For One Writing Coach, the Political is Personal

SOMERVILLE, Mass.  Maggie Turbek once had hopes of making a living as a writer, fueled by a $700 check from The Atlantic Monthly for her first short story, “Goodbye Mrs. Pizzoni,” a taut re-telling, roman a clef style, of being thrown out of her first apartment when her landlady discovered she and her boyfriend weren’t married.  “In retrospect it probably would have been better if they’d turned it down,” she says today without a trace of self-pity.  “If they hadn’t got my hopes up I probably would have gone to law school and have a house and a place on the Cape today.”


Turbek:  “I want you to keep writing until the brown shirts show up at your door–and I don’t mean UPS.”

Turbek’s clear-eyed view of the scribbler’s life is now available for hire, and she has become the “go-to” coach for young writers who find themselves too distracted by the roller-coaster ride of American politics to buckle done and finish what they started back when they were working towards worthless Master of Fine Arts in Literature degrees from top programs.  “I don’t know what I’d do without Maggie,” says Ginger Everwarst, who is trying to finish a soul-baring chapbook of poems that traces her life from precocious summer camp writing prodigy to distrait and anxious artiste, constantly on edge from the high vulgarity of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.  “She keeps me focused on what’s most important in this world, which is peering into the dark chasm of my soul.”

Turbek, along with her young assistant Lorna Twellman, a recent summa cum laude graduate of Tufts University with a B.A. in English, uses an internet-sweeping algorithm to scour social media sites and writers’ discussion boards in an attempt to keep her clients from wasting their time in pointless political arguments.  “It’s sad, really,” she says, shaking her head as she scans a computer print-out of one of her charges’ on-line activity.  “You might as well re-arrange grains of sand on the beach for all the good your hyperventilating about politics does.”


“I can’t write today–Bernie Sanders is making a major minor announcement!”

 

“Maggie, can you come here for a second?” Twellman asks Turbek softly, nodding her head side-wise at her computer screen.

“Who is it?” Turbek asks as she puts on a pair of reading glasses she bought at Walgreens for $12.79 earlier in the day.

“Everwarst,” Twellman says as she turns her monitor so Turbek can see more easily.

“Jesus Mary and Joseph,” Turbek mutters when she sees the political poem that the young woman has posted on Writer’s Cafe, a website that rewards budding litterateurs with points they can redeem for espresso drinks at selected independent coffee shops.  “This is so bad I should call the Federal Election Commission,” Turbek says then begins to read aloud:

I feel the long dark night of fascism falling upon the land, the poem begins.
Tinglings of frustration like acupuncture needles in both my hands.
If Trump is elected, with God as my witness I swear,
I’m packing up my Toyota hybrid and moving out of here.

Turbek uses the direct “instant messaging” feature of her service to interrupt the young woman.  “Ginger–sweetie, listen:  Nobody gives a rat’s ass what you or any of the other two million unemployed MFAs think about politics.  And your poem stinks.  ‘Fascist’ is just another word for somebody you disagree with.  Be like the sidewalk outside your crappy apartment–specific and concrete!”


“I don’t want to see any of you complaining about Hillary’s pant suits–got it?”

 

There is no response at first, then Everwarst meekly taps out “Sorry–I’ll get back to work now.” “Attagirl,” Turbek replies.  “Writers WRITE, if you want to talk politics go into radio.”  She leans back in her chair and takes a sip from a Mount Holyoke coffee cup she received for a $250 donation, “the largest I’ve ever given,” she says, but her brief moment of relaxation is interrupted by the constant demands of her business.

“Excuse me, Maggie, here’s something you should see,” Twellman says as she cuts and pastes a link to a “spoof” written by a young man Turbek has taken on, then sends it across the room where the older woman squints as she tries to read it on her outdated phone.

“Is this supposed to be funny?” Turbek asks Twellman after reading a bit, thinking she may have missed some nuance that the younger woman caught.

