Happy New Year!

Posted in General on September 13th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

According to the Jewish calendar, the world just had its birthday and is a sprightly 5776 years old.  Yes, God is lying about His age.  Of course, He might want to look younger than Bernie Sanders.  But it is more than just vanity.  God hates admitting mistakes: His first attempts at Chosen People.

The Trilobites proved to be such a disappointment; two hundred million years of just swimming.  The dinosaurs at least were entertaining–for the first 150 million years; but mutating into canaries was rather anticlimactic.  As for the Neanderthals, they just weren’t bright enough for 600 dietary laws–constantly mixing milk and mastodon.

Finally, some 5700 years ago, God posted Himself on J-Date:  “Deity, with undeniable quirks, interested in monogamous relationship.  Can’t promise you Heaven but how about some sand dunes on the Eastern Mediterranean?”

And we have been going steady ever since.

The 2015 Underture

Posted in General, On This Day on August 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

On this day in 1882, “The 1812 Overture” premiered. So I asked the leading presidential candidates their opinions of the music and the history it commemorates.

Donald Trump: “I would have known how to conquer Russia. But I am not going to give you the details. Do you think that I want Putin to know?”

Jeb Bush: “So your smug older brother blithely invades a country for no good reason and without the least strategy…and you spend the rest of your life living it down. I know how exactly how Louis Bonaparte felt.”

Scott Walker: “We were fighting Britain, right?”

Ben Carson: “You can get AIDs from listening to Tchaikovsky, especially if you share phonograph needles.”

Hillary Clinton: “If you would like my critique of nineteenth century  international diplomacy, press 1. If you would like my assessment of Napoleon, press 2. If you want my fun perspective of Russian music, press 3.”

Bernie Sanders: “You know, my family was in Russia at the time. But we weren’t exactly hobnobbing with the Russian aristocracy at the premiere. The Tsar was more likely to invite us to a pogrom.”

O Tempora, O Morass

Posted in General on August 10th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment


I am not that insignificant” whined an overlooked Chris Wallace. “I went to Harvard, I’m Mike Wallace’s son. I’m effortless to ridicule.”

“Trump could have said, ‘Nice hair color. Your father leave you his shoe polish?’ And when accused of switching parties, Trump could have turned to me and said, ‘Were you called Christopher at your Bar Mitzvah?’ People are still extorting my lunch money with that.”


Posted in General, On This Day on August 6th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

August 6th: Feast Day of the Transfiguration. This has nothing to do with Caitlin Jenner.

However, on this day in 1538, the town of Bogota was founded without first being named Santiago. This unprecedented originality should have gotten Conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada burned at the stake. Upon retiring as a conquistador, he resumed his former career of treachery and pillaging: law. A none-too-Catholic attorney…the Inquisition sometimes missed the obvious.

Son of Obituary

Posted in General, On This Day on July 28th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

On this day in 1540, Thomas Cromwell was beheaded.  It is gratifying when bad things happen to bad people.  Ironically, the ruthless politician was condemned for one of the few times when he was not thoroughly reprehensible.  Cromwell had connived the condemnation and death of Thomas More.  Technically, disagreeing with the King could be construed as treason; building a case based on rhetorical quibbles, Cromwell destroyed More.  Henry VIII was impressed with this peasant-stock lawyer and Cromwell rose in the bureaucratic firmament.

Ever obliging to the King’s desires, Cromwell then arranged a quick end to Henry’s second marriage.  Anne Boleyn was an ambitious shrew but being obnoxious was not a capital crime.  Cheating on the King was, and Cromwell had five men–including the queen’s brother– seized and tortured until one of them confessed to orgies with Mrs. Tudor.  All five were condemned to death and so was Anne Boleyn.  For his crimes, Cromwell became the King’s chief minister.

Unfortunately, in that capacity Cromwell started acting like a statesman instead of a hatchetman.  Envisioning an alliance of the Protestant princes of Europe, Cromwell encouraged the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves, a duchess of northern Germany.  Henry agreed–until he saw Anne.  Diplomacy made a marriage unavoidable, but Henry was furious and you know whom he blamed.  Cromwell was a dead man, but Henry–in his sociopathic way–had a code of honor.  He did not want to feel like an ingrate for Cromwell’s past services.  So he first elevated the minister to an earldom–and then had Cromwell condemned to death.

