At the Painful Memory Erasure Lab

          Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology replaced negative memories of electric shocks in mice with the pleasurable one of mingling with mice of the opposite sex.

The Boston Globe

After working as an experimental subject for six months–half my lifespan–I was ready to relax a bit.  No more running round in mazes, responding to stimuli all day for me; these were supposed to be my golden months fer Christ sake, a time to reflect on what I’d accomplished on behalf of the institution of higher leaning I’d served so well.

But my plan to glide to a soft landing in the eternal quiet of the grave was hit by crosswinds, a downdraft and a stupid seagull in my right engine, so to speak.  I’d been shocked so many times that the slightest sound–a fellow test subject chomping on Charles River Rat Pellets, the Grey Poupon of mouse lab cuisine, for example–would send me up the wall and out of my cage.  That sort of behavior–as you might imagine–is frowned upon by underpaid adjunct lab assistants.


“I don’t care if you got an audition with the Boston Pops–pipe down!”

 

So out of the kindness of the humans’ hearts–I’ll continue when you stop laughing–they came up with cutting edge genetic tools to try to alter the emotional context of painful memories.  The hope is that someday they’ll be able to use them to erase the painful recollections that torture humans like Jerry, my personal human lab rat.  I see them come over his face whenever somebody brings a Diet Coke into the lunch room here at the Otto and Ruth B. Tucker Memorial Science Building; he recalls his senior high school prom, the pinnacle of his adolescent dating experience, when he spilled a cup of the brown beverage all over the white gown worn by his date, the zaftig Clydia Jean Wingo.

I want to help the poor sap, so I volunteered, hoping both he and I might find  surcease of our respective sources of pain.

And so here I am sniffing xenon gas, hoping that I won’t be so jumpy when I hear loud noises from now on.  This better be the decaf version.

Hmm–colorless and odorless, sort of like vodka.  Swirl it around the old nostrils, then with one big gulp like a swimmer getting a mouthful of air on the breath stroke, I swallow it down.

Not bad–not bad at all.  Now, to see if this stuff works.

They start flashing images designed to recall the pain of electric shock; an electric chair, a toaster oven, an annoying solo by a “shred” guitar player.  Okay, I can handle this.  Is that all ya got?  C’mon, show me a live 220 volt wire or something.

They keep ‘em coming, but all I can think of is–mingling with mice of the opposite sex.  How . . . pleasant.

So this is what my new life will be like; all the pain and suffering I’ve been through before to earn my daily bread–gone!  And in its place images of Veronica, the cute little Peromyscus leucopus over in the hamster wheel division.  Gosh, she’d be so nice to come home to, as the old Cole Porter song put it.

What?  What’s that?  Her image seems to be speaking to me, as in a dream: Please put the lettuce away in the fridge, you don’t like it room temperature?  Don’t take a nap with my head on the throw pillows?  Could I at least send my mother-in-law a birthday card for once?  Would it kill me not to roll my eyes when Grey’s Anatomy is on?

Call the FDA–the cure is worse than the disease.

As Faulkner’s Birthday Nears, Mailmen Ask “What If?”

OXFORD, Miss. This college town of approximately 19,000 was once home to William Faulkner, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, but before he became famous, Faulkner was postmaster at the University of Mississippi Substation Post Office here, a fact that endears him to postal employees around the world.


Oxford, Mississippi

 

“He could have been one of the great ones,” says Dewey Norman, a letter carrier for the past three decades. “Instead, he took the easy way out and became a Nobel Prize-winning author.”


Faulkner: “You know what you can do with that postcard, Mr. Beauregard?”

 

The link between Faulkner’s experimental, stream-of-consciousness style and first class mail is celebrated every year in September as postmasters from around the country converge on Oxford to celebrate the Nobel Prize winner’s life and mail-sorting techniques. “Faulkner was known for ignoring customers and playing cards in the back room,” says Mitchell Helms, Assistant Postmaster of Tarkio, Missouri. “That’s a style that will endure when the go-go methods of Federal Express and UPS fade into oblivion.”

