Freedonian Nights Ring With Songs of Bitchiness

GLZORP, Freedonia.  By day, Ksiusha Milda is a housewife with a one year-old daughter.  By night, she is something completely different; a blues singer of sorts, a practitioner of this country’s traditional folk song, kalek.

Lithuanian woman - Julia
Ksiusha Milda:  “It is not enough that you change her diaper–you nimrod, you also must see that you wipe her.”

 

“It is my release,” she says as she wraps a brightly-colored platok, or scarf, around her head.  “I need something to take me away from the diapers and my lazy husband.”


“I deeply regret I accept your proposal–You are such a klutz you can’t fix my disposal!”

 

And so Ksiusha comes to a basement nightclub on the edge of the downtown area here to sing the kalek, traditional plaints of Freedonian women about life’s hardships and their troubles with men.


Kalek singers, warming up.

“The term ‘kalek’ literally means ‘bitch,’” says Kantatas Jonas, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Freedonia-Zlngdork, who says the genre’s fans expect nothing less than a full-bore attack on the man in a singer’s life.  “The audience knows what they want and they’ll let a performer hear it if she doesn’t deliver,” Jonas says.  “A singer can be booed off the stage if she pulls her punches.”


“You are such a schmuck for buying a truck, we need SUV for our growing family.”

 

Sales of kalek records peaked in the 1950’s, when Zemaite, the “Queen of Kalek,” created what came to be known as the “Jo-Town Sound” after Jonava, the city of her birth.  “Everybody was dancin’ in the streets back in the day,” says Zilvytis Barnardas, a 60-year old who fondly recalls the abuse he took from his girlfriend Rasa.  “She would sing ‘You are so bad at fondling my breasts, I prefer to study for my chemistry test.’”


Rasa:  “You are so clumsy at kissing, I find new boyfriend to show what I missing!”

 

Today’s kalek artists say they draw on that tradition, but they also want to make their own mark in the country’s musical history books.  “I am a part of that past, but I must sing of my own life,”  says Ksiusha Milda before launching into the opening bars of ‘I’d Rather Drive a Tractor on Several Farms (Than Be Stuck in Our Apartment Staring At Your Hairy Arms),” a track that has a pounding back beat and catchy lyrics that the crowd echoes with each chorus.  “It is not enough that I suffer,” she explains between sets.  “It is also necessary that I complain where others can hear me.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Hail Freedonia.”

High School Debaters to Argue Yoko Ono v. Linda Eastman

RIPON, Wisconsin. The National Forensic League, the organization that regulates high school debate in the U.S., has selected a musical topic for this year’s tournaments, catching coaches and participants by surprise.


Ready to rumble!

“Generally, the subject is either international affairs or U.S. social policy,” said Dan Curtin, speech and debate coach at Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, Missouri. “The kids will have to do a lot of original research on this one.”


Linda?

The NFL’s chosen topic is “Yoko Ono vs. Linda Eastman: Who was more destructive of her former Beatle boyfriend’s musical career?” Teams will alternate arguing the two sides during the course of a tournament, so that no school is disadvantaged by the relative merits of the question.


. . . or Yoko?

Lennon has been dead for over 30 years but still outsells his former Beatles bandmate, who must continue to play one-night gigs at low-paying venues such as the White House in order to make ends meet following a record-setting divorce from his third wife, Heather Mills. “He’d do even better if he’d get out and play state fairs during the summer,” according to Armand Schuster, a pop music reporter for Billboard Magazine. “So many of these guys get a big head once they become a star and just want to blow coke and noodle around in their basement studios.”


“You say you want a revolution, well . . .”

High school debate topics are carefully chosen so that teams can make arguments in support of either side of the question and thus be judged solely on their rhetorical skills. “We try to strike a balance,” said Lyman Goodridge, executive director of the NFL. “‘Power to the People!’ by The Plastic Ono Band is certainly inspiring but it’s awful. ‘Band on the Run,’ on the other hand, is even worse.”


I have to go fwow up now.

Last year’s topic, “Resolved: That the United States Congress is a bunch of stupid doody-heads,” was criticized by debate coaches as being too one-sided. “Our kids tried,” says Lowell Cain, coach of the Grain Valley, Nebraska, high school squad, “but they could never refute that proposition.”

The First Apartment: A Rite of Passage

Today, with the signing of a lease and payment of first and last month’s rent, security deposit, key charges, broker’s commission and the short-term national debt of Finland, my younger son became a man. For there is no step that so clearly marks the crossing of the threshold from childhood to adulthood as that which confers upon you an interest–however temporary–in real estate. As Scarlett O’Hara’s father said to her about Tara, the family plantation, in Gone With the Wind: “Land, Scarlett, land. It’s the only thing worth living for, worth fighting for, worth dying for–not all of your crinoline dresses and gew-gaws and frippery.”


Scarlett O’Hara and father: ” . . . and remember to put a Post-It Note that says ‘Scarlett’s Soda!’ on your Diet Cokes in the refrigerator.”

 

As such, the move out of a college dorm and into an apartment comes freighted with heavy responsibilities, which it is a father’s duty to discuss with his son. “Say,” I said, although that part always goes without saying, “we should have a little ‘chat’ about the apartment.”

He rolled his eyes, as he always does when I put quotation marks around the word “chat.” He knows what’s coming.

“This apartment you’re moving into–it’s a big step.”

“I know, dad.”


Folk dancing: For some reason, they’re always short of men.

 

“It can be a wonderful thing. No more goofy flyers in the hall of your dorm urging you to join the Young Socialist League, or that more male dancers are needed for Friday night folk dancing. On the other hand, it’s a place where you’ll form friendships–and enemyships–that can last a lifetime.”

He sat there glumly, suffering in silence. I guess he figured if he didn’t speak it would be over sooner.

“An apartment comes with major responsibilities,” I said. “You’re not in a dorm anymore, so if your refrigerator breaks down–you’re on your own.”

That caught his attention. “We are?”

“Sure–if you want to keep your beer cold and your hot dogs from rotting, you’ve got to go to a used appliance store and pick up a cheap one. Your college isn’t in loco parentis any more.”

“What does loco parentis mean?”

“That your mother and I are crazy to be paying for this.”

“So–we have to haul a refrigerator up three flights of steps?”

“Um-hmm.”

“And what do we do with the old one?”

I looked at him with a disappointed surmise. “What in the hell are they teaching you kids in college these days?”

“I’m a double major–I don’t get to take many electives.”

“Still–I thought every red-blooded American boy would know what to do with a dead refrigerator in a third-floor apartment.”

“What?”

I laughed a mirthless, condescending laugh–perhaps I was a member of the smartest generation in history, as Time magazine told me back in the 60s.

“Listen up, and listen good,” I said, getting right up in his face to show him I meant it. “You throw the refrigerator off the back porch!”

He was stunned, silent, as he is always is when I reveal one of the elegant solutions of my misspent youth. It’s true what they say–mathematicians, poets and madmen do their best work in their 20′s.

“You threw a refrigerator off a porch?” he asked, incredulous. Maybe the old man wasn’t such a dummy after all.

“Of course I did. Remember, I had a summer job installing appliances. I wasn’t about to move a refrigerator down three flights of stairs for nothing!”

He was silent for a moment. “Did . . . you ever have any regrets about it?”

I sat down next to him and tousled his hair. “Of course I did, kiddo. Everybody else in my gang remembered to wear a Halloween costume when we did it. It never even occurred to me that a colorful mask–Bozo the Clown, Chewbacca–would lend an air of antic gaiety to the proceedings, as well as disguise my identity.”

“Did you get caught?”

“Throwing refrigerators off apartment porches is really a victimless crime–unless you hit somebody,” I said, drawing on the reservoirs of knowledge I’ve built up after 35 years, two weeks and five days of my legal career, not that I’m counting or anything. “The cops in our student ghetto had their hands full with recreational drugs.”

He seemed to be “getting” it. “What else?” he asked.

I put my arm around him, the better to convey that while the advice I was about to give him was harsh, it was the product of paternal love. “I know you’ll be tempted to get involved in . . . illicit activities now that you won’t be under the watchful eye of your dweeby graduate student dorm monitor.”

“That guy is such a turd!”

“I know–they all are. Anyway, the thing I want you to understand is that if you’re going to bring in black lights and grow marijuana in the pantry, be sure you have shades on the windows.”

“Why?”

I shook my head from side to side–kids! What do they know?

“Because that purple glow out the window is like putting a sign on the side of your apartment building that says ‘Arrest me!’”

 


Indoor pot farm (not mine).

 

“Oh,” he said. He sounded embarrassed that I had exposed his ignorance in this very vital area of apartment living. “So you . . . grew marijuana in your apartment?”

“Of course not. No one ever grows marijuana in their apartment. When the cops come, you say it was left there from the guys who rented the place the year before.”


“The TV’s busted. Should we throw it off the front porch or the back porch?”

 

“What if the cops came the year before?”

“Those plants were there from time immemorial. For all you know, Moses sneaked them out of Egypt through the Red Sea.”

He seemed to understand. “Did you take the marijuana with you when you left?”

“No, I was pretty much done with pot by then. I’d smoked enough so that the THC in my system was making me paranoid. It happened to Stevie Wonder, too.”

“Who’s Stevie Wonder?”

“Just the guy who created some of the greatest pot-smoking music of all time. Anyway, your lease says you have to leave the apartment ‘broom clean’–it’s a legal term. I was the last one to leave, so I had to move about forty crates of dark, rich soil out of the place.”

“How did you do it?”

“I may have smoked a lot of pot, but it looks like my short-term memory is better than yours,” I said smugly.

“What do you mean?”

I threw it off a porch!” I screamed. I didn’t mean to, but I was growing exasperated.

“Oh, right–sorry,” he said.

“Maybe you should be taking notes,” I said, and I wasn’t kidding.

He took a pad of paper out of his backpack, and started to write: “Throw . . . pot . . . plants . . . off . . . back . . . porch.”

“Gimme that,” I snapped as I grabbed the pad and pen from him. I drew a thick line through the word ‘back’ and wrote ‘front’ over it.”

“You throw the pot off the front porch?” he asked.

“Sure–you already threw the refrigerator off the back porch. People will start to complain.”

“Like who?”

“Like the old lady who lives on the floor beneath you, with the divorced daughter who comes over every Sunday with her annoying kids.”


Look out below!

 

“Why does she complain?”

“Because she was sitting on her front porch, and I hit her with the dirt when I threw it off our front porch.”

“Oh,” he said as I handed the pad back to him. “Makes sense.”

“One last thing,” I said, as I held out our copy of the short-form apartment lease. “Signing this document carries a great many legal responsibilities with it. This is your introduction to the real world–for the first time, you’re on the hook, understand?”

“I guess.”

“I don’t think so. The landlord’s got the security deposit–if you mess the place up, he can keep it.”

“What if I disagree, or I didn’t do it?” he asked. I had to admire his spunk, but at the same time I had to give him a practical lesson in the slow workings of the American legal system too.

“The landlord’s got you over a barrel–he’s got your money, and it will take you at least two years to get into court to get it back. By that time, you and your roommates will be scattered across the country. You won’t want to come back for a lousy $300 each.”

“So what do we do?”

“You do like my friends Rick and Carl. Rick went on to a third-rate medical school in the Caribbean when none of the U.S. schools would have him, and Carl turned into a sadistic U.S. Marshall. Two very savvy guys.”

“What was their solution?”

“They got a couple of packs of Jimmy Dean’s Pure Pork Sausage, and stuffed it into every nook and cranny in the apartment before they left.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Kids: They’re Cute When They’re Young.”

The Gertrude Stein Look-Alike Contest

We’re getting up in years, we few forthright men who revealed to each other that we wanted to write back in our youth.  It takes a lot for a guy to open himself up that way to another man.

 


Is it Ed, or Gertrude?

 

There’s the odor of the effete about sitting down, waiting for inspiration, then scribbling your purple prose out on the blank page.  And there’s the sin of ambition.  You’re not content to become an accountant or an actuary–you want to become famous, huh?  You think you’re better than everybody else?

But we stuck with it with varying degrees of failure, and now find ourselves looking back on what we haven’t accomplished.  It’s about this time of year we get together for some wistful bonhomie as we slyly check out each other’s bald spots and paunches.


Faulkner:  Gave up a promising career as a postmaster and took the easy way out to become a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

 

There’s Ed, the guy who was smitten with William Faulkner as an undergraduate and almost allowed his infatuation with the Mississippi Master’s stream-of-consciousness style to ruin his career as an air traffic controller.  There’s Rob, the Hemingway fan who had cosmetic surgery performed on his cat to add a toe to each paw.  And there’s me, the Fitzgerald nut with my inflatable Zelda love doll.

Regardless of whom we modeled himself after, we had to admit that four decades later we’d been worn down to the same nub.  When we hit our fifties, we all started to look not like our Lost Generation heroes, but like . . . Gertrude Stein. Stoop-shouldered, thick about the middle, not much hair.

 

“It was *sniff* cruel what he did to us!”

 

At first we joked about it in a nervous manner; keeping the horrible consequences at bay.  But after a few years of channeling the woman known for her sophisticated baby talk, we embraced our inner Gertrudes.  We turned competitive–as men are wont to do–and began to hold annual Gertrude Stein Look-Alike Contests.

When word got out there was the obligatory human interest story in the local paper, which got picked up by a wire service.  The next year we were overwhelmed, like Yasgur’s Farm by Woodstock.  Our little burg of twenty-some-thousand was transformed in a day to a mid-sized city five times that size by 80,000 grumpy, stocky, cross-dressing guys with close-cropped hair wandering around in baggy skirts muttering stuff like “I like this town but I don’t like that I’m in this town.”


“Contestants–if your last name begins with the letters A through M–line up on the left.  Everybody else, on the right.”

You had to work to get it just right.  Some of the younger squads would come into town with fancy matching embroidered loden coats–”Milwaukee Gertrude Brood”–and then crap out when it came time to complete the phrase “a house in the country . . . “

“Is not the same as a country house!” I’d fairly shout at the laggards from the provinces who thought all you had to do was skim “Tender Buttons” the night before “Stein Time.”  Fat chance.  As the Great Lady herself said, “Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know?”

You’d hear guys at the cash bar complaining about the judges as they hitched up their loose-fitting dirndl skirts.  “Gimme a break,” I said to one loudmouth, and it wasn’t the absinthe talking.  “What did Gertrude say–’The deepest thing in any one is the conviction of bad luck that follows boasting.’”  That shut him up.


Best buds!

 

We went into the men’s room to relieve ourselves before we went on, and I caucused with Ed and Rob at the urinal.  “You’ve got to remember,” I said as I cleared a path through the knee-length scarf I’d added to my outfit that morning, “be paradoxical, obscure and repetitive.”

“What was the last one again?” Ed asked as he shook himself.

“Repetitive,” I replied.  “Like ‘I who am not patient am patient.’”

“Can I write crib notes on my sleeve?” Rob asked.

“NO!” I snapped, then lowered my voice when heads turned.  “The essence of a good gertrudesteinism is errant, antic circularity.”

“Okay,” Ed said over the roar of the hand dryer.

“You guys ready?” I asked.

“I guess,” Rob said.

“You guess?” I straightened him up with a stiffarm to the shoulder.  “‘It is funny that one who prepares is not ready.’  Got it?”


“I just don’t ‘get’ this Gertrude gal!”

 

A look of enlightenment came over him, as if he finally understood calculus, or Avogadro’s number, or the appeal of Kathie Lee Gifford.

“Got it,” he said.  “The one who ‘gets’ something is the one who is gotten.”

