My Lunch With a Nobel Prize-Winning Author

It isn’t every day I get to have lunch with a Nobel Prize-winning author. More frequently than I see Haley’s Comet, which last came through my neighborhood in 1986, and isn’t expected back for another 50 years, but still, it’s a big deal.


Haley’s Comet: “Stop by any time you’re in the neighborhood!”

 

So I’ll never forget the day in 1970 when I walked into the faculty club at the University of Chicago and saw Saul Bellow, author of The Adventures of Augie March, with its famous opening line: “I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style.” Do not, I reminded myself, spill the soup.


Bellow: “Actually, I’m not hungry.”

 

I didn’t actually have lunch with Bellow. I had lunch beforehand, in the kitchen with the rest of the help. I’ll admit it–I was just a waiter, not a member of Bellow’s inner circle of friends. I wasn’t even a member of his circle of enemies, which may have been a slightly larger group, if one reads his works as romans a clef.

So I didn’t eat with Bellow, but I was at a lunch that he attended, which was as close as I’d ever been to literary fame at the time. And probably ever will be.


Joseph Conrad: “Bellow? Never heard of him, but then I’m already dead.”

 

I hadn’t, at that point in my life, actually read anything by Bellow. He wasn’t on the first-year reading list, and maybe he will never displace Faulkner, or Joseph Conrad, or Scott Fitzgerald. But he was a living, breathing novelist with an international reputation, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize six years later. It was all I could do not to rush up to him like some stupid Hollywood autograph hound and say “Mr. Bellow, you’re one of my biggest fans!”


“Why is that waiter staring at me?”

 

But I respected his privacy and stuck to my role, bringing out the food, filling water glasses, sneaking a peek at the two greatest hits underneath the blouse of the Barbra Streisand look-alike on my shift.


“Has anybody got any mint waxed floss?”

 

But I watched his every move, because I wanted to see how a famous novelist looked and acted in real life. Would he be ferocious, skewering the chalky professors at his table? Would he be captivating, regaling his listeners with stories of his years in Europe? How exactly is a minor living legend supposed to behave, I asked. Just in case I ever needed to know.


Dog-and-pony show

 

The answer? Bored. Bellow sat down at an empty table, crossed his legs, folded his hands in his lap, and looked around the room with an expression that said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than where he was just then. My guess is the luncheon was a dog-and-pony show for potential donors–just the way a guy who probably had to fend off high-brow literary women with a stick would want to spend his day.

Being a big-name author in academia isn’t a bad gig. You give a graduate seminar every semester, boff a couple of coeds–it’s in the contract, right after the “Whereas” clauses–get your picture on the cover of the alumni magazine. But you’re also there for some contact with actual human beings, like say a wealthy alumnus/alumna who’s written a first novel. You can just imagine how that would go:

BELLOW: Hello?

ALUM: Mr. Bellow, it’s Ed Fahrquar.

BELLOW: I have enough life insurance, thanks.

ALUM: No, from the UofC? The development office said I should feel free to call you.

BELLOW: I was taking a nap.

ALUM: Terrific. Say, I’ve just written my first novel, a coming of age story about a boy and his dog and their picaresque adventures hitch-hiking across America.

BELLOW: That’s . . . nice.

ALUM: You wouldn’t mind taking a look at it and telling me what you think, would you?

BELLOW: (To self: I could use some scrap paper for grocery lists.) Sure–send it over.

Bellow’s aspect was distant, reserved, and everyone who passed by knew he was–famous. So no one joined him at first, which he appeared to prefer. He stared around the room, then took his butter knife, stood the pat of butter on his bread plate up on edge, and put his knife down again. After a while a few people sat down at his table, introduced themselves, and he broke into a slight smile, which did nothing to dispel his air of ill-suppressed discomfort. I was distracted for a moment by someone at another table and when I turned around, he was gone. The only evidence of his brief presence that remained was that pat of butter on its edge, as Bellow must have been the whole time he was there.

 


Butter Stonehenge

From this close encounter with fame, I took a lesson that has come in handy over the years. If you want to appear superior to everyone around you at a social gathering, look bored–and play with the stuff on your table! Here are a few of the techniques I’ve perfected that lend me an aura of literary snootiness at gala dinners, business lunches and power breakfasts:

Balance two forks on a toothpick: Snap a toothpick at its mid-point and stick one end in a salt shaker. (Of course you can use a pepper shaker, but you’ll have a hard time finding one because high-class joints all have those pepper mills that are the size of a bazooka.) Join the forks at the tines, and suspend on one end of the toothpick. Where are you going to find a toothpick in a faculty club of a major university, you ask? Just ask the Assistant Professor of Long-Haul Trucking sitting next to you.


Assistant Professor of Long-Haul Trucking, Harvard University

 

Balance your fork on your finger: If you can’t do the above-described trick, try this one, you klutz. Lay your fork right side up across your index finger at a right angle, and allow it to teeter-totter back and forth until it reaches equilibrium. Knives do not have a concave surface, and spoons are too light for this trick.

winecork
One out of three ain’t bad.

 

Drop a wine cork so that it stands up on an end. This trick is easier than it sounds. Hold the cork horizontally, so that it is parallel to the surface of the table, from a height of approximately two inches. My preferred grip is between the outstretched second and fourth fingers, although this leaves the middle finger pointing across at your tablemates, which may lead to misunderstandings. Hold the cork gently, then release both fingers at the same time. At first, if you succeed in making the cork pop back up on its end just one time in ten you’re doing fine. With practice, you should be able to do it in three tries or less, causing ingenue poetesses to look on you as a God of Belle Lettres.


“Do the wine cork trick again–it drives me wild!”

 

Matchbook field goals. You can’t smoke in most fancy restaurants and clubs anymore, but you can get a book of matches–what you’re supposed to use them for is not exactly clear. Stand the matchbook on its edge and flick across the table at finger goal-posts set up by a table-mate.

The cooperation of another bored person in your party is essential, but a Nobel Prize in Literature is optional.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”

A Session With My Poetry Coach

It was the form letter that sent me over the edge.  “Thank you for submitting your poem to plangent voices,” it began.  “Please excuse the form letter, but due to the volume of god-awful submissions that we receive, we do not have the time to crush the spirit of each writer personally.”


elena gotchko:  Had her capital letters surgically removed in 2009.