Faulkner eventually quit his job as postmaster, saying that he was tired of being “at the beck and call of every son of a bitch with a two-cent stamp.” “My sentiments exactly,” says Oren Daily, Jr., a postman in Muskogee, Oklahoma, “even though the price of stamps goes up every year.”


“I’ll be there in a minute–I’m out back sunning myself.”

 

Faulkner even used the imagery of first-class mail to describe the setting of his writings. “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it,” Faulkner said of Lafayette County, Mississippi, the basis for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. “I also found that if you lick the two of them, neither one tastes good.”

The anniversary of Faulkner’s birthday is September 25th, but postmen are sending out invitations well in advance of that date in order to insure a good crowd. “We waited until the week before one year,” says Faulkner’s postal descendant Gregory Hollins, “and the letters didn’t get there until Halloween.”

Ask Mr. Furniture

Refinishing furniture can be a fun–and profitable!–hobby for those who have a creative side and enjoy inhaling toxic fumes.  Mr. Furniture answers your questions and helps you turn “gunk” to “glow” and “crap” to “crapola.”

Dear Mr. Furniture–

I have a bone to pick with you.  I have been after my husband for years to refinish the chifferobe in our bedroom.  I inherited it from my mother, just barely gettting it out of her house before my sister-in-law had a chance to grab it.

Well, “Floyd” (not his real name in case his sister is reading this) finally agreed to start on it Labor Day weekend but he is not very “handy” so he asked me what he should do.  I read Chapter 3 of your book “From Junk to Jewels!” where it says it takes about a quart of alcohol to remove the finish from an average-sized chifferobe.  I told “Floyd” and went to the regional meeting of the Daughters of Ruth at our church, figuring I was entitled to some time off after hectoring that man for the better part of a week.

Well, when I come back he was asleep on the couch, passed out with a fifth of Old Crow in his hand.  I shook him until he woke up and I said “This is how you repay me for having sex with you once a week, regular as clockwork, for 29 years?”  It was a rhetorical question, I wasn’t expecting any real answer.

He blinks and says “Sorry, honey.  Burton’s Liquors didn’t have the quart bottle, so I had to make do with a fifth.”  This is all because of you Mr. Furniture, and I am going to complain to your newspaper syndicate.

(Mrs.) Opal Lee Vacca
Camdenton Mo.

Dear Ms. Vacca–

I must plead “innocent” to the charges.   I said use “wood alcohol,” not bourbon whiskey.  Had you followed my directions closely, your husband would be dead and this argument could have been avoided.

 

Dear Mr. Furniture:

I bought an old commode–I suppose there is no other kind with indoor plumbing being nearly universal now–which I would like to refinish and turn into a decorative conversation piece for my front parlor.

I considered a sewing table, then a buffet, then a coffee table, but it really is not suitable for any of these uses.  I have decided to make it into a baby grand piano and was wondering what color stain you think would go best.

Eve-Elise Brisker-Norton, Shrewsbury, Mass.

Dear Eve-Elise–

What a great idea–you certainly have an imagination!

I would use a darker stain, such as mahogany, English chestnut or Minwax #2718, “Espresso.”  Be sure to add plenty of white and black keys and your little project will be a “hit” the next time you have your artistic friends over.

 

Dear Mr. Furniture–

My husband Evan and I are practicing vegans, and strictly abstain from the use of animal products, even those that may have dinosaurs in them, such as motor oil.  I read the column in which you said “shellac–the traditional finish of the old cabinet-makers–is still the most widely used by the home refinisher.”  You said nothing about any animal products being used in its manufacture, did you?

Well, when we had our fellow vegan friends Tim and Lisa over for dinner of lentil soup, lentil bread, lentil loaf and and macrame pudding, I told them I had used shellac on an end table I found on the curb where a student had discarded it, and they were horrified.  “Don’t you know shellac starts out as a resinous substance deposited by the female lac bug on the trunks of trees in India?” Tim said.  He has been on Jeopardy! and won over a thousand dollars, and so is very smart.


