May 12, 2016

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Most people prefer not to think a lot about death.

But that subject has always loomed large in the mind and works of comedian, writer, actor and director Woody Allen, even when he was a young man.

One of Allen’s quips about death is a famous quote that’s cited in hundreds of books:

   “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

This line comes from an imaginary one-act play Allen wrote in his late thirties, titled Death.

It was one of two short plays included with a collection of his short stories in the book Without Feathers, which was published on May 12, 1975.

Death is said to be Allen’s humorous homage to Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 “Theatre of the Absurd” play The Killer.

Years later, he used Death as the basis for his 1992 film Shadows and Fog.

The title of Allen’s book Without Feathers is a satiric twist on words written by Emily Dickinson.

It’s a take-off on the first line of Dickinson’s poem “Hope,” published posthumously in 1891, five years after her death:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all.”

By titling his book Without Feathers, Allen was making a sardonic literary joke.

It encapsulated the contrast between his own fatalistic, dark-humored view of life and the more uplifting thoughts expressed by Dickinson in “Hope.”

Allen’s quote about death from Without Feathers has been immortalized by it’s inclusion in many books of famous quotations, as have a number of lines from his movies and his early stand-up comedy routines.

I don’t know if Woody Allen will end up being as popular after his death for as long as Emily Dickinson has been since hers in 1886.

But I suspect Woody’s reaction to that possibility might be another famous line he used back in the days when he did stand-up:

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

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Related reading: books by and about Woody Allen…

May 06, 2016

“About one-fifth of the people are against everything all of the time.”

robert-f-kennedy one-fifth quote May 1964 WM
Some observers have expressed surprise that two populist, anti-establishment candidates who many people view as “extremists” won sizeable percentages of the votes in the 2016 presidential primary elections.

But in the past there have been other high profile populist presidential candidates who based their campaigns on disdain for “the establishment” and passionate opposition to something.

In 1964, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy uttered a oft-cited political quotation that is a reference to this phenomenon, though the connection is not widely known.

Speaking to a group of law students at the the University of Pennsylvania on May 6, 1964, Kennedy observed:

      “About one-fifth of the people are against everything all of the time.”

This quote (often given without the word “About”) is found in many books and on many websites, usually without any explanation of the context. 

Unfortunately, as far as I know, the speech is not posted anywhere online.

However, there is an old news story in the Google News Archive that sheds light on why Kennedy made the remark.

It’s a brief Associated Press article about the speech that ran in newspapers later that week.

The article notes that Kennedy was commenting on the fact that a sizeable percentage of U.S. voters had recently voted for Alabama Governor George Wallace in the 1964 Democratic Presidential primary elections.

Wallace was among the most prominent opponents of racial desegregation and efforts to secure equal rights for African Americans in the 1960s.

In his inaugural address as Governor on January 14, 1963, he famously committed himself to “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

On June 11, 1963, Wallace took his infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” at the University of Alabama. He literally stood in front of the door of the traditionally segregated school to try to block the entry of two black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood.

That and other highly publicized anti-integration antics and statements by Wallace made him the darling of pro-segregation whites in Southern and Northern states.

Buoyed by his notoriety, Wallace ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1964 against incumbent President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had succeeded John F. Kennedy after Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

Like JFK, President Johnson was supportive of the Civil Rights movement and committed to enforcing court-mandated desegregation of schools and other public facilities.

As Attorney General, Robert Kennedy was in the forefront of that battle. He was also helping Johnson push for enactment of landmark civil rights legislation in Congress, which had initially been proposed by his brother in 1963.

During the Democratic primary race, George Wallace waged a fiery populist campaign against Johnson, the Democratic and Washington establishment and desegregation.

Editorial writers, church leaders, trade unions, Democratic Party leaders and many other people and groups denounced him as an extremist, a right-wing racist and kook.

George Wallace 1968 campaign brochure coverNonetheless, thousands of cheering supporters showed up at his campaign events. And, he did surprisingly well in many primary elections—including those in some Northern states.

He won a third of the votes in Wisconsin, 43% in Maryland and nearly 30% in Indiana.

