Jan 11 2015

How I Got Burned at the Flea Market

Published by under City Life,House Love

If you’ve watched “Antiques Roadshow,” you’ve seen segments where a collector believes he’s brought in a priceless artifact–like a Ming vase–only to be told by the Roadshow appraiser that he’s got a fake or a reproduction or he’s grossly over-estimated the value of the item in question. In short: he’s been burned.

Sometimes the collector has broken even on the buy–the appraiser’s estimate is about what the collector paid–and so he goes home with a dashed dream but no great damage. Other times, the collector has lost thousands of dollars in the transaction, having bought a $30 trinket for $3,000.

I love watching these segments because, sorry to say, schadenfreude kicks in and I relish the would-be collector’s misery. Then I shake my head in dismay, sometimes disgust, and think, “Man, I’m never gonna get taken like that. No, sir, not me!”

Just yesterday, Jill and I went to a big antiques show and spent a pleasant afternoon browsing through the dealers’ booths. Then, as we were getting to the end of our browsing, I made my first mistake: I sneaked away from Jill to buy her a couple presents for Christmas next year. But, I should add, I am not to be trusted alone. I can be an impulsive buyer.

One time I nearly brought home a giant “Zombies of the Stratosphere” poster but I couldn’t find the dealer (he was in the bathroom) and so I stood around and waited for his return. Then Jill found me and asked what I was up to. When I showed her the poster I was intent on buying (a garish thing as big as a dining room table), she turned and looked at me with appalled disbelief. She said, “I will not have that thing in my house.” I told her I thought she’d like it. She said, “What ever gave you such a crazy idea? Zombies of the Stratosphere?”

So here I was cruising the antiques show on my own, thinking, “Oh, boy, I’m gonna get some cool stuff and won’t Jill be impressed!” True to my plan, I bought Jill’s gifts. But then I saw it: a big Beatles poster, banner-style, in great shape and clearly original. It looked like an advertising piece. Maybe rare. I’m no Beatles expert but I pride myself on having a good eye for antiques and collectables. This item looked cool enough that I could, at least, ask what it was selling for. The dealer was willing to let it go for $425. He said it was a banner used to sell the Beatles’ first paperback book in 1964. “Very rare,” he said. “Probably worth $1200.”

All of the photos on the banner were of the early Beatles’ era. Early Beatles’ stuff sells best, I figured. I said to the dealer, “I’ll give you $300.” He shook his head and said, “Man, I’m been carrying this thing around too long and know it will sell eventually but you hit me in a weak moment. $300 is what I’ve got into it, but what the hell. Sure, it’s a deal.”

Just then Jill called me, wanting to know where I had gone. I said, “I’m making a purchase. It’s an investment. I’m sure I can sell this thing for three times what I’m buying it for.”

She said, “Oh, no. Don’t I get a say?”

I said, “Nope. This is all mine.”

“Is it something that goes in the house?”

“No,” I said. “It’s just an investment. I’ll put it in my rehearsal room for the time being.”

“You scare me,” she said.

A bit later, when she saw the item, she said, “It’s cool!”

It is was cool: a three-color banner about five feet long and about 20” high. It show Paul, John, Ringo, and George in big headshots and also in various foursome poses.

Somebody came up to me and asked, “What’d you pay for that?”

“Three hundred,” I said.

“And what’s it worth?” the stranger asked.

“About twelve hundred,” I said proudly. Like money in the bank! I thought.

Then Jill said, “Hey, we should take your banner to Antiques Roadshow!” She had just signed up for tickets for their summer filming in Cleveland.

“Excellent idea!” I enthused. “No two ways about it. This will get us on TV!”

I imagined the buzz I’d create as the appraisers beheld my rare Beatles advertising poster and asked “Where did you find that?”

To be double sure, I did a little research online when I got home. Let me emphasize “little.” It took all of two minutes to discover — on eBay — that my banner was indeed a poster but not an advertising piece at all. No, it was simply a poster that had sold for 35 cents in 1964, folded up into magazine size, published by DELL, the paperback manufacturer. It is not rare. And it sells on eBay for about $35. Ten times what I paid.

Ouch. So here was my second mistake: I should have taken the time to pull up eBay on my phone and do a quick search before I purchased my poster. That would have taken me five minutes, tops.

Mind you, I don’t think the dealer scammed me. He wasn’t an expert in the Beatles; he was actually a dealer in antique toys. He seemed sincere when he described the piece as a rare, advertising banner. But then again, you never know.