“Attaboy,” I said with a grin.  “Let’s go–in a direction we don’t want to go.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

Our Hypoallergenic Night Out

End of summer means it’s a lot easier to get a reservation in a hot new restaurant in the Boston area, so last night found us with our friends Ted and Sally at Nourriture, which is French for “food.”  Tres simple! as we used to say in Madame Clooney’s 10th grade classe de Francais when we wanted to show off our knowledge of cognates.

After we were seated the water boy came by and asked if we wanted still or sparkling, then a comely young woman named Claire stopped tableside to say she’d be taking care of us tonight.  If only, I thought to myself as I shot a glance at Ted.

“First I must ask if anyone has any allergies,” she asked with a hint of chagrin, sprinkled with cumin and cardamom.  “It is, you know, ‘the law,'” she said, making little air quotes.

That’s what makes the Commonwealth (not a state–please!) of Massachusetts such a great place to live.  Founded by nay-saying Puritan divines, we’ve got laws for everything, and some for nothing at all.

Claire surveyed our faces and with that semi-apologetic air that comes over Presbyterians whenever they cause the least inconvenience, my wife spoke first.

“I’m allergic to some of my husband’s jazz,” she said, almost sheepishly.

“Okay,” Claire said.  “Any particular kind?”

“It’s strange,” my wife said, “but I have a particularly strong reaction to jazz violin–which he loves.”  I patted her hand to re-assure her that, despite our differences, my love for her was unlimited.  Up to a point.

“But you like classical violin, don’t you?” Sally said, and she was right.  Check her Pandora settings and you’ll find “Violin, classical, heavy on the schmaltz.”

“I do, but jazz violin–it’s so hectic and scritchy-scratchy.  It drives me nuts.”

“Even Stephane Grappelli,” I said, shaking my head.  “And don’t get her started about Stuff Smith.”

Stuff Smith 3
Stuff Smith:  “Why me?”

 

“Oh God,” my wife groaned.  “Just the mention of his name makes me want to cover my ears.”

Claire made a little moue with her mouth–what other facial feature was she going to make it with?  “That’s too bad,” she said as she jotted something on her little pad.  “And you madame?” she asked, turning to Sally.

“I’m allergic to guys yammering about football as if everyone cared,” she said.  I looked around quickly and saw there was only one television in the place, and it was over the bar in a spot where Sally couldn’t see it without turning around.  So we were probably in the clear on that one.

“Is it . . . just on TV, or do live human beings have the same effect on you?” Claire asked in a deadpan, just-the-facts-ma’am tone, like Sgt. Joe Friday’s sidekick Harry Morgan in Dragnet.


“I think the team that scores the most points is gonna win!”

 

“Both,” Sally said.  “Although the ones on television seem to have no necks, while the ones around here”–she turned to look at her husband, then me, then around the room generally–“they all seem to have body parts that connect their heads to their torsos.  Why is that?”


“Do you have the same reaction to pre-season games?”

 

“It’s because the ones you see on TV played football too long, and they have no necks left from ramming their heads into each other,” Ted said.  “Guys like us got out while the getting was good,” he added, and I nodded in agreement.  As I often say, the three happiest days of my life were my wedding day, the day I got out of the University of Chicago, and the day I quit high school football.

“Duly noted,” Claire said.  “Gentlemen?”

“You first,” I said to Ted.

“I’m very allergic to decorating magazines,” he said, and I could tell by the look that passed over his face–like the shadow of a storm cloud on a sunny day–that his pain was real.

“Ted,” Sally said with genuine concern in her voice.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was only recently that I hit my saturation level,” he said.

“Like the point where Stevie Wonder and I had both smoked so much pot that the THC in our systems turned us paranoid?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Ted said.  “I mean, we get Southern Living and New England Home.”

“That’s why we fought the Civil War,” I said to Sally.  “To preserve this great nation of ours.”

“We get House Beautiful and Beautiful Home,” Ted said.

“Almost a decorating palindrome,” I said.

“What’s an arena for bicycle racing have to do with interior decorating?” my wife asked.

“You’re thinking of a velodrome,” Ted said.  “A palindrome is a combination of words that reads the same forwards and backwards, like ‘A man, a plan, a canal–Panama!'”

“Oh,” my wife said.  She’s the math major, I’m the word guy.

“But yesterday,” Ted said, then paused for a moment as if the difficulty of what he was about to say took the air out of his lungs.  “I saw a copy of Vestibule magazine on the coffee table.”

“It’s free,” Sally said.  “I didn’t buy it–it comes with . . .”

“It doesn’t matter, it was the tipping point for me,” Ted said, color rushing into his cheeks.  “What’s next–Den Magazine?  Foyer Magazine?  Sears Tool Shed Magazine.”

Claire waited a second for that storm to pass.  “Et vous?” she asked, turning to me.

I swallowed, and hard.  When one suffers from a crippling disability, it isn’t easy to admit it publicly.  “I,” I began, but stopped, all choked up.

Lady Di
We really have one.

 

“Yes?” my wife said, her eyes little pools of sympathy.

“I’m allergic to Anglophiles.”

You could have heard a breadstick hit the richly-carpeted floor of the little boit de nuite (literally: “box of night”).

“Sweetie,” my wife said, her face a map of anguish.  “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because,” and here I was gasping for breath, “I know how much the little princess in you loves British royalty.  I’ve overcome my deep aversion to landed gentry and upper-class British twits and learned to live with you and your Lady Di-Prince Charles fruitcake tin, but . . . it’s hard.”