 

Signed–elena gotchko, editor-in-chief, the lower-case poetess who I’d help to catch on with the little rag in the first place!  I thought to myself, if I couldn’t call in a personal favor from someone like elena, who I knew back when she was cutting her own hair to show the world how disaffected she was, I might as well hang it up as a poet.


Self-haircut:  “Which side do you like better–the short or the long?”

 

But that would mean giving up on the art form that I’ve been enamored of ever since I noticed, as a mere lad of twelve, the couplet so beloved by young boys on the wall of a bathroom stall.  You know the one:  

Here I sit all broken-hearted
Paid a nickel to shit and only farted.

The fierce beauty of those lines, their startling honesty, the possibilities they opened up to me–how could I forsake that epiphany!  Dammit–I wasn’t going to give up that easily!  My kid has a hitting coach, my wife has a fitness coach–I was going to get myself a poetry coach!

I opened up the Yellow Pages and flipped to the “p’s”.  Poetry, Anthologies.  Poetry, Brokers.  Ah, here we go–Poetry, Coaches.  There were three, but only one in my area code.  Buy local, I figured, and gave the guy a call.

“You have reached the office of Elliot Wurzel, Poetry Coach, turning poetasters into masters for over a decade.  If you have a question regarding assonance or consonance, press 1.  For issues regarding meter, press 2.  For problems with your account, press 3.  For all other matters, please stay on the line or press zero.”


Valerii Yakovlevich Briusov, Neo-Acmeist poet and housecleaning fanatic

 

I held while Valerii Yakovlevich Briusov, Russian Neo-Acmeist and the only poet with four i’s in his name, read from his justifiably-obscure oeuvre.  Finally, a sonorous voice came on the line and introduced himself in blunt fashion–”Wurzel here.”


“You call yourself a poet?  Drop down and give me ten Alcaic stanzas–NOW!”

 

“Uh, Mr. Wurzel, I’m looking for a poetry coach.”

“Umm.  What seems to be the problem?”

“Well, I can’t seem to get out of the slush pile.  Can’t even win Second Runner-Up in those contests with prizes in the high two figures.”

“Poetry is like maypole dancing,” he said cryptically.

“How so?”

“It’s one of those art forms that has far more practitioners than spectators.  You’re up against very long odds.”

“I know–that’s why I’m calling you.”

“And it is well that you did,” he said.

“Don’t you mean ‘good’?” I asked.


John Milton, Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Blank Verse

 

“Never use a nickel word when a dime word will do,” he counseled me.  “That’s the last free advice you’re getting, by the way.”

We haggled a bit over rates–I didn’t want to sign up for a long-term membership like at a health club and then have him commit suicide, the occupational hazard–if not the occupation–of versifiers.

“Okay,” he said.  “Let’s get started.  Read me the first poem you ever wrote.”

I cleared my throat and launched into “Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune”:

This is kosher, this is trayfe–
One unclean, the other safe.
All day long we work and slayfe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.


Actual Kosher vegetarian commune

 

“Hmm,” he hmmed, as he considered my complex a-a-a-a rhyme scheme.  “Not altogether bad–but you need to accessorize.”


Heidi Klum, accessorizing.

 

“Isn’t that what women do when they want to complete and complement an otherwise humdrum, pedestrian outfit?”

“You seem to know a lot about fashion,” he said.

“My dad was in women’s clothing.  Don’t duck the question–what’s that got to do with poetry?”

“Think of your poem as it hits an editor’s desk.  It’s like a woman standing in line outside an exclusive night club.  It’s got a lot of competition.  You’ve got to tart it up a little if you want to get past the doorman.”


“Sorry sweetheart.  Come back when you’ve fixed that godawful spondee in the third verse.”

 

I was starting to appreciate my coach’s wealth of experience.  “Like how?”

“First of all–dedicate it to someone.”

“Like who?”

“It helps if it’s a foreign name, somebody obscure, somebody the reader will be ashamed to admit he doesn’t know.”

“Gimme a for instance.”

“That’s an add-on,” he said,  “Five bucks for access to my exclusive database of hitherto-un-dedicated-to names.”


Zsa Zsa Gabor, with Porfirio Rubirosa

 

I grudgingly agreed–what choice did I have?–and listened as he flipped through some papers.  “I’ve got just the thing,” he said with satisfaction.  “Porfirio Rubirosa!”

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“See–proved my point.  Sounds foreign and romantic, but you can’t quite put your finger on him, can you?”

“Shortstop for the Minnesota Twins?”

“You’re thinking of Zoilo Versalles, who’s also good–don’t get me wrong.  He’s just not right for your poem.”

I felt gratified that I was getting personalized attention.  “So who’s Porfiri–”

“Rubirosa was an international playboy, polo player and race car driver, legendary for his prowess with women.”


Kowa-bunga!

 

“Okay–sounds good.”

“During his heyday, large pepper grinders were sometimes referred to as ‘rubirosas’ among the fast-living international set.”

He’d lost me.  “Because?”

“Because of the voluptuous shape of the grinder, the sensuous . . .”

“Okay, I got your point.  So what else needs fixing?”

“You need to strike a more outraged political tone.”

“But–it’s a little comic poem, just a pun that I . . .”

“Listen–do you want my help or not?” he fairly shouted at me.

“Well, I guess you are the coach.  But what if I’m . . . not outraged.”

“If you’re not outraged–what are you?”

“More like–amused.  The Human Comedy.  As Mencken said when asked why he lived in America if he found so much unworthy of reverence here, ‘Why do men go to zoos?’”


H.L. Mencken

 

“That’s not going to help your career,” he said.

“What if I take a bi-partisan approach–criticize both sides?”

He considered this for a moment.  “Might work–what did you have in mind?”

“Well, I’d go after both Dick Cheney and Joe Biden–Democratic and Republican vice presidents–in one stanza.”

“Okay,” he said with a skeptical sigh of impatience.  “Hit me.”

