For Artsy Parents, Summer Camp Choice is Serious

NEEDHAM, Mass.  Joy Olivet-Scramm and Martin Scramm are creative types who survive in the notoriously impecunious world of the arts by holding down full-time jobs in academia, a double-life that lends an air of seriousness to their otherwise whimsical natures.  “Shaw said those who can, do, and those who can’t teach–but we do both!” Joy says as she waits with other parents for a tour of the grounds of a possible summer camp for their son Miles, 10, and daughter Daphne, 9, after a disappointing vacation placement last year.

“They said they’d teach our kids to be creative, but it was just lip service,” Martin says of his children’s experience at another camp with a focus on the arts.  “There was a lot of face-painting and sing-alongs–no rigor at all,” says the tenured professor at New England College, where he teaches introductory English and upper-level courses on Chaucer while moonlighting as a neo-formalist poet.

camp
“Okay everybody–‘Lord of the Flies’ from the top.”

“It was glorified baby-sitting,” adds Joy, whose day job is executive director of the Boston Light Opera Company, but whose avocation is her all-female Gregorian Chant group, The Monotones.  “For the kind of money we spent, I’d expect the kids to learn some Shakespeare or at least Balanchine.”

And so the Scramms and four other groups of parents are here to learn more about Little Dickens Creative Camp, where camp counselors must be both certified Outward Bound instructors and hold a Master of Fine Arts degree.  “Other camps tell kids they’re all artists down deep inside,” says Rowley Merrick, who holds degrees a small liberal arts school in Ohio.  “We level with them, and let them know that no great art is produced without suffering.”

The focal point of the camp, like the swimmin’ hole at most others, is a 19th century factory straight out of the Industrial Revolution, where youngsters stay out of the sun (“It can cause skin cancer,” Merrick notes) and paste labels on bottles of boot blacking, just as Charles Dickens did for a brief time when his father was in debtor’s prison.  “It worked for Dickens,” notes Martin, “and I’d like to think a little of that creative ju-ju will rub off on our kids–along with a lot of inky black stuff.”

drawing
“Must stay awake–get boot blacking merit badge.”

Parents are treated to a video made by campers and counselors last summer, which shows children crying and begging their parents not to leave them at the camp on “drop-off day.”  “You’ve got to cut the apron strings firmly and decisively,” the voice-over narrator says.  “Little Dickens Creative Camp will teach your child that being an artist is hard and unrewarding work!”

The methods of Little Dickens fly in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy in the world of arts education, where technique is subordinated to enthusiasm and a Rousseau-like aesthetic philosophy that children are natural artists whose finger paintings will sell for big bucks if you can only get them in avant-garde galleries.

Head Counselor Mark Adamle can only laugh at this notion, as he leads parents through the main dining hall.  “Here’s where the kids enjoy their bread and milk for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

blacking
“Today we’re going to make gimp necklaces–for export to China.”

“Do you serve them dessert?” asks Amy Weinholtz, whose son has a number of allergies.

“Of course,” Adamle notes, hoping to allay her concerns, “but only if they catch a squirrel.”

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 Saturday 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 350th 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, 2014.”

“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.  Still I hesitated, but then I reflected that I’m in the seventh decade of my life; I’m somewhat concerned about my legacy as a bore, my place in the history of boredom.  When I die, I’d like to be remembered as one of the greats, like William Haley.  The sentimental, interminable versifier, a patron of William Blake, not the Father of White Rock ‘n Roll.

Bill Haley
Not that Bill Haley.

 

“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 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 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–Tennessee 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 everything, 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 if you’re dead?”

“Good question.  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  salesman, 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.

 

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

In Boston’s Narrow Streets, Cargo Shorts a Growing Concern

BOSTON. It has been described as “the most photographed street in America,” and the charm of Boston’s Acorn Street never seems to grow old, even after it celebrated its 200th birthday last year.

Acorn Street: Charm so thick you can hit it with a stick.

“It used to be I could make money selling rolls of film out my front door,” says long-time resident Asa “Bink” Hutchinson, who can trace his ancestry back to the Mayflower and beyond. “Now everyone has those ‘camera-phones’ so I have to live on the meager income my trust fund throws off.”

But while the cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill have survived rain, sleet, snow, and horse-drawn carts for two centuries, they face a new threat that preservationists warn may spell their doom. “Americans are getting fatter all the time, and cargo shorts only widen their girth,” says Polly Albertson, president of the Bay State Historical Antiquities Association. “If two male tourists walk through Acorn Street at the same time, it would take the Jaws of Life to clear the way once they get stuck.”