“I guess so.”

pigeon

Turbek’s left eyebrow crawls up her forehead as a skeptical reaction overtakes her.  “Woodrow Wilson gets a private carrier pigeon . . . so he won’t have to turn over his ‘p-mails’ to the government.  And when he’s caught he says all the messages were about–yoga classes?”

“That’s the gist of it,” Twellman says, trying to maintain the dispassionate approach that Turbek promises her customers.

“Good grief,” Turbek says as she closes out of the post and scrolls through her contacts to find the cell phone number of Tony Vlasick, who should be working on a science fiction novel but is instead fooling around on his blog.  She purses her lips together and begins to tap on her phone’s keyboard with the same force she used on her first manual typewriter forty years before.  “Tony–remember what Oscar Wilde said.  ‘I don’t care if the Cavaliers or the Roundheads win, I just want them to keep fighting.’  You’ll never finish ‘The Red Clouds of the Planet Eenore’ if you don’t ignore politics and buckle down.”

A little row of bubbles appears on Turbek’s phone, indicating that her student is preparing a response.  “Sorry Maggie.  I promise not to give a shit about the fate of our nation ever again.”

Turbek is taken aback at the young man’s sarcasm.  “If this was a brick-and-mortar school, I’d send him to the principal’s office to be paddled by the vice principal,” she says, and this reporter notices that a bit of color has flowed into her face.  “This calls for a more emphatic response,” she says, and instead of texting back Turbek switches to vocal mode and calls the young man, putting him on a speaker phone.

“Hi, Maggie,” he begins a bit sheepishly, but she cuts him off.

“Listen, you dingbat.  I lived through Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, LBJ and Nixon, okay?”

“I’m sorry, Maggie, I . . .”

“No, you listen up and listen good.  ‘The dogs bark, the caravan moves on,’ understand?  What you think about politics doesn’t matter to anyone but you.  If you want the congratulations of all your ‘bros’ down at the sports bar, keep it up.  If you want to be a writer, get your ass in your chair and start writing.”

There is silence, and then finally a meekly-voiced question.  “Do you think I should name the princess of the Plutarians Ee-ka-Nora, or Ee-ka-Phyllis?”

At the Junior Algonquin Club

It’s getting close to Labor Day, time for me to check on the kids to see how they’re doing with their summer reading lists. Things haven’t changed much in our little town since I was a boy; every spring when school gets out a prim, lavender-scented woman at our local library draws up a list of ten categories, and parents agree that each boy and girl who reads a book in all of them by Labor Day gets a reward.


Summer reading fun!

 

There’s fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, science, sports, biography, hobbies, geography and romance. I was kidding about that last one just to see if you were paying attention; the tenth category is mystery/free choice, so the aging Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew hardbacks on the shelves still get a workout, as does Duns Scotus, the Scholastic philosopher generally known as the Godfather of Free Will.

I call the boys into the den—they know what’s coming. I never actually got a cupcake when I was a kid, because—story of my life—I’d choke on one single category (usually poetry) rather than sucking it up and reading “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” My sons are the product of breeding–as you might expect–and have acquired the stick-to-itiveness of their mother’s side of the family; finish the job, no matter how inconsequential or boring, for somebody might be looking, or it could come up on your performance review.


Stevenson: “God, I was hoping I wouldn’t appear in this post.”

 

“Let’s see what you’ve got here, Skipper,” I say to the younger of the two, a “rising” fifth-grader to use the new performance-enhanced lingo of the education profession. “Well, looks like you’re going to get a cupcake, young man!” I say proudly.

“He didn’t finish ‘The Witchcraft of Salem Village,’” his big brother Scooter says, tattling on him. I’m projecting him to be a first-round draft pick by the National Security Agency in about ten years.

“Skip—is that true?” I ask. This is a subject close to my heart, as the book in question was one of my favorites growing up.

“I got too scared,” Skipper says, stiffling a snife—I mean stifling a sniff.