“Isn’t there something you can take for it?” Sally asked.  She’s a doctor, and thinks that Western medicine has a cure for everything.

“There’s no drug strong enough to counter-act the pervasive Anglophilia around here,” I said.  I tried not to be curt, but people have no idea what I go through every day.  “Channel 2″–our award-winning public TV station–“would have nothing but dead air to broadcast if it weren’t for tepid British dramas.”

“They never show any sports, that’s for sure,” Ted said.

“And if they did, it would be cricket,” I said.  There was a lump in my throat, and you could hear it in my voice.  “We fought a freaking war to rid ourselves of the dead hand of Albion . . .”

“Who’s Albion?” Sally asked.

“A poetic name for England, much used by William Blake.”

“I thought he was one of your jazz violists,” my wife said.

“You’re thinking of Al Biondi–different guy.”

“O-kay,” Claire said.  “Is that it?”

“That’s it for me,” I said as I dabbed at my eyes with my napkin.

“Excellent,” Claire said.  “Excusez-moi for a moment, I must speak to the owner.”  With that she turned and headed towards the maitre’d’s station, and returned with our host, a suave-looking man in a dinner jacket, tuxedo shirt and fake bow tie.

“Bon soir,” the man said.  “My name is Emile.  I am the proprietor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, not sensing any trouble.

“I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave,” he said.  I’d say I was speechless, but I found my tongue and palate and asked him “Why?”

“Because, my friend, you are all so–how you say–allergic, there is nothing on the menu we can serve you.”

 

For One Young Director, Film Noir’s as Dark as Crankcase Oil

SOMERVILLE, Mass. When Evan Winslow earned his bachelor’s degree in film from New York University last spring he had visions of being the next John Huston, or at least Peter Bogdanovich. “You spend four years in college exposed to nothing but works of genius,” he recalls a bit ruefully. “I must have missed the class about earning a living.”


Bogdanovich: “You have to start at the bottom, like I did, manning the popcorn machine.”

After receiving either form rejections or no response at all to some seven hundred resumes he sent out, he had exactly zero job offers in the film industry and his share of the rent coming due for the three-bedroom apartment he shared with his girlfriend Mindy Heinz, a budding actress, and two graduate students. “I’m not proud,” he recalls, “but I think filming weddings and bar mitzvahs would be a poor use of my cinematic training.”


“Un Chien Andalou is good–also Weekend at Bernie’s.”

Determined to put his artistic skills to use, he started his own video production company, borrowing money from his parents and maxing out several credit cards he’d received upon graduation. He found work almost immediately, but the subject matter was something of a comedown from the lofty themes of love and despair he found so compelling in the films of La Nouvelle Vague, the “new wave” French directors of the 1950’s and 60’s.


“At Mike’s Collision Repair, your car comes out smooth with no unsightly dents like Moose the auto body guy has in his head.”

 

“Basically, Somerville is the re-built engine capital of New England,” he notes with visible disdain. “Owners of auto body repair shops like to feature wives or girlfriends in their commercials, gracefully waving their arms like auto show girls.”


Dream scene: “I am floating in either used 10W40 oil, or the bad coffee in the customer waiting area.”

 

Evan tries to persuade his clients to “push the envelope” aesthetically, and to use Mindy in the commercials he makes for them, but he finds them resistant to change. “My girlfriend Debbie is better-looking and less depressing,” objects Tony DeMarino, owner of a towing business. “She also has bigger tits, but I suppose I’m not allowed to say that in an interview.”


Mindy, at a casting call.

 

So Evan and Mindy do what they can to enhance the film noir aspects of their 30-second spots, panning up from a running oil spill under a service bay to a graphic depiction of the grimy underbody of a Ford Taurus station wagon up on a rack, or enlivening a head shot of a used car dealer with a fleeting image of a wan and naked Mindy running along the back wall of a garage, beneath a rack of hanging fan belts.


Fan belts: Rarely used in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, despite his proletarian sympathies.

 

“I got that idea from Los Olvidados,” the Luis Bunuel classic, says Winslow. “I wanted to use the eye-slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou, but I decided to save that in case I move up to opticians.”

 

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

As Summer Wanes, Grade School Cougars Start to Prowl

NATICK, Mass. Emily Adams is a twelve-year-old who will be entering sixth grade at Mosi Tatupu Middle School in this western suburb of Boston next month, and today finds her with her mother taking advantage of a sales tax holiday as they shop for back-to-school needs.


“Let’s see–Artgum eraser, backpack, boyfriend . . .”

 

But Emily’s eyes aren’t on her new pencil box and three-ring binder as she waits for the cashier to ring up her purchases. Instead, she’s looking at rising fourth-grader Timmy Fallman, who’s with his mother two cash registers to her left. “He doesn’t know it yet,” Emily tells this reporter, “but he’s going to be my new boyfriend.”


“Sure it’s fine . . . if you want me to marry the manager of a Jiffy-Lube.”

 

Like penguins, Emily practices a form of serial monogamy, dumping her boyfriend for a new one every fall, but this year she has sworn off boys in her own grade and is looking for a younger man. “It’s due to a constellation of factors,” says her mother Trish, an assistant producer of Nova, the public television science program. “Boys in her grade learned how to belch on cue and make armpit farts last year, so she’s looking for someone . . . how shall I put this . . . more malleable.”