Here comes the fat man, emerged from hiding place–
“Gee, I’m awful sorry if I shot you in the face!”

“That’s a start,” he said grudgingly.  “Now wrap it up.”

Old Joe Biden, squeaks like a door hinge,
Schooled at Syracuse, whose mascot’s an orange.

There was a silence at his end of the line.  “Un-freaking–believable.”

“Thanks,” I said, a bit surprised that I’d broken through his reserve.

“This is a major upheaval in poetry!” he exclaimed.

“What–what’d I do?”

“You’ve solved a problem that has bedeviled poets for centuries.  You’ve discovered a rhyme for ‘orange’!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

Let Slip the Cats of War!

My cats are big Shakespeare fans; in the case of Rocco, who’s been letting himself go a bit, a huge fan of the Bard–fifteen pounds at his last checkup.  We have assembled on the patio for a reading from Julius Caesar.  Titus Andronicus was checked out of our local library, and my wife, the family Shakespeare hater, is out of town.


“This foul deed shall smell above the earth/with carrion chipmunks, groaning for burial.”

I’ve told them the best way to read Shakespeare is that taught to me by Merlin Bowen, my freshman humanities teacher; once through quickly without even checking the footnotes; the second time more slowly, and thoughtfully, looking up the buskins and petards as you go.  Easy for him to say since he didn’t have chemistry and social studies and phys ed and French and drugs to take at the same time.


“I didn’t finish the reading assignment–okay?”

Rocco is a quick study, as I was when a youngster, while Okie is a stolid, phlegmatic type, like Jim Bob Mergen, the farm boy who was compared unfavorably–I think–to me in the second grade.  The nun said I picked things up easily and valued them less as a result, while Jim Bob struggled to learn things, and consequently treasured the correct spelling of “cat” more highly than I for the rest of his life.


“Did you put the cats down in the basement?  Because I’m going to bed.”

It may seem strange to you to read from Shakespeare with your pets, but this is an advantage I want my cats to have.  I first read about such a thing in a short story by Cynthia Ozick when I was in my twenties, too late for me.  Apparently, some high-toned families engage in such pursuits while clans like mine were watching “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Fugitive.”  Children from families of the former type showed up on the first day of freshman English class to mention in a blase, off-hand way, that they were starting work on their second novel while I–I had taken the road more traveled by and had a cool collection of record albums.


“Let me have cats about me that are fat; yond Okie has a lean and hungry look.”

We don’t use the folio version of the play, it would take too long.  Instead, I picked up two copies of Iams Lite Shakespeare for Less-Active Cats at Pet World this morning.  It contains all the essential quotes a growing cat needs, with 10% less fat and archaic English!


Get Troilus and Cressida in the familiar turquoise bag!

The problem with mixing cats and Shakespeare, as with most students, is their short attention span.  We customarily hold our reading on the back patio, and in the conservation land to the west there is a constant flow of fauna; deer, chipmunks, wild turkeys, even coyotes.  Okie caught a rabbit and a snake last week alone.  It’s hard to keep the guys on the text, but I try.  They’re prone to improvise.

“Your line,” I say to Rocco.

“Where were we?”

“‘Another general shout!’”

“Oh, right.  Uh, ‘Why cat, he doth bestride the narrow world like that stupid Doberman down the street; and we petty cats walk under his huge legs, and peep about.’”

“Over to you,” I say to the Oakmeister.

“Uh, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are cats.’”

It’s Roc’s turn, but when I give him his cue I see him gazing across the back yard, to the edge of the grass, where a rabbit has poked his head out from under a rhododendron, those ungainly plants that Virginia Woolf compared to suburban stockbrokers.  The rabbit’s munching on clover; the stockbroker lives across the street.

“Roc–you paying attention?”

“Uh, sorry,” he says and looks back down at his script.  We proceed in this halting fashion through Acts I and II; a field mouse sees the weighty atmosphere of high culture, and can hardly believe his good fortune.  The cats are playing a tragedy, and it’s comedy to him.


“Nyah nyah, nyah NYAH nyah.”

Okie detects the mouse’s insolence, and makes a false start towards him, scaring the bejeezus out of the poor rodent.  “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” he says in a voice that projects to the cheap seats over by the daisies.  “The valiant never taste of death but once.”


“I’m gonna GIT you sucker!”

“Roc–over to you,” I say.  He hasn’t been paying attention, but he picks up where Marc Anthony returns to view Caesar’s lifeless corpse.  I’ve used that phrase before, and for the first time I’m forced to ask myself–what other kind of corpse is there?

“O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,” he begins, but in a flat, lifeless tone.

“C’mon–put some feeling into it.  You’re Marc Antony, and your best friend’s just been killed.”

He looks at me, then out at the lawn, where the joint is jumpin’, so to speak.  Critters here, varmints there, unprotected species everywhere.

“That I am meek and gentle,” he continues then pauses to watch a wild turkey hen with two chicks tiptoeing as if on eggshells over our acre and a half of fresh, native New England rocks.  As former president of my high school National Forensic League, a triple threat in debate, extemporaneous speaking and dramatic interpretation, I can’t take it anymore.

“Here,” I say, ripping the script from his paws.  “Let me show you how a real actor plays this scene.”

He shrugs his furry shoulders and turns his attention back to the yard as I begin:  “Blood and destruction shall be so in use at our house, and dreadful objects so familiar on our front and back porches, that mothers shall but smile when they behold their infant chipmunks, squirrels and robins quarter’d with the hands of war.”

I see their backs turn and their butts wiggle.  Now they’re concentrating.

“All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds, And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge . . .”

A rabbit, stricken with a fatal flash of inspired confidence, makes a dash across the lawn.

“Shall in these cofines with a monarch’s voice/Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the cats of war!”

I’ve barely got the words out of mouth when I see them bolt from our bluestone stage and make for the rabbit, who suddenly the wiser, reverses course and heads for the woods.

“Hey, aren’t we gonna finish?” I yell after the cats.