Female lac bug, making a resinous deposit.

 

Well, of course word got out–Lisa is like that–and now we are no longer invited to the “nicer” vegan affairs and our children are shunned by other vegan children on the playground.

I have a hard time being sarcastic because I am a nice person, but any suggestions, Mr. Furniture?

Miriam Konitz, Evanston, Ill.

 

Dear Miriam–

Don’t get your animal-friendly underpants in an uproar!  No lac bugs are killed in the making of shellac, and they survive the process quite well unless you paint the stuff over them–which I’m sure you wouldn’t do.  In order to get back in the good graces of your vegan friends, why don’t you go through Tim and Lisa’s garbage and see if you can find a Burger King Whopper wrapper!


“Haven’t you got something a little more damaged?”

 

Dear Mr. Furniture–

This question may be more legal than refinishing, but here goes.  I import new furniture from my native Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, and sell it at a mark-up as antique.  There has been an anonymous posting on my store’s website making the absurd claim that this is unfair and deceptive–I suspect a disgruntled law student who tried to return a coffee table kit because he couldn’t figure out how to put it together.  “Mycket svar!” I told him, because it was more than 30 days after purchase and he did not have the sales receipt.

I am now afraid that he may take legal action.  Is there something I can do to bring myself in compliance with your annoying U.S. “consumer protection” laws?

Sven Bjorklund, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

 

Sven–

Welcome to our country, where commercial chicanery is now somehow suspect after two hundred years of robust economic growth under the motto “Caveat emptor.”

In order to satisfy the Fair Trade in Antique Furniture Act of 1994, you should follow this “safe harbor” procedure: Take all new furniture as soon as it is uncrated, and fire a shotgun at it.  Attach by a log chain to the back of a vehicle and drag around an asphalt parking lot for fifteen (15) minutes.  Drop down a basement stairway, then place in an open pickup truck bed and drive through a carwash.

Your “new” furniture will look as “good as old” when you get through, so don’t forget to mark it up another ten percent!

 

 

Let’s Put on a Show!

Like every red-blooded American boy of a certain age–gay or straight–the first time I saw Judy Garland I fell deeply and tragically in love.  Those big cocker spaniel eyes; the quivering lip when faced with perplexity; the slightly pudgy midsection; the permanent wave that anticipated Farrah Fawcett’s flaring side-bangs of the seventies.  She was, as the French would say, trop pour moi.  Also des saucisses, sans doubte.

 

Babes in Arms
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in “Babes in Arms”

 

But what I and my somewhat effeminate friend Dennis loved about her most was her willingness to stop whatever she was doing, no matter how important, and break into song.  Some of the transitions were awkward, of the “. . . and that’s why I say–” variety memorably mocked by comedian Jonathan Winters in his stand-up send-up of Broadway shows.  But we didn’t care.

 


Jonathan Winters

 

No, Judy was our heroine, and not just because of The Wizard of Oz, one of those classic movies an indulgent teacher might actually let you watch in the classroom as a study aid to Frank Baum’s text.  Judy–like Dennis and I–had a dream burning inside her, an eternal internal flame, and she wasn’t going to let anybody or anything stand in her way.

puppet show
Actual backyard puppet show

 

In Dennis’s case, that dream was his own backyard puppet show.  He didn’t care what the rough boys said about him; he just went ahead and built his jerry-rigged puppet theatre, set it up in his front yard, tried to charge admission–a dismal failure, since you could stand outside his fence and watch for free–and then put on his show.

Just like Judy and Mickey Rooney in “Babes in Arms,” the mother of all “Let’s put on a show” shows, not to get too meta on you.  It was Judy who said “We’ve gotta have a great show, with a million laughs . . . and color . . . and a lot of lights to make it sparkle.  And songs–wonderful songs. And after we get the people in that hall, we’ve gotta start ‘em in laughing right away. Oh, can’t you just see it?”


Er, you may want to re-think the minstrel number.