I lift him up on my knee to impress upon him the importance of the matter.

“Skip,” I say with as much fatherly gravity as I can muster, “it’s important for you to understand just what happened here in Massachusetts back then.”

“What?” Skip says—he’s fighting back tears.

“Here in the cradle of liberty, one of our most precious freedoms is the right to harass our neighbors if they’re really weird.”

“Like how?” Scooter asks—he’s interested now.


                         “More rocks!”

 

“Well, crazy old women, men who own land you want—you call them names, pretty soon everybody hates them, then you burn them at the stake.”

“Cool!” You know that was Scooter.

“Or you crush them under rocks until they confess,” I add.

“What if they don’t?” Skipper asks.

“Well, they’d better, because until they do, you just keep piling more rocks on them.”

I can tell from Skip’s furrowed brow that he’s somehow troubled by the superficial unfairness of our unique system of justice, admired the world over. “You don’t have to worry about somebody innocent dying,” I tell him as I plop him back down on the floor. “Once our elected officials and newspaper of record and blow-dried TV reporters start a witch hunt, they’re never wrong. Just ask them!”


Coakley: “We all make mistakes–but I don’t have to admit them.”

 

He’s mollified, so I turn to his big brother. “Let’s see, Scoots.”

He hands me his card and I have to squint to make out the title in the Poetry category. “What’s this say—‘Arsenal and Other Poems’?”

“It’s Ariel,” he says correcting me, referring to the landmark second volume of poems by Sylvia Plath, the overrated poetess who grew up one town over from us.

“Really?” I say, and I try to work as much skepticism into that word as I can. “Who suggested that book?”


Plath: “What’s your problem–everybody else likes me.”

 

“Ms. Frobisher,” he says, referring to his fifth grade teacher, a young woman whose hyper-political approach to earth science caused our little elementary school to crap out of the pâpier-maché volcano regional tournament without making the finals for the first time in the 21st century. That’s what you get when you blame dinosaur extinction on George W. Bush.

It’s time for Scoot’s Little Lesson in Life from dad. “Scoots,” I say gently but firmly. “That book has a lot of racist and anti-Semitic images in it.”

His faces clouds over. “That means it’s bad, right?”

“I don’t think so—all the critics thought it was great.”

“But–they told us on Diversity Day,” Scoots begins, but I cut him off.

“Diversity is for saps,” I tell him. “When you’re a liberal poet—like Plath or Tom Paulin–you can say anything you want!”

I’m not sure they’re persuaded, but I’m the only published poet in the house, so they defer to my aesthetic ruling.

“Well, an objective judge might disagree with me, but I’m your dad so I’m going to sign your cards.”

“Yay—cupcakes!” Skipper yells.

“Not so fast, young man,” I say, putting the brakes on his enthusiasm. “Cupcakes are dessert. First you have to have a wholesome dinner.”

“But we get an afternoon treat,” Scooter says.

He’s right, and I see from the fancy faux-antique clock that my wife bought to make my man-of-letters cave less comfortable that it’s three o’clock, the Pavlovian point at which by routine the boys’ mouths start watering for a snack.

“All right. But you can’t have a cupcake on an empty stomach. First you’ve got to have cocktails.”

The two look at each other as if I’m daft–they score very high on aptitude tests, by the way. “We can’t drink anything in the liquor cabinet—you told us,” Scooter says.

“We’ll make some play cocktails. Why don’t you call up Mary Beth Schoenen and Tommy Valvo and ask them to come over.”

“If we do, there won’t be as many cupcakes for us,” Skipper says.

“I knew you guys would come through, so I got enough to go around. I want you kids to learn how to have a literary soirée.”

“What’s a . . . swa-ray?” Scooter asks.

“Since you’re both so literate, now you ask your friends over for a Junior Algonquin Round Table Party!”

“What’s that?” Skipper asks.

“Well, the Algonquin Round Table was a bunch of funny men and women, all very well-read. They’d get together and make smart remarks about each other.”

