Life Insurance Industry Courts Young With Songwriting Contest

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois.  The American Life Underwriters Association, a trade group that represents the interests of life insurance companies nationwide, finds itself in an unusual position today: instead of lobbying Congress to maintain their members’ exemption from federal regulation, three representatives of the group in white shirts and grey suits are seated at a dais more suited to “The Voice” or “American Idol,” pencils in hand.


“Let me tell you, there’s nothing like cash surrender value . . .”

 

“The life insurance industry faces a crisis,” says Executive Director Miles Anrud.  “People buy life insurance when they have kids, and with couples putting off marriage and starting a family to spend money on stupid stuff like tattoos and . . .”

He is interrupted mid-sentence by Steve Segal, from the public relations firm of Highland/Nelson, which came up with innovative idea of a singer-songwriter contest to appeal to potential buyers of term and whole life insurance policies. “What Miles meant to say is that we offer a product that must compete with a myriad of other consumer choices, and we recognize that we must make it attractive to a younger demographic.”

And so three finalists will sing their tributes to life insurance and its wonders as they vie for a $100,000 prize that enticed thousand of young musicians to craft original pop tunes with death benefit themes.


“The clause that really thrills me, is the one about non-con-test-a-bility . . .”

 

First up is Ty DiMasio of Revere, Massachusetts, a folk-style singer who strikes a sensitive note as he launches into “I’m Really Doing This for You,” his ode to the ephemeral nature of the benefits of a policy to the person whose life is insured.

I love you so much, baby, he begins,
I mean that, I don’t mean maybe,
Whole life is really expensive,
I don’t think I need to tell you,
The coverage is no more extensive,
but it has cash surrender value.



“I got the policy, and now I’ve got a cough.  Please girl please, don’t bump me off.”

 

“That was really nice,” says Clint Cain, owner of a one-man agency in Keokuk, Iowa.  “I guess I’d like to hear you put a little more emotion into the part about the value that whole life brings to a growing family, but thanks.”

DiMasio accepts the criticism gracefully and exits, stage right, to be replaced by Melinda Urquhart, a willowy blonde from Butte, Montana who introduces herself by noting that she “literally grew up in the life insurance business, playing in my dad’s office with death notices and claim denials.”  That little touch seems to warm the chilly hearts of the three judges, who smile as Urquhart launches into “I Cancelled Your Policy Today.”

Don’t know what I was thinkin’, she sings with her eyes closed,
Almost sent you a check today.
When I checked your file I found
There was a premium installment you “forgot” to pay.

“Just beautiful,” says Orel Newcomb of Chillicothe, Ohio, who sells both property and casualty and life insurance while maintaining an active notary public practice on the side.  “Sentiment is fine and dandy, and many people are genuinely sad when a loved one dies, but life insurance is a business.”


“Think about your loved ones, sure, but think about your insurance agent and all he has to endure.”

 

Last up is a young man who, like purple-clad rock star Prince, dresses in just one color–black–and uses only one name, “Mort,” which he discovered in his high school French class means “death.”  His approach is decidedly different from the other contestants, as he launches into a full-bore assault on term life policies, which provide a death benefit with no investment component:

Just think what death is gonna do to you,
You’ll be dead when it gets through with you.
If you bought term life you think you got off cheap,
but you can’t spend that money when you’re six-feet deep.

“Now that’s what I like to hear,” says Duane Thomas, Jr., who inherited his agency in Stillmore, Oklahoma from his father.  “A lot of people try to go cheap with term policies, but they’re only thinking of themselves, not us.”

The three judges confer among themselves and, after a few minutes of intense consideration, announce that “Mort” is the winner of the $100,000 first prize.


“So–I have to die to get the money?”

 

“Cool,” he says with enthusiasm.  “Where’s my check?”

The three judges give each other perplexed looks.  “It’s not a cash prize,” Thomas says.  “It’s a hundred thousand dollar whole life policy with the first year’s premium paid up.  After that, you’re on your own.”

“Celebration of Mediocrity” Draws to Close With a Bang

OMAHA, Nebraska. This city is abuzz today as municipal employees paint lamp posts and spruce up planters in the downtown area for an unprecedented celebration that some say is bigger than a world’s fair or an Olympic Games. “We’re only one spoke in the wheel,” says Chamber of Commerce President Orel Heinze, “but we’re the one that has the baseball card attached to it with a clothes pin.”


Hruska: “You say ‘mediocre’ like it’s a bad thing.”