“The British aren’t coming!”

“Cargo shorts” are cargo pants shortened at the knee, with the legs sometimes extending down to mid-calf range. “Cargo pants” or “cargo trousers” are loosely-cut pants originally designed for rough work environments and outdoor activities, distinguished by numerous large utility pockets for tools, but now worn primarily by slobs who use them to conceal obesity while holding objects that are too bulky to conveniently carry in their hands.

Beached white whales, Massachusetts State House

“It’s a growing problem, and if that sounds like a play on words, so be it,” says State House Archivist Lemuel Setters, who has used Acorn Street for many years as a cut-through on his way to work from his apartment on Revere Street. “You wouldn’t drive a tractor-trailer truck on Beacon Hill, but some people think nothing of jamming cameras, wallets and tourist maps in cargo shorts. I don’t want to be crushed to death when the wife reaches in her Kate Spade purse for a Tic Tac and suddenly there’s no room for a long-time resident on the sidewalks.”

Attempts to regulate cargo shorts are stymied at the national level by groups such as the American Tourists Association, who lobby Congress to beat back “local option” sidewalk rules as a violation of the interstate commerce clause in the U.S. Constitution. “One man’s disgusting fashion trend is another man’s creature comfort,” says ATA Executive Director Michael Barker. “You can keep Slim-Jims and other nutritious snacks fresh in the pockets for a fun day of sight-seeing guaranteed to annoy snooty residents.”

Pigeons Have Copied Our Brains

In a summer of my misspent youth long past I worked as an intern in Washington, D.C. and would frequently walk past the White House on my lunch hour. There I would encounter, as you may today, protestors of various persuasions, all of whom blamed a predictable cast of characters–the President, the CIA, the FBI–for the ills of the world.


Anti-pigeon demonstrators.

After a while, it became part of the summer atmosphere of the District, like the humidity, the hordes of other interns and the Japanese tourists. But then on one such noontime excursion, out of the blur of figures that had become as familiar as a wallpaper pattern, a lone man with a display of instant photographs caught my eye. “PIGEONS HAVE COPIED OUR BRAINS!” the legend above his pictures read, and I stopped. To say that my life changed with that chance encounter would be an overstatement, but I remember him to this day.


Pigeons: They’re smarter than you think.

I worked for the government, so I had plenty of time to examine his pictures and listen to his tale. It turned out that pigeons had been reproducing human brain waves for years–right under our noses–using nothing more sophisticated than ordinary office photocopiers. And nobody was doing anything about it!


. . . and you thought I was kidding!

I heard the man out, examined his photos, most of which depicted apparently addle-brained humans–the finished product, as it were–and never saw him again.


Pro se litigant.

I returned to Boston and a year later found myself the most junior legal beagle in the litigation department of a large law firm, spending hours stuck in the library doing research. The closest I came to a real-life lawsuit was when one of our clients was named as a defendant in a nuisance complaint filed by a crank. It became my job to draft papers to get our client dismissed from the case, but before doing so, it was suggested that I call the fellow up and ask him politely if he would consider dropping Acme Amalgamated Fasteners, or whomever, from the suit voluntarily so as to avoid unnecessary expense.

“I can’t,” came the reply. “The voices–they won’t stop–they won’t let me alone.”

“Who’s tormenting you?” I asked politely.

“The CIA, the FBI, the Pope, the . . . “

“Aren’t you forgetting somebody?” I asked brusquely, interrupting. Sometimes a forceful intervention can bring a madman back to reality. “Like–pigeons?”

“Pigeons?”

“Yes. I personally went to the White House and found out it’s actually the pigeons who are controlling our brain waves.”

“Really?” the plaintiff asked.

“Sure–you don’t buy that crap about the CIA and the Pope, do you? That’s exactly what they want you to believe!”


When pigeons attack!

“You know, I never have liked pigeons. You may be onto something.”

“Sure I’m onto something. I got it from the pigeons themselves!”

“Gee–I never knew.  Thanks!”

“That’s okay. Hey, at least I got to you before it was too late. Now about Acme Amalgamated Fasteners . . .”

I didn’t persuade the man to drop the suit, but the dialogue came back to me today as I walked down the alley between two buildings in Boston and–once again–heard the same tired complaint. A disheveled man, talking to himself, apparently incoherent, shaking his head, yelled out “It’s the CIA!”