 

In that 1939 movie, Mickey and Judy put on a show because their parents, aging vaudevillians, won’t take them on a revival tour, sort of like Ozzie Osborne not wanting to let his kids perform in a Black Sabbath reunion concert.  The “Let’s put on a show” theme has morphed into something larger with a much broader reach; it is now used as an inspiration when times seem bleakest, a ray of hope in your darkest hour in a wide variety of situations.  Outbreak of bubonic plague?  Mudslide in the Chilean Andes?  Forty-car pileup on fog-shrouded highway?  Let’s put on a show!

The number of Let’s-Put-on-a-Show movies is in the low double figures, including such cinema classics as Blues Brothers, The Full Monty, White Christmas and Hannah Montana.  South Park and SpongeBob Square Pants have used the theme, as has The Onion.  It’s not too great of a stretch to say that one-off benefits such as Farm Aid are real-life derivatives of the phenomenon, a sort of life-imitates-art inversion.


“The band sucks–but they’re all we’ve got.”

 

The importance in life of merely putting on a show was impressed upon me in college when, trying to make time with the most popular woman on campus, I uttered some cutting remark about a half-assed band playing covers of Grateful Dead songs at a backyard party.  “Well, at least they’re doing something to make life more enjoyable around here,” she said with disdain bordering on contempt.  Also bordering on Lake Michigan, since we were in Chicago.

I took that lesson to heart, and as a result have since put on plays of my own composition in venues large and small, but mainly small.  The basement of a former grade school.  A room in a YMCA next to the indoor swimming pool, which steeped the audience with the smell of chlorine.


“Some guy in there thinks he’s Hamlet or sumpin’.”

 

I reached the nadir of my experience as playwright one night in Salem, Massachusetts–that’s right, where they used to burn witches.  I had responded to a “call for scripts” and my hockey-themed play was selected for a reading!  When I arrived at the address the night of the performance I found–a pizza parlor.  Thinking there was some mistake, I took a walk up and down the block.  No performance space to be seen.

After standing around for awhile a fellow showed up and introduced himself as one of the actors.  Where were we going to put on the play? I asked.  “In there,” he said.  “After they close.”

 


“Alas, poor Yorick.  He ordered the anchovy.”

 

And so, after the last slice of pepperoni and mushroom had been served, the world premier of What Mickey Belle Isle Told You was held before an audience of precisely one (1); the janitor, who was sweeping up.

But these are the indignities that backyard impresarios and community theatre playwrights endure for your sake, to make of the world a brighter place, one where children laugh, and hearts are free, where men put on shows and women love ‘em.

Instead of the guys in that Godawful Grateful Dead cover band.

Tractor Pull Finds New Fans on Urban Streets

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.  First it was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, an inexpensive lager favored by poor rustic whites and immortalized in the country song “Red Neck, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” then adopted by hipsters.  Then it was the music of Johnny Cash, whose rural noir look and tough guy attitude caught on with a generation of urban twenty-somethings more familiar with country clubs than country music.

pbr

Now another institution originally associated only with the sticks has come to the big city: tractor pulls, a motorsport in which self-described “po’ white trash” drag a heavy metal sled along a dirt track until they can go no further.  The competition has come to urban centers with a twist, however; instead of snarling, turbo-charged farm vehicles, city “power pullers” are limited to hybrids such as the Toyota Prius in deference to the green prejudices of highly-educated post-adolescent types who live in zip codes where the only cash crop is marijuana.

tractor

“There’s no way I could keep my girlfriend Lilith if I drove one of those gas-guzzling carbon-spewing monstrosities,” says Evan Wilentz, a barista at the Central Square Starbucks who’s thinking of going back to school to get a masters degree in phenomeno-phrenology, the study of what the study of philosophy does to your head.  “When she takes a cab she asks the driver not to idle at stoplights,” he recounts with an air of chagrin.
hybrid
273.6 volts of snarling environmental sensitivity!