“My fifth-grade boyfriend could never satisfy me this way!”

 

Emily and girls like her form a new sociological group within the K-12 demographic; pre-teen “cougars” who seek out younger men rather than put up with the gross habits that boys acquire as they near puberty. “In many ways, it’s a wise choice,” says actuary Mike Mildam of Modern Moosehead Life Insurance, whose headquarters is just a frisbee toss away at the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike. “A young girl can expect to live five years longer than a boy her age. What’s she going to do for the last half-decade of her life–twiddle her thumbs and watch Wheel of Fortune?”


“She’s twelve. What would we talk about?”

 

There is a financial aspect to the trend as well, as many older boys are saddled with obligations to “legacy” girlfriends that act as a drag on their spending power, like alimony. “Brian Forsh asked me to go to the movies but I said no,” says Vicki Swinson, who will be head cheerleader for the Oil Can Boyd Middle School Vikings this fall. “He gave his old girlfriend a ring over the summer, and I know he hasn’t got two Chuck E Cheese tokens to rub together now.”

Emily knows her younger man will eventually acquire all the nasty traits of boys her age, but she hopes to teach and guide him as he matures in order to modulate their more baleful aspects. “He’s a guy, so I know he’s going to pick his nose,” she says with resignation. “But if I get to him when he’s young, maybe he won’t eat it.”

For Budding Cowboy Poets, Hot Practices Only Get Verse

AMARILLO, Texas. Joe Don Mergen has just two weeks of freedom left before he begins the school year as a sophomore at Darrell Royal High School here, but he says he’s looking forward to Labor Day even though it will mean a return to school books and an end to summer fun.

“It’ll mean the end of two-a-day practices, and I’m all for that,” he says.

Joe Don was a highly-touted halfback at Tommy Nobis Junior High School when a crushing tackle in the last seconds of a come-from-behind win over archrival Bum Phillips Voke-Tech left him with a fractured vertebrae, effectively ending a promising football career.

“I was real depressed there for a while,” he says. “I considered suicide, but I learned at Vacation Bible Camp that you can go to hell for that.”

So Joe Don followed the route taken by an increasing number of Texas teenage jocks whose football glory days are prematurely cut short and joined his high school’s Cowboy Poet Squad.

“It gives you something to say to girls,” he says with a shy smile. “Most of the guys on the football team never get beyond ‘Wassup?’”

The frontier ethic that turned Texas high school football into a metaphor for the hardscrabble nature of life on the windswept plains of the adjective-rich Lone Star State has been carried over to high school poetry with the tradition of “two-a-day” practices. Morning practices begin at 6 a.m., and there is a second afternoon session every day until Labor Day.


MacLeish and McKuen

 

“This is where we separate the Archibald MacLeish’s from the Rod McKuen’s,” says head coach Jim Ray Dugan, a former English major at the University of Texas. “I don’t want to hear any sentimental ‘June-moon’ crap out there today-understand?” he barks at thirty young men who fear that they will be consigned to the school yearbook staff if they don’t make the cut for the Cowboy Poetry Squad.


Burma-Shave signs

After limbering-up exercises that include limericks and Burma-Shave rhymes, the boys disperse into offensive and defensive groups, with Dugan taking the Romantics while his assistant, Ray Eberle, works with the Symbolists.

“Guys, we’ve got six weeks before we play John David Crow Prep,” he says, referring to a long-time powerhouse that had three representatives on the Parade Magazine High-School All-America Poetry Team the previous year. “You guys have got to be sharp, you’ve got to scan your sonnets precisely, okay?”


John David Crow, Texas A&M football great with a name that’s pure poetry

 

“Yes sir!” the boys shout in military fashion. “Mergen–line up against A.C.,” the coach says, referring to an African-American senior named Alonzo Carl Byrd who is already drawing comparisons to Langston Hughes. “When I give the signal, you peel out, okay?” he says to A.C.

“Got it coach.”


Langston Hughes: 9.7 yards after the catch

 

The boys take their positions across from each other at the line of scrimmage as their coach counts off a quarterback’s cadence–”Hut-one, hut-two, hut-three.” He slaps A.C. on the butt, and the wide receiver takes off on a traditional sideline-and-up pattern:

Old Bill Jones had two daughters and a song,
One went to Dallas and the other went wrong.

Mergen back-peddles and keeps Byrd in front of him, as he’s been coached. Suddenly, Byrd puts the “up” move on him after Coach Dugan pump-fakes a pass to the sideline.

His wife she died in a poolroom fight
While he kept singin’ day and night.

The juke-step has given the receiver a yard on the defender, and the coach lofts a tight spiral that Byrd is just about to haul in when Mergen recovers.

You’re wife’s as ugly as a bitch coyote
And you ain’t half the man of Truman Capote.


Truman Capote: “Why did you drag me into this post?”

 

“Good job, son,” his coach says gruffly, not wanting praise to go to the young man’s head with the home opener coming up.

As Mergen trots back up the field, his coach notices that A.C. Byrd is bent over, puking up his guts. “Goddamn it A.C.,” Dugan yells. “Were you out drinkin’ last night?”

“Just some amaretto while I worked on my sestinas,” Byrd says, obviously winded from an elementary pattern he should be able to handle easily if he had followed the squad’s mandatory offseason conditioning program.