Please–can we finally bury this base canard in the graveyard of lunatic ideas where it belongs? As between the CIA, the FBI, Pope Francis I and pigeons, which is more likely to control your brain? I submit the following to you:

1. If the CIA really controlled your brain, you’d be thinking about dossiers. You don’t even know what a dossier is.

2. The CIA has centralized headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Pigeons operate independently, sort of like franchisees, from a number of convenient locations across the country to better monitor your brain waves.

3. The Pope is too busy shopping for clothes to control your brain.

4. In 1950, King George VI made FBI director J. Edgar Hoover an honorary knight in the Order of the British Empire. They don’t give those things out for trivial stuff like controlling your brain waves.


B.F. Skinner: “A pigeon flew into my head.”

5. Finally, and most importantly, noted behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner taught pigeons how to play ping-pong, a game that humans master without the assistance of a geeky-looking Harvard professor. If pigeons have so much free time they can play ping-pong, they have time for really important stuff like controlling your brain!

So there you have it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And if you see a pigeon as you walk through the park today, do yourself a favor.

Throw him some popcorn, or maybe a piece of your hot dog roll. You never know what he might do with the stuff he’s got on you.

A Night Ride With the Chicago Dance Studio Squad

In Illinois dance studios are regulated by the state Dance Studio Act, which can be enforced by the Attorney General. 

It’s 11:00 p.m. on a hot night in Chicago.  Most decent people are thinking of turning in, but for me it’s the beginning of the graveyard shift on the Chicago Dance Studio beat.  Until seven tomorrow morning I’ll be riding around, bein’ as inconspicuous as I can, trying to nab the perps who operate unbonded dance studios, signin’ up starry-eyed rubes from Keokuk, Iowa who sign promissory notes that can enter the stream of commerce as negotiable instruments, cuttin’ off all their defenses.  I’ve seen it happen, and believe me it ain’t a pretty sight.

I could be a lot more inconspicuous if I didn’t have a rookie Dance Studio Patrolman ridin’ with me tonight.  E.J. “Clell” Furnell, a kid who just graduated from Iowa State with a major in terpsichorean criminal justice.  I look at him, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and see–myself, thirty-five years ago, before I became jaded, cynical.  And paunchy, from a lack of the healthful exercise that social dancing provides.


“You have the right to one (1) free lesson in the tango, fox trot or waltz . . .”

“When are we gonna ‘nab’ some ‘perps,’” he says, slobbering at the mouth like the golden retriever my dingbat girlfriend kept in our apartment my senior year at the University of Chicago.  I tell ya, that animal set me on a downward spiral; every day studying depressing nihilistic philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, every night coming home to a stupid dog goin’ “feed me walk me pet me play with me.”  It made me lose my faith in humanity; how can that stupid animal be so happy, with so much misery all around it? I’d ask myself.


Schopenhauer, getting into “full-scowl” mode.

And so I dropped out and entered Dance Studio Patrolmen’s Academy.  I got my badge and then hit the mean streets of Chi-Town.  Pulaski, Kosciuszko, Shalikashvilli Drive.  Funny how they’re all named after Poles.

It wasn’t easy at first, let me tell you.  Staking out unlicensed dance studios, working undercover as a lonely guy who just wanted to learn the cha-cha–or is it the cha-cha-cha?  Some of my training is slipping my mind, I been on the force so long.


There’s a sucker born every minute.

I look over at Furnell and, against my embittered cynical best judgment, decide to teach him something instead of letting him learn the hard way, like I did; make a mistake, get yelled at, repeat.

“First thing you gotta do,” I says to him I says, “is take on a little bit of protective coloring.”  He’s dressed like something out of a 50’s cop show; standard-issue police blues, black lace shoes.

“What?” he asks, mystified.

“You really think you’re gonna be able to insinuate yourself into the arms of Madame La Vache Qui-Rit in that get up?”

“What’s wrong with it?”


“You stick out like a taxi cab’s doors,” employing a phrase my big sister used to make fun of my ears many years ago.  “We gotta get you dressed in something swervy.”

Swervy?”

“Yeah–like Lucretius.”

“Who’s Lucretius?”

“Power-hitting outfielder for the White Sox in the 70s.”

“No kidding!”

“Of course I’m kidding, you dingleberry.  That’s Richie Allen, who famously said ‘If a cow won’t eat it, I won’t play on it.’”

“Oh.”


Richie Allen: Never seen in the same room with Lucretius.

“Lucretius is the guy who postulated a random tendency for atoms to swerve, thus allowing for free will in a deterministic universe.”

