“When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them.”
― Rodney Dangerfield
A summer dominated by moving–with a baby–has ended. There is nothing funny about moving when you have a young child, except for the unintentional. Like this morning, when I banged my knee on the doorframe when stepping over the baby gate. My valiant efforts to squelch the swear words that are the only tonic at such times had my little girl laughing, her face covered with carrots, her diaper filled with the same, and my knee slightly bleeding and my eyes watering–first from pain and then laughter.
Which is all to say that I have been largely absent from “Humor in America” this summer because I haven’t had time to think about humor, much less write about it, much less write anything intelligent. And I don’t have much to say now, but I feel like it would be a good thing to get something up and out there.
And then I noticed that today was the birthday of two illustrious humorists who somehow fit together in my mind (and, to be clear, my mind may be affected by the fact that the little one decided that sleep was not for her, except for 45 minute to the occasional, blessed three-hour stretch). Here they are:
There’s no love song finer
But how strange
From major to minor
Ev’ry time we say goodbye.
The strange change from major to minor runs throughout Cole Porter’s life and work. Harmonically, it was the signature of his sound. Personally, he was the toast of town; even in a wheelchair, having suffered a crippling riding accident that would eventually cost him his right leg; or in shadow, his homosexuality not proper upper-set cocktail conversation.
Cole Porter was born into the privilege and constraints of middle-western wealth in Peru, Indiana in 1891. His overbearing grandfather, J.O. Cole’s, reach dominated most aspects of Porter’s early life, even giving the boy the maternal family surname as his first, lest he be somehow denied the privilege of being a Cole.
He showed early promise as a violinist and pianist and began composing songs as young as ten, although he was a mischievous child. At the age of eight, Cole was kicked out of the local movie theater for playing comical music on the house piano during a sad part in a film. During summers on Lake Maxinkuckee, he and his friends would climb aboard the passing steamship in their bathing suits and dive off the back before it moved on. While on board, Cole headed straight toward the piano, wet suit and all, and pounded away on the keys, keeping time with the rhythm of the engine, until the ship captain chased him away and Cole made his escape somersaulting into the clear lake waters beyond the captain’s reach.
There’s something wild about you child
That’s so contagious
Let’s be outrageous
DON’T FENCE ME IN
His mischievousness would remain most of his life. His lyrics were littered with suggestive imagery and double entendre, which often put the songwriter at odds with censors of the day who took objection to lines such as “I’d love to make a tour of you,” especially “the south of you,” from the Silk Stockings number “All of You” (Ironically, the censors missed the most obscene thing about “All of You” – the song, about gaining “complete control” of a woman, is sung by a theatrical agent!) as well as entire compositions such as “Love For Sale.”
Anything didn’t always go.
Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
Any shock they should try to stem,
‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
At Yale he studied English and music and composed several football fight songs. His natural charm and musicality made him a social success among the children of the eastern elite, even as he defied the conventional conservatism of the Ivy League (“[He] wore salmon-colored ties and had his nails done,” one classmate observed). His grandfather never considered music a worthwhile pursuit and insisted Cole attend Harvard Law School where he earned the equivalent of straight D’s his first year. The dean of the law school encouraged Cole to transfer to the Harvard School of Music, against his grandfather’s wishes.
Defying his grandfather by pursuing his passion for music would (almost) cost him his fortune before it would gain him another. His grandfather cut Cole completely from his will; however, Cole’s mother split her inheritance with her son, each of them ending up with two million dollars.
People always say that so much money spoils one’s life. But it didn’t spoil mine; it simply made it wonderful.
Porter lived a life of luxury, but he was a disciplined writer. He never waited for inspiration; he wrote constantly, and surrounded himself with staff paper and pencils, rhyming dictionaries, thesauruses, and other tools of the trade. Being left handed, he found it difficult to pencil in the notes of his compositions, so he would turn the staff paper on its side and write out the notes upward from the bottom of the page to the top, rather than left to right. No wonder then his best songs seem to take flight as they unfold, like bubbles in a glass of champagne. But there was another element that would permeate beyond the surface sheen of his milieu: hopeless longing.
It was just one of those nights,
Just one of those fabulous flights,
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings,
Just one of those things.
Porter found himself in Paris after World War I, when it seemed every young, modernist genius of the time – Picasso, Hemingway, Joyce – descended upon the City of Light like moths to a flame. And it was in Paris where he would meet his wife, Linda Lee Thomas, an American socialite eight years the songwriter’s senior. Read more…
What’s With College Sports Nicknames?
The controversy over the Washington franchise of the National Football League using “Redskins” as its moniker has prompted me to think about college nicknames and how they are used. Of course, Florida State University uses “Seminoles” for its sports, but with the permission of the actual Seminole Indians in southern Florida. However, the Eastern Michigan University team changed its name from the Hurons to the Eagles in 1991 in order to comply with a suggestion that the name “Huron” contributed to Native American stereotyping. It is interesting that EMU chose “Eagles” over another bird. They could have easily been called the “Emus” and it would have been far more a propos than aligning with the plethora of schools that use various species of eagles for their mascots.
Some schools choose animal species that do not exist. My alma mater, Oakland University changed its moniker from the Pioneers to the Golden Grizzlies when it stepped up to Division I in 1998. The OU logo is a fearsome bear (of some sort). I wonder how many OU students are aware that their mascot is a non-existent mammal?
