As Families Tighten Belts, Distressed Jeans Feel the Pinch

OAK PARK, Illinois. Martha Reznik is the mother of a teenaged son, Todd, whose summer growth spurt means a trip to the mall for new clothes as the school year begins. “He shot up like a weed,” she says as she picks through sale items on a display table inside Lochner’s, an off-price retailer here. “We tried spraying him with Round-Up,” the popular weed and grass killer, she notes, ”but it apparently doesn’t work on similes.”

Todd’s dad is between jobs following a round of layoffs at American Moosehead Indemnity Company, however, so the family needs to cut back in an area that is sacred to Todd; “distressed”-look clothing that has been pre-washed, torn or otherwise made to appear as if it has previously been worn or damaged.

Roundup: Works only on literal, not figurative weeds.

“Mom, you don’t understand,” Todd says as his mother throws a non-distressed t-shirt priced at $4.99 into her cart, rejecting a Chicago Bears throwback distressed shirt that retails for $24.99. “If my clothes look new, the other kids will think I’m poor.”

Brand, spanking-new faded, worn-appearance t-shirt.

“Honey, we need to cut back,” Martha says consolingly to her anxious son, for whom matters of social status among his peers are far more important than the mere legal tender it would take to keep him in fashion.

He grudgingly concedes on the t-shirt, hoping to maintain some shred of dignity when it comes to the most important item in any teenaged boy’s wardrobe–his blue jeans. “My jeans are a reflection of who I am,” he says to this reporter, who pretends to care. “If they don’t look like I worked in them for three years in some blue-collar job while listening to Bruce Springsteen, the kids who drive BMW’s to school will look down their noses at me.”

Ashley: “Sorry Todd. I could never go out with someone who can’t afford to buy expensive genuine fake
po’ boy jeans!”

But his mother is insistent, and passes up a pair of Seven7 Distressed Jeans marked down to $49 for a pair of Dickies, the style worn by actual working men with jobs, for $16.

“Mom, you can’t!” Todd groans, but his mother ignores him as she heads towards the winter coats, passing up a $159 scuffed bomber jacket for a similar but less stylish model for $72. “Ashley”–Todd’s girlfriend–”is going to dump me if she sees me wearing new-looking clothes. Don’t make me!”

It’s a “teaching moment” for the mother, who puts her hand on her son’s shoulder and tries to look into his downcast eyes. “Todd, sweetie,” she says. “Ashley’s a very sweet girl, but you’ll learn in life that the fundamental values are the most important.”

“Like what?” Todd says, his face flush with emotion that he tries to conceal from other teens in the store.

“If a woman is only attracted to you just because you look poor, she probably won’t stick by you when you can’t afford to anymore.”

Pressure Mounts on Normal Kids to Get Personality Disorder

FLORISSANT, Mo.  Amy Ratcliffe is a high school junior who says she’s “on the bubble” for her first college choice, Vanderbilt University.  “I bombed the math part of my PSAT test,” she says ruefully, “and I don’t have any trips to Costa Rica to build water purification plants on my resume,” as do many children from more affluent families.

Secretary-Treasurer, Narcissists Club

So at the urging of her mother, last night Amy attended the Personality Disorder Fair at her high school cafeteria, along with her friend Melinda Sothern, in the hope of finding a resume-enhancing mental problem that will make her college applications more attractive.

“Hmm–maybe someday I can be a paranoid-schizophrenic.”

“So many of our students just need that extra little something to distinguish themselves,” says guidance counselor Norbert Branson.  “The top twenty percent of students at elite college have personality disorders,” he notes, referring to a recent study sponsored by the New York Psychiatric Institute, “and our kids are going to have to suck it up and become obsessive-compulsive or something if they want to get into a top school.”

“You kids can be anything you want to be–neurotic, psychotic–go for it!”

Amy and Melinda stop first at the Narcissists Club table, where they interrupt Linda Smiley, an attractive senior, as she examines her eye makeup in a compact mirror.

“Excuse me,” Amy says politely in deference to the upperclassman’s senior status.  “Could we get some literature or information about this club?”

Smiley ignores the two at first and then also at second, until Amy says “Hello?” with a hint of irritation.

“I’ll be with you in a minute,” Smiley says, “or not.  I’m the president of the Narcissists Club, so it tends to be all about me.”

“Is there an initiation ceremony?” Melinda asks, somewhat nervous about the tales she’s heard of students forced to eat raw onions, wear funny clothing to school or have intimate relations with biology lab frogs in order to be accepted by some clubs.

“If we gave a damn about you, we could come up with something I suppose,” Smiley says as she applies lip gloss.  “Frankly, I don’t have time.”