“Oh.”

“You already said that, rube.  Anyway, you walk into a dance studio you gotta be ready to swerve.”

“Randomly?”

“Any which way you wanna, but random is good,” I say as I pull to a stop outside Madame Giselle’s Dance Supply House.  “We’ll get you fixed up in here.”

I walk in and am greeted by the proprieteress with a big hug that leaves me with rouge and lipstick on my face, which she daubs off with cold cream.  “How are you dahling?” she says, sweet as could be.  She’d better be–she’s made a mint over the years keeping me in suave dance togs.

“What is it you weesh from me?” she asks breathlessly in her native Esperanto.

“Not for me sweetheart.  It’s for this Boy Scout over here.”

“Oof,” she says as looks Clell up and down.  “There is a Big & Dumb Men’s Store across the street–perhaps you should look there?”

I can tell from the pained look on Clell’s face that he’s hurt, but I’m not about to help him.  He’s the one who signed up for the dance studio beat–I didn’t make him.

“Go easy on him, wouldya?” I whisper to Giselle.  She nods, then bursts into a half-assed little Eurolaugh to show the hick she was only joking.

“Please–walk this way,” she says as she sashays down the racks of sleek, spangly-sequined dance costumes.

“If I could walk that way I wouldn’t need talcum powder,” he says, and I have to say, maybe the kid’s got that certain je ne sais quoi he’ll need to cut it.

Giselle holds up a series of possibilities and finally we settle on a sleek, sheer black satiny two-piecer that looks like it got caught in the revolving door at Victoria’s Secret when some shoplifter tried to sneak it out and it got stretched to man-size.

“Howzit feel?” I ask him.

He does a few turns and nods in approval.  “I think I’m ready.”  I can only groan inwardly–Madame Giselle has a “No Groaning–Strictly Enforced” sign in the changing room.  The kid doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.  A bad state to be in.

Still, I figure it’s his funeral, so we head back out to the squad car and start to case Carmela’s Home of Happy Feet, the latest iteration of a bust-out studio that keeps getting shut down but re-opens under the name of another daughter of Louie de Phillipo, the capo di tutti capos of the Chicago ballroom dance scam scene.

“You see that doll over at the metal desk?” I ask him as we pull up to the curb and look through the plate-glass window.

“I don’t see a doll, just a very good-looking young woman who’s . . .”

“I’m using tough-guy slang, you nougat bar,” I snap at him.  “That young woman is a doll–got it?”

“Fine,” he says.  “You don’t have to get testy.”

“Oh yes I do,” I say.  “I’m the jaded senior cop who understands that he has to be tough with a tyro like you.  Now listen up and listen good.  You’re gonna go in there, eyes bright and coat shiny, and you’re gonna tell her you’re interested in dance lessons.  What’s the most economical plan they got?”


Thomas Carlyle:  “Economics is making me verrry . . . sleepy.”

“But . . . isn’t economics the dismal science?”

“That’s what Carlyle said, but who gives a flyin’ fuck at a rollin’ donut.  You’re gonna act naive–it shouldn’t be too hard–and she’s gonna try and ‘upsell’ you to a lifetime membership, or for payments over a term of longer than one (1) year.  When she does that, you give me the high sign.”

“What’s the high sign?”

“You flap one hand under your chin, so you look like Oliver J. Dragon on Kukla, Fran & Ollie.”

fran
Ollie and Fran, on Scots Presbyterian Pride Day.

He didn’t know the show, so I showed him how to wag his hand under his chin to approximate a dragon’s lower jaw.  It took awhile–makes you wonder what they’re teaching kids in college these days.

Anyway, I wished him good luck and he took off.  I saw Carmela flutter her eyelashes at him–I hadn’t counted on outright coquetry as a tool of the criminal underworld–as he sat down at the table.  They palavered back and forth, then she pulled a contract out of a desk drawer–like it was something special and she was doin’ him a favor.  He leaned in like he was farsighted or something, then he rolled his head to the right like a whale, then wig-wagged his hand under his chin–the sign!

I was inside the studio in two, maybe three shakes of a lamb’s tail and I had the collar on the beauteous front woman.  “You have the right to wear fruit on your head and remain silent,” I said, reading her the Carmen Miranda warning.

“Tell me something I don’t know, copper.”  She was a tough cookie for a kid who probably had to learn the Loco-Motion from a history book.

“This contract for dance studio services violates 815 ILCS 610/6 and 7.  You gonna dummy up or . . . is there anybody else higher on the chain of command you’d like to tell us about?”