 

Tractor-pulling season typically reaches its peak in late August around the country as the event is a staple at county and state fairs, and so the organizers of the first Green Power Pull in Cambridge history have followed suit to stage their event in unseasonably cool summer weather on Massachusetts Avenue, the busiest street in the town where brains are more highly valued than brawn.  “We need our students to get in touch with the rest of America,” says Eliot Shawn, a retired dean at the University of Southern New England, a “Gold” sponsor of the event.  “They’ll be bossing them around in a few years, so it’s important they learn how to relate.”

The finals pit Wilentz against Tynan Bigbee, a bartender at Paul’s Pub in Porter Square, whose Honda Accord Plug-In model has been modified, just like the midwestern tractor jockeys he sort of emulates.  “I added a lot of cool stuff,” he notes with pride.  “There’s a sun-roof, and a 6-CD changer and Blue Tooth.”

The two take their places at the starting line and, with the drop of a flag they are off, each dragging a sledge behind him onto which denizens of the Athens of America climb as their respective wussmobiles make their way down the street.

“I’m on!” squeals Melinda Pickets, a jewelry-maker who crafts earrings out of discarded bottle caps and road kill she finds in the street.  “It serves a dual purpose,” she tells this reporter.  “It gets ugly trash off the street and onto the earlobes of my customers.”


“Earrings out of a dead pigeon?  Awesome!”

 

“So am I!” shouts her friend Amy Fenster-Bender, a buyer at a used record store across the steet.

The two women are joined by others until the hybrid vehicles begin to slow, sputter and then peter out as they approach the Cambridge City Hall, famous for its outdoor musical chimes that annoy nearby residents at taxpayer expense.

“I’m gonna beat you!” Wilentz shouts at Bigbee over their engines’ whine, and it is indeed the Prius that triumphs over the Plug-In Accord by a nose.

But, like angry NASCAR drivers who have “swapped paint” down the straightaway at Talledega Superspeedway, the two are at each other’s throats as soon as the winner is declared, with Bigbee playing the part of the aggressor.

“You bastard!” he shouts and lunges at the Prius owner, grabbing him around the neck before an official from NEHTPA–the New England Hybrid Tractor Pull Association–separates them.

“What is your problem, man?” Wilentz counters, genuinely mystified as to the source of his rival’s anger.

“I woulda won if . . .”

“If what?”

“If I’d had a longer extension cord.”

Sans-Serif Forces Capture Garamond Capital in Typeface Clash

GLYPH, Garamond.  Internecine fighting in this war-torn region abated yesterday as Sans-Serif fighters from the province of Calibri took control of the capital of Garamond, previously held by Serif loyalists.


“Gimme a V!”

“We have been welcomed as liberators,” said Gill Sans, leader of the rebel forces.  “The people threw off their serifs and danced in the streets.”


Claude Garamond, “The Father of His Typeface”

Serif forces downplayed the importance of the loss of the city, saying they would regroup and return to fight another day.  “This is typical of provincial Sans-Serif thinking,” said Caslon Frutiger.  “We have 26 capitals, the loss of one here or there is like change behind the sofa cushions.”

Sans-Serifs are so named because they do not wear “serifs,” a fine cross stroke at the top or bottom of a letter’s make-up.  They model themselves after “sans-culottes,” French revolutionaries who refused to wear culottes to pep rallies and sock hops during the 1960s.  The Garamond region, like Alsace-Lorraine, has been the scene of fierce territorial battles since the invention of moveable type in 1436 by Johannes Gutenberg, with Serifs holding the upper hand until the twentieth century when Sans-Serif fonts flooded into the region to handle jobs Serifs refused, such as desktop publishing.

“We are the whipping boys of typography,” said Arial Helvetica, a young woman who says she has faced persecution for using a Comic Sans font to make signs for her tent in the refugee camp at Andale Mono.  “They say you can get diseases from walking around without serifs, but I like a more casual look.”

With Arthur Rimbaud at the Chamber of Commerce

French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote most of his well-known works as a teenager, then abandoned poetry for a mercantile career.