But good toadies are hard to find, and Henry began to miss Cromwell.  As a hint of apology, King allowed the Cromwell family to have some estates and granted the title of baron to his late minister’s son.  The fourth Baron Cromwell (the great-great grandson of Thomas) would fight for Charles I and be elevated to the Earldom of Ardglass.  Of course, the war did not end well for King Charles,  and the Earl of Ardglass had to make peace with the Parliamentary forces.    He got off with a fine;  having the last name of Cromwell did no harm.  Apparently Cousin Oliver had some influence.

Temple Fugit

Posted in General, On This Day on July 25th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

And now with the appropriate fanfare of shofars—

According to the inexplicable Jewish calendar, tonight begins Tish B’Av, a time of mourning and avoidance of Italian food. On this day, both the First and the Second Temple were destroyed.

In 586 B.C.J.(Before Cousin Jesus) Iraq–alias Babylonia–really did have weapons of mass destruction, and they were used on Jerusalem. The First Temple, the one built by King Solomon, was leveled.

The Babylonians got their comeuppance from the Persians in 538 BCJ. Contrary to the Greek propaganda, the Persians were pretty nice guys and let their Jewish subjects rebuilt the Temple in 515 BCJ. This was the Second Temple.

It was nothing fancy. The Jews couldn’t afford much and there was that prohibition of graven images. Herodotus didn’t consider Jerusalem worth a visit; in fact, all he said of the province was that the people were obsessed with circumcision.

Persia was overthrown by Alexander; the Hellenistic kingdoms were conquered by the Romans, and the Jews remained obsessed with circumcision and the theology attached to it. Rome subcontracted Judea to a clever fiend named Herod. Trying both to impress his Roman masters and to ingratiate himself with his Jewish victims, Herod undertook a major expansion of the Second Temple in 19 BCJ. The wily ruler built the expanded structure in such a way that it could double as a fortress–in case the Jews were not that grateful to him.

Ironically, the Jews were very grateful and used the Temple for their last-stand in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD (Anno Domination). Of course, the Romans were neither tactful nor sentimental, so they destroyed the Second Temple too. The Arch of Titus in Rome commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the Jewish nation.

Gosh, I guess we didn’t take the hint.

Eugene and John Dillinger at the Movies

Posted in General, On This Day on July 22nd, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 7 Comments

July 22, 1934:  John Dillinger Picks the Wrong Movie

John Dillinger thought that he looked like Clark Gable…and who was going to tell him otherwise?  So the notorious bankrobber was eager to see his twin’s latest film “Manhattan Melodrama.”  Gable portrayed a suave, charming racketeer; he apparently saw his resemblance to John Dillinger.  The film tells the story of Blackie Gallagher and Jim Wade, devoted friends since boyhood; one grows up to a lawyer and the other a criminal.  If you can’t tell the professions apart, a lawyer might have better diction.  The gangster Blackie even kills to protect his friend, and then Jim has to prosecute Blackie.  But Blackie doesn’t mind going to “the chair” if it helps his friend become governor.  And Blackie and Jim are in love with the same woman; but since she is Myrna Loy that is the one plausible part of the plot.

So, imagine seeing this film, then stepping out of the Biograph Theater and into a FBI shooting range.  Wouldn’t it have been more merciful to have shot him before he saw the film?  Better yet, the Feds could have taken him to a better movie.  If the condemned get last meals, why not last films?

What else was playing in 1934?  The best film of the year was “It Happened One Night”, a delightful comedy starring that Dillinger lookalike as well as Claudette Colbert.  The usually wholesome Miss Colbert could also be seen luring men and kingdoms to destruction in “Cleopatra.”  (It would be comparative to Sandra Bullock as the Temptress of the Nile.)  If Dillinger preferred to leave life with a song and a dance, he would want to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “The Gay Divorcee.”  However, J. Edgar Hoover might have been touchy about that title.

Now, if Dillinger wanted to catch up on his reading, he could have gotten a little vicarious culture with “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.”  Fredric March, as Robert Browning, courts and rescues Norma Shearer (Miss Elizabeth Barrett) from her bullying and vaguely incestuous father Charles Laughton.  Mr. March was very cultured in 1934; he also was a Renaissance artist, lecher and gossip in “The Affairs of Cellini.”  (Cuckolding Frank Morgan wouldn’t be difficult–but it never seems right.)

But one film might have saved Dillinger’s life:  “Of Human Bondage.”  Seated in the theater, and withering in terror before the shrill, demented monster on the screen, the FBI agents would have realized that Dillinger wasn’t half as dangerous as Bette Davis.  They probably would have let him go with just a warning.