It isn’t easy asking a girl to turn in her father, but I’m not after small fry–I want to catch the big fish, get that mayoral commendation from Rahm Emanuel, the only big city mayor in America with ballet training–and retire to the Indiana Dunes.

We were standing there, staring each other down, when my inner light went out and I felt myself falling, the taste of warm, salty blood in my mouth.  I hit the floor and looked up to see Furnell, standing over me with his sap in his hand.

“You’ll never make it in the tough, gritty world of dance studio law enforcement if you’re going to fall in love with everything in a women’s asymmetric ballroom skirt,” I growled through a gap in my teeth.

“Who said anything about love?” Furnell asked, genuinely mystified.  “She’s offering me a great deal on the Latin Hustle.”

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

That Time We Broke Up Over Your Squirrel

What I have to say, it’s going to take guts:
You and that squirrel? I think you’re both nuts.

Why you ever decided to make it your pet
Is beyond me, it’s something I don’t get.
Did you think it’d make you one of The Smart Set?
If so, I note that you’re not, at least not yet.

You built that goofy wire cage in your apartment,
it certainly didn’t improve the squirrel’s deportment.
He still acted as if he was out in the wild,
a spoiled, impulsive, petulant child.

If we sat on the couch and tried to watch TV,
he’d hover over the shoulders of you and me.
Perhaps you found that au naturel–
Not me, I thought it the date from hell.

When I gave it a peanut, to keep it quiet,
it still behaved like an inmate in a prison riot.
Scurrying hither, and also yon,
Making a racket, and carrying on.

Normal people don’t bring a squirrel into the house,
they’re like an oversized, neurotic bushy-tailed mouse.
The squirrels, I mean, not the homeowners,
If you live with a squirrel, you’ll end up a loner.

In short, to sum up, either the squirrel goes or I do.
The choice is binary, and it’s entirely up to you.
You can live with me, or live with that squirrel,
There’s only one choice if you want to be my girrel.

The Look-Ma-No-Hands Bike Riders Relief Act

The Florida Senate voted 37-1 in favor of a bill to legalize no-hands bike riding. The measure now goes to the state House of Representatives.

The Wall Street Journal

As I printed out the text of my prepared remarks–probably the most important speech I would ever give as a member of the Florida legislature–I noticed that the paper curled immediately from the sweat on my hands. As the co-author of the Look-Ma-No-Hands Bike Riders Relief Act, I couldn’t let my friend and Senate counterpart Hadley “Biff” Brown down. Not after all we’d been through.

We’d gone down slides headfirst, we’d eaten mud pies made by Maddie Durley and Mary Beth Schroenke on a dare, we’d done “suicide” dives–face-down, flat-as-a-board splats–from the ten-meter springboard into the municipal pool in Ft. Myers. That’s how crazy we were in our all-American boyhood while the naysayers, the Goody Two-Shoes and the schoolmarms had stood by scowling with disapproval.

Little did we know that, when it came to riding our bikes with no hands–the birthright of every son of Tom Sawyer–we were committing a crime. Not until Lloyd Duben, who would grow up to be president of the Florida Bar Association, pointed it out to us.

“I’m serious, guys,” he said nervously as he flipped through the pages of his dad’s law book. “Florida Statutes 288.799(a)(1)(B)(ii) says ‘It shall be a misdemeanor moving traffic violation to operate a bicycle or any two (2) wheeled vehicle without both hands on the handlebars, except by an amputee. A first violation of this statute shall be punishable by a fine of five (5) baseball cards and two (2) cat’s eye marbles. A subsequent violation shall result in loss of the operator’s bicycle license.’”

We scoffed at him, but a week later when Tony Souza was pulled over leaving Mercury Morris Consolidated Middle School and given a warning, we were scared straight.

“How we gonna get around without a bike?” Biff asked–this was in the days before mothers drove their kids everywhere due to the explosion in the number of child molesters fueled by the World Wide Web.


“We’re being safe–’cause you’re watching.”

“It’d be impossible,” I said glumly. “I guess from now on, it’s two hands on the bars–or else.”

And so we finished out our childhoods, submissive to the demands of Big Sister, the precursors to the oh-so-careful legislators who wanted to mandate helmets with facemasks for boy-girl tap dancing lessons.

But that was then, and this is now. Before the long dark night of fascism settles over America, before we’ve lost the precious freedoms our forefathers fought for–and try saying that five times fast–Biff and I decided to do something about it.