Two types of mascots have caused me to wonder what the founders were thinking. Both the Georgia Bulldogs and University of South Florida Bulls provide fodder for linguists. University of Georgia coined their athletic teams the Bulldogs in 1920, about the same time as women received the vote. Although women had been enrolled at the school since 1903, there was probably no thought that women would ever compete in athletics, so they did not have to worry about what they might call the women’s teams. Needless to say, the women prefer “Lady Bulldogs,” over “Bitches.” However, one cannot help to consider the latter as an inappropriate, but applicable substitute. To my knowledge, there has been no attempt to change UGA’s mascot due to stereotypes or considerations of courtesy.
The story behind the USF Bulls is probably more egregious. In 1962, the university adapted the nickname of the Golden Brahmans. Like golden grizzlies, golden Brahmans do not exist—at least not in nature. However, apparently golden Brahmans is a bit of an unwieldy nickname. By the late ‘80s they became the “Bulls.” Also, by the late ‘80s they had women’s sports. So what do the women’s teams call themselves. As “bull” specifically refers to the sex of certain animals, “Lady Bulls” is a bit of an oxymoron, but “Cows” is inappropriate. Like UGA, USF has not considered altering the names of its teams out of consideration for the women athletes.
I have always enjoyed the nicknames of various schools whose founders had both a sense of creativity and humor. Texas Christian University chose “Horned Frogs” as their moniker. The women’s teams call themselves the “Lady Frogs.” Now I don’t know about all horned frogs, but the African Horned Frog is hermaphroditic. So Horned Frogs is appropriate to the men, women, and transgendered athletes at the school. It and the following moniker may be the most appropriate mascots in the NCAA.
As well, Evergreen State College in Washington is known as the “Geoducks” (that’s pronounced Goo-y-Ducks). Oh, and it is not a waterfowl—it’s a mollusk. The original motto of the school was “Let it all hang out.” And since the geoduck cannot be contained within its shell, the mascot was deemed appropriate, but it is unclear to what it is appropriate. Since then, ESC teams have been happy as clams. Like the African Horned Frog, the geoduck is hermaphroditic, so it is appropriate to all athletes. An explanation of the naming of the Geoduck as the ESC mascot is at http://www.evergreen.edu/geoduck/.
Here’s a little game. Match the real college or university to an appropriate nickname. For instance: Casper College matches Ghosts. The answers follow the next paragraph:
Alma College All Stars
Aurora College Brides (and Grooms)
Bluffton College Gamblers
Calvin College Ghosts
Casper College Hobbeses
Converse College Jokers
Embry-Riddle University Lures
Fisher Junior College Northern Lights
High Point University Pinnacles
Rice University Road Kill
Tulane University Soul Sisters
Commerce entered the name game in about 1965 when Gatorade was invented at the University of Florida. Of course, the drink was named for the team nickname of the Gators. Its success as an electrolyte replacement product is well-documented. The need for such a product is especially important in southern states like Florida. But one wonders, if the drink had been invented at Florida State University, would it have been called “Seminole Fluids?”
If you are actually reading this far, the answers to the quiz are:
Alma Soul Sisters (let the men fend for themselves), Aurora Northern Lights, Bluffton Gamblers, Calvin Hobeses, Casper Ghosts, Converse All Stars, Embry-Riddle Jokers, Fisher Lures, High Point Pinnacles, Rice Brides, and Tulane Road Kill).
Today’s humorous poetry post is pre-empted to bring you a scene from the film, “Dead Poet’s Society.”
In this series thus far, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps best viewed as a literary prankster or practical joker. In Part 1, I argued that the great theorist of “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” was also, in his various works, a master “diddler,” frequently putting one over on his readers. In Part 2, I discussed the “poet as prankster,” suggesting that even Poe’s poetry is not always as serious as it seems, while examining one poem (“O Tempora! O Mores!”) that was itself composed and presented as part of an elaborate practical joke. In Part 3, I argued that many of Poe’s most well-known stories, which are usually read as Gothic horror or mystery, might be considered as humorous, frequently functioning as comical send-ups of popular fictions of the era. In this entry, I want to consider another genre of writing for which Poe was quite famous in his own time: literary criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe’s literary criticism bears the mark of the prankster’s spirit, as his book reviews and essays are often filled with sardonic humor.
As a literary critic and book reviewer for a number of magazines, Poe developed an infamous reputation as a “tomahawk-man,” a harsh critic who, in the words of his great contemporary James Russell Lowell, “seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” Lowell’s own humorous aside does not detract from his judgement, stated one line earlier, of Poe as “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.” Perhaps because of this discriminating, philosophical fearlessness, Poe-the-critic was loathe to suffer fools gladly or even at all, and some of his best known zingers have come at the expense of his fellow poets and fiction writers.
For example, in an 1843 review of William Ellery Channing’s Our Amateur Poets, Poe writes: “His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.” A paragraph later he calls for the author to be hanged, but—out of deference to his good name (Channing Sr. having been a “great essayist”)—Poe urges that the hangman “observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord.” Presumably, the remainder of the book review represents that figurative execution.