The girls say thanks and move on to the Paranoid Society, a group whose membership is predominantly male, with a sprinkling of high-performing girls who were cut from the Pep Squad for being too anti-social.

Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme

“Hi,” Amy says cheerfully as she approaches the folding table on which a papier-mache diorama of the unsuccessful assassination attempt upon President Gerald Ford by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme is displayed, above a banner reading “When Will the Truth Be Known?”

“What do you want?” says Tommy Racuniz, a slight boy from one of her classes who tends to avoid eye contact.

“Well, like, just some literature,” says Melinda.

“Never write when you can speak,” Racuniz says ominously, “and never speak when you can nod.”

“Are there any club dues?” Amy asks, and the boy shakes his head from side to side.

Melinda poses the question “Do you get student activity credit for meetings and stuff?” and Racuniz explodes at her, yelling “You people–why do you torment me?  What have I done?  Why won’t you leave me alone?”

“Thanks,” Amy says.  “See you in Current Events.”

Baron von Munchhausen

The girls move on to the Munchhausen Syndrome Club table, where the school nurse is examining Sergeant-at-Arms Terry Phillipson, a senior who plans to become a doctor.

“Where does it hurt?” the nurse asks him.

“All over,” the boy says.  “It’s like a knife running through my stomach and a bowling ball on my foot at the same time!”

The girls hesitate while the nurse puts a thermometer in the boy’s mouth, but they turn when they hear snickers from behind them.

“Those guys are depressing losers!”

They turn around to see the four members of the school’s pom-pom squad.  “What’s so funny about human suffering?” Amy asks with genuine umbrage.

“Don’t you know?” snickers captain Marci Young.  “You have to be sick to join that club!”

The Last Days of Joe Oliver

They don’t know exactly where he was born;
it was either New Orleans or a plantation
outside of town.  His date of birth is a


shifting signpost as well.  It could have been
1885, or earlier, or later.  Jazzmen would move
the date up so people wouldn’t think they were

moldy old figs, or move it back to show that
that they were there at the beginning, in the
Garden of Eden, when jazz was created.


He lost his left eye when he still in his teens,
in a fight.  He started on trombone, switched
to cornet, and soon you could hear him shaking

the blackberry leaves as he played in funeral
parades.  By the time he was fifteen he was
touring in a brass band, but he was known

in the cabarets as well.  That’s where he came
to be called “King” Oliver, after he cut
Freddie Keppard one night in Storyville.


He lit out for Chicago, then California,
then back to Chicago when his gold rush
to the coast didn’t pan out.  He formed

the Creole Jazz Band to play in a swank
ballroom with a crystal ball on the ceiling.
In the spotlight, he wanted to do it right.

He assembled a tight band of New Orleans
natives, but he felt there was still something
missing.  He wired home for Louis Armstrong.


His former apprentice joined the band and,
as if by telepathy, they played in unison, long
cornet lines, seemingly improvised on the spot.

They had a system, Louis said, he and Papa Joe,
but they never wrote out their duet breaks.  They
didn’t have to, they were so wrapped up together.

It wasn’t long before apprentice surpassed his master,
and went out on his own.  Papa Joe started the
Dixie Syncopators, and began to play arrangements–

the duets by osmosis came to an end.  Joe Oliver
still wore the crown, but his kingdom had been
usurped.   His teeth, essential to his embouchure,

started to go; after a while he couldn’t play at all.
He moved to Savannah, where he worked as the
janitor in a pool room and at a fruit stand.  He was


the real King of Jazz, not the white man Whiteman,
but he was now a pauper.  One day Louis passed
through town with his orchestra and saw his mentor.

“No tears,” Louis said, “just glad to see us.”  Louis
gave him $150 he had in his pocket; the others—Joe’s
former employees—chipped in what they could.

That night, playing a dance, Louis looked over in the
wings and there was Papa Joe, looking sharper now,
not like a pool hall janitor pushing a broom in his

shirtsleeves.  Louis left town with his band and
later heard that Joe ended up cleaning out cuspidors.
When he died they thought it was a heart attack, but not

Louis, who said the King died of a broken heart.

Among the Cokehead Federal Reserve Lab Rats

Regrettably, Sehgal fails to report experiments in which rats, offered a lever that releases cocaine, press for more and more stimulis until they die, even though this model would explain the Federal Reserve’s approach to interest rate cuts.

Jay Weiser, Review of “Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us” by Kabir Sehgal, The Weekly Standard

Image result for lab rats animal
“I could sure go for a few lines of coke and an increase in the money supply.”