Vivat Ilex Aquifolium

Posted in General, On This Day on July 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

January 11, 1927: Louis B. Mayer Wants To Feel Classy

OscarsEvery year you torment yourself with the question “Will I really watch the Academy Awards again?” There are good reasons to do so. First, if you are a masochist, the gratification would be obvious: hours of stupefying boredom mixed with irritating attempts at entertainment. Then, there is the cultural obligation. If these people are “stars”, shouldn’t you know who they are? (Mastering the distinction between Shia LaBoeuf and Emile Hirsch could earn you the respect of teenagers!) And, those of us of a graying age have a morbid fascination seeing how our past favorites now look: who still are glamorous and who should sue their plastic surgeons?

Of course, you will want to hear the speeches. If nothing else, you will feel so superior. The usual speech at the Oscars is terrible: incoherent, rambling and too often neurotic. Surprisingly, most of the speeches are only 45 seconds in length; they do seem so much longer. Indeed, the Academy tries to impose a time limit on the speakers. Notice how the orchestra begins playing the 46th second of a speech, just as the year’s winning set designer is thanking his acupuncturist. If the speaker ignores that hint, one of those smiling models–who likely has a black belt in karate– will subtly pinion his arms and nudge him off stage. But despite this terror-imposed punctuality, a two-hour ceremony somehow lasts four hours or so.

Consider the irony: if our movies were as bloated and misdirected as the Oscars ceremony, Hollywood might still be orange groves near a small city named Los Angeles. Yet, Hollywood is one of the great and enduring success stories of America. In 1906, the perennial sunshine of Southern California was conducive for shooting film and tempted a New York-based studio to open a west coast office. Even then, filmmakers had a tendency to copy each other. By 1915, most American movies were made in California, and an agricultural community outside of Los Angeles had become the center and synonym for movies.

The world loved Hollywood’s films. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks by themselves ensured a trade surplus for America. As for the producers and studio heads–Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, Samuel Goldwyn and others–they were rich and powerful but still dissatisfied. Men of modest origins but not modest natures, they wanted honors and deference. In another time or country, they could have acquired titles of nobility; but 20th century America had none to offer. However, in 20th century America these producers were free to anoint themselves. So they did. On January 11, 1927 Louis B. Mayer announced the formation of a society whose chief purpose was self-adoration. Grasping for prestige, the organization’s name was the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Its first president was the preeminent leading man of the day: the popular and presentable Mr. Fairbanks. (His divorces were amicable.) As befits any prestigious Academy, there would be annual awards for merit.

The first awards ceremony was at a banquet in May, 1929. Fourteen awards were given out in 15 minutes. We would recognize most of the awards’ categories: best film, best actor, best actress, best director, etc. But the prize for “Best Title Writing” requires some explanation. Movies were silent, and any narration or dialogue would appear on title cards flashing on the screen. So, when the villain wants to have his way with Lillian Gish, a title card would express Miss Gish’s indignation: “You cad!” The first award for best Title Writing was also the last. In 1927’s”The Jazz Singer” Al Jolson had turned to the audience and said aloud, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.” The Hollywood film now talked.

The tradition of the terrible acceptance speech also dates to that first Awards ceremony. The winner for best actor was Emil Jannings. He was German but in silent films no one could detect his miserable knowledge of English. The advent of the “talkie”, however, ended his prospects in Hollywood. He actually was on a train out of town when the first Awards ceremony was held. Jannings wired his acceptance speech, saying thank you and adding “I therefore ask you to kindly hand me now already the statuette award for me.”
Of course, Hollywood could not resist filming itself. The highlights of each ceremony were compiled and distributed as news reels to be shown in movie houses around the world. Until 1952, that was the only way the public saw the Oscars; and through the wonders of editing, every winner was concise, eloquent and sober. So the public never heard Greer Garson’s acceptance speech after she won Best Actress of 1942 for her performance in “Mrs. Miniver.” Not even a transcript has survived, so only as legend and rumor is it remembered as the longest and worst speech in the history of the Academy Awards. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Miss Garson spoke for nearly six minutes. She began, “I’m practically unprepared” and then commenced a broad philosophical meandering about the nature of film. No one could remember the details; amnesia can be a mercy. Until Miss Garson, the Academy never thought of imposing a time limit on speakers. After her, the limit was set at 45 seconds.
Yet, as you can see on YouTube, some strange speeches did elude editing. Winning best actress for 1935, Bette Davis seems more vengeful than grateful. “I am very pleased: everyone who voted for me at the Academy and all the people who have wished this year that I get it.” In fact, Miss Davis was nursing a grudge. In 1934, she had received critical praise and popular acclaim for her performance in “Of Human Bondage.” Yet, the Academy had failed even to nominate her. The omission caused such an outcry that the Academy was cowed into an unprecedented concession: it would permit write-in votes for Best Actress. She still failed to win; however, the next year the Academy was wise enough to give the formidable Miss Davis the award for a film with a very accurate title: “Dangerous.”
Television has given the Oscars a worldwide audience and the winners the temptation to say whatever they want. We will hear their political opinions and learn the names of their agents, children and high school English teachers. Some will charm us with their wit, but more will amaze us with their lack of it. Others will mistake us for psychoanalysts and divulge neuroses we didn’t want to know. Of course, we will wonder why we are watching and make a determined resolution not to look next year. We made the same vow last year.