“Whenever we do that mom tells us not to be ‘fresh.’”

“I know, bub. She’s just trying to make sure you grow up to be a well-behaved, respectful young man so you can toady up to people who have more money than you.”


Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley

 

“Why would I want to do that?” Skipper asks.

“So they’ll give some to you!” I fairly shout. I’m tempted to say “Duh,” but I refuse to corrupt the boys’ speech the way I undermine their morals.

“Oh, I get it,” Skipper says.

“Great. Well, let’s get going—you call your friends, I’ll set the kids’ table and put out the Hostess snack treats.”

The boys’ friends arrived in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, and Mary Beth Schoenen almost wouldn’t come in when she saw the mess the lamb had made on the floor. “Eww,” she said. “Lamb doody!”

“I’ll clean it up, you kids sit down and start being witty.”

Each of the boys took a card from our Junior Algonquin Club deck; Skipper draws Robert Benchley, my favorite because we both lived in Worcester, Mass., one of two—count ‘em—two Roundtable members to come from the Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World, the other being playwright S.N. Behrman. Scooter picks George S. Kaufman, another playwright and author of several Marx Brothers screenplays; Tommy Valvo goes last because he’s guest—the transvaluation of values as my buddy Fred Nietzsche would say–and selects . . . Harold Ross.

“Who’s he?” Tommy asked.

“Only the greatest editor The New Yorker ever had.”


Harold Ross

 

“What’s The New Yorker?” Tommy asked.

“It’s the magazine that keeps turning our dad down,” Scooter said. He really knows how to twist the knife.

Mary Beth has only two choices, Ruth Hale and Dorothy Parker. I cross my fingers and hope against hope that she won’t pick Hale, a tiresome feminist and a freelance writer more successful than me.

“Turn it over, Mary Beth,” I said. Yes—Dorothy Parker!

“I don’t want to be her,” Mary Beth said, her little mouth turned upside down into an exaggerated frown.

“Why not, sugar?” I asked.

“She was unhappy.”

I don’t have any daughters, so I was a bit uncertain as to how to proceed. “Mary Beth—think of all the happy women you know, like your mom and her friends.”

“Yes?”

“Don’t you think they’d be much happier if they knew that people would be repeating their funny jokes nearly a half century after they died?”

She thought about this for a second; I could tell she was struggling with the concept of posthumous fame. “I don’t think so,” she said finally.

“Why not?” I asked, genuinely interested in the workings of the female litterateur’s mind.

“Because my mommy wants a new Sub-Zero refrigerator—she told my daddy.”


“Hmm–more venom, or more spleen?”

 

“Oh, okay,” I said. I should have known that people in our wealth-obsessed suburb would make bad choices and prefer material comforts while they were alive to acclaim that they couldn’t enjoy once they were cremated and their ashes scattered over unsuspecting sunbathers on Cape Cod.

“Well,” I said to Mary Beth, “in Junior Algonquin Club, as in life, you have to play the cards you’re dealt, so you’re going to have to be Dorothy Parker, okay?”

“Fudge!” she said bitterly, and then—much to my surprise—blurted out a little quatrain that sounded like something Parker might have written when she was a girl:

You tell me how I should prefer
Future fame to stuff in the present,
I disagree, and I demur
I’m not a stupid peasant.

“That’s very good for a little girl,” I said. “Where did you learn that?”

“We did a unit on Depression as a Fuel to Creativity in Language Arts,” she says, before excusing herself to bang on the bathroom door. “I’m not through!” Skipper calls out from within.

Things settle down in a bit and I make the kids a pitcherful of lemonade “martinis” that I serve with a raisin garnish. Skipper starts to gulp his, but I remind him to observe ceremonial conventions. “Somebody needs to propose a toast.”

“I had toast for breakfast,” Tommy says.

“Not that kind of toast—you say something fitting about the occasion.”

“Like what?” Mary Beth asks.