                                              Poetry Magazine


Rimbaud

 

It’s 11:45 and I’m standing outside Rimbaud’s Hardware, waiting for my friend Art to break away so we can head over to the Chamber of Commerce lunch at the Bothwell Hotel.  Art is listening to a customer complain about a lawn sprinkler he bought the week before–apparently the guy can’t figure out how to change the flow from one side to the other without getting soaked.

“Easiest thing to do is just turn off the hose for a second,” Art is saying to the man, an old duffer in one of those “scrambled-egg” hats worn by captains of U.S. Navy vessels and–for reasons that have never been clear to me–retirees.


When all else fails, read the owner’s manual.

 

“You think that will work?” the old man is saying to Art, who’s trying–but not too hard–to break away for lunch.  That’s Art for you–he’s got a cardboard sign in his little office that says “The customer is always right.”

“Try it and see,” Art says as he pats the man on the arm and starts towards the door.  “If it doesn’t work, you bring it back in here for a full refund.  If you’ve got the original packaging and the product is not damaged and you pay a $5 re-shelving fee,” he adds facetiously.


“If it ain’t right–we’ll fix it!  For a price.”

 

“I will, I will,” the man says.  I think he’s a little hard of hearing.

“Hey there!” Art says as he sees me lingering outside his door.  “Let’s skedaddle–I don’t want to be late.”

It’s amazing the transformation that has been wrought in the former decadent poete maudite since he turned twenty-one and his old man told him the gravy train was coming to a screeching halt.  I guess he looked at himself in the mirror one morning and realized that if he wanted to eat three square meals a day, poetry wasn’t the line of business for him.


Cool black light basement rec room!

 

He came back to Charleville where we grew up and threw himself into the family business with a gusto that surprised a lot of people who remembered him hanging around the Dog ‘n Suds leaning against the cherry T-Bird his grandmother bought him when he turned sixteen, or smoking pot beneath the purple glow of black lights in basements occupied by loser friends of ours who were living with their parents while they tried to put off adulthood.

He had in fact turned into a much sought-after inspirational speaker for fraternal society lunch meetings.  One week the Rotary, next the Optimists, then the Lions Club, the Moose, the Elks, and so on.  He did it all without pay, too.  He said he wanted to give back to the community, since the warm bath of affection that our small town offered a well-meaning but prodigal son who returned to the fold had saved him from a life of absinthe, bad art and boring poetry slams.  “I found the celebrities of modern painting and poetry ridiculous,” he said, shaking his head ruefully when we first got together for a pitcher of beer shortly after he returned from the big city.


Rimbaud hangin’ with his homeys.

 

“One single true word–COME BACK,” he said in explanation of his homecoming, inadvertently revealing the poor math skills that made it necessary for him to hire a full-time bookkeeper.

His parents forgave him all the money he’d blown in his bohemian youth, but his dad said he’d have to start at the very bottom of the Rimbaud’s Hardware corporate org chart and work his way up.  He got the message, stopped wasting his time driving around town every night, put his nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel–and he hasn’t looked back since!  “Idle youth, enslaved to everything!” he had groaned one night after having one too many Busch Light beers.  “By being too sensitive I have wasted my life!”

We make our way into the hotel and see a few Chamber members chewing the fat.  There’s Hiram Muller, State Farm insurance agent; Bob Dunn, who owns the new AMF Bowladrome on the western edge of town; and C.J. Turner, the Chevy-Buick-GMC dealer.

“Hey Art!” Turner yells as he swivels his double chin around when he spies us out of the corner of his eye.  “You preachin’ a sermon today?”

“You will always be a hyena!” Rimbaud laughs as he claps Turner on the shoulder before shaking hands all around.  I have to admit, he’s got the gift of gab that a small businessman needs to succeed in a world dominated by big chain stores.

We take the elevator up to the second floor and see a bunch of members milling around, making small talk.  Since Art’s on the program today he’s supposed to sit up at the dais, while I take a seat at a table with Hiram and Bob and C.J.