 

Heinze is referring to the conclusion of a four-city, four-year “Celebration of Mediocrity,” the first such event ever, which began in Boston, moved on to Memphis, then Indianapolis and will conclude with a grand finale here. “Those are all great cities, don’t get me wrong,” Heinze says with a mischievious gleam in his eyes, “but when it comes to mediocrity, we’ve got them beat hands down.”


Snooky Lanson, upper left, on “Your Hit Parade.”

 

The occasion for the celebration is the unlikely confluence of birthdays a century ago of three entertainers who have come to epitomize mediocrity in America; Sonny Tufts in 1911, Durward Kirby in 1912 and Snooky Lanson in 1914. “The only comparable grouping of birth dates of such notable artists was the 100-year span that included Vivaldi in 1678, Bach in 1685, Mozart in 1756 and Beethoven in 1770,” says cultural historian Wil van de Verde of Shimer College. “Those guys were pretty good, but it still took them almost a century to do what Kirby, Lanson and Tufts did in four years.”


Vivaldi: “Here’s a little song I wrote for Wayne Newton called–you guessed it–‘Danke Schoen.’”

 

Omaha was the home of none of the three greats, but it was the final resting place of Senator Roman Hruska, who defended mediocrity in a stirring speech that challenged critics who complained that Judge Harold Carswell, nominated to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon, was “mediocre.” “Even if he were mediocre,” Carswell said in a stirring peroration that is still studied in oratorical classes here, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? And you notice how I nailed the subjunctive back there?”


Durward Kirby: Curiously, his names are an anagram for “Irk by raw dud” with an extra “r.”

 

Each of the three entertainers celebrated as the festival moved from city to city had his own unique claim to mediocrity; Kirby virtually created the model of the “affable sidekick” to TV host Garry Moore that continues to this day on late-night TV shows. “He may have been born in Kentucky,” says Indianapolis city historian Ewell Cutrino, “but he really used Indianapolis as the one-meter springboard to his fame.”


Sonny Tufts?

 

Lanson, who was born in Memphis, and Tufts, who was born in Boston, share one reliable indicator of mediocrity; both were the butt of jokes on the “Rocky & Bullwinkle Show,” a 60’s afternoon cartoon feature that sprinkled obscure pop culture references throughout its regular features in order to convey coded messages to Russian spies through the characters of Boris and Natasha.


Sonny Tufts!

 

While scholars will debate the relative merits of the entertainment greats in a Festschrift, a collection of scholarly essays that will celebrate their respective lives and contributions to the bland cultural pudding that is America’s leading export to the world, those with extensive backgrounds in the nascent field of mediocrity studies say the smart money is on Sonny Tufts to emerge as pre-eminent among the four when the dust of the academic rug-beating settles. “You look at Tufts’ Wikipedia entry, and he was lampooned by everybody,” says van de Verde. “It takes a special kind of dud to be picked on by Rowan & Martin, Dick Van Dyke and Bullwinkle the Moose.”

Swamp Thing Film Festival

My Close Brushes With Fame

Whenever I get tired of depressing news stories about overpaid fat cat CEO’s, I turn to the sports pages for relief.  There you can return to the lost innocence of youth and find depressing sports stories about overpaid fat cat athletes.


Albert Pujols, as a less-wealthy St. Louis Cardinal

Take, for example, sure-thing, first-ballot Hall of Famer Albert Pujols who abandoned the St. Louis Cardinals, my boyhood favorite, for a bigger paycheck with the Los Angeles Angels a few years ago.  He’s struggled since, but he was once MVP of the National League.  Before that he was a kid, and not just any kid.  He was a kid on a high school All-Star Baseball team that the son of my second-eldest sister’s third husband’s first wife threw batting practice to.

I could let that kind of fifth-hand notoriety go to my head, but my friends–or at least those whom I consider to be my real friends–say it hasn’t.  “He could Lord it over us,” they say, “but he doesn’t.  He’s still very down-to-earth.”


Aretha Franklin, then and now

I’m also hot-wired in the world of Soul Music.  When I was a high school senior, I drove 100 miles with three friends to an Aretha Franklin concert.  As the Queen of Soul brought down the house with her final song, the #1 hit “Respect,” an inspiration struck a member of our group.  “Let’s go backstage and try to meet her!” she said, and the word became the deed quicker than you could say “sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me,” as Aretha’s sister Carolyn sang in her backup vocals.