“Well, for example, if one of you got an A on a paper . . .”

“We all get A’s on our papers,” they say in unison. I’d forgotten about grade inflation.

“Okay, well, if one of you just got a big part in a school play, or won the talent contest.”

I see four sets of lips purse together as they think for a moment. “I got a gold star on my drawing the other day.”

“Okay, let’s work with that. Guys—anybody?”

Skipper, the natural gentlemen, rises to the occasion: “To Dorothy,” he says as he stands up and raises his glass. “On her latest, but most assuredly not her last artistic triumph!”

“Hear, hear!” I say. We all take a sip of our lemonade-tinis.

“Now what?” Scooter asks.

“Now you all make cutting remarks about each other. Mary Beth—why don’t you go first?”

She looks around the table until her eyes lock on Scooter, as if he’s an animal caught in the crosshairs of her rifle scope. “You stink!” she cries out.

“Do not!” Scooter fires right back.

“Kids, please,” I say, intervening as a thoughtful, conscientious parent should when a party game threatens to spin out of control.

“But you told me to!” Mary Beth pleads by way of excuse.

“I should have made myself more clear. You have to proceed by indirection if you want to be known as a wit.”

“What does ‘indirection’ mean?” Skipper asks.

“It means you have to insult your friends in an obscure, roundabout way. So if Mary Beth thinks Scooter stinks, she can say ‘I think I’m going to change seats. Being downwind from Scooter is like walking along the beach at low tide.’”

“Ew!” Tommy says, holding his nose. “P.U.!”

They all giggle except Scooter, who is not known for his adherence to high standards of personal hygiene.

“Okay, Skip—why don’t you give it a shot,” I say, encouraging my younger son who can be something of a wallflower in grade school social settings.

He looks around the table, and both Tommy and Mary Beth put on their most innocent faces, hoping to divert whatever spleen Skip may be capable of venting onto someone else.

That someone is, naturally, Scooter, who has made his little brother’s life a living hell for the better part of a decade, what with noogies, wedgies, Indian sunburn and—most painful of all—“monkey bites,” a hard clamp with the hand to the region of the thigh right behind the knee.

“Can I have your cupcake, Scooter?” he asks after a moment, in the sweetest, most genial voice you can imagine.

“No, dubohead,” Scooter snaps. “Why would I do that?”

“I didn’t think you’d still be hungry,” Skipper says, “after picking your nose and eating it all day.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Scooter and Skipper Blow Things Up!”

Salad Lovers Fret as Crouton Shortage Looms

GREEN RIDGE, Mo. Sam Jones has been a grain buyer in this small town for nearly four decades, but he wears an expression of concern as he watches farmers arrive at the local grain elevator to sell their crops. “If I had the money right now, which I don’t,” he says with a knowing look, “I’d be buying up all the croutons I could find.”


Ripe croutons, ready for harvest

 

Croutons–sauteed or rebaked bread that is seasoned, cut into cubes and added to salads and soups to provide texture and flavor–are a reliable cash crop in the Midwest, where school children have historically been excused from class during spring planting and fall harvest times.  “It’s a way of life,” says Marilee Dunham, whose husband Darrell puts their five sons and two daughters to work in early June “de-tasselling” crouton plants to enhance fertilization. “It teaches the kids about the rhythms of nature and the seasons, and the role of the Caesar salad in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.”


Harvest time

 

But some fear the salad days of croutons are ending, with demand for biodiesel fuels eating up available acreage. “It’s sad,” says Wayne Durrell, Mayor of Green Ridge, whose seven year-old daughter Kylie was named Little Miss Crouton during the town’s annual Crouton Festival last summer. “To see a way of life wither away and die all because a bunch of goo-goo liberals want to feel good about what they put in the gas tanks of their hybrids.”


World’s Largest Crouton, Missouri State Fair, Sedalia, Mo.