“If you guys think you can go out there and sling a few similes around and beat John David Crow, you are sadly mistaken,” the coach says as he shakes his head. He blows his whistle and calls the entire squad into the middle of the field for wind sprints.

“All right, we’re gonna go at it hard today, cause I get the impression some of you been doggin’ it on me,” the coach says, and the budding poets inhale deeply, preparing themselves for the worst.

“Haikus and villainelles, stay right here. Elegies and terzanelles, over there.”

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

The Quest for the Next Great American Novelist

It was a steamy summer three decades ago. I was working for the federal government at a scandal-plagued agency alongside a veteran bureaucrat named Fred. Fred wasn’t going any higher on the org chart, but on the other hand–because of Civil Service regulations–he was never going to be fired, no matter how assiduously he avoided work and decision-making at all costs. He had a nice life, and he knew it. As Thomas Jefferson once said of federal jobs, “Vacancies by death are few, by resignation none.”


“Z-z-z-z-z-z-z . . .”

 

I learned many valuable lessons from Fred. You could take a nap in the carrels in the back of the library. S-t-r-e-t-c-h every project so that you never ran out of work; if you did, they might give you some more. The Three Questions That Must be Asked Before You Ever Respond to Somebody Else’s Question: Who wants to know? What do they want to know for? When do they want an answer? Mission-critical stuff that keeps this country moving!

Most importantly, take every minute–every second–of your allotted breaks. You’re not getting paid as much as the private sector, so don’t give your time away. If we finished lunch in the basement cafeteria in a half hour, we sure as hell weren’t going back to our desks for another half hour.

It was on these occasions that Fred taught me a valuable tool of literary criticism that I use to this day. “C’mon,” he said as we headed out into the Washington humidity, “Let’s go look for the Next Great American Novelist.”


“Nope–I don’t think so.”

 

An unlikely quest, you might say, and that was exactly my thought. Washington doesn’t produce novelists the way Russia cranks out chess champs and ballerinas, because the young and the creative don’t go to D.C. to fulfill their artistic dreams; they go to New York, or Hollywood, or Nashville–anyplace but D.C. Novels about national politics tend to have brief butterfly-length life spans; they may be the bright entertainment of the season–Advice and Consent, Primary Colors, etc.–but they don’t endure, proof of the maxim that love and other elemental human interests are more important than politics.

“Where are you going to find the Next Great American Novelist?” I asked Fred.


“You think it could be him? Nah.”

 

“You know, that’s the amazing thing,” he replied. “It could be anywhere–a bookstore, a coffee shop. Speaking of which, let’s try this place,” he said as he stopped outside a non-chain precursor to the espresso craze that would sweep the nation in the years to come.

We approached the counter and Fred turned to say “Watch closely.”

The barista looked up and acknowledged us, although not with enthusiasm. “That’s a good sign,” Fred said sotto voce.

“Hi,” Fred said in his friendliest manner. “What’s the coffee of the day?”

“It’s a dark-roast Sumatra blend with spicy overtones,” the woman said, and not unpleasantly.

“I guess I’ll have one of those, with room for milk, thanks,” Fred said, then turned to me and asked “You want anything?”

“A large iced coffee.”

“Very good,” the woman said, and turned to her task.

“So what do you think?” Fred asked me.

“I dunno. What does making coffee have to do with writing a novel?”

“Everything–and nothing. If you don’t consider serving a fellow human being in a commercial setting to be beneath you, you probably don’t have what it takes to be the Next Great American Novelist.”


Ellington and Hodges: “Let’s try to sneak out of this post at the next paragraph break.”

 

“Ah,” I said, beginning to see the light as the Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges song goes. “So you’re looking for somebody who’s condescending . . .”

“Almost haughty.”

“Indifferent . . .”

“I think ‘hostile’ is le mot juste . . .”

“. . . who basically sends the message that he or she has something better to do than wait on you.”

“Precisely–they should be writing the Next Great American Novel, but instead they’re stuck in some lousy minimum-wage retail job.”

We drank our coffee as we roamed the sweltering streets and, as we finished, found ourselves outside Hecht’s, then the top-shelf department store in D.C. “This place is a veritable breeding ground for Great American Novelists!” Fred said with enthusiasm.

We wandered the aisles for a while, exchanging nods with the floorwalker, passing through a haze of perfume sprayed by the spritzer girls in the cosmetics department, and then Fred stopped short, throwing an arm across my chest with such force he almost knocked me over.


“We’re not novelists!”

“It’s him,” he said breathlessly. “If that isn’t the Next Great American Novelist standing there right in front of us, as plain as a pig on a sofa as Flannery O’Connor might say, I don’t know my scribblers.”

I looked up and saw the tie counter, and behind it a young man, well-groomed, apparently bored to tears, with barely-suppressed rage boiling up within.


O’Connor on sofa, without pig

“You think so?” I asked, although the testimony of my senses answered my own question for me. The fellow hissed as sighs of disgust escaped from him. It was hard to fight off seasickness induced by the rolling of his eyes as he stood there, folding and arranging ties on hanging displays and under the glass counter.

“Let’s roll,” Fred said, and he approached the counter with all the modest self-restraint of a used car salesman.

“Hello there, young fellow!” he boomed out, his face a picture of amiability. “How are you today?”

“Fine,” the young man said as his eyelids just barely rose high enough to reveal his pupils. I noted he didn’t offer to help us.