“I’m taking an incomplete,” Rocco says, to which Okie echoes “I’m dropping this course.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Me and Dionysus

The wife is out of town this weekend, an opportunity for me to catch up with an old friend whose idea of a good time is, to put it mildly, not shared by the distaff half of my joint tax return. He goes by a lot of names; the ancient Egyptians called him Osiris, the Greeks referred to him as Orgia, Panegyres and Dionysus, the Romans called him Bacchus. In the American vernacular, he is perhaps best-known by that all-purpose monicker “Mad Dog.”


Dionysus: “Hit me again, bro!”

 

The Dog and I go way back, as far as the ancient Greeks. I first came to know him as an undergraduate through Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music,” or for those of you keeping score at home, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik. I looked up from that book when I finished with the wild surmise that Keats said was seen on the faces of Cortez’s men in his poem On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer. There in front of me stood his latter-day incarnation, carrying a six-pack of Miller Lite.


Nietzsche: I warned him–never mix, never worry.

 

We came, we saw, we partied, and ever since that fateful night, I’ve tried to stay in touch through Christmas cards and occasional bachelor nights out together. I pull up outside the Dog’s triple-decker apartment, and he bounds out with a boyish enthusiasm that belies his years, if that’s not waxing too poetic.


How gauche!

 

“Hey,” he says as he starts to get in the front seat. “What’s shakin’?” He’s wearing his usual Happy Hour casual get-up–half toga, garland of grape leaves in his long flowing hair–which I don’t have a problem with. It’s his ensign, perched upon a long pole, bearing an image of his genitalis that causes me to look askance at him. “Uh, if it’s all the same to you, I wish you’d leave that here,” I say.

“Why?” he asks, ingenuous as only a God of Party Fun can be.

“If we’re just going out for a quiet drink, I think that will draw unwanted attention.”

He shrugs, as if he’ll never understand me. “Fine,” he says and takes it back up to porch where he slips it into a metal bracket on a post. Letting his freak flag fly, indeed.

At my insistence he puts on his seatbelt, and we’re off.

“I made you a new party tape,” he says. Yes, my car is so old it still has a cassette player.

“Oh yeah? What kinda stuff?”


All right, keep your shirt on.

 

“Listen,” he says. After a few boomping beats, I hear the opening bars of Pink’s “Get The Party Started,” a song which, as much as I hate to admit it, I actually sort of like.

“Not bad, but I’m not changing my position on white girl singers,” I say.

“That there hasn’t been a good one since Dusty Springfield?” he asks.

“Right. If you’re going to listen to black music, why listen to white women sing it?”

“You and your anti-minstrelsy zealotry!” he says as he fires up a cigar. “You’ve gotta lighten up, dude. Get into diversity.”

“I think you’re talking reversity–not diversity.”

“Why don’t you like white people?”

“That’s not true. Some of the people I admire most–like myself–are white. It’s their–our–music I’m not so crazy about.”


Zoot Sims

 

“You’re intolerant.”

“No I’m not. I’ve got a lot of Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker and Zoot Sims in my collection.”

That shuts him up–for the moment. He blows out a puff of cigar smoke and says “The weekend begins!”

“It’s Thursday,” I say. “I thought the weekend began on Friday.”

“Daylight Savings Party Time,” he says, with a sly smile.

I consider this for a moment. “But with Daylight Savings Time, it’s ‘Spring forward, fall back,’ so for Daylight Savings Party Time in the summer, you’d actually start on Fri–”

“DUDE!” he yells at me, exasperated. “We’re tapping into the irrational tonight. Eighty-six on your hidebound, linear rational way of thinking. Not everything has to make sense!”


William James: Party on, dude!

 

It’s a point he’s made to me many times before. The whole point of getting drunk is, as William James so aptly put it, “to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.”

I always put up with a fair amount of abuse from The Dog because whenever he was around, the women followed. “Remember that time down in Austin, Texas?” I ask, growing nostalgic.

“At the Freddie King concert?”


Albert and Freddie King, #1 and #2 on my All-Time-Blues-Guitarists-Named-King list.

 

“Yeah, that was something.”

I remember how The Dog just started dancing, and a bunch of women joined in–our own private Bacchantae, so to speak.

“You know, you really should have joined in,” he says.

“Well, I . . . uh . . . was listening to Freddie. You know, he’s number 2 on my All-Time-Blues-Guitarists-Named-King list.”

“After B.B.?”

Before B.B.–after Albert.”

“Oh, I see. Anyway–why didn’t you, you know, get out on the floor and dance with us?”

“I was always a little self-conscious back then–a wallflower. Did I ever tell you about the time I got mimed?”

“Mimed?”

“Yeah–I was at a Roomful of Blues dance in Rhode Island when a mime came up and started imitating me. I was leaning up against a wall, he leaned up against an imaginary wall. I looked shy, he made big ‘I’m so shy’ eyes. It was mortifying.”

“Hmm. So you’ve missed out on the fun before.”

I gave him a skeptical look. Maybe I’m just a stupid human, but sometimes deities can be somewhat lacking in self-awareness too.

“You don’t remember what happened that night in Austin, do you?”

“I guess not. I had a few Lone Star Beers as I recall.”

” . . . and some tequila. And some Dos Equis.”

“Well, yeah, probably.”

“So you have no recollection that those women you were dancing with, they tore you to pieces and ate you?”

He looked at me as if I was crazy. “They did?”

“Yep. It’s a pagan precursor of the Christian Eucharist.”

He was speechless for a moment. Finally, he said “Jesus.”

“On the nosey,” I said, to finish the historical link.

“So how did I get . . . here . . . now?”

“You’re reincarnated throughout history, in different forms and in different cultures.”

“I am?”

“You betcha, as a certain non-running presidential contender with a PTO-President hairdo likes to say.”

“So . . . I drink . . . I die . . . and I come back again?”

“That’s the routine,” I said.

He looked out the window, then turned to me as a smile formed slowly on his lips. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a half-pint of Tvarschki’s Lime Vodka, the first liquor I ever got drunk on, and spoke.

“Then we have some serious partying to do tonight, my friend!”

Me and My Code Talker Go to a Cocktail Party

It’s Saturday morning, which means the tension is starting to build for our weekly out-of-home social interaction. Regardless of whether we get together with people in a higher income bracket or a lower, my wife faults me for doing, saying, wearing, implying or inferring something I shouldn’t have.