I was basking in the sun with my buddies Mikey and Ike, my fellow lab rats here at the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston, down on Fort Point Channel.  Every now and then one of us would pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreamin’.  We had the greatest job on earth–all the cocaine we could sniff, plus our little paws held the levers that could rattle world markets through manipulation of interest rates and the money supply.

“You guys up for a game of Scare the Tourists?” I said to my two confreres. 

“We did that yesterday,” Mikey said as he propped himself up on one elbow, the better to gaze at the waters in the channel; when I started out in the lab rat business, it was pretty disgusting.  Now, thanks to a billion-dollar cleanup paid for by taxpayers across the country, the waters were safe for us to swim in.  We’d emerge wet and slimy onto the banks and chase picnicking secretaries who’d drop their ham sandwiches and yogurt for us to nosh on.  Life was good.

“Okay, you slackers,” I said.  “But don’t fall asleep.  We’ve got some heavy lifting to do after lunch.”

Image result for lab rats animal
“Yum–Charles River Rat Food!”

“Why–what’s up?” Ike asks.

I gave him a withering look.  It’s amazing to me how some guys think working for the most powerful central bank in the world is a job you can just blow-off whenever you feel like it.

“Haven’t you been paying attention to what’s happening in China?” I asked incredulously.  I don’t often append an adverb to my questions, but I felt the need to emphasize the importance of the afternoon that lay ahead of us.

“If it wasn’t on the sports pages, he missed it,” Mikey said with a sly grin.

“They devalued their currency, then they lowered interest rates,” I said.  “Take a peek at the TV screen in the employee cafeteria.  They’re taking pictures of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, so you know the world’s going to hell.”

That caused the Ikester to sit up and take notice, although not without some difficulty.  He’s not exactly Pilates-class material, if you know what I mean.

Image result for pilates class
“Eek–a mouse.  Must remain centered.”

“So what does that mean?” Ike asked.

“Who knows?  But the first thing you need to do is panic.”

“Why is that?”

“It’s a fundamental rule of stupidity that applies whenever any dramatic change occurs in financial markets: Don’t just stand there, do something, even if it makes no sense.”

The guys got the message, so we got up and started to amble back to the bank’s unique “washboard” building on the Boston waterfront.  The slab of silver metal and glass was apparently designed by somebody who dreamed of a career in household goods and sundries–whatever they are–but flunked the high-stakes aptitude test and was instead relegated to an ignominious career as an architect.

Image result for federal reserve bank boston

“So how exactly do you propose to solve the world’s financial crisis while we’re stoned out of our gourd on cocaine?” Mikey asked.

“Are you kidding?” I replied, channeling my inner Nancy Pelosi, which hasn’t had quite as much plastic surgery as the other one.  “Sucking white powder up your nose is the model recommended by Nobel Prize winning economists for fine-tuning the world’s third largest economy, after Starbucks and the Vatican.”

“It is?” Ike asked.

“Sure,” I said as we entered the free cocaine bar on the 29th floor, right down the hall from the regulatory library that was frequented by the author of this post in his salad days as a banking legal beagle.  “If you keep pushing this lever,” I said as I pushed the lever, “all of your inflationary worries disappear as your nose grows numb and your whole body starts to buzz.”

“Ahh,” Mikey said as he snorfed up a line that looked like a windrow of fescue in the August sun, to wax poetic for just a second.

Image result for windrows
Windrows:  NOW we’re talkin’!

“Okay, your turn,” I said to Ike, and he inhaled his portion like a shop-vac cleaning up a basement after a flood.

He finished his line and then it was my turn; I cleared my head of anti-inflationary thoughts, exhaled, then Hoovered up my line like my mother’s old canister-style vacuum cleaner.

“Primo,” I said, as mopped the residue around my nostrils with a wet finger, then licked it so as not to waste any.  Like the nuns in grade school told me: appreciate every gram of your controlled substances, kids are going to bed straight all over the world.

We could have sat back like fat satraps plastered in an opium den then, but we had work to do.

“Mikey, push the M1 button,” I said sharply, like the captain of a ship changing course in mid-battle.

“What’s M1?” Ike asked, and rather dully I might add.

I’m sure my mouth dropped open when my ears heard what he said.  “How long have you been working here?” I asked with a full measure of disbelief in my voice.

“With a life span of 2 to 3.5 years, I can’t be expected to learn everything,” he said defensively.

“M1 is measure of money supply that includes all physical money, such as coins and currency, as well as demand deposits, checking accounts and Negotiable Order of Withdrawal accounts,” I said slowly and clearly, as if reciting the rule against hitting your sister to a particularly dull 8-year-old boy.  “It measures the most liquid components of the money supply, as it contains cash and assets that can quickly be converted to currency.”