“You know,” said the grand old man of the legislature, Florian Withers, III, “I don’t know whether you guys are crazy or just naive” when we told him our plan.

“What?” we exclaimed simultaneously, and with disbelief.

“Do you have any idea who you’re up against?”

“No–who?” I asked.

“The Motherhood-Industrial Complex,” he said ominously, swirling his swivel chair around to gaze off into the distance, frustrated at the ability of a powerless few to change the hidebound rules that kept kids in boring bondage.


“You’re under arrest!”

“The same coalition that defeated the Right to Fireworks Act of 2014?” Biff asked.

And the Omnibus You’re-Getting-a-BB-Gun-Over-My-Dead-Body-Young-Man Reform Act of 2019,” Withers said, turning back around to face us with a dejected look on his face.

We sat there for a moment, by turns fuming at his cynicism and struggling to come up with something–anything–to rekindle our dashed hopes.


“Make sure the safety’s off before you shoot at the kids next door who disturbed my nap.”

 

“What if we filibuster?” I suggested. “Jimmy Stewart did that in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’”

“This is a state legislature, where the grimy work of democracy gets done,” Withers said with a snarl, “not some Hollywood sound stage.”

“I don’t care,” I’d said. “I’m going to go out there and speak truth to power. It’s part of being an American boy, like Huck Finn lighting out for the territories.”

“It’s your funeral,” Withers said. “Don’t expect any help from the leadership.”

And that was that. Now it was just Biff and me against the odds, against the well-heeled–usually Nike, but sometimes Addidas–soccer moms in sneakers who threatened the American Boy Way of Life; taking the risks that fueled our capitalist society, preparing us for lives as bond traders, investment bankers and used car salesman. Biff got the bill through the Senate, now it was time for me to push the ball across the goal line.

“Mr. Speaker,” I intoned after I’d made my way to the podium, “distinguished brother and sister legislators, and to Boy Scout Troop 158 of Tampa Gardens, our guests today in this distinguished chamber.”

“Mr. Lozina,” the Speaker replied.

“I stand before you here today on behalf of every boy who’s ever ridden his bike with no hands to impress his mother, or a girl who naughtily dropped her Kleenex in the aisle of a third-grade classroom to seduce him into sending her one of those little candy hearts on Valentine’s Day.”

“Point of order,” a voice called from the majority side of the aisle. It was safety-nut Ellen Dowiniac, who made all her staff put lids on their coffee cups–in their own cubicles! I could just imagine what kind of cockamamie objection she was going to raise.

“The Chair recognizes the Lady from West Palm, although the Chair didn’t at first because the Chair believes the Lady from West Palm has a new frost job.”

Image result for female legislator
“The chair recognizes the hair of the Lady from the 4th District.”

 

“The Chair is correct,” Dowinic said.

“The Chair believes it looks very nice on the Lady . . . ”

“Can we cut out all the third-person references,” I snapped in exasperation.

The question was laid on the table and referred to the House Parliamentarian. “Members of either House may address others as ‘you’ or by their actual names, and may refer to themselves as ‘I’ for purposes of fictional proceedings that occur in stupid blog posts in order to save typing.”

“Go ahead, Ellen,” said the Chair.

“I believe the Senate Bill is defective and requires a second reading and needs to be engrossed,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s totally icky and gross and as a boy’s bill it probably has cooties on it.”

That’s the kind of transvaluation of values/reverse sexism you have to deal with in this day and age.

“What say you?” the Speaker said to me gruffly–probably hoping for an all-night bill mark-up session with my adversary.

“I will not be intimidated by procedural fooforaw, Mr. Speaker,” I said.

“This is a severe breach of decorum,” the Speaker said. “I urge you to withdraw your remarks.”

“I will not, and I won’t kowtow to you either, Mr. Speaker!”

There was an audible gasp in the chamber, and the Speaker glared at me with rage suppressed only because Robert’s Rules of Order required him to. “You think you’re man enough to take me on?” he seethed.

“Yeah,” I snapped right back at him. “Ya know why?”

“Why?”

“I’m a guy–I had bigger speakers than you when I was in college!”

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

“Days of Starch” Festival Celebrates Benefits of Carbohydrates

KEOKUK, Iowa. This town of 10,780 in southeast Iowa proclaimed itself the “Starch Capital of America” in 1991 after a Parade Magazine survey found that residents depended on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread and pasta for more than 80% of the carbohydrates in their diet. “It’s a tradition we grow up with,” says Oliver Yoder, a farm implement dealer who eats mashed potato sandwiches for lunch three days a week.  “I’d eat ’em every day of the week but our daughter Lurleen is trying to keep her slim, girlish figure.”


