Boring Our Children to Safety

They’re at it again,” my wife said with concern.

I looked up and saw flames rising from a pile of dead branches off in the  distance. Another night, another bonfire in the woods beyond the stone wall that  separates our property from conservation land.

“They’re just kids being drunken, destructive, nihilistic kids,” I said as I  knocked back the spit hit at the bottom of my bottle of Bud Light Lime and  returned to Paradise Lost, the special 343rd anniversary edition that  comes with the free t-shirt of John Milton.

Milton: Preferred his bonfires on the  beach.

“We should do something to stop them,” my wife said, growing alarmed as the  flames climbed higher.

“I cleaned out the brush at the back of the lot,” I said. Maybe it was the Milton, but I seemed to speaking in blank verse.

Bud Light Lime: Cleanses the pallet for late  night blank verse slams.

“No, I’m thinking someone will get hurt,” she said. “One of the boys will get  drunk and fall in it, or maybe one of the girls will get too close and her scarf  will catch on fire.”

“Well, what do you suggest I do?” I asked.

“You could go out there and bore them away. You’re pretty good at that.”

I stood up and squinted, the better to see what was going on. “I don’t know,”  I said. “It’s been a long time since I took on a crowd that big.”

“When was that?”

“The American Society of Chiropodists convention, 1999.”

“Please, do something,” my wife said. “If anybody gets hurt we might be  blamed–for doing nothing.”

She was right about that. In today’s litigious society, because of obnoxious  lawyers like me you can’t be too careful.

“Okay,” I said grimly. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, I was too  proud to run.

I hacked my way through the tall grass and came to a clearing where the kids  were seated around the fire. I recognized a few of them; Derek, the scrappy,  pass-first point guard from my U-12 CYO basketball team; Chris, the pot-smoking  son of pot-smoking aging hippie parents; Meghan, the nimble vegan vixen who  introduced my elder son to the joys of . . . uh . . . BK Veggie Burgers in the  front seat of our 2004 Toyota Highlander.

“Hi kids,” I said affably as I ducked under a pine tree branch. “How’s it  going?”

The gang looked up at me with surprise. They thought they were beyond the  prying eyes and censorious looks of old farts like me.

“Hi, Coach,” Derek said. There was silence; I think they expected me to be  judgmental, to tell them to put the fire out and go home, but that’s not how I  operate. I accept teenagers as they are, in the fullness of their adolescent  stupidity. It’s why we get along so well.

“What’s up?” I asked, my voice a model of equanimity.

“Uh, we came out here because we got bored of playing video games,” Chris  said.

Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley

“I don’t blame you,” I said. “You know, when I was a kid . . .”–I hesitated  for just a moment to see if I had their eyes rolling yet–”we didn’t have video  games, but we had great cartoons.” I waited for someone to say “Really?” or “No  kidding?” Hearing nothing, I continued.

“Tennessee Tuxedo, Top Cat, Underdog.”

Again, silence. Finally, the vegan girl spoke. “I think I saw Underdog in the  Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade once.”

“That’s him!” I said with enthusiasm. I was glad I was getting through to  them. “Those cartoon shows had great theme songs,” I said, as one of the boys  stood up, tried to conceal a quart bottle of malt liquor under his shirt and  shuffled off.  “Come on and see, see, see–Tennesee Tuxedo!” I sang.

They were good listeners, those kids. They sat there and seemed to hang on my  every word.

“The Top Cat theme went like this: ‘Mmmmmmmm–Top Cat! The indisputable  leader of the gang! He’s the boss, he’s the king, but above every thing, he’s  the most tip-top–Top Cat!’

“I’m not really into cartoons,” one of the kids said when I was done.

“That’s okay,” I said. “There’s plenty of things we can talk about. How  about–life insurance?”

To say that the kids were stunned by this segue would have been a  gigantic understatement. I truly don’t think they’d even  considered life insurance before.

“You know, there are basically two different kinds of life insurance,” I said  quickly, before I lost their attention.

A kid whom I’d heard the others call “Dragon” on the soccer field spoke up.  “What difference does it make?”

“Well, there’s whole life, which has an investment component, and there’s  term life, which is just a basic death benefit,” I said, passing on the wisdom  of the ages. “Pretty soon, one of your classmates will become a life insurance  saleman, and he’ll start hounding you to buy whole life.  Don’t let him do  it!”  I said this with a stern tone of admonishment.  I didn’t want these  kids to go down the wrong path in life.  “Buy cheap term life, and put the  difference between the premiums into an S&P 500 index fund!”