So here’s the lesson:
1) Buy what you know.
2) If you don’t know the field of collectible you’re speculating on, be suspicious of really good deals.
3) Dealers are not experts. Antiques dealers are often nothing more than passionate collectors. They can be swayed tremendously by their own wishful thinking. They will always exaggerate the value of their items.
4) Do your research. If you have a smart phone, look up the item on eBay — that will tell you the market rate for any particular collectible or antique.
5) Let your partner or spouse be the voice of reason.

Am I pissed? Am I bummed? Not really. I deserve the burn and I’m a big believer in paying for my mistakes. So I’ll live with this awhile to teach myself a lesson. And the next time I’m at an antiques show, I gonna stick with Jill.


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Dec 24 2014

Christmas in the House We Love!

Published by under City Life,House Love




Christmas is a special time at our house. We really enjoy dressing up the place in a traditional style. Every year we try something different, including new (old) ornaments. Jill can’t stop collecting antique ornaments we find at flea markets and garage sales.


Click here for a brief video tour of our first floor

We wish you a happy holiday!


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Nov 04 2014

Where the Wild Horses Are

Jill and I spent the weekend at Assateague, Maryland’s coastal island and home to its famous wild horses. It was cold and windy but lovely–we had a heater in the van (a new addition). And we took the dogs, of course. They always make travel more interesting. I love the beach during the off-season for the obvious reason: we have it all to ourselves.

Legend has it that Assateague’s horses were survivors from a shipwreck two hundred years ago. A more plausible explanation is that these stocky, wooly horses are feral descendants of horses belonging to local inhabitants who brought their horses here to avoid taxes and fencing restrictions. The horses, I guess, got out of hand — and got out. If you camp in a tent, you’ll hear the horses hoofing through your campsite late at night, looking for an ice chest or storage container to break into. They can be very aggressive and persistent, as more than a few eager camera-toting tourists have found out.


Our dogs, Cleo and Sadie, love the beach. I imagine that for them the big-sky expanse of sand and the rumble and wash of waves are amazing sights and sounds. If we are amazed, why wouldn’t they be?


Jill and I played cards in the van, watched movies, read. The wind buffeted the van so roundly, it felt like we were in a treehouse during a storm. It’s actually a cozy feeling, the dogs sleeping under the bed, lots of goodies in the cupboard, and–just outside our windows–the dunes, the Atlantic, and the wide-open sky.

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Oct 23 2014

The Whiteboard Scam

Published by under City Life,writing & arts

If you are a teacher, you are familiar with the “whiteboard,” also called the “dry erase board.” It has replaced the chalkboard in most schools. Also it’s common in the workplace for lectures, strategy meetings etc. It consists of a laminated glossy white surface on which you write with colored markers. When it first appeared in the late 1980s,it was touted as a modern, much-improved alternative to the chalkboard. This was bullshit.

Proponents of the whiteboard claimed that the traditional chalk board was messy and too dusty. Chalk dust could affect kids with asthma. If you’re older than 40, you may remember your grade school teacher sending a volunteer outside to clap clean the chalk-filled felt erasers every day. It was a job most kids envied because you got out of the classroom to do something nobody else got to do. Until this year, when I was put into a “high-tech” classroom, I have always used a chalkboard–for 25 years of teaching. It never occurred to me that the chalkboard needed improvement.

The great thing about a chalkboard is its simplicity. Nothing could be more fundamental than chalk. It is soft white limestone–the compacted skeletal remains of sea creatures. Shells mostly. Stuff that’s millions of years old. The chalkboard itself is porcelain enamel. It was invented in the early 1800s, so it’s not as old a technology as it might seem. It’s incredibly easy to use. You may think that the whiteboard is an improvement insofar as it’s easier to erase whiteboard marker than it is to erase chalk. True enough. And chalk leaves a film on the chalkboard. Dry-erase markers don’t leave a film.

But dry-erase markers leave a mucky smear on the eraser itself. And that smear can get all over your hands. Dry-erase markers themselves used to be toxic, containing an odorous ketone. They now contain ethanol. But they’re still odorous, a smell I don’t like–and it can aggravate people with asthma. The worst thing about the dry-erase alternative is the markers. Yes, they come in many colors, but they don’t last long. If you press too hard on them, the marker’s wick disappears inside the container. If you don’t cap them, they dry out. Also you have to have a special fluid to clean the erasers. I don’t know if the fluid is toxic, but most likely it is.

The result is that the dry erase marker is a hassle, taking more time, attention, money and maintenance than the traditional chalkboard. A box of chalk lasts a year, maybe more. A box of dry-erase markers might last a month. You have to buy dry-erase “kits” to keep up with the use. Also, unlike chalk — which you can use varying ways, to create block letters or elegant script — each dry-erase marker comes in only one thickness. So, if you need a bolder line, you need another dry-erase marker. Pretty soon, you find yourself sorting through a pile of markers, half of which have dried out, capping and uncapping them to find just what you need.

