Monday, August 20, 2018


By Jim Szantor

Rhetorical questions, questionable rhetoric and whimsical observations about the absurdities of contemporary life
  • Little-known biographical fact about me: I was a herpetologist for the CIA.
  • They're saying it's looking like "The Year of the Woman" in politics.  In the Catholic Church . . . not so much.   I mean, what's the hurry?  No problems whatsoever with the status quo.  Total transparency and not a scintilla of scandalous or criminal behavior.  So therefore, by all means keep the men in charge.  What could go wrong?  Women can wait a few centuries longer.
  • Speaking of politics: Has anyone leading in a political poll ever said, "I don't believe in polls, and the only poll that counts is on Election Day"?  No!  Only the also-rans say that.  If they magically bounce up in the polls, suddenly the refrain is revised.  
  • Someone asked me what I thought about Russian oligarchs, and I said:  "If they're endangered,  they should be protected, and poachers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law!"
  • When in doubt, attritute any impressive-sounding quotation you just uttered to Benjamin Franklin, George Bernard Shaw or H.L. Mencken.  (In a pinch, you could also use Will Rogers or Sir Winston Churchill.)
  • I think our new neighbor has a giant inferiority complex.  She subscribes to Mediocre Homes and Gardens.
  • Sight never seen:  A white bellhop in an old black-and-white movie.  (Jerry Lewis doesn't count!)
  • "They say the universe is expanding. That should help with the traffic.” Comedian Steven Wright.
  • Summer is so almost over that all of the newspaper columnists have already written their annual "Don't let the summer slip away" columns.
  • Sudden thought:  I can't remember ever seeing a Starbucks commercial on TV (or heard one on radio).   I guess they're so busy printing money that they don't have the need to do one (or the time to produce one).
  • Speaking of Starbucks, they have more "laptop hobos" than McDonald's.  Something tells me these hobos aren't hopping freight trains . . . at least not on a regular basis.    (One possible reason:  No Wi-Fi service in a boxcar!)
  • Redundancy Patrol:  "False pretenses,"  "protest against," "final outcome."
  • jimjustsaying's Party Ice-Breaker of the Week:  "Say [actual partygoer's name here], did you know that Robert M. Pirsig, author of the best-selling and influential "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values," once wrote technical manuals and ads for the mortuary cosmetics industry?" 
  • "A neurosis is a secret you don't know you're keeping."--Critic Kenneth Tynan
  • jimjustsaying's Word That Doesn't Exist But Should of the Month:  Tabalongs:   Those plastic mini-barrels or paper packets you find in pill bottles, ostensibly to absorb moisture.  
  • Overheard: "In a few weeks my 4-year-old grandson will be starting preschool."
  • No, he won't.  He'll be in school, but there's nothing "pre" about it.  He  will be in a room with a teacher, other kids, a blackboard, has to raise his hand to go to the bathroom and won't be able to leave until a bell rings, so that's School, whether it's Totland, the Sorbonne or the Massachusetts of Technology.  The only "pre" part is when he rubs the sleep out of his eyes and wolfs down the Pop-Tart.  Because when he clambers out of the minivan and disappears into that building, he's in School.  The only difference between that place and Harvard is the curriculum.  (Show-and-tell/oral exams.  Finger painting/spreadsheets.  Etc.)
  • Do people still hang wallpaper?  Do they still make it?
  • People with Ph.D. degrees who list it after their names at all times whether relevant or not are truly odd human beings.  How many of them of the proverbial certain age were basically "professional students" who stayed at school just to avoid the draft?  I'm just emphatically sayin'.  I can play the clarinet, saxophone and flute,, but I don't list "clarinetist-saxophonist-flautist" after my signature.  I held the rank of staff sergeant in the Air Force but don't list Staff Sergeant (Ret.) after my name.  
  • And why do we call those people "doctors" anyway, when most people think of that title as that of an M.D.?  Why not Academics?  Yet another quirk of the language.
  • jimjustsaying's Top 10 Signs That the Population is Aging More Than We Thought:
  • 10.  New fed stimulus plan--Senior Discounts out; Senior Surcharge In!
  •   9.  Disney breaking ground on new GeezerLand theme park.
  •   8.  Nursing Home Triathlons (1 lap around the lobby, 10 seconds on the exercise bike, 30 minutes in the bathtub)
  •  7.  Newest must-have Apple product:  iDefribillators! 
  •  6.  Can you say Viagra Gummy Tabs?
  •  5.  Playboy's Playmate of the Century:  Betty White
  •  4.  Angelina Jolie does a commercial for Depends
  •  3.  Folks over 110 eat free at all participating Red Lobsters!  (Void where prohibited.)
  •  2.  Coming soon to a mall near you:  Gap For Granny.
  •  1.  Your oldest son comes to you on Saturday afternoon and says:  "Dad, can I have the walker tonight?"
  • Quote for the ages:  New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet wants this quote he once got included in his obituary.  Baquet was a kid reporter in his hometown of New Orleans when he met up with Edwin "The Silver Zipper" Edwards and asked the Louisiana gubernatorial candidate's reaction to a poll that said he had a healthy lead.  "The only way I lose this election," Edwards told him, "is if I'm caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."--The Poynter Morning MediaWire
  • Speaking of media, here's a memo (to print media, especially):  Just say "bar" or "tavern." "Watering hole" wasn't all that clever to begin with and has been overused to a nauseating extent.  And not that many people order a round of water!  
  • Poker has become so popular, young people are even getting into it.  What's next? The Little League World Series of Poker?  ("I'll see your Skittles and raise you three M&M two-packs.")
  • jimjustsaying's Word That Doesn't Exist But Should of the Week:  Tacangle: n. The position of one's head while biting into a taco.--"Unexplained Sniglets of the Universe," Rich Hall and Friends.
  • Today's Latin Lesson:  It's nostrum parum specialis.  ("It's our little secret!")