Deep-fried mashed potato sandwich.

 

That sense of civic pride was amplified when the National Starch Council, the leading trade association and lobbying group for starch producers, decided to move its headquarters here from Muncie, Indiana, bringing both jobs and prestige to a town whose most significant previous claim to fame was native son Ernie Doerk, a dirt-track stock car racer of the 1950′s.


Ernie Doerk, dirt-track champion.

 

“Ernie did a lot to put Grain Valley on the map but you ask a kid who he was these days and all you get is a blank stare,” says Yoder.  “I think some of ’em may be on drugs.”


Miss Starch of 2019

So residents were flattered by the national media attention they attracted in 2016 for the first annual “Days of Starch Festival,” complete with nightly fireworks, a Miss Starch contest, and unlimited free samples of spaghetti, breads and potato products from exhibitors. “We had the Today Show do a live feed from the ‘Name That Tuber’ display,” says Melinda Forsberg, a school teacher who loves starch so much she calls her three children the “Tater Tots.” “Al Roker isn’t as fat as he looks on TV,” she adds with a knowing smile.  “He’s fatter.”


Roker: The camera adds five pounds, or about one helping of mashed potatoes.

 

Starch producers ramp up for the four weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, their peak sales period when stuffing, potatoes and bread may be consumed at a single holiday meal. “We’ve got to make hay–or at least spaghetti–when the sun shines,” says NSC Executive Director Wilbur Freeling. “When spring comes, everybody switches to rabbit food.”

Residents complained about constipation when last summer’s starch festival ended, and town officials say they will have EDTs–emergency dietary technicians–on call beginning next week with high-dosage fiber supplements. “If it helps get the world to pay attention to starches,” says Yoder, “a little widespread intestinal pain is a small price to pay.”

Alan Dawson: The Drummer as Fixture

A visitor to Boston’s Berklee Performance Center in the 60s and 70s may have been forgiven for a gnawing sense of déjà vu: The headliners changed on a regular basis, but the drummer often stayed the same.  The recurring man of mystery wasn’t part of the fixtures, except in an academic sense.  Alan Dawson was both a member of the Berklee School of Music Faculty, and a professional drummer who played with nearly everyone who was anyone passing through Boston during his active years as a professional musician.

Alan Dawson

Dawson was born in Marietta, Pennsylvania in 1929 but grew up in Roxbury, a neighborhood of Boston.  He began to study drums (and vibes) at the Charles Alden Drum Studio in Boston in 1947, then freelanced around town before catching on with Sebastian “Sabby” Lewis, a pianist who led the best-known and longest-lived Black band in town.  Dawson served in the Army during the Korean War, playing with the Army Dance Band at Fort Dix, New Jersey, from 1951 to 1952, and when he was discharged joined vibist Lionel Hampton’s band, with whom he toured Europe.

Dawson would re-join Sabby Lewis in the mid-1950s, then later play with such Boston regulars as trumpeter Frankie Newton, baritone sax Serge Chaloff, and pianist Jaki Byard.  He went on to play with nationally-known figures such as tenor Booker Ervin, and in 1968 he replaced Joe Morello in Dave Brubeck’s group.  Dawson can be heard on records by tenors Al Cohn and Dexter Gordon, altos Lee Konitz and Sonny Criss, and guitarist Tal Farlow; his 1972 recording date with Boston native Sonny Stitt, “Tune Up,” is considered one of the tenor’s best albums.

Dawson began to teach drums without having planned to; he was at one point approached by the father of a young drummer named Clifford Jarvis, who asked him if he’d be willing to tutor his son.  Dawson agreed, and thus began a career that provided him with a steady income and a home base, a welcome change from the rigors of the road and inconstant work that are the occupational hazards of life as a jazz musician.  In 1957 he joined the faculty at Berklee, and over the course of his career there he taught Tony Williams and Terri Lyne Carrington, among many others.  In 1975 Dawson suffered a ruptured disc that brought an end to his touring and his full-time job at Berklee, and thereafter he taught out of his home in Lexington, Mass. 