We somehow made our way past security guards to a narrow passageway outside the singer’s dressing room and, after a decent interval during which Aretha did whatever R&B legends do after a concert, she emerged into the hall and came thisclosetotouching me.

The irony, of course, is that if this encounter were to occur today, Aretha and I would touch since both her circumference and mine have increased substantially in the past four decades.


Hoffman:  “Thanks for the ketchup–Dustin”

 

But it isn’t just me.  When my wife worked in Manhattan, she sat next to two-time Academy Award-winner Dustin Hoffman one time in a diner.  “He was very nice, not at all stuck-up,” she recalls of the meal that followed.  “He asked me to pass him the ketchup, because his table didn’t have any.”  As you might have guessed by now, my wife has passed me the ketchup numerous times in the past quarter century, so it’s as if there’s this great-chain-of-ketchup-passers that links me to the star of “Rain Man” and “The Graduate.”


Christopher Cross

 

Of course, hanging out with the stars isn’t all sweetness and light.  You have to be there for them when they go through personal tragedies.  Take Christopher Cross, for example, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter whose 1984 song “Thinking of Laura” recalls a friend who died young.  One of my wife’s college roommates’ best friends went to high school with that girl, and she (my wife, not the roommate or the dead girl or the best friend) can’t listen to that song without getting all choked up.  Actually, she can’t listen to it at all because I took the album to a used record store shortly after we were married and sold it.  I can’t stand the guy for making my wife cry, although that’s a relatively easy thing to do since she bursts into tears over “Grey’s Anatomy” and certain particularly emotional commercials for instant coffee and long-distance telephone providers.

I hope you won’t think I’m just dropping names if I mention that O.J. Simpson’s daughter once spit on my wife’s sister.  We don’t have the loogie to prove it, but I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the two eyewitnesses I’ve spoken to, who are both related to me by marriage.


John Updike:  “I said ‘heavy starch on a hanger’, and I get my shirts back in a box!”

 

I like to think that the famous writers I have known have influenced my work in some small way.  Take John Updike, for example.  I didn’t actually know him know him, but a friend of mine lived in the same town as the famous novelist on the North Shore of Boston.

I savor the memory of the story my friend told me about the Saturday he found himself in line behind Updike at the dry cleaners.  Those cable-knit sweaters you see on Updike on the dust jackets of some of his most famous works?  Updike had brought one in that day, and went into the same kind of detail you will find in works such as “Rabbit, Run” with the woman behind the counter about how he wanted it cleaned.  And I heard about it–second hand!


“I’m sorry, Mr. Updike, we lost one of your shirts and two ironic short stories.”

 

But I never let this kind of stuff go to my head.  I think I’m still the regular guy I used to be, before I met my famous friends.  People tell me it’s true.  “You’re so modest,” they say.  “And you have so much to be modest about!”

U-10 Girls Soccer Yakuza

NEEDHAM, Mass.  In this leafy suburb of Boston fall weekends are dominated by youth soccer, and Department of Public Works employee Paul Quichette is dreading it.  “You’d think some of these families lived in a pig sty,” he says as he pokes at a discarded orange rind using a stick with a nail embedded in one end.  “I didn’t go to community college for two semesters to learn how to do this.”


Post-game mess in the making.

 

The overtime the town must pay and the damage to lawn mowers from plastic bottles in the spring forced a decision by the Board of Selectmen to resort to tougher measures than signs posted around soccer fields this season.  “I’d heard great things about the response of the Yamaguchi-guma,” Japan’s largest yakuza family, “to the Kobe earthquake in Japan,” says Town Manager Ellen Benoit-Walker.  “After a Sunday of twelve back-to-back games, we certainly have a disaster on our hands.”


“You gonna pick up that Evian bottle, or am I gonna have to get rough?”

 

Yakuza are members of traditional organized crime syndicates in Japan.  While police characterize them as boryokudan, a term that means “violence group,” the yakuza consider themselves ninkyo dantai, or “chivalrous organizations.”


“Mommy, that man’s scaring me!”

 

Like the Mafia, yakuza are organized along heirarchical lines that replicate familial and political structures.  While they derive their revenue from illicit activities such as gambling and prostitution, they have a penchant for order that makes them an outlaw alternative when civil society breaks down, in much the same manner that La Cosa Nostra keeps crime–by people other than themselves–at a minimum in Italian urban neighborhoods on the East coast.


“No hanging back by the goal in 3-on-3 Kinderkick!”