In short, the dry-erase marker and its whiteboard is a scam manufactured by supply companies who have capitalized on our perceived need to improve the things we use. (A simliar scam is the Compact Flourescent Bulb, which is toxic, fragile, and much more short-lived than the manufacturers claim.) Let me be clear: I don’t advocate keeping the chalkboard for sentimental reasons that conjure quaint schoolroom scenes from a bygone era. I advocate keeping the chalkboard because it doesn’t need improvement, as its 200-year-old history plainly shows. Some things come to us in their ultimate and most useful form. The chalkboard is one of those. Wherever I can, I shun the messy, high-maintenance whiteboard. Maybe you will too.

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Oct 09 2014

Jerry Lewis’s “Nutty Professor” And A Longing for the Rat Pack

Published by under writing & arts

You don’t have to be a Jerry Lewis fan to enjoy his 1963 masterwork, “The Nutty Professor,” just released in a 50th anniversary boxed set (one year late, for some reason). This film is the one Lewis production that strikes the right balance between obnoxious and entertaining. Although the story is predictably misogynistic (how could it not be in 1963?), its reliance on the Jekyll/Hyde plot and its depiction of the professor as a gentle uber-nerd give it a broad appeal. If for no other reason, the movie is worth watching for its Hollywood portrayal of college life at the time. This portrayal is notable because everything about college life–and life in America–will change a year later after JFK’s assassination and the arrival of the Beatles.

The most glaring thing that Lewis gets wrong in the movie is the music, featuring Les Brown and His Band of Renown. It’s middlebrow swing, more appropriate for a 1950’s nightclub than a 1960’s college hangout. It’s true that kids were still swing dancing to a lot of contemporary music, from Doo Wop to Rockabilly. You’ll see a lot of that in old footage of American Bandstand. But dance was changing too. “The Twist” debuted in late 1959 and, by 1963, was at its height of popularity, along with “The Pony” and soon dozen other steps in the go-go era. But Lewis didn’t want rock or even pop music–he wanted swing because that’s what he grew up with.

And that’s why the Jekyll character in the film is “Buddy Love,” a jazz-loving lounge lizard. This is the second thing Lewis gets wrong: college kids were increasingly drawn either to rocking boy bands, like the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers, or to the new breed of solo rockers, like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Pop-swing sensations, like Bobby Darin, were rare. In fact, Darin’s break-out hit was “Splish Splash,” a pop rock tune.

Most critics assumed that the obnoxious Buddy Love was a lampoon of Dean Martin. But a perusal of Lewis’s films will make clear that Lewis longed to be a night club performer in the style of his ex-partner and Sammy Davis, Jr., and other Vegas ”Rat Pack” stars. Starting with his first solo effort, “The Delicate Delinquent,” in 1957, Lewis sought opportunities to feature himself singing in his films. He took his singing very seriously, as he took himself very seriously. One of the major flaws of his solo film career was his refusal to give himself over wholly to the characters he played. Almost always, you’d see him wearing a pinky ring or a masculine ID bracelet, even when he was supposed to be portraying a down-on-his-luck nerdy janitor. His Vegas-style bling signaled to viewers that he was hip and not to be confused with the hapless character they were laughing at.


Buddy Love, then, was Lewis’s opportunity to show off his Vegas-style chops and his Vegas style. If you have any doubt about Jerry Lewis’s aspiration to join the Rat Pack, take a look at 1965’s “Boeing Boeing,” in which he co-stars with Tony Curtis as a woman-hungry hipster, again in the Vegas style: i.e., sharkskin suits, slicked back hair, heavy male jewelry. Increasingly in the mid- to late sixties, he sought non-idiot roles (1966’s “Three on a Couch” is another). These are painful to watch because in every one Lewis is trying too hard to prove himself in a then already-outdated middle-aged fantasy.



“The Nutty Professor” is watchable because it is one of the only films (“The Bell Boy” is another) that allows viewers to fully sympathize with the goofy nerd he portrays. Professor Kelp never breaks character. His sci-fi transformation to Buddy Love bridges that gap. Then Buddy Love swaggers onto the set and Jerry Lewis lives out his fantasy. If we were meant to disdain Mr. Love as a narcissistic knock-off of Dean Martin, Mr. Love would not triumph in the end. But he does triumph. Watch the film and you’ll see.

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Ron Tanner is an award-winning writer of fiction and nonfiction, author of A BED OF NAILS, KISS ME STRANGER, and other works. For more on his latest activity, click here. Or go to: