailer’s massive ego and talent, yet.

The notion that writers should “empower” us is a relatively new requirement. Literature and memoir were not always evaluated for this ability. There’s a certain flimsiness to the idea, since it bases the value of a piece of writing on how it makes us feel, period. A key manner in which new books are publicly valued relies on tabulating the number of people who buy into the hype of impending empowerment, then buy the book.

There are, though, other measures of a book’s power over us. The test of time, for one. The books that stay shelved in one’s inner library do matter, often for reasons beyond craft or depth. And the “back story” of a book has power too. For all the celebrity and success around her, Ms. Mailer rarely had a real Room of Her Own. She was always a writer with a hyphen: wife-and-writer, mother-and-writer. She too was someone for this feminist to learn from, and admire.

Leo Cullum, pilot, cartoonist and honorary critter.

You may not know the name “Leo Cullum,” but his voluble owls, dogs, anchovies and doctors made you laugh. The prolific New Yorker cartoonist has died, leaving behind a delightful archive.

The obit for Cullum in The New York Times by William Grimes is the rare one for a famous person that lists no sins or weaknesses alongside the accomplishments.

Cullum started cartooning later in life, and quickly developed a style of clever, deadpan humor conveyed in deceptively simple line drawings, often featuring animals. He earned his living previously as a pilot, starting out as a military flier. His quote about his Vietnam War service is a cartoon without a drawing:

“In 1966 he was sent to Vietnam, where he flew 200 missions, most in support of ground-troop operations, but at one point he flew secret bombing runs over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. ‘Who these were secret from I’m still not sure,” Mr. Cullum told Holy Cross magazine in 2006. “The North Vietnamese certainly knew it wasn’t the Swiss bombing them.’ ”

Click here for a slideshow of his work.

Harvey Pekar dies. Doesn’t that just figure.

Harvey Pekar, best known for his autobiographical “American Splendor” graphic-novel series and the 2003 movie “The Quitter,” that dramatized his dejected world view, saw every glass as half empty. A half-empty glass leaving a ring on the table. He is dead at age 70, which just proves, as he always knew, that shit happens and then you die.

In a gesture as perfect as it was unintentional, the news of Pekar’s death was posted on the Los Angeles Times site, right under a handy pull-down menu labeled “Foreclosures.”  Harvey would have approved.

Harvey Pekar ("pee-kar") would not be surprised that people are posting his stuff without his permission.

Inherit the (Type Like The) Wind.

It’s a haunting question:

When your time is up, and you move on to whatever comes after this life…who will cancel your Facebook page?

Fortunately, the folks at Legacy Locker are on the job. This company offers a way for your designated beneficiary (and I’m using that word loosely) to access all your online services, pages and auto-payments…in order to protect or remove them.

I have mixed feelings.

On one hand, wouldn’t it be nice to know that Type Like The Wind would live on forever, its name renewed year after year? But, on the other hand, do my heirs really need to go through those 9,678 archived Gmail messages? It seems like a lot to ask.

Sad news: AP jargon gets the shove.

As a former daily-newspaper journalist (and for a short time about 100 years ago, a proud writer for The Associated Press) I am heartsick to hear of the death of some longtime terms of the trade.  Who would opt for “keyword” instead of “slug” or “correct” instead of “cq” or “instead of” rather than the time-honored “sted.” And it gets worse…)

New York (AP) – Subs Lede, the veteran overseer of Associated Press wire-service jargon, died last night in New York City after plunging from an office building at 450 West 33rd St.  He was 90.

A statement released to media outlets this morning by the New York City Police Department’s Tradition Protective Unit (TPU) said that the fall appears to have been the result of a deliberate push by an editor or group of editors working in the building.  No suspects have been named, but one source close to the investigation said that TPU is “looking for a gang of youthful offenders.”

Mr. Lede was well known for his years in the front lines, where he fought alongside his stalwart partner, Recasts Hed, who at this writing is also near death from an accident last week. Police will not comment on whether the incidents are related.

Mr. Lede took countless newcomers under his wings in the field and the newsroom, training such crucial figures as Previous Cycle and the controversial Note Contents.

In 1978, he shared the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News with colleagues Fixes Typos and Will B. Led. The trio covered the tragic collision between a Misplaced Simile and a Clumsy Metaphor in airspace over the city. Following the crash, commas and semicolons rained down for a 48-hour period. The prize-winning stories resulted in parentheses being added to unclear phrases throughout the United States.

Mr. Lede was preceded in death by his wife of 50 years, New Throughout; a sister, Adds Graphic-Slug; and a nephew, Adds Byline.

At. Mr. Lede’s request, no funeral service will be held. Donations may be made to Updates with Color.

(Staff report moved on wire 20:38 2 July 2010. This obituary written by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett was sent by the service late on July 2, 2010.)

Goodbye Senator Byrd. Be glad you missed the news today.

One of the faceless commentators talking during the solemn carrying of Senator Robert Byrd’s casket this morning observed that the most significant thing about the late Senator’s tenure is the enormous social change on his long watch.

Byrd himself exemplified that change, moving from membership in the Ku Klux Klan as a young West Virginian to a supporter of civil rights measures as a seasoned statesman.

The comment no doubt gave a lot of other people pause as it did me. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would have thought longer and deeper about the thesis had the footage of Byrd not been followed by a live studio shot about the oil spill.  On the set was one of the new news-hotties stretching her long legs from a tall chair facing the camera, chatting with Phillipe Cousteau Jr, grandson of the revered Jacques Cousteau.

Yes, Senator Byrd lived a long life. Long enough to die on a day when “news” comes from a nitwit in snakeskin high heels schmoozing a low-wattage, high-ancestry bullshitter about one of the worst environmental disasters on record.

West Virginia down to two friends.

From the Los Angles Times obituary of Senator Robert C. Byrd by Johanna Neuman:

“On election night 2000, when Byrd, then 83, was reelected with his largest margin ever — a 78% majority, carrying all 55 counties and all but seven of the state’s 1,970 precincts — he remarked: ‘West Virginia has always had four friends: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, and Robert C. Byrd.’ (He later dropped Sears from the list, complaining about inadequate service on a heater.)”

A comforting nugget of wisdom.

From the New York Times obit for Chris Haney, co-creator of Trivial Pursuit:

“Mr. Haney fought and won a 13-year legal battle against a man who said he had given him the idea for Trivial Pursuit when Mr. Haney picked him up hitchhiking. He won another suit against an author who claimed that Mr. Haney had taken questions from his books, something Mr. Haney readily acknowledged.

The judge’s reasoning: “You can’t steal trivia.”

A century of high kicks.

The last of the Ziegfeld Girls has passed away, and the world is a lesser place.

According to The New York Times, Doris Eaton Travis died at age 106, the last of the famed and comely (36-26-38) performers hired in the early 1900s for the famous Broadway troupe.

She was part of a famous stage family, the Seven Little Eatons, and began dancing in public at age 5. The obit in the NYT by Douglas Martin is a minor masterpiece of factual yet gentlemanly reporting:

“Doris began as a chorus girl and understudy to the show’s star. In 1919, she wore a red costume and played the paprika part in the salad dance. ”

“While appearing in the show she fell in love with the songwriter Nacio Herb Brown…Mrs. Travis’s relationship with Mr. Brown lasted intermittently for eight years but never led to marriage. Mr. Brown himself married five other women all told, divorcing all of them.”

“..Arthur Murray hired her to teach ballroom dancing in Manhattan. She taught 70 hours a week until moving to Michigan to start the new franchise.One student was Paul Travis, who made a fortune by inventing a door jamb for cars. She and Mr. Travis married and later moved to Norman, Okla., where they bred quarter horses.”

And, my favorite, the ending to the story of the last Ziegfeld Girl:

“A little more than two weeks ago Mrs. Travis returned to Broadway to appear again at the annual Easter Bonnet Competition held by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, this time at the Minskoff Theater. She did a few kicks, apologizing that she no longer performed cartwheels.”

TV as role model.

We boomers have a kind of television-show DNA that the generations before and after do not. Our parents managed to live lives free of the talking box; people born later have more technology around them than the Apollo astronauts did. The TV personalities and shows of our childhoods are a currency that spends across geographical and class lines.

Say “Beatles” and we think “Ed Sullivan.” Only recently have we discarded “Walt Disney” and taken up “Pixar” as the name that comes to mind for all-things-animated.


News of actor John Forsythe’s death reminded me of this. Forsythe went to his reward being most remembered for his latter-day sex symbol role in “Dynasty,” a long-running series he starred in late in his long career.  (“Dynasty,” you may recall, is the show that made women’s dresses and jackets sprout shoulder pads the size of terriers.)

When I saw the obit for Forsythe I also remembered his brief role as a retired Air Force major running a private school for girls.  “The John Forsythe Show,” kept me riveted each week of the 1965-66 season that it ran. It convinced me that boarding school would save my life, and indeed it did a few years later.

Much is made of the mind-melting properties of too-much television. We all cluck and shake our heads when we read those stories about how many hours Americans–especially kids–spend in front of the tube. But now and then, an idea from a silly sitcom takes root and grows into something good. So, here’s hoping that Mr. Forsythe’s heirs live long and prosper with the fruits of his TV labors.

Classroom heroes.

Jaime Escalante is dead, so take a moment, bow your head and thank the Great Whatever for stubborn, tireless, unrealistic teachers.

Escalante is the man portrayed in the 1988 movie “Stand and Deliver,” which I happened to see last week. . (It met two of my movie requirements: It allowed me to avoid doing actual work; and it stars Edward James Olmos.)

The movie is a Hollywood-ized take on the East Los Angeles high school teacher who refused to believe poor Hispanic kids were doomed to fail in school. He taught them calculus, they learned, they passsed the Advanced Placement Exam with flying colors. They even survived an erroneous charge of cheating one year.

Most of us have one teacher who gave us a push that changed our life direction; sometimes it was a slight veer, other times it was an about-face. Mary Donovan was mine. I was in her third-grade class in 1965-66. It was her last year before retirement, and if her energy or love of teaching had waned over her long public-school career, it didn’t show.

I was not a model pupil. Very small and scrawny for my age, hopeless in math and science, not yet confident in schoolyard sports. I missed school days often, and when I was present I was preoccupied with my parent’s exploding marriage.

In the spring of that year we were assigned our first “paper,” an independent project meant to be a page or two. I wrote a five-page draft (in pencil, yellow lined paper) and my theme was “How someone becomes a good person.”  (I dimly recall making a connection between Easter and heroics, which would now cause considerable turmoil in the very secular world of public education.)

Mrs. Donovan was effusive. She showed my final paper (blue ink, white paper) to the principal. She pinned it up on the bulletin board right next to the A-plus math papers of my classmates.

On the last day of school, we lined up to hug our teacher–another thing that is probably not okay anymore. When my turn came, Mrs. Donovan held me by both shoulders and said, firmly, “Kimmie, I just know you’re going to be a writer.”

We corresponded long enough that she saw her prediction come true. When she died in the late 1980s, her niece answered my last letter. “I know Aunt Mary loved hearing from you,” she wrote. “And I know she would have wanted me to send you the enclosed.”

It was the draft of my five-page paper.

Hero with a camera.

Photographer Charles Moore did as much to move civil rights ahead in this country as almost any other individual. He died last week, at age 79.

(See the obituary by Douglas Martin of The New York Times here.)

Moore’s famous photos of lawman Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor are iconic proof of a shameful side of American history. The swaggering Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, who were seeking to end segregation. The action boomeranged, bringing the movement into nearly every home via television, newspaper and Life magazine coverage. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on Connor’s turf.