“Okay–what do you want me to do with it?”

“Pull it–hard!” I said, and you could almost feel liquidity pulsing back into the barren nooks and crannies of the American economy, like butter melting into an English muffin.  “Now you!” I screamed at Mikey.


“I want you to go upstairs and scare the beejezus out of Janet Yellen.”

Image result for janet yellen
Yellen:  “It was this big, I tell you!”

“What good will that do?”

“Maybe she’ll raise interest rates, so that investment will flow out of some of the goofier asset classes that have been soaking it up . . .”

“Like what?” Mikey asked.

“Vacation homes, baseball cards, and Star Wars memorabilia.”

Whither Butter Sculpture?

It has been several years since Norma Lyon, the pre-eminent practitioner of a uniquely American art form–butter sculpture–died, and the deep impact of her passing becomes more clear with each passing day.

“I can’t believe it’s not Jesus and the 12 Apostles!”

Lyon’s death was noted in The New York Times and on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.  She had appeared on the Today and the Tonight Shows, Late Night With David Letterman, and To Tell the Truth, among other nationally televised programs.  She was the face of butter sculpture in America–nay, the world.  She was the Leonardo da Vinci of butter sculpture, and had in fact imitated that asexual gay genius–a precursor of Andy Warhol–by crafting her own dairy version of The Last Supper in 1999.

I was introduced to butter sculpture as a boy under the grandstands of the Missouri State Fair.  As with the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower, you probably know the building by sight even if you’ve never been there, for outside hangs what were for a time the World’s Largest Pair of Blue Jeans, until jeannie-come-latelies in Peru and Croatia elbowed their way to the front of the pack in the humongous denim pants race.

Walk under the crotch to reach butter sculpture exhibit.

Missouri’s State Fair is no slouch in the butter sculpture department.  La Lyon didn’t carve Iowa’s official Butter Cow until 1960, at which point butter sculpture aficionados in my little hometown were already sophisticated critics of the genre. Would we have been satisfied with a humble sculpture of a cow in 1960?  Puh-lease!  Would Parisians of the Impressionist era swoon over a big-eyed kid picture?

Butter cows were standard fare in the dawn of butter sculpture, but by the early sixties Missouri’s cholesterol carvers had advanced to full farm families, seated around the dinner table, discussing best methods of crop rotation in order to achieve maximum sorghum yields.

“You finish your butter, or there’ll be no butter for you!”

Still, Lyon seen her opportunities and she took ‘em, in the words of Tammany Hall ward heel George Washington Plunkitt.  When other sculptors were working in flimsy, insubstantial materials such as stone, she got her hands wet first with ice, then with butter.

Sculpture is one of those art forms that, like poetry, seems to contradict our most cherished notions of our superiority over past ages.  Take a look at Michelangelo’s Pieta. (Best US viewing opportunity, 1964 New York World’s Fair–hurry before it closes!)  Now compare that masterwork to one of the many tributes to jocks that are going up outside stadia these days and tell me–if you dare–that we’ve made progress since the 15th century.

Michelangelo’s Pieta:  Famous non-butter sculpture.

Which raises the question–in the wake of Lyon’s death, who is the pre-eminent butter sculptor of our time?  Not an easy call, but here are a few of the front runners:

Ted Williams?  Walt Dropo?  Pumpsie Green?

Velma Jean Ritter, Keokuk, Iowa. Long obscured by Lyon’s imposing shadow, Velma Jean is ready to move out into the sunlight of the world of butter sculpture.  Figuratively, of course; she has to stay in the walk-in cooler to do her best work or else her medium melts.  Ritter’s tour de force is a margarine-based version of Michelangelo’s David, complete with Ritz Cracker genital cover.

“Hey–wrap a towel around yourself, fer Christ sake!”

Wanda Goetzkee, Gumbo, Missouri. Wanda’s work draws comparisons to modern masters such as Alexander Calder for her gravity-defying use of spray-on butter substitutes to create light, airy confections that challenge our very conception of what a “stick of butter” means.

“I personally don’t know how she does it,” says Wim de Van Wenders, curator of the butter wing of the Minneapolis Museum of Dairy Arts.  “It recalls string cheese–not that I would know what that looks like.”

“We certainly wouldn’t serve that at a Silver Donors Wine & Cheese reception!”

Tony Joe Cutter, Hoxie, Arkansas. Warmer weather has held this young Turk back, but a recent relocation to Kearney, Nebraska during the summer months has produced a sea-change in his edgy, unnerving works–even though there’s no sea in Nebraska!

Butter Yoda:  “On corn on cob spread me you must!”