As Socrates famously wrote, "The unexamined life is not worth living." One would well posit  that the unchallenged life is not worth living.  Or, if it is,  not as satisfying.

Most of my music-related activity since leaving the Air Force Band in late 1969 has been as an author and critic, my playing restricted solely to playing along with records at home.

Soloist Jim Szantor as lead alto David Bixler gives the cutoff on the final chord.

But that changed on Aug. 11 when I performed as a guest soloist on clarinet with the fabled Birch Creek Jazz Orchestra, a big band made up of some of the best jazz players in the country, comprising as they do the faculty that teaches the students who come to Egg Harbor in Door County for two-week sessions of intensive training and performance opportunities.  It's sort of a musical boot camp but with kindly but highly decorated instructors.  

My feature spot was "Ballad for Benny" a tune written by the late, great jazz composer and saxophonist Oliver Nelson, who was commissioned by Benny Goodman to write new material for the band's historic 1962 tour of the Soviet Union.   It was such a  significant cultural/political event back then that Walter Cronkite often led the CBS Nightly News with the band's latest exploits.

The 17-piece Birch Creek Jazz Orchestra prior to my introduction.

This tune was recorded by the Oliver Nelson Orchestra (with the great Phil Woods in a rare outing on clarinet instead of his usual lustrous alto sax) but never performed publicly in this country--till now.  If you do an internet search on some of the illustrious players in the band behind me --Dennis Mackrel, Clay Jenkins, Doug Stone, David Bixler, Tanya Darby, to name a few--you'll see why I'm so proud to have been selected to perform with them.

Part of the evening's program.
It was an oppressively muggy night (close to 100 percent humidity) in the un-air-conditioned hall, making intonation more of a challenge than usual. It took some months of chipping away at the rust that had accumulated over the years on my woodwind chops, but I was determined to have one last dance, so to speak, with the idiom that I have loved for a lifetime.  To paraphrase the late Karl Wallenda of the famed aerial troupe The Flying Wallendas, "Life is the bandstand.  The rest is just waiting."  

Luckily for me, the wait is over.

55th High School Reunion Essay

From Red Devils to Gray Devils (or, 73 is the new 61)

By Jim Szantor

It has been a long and winding road that brings the Class of '61 to Reunion Weekend.   A time when we can take our noses out of our devices and communicate the best possible way--face to face.  We've come so far and seen so much, but on this occasion it's all about something that we can never get enough of--living in the moment with people who matter to us.  Some of us may say more to each other this weekend than we did when we were in the same building on a daily basis.  Reunions can be strange that way.

We've gone our separate ways in many ways, but there are bonds that can never be separated, and Mary D. Bradford was a big part of that.  Some of the connections we treasure started before that, some came after.  But we're so fortunate to have them.  There's no app for that.

Our birth dates and graduation dates were bookended by two presidents known mainly by their initials (FDR and JFK), with some of us then sent off to an unpopular war by LBJ.  (OMG!)  Somehow we survived anti-war and race riots, three high-profile assassinations and thought we were living in turbulent times then.  Little did we know.