“You really seem to know a lot,” said a Goth girl in a black S&M restraint-style bodice. “I’m going to go home and write this all down before I forget it.”

“Good idea,” I said cheerfully as she walked off with three others. I noticed  that the fire was dying out, but some of the hard-core kids were holding on,  hoping for something to break the dreary monotony of the sheltered lives they live in our upscale zip code.

Paul Goodman, sticking burning leaves in his  mouth out of alienation.

I looked into their eyes and saw a great void–a blank where their  imaginations should have been. “Do you guys have summer jobs?” I asked  after a while. As Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth  in the Organized Society, one of the reasons adolescents rebel is the lack  of meaningful work available to them.

“I’m working at the snack bar at the country club,” one of them said after a  while.

“You know,” I began, “that reminds me of the summer I spent driving an ice  cream truck. That damn jingle–‘Ding, ding, ding–da DING ding  ding’–drove me crazy!”

I turned to face them with an avuncular smile–and they were gone!

Just another day at the office, for a full-bore bore.

Teen Hostage Freed, Returns to Bedroom

DOWNERS GROVE, Il.  Since Friday afternoon Dottie Cavanaugh has been “a total wreck” as her husband Herb puts it, unable to sleep while the couple awaited word about their 17-year-old son Kevin, who was held hostage by a gunman at a pizza parlor.

“Z-z-z-z . . .”

“If anything had happened to Kevin, I would have never ordered pizza from that place again,” Dottie says as she dabs at her nose with a tissue.

Kevin was freed when a SWAT team rushed the gunman last night, however, and he and two of his friends emerged to the glare of television lights and cameras recording their reunion with their families.


“How do you feel?” one reporter shouted as the three boys were covered in blankets by firemen to ward off the chilly March night.

“Okay,” Kevin replied.

“How did they treat you in there?” another inquired.

“We’re gonna go do something.  Or not.”

“Okay,” Kevin’s friend Evan Smertz answered.

“Will you be glad to see your family?” a third asked.

“I guess,” the third boy, Todd Domerski, conceded.


Whisked home in a police cruiser, Kevin was hugged by his mother and dad, who spoke to this reporter as their son disappeared into his bedroom.

“We’re just so thankful he’s safe,” Dotty said through tears. 

“I’m sure he’s just happy to get back to his video games,” Herb added, shaking his head with a knowing smile.

“That was last year,” Dottie said.  “Now he watches MTV all night.  Or maybe Australian rules football.”

“I thought he got over that,” Herb responds, a puzzled look on his face.  “Right after he stopped playing the guitar.  Or was it the drums?”

The Cavanaughs ignorance of their son’s habits and interests was not dispelled as Kevin slept until noon, then appeared at the top of the stairs to ringing shouts of “Surprise!” as he is greeted by family and neighbors, eager to be reunited with him.

“Uh, hi,” Kevin says sheepishly, as he walks downstairs while texting a friend on his cell phone.

“Kevin, I made pancakes–your favorite,” his mom says, her voice choking with emotion.

“Yeah, uh, great,” Kevin says as he looks at his phone while his uncle Edward “Chic” Le Maistre slaps him on the back.  “Say, uh, I’m gonna go meet Todd and Evan, okay?” he says to his mom.  “You don’t care, do you?”

“Well, no, honey,” she replies, “if that’s really how you want to spend your first day of freedom.  But there are all these people here to–to see you.”

“I got it for being held hostage.”

“Oh, right,” he says, apparently embarrassed for the first time that he may have failed to demonstrate common courtesy to the assembled well-wishers. “If they leave any gift cards or presents,” he tells his mother with a serious look on his face, “say thank you for me, okay?”

Across US Sullen Teens Dump Family for Olive Garden

FRAMINGHAM, Mass.  It’s Thursday night at the Olive Garden restaurant here, and as the line snakes up to the hostess station, Emily Nilson is offering some helpful but pointed criticism of her daughter, Alicia.  “You need to pluck your eyebrows,” she says.  “That zit on your forehead just won’t go away, will it, sweetie?” she adds as she brushes her daughter’s bangs downward.

“Mother–please!” Alicia seethes through clenched teeth, then folds her arms across her chest to express in body language that she doesn’t want to talk about beauty right now.

The Nilson’s table is ready, and after they are seated, veteran bread-and-water man Tony DiFillipo appears to fill the glasses and drop off some rolls.  “Hey, Princess,” he says to Alicia.  “How’s my little beauty queen?”

“Your momma–she’s got a poker up her butt.  Stay with us!”