Dawson developed his own drum method, and in the sixties published a book about it—“The Drummer’s Complete Vocabulary”—which is still in print.  His teaching style emphasized the music as a whole, and not just drumming as a component part.  Recalling Ben Webster’s belief that an instrumentalist needed to know the lyrics to a song in order to create a meaningful solo, Dawson told students to learn the structure of a tune in order to be better percussion accompanists; he directed students to play over standards while singing the melody out loud so they would learn not to elevate technique over expression.  He wrote exercises to be played with brushes on the theory that a drummer who practiced with them would learn to pick up the sticks rather than relying on drumstick “rebound.”

In an act of outreach that may strike jazz purists as missionary work among the infidels, in 1959 Dawson formed a group with bassist John Neves and his pianist brother Paul that played not in smoky bars over the noise of clinking beer glasses, but in a Cambridge coffee house—47 Mt. Auburn—that was the predecessor of Club Passim.

Born July 14, 1929, Dawson died in 1996, five months short of his 67th birthday.

            Con Chapman is the author of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press).  His history of Southwestern jazz, “Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good,” will be published in 2022 by Equinox Publishing.

The Baddest Cat on the Team

          A star high school quarterback was persuaded to play football at Rice University by a handwritten letter its offensive coordinator wrote to his cat.

Sports Illustrated

Rocco
“With these feet, I’m gonna need high-tops, like Johnny Unitas.”

Ho-hum.  Another day, another Division I offensive coordinator prostrating himself before me.  “Dear Rocco,” Clyde van Pelt of Nebraska writes.  “Can’t you see yourself in beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska on Thanksgiving Day, with 87,000 screaming fans urging you–and of course your human–on to victory with a national title on the line?”

Uh, no, actually I can’t.  “Beautiful Lincoln, Nebraska”?  Are there two of them?  Is the beautiful one located out-of-state?

To cop a line from Fred Allen, Nebraska’s a great place to live–if you’re a stalk of winter wheat.  Into the round file from waaay downtown–for three!

Okay, who’s next?  Penn State.  Sorry, when I go into the kitty box, I want privacy.  Ix-nay on the ittany-nay ions-lay.

Okie
“How about me?  I’m a Nittany Cat.”

Whadda we got here.  Harvard?  Are they serious?  Well, an Ivy League education is worth something–in some benighted minds.  Let’s see what kinda package they’re offering.  Canvas tote bag, no-show job at the Widener Library, free use of a Volvo station wagon.  For what?  To pick up Environmental Studies majors in Harvard Square?  That ain’t the way the Big Cat rolls.

Let’s see–Miami.  Too hot.  Wisconsin–too cold.  Missouri–they don’t pay enough.

Stanford–now we’re getting some place.  Top-notch academics, competitive program, all those venture capital alums to give me a job in case I go undrafted.

And the pussy!  I mean really sharp looking cats, brainy too!

Gotta get this one in front of the bi-ped, see what he thinks.

Funny kitten
“I want everybody down in a 4-point stance!”

Hey–wake up, Cheetos-breath.  C’mon, don’t force me to make happy paws all over that stupid sweater of yours.

Yeah, you, numbnuts.  Have you signed your national letter of intent yet?  Well, don’t, okay?  I want you to look at Stanford, then maybe Northwestern, or Virginia, before you commit to four years in some God-forsaken hell-hole where the only entertainment is football and beer.  I don’t want to waste the best years of my life in some place that Gertrude Stein would rank lower than Oakland; not only no there there, no where where.

Look at this course catalog–lots of interesting classes.  History and Philosophy of History and Philosophy.  Can’t top that for circular academic thinking.  The Courtly Tradition in Fiction from Le Morte d’Arthur to Raymond Chandler.  Cats in Cartoons: From Felix to Top Cat.

cats4
“PLEASE–promise me you’re not considering Ohio State!”

What?  Oh you want to spend the next four years in a drunken stupor–is that it?  Well, include me out, Buster.  This cat’s got a brain, okay?  Even if we make it to the NFL–and that’s a big if–we’ll spend the first three years holding a clipboard. Making millions of dollars, granted, but do you know how many jobs there are out there for clipboard-holders?  Not too freakin’ many, pal, and they don’t pay diddly squat.  You know why?  Low barrier to entry.  Anybody can be a clipboard holder, it takes very little training, no professional certification or state-mandated test, no . . .

catfood

Hey, what’s this?  Somebody actually took the time to write us a nice handwritten note–in big cursive letters, too!  This is straight outta Martha Stewart!

Lemme see where it’s from, gimme gimme gimme.  Rice U?  Wha?  You mean like Eukanuba Adult Dry Cat Food Lamb and Rice Formula?

Yuk.

Isn’t there a University of Friskies Party Mix?

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