The New York Times obit for Moore quotes Hank Klibanoff, one of the authors of an outstanding book, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation saying that the photographer was known for getting right in the middle of the action, regardless of the personal danger.

Moore, says Klibanoff, often used a short lens.

Who could have imagined how long his view would be?

A gift.

Patricia Travers was a violin prodigy who disappeared in her twenties, leaving behind a distinguished recording and performance history.

I’d never heard of Travers until I read her obituary in The New York Times.  (Given that a month went by between Travers’ death and the Times obit, I’m apparently not the only one ignorant of her existence.) She died at age 82, nearly 60 years since she quietly left the concert stage without explanation, returned home to live with her parents in New Jersey, and rarely mentioned her musical past, even to friends.

Travers began playing the violin before age 4 and was performing with world-class orchestras by age 10. She appeared in at least one Hollywood film, and I found this wonderful YouTube clip of her as a young girl, performing in that long-forgotten comedy about a music camp for kids. (It can take a second to start rolling, be patient.)

Experts who study the lives of musical prodigies have theorized that Travers cut her career short when reviews became less than stellar. Apparently there is a very predictable curve in the life of such a young musical genius, which takes a downturn as the performer grows into young adulthood. Very few continue on as performers.

The obituaries written about Travers are cloaked in sadness, as if she had just died a second time; the first being the day she retreated from the concert stage.

For some reason, I doubt that was so. There is no way to know, of course, but I wonder if that young woman might have had two gifts: her musical genius and her innate sense of self-preservation.

A man for all, some, and no seasons

General Alexander Haig was a man of immense contradictions.

The former Secretary of State, who kept the home fires burning while Nixon went down, was an intelligent speaker who fractured the English language; a soldier who eschewed chain-of-command behavior. He was a statesman who alarmed presidents with his Papal devotion and naked ambition to assume the highest secular role in America.

The New York Times obit by Tim Weiner does a masterful job of fitting a biography in a small space. Read it here.

Brave men of letters

This seems to be a season of author losses. Now the reclusive J. D. Salinger is gone, as is contrarian-historian Howard Zinn.

Salinger proved that a small body of literary work can still be powerful and long-lived; Zinn demonstrated that history comes in many costumes.

I’d add that Salinger made it possible for young voices, people at the start of their adult lives, to be taken seriously in literature. And, for that matter, in real life. The wise and wise-cracking Holden Caulfield will outlive us all. Salinger’s hermetic life seems more admirable than eccentric now too. Would that a few more authors of our time would value their privacy so fiercely.

Zinn’s infamous work, “A People’s History of the United States,” continues to invigorate readers and annoy many of his peers.  It sold close to 2 million copies in 30 years, a staggering number for an academic title.  He, perhaps more than any other single historian of our time, goaded us to question the status quo, to view events of the past through the eyes of those who suffered, not just those who signed the important proclamations. His needling and challenging was accompanied by the sound of knee-jerking and more than a whiff of showmanship, but Zinn was good for us.

If there is an afterlife, the literary roundtable is a fine place these days.

End of a chapter

Two writers died this week, both proof that the approval of the so-called academy has little to do with pleasing readers or selling books.

Erich Segal, the Yale classicist who wrote the wildly successful “Love Story” and Robert B. Parker, whose nearly 40 lively novels delivered a memorable, wise-cracking detective named Spenser and a succession of short-haired pointers, all named Pearl, will be missed by their fans.

Both Parker and Segal (a scholar who horrified peers with his pop titles) provided countless hours of escapism, entertainment…even some enlightenment. And at least one very enduring aphorism. Both placed novels in Boston and both populated their fictional worlds with smart women.

Look around on the next bus, train or airplane you’re in — if you don’t see someone with a Parker book, I’ll buy you lunch. And whether or not you were around to read the first printing of “Love Story” (or see the 1970 movie), surely you know by now that Love means never having to say you’re sorry.