As always, we start the meeting with a prayer, led to my surprise by Art himself.  Although he’d been one of the first of our teenage gang to go atheist, he had a religious experience, a sort of St. Paul knocked on his ass on the road to Damascus deal.  He was coming out of Hersch’s Quik Liquor on South 65 one night with a suitcase of Bud Light on his shoulder when he slipped on a ballpoint pen somebody had dropped in the parking lot, fell backwards and hit his head–hard–on the concrete.

“Life is the farce we are all forced to endure,” he had said groggily as we took the steps we had learned for our Boy Scouts First Aid merit badge, elevating his feet, covering him with a beach towel and not moving him until we were sure he was okay.  From that point on, Art had an ethereal quality about him.  I think he’d had a near-death experience, and he understood in a way that nobody else in our little circle of friends did that there is another, better world waiting for us after we pass through this vale of tears.

Art begins the invocation, his eyes downcast and his hands clasped together, “Only divine love bestows the keys of knowledge.”  He continues in this vein–humble and genuine–and his sentiments are echoed by a simple “Amen” by all present when he’s done.

Then, as you might expect with this gang, it’s business.  The president welcomes everybody, including some new members–Ted Fhlegm who’s opened up an auto parts store on east 50–and a few guests, such as the sons of some members who have skipped school to see a highlights film of the Kansas City Chiefs that is introduced by a guy from the front office who tries, without much success, to sell season tickets to a room full of guys who’d rather spend their Sunday afternoons snoring on the den couch.

It’s Art’s turn now, and he sits quietly as the president introduces him, saying we’ve all known him since he was a boy and a man and noting his growing reputation as an inspirational speaker.  The crowd applauds politely but warmly, Art says thanks for the kind words, and puts the crowd at ease from the get-go with some self-deprecatory humor.  “What am I doing here?” he asks, and the crowd laughs, thinking of him as a French version of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, H. Ross Perot’s running mate in his 1992 bid to become the first independent candidate to become President of the United States.


James “What am I doing here?” Stockdale

 

“I’ve just noticed that my mind is asleep,” he says, continuing in the vein of humility he’s struck, and the assembled burghers lean back in their seat, digesting their lunch of Salisbury steak, steamed carrots and mashed potatoes.  If Art had any after-dinner mints, the crowd would be eating them out of his hand.

“What a life!” Art begins, turning serious as he begins the tale of his transformation from dissolute poet to successful businessman.  “As I descended into impassable rivers I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen,” he says, recounting his bouts with writer’s block, depression, dry flaky skin and existential torment.  “Misfortune was my god.”

You could hear a toothpick drop, and when Clell Furnell, the local John Deere dealer fumbles his, a few heads turn to shush him.  “I shed more tears than God could ever have required,” Art says somberly.  I notice a glint of a moistness in more than one hard-nosed businessman’s eyes.

“I’m intact, and I don’t give a damn,” Art says by way of peroration.  “A thousand dreams within me softly burn.”  The room is hanging on his every word, and he leaves them with one final thought:  “The only unbearable thing–is that nothing is unbearable.  We know how to give our whole lives every day.”

With that, he is done, and there is a moment of calm before a thunderous storm of applause breaks out.

“That was great,” C.J. says to me as he pounds his beefy hands together.

“I know–isn’t he terrific?” Hiram adds.  “A hell of a lot better than that guy who gave that talk about long-term care insurance.”

“What’s amazing to me,” I say, leaning into the table so the others can hear me over the crowd’s adulation, “is that this is the same guy who wrote ‘Then you’ll feel your cheek scratched . . . a little kiss, like a crazy spider, will run round your neck.’”

The others look at me like I’m crazy.  Bob Dunn arches his left eyebrow skyward in skepticism, then pops the question that the others are probably asking themselves at the same time.  “Are you sure about that?” he asks dubiously.  “I thought that was Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.”

 

All quotes after the “skedaddle” one guaranteed verbatim Rimbaud.  Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

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