 

A squad of two gokudo patrols the perimeter of Centennial Field, watching the girls U-10 action on twelve reduced-size soccer pitches surrounded by orange cones.  Their irezumi–gaudy tattoos–draw stares from suburban parents who are used to seeing such grotesque physical embellishments only on boyfriends their elder daughters bring home from liberal arts colleges.


“What happened to your pinky?”

 

“Hey,” barks Hisayuchi Machii at a girl with blonde pigtails.  “Pick up your Evian bottle!”

The girl jumps, unused to such a harsh tone of reproof since her mother uses a cleaning crew composed of illegal aliens to pick up around the house.

“And put it in the trash container–over there,” seconds Jiro Kiyota.


“Go Needham–beat Wellesley!”

 

The girl complies, and the men nod their approval.  “This is correct, young kobun,” a term that means “foster child” and refers to one who has pledged allegiance to an oyabun, or foster parent within a yakuza family.  Seventy percent of yakuza are descendants of Burakumin, outcasts of Japan’s feudal era who were consigned to tasks considered tainted with impurity, and so trash collection is hard-wired into their genetic makeup.

There is a shout on the field as Emily Neidermeyer, the star of the Fred’s Hardware Comets, scores a goal, but the momentary burst of euphoria is chilled when a father from the opposite sideline approaches Nancy Thibeault, the team’s coach, and makes clear his displeasure with what he regards as illegal play.

“You can’t hang back in three-on-three Kinderkick because there’s no goalie,” he says, growing red in the face.  “I’m gonna report you to the league.”

The two men have only been working the sidelines for a month, but yakuza form strong bonds of attachment based on jingi, their code of loyalty and respect as a way of life.  They exchange glances, then spring into action.

“Excuse me, Wellesley-san,” Kiyota says.  “I believe the Code of Sportsmanship of the Metrowest Girls Soccer League requires you to direct your anger towards the referee, not your opponents’ coach.

“It is Rule 4.06,” adds Machii, with a menacing tone.  “That’s at Tab 4 of the white, three-ring binder provided to all coaches at the beginning of the season.”

The Wellesley coach, who was red-faced just a moment before, turns ash-grey when he sees the traditional Japanese swords borne by the yakuza.


“Can I have my pinky back after the game?”

 

“You’re . . . uh . . . right,” says the man.  “My bad.”

“That was not much of an apology,” says Kiyota.  “You must do more.”

“Like what?” the man says.  “Get down on my knees?”

“No, nothing like that,” says Machii.  “Hold out your left hand.”

The man’s face breaks out in an antic expression, as if he is going to have his hand smacked with a ruler.  “Okay,” he says with a goofy grin.  “Now what?”

“This,” says Kiyota, as he swings his sword down on the man’s pinky, cutting off the tip in the penance ritual of yubitsume, Japanese for “finger shortening,” also known as yubi o tobasu or “flying finger.”


It’s in there somewhere.

 

“Jesus Christ!” the man screams in pain, and a chorus of “Ewww” is heard from the Needham bench, where the severed body part has landed in a Yoplait strawberry yogurt.

Machii approaches the girls and removes the finger tip from the container, then presents it to Coach Thibeault.  “Here is your iki yubi” or “living finger,” he says.  “This asshole now accepts you as his kumicho.”

“What does that mean?” the owner of the suddenly-shorter finger asks.

“It may be girls soccer,” Kiyota says, “but she is now your godfather.”

 

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”

Love Among the Sporks

In Clinton, Mass., there’s a factory,
straight outta the Industrial Revolution.
It cranks out product merrily
while it spews foul air pollution.

It was there while walking the streets one night
I spotted a wan factory girl;
her skin bleached white from lack of light,
her face the saddest in the world.

I couldn’t be a witness to such tragedy
without letting my heart have its say;
I stopped her right in front of me
and asked “Are you okay?”

She sniffled a bit, then began to cry,
I felt like a helpless dork;
The tears began to fall from her eyes,
and she told me about the spork.

“I work all day from dawn to dark
on a fiendish dining tool;
it’s not a spoon, it’s not a fork,
and the bosses are so cruel!”

I asked what kind of instrument
might this strange object be?
Was it a bowl-like implement?
or did it have tines of three?

She said “It’s neither fowl nor fish,
it’s betwixt and it’s between;
it cuts by a third the silver on your dish,
it’s something you’ve never seen.”