“Hi, Tony,” Alicia says as she smiles for the first time tonight.  “I’m okay–except for le genitori”–her parents.

“Eesa no gooda to notta respecta your momma and-a poppa,” Tony says in the bogus Italian stage accent that Olive Garden employees are required to use during working hours.  “Onna the other handa, soma-times these things don’ta work out,” he says with an arched eyebrow, a veiled threat to Alicia’s parents.

Alicia is part of a growing phenomenon across America; sullen teenagers of the “baby boom echo” generation who have sought sanctuary among waitstaff and kitchen help at Olive Garden, the Italian restaurant chain whose slogan–”When you’re here, you’re family”–appeals to youths whose high-pressure upbringing results in frequent disputes and intra-family sniping.

Alicia disappeared for a week last November before the Nilsons obtained a court order forcing her to return to the family home.  “It was terrible,” says her father, Lloyd, an executive at an insurance company.  “All that pasta–she gained ten pounds.”

Runaway teenagers get together in comfortable group home-like Italian setting.

Three tables over, seventeen-year-old Charles Barker, whose parents are hoping he’ll get into one of two Ivy League colleges at the top of his list, buries his head in his entree when his father peppers him with questions about his essays.  “Dad, I don’t want to talk about it all the time!” he snaps as Maria della Famina appears at their table.  “Wassa matter?” she asks in a display of warmth that the chain’s “hospitaliano” policy requires staff to display, if not feel.

“He won’t shut up about my Harvard and Penn applications,” Charles says, a bit mollified by the waitress’s friendly tone.


“You no need to go to college!” she says, gesturing broadly with her hands.  “My brother Gaetano, he no go to college–he’s inna crushed stone business.  My father, Giuseppe–he no go to college.  He make-a good-a living in hees-a shoe repair business.  Fugeddabouta da college–do whatta makes-a you happy!”

A look of enlightenment comes over the young man’s face.  “You’re right,” he says, half to himself, looking off into the distance.  “I’d like to take a year off, learn how to make stained-glass windows.”

His father, sensing trouble, looks desperately around for the owner, then spotting him at the cash register, yells “Check please!”

Teen Talk

The teenage years are the most trying and troubling time of our lives, but remember–they’re only temporary!  Teen Talk hostess Beth Wingate talks to teens about their problems, without tattling.

Dear Teen Talk Lady:

            I am seventeen and want to get a snake for a pet.  My mom says no, even though I am responsible and have promised to take care of it.  Can you think of something I can say to persuade her-this is really important to me.

Bio lab:  Where young thoughts turn to procreation.

            I made honor roll last semester but will get a “C” in biology this term because I stole a dead frog from the lab.

Lyle Turner, Cape Girardeau, Mo.

They make ideal pets.

Dear Lyle–

            Don’t be upset.  Many teenage “gotta haves” fade away in just a few months.  You may not know it, but owning a snake also means owning lots of mice, which are snakes’ favorite snacks!  I would let your mother see how you take care of your newly-acquired frog over the next few months, and if you still want a snake at that point, you will be standing on firmer ground, even if you smell worse.

“Why don’t you dump Gene Ray so I can go out with him?”

Dear Teen Talk:

            I recently checked my “Facebook” page and found out that several of my so-called “friends” had posted disparaging comments under my picture, including “Dumb Stupidhead”, “Nobody likes you anymore!” and “You need dress shields, sweathog”. 

Dress shields:  The sweaty girl’s best friend.

Mrs. Teen Talk–I am very depressed because you said several columns ago that friends and family were the most important things in life, and I haven’t liked my family for several years.  I would be interested in your thoughts as soon as possible.  I am about to make myself a Screwdriver or a Rum and Coke from my parents’ liquor cabinet.

Delores Van de Kamp, Goshen, Indiana

“You are such a nimmy-not!”

Dear Delores:

            Hold it right there–I never said friends were more important than family.  You should always check with your parents before making mixed drinks from the family’s stock of hard liquor.  You never know when the adults in the house will throw a cocktail party or fun backyard barbecue, and to leave them with a funeral on their hands and no vodka in the house would be unconscionable.  Many families choose to educate their children about the perils of drinking by serving them small amounts of wine with dinner until they throw up.  Please–leave alcohol education to adults, who have learned how to abuse it properly.

Prom night.

Teen Talk Person:

            I have been going out with “Cindy” for a year now.  When we were juniors I took her to the prom, but she was crabby the whole night.  Finally I asked her what the problem was and she said “I have PMS.  It’s a disease that all women get and it makes us miserable.  Now go get me a Coke.”