“We tried a Choctaw for awhile, but we went back to Navajos.”

 

To give you a few examples: “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” are the words she usually says when she first sees the clothes I’ve put on. “Don’t mention anything about what I told you Lisa said about Jack, okay?”–whatever she said had been promptly forgotten by me as soon as I heard it.

But I live in a different world from her; tapping at my computer all day, yelling or being yelled at on the telephone, sending out bills, filling out timesheets. I rarely if ever come into actual contact with humans, and by that I mean to include some of my highly-educated knowledge industry colleagues. As a result, my social skills are admittedly . . . atrophied.


“Tell her she has on a lovely dress, but DON’T look at her knockers.”

 

“The problem is you never give me any guidance–any context–until we’re on the other couple’s doorstep,” I say.

“Your problem is you’re not good at understanding code,” she says, and not with a great deal of sympathy. “You take things literally that aren’t meant seriously, and vice versa.”

“What do you mean ‘code’?”

“There are certain things you don’t say, certain things you don’t do–and they change depending on whose house we’re at. Like tonight you have to get dressed up, but next Saturday is a ‘nice’ blue jean’ night–okay?”

I was, if anything, more confused than before. “Can you buy flash cards or a crib sheet on this stuff?”

“I don’t think so,” my wife said. “Part of the attraction of conventions is you can use them to weed out others, so all the better social sets keep them a secret.”


“He says he’s ‘Doing great’? Must have lost his job.”

 

I didn’t see anyway out of my predicament. “Well, I don’t want to just stick by your side all night wherever we go.”

“I don’t want you to either,” she said, staring out at the middle distance, plainly frustrated. “Maybe we should get you a code talker.”

“What’s a code talker?”

“They’re members of Indian . . .”

“You mean Native American . . .”

“Whatever–tribes that have really complex languages, so they can talk in code and they can deciper codes.”

My wife is not generally known for graduate-level inquiries into questions of the nature of language, so I was suspicious. “Where’d you learn that?”


“C’mon Jim–insider trading is fun!”

 

“It was on Martha Stewart Living, right after a segment on stenciling your children.”

I considered her suggestion for a second; if some Native American could serve as my guide through the wilds of the metrowest suburbs of Boston and help me avoid a long uncomfortable silence on the road home from a stylish–but casual!–party, it would be money well spent.

“Okay–I’ll give it a try,” I said, “but where am I going to find a code talker in two days?”

“Try that rental place down by the falls–they have everything.”

I dropped by the You-Rentz-It franchise after I dropped off the trash at the dump and asked the guy at the counter if they rented code talkers.

“What kind ya lookin’ for?” he asked, as if it was the most routine request in the world.


“Her kid is going to Penn? Tell her how sorry you are to hear it.”

 

“I don’t know–what do you have?”

“We’ve got Navajos, Choctaws, Comanches. I’ve got a Basque that’s gonna be returned tonight.”

“What kind’s the best?”

“Navajos are the top of the line.”

“Which is cheapest?”

“Comanches. What kind of shindig is it?”

“Cocktail party.”

“How many people?”

“Probably . . . at least twenty.”

“I dunno,” he said scratching his head, Will Rogers-style. “I don’t think you want to pinch pennies on an affair like that. You’ll end up paying for it in the long run.”

I seemed to recall from my childhood watching westerns that Comanches were fierce warriors. Probably best not to stint.

“I’ll go with a Navajo for Saturday night.”

“I’ll need a credit card for the deposit. You can pick him up at 5.”

“Is there an instruction manual so I know what to do with him?”

“Don’t worry. He’ll know what to do.”

I paid and went home to tell my wife. She was watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy she’d taped, and so she was in defcon alert posture, poised to block out all extraneous stimuli such as her husband.

“We’re all set with the code talker,” I said.

“Um-hmm,” she replied, not wanting to waste precious energy she might need for sobbing later.

When the time came, I picked up Chester Joe Leader and his kit of code-cracking equipment.

“What kind of grub are they serving tonight?” was his first question after we were in the car.

“Finger food,” I said. “Asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, mini-quiche, stuff like that.”

“No little ham sandwiches?”

“People usually don’t do that until the holidays,” I said. “So, how exactly do we do this?”

“I get you wired up, and I set up outside,” he said with all the emotion of Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet.

“Okay.”

“I can hear what people are saying, but they can’t hear me. Only you can, through your earpiece.”

He held up what looked to be an old-style hearing aid, the kind my mom used to wear that gave off more feedback than Jimi Hendrix. “Okay.”

“I listen to what people say and decipher it for you.”

“You spent much time in the western suburbs?”

“It’s pretty plain vanilla. The North Shore’s tougher, summer colonies in Maine are impossible.” The guy apparently knew his stuff.

When I got home my wife was ready for once because she’d agreed to bring an hors d’oeuvre and we had to arrive early to warm it up.


“Are the Patriots jinxed by Gisele Bundchen? Heck yeah!”

 

“Sweetie, I’d like you to meet Chester Joe Leader, my code talker.”

How-do-you-dos were exchanged, and we got in the car after I grabbed the obligatory bottle of white wine we’d been trading back-and-forth with our hosts for the past two years. It’s a fruity Burgundy that we’re both afraid to try.

“Do these people have shrubbery?” Chester asked.

“HUGE rhododendrons,” I said. “The kind Virginia Woolf compared to suburban stockbrokers, which is what our host is.”

“Good. They give you lots of cover without being prickly.”


Woolf: “Please do me a favor and leave me out of your stupid posts.”

 

We dropped Chester off the length of a football field from our destination, and he made his way by stealth up the lawn and into the bushes.

“Let’s hope this works,” I said.

“It better,” my wife said with an expression that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the face of the gas chamber attendant at a maximum security prison.

Our hostess greeted us and we were ushered into the party, which was in full swing. There was a bartender so the usual struggle to get a drink wasn’t a problem, and we began to circulate.

“Danger dead ahead,” my wife said.

“What?”

“That’s Missy and Mark Wainwright.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Her parents gave him $200,000 to buy some stupid franchise, and it’s draining money like the Hoover Dam.”

“Okay, I’ll watch myself,” I said. “Chester–you copy that?”

“I’m right here for you,” he said. “Proceed.”

We ambled up casually and, after the usual over-the-top faux surprise greeting, settled in to chew the fat, figuratively speaking.

“How’s everything at your shop?” Mark asked.

“Say fine and change the subject,” Chester said.

“Gotcha,” I said.

“What?” Mark asked.

“Sorry–I uh, felt a sneeze coming on. We’re doing fine thanks–considering the economy!”

“Tell me about it!” he exclaimed with a little-boy-lost look on his face. “We’re . . .”

“Now!” Chester snapped.


Ryan Mallett: Potential bad influence–on Snoop Dogg?

 

“Hey–what do you think of the Patriots’ second-string quarterback? The kid from Arkansas who slipped to the third round because of his taste for recreational drugs?”

“Uh . . . well, I guess Brady’s gotta retire sometime.”

I felt like a fencer who’d just parried a deadly thrust. We two men exchanged idiotic speculation on somebody we knew next to nothing about for five minutes, then the Wainwrights departed for a youth baseball game.

“Everything okay?” my wife asked dubiously.

“Just dodged a bullet there. Anybody else you want to warn me about?”

“Here come the Andersons,” my wife said, turning towards me like a pitcher in a jam on the mound so the other side couldn’t read her lips. “She doesn’t know it, but Susan saw Sam coming out of a restaurant with his secretary while Cindy was off for a girls’ weekend at an Arizona spa.”

“That could be awkward,” I said, and just in time as the Andersons bore down on us like a sailboat running downwind into a marina. “You there Chester?”

“I’m on it,” the code talker replied with a calm, even tone. I felt–reassured. “Do not ask about vacations–got it?” he said.

“Will do,” I said just as the cuckoldette reached our personal space.

“Hey you two!” Cindy said to us–big hug and party kiss from her, a handshake from the cheatin’ side of the family.

“Hello there, strangers!” my wife said. “Haven’t seen you since you got back. Was it fun?”

“I came back so relaxed!” Cindy said. “All that was gone in about a day!”

“Welcome back to the rat race!” my wife said. What’s she talking about, I wondered: the yoga, the pilates, or the spinning class?

Sam seemed to be suffering from a bout of mauvais foi, which is not a form of pate. It’s the gnawing guilty conscience over the lie you’re living. He was at a loss for words, and I didn’t want to fill up his tank.

“Don’t ask him what he did while the wife was away,” I heard Chester say in my earpiece. “Don’t ask him what he did last weekend.”

“I’m waiting for some positive suggestions,” I muttered into my hand as I pretended to cough.

“Ask him . . . what he thinks of the election.”

“Are you crazy?” I said, pulling myself away as I pretended to be fascinated by a bowl of mixed nuts. “I never bring up politics at parties!”

“You’ll have to trust me on this one,” Chester said.

I gulped, almost involuntarily; Chet was the expert, however, so I turned to meet my counterpart with a quiche-eating grin on my face.

“So . . . shaping up as a pretty interesting presidential race, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Sam said thoughtfully, and a few heads turned at my obvious social faux pas. Our little suburb was reliably Republican fifteen years ago, but now it’s become fashionable to pretend you care about the poor beyond the value of the charitable deductions they so generously provide us. “But you know who I really, really like this election?”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Hillary Clinton,” Sam said. “She always forgave Bill when he . . . uh . . . strayed.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Blurbs From the Burbs.”

Me and the Portable William Blake

It had been an impulse buy, as so many of my books are when they’re purchased on a Saturday after I’ve had a few glasses of wine and we’re wandering around a bookstore.  But it was an acquisition I’d been planning for a long time; I have a home William Blake in the den, the Seven Centuries of English Verse anthology I bought 45 years ago for my freshman college Humanities 101 course, so I’d decided that the next William Blake I bought would be the portable kind.

“Let’s go get ice cream!” it said as I carried it past the security scanners and out the front door of Barnes & Noble.

“I’m not hungry,” I said and I wasn’t lying.  I was stuffed from a dinner of turbot in a mushroom sauce with some of those sprouts on top that look like . . . short and curlies.

“I didn’t ask if you were hungry,” said the guy who, as Alfred Kazin says in his intro, makes such fierce demands on the human imagination.

blake
The Portable William Blake: Batteries not included.

 

“My wife doesn’t want any either, so you’re outvoted.”

“What kind of wimp cares what his wife thinks?” said the man who was a libertine in his own mind, but who proposed to his wife the first time they met when he told her another woman had dumped him.  And she said she pitied him.

“Sorry, I bought you, you’re gonna live by my rules.”  As soon as the words were out of my mouth I regretted them, because I knew what was coming next; an anti-commerce diatribe.

“When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold,” he intoned, “and Commerce settles on every tree.”  One of his favorite gags.

“Bill,” I began, trying to strike a reasonable note, “Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you can say stupid stuff.”

“It’s not stupid, it’s true,” he snapped, more than a little defensive.

“To you and maybe a few other demented types, mainly college professors.”

“Hey–if it wasn’t for a college professor you probably wouldn’t know me.”

“Not true.  I read you senior year in high school, in college prep English.”

“Did you have Mrs. Reisgang?”

I held him up to eye level.  “How do you know her?” I asked skeptically, wondering where he could have heard about the Mrs. Robinson-like figure who lured me into the writerly life when she singled out my lame, post-nuclear tale of betrayal as the best short story of the Class of ’69.

graduate
“That was a tough assignment.  ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ gave me a stiffie!”

 

“If the doors of perception were cleansed,” he said in a deep, portentous voice, “everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”

O-kay.  Guess I’d better watch what I say.  “You know,” I said, trying to sound a more amiable note, “it really is amazing that they teach you to high school students, not to mention Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”

“That drughead!” he said with contempt.  “I’m Bernie Carbo to his Bill Lee.”

“How so?”

“I’m naturally crazy, I didn’t need to work at it.”

carbo
Carbo: “If I got traded to Cleveland, could I get out of this post?”