And then she reached into her purse
and from it drew a sight,
that shocked my eyes from bad to worse
on that dark starry night;

It was—a spork! A hybrid thing
that you could use to eat with;
It would pick up soup or anything–
It’d work to chow down beets with.

My joy worked wonders on her mood,
she brightened up a bit.
I guess she saw what it meant for food
and how people struggled to eat it.

“So you don’t think it’s the work of the devil,
This cross-bred thing of plastic?”
“Why no,” I said, and I was totally on the level.
“Au contraire, it’s a godsend, it’s fantastic!”

And so she linked her arm in mine,
we’ve been together since that day;
we went and bought a bottle of wine
and sporked the night away.

Moral: If you love what you do it’s not work.

My Chequered Career With Older Women

In retrospect, I wasn’t ready to leave home yet. I was full of myself and thought I could handle the wider world that my older siblings had set out to see before me.

But I soon found myself lost, adrift, not knowing how to deal with the many slings and arrows that come flying at you once you set out to make it on your own. I retreated within myself, and became sullen, moody, withdrawn.


“Yer damn right I gargled in the boys’ room!”

 

I could often be found sitting alone, looking longingly at those who had the self-confidence I lacked. As they went about their business while I was frozen by fear, I turned first to innocent mischief–gargling loudly in the restroom–and then to actual vandalism, acting out my frustrations, my inability to cope, through destructive behavior.

And so it was that I found myself looking furtively about a crowded room as I surreptititously executed a particularly nasty bit of sabotage. Margaret–she wouldn’t deign to be called “Maggie” or “Meg” or “Peg” or “Margie,” she was so mature–approached with a reserved and austere manner and sat down next to me. “I know what you’re doing,” she said as she put her hand on my forearm. She and I looked down together at my fingers–covered with paste that I was smearing under the rim of the table as a trap for unwary kindergarteners when they sat down to work on their arts and crafts projects. “You don’t need to do that to impress me.”


*sniff* How I envied them!

 

Thus it was through the ministrations of an older woman–she was 4, I was a precocious “early admit” to Miss Swopes’ Kindergarden at the age of 3–that I was diverted from a life of crime to the semi-productive path of 2 years of pre-school, 8 years of grade school, 4 each of high school and college and 3 of grad school that have made me the man I am today

.
Caril Ann Fugate

 

I can only look back and wonder–what would have happened if I had been the elder of the two of us; what if I had played the 18-year-old thrill-killer Charlie Starkweather to her 13-year-old Caril Ann Fugate–adjusted downwards in years? Would I have infused her with my growing sense of nihilism, touched her arm and drawn it tenderly to my paste jar; dipped her fingers in; then spread them . . . slowly, sensuously . . . under the table, implicating her in my crime.


“Yes I spread paste under that table–and I’d do it agin!”

 

There’s no point in asking, the question answers itself. And so I say, thank God for older women.

Margaret was the first, but she wasn’t the only one. There was 16-year-old Connie, who looked out the rear view mirror of her canary yellow 1967 Plymouth Barracuda and made a gesture so arresting it shocked me at the tender age of 15, and it resonates to this day; her tongue between two fingers, communicating wordlessly to me her favorite make-out technique. Don’t make me cut and paste a Google image in violation of federal copyright laws and my firm’s Dignity-in-the-Workplace policy–use your imagination, like Barney the Purple Dinosaur!

I have learned so much from older women. There was Arlene, who taught me the hair-splitting differences between the principles of Revolutionary Youth Movement I and Revolutionary Youth Movement II back in the heady days of 70’s college radicalism. I didn’t know a Bolshevik from a Menshevik then, but Arlene–the spit and image of Emma Goldman–set me straight.


Emma Goldman: Cute–in a revolutionary sort of way.

 

We never made it, Arlene and me; she was 19 and I, just 17 years old, still riding the wave of precocity that I’d climbed aboard when I jump-started my education at the age of 3. Besides, it would have been embarrassing, she was my college roommate’s sister. Somehow it seemed . . . incestuous. And anyway, she was too busy spreading free love all over the South Side of Chicago in the name of revolution.

But still, she taught me, in the way that older women do, the things that younger men need to know. Trotsky was a traitor to the revolution, don’t mix kosher and trayfe, you can take the same course twice taught by different professors, get a better grade the second time and no one will ever know.

I like to think I taught her–and all of the older women in my life–a little something too.

Men your age are immature enough–why do you want to make things worse for yourself by dating somebody younger?

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