The Tower Tour

Posted in General on July 8th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

Thomas Cromwell would never forgive my missing the Tower of London.  I was in the neighborhood, for the first time in 40 years, but I had to wonder if the Tower had changed.  I didn’t think that there had been any additional executions; however, there was always the risk of a new Six Wives theme park.  Would there now be a snack bar called Lady Jane Graze?

No, history still commanded some respect; the grounds looked reassuringly familiar.  Yet, there were changes awaiting me:  the exhibits had been updated.  For example, what is a torture chamber without sound effects:  the creaking rack, the ensuing screams while someone from Tudor human resources demands a confession.

And now, with interactive technology, you can be part of the history.  Have you ever wondered how good an archer you are?  I hadn’t but now I know anyway.  It seems that I qualify as a yeoman, and I could hit a mob of French cavalry or Gerard Depardieu.

In time, this interactive approach will be added to the Bloody Tower.  How would you kill the Little Princes?  Pick your method.

Poisoning them?  That is not English: deport yourself immediately.

Here are some of my stratagems.

A.  The “accidents will happen” approach would entail putting a cannon in their room.  While the boys are shooting at the Tower ravens, the cannon just might explode.   Granted, the damage would be bad for the building but not your reputation.  Dumb kids!

B. Let them kill themselves.  Send them off to France and Italy, with an unlimited expense account, where after a few years of being absolutely adorable they will succumb to alcohol and venereal disease.  The only risk in this plan is that Evelyn Waugh will sue you for plagiarism.

C.  Have the boys disappear, marry their oldest sister and not notice for at least ten years that your brothers-in-law are missing.  Then blame a dead enemy for the murders.  No, too implausible: that would never work.


The Ptomaine Entree

Posted in General, On This Day on June 21st, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

First, I want to wish a Happy Summer Solstice to all my pagan readers. The day meant little to my desert ancestors: “Hey, Abe. God is giving us another two minutes of daylight and heat prostration.”

And I doubt that the ancient Celts would have been especially thrilled with the solstice. “Och, we have another two minutes to enjoy our picturesque destitution.” (You have to be desperate to even think of fermenting peat, although the results seem to be effectively numbing.)

Let’s face it: the Summer Solstice was just the Greeks and Italians coming up with any excuse for an orgy.

And since it is now summer, let’s discuss food spoilage.

Francis Bacon knew there was a correlation between cold temperatures and food preservation, so he began a scientific study of the phenomenon. In his experiment of packing a chicken with snow, Bacon unfortunately discovered a correlation between cold, bronchitis and death.

However, history does not know who first made the correlation. It had to be someone who actually was familiar with cold and hot seasons, and observed–perhaps barely surviving–the climatic effects on food spoilage. Was it some Roman sentry along Hadrian’s Wall, who noticed that there was less morta in mortadella? Was it a Hun who discovered his raw horse jerky was less enjoyable in Italy than on the Steppes? I wonder if some Hun or Vandal shaman even gave health lectures to the troops…


Barbarian Warrior: Sacking Rome is exhausting work. I could use a lunch break. Say, this restaurant looks tempting. Let’s loot it.

Shaman: Yes, those sausages look good, but who knows what’s lurking inside them? The Romans can’t put up a defense, but their food could kill you. So, if you must have meat this far south, make sure that it is still alive when you bite it.

Indeed, some of the barbarians apparently were quite worried about food poisoning. Believing that any taste was a sign of spoilage, the Angle-Saxons insisted on boiling everything until it was a pulp. However, the Franks went to the other extreme. They actually liked what mold can do to food. Ce botulisme est delicieuse! The idea of the Petri dish probably originated at Cordon Bleu.