 

The old innocence/experience dichotomy–nobody rings the changes in that bell tower better than Blake.

“Seriously, it’s a wonder the right wing hasn’t copped to the subversive influence you have on impressionable young kooks.”

“Like you?” he asked, arching an eyebrow skyward.

“Well, yeah.”

“Don’t fence me in–the left wing won’t have anything to do with me either.”

“Why not?  You’re Mr. Anything Goes.”

“But I’m also obsessed with God.  It’s a wonder anybody can get ‘Little Lamb, who made thee?’ and ‘Tyger, Tyger’ in a public schoolhouse door.”

blake1
*sniff*  Do I smell popcorn?

 

“So if you’re not of the right, and not of the left–what are you?”

“Apparently your reading comprehension hasn’t improved since you bombed the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  Read the intro, would ya?”

I took off my glasses–I only need them for distance–and began to flip the pages.  “Holy crap,” I said to myself.

“What’s the matter?” my wife asked, her forehead plowed into a little soybean field of concern.

soybeans
Like this

“It says here that William Blake was a libertarian.”

“Are those the people who come to the door on Saturdays?”

“No, those are Seventh Day Adventists.  Look,” I said to the book in my hand.  “You’ve got to be careful about following unorthodox philosophies in Massachusetts.”

“Why?”

“We burn witches here, remember?  People will think you’re crazy.”

The picture on the back cover gave me a look that could have chilled a beer mug to a fine, frosty finish.  “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Just be careful what you say, okay?  I’m already a pariah in just about every social circle my wife wants to join–and some she doesn’t.”

“Perhaps,” Blake said slily, “it’s because you’re too much like me.”

I gulped the gulp that follows the shock of recognition.  “Ya think?”

“Don’t go all Valley Girl on me, you’ve already noticed it here, in this blog post.”

He had me dead to rights, so I started flipping through the biographical sketch in my new book.  Loner–yep.  Printing industry–yes.  Self-published books, the mark of the literary crank–on the nosey.  Anti-clerical–again, yes.  Hates to travel–that’s a oui. 

“Recall that at one point I didn’t leave my house for two years except to go out for beer,” Blake said.  “What did you do last weekend?”

“I . . . uh, stayed home and wrote.  Then I went out to get some beer.”

“And you say I’m whacked.  I used to spontaneously burst into song, adding melodies to my poems.  You?”

“Uh, guilty as charged.  Say, this is getting kind of uncomfortable.  Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure–how about our mutually respective unsuccessful writing careers.  How’s yours going.”

“Oh, you know.  Dribs and drabs.”

A noise like the riffling of pages escaped from the spine.  I guess that’s how books snort with contempt.  “Didn’t your motto used to be . . .”

“Yes?”

“Another day closer to posthumous fame?”

Once again, he knew me too well.  “So–I’m just resigned to my fate as a ballad monger . . .”

“I would have said Rhime trader, but that’s just me.  I think you’ve been reading my catalogue entry on ‘The Penance of Jane Shore in St. Paul’s Church’–hmm?”

“Which part?”

“Where I say ‘If a man is not employed by those who pretend to encourage art, he will employ himself, and laugh in secret.'”

 

SUV Skills Give Soccer Moms Monster Truck Edge

STAFFORD SPRINGS, Connecticut. Tori Carrington is a mother of three with a black labrador retriever named “Boots” and a pick-up and drop-off schedule that reads like a cab dispatcher’s log. “I’ve got so much stuff to haul around town, there’s no way I could handle it with a car,” she says as she slams the rear door of her Chevy Suburban on six bags of groceries and her daughter Amanda’s finger.

The same is true for Mindy Michaels, who lives next door. “We bought the Expedition because we needed the space for all our kids’ junk,” she says as she wrangles her son Jason’s mountain bike and her daughter Ellie’s vaulting poles and javelins into the super-sized Ford SUV.

Tori and Mindy are both ranked in the top ten of the Monster Jam Points Series as the season winds down with an event at Stafford Motor Speedway in this leafy Connecticut suburb, the American Express Super Modified Monster Mayhem Weekend. As monster truck racing has previously been an all-male preserve, the two stand our for reasons more obvious than their Ann Taylor sweaters and pearl necklaces.

“We see soccer moms as the next big wave in professional Monster Truck racing,” says Amex’s James Saltonstall, III. “Sort of like Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam on the PGA Tour. It’s a very affluent target audience with tremendous upside potential because right now they’re all watching Martha Stewart and Meredith Viera on The View.”

That sentiment isn’t necessarily shared by Monster Truck veterans such as Duane “Bug Juice” Johnson of Warrensburg, Missouri. “I don’t have anything against women drivers in general, but those two are kind of aggressive on a Chicago-style track,” he says. “Also, their back porches are a little skimpy for my tastes.”

But Tori and Mindy say they won’t let hidebound prejudice stand in their way as they line up for the qualifying heat of the Super-Modified division in which they compete. “I work out four days a week with a personal trainer so I can fit into size 6 capri pants,” she says with uncharacteristic firmness. “I’m not going to take fashion tips from some Midwestern hilljack who doesn’t have an MBA.”

As the women maneuver their SUV’s into position they can look down the starting line at snarling 800 horsepower behemoths with names like “Grave Digger,” “The Avenger” and “Wild Thang” painted on their sides. Tori thought about adopting une nomme du monster chariot, but decided against it. “My parents always taught me not to call undue attention to myself,” and indeed her Suburban is a muted forest green in contrast to the bright reds, oranges and yellows of some of her male competitors.


Mom and Dad.

The announcer counts down from “Drivers Ready,” to “Get Set,” and then screams “Go!” over the public address system, sending the vehicles scrambling around the short track with dirt-mound jumps. Tori and Mindi are inveterate cell phone uses—”It’s attached to my ear!” Mindi admits—and Tori calls her friend as soon as they take their places in the pack.

“Hi there,” says Tori. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”

“No,” Mindi replies. “I’m going over a jump in a minute so I may lose coverage.”

Mindi scales the dirt mound and her Expedition goes flying, landing on the bed of Bug Juice Johnson’s “Eradicator”.

“Nice air, Mindi!” Tori says with admiration.