“I want to break out of the hidebound strictures that keep butter sculpture penned up with farm animals,” says Cutter.  “Where are the butter driveway gnomes, the butter Jabba the Hutt, the butter Buddy Holly?”

My Love Affair With Microsoft Windows

About eight years ago . . . I bought my first Mac.  And I never looked back.  Until now.

I’ve spent the past month solely using Windows 10, and I’ve fallen in love with Windows again.

Joanna Stern, The Wall Street Journal

Image result for lichtenstein

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a sultry summer Thursday night.  I sit in front of my computer, staring at the screen.  It’s been “frozen” for the past half hour, despite my frequent resort to the Windows “Task Manager.”  Hah!  More like “Task Master”!

I don’t know what it is, why I’m so hopelessly in thrall to Windows 7 or 9 or whatever version it is I have.  It changes constantly, like soup du jour in a restaurant!  Me, or I if you prefer, am constant in my devotion to Windows, on the other hand.  I know, it’s “PC” to be so darn attached to Microsoft hardware and software and malware and viruses.  But I’m trying to make this relationship work, dammit!

Image result for lichtenstein

I’ve never had an Apple product.  Except for my iPod, and my iPad, and my iPhone, and my iDisposal, the handy way to get rid of your trash in an environmentally-sensitive, sustainable way.  Unless you live in the THX 1138 spiral galaxy, the only part of the universe that does not currently have an Apple Store.

He promised me he’d changed with Windows 10, that new software wasn’t just about righting old wrongs–the constant pop-up permission requests, virus update reminders and blue screens of death everywhere.  No, we were going to do more than just “reboot” our relationship.  He said he needed to “power down.”  His capacitors–those little “energy buckets”–had reached their capacity with me.  His little batteries had filled up when I put a current through them.  We needed to reset our DSL modem by completely pulling out the plug, leaving it out for 10 seconds, and then plugging it back in.  It was computerus interruptus–he said it was just as good as conventional maintenance.

Why doesn’t tech support call?  *sniff*

Image result for roy lichtenstein

He said he had two kinds of memories about us.  Non-volatile memory, and regular old random access memory.  Well, I have my memories too!

Memories of me, sitting alone, like tonight.  Staring at the “blue screen of death” as that silly woman in The Wall Street Journal put it.

How could she go back to him, after what he does to us, time and time again?

My work fades into a fuzzy haze.  A little “dialogue box” appears before me and says . . . “Windows has stopped working.”

Not me, of course.  I have to get up every morning and drag my derriere into work to pay for the constant upgrades, de-fraggings and virus scans.  While he sits on his butt.

The next message I get is always “Windows is trying to close this window.”  Tell me about it.  I’d like to close my window down–hard!–on his crummy fingers and the way they manipulate me.

But I can’t!  *sniff* Because I’ve fallen in love with Windows . . .


Some Athletes Hope to Make Big Splash at Summer Olympics

SANTA MONICA, California.  The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro were still 347days away yesterday, but you couldn’t tell from the determined looks on the faces of the hard-core athletes who were gathered at an outdoor pool and diving facility here.  “A lot of people don’t have a sense of urgency about it but I do,” says coach Mark Wertz with an edge in his voice. “By the time people read that first sentence, it will be down to 346 days.”


Wertz is putting his charges through their paces today because he doesn’t want to lose a single minute available for practice, and he watches closely as Tyler Scher, a 19-year-old prospect from Indianapolis, climbs the ten-meter springboard for his first try. “These kids are so green,” Wertz says, shaking his head.  “I hope we’re ready by the time we get on that plane.”

As he says these last words sotto voce, Scher walks to the edge of the board, bounces, flies high in the air and then enters the water clumsily, making a splash big enough to put him out of contention in most diving competitions.

Can opener


“Good work, Ty,” Wertz says as he makes a note on his ever-present clipboard.  “You got good volume on your splash, but we need to work on the height.”

Scher and the others assembled here this morning hope to represent the U.S. in the first Olympic competition of its kind, performing one of the five classic jumps–cannonball, jack knife, preacher’s seat, suicide and “back splat”–into a pool ringed by a panel of international judges.  “I coulda been a diver,” says Tony DiStafano, an earnest sixteen-year-old from West Hartford, Connecticut, “but I like to make a splash.”

“You want to lean back into it a little more.”

Because many of the compulsory pool jumps are American creations, the U.S. team is expected to have a built-in edge when for the first time the sport advances beyond the “demonstration” stage, but Wertz is leaving nothing to chance.  “I don’t buy that for a minute,” says Wertz.  “The Eastern European women are the dark horse in the race, especially with all that hair on their upper lips.”

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