“I’m looking for something in a stripe to go with a checked suit,” Fred said, scanning the haberdasher’s wares.

You could see the sales guy trembling inwardly. It shook him to his core to hear someone suggest that he would actually consider wearing a striped tie with a plaid suit, but he didn’t want to offer a suggestion to the contrary since that would have required . . . human interaction.

“We have some stripes over here,” the fellow said, as if he were offering us day-old mashed potatoes.

Fred surveyed the selection, then shook his head with distaste as if he were rejecting some long-held belief that had led him astray in life–virgin birth, warm water freezes faster than cold, always take the points on the road. “No, what I think I need,” he said thougtfully, “is a foulard. You got any foulards?”

The young man sighed loudly enough to be heard at the gloves and scarves counter. “The foulards are over here,” he said with annoyance.

Again, Fred trained his gimlet eye on the selection. “Could I see . . . this one,” he said, pointing to a vibrant pink number.

“This one?”

“No . . . that one,” Fred said.

“Why don’t I bring out both since I can’t see your fingers from behind the counter.”

“Very well,” Fred said.

When the selected ties were laid out on the counter, Fred put his finger to his chin and gave them the gimlet eye. “You know what,” he said after a few moments, “I’ve always been a big fan of Winston Churchill’s–do you have any of those little pin dot numbers he used to wear?”

I thought I heard the young man groan, but I couldn’t be sure. It wasn’t as loud as Old Faithful before it erupts, but on the other hand it was . . . audible . . . and growing in volume . . . like a freight train approaching a station from a long way off.

“Do you think you will be making a purchase in the next thirty seconds?” the clerk finally snapped.

“I don’t know,” Fred said, not even looking up. “Twenty-four ninety-five for a tie is a big investment.”

With that the young man turned on his heels and spun out the little gate to the department store floor, saying “Well that’s too bad, because it’s my break time!”

Another young man appeared wordlessly behind the counter, but Fred was too engrossed in the sight of the young man who’d been waiting on him as he strode purposefully away, like an ocean liner under full steam.

“I expect great things out of that fellow some day,” he said with admiration.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Maybe not Moby Dick,” Fred said, “but The Sound and the Fury is not out of the question.”

At One Open-Mic, Singers Vie to Out-Blasé Each Other

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.  This city has been home to a thriving folk music scene since the 60s, when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others, performed regularly at Club 47 (now Passim) and other hole-in-the-wall venues where fans listened attentively to both traditional ballads and thoughtful original works.

passim
“So dry your eyes, it’s getting late, I really despise the guy I used to date.”

 

But while the club scene has survived, the tone of the songs sung in them has shifted from tender to bitter, a by-product of the “hook-up” culture of casual sex with no commitment that pervades college campuses these days.  “It used to be ‘O my love is like a red, red rose,’ says Ethan Sowerk, who books acts at The Hungry Other.  “Now it’s ‘O the woman I met in a bar last night was like one of those fake carnations you throw away after one wearing.'”

And with that change in the prevailing winds The Hungry O, as it is called by locals who save precious time for texting by dropping the second syllable, has come a emotional shift as stark as those recorded on seventies mood rings following the decline of the communal spirit of the sixties: the lucrative cash prize of half the paid admissions awarded weekly to the winner of the club’s highly-competitive “open mic” nights goes not to the man or woman who is the best musician and singer, but to the one who can best competitors in expressing indifference to former lovers.

mood ring
“I sense that you’re going through a period of umbrage mixed with chagrin.”

 

“Some of the most blasé singer-songwriters in New England walk through those doors,” says co-owner Janet Bermudi, who founded the club with her partner Joyce DeShevel when they both dropped out of Boston University and crossed the Charles River for the bohemian atmosphere of Cambridge in 1973.  “A guy will get up and sing he doesn’t give a shit about the woman who dumped him, then a willowy Judy Collins look-alike will top him by singing she couldn’t give two shits about her former boyfriend.”

It all makes for an experience that can leave patrons wondering why they should care about the budding artists, who reserve their strongest feelings for having no feelings at all.  “Thank you,” says Tom Martin, Jr., a tousle-haired young man with a classic Martin guitar who drew the undesirable first spot on last night’s program, a disadvantage because the audience has yet to be warmed up by chamomile tea.  “This is a little something I wrote for a girl who left me a note last Sunday saying she was sorry, but she had an 8:00 Zumba–whatever that is–class to teach.”

zumba
Zumba the indigenous people, or the dance fitness program created by Alberto “Beto” Perez?

 

Martin clears his throat, then begins softly in his middle range:

Oh Amy, I hardly knew ye,
Though last night you sparked my desire–
You left this morning bright and early,
I didn’t even hear the blow dryer.

There is a shock of recognition from some of the young women in the crowd, and Donna Zabriskie, a claims adjuster for Modern Moosehead Indemnity whispers to a friend “I know that jerk–he deserved it!”

Martin runs through two more songs to hit his limit, and is followed by Cheryl-Ann Lombard-Forenzi, the only hammer dulcimer player in Massachusetts with two hyphens in her name.  She carts her instrument onto the stage, seats herself behind it, then begins to whack out a sprightly rhythm.

What should I do with the pair of boxers you left?
I ask because it’s not like I’m, you know, bereft.
Is there a state of indifference below “couldn’t care less”?
Also, you left the bathroom a mess.

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