We've reached the time of our lives when, as is often said, it seems as if we're having breakfast every 20 minutes and a doctor's appointment every 20 days.   And if our waistlines have expanded, so have our vocabularies.  Unfortunately, many of our new  words end in "itis," "oscopy" or "ectomy" (with a few "ograms" thrown in for good measure.)  Some of us are lucky enough to have original factory equipment, but others seem to be doing just fine with replacement parts.  Our mileage may vary accordingly.

Our lives since high school have had similar arcs (higher education, marriage and careers, exhilarating highs and devastating lows, medical battles won and lost), but no two narratives are alike, with their surprising and fortuitous twists, unexpected and unfortunate turns.  We'll talk about them, tell stories--funny and otherwise--we may have told before.  But underneath it all is something strangely and poignantly wistful that is easier to experience than to explain.  A tear or two may flow, but laughter will carry the day.  To borrow a title from my favorite song of those cherished Bradford years, "It's All in the Game."

We'll reminisce about the sweet used-to-be, a time when you could get on a plane without getting undressed, when mosquitoes were occasional nuisances instead of winged assassins, and a Christmas gift might be one of those wildly irresponsible vintage toys of our youth--the chemistry set--the better to conduct home experiments with the ammonium nitrate now prized by rogue terrorists.

Our first cars are quaint relics now (it's cringe-inducing to contemplate how crude and dangerous they really were), but how treasured they were then!  Apples were something we ate; Steve Jobs was just 6 years old on our Graduation Day and hadn't decided to change the world just yet.  Amazon was a river in South America, a tweet was a sound produced by a bird, and Google was the name of a comic-strip character whose first name, if you don't remember it, can be learned if you use his last name to find it, using a device probably within arm's reach.

Culturally, a maverick from Mississippi named Elvis Presley was viewed as outrageous by some as the fabled Generation Gap reared its head, writ large.  No one envisioned such outre performers as Alice Cooper, Madonna and Sid Vicious and others of inexplicable popularity.  Thus, rap and hip-hop aren't likely to be heard at the Chateau on our special night; Snoop Dogg won't be making the playlist.  We'll hear many oldies and savor the memories they conjure up as the sound track of our youth plays on.

We'll survey the years and laugh about the clothes we wore, the "what were we thinking?" misadventures and the gasoline we burned going around in circles downtown.   We took ourselves perhaps too seriously at times but at least took no "selfies."  (And what about that sheepskin we worked so hard to get?  All we got was a piece of paper!   I, for one, still feel cheated and have thus given my graduation an Incomplete.  But that's just me.)

Our graduates include at least two doctors that I know of, perhaps a lawyer or three, but most likely no Indian chiefs.  Scanning the yearbook, some wonderful names pop out--a Jane Eyre and a Thomas Wolfe, whom I dearly hope can come home again.   The Annex may be gone but still stands tall in our memories.  It rained on our scheduled Graduation Day, a happenstance that turned out to be more of a innocuous oddity than an ill omen.

We'll share some of our epic Kodak moments, those occasions when someone was bound to say, "Great Grandma is probably looking down on us with a big proud smile."  (To explore the thought of other moments when Great Grandma was looking down on us is a thought too unsettling to pursue further in this essay, if you get my drift.  Who raises and lowers the celestial curtain?)

Those of us who have moved away can use this occasion to revisit old haunts (the ones that still exist) and scan the crowd for familiar faces (thank God for name tags) and lament the absence of those we fear we may never see again, trying to remember that, as a poet once said, people die but love doesn't have to.  The list of Missing Classmates numbers about 280 and leads one to wonder where those people are, and, if still living, why they have stayed in the shadows.  If by choice, we have to respect that; if for darker reasons, that's most unfortunate.  We may know the circumstances for a few, but for the others--whether they were good friends, casual acquaintances or names we hardly recognize--like a lot of life's mysteries, we may never know.  We can only hope that life has dealt them the best possible hand.

It has been said that the 25th is the best reunion--some liken it to life's mid-term exam--and say they only get sadder after that.  But most marathoners--those lucky enough to remain in the race--feel more exhilaration in the home stretch than they did at the halfway mark.  Granted, we know the trip is not going to last forever, but it's satisfying to toast the milestones we've achieved and humbly acknowledge our good fortune.  And who knows--the way research is advancing on the scourges of cancer and Alzheimer's, in five years 78 may be the new 61.  Let's drink to that!