“Thanks. I’ve been working on my technique in the Lord & Taylor parking lot.”

“How can you? That place is always packed. I was in that mall the other day to pick up my David Yurman bracelet.”

“The one with the sapphires?” Mindi asks.

“Right. Oops—hold on.” Tori swerves to avoid J.T. “Rascal” Dupree from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“Watch where you’re going!” Dupree yells at her.

“Sorry,” Tori yells back over the roar. “I didn’t want to spill my drink!” She takes a sip of a Starbucks vanilla latte, extra foam, and resumes her conversation. “Anyway, I went in there to have the mounts tightened. I almost lost one of the stones at a cocktail party last week.”

“At the Ohrbachs?”

“Right.”

“You never would have found it in those blue oriental rugs of theirs.”

“I know!”

“Hey, lady—shut up and drive!” It is Darrell Joseph, the current points leader, who cuts Tori off.

“What a jerk,” she tells her friend.

“I know. He thinks he’s so macho. How much would you guess he makes?”

“The top drivers on the circuit earn around $80,000, before endorsements.”

“Not very much, is it? You couldn’t buy a potting shed in Greenwich with that.”

“You couldn’t make a down payment on a potting shed with it!” Tori says with a laugh.

The cars are on the last lap and the drivers jockey for position as they try to advance to the championship round. “Well, I should probably hang up now,” Mindi says as she cuts off Rascal Dupree.

“Okay—talk to you later,” Tori says as she snaps her razor phone shut and puts it in the “clutter caddy” between the front bucket seats. In third place, she is well-positioned to qualify, but Mindi is stuck at the back of a pack behind the leaders. “I should try and help her out,” Tori says to herself, bringing a spirit of feminine cooperation to a sport that has long been ruled by masculine notions of cut-throat competition.

Tori positions her Suburban down low, waits until she makes the turn for the home stretch, and then slams on her brakes, causing the bunched-up cars behind her to rear-end each other, leaving Mindi free to pass them on the rail.

Tori’s cell phone rings, and she opens it up as she crosses the finish line.

“That was so sweet of you!” Mindi exclaims.

“Happy to help!” Tori replies. “I wanted to make sure my girlfriend got into the finals!”

Darrell Joseph doesn’t share the women’s enthusiasm as he comes running across the track, shaking his fist. “You crazy bitch! You coulda killed me!” he screams.

“Oh, blow it out your boxer shorts,” Tori says dismissively. “How much is a life like yours worth anyway?”

The blunt nature of the question causes Joseph to stop and think. “Well, let’s see. I got three years’ worth of payments due on my double-wide trailer home. I got a 2006 Camaro that’s leaking oil. Most of my paycheck goes to my first two wives in alimony. I guess you’re right. If I died today, I’d probably come out ahead.”

“See? It helps to do a mental inventory when you get upset like that.”

“Where’d you learn how to do that?” Joseph asks gratefully.

“Yoga class!”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collections “Blurbs From the Burbs” and “From NASCAR to NPR.”

I Wish I Could Break Your Honky-Tonk Heart

You said you was goin’ outside for a smoke.
A half hour later I called up your folks.
They said you weren’t there and just laughed at your joke.
And you weren’t in bed when I next awoke.

I got in the car to drive around town.
I’d find you if I had to hunt you down.
Our life is a circus, and I play the clown.
If I let myself cry, I’d most likely drown.

I wish I could break your honky-tonk heart
Into little pieces and tear them apart
Then throw them away like sharp little darts
At the next man who falls for your honky-tonk heart.

I found you at Darrell’s, the bar down the street.
A place where loose women and tight men might meet.
I looked on the dance floor, my vision complete,
And you there a twirlin’ so light on your feet.

I said “Come on home, your babies need you.”
You said “They’ll be fine, I’m losin’ my blues.”
You knocked back a drink, and kicked off your shoes.
Tomorrow the whole town will all know the news.

I wish I could break your honky-tonk heart
Into little pieces and tear them apart
Then throw them away like sharp little darts
At the next man who falls for your honky-tonk heart.

Flip Phillips

By some verbal turn of a publicist
worthy of an Ellis Island clerk,
Joseph Edward Filipelli became Flip Phillips.
As coincidence would have it, I heard him
on a boat going out of Boston Harbor.
Sixty-five years old, blowing as cool as the
seabreeze off the Atlantic.

flip1

You were so good for an Italian you made
a lot of jazzbos and critics mad; you
weren’t supposed to hold your own,
up against Pres and Bird at the JATP concerts,
you were–back up, but they didn’t mind.
They just wanted to blow some too, no
matter what color you were; white–olive?

Flip

Who knows—who cares? You got your sound
from Ben Webster, with a dash of Lester,
but you made it your own. You were in
the right place at the right time with Woody
Herman’s Herd in 1944, and kept playing
for another fifteen years but then—stopped. A
quarter-century on the road was enough.

flip2

So, like an accountant or some other 9-5 drudge
you retired to Florida at the age of 44 to relax
a bit, learned the bass clarinet, lived the life
of a semi-senior-citizen. Until you got bored and
at the age of sixty, started playing again.
I wonder what happened—too much golf? Or maybe you
looked down and found your foot tapping one day.

 

Walking My Lobster Back Home

 

On learning that the poet Gerard de Nerval had a pet lobster he walked on a leash.

 

Gee but it’s great after being out late–
Walking my lobster back home.
There’s little risk that she’ll turn into bisque,
Walking my lobster back home.

She grows quite bored of the maddening horde,
So I recite her a poem.
She slept with me once and complained that I snored,
Walking my lobster back home.

We stop for a while, she gives me a feel,
And snuggles her claws to my chest.
She’s not like a dog or a shrimp that you peel
Her green roe’s all over my vest.

When we stroll about I keep her on a leash,
Sometimes she borrows my comb.
We go out to eat and of course she has quiche,
Walking my lobster back home.

She rides on my back to a little clam shack
For a re-test on Teapot Dome.
She borrows my pen and she fails it again
Walking my lobster, talking my lobster
She’s sure my baby, I don’t mean maybe
Walking my lobster back home.

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