            We got through the night but now the Senior Sweetheart dance is coming up-same day as the prom last year–and I would like to know more about this “PMS” disease.  Will Cindy be sick again on that day?  Do all girls get it at the same time?  If not, I think I’m going to ask somebody else.

T.J. Baxter, Jr., Stillwater, Oklahoma

Dear T.J.:

            Pre-menstrual syndrome or “PMS” is indeed Our Lord’s little practical joke on the fairer sex.  It makes us feel bloated, cranky and out of sorts.  I’d like to see him deal with it–talk about the wrath of a vengeful God!  There’d be plagues and drought and earthquakes all over the world one week every month.

Social Security Office:  “Yours will be–the third week of the month.  Next!”

            Anyway, to answer your questions: it is impossible to predict exactly when PMS will strike, so you should follow your heart and invite whichever girl you really like to the dance.  Girls do not get it all at the same time, so you have the entire female part of your student body to choose from.  PMS dates are handed out randomly at birth, like social security numbers.

Dear Teen Talk:

            For several years I have had a crush on this boy whom I will call “Darrell” because that is his name.  “Darrell” is not the most popular boy in school, so don’t tell me I am “aiming too high” or “being unrealistic”.  He is not the quarterback of our football team or anything.  He is a defensive tackle who shifts to nose guard when we are in a three-man front–usually when we are in a “prevent” alignment at the end of the game to stop a possible “Hail Mary” pass.


            My problem is-Darrell does not know I exist.  He’s always with his buddies and my guess is he thinks that since he is on the team he should only go out with really attractive girls, which granted, I am not. How do I get him to notice him and like me?

Jean Marie Swenson, Cuyahoga, Ohio

Dear Jean Marie–

            As my mother would say, the answer is “as plain as a pig on a sofa”!  You obviously love football, and know a lot about it.  

Powder Puff Football:  “We’re going to kick your cellulite, you skanks!”

Why not organize a “powder puff” football game for girls only and ask Darrell to coach you in defensive “stunts” and legal use of the hands for down linemen.  I bet he’ll be happy to help out–just don’t let him jump offsides!

Teen Girl Ends Solo Sail, Mall Rat Dances On

NATICK, Mass.  California teen Abby Sunderland has ended her quest to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world, but Tyler Brogan, a 17-year-old high school junior in this suburb west of Boston, says  she remains an inspiration to him and his friends, who have proudly appropriated the term “mall rat” that disgusted adults mutter when they see them loitering in the area’s numerous shopping centers.  “When I heard what that girl there was trying to do,” he says as he wipes a trace of Straw-Banna smoothie from the corner of his mouth, “I knew I had to go for my dream too.”

Abby Sunderland

So Brogan swore that he would parallel Sunderland’s quest by playing “Dance Dance Revolution,” an aerobic-video dance game, in the climate-controlled comfort of the Natick Mall, an upscale shopping concourse here, until she landed.  Now that Sunderland has abandoned her journey, Brogan says he will continue to dance as a tribute to the inspiration Sunderland provided to directionless teens like himself.

Dance Dance Revolution

Child welfare authorities have reacted with alarm, saying a boy Brogan’s age should not concentrate on a single form of physical activity, and should be in school.  “I don’t know what their problem is,” he says.  “You only have to go to school 180 days, and there’s like almost 300 in a year, right?”

In training

Brogan still hopes to become the youngest person to do something really stupid over a long period of time in a shopping mall, the record for which is currently held by Todd Brandnewjetski of Downer’s Grove, Illinois.  Brandnewjetski drank a large Orange Julius smoothie for 215 consecutive days in 2004 before dying of dehydration after contracting sudden-onset diarrhea.

Dance Dance Revoluton is the leading video game in the mall rat rhythm and dance genre.  Players stand on a “dance platform” in an arcade and attempt to hit colored arrows with their feet to musical and visual cues while mall patrons stand outside and laugh at them. Players are judged by how well they time their dance steps to patterns presented to them, and are pummeled by members of their high school football team when they leave.

“I wish I could get a date so I’d have somebody to dance with!”

Brogan subjected himself to a rigorous training routine to prepare for his epic journey, logging a half-hour of dance time every morning and afternoon last summer.  “A lot of people say what I’m doing is dangerous,” he says with a sly smile at a gaggle of girls who eye him as they pass by.  “They don’t know what dangerous is until they’ve tried the sausage and pepperoni cheesy crust pizza at Papa Gino’s.”

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