Robert F. Kennedy’s May 6th speech at the University of Pennsylvania came one day after the Indiana primary.

Kennedy decided to comment on it.

Here’s how the Associated Press story summarized what he said:

     PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy says he “was not surprised” at the strong vote for Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama in the Indiana presidential primary.
     Kennedy, speaking to 300 law students at the University of Pennsylvania Wednesday, said “there is a revolution now in the United States over civil rights and people don’t like to have their lives disturbed.”
     “It’s not surprising then,” he added, “that one-third of the people in Indiana voted for Wallace. About one-fifth of the people are against everything all the time.”
     Wallace, who campaigned against the civil rights bill pending in the Senate, got more than 29 per cent of the votes in losing to Democratic Gov. Matthew E. Welsh.

Of course, Johnson went on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidential election of 1964.

On that same election night in 1964, Robert F. Kennedy was elected U.S. Senator for New York.

Four years later, his own run at the presidency was cut short when he was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.

Would Kennedy have won the 1968 presidential election if he’d lived? Possibly.

Republican Richard Nixon won with less than a 1% margin in the popular vote over Democratic nominee Hubert H. Humphrey, who was less well known and less popular than Kennedy.

George Wallace ran for president again in 1968 as a third party candidate.

His policy positions appealed to independent, anti-establishment voters. The majority were angry white men.

They felt the federal government and courts were trying to force things down their throats that they totally disagreed with and the politicians were wasting their tax dollars on welfare and foreign aid. And, they agreed with Wallace’s claim that “there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two major parties.”

Wallace pledged to address many of the key things they were against. He pledged to end federal efforts at desegregation, reduce spending on welfare programs, slash foreign aid, stop the “tyranny” of the U.S. Supreme Court and block gun control proposals.

In the November 1968 election he received 13.5% of the popular vote.

As in 1964, most of the people who voted for Wallace in 1968 clearly fit the demographics of the “antis” Robert Kennedy had in mind when he made his famous observation.

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April 24, 2016

“Yada Yada Yada…”

Yada Yada quote Seinfeld
During its long, successful original run on NBC, from 1989 to 1998, the Seinfeld TV show created or popularized many catchphrases.

Some of the best known are:
       ● the famed snub of the “Soup Nazi,” “No soup for you!”
       ● the sexual euphemism “master of your domain”
       ● the food-related faux pas term “double dip”
       ● and, the handy denial of prejudice, “Not that there's anything wrong with that.”

My own favorite Seinfeld catchphrase is “Yada yada yada.”

It was first used in the episode that originally aired on April 24, 1997, appropriately titled “The Yada Yada” (Season 8, Episode 19).

In that episode, the phrase is initially used by the character Marcy (played by Suzanne Cryer), a girlfriend of George Costanza (Jason Alexander), while she’s talking to George and Jerry Seinfeld.

The conversation goes like this:

MARCY:  You know, a friend of mine thought she got Legionnaire’s Disease in the hot tub.
GEORGE:  Really? What happened?
MARCY:  Oh, yada yada yada, just some bad egg salad. I'll be right back. (She gets up)
JERRY:  I noticed she’s big on the phrase “yada yada.”
GEORGE:  Is “yada yada” bad?
JERRY:  No, “yada yada” is good. She’s very succinct.
GEORGE:  She is succinct.
JERRY:  Yeah, it’s like you’re dating
USA Today.

As the episode proceeds, almost all the characters start using “yada yada yada” (or sometimes just “yada” or “yada yada”) as a way to gloss over and shorten descriptions of things, much like people use “et cetera, et cetera” or “blah blah blah” or “and so on, and so forth.”

I think one of the funniest uses is by George.

It’s in a scene now immortalized on YouTube under the title “George Costanza Life Story.”

MARCY:  So I'm on Third Avenue, minding my own business and, yada yada yada, I get a free massage and a facial.
GEORGE:  Wow. What a succinct story.
MARCY:  I’m surprised you drive a Cadillac.
GEORGE:  Oh, it’s not mine. It’s my mother’s.
MARCY:  Oh. Are you close with your parents?
GEORGE:  Well, they gave birth to me, and, yada yada.
MARCY:  Yada what?
GEORGE:  Yada yada yada…

“The Yada Yada” script was written by veteran TV writer and producer Steve Koren, a former member of the Saturday Night Live writing team who wrote or co-wrote dozens of other Seinfeld episodes. He also scripted a number of popular movies, including Bruce Almighty, Click, Superstar and A Night at the Roxbury.

Koren didn’t coin the phrase “yada yada yada.”

But the origin is still being debated by linguists and etymology buffs.

Some believe it is Jewish-American “Yiddish” slang that may have descended from the Hebrew word “yada” or “yadaa,” which means tell, know or show.

Other language mavens think the Yiddish/Hebrew theory is totally fakakta.

The renowned Oxford English Dictionary contributor Barry Popik cites a list of possible precursors from the English language on his excellent Big Apple site.

The OED itself suggests that “yada” may have been derived from the British word “yatter,” meaning mindless chatter.

A Norwegian source has also been postulated.

In the Norwegian language, the letter J is pronounced as Y. So, the Norwegian word “jada,” meaning “yeah,” is pronounced as “yada.” And, “jada jada jada” is used by Norwegians in the same disbelieving or dismissive way English-speaking people use “yeah yeah yeah.” (As in, “Yeah, sure.”)

The bottom line when you read all the yada yada yada in the various theories is that the linguistic origin is uncertain.

What is certain is that the Seinfeld show gets and deserves the credit for making “yada yada yada” familiar to millions of people.

And, although the one and only appearance of the character Marcy in the Seinfeld show was in “The Yada Yada” episode of Season 8, she gets the credit for being the first Seinfeld character to use that now immortal catchphrase.

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April 19, 2016

“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

On April 19, 1951, General Douglas MacArthur made a high-profile “farewell address” to a joint meeting of both houses of Congress.

Eight days earlier, he’d been fired as the top commander of the American forces in the Korean War by President Harry Truman, essentially for having the gall to publicly criticize Truman’s denial of his request to nuke Red China (in retaliation for sending troops to fight against the U.S. in Korea).

Truman later famously explained: “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President…I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was.”

Today, with hindsight, most people would likely support Truman’s decision to avoid World War III and affirm the authority of the Commander-in-Chief.

But in 1951, Truman’s firing of MacArthur was highly controversial — and highly politicized by Truman’s Republican adversaries.

MacArthur was one of America’s most renowned generals during World War II.

Among other things, he was known for making and ultimately keeping the legendary vow “I shall return!”his promise to return to liberate the Philippines from Japanese control after being forced to escape and leave many of his troops there early in 1942.

On September 2, 1945, MacArthur presided over the official surrender of the Japanese, thus ending that war. He then oversaw the American occupation and initial peacetime revitalization of Japan.

In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, President Truman tapped MacArthur as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces who were fighting with South Korea against the North Koreans and their backer, Communist Red China.

MacArthur was well-known and well-liked by most Americans and many believed that the spread of Communism had to be stopped to prevent a “domino effect.”

That didn’t stop the feisty Democratic President from firing him after the general wrote a letter critical of Truman’s decision to avoid further escalation of the war and sent it to Joseph William Martin, Jr., the Republican leader in the House of Representatives.

Martin read the letter aloud on the floor of Congress on April 5th. It was a clear poke in Truman’s eye. Six days later, Truman fired MacArthur.

To poke Truman again, the Republicans invited MacArthur to make a speech to Congress on April 19.

Much of MacArthur’s “farewell address” focused on “the Communist threat.”

He ominously warned that if Communism were allowed to spread in Southeast Asia it would “threaten the freedom of the Philippines and the loss of Japan and might well force our western frontier back to the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.”

Most of that Cold War rhetoric is now forgotten. The thing that is most remembered from MacArthur’s speech is his famous quote: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

It was part of the closing of his address, in which he said:

“When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all of my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that ‘old soldiers never die, they just fade away.’ And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good-bye.”

As MacArthur noted, the line “old soldiers never die, they just fade away” is not something he coined. It comes from a song that was popular with British soldiers during World War I, called “Old Soldiers Never Die.”

The barracks room song was a parody of the hymn “Kind Words Never Die.” And, unlike the ending of MacArthur’s farewell address, the lyrics of the Army song are more satiric than schmaltzy.

There are several different versions. Here are the lyrics recorded by the late, great quote and phrase maven Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Catch Phrases :

       “Old soldiers never die, 
       Never die, never die, 
       Old soldiers never die —
       They simply fade away. 

       Old soldiers never die, 
       Never die, never die,
       Old soldiers never die —
       Young ones wish they would.”

Ironically, that and other early versions of the song poked fun at Army life and at career soldiers and officers like MacArthur.

However, after MacArthur cited the song in his farewell speech, Gene Autry rewrote the lyrics to create a more respectful version that specifically praised the general. The last verse of Autry’s rendition says:

       “Now somewhere, there stands the man
       His duty o’er and won
       The world will ne’er forget him
       To him we say, ‘Well done.’”

President Truman had a different reaction to MacArthur’s farewell speech.

When asked about it in one of the interviews recorded by Merle Miller for the book Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (1974), Truman said it was “nothing but a bunch of damn bullshit!”

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April 15, 2016

Oh, the irony! Tax Day is also a legal anniversary of “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz…”

America’s federal income tax was first created by Congress in 1861, to help fund the Union Army during the Civil War.

The original deadline set for paying the tax was June 30.

In 1895, that first Federal income tax law was declared unconstitutional and overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This little legal problem was fixed in 1913 when the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified.

The tax deadline was then set as March 1.

In 1918, it was moved to March 15.

Then, in 1955, the traditional date for filing tax returns was changed to April 15, a now long-dreaded date that has come to be known as “Tax Day.”

If the process of filling out and sending your income tax return to the Internal Revenue Service gives you heartburn, then a famous advertising slogan linked to the date April 15th will strike you as appropriate.

In 1976, Miles Laboratories filed a trademark application to protect the slogan it had been using to promote Alka-Seltzer, the “effervescent analgesic alkalizing tablets” the company first began selling in 1931.

The slogan was used in Alka Seltzer TV commercials in the 1960s. But for some reason unknown to me the legal anniversary of it’s use as a “Word Mark” for trademark purposes came later.

The company's official trademark filing in 1976 said this advertising “Word Mark” was “First used in commerce on April 15, 1976.”

I can’t explain why that date was used for legal reasons. But it does strike me as ironic that it’s the same as the legal date for “Tax Day.”

Unless you’re too young, you probably know the words in this “Word Mark.”

They were initially used in a jingle sung by Speedy, the animated star of Alka Seltzer’s TV commercials, and continued to be sung, spoken and printed in Alka Seltzer ads for years:

“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz,
Oh, what a relief it is!”

As some aficionados of obscure rock trivia know, the music for the famed Alka Seltzer jingle was written by Thomas W. Dawes, a founding member of The Cyrkle.

The Cyrkle was the Sixties rock music group best known for their hits “Red Rubber Ball” (written by Paul Simon and Bruce Woodley) and “Turn Down Day.”

Dawes later wrote many other jingles used in ads for other products, including 7-Up (“7Up, the Uncola”), L’Eggs (“Our L’eggs fit your legs), McDonald’s (“You, You’re the One”) and Vidal Sassoon’s hair care line (“If You Don’t Look Good, We Don’t Look Good”).

Anyway, next time you get heartburn as you fill out your federal income taxes, queue up a vintage Alka-Seltzer TV ad on YouTube, pop a couple tablets, and sing along with Speedy.

You could also rewatch one of the later Alka Seltzer ads with equally famous catchphrases, like “Mama mia! That’s a spicy meatball!” (first used in 1969) or “I can't believe I ate that whole thing” (first used in 1972).

It won’t relieve the financial pain.

But at least watching some hokey old Alka Seltzer ad might make you smile.

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