 

As with all changes in economic trends, this one produces both winners and losers. While biodiesel producers benefit from government-sponsored tax breaks, small towns such as Green Ridge find their traditions threatened by agribusiness giants that buy up land at distressed prices and convert them to open-air factories, where a former independent farmer often finds himself tilling a field he once owned for a distant–-and faceless–-corporate crouton enterprise.


Bumper crop from 2014

 

“I’ll do what I have to in order to feed my family,” says Wendell Baker, Jr., whose family has raised croutons for three generations but who is now a contract employee for a commodities producer headquartered in Chicago. “But the pride we used to feel when we walked by the salad bar at Wendy’s is gone.”

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?”

Someday All This Crap Will Be Yours

When I saw the news I gulped involuntarily; a man riding a bike had been struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver not far from where I make the turn to head home from my Sunday morning ride.

This tragedy came close on the wheels of a near miss a few weekends before: a car had crashed through the front window of the little cafe that marks the halfway point of my ride, and I had been sitting there half an hour earlier sipping my coffee, thinking how life was good like the idiots say on those t-shirts the kids pay premium prices for.


It coulda been me!

 

It was beginning to seem that exercise had become a brutally-efficient middle-aged male herd thinning device, what with these accidents and the first Cape Cod shark attack in a century this year, and it caused me to take stock of my life. I’ve got two sons in their twenties, but no grandchildren. Both boys have long-term girlfriends, however, so the prospects are good that my DNA will, as my buddy Bill Faulkner puts it, not just endure but prevail. I like both girls very much, and while I want to live to a ripe old age, I’ve got to think about what will happen after I’m gone.

There’s Maya, the free-spirit. She was all-conference wing deep on her college ultimate frisbee team, speaks three languages, Dean’s List all four years. For her senior community service project she taught the polka to disadvantaged Chicago youth who had lost touch with their Polish heritage. Believe me, if anybody’s going to change the world, it’s this young lady.

Still, I wonder sometimes whether her charitable tendencies might someday get the better of her. What if she starts a foundation to teach synchronized swimming to kids with Osgood Schlatter’s Disease and blows a hole in my estate? I don’t want to rule things from beyond the grave, but I don’t want my assets squandered, either.

 

 

The other one–Sloane–is just as nice, but totally different. She grew up in a sailing family in Marblehead, Mass. It’s pronounced “marble-HAY-Yed-duh” by long-time residents, a shibboleth that separates old money from newcomers. The contorted sounding reflects the schizophrenia of the New England WASP: the first syllable expresses proper Puritan humility, while the 4-on-3 ending lets the working stiffs know you’ve still got enough gumption to boss your vassals and serfs around.

Sloane’s been surrounded by money all her life–her mom and dad have his ‘n hers J 24 sailboats that they take out on weekends for “chowder” races. I don’t have the heart to tell them you can get chowder at the fish market for less than the cost of a sailboat, and I’m somewhat concerned that their daughter has developed a taste for the luxe life.

The thing I want to avoid is a fight over my accumulated wealth. I don’t want to see the two branches of the family square off in some kind of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce squabble that will enrich only asshole lawyers like myself.

So yesterday, I invited the girls over–without the boys–to talk to them about my estate, and how I’ve made provision for both of them. I sat them down in the family room and, after superficial pleasantries were exchanged, it was time to get serious.

“Girls–or perhaps I should say ‘gals’–I want you both to know that if something terrible were to happen to me, both boys are going to be taken care of very generously in my will. I don’t want either of you to be envious of what the other has–okay?”

They look at each other, then back at me.

“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about,” Maya says.

“Me neither,” Sloane says

Kids–they’re so innocent when they’re just starting out in life. I don’t want to burst the little bubbles they’ve been living in, but before too long they’ll run smack dab into adulthood and real world responsibilities. They’ve got to start learning the cold hard facts of life sometime.

“Well, for instance,” I begin. “Take my record collection.”

I point over their shoulders, and the girls turn to the shelves above our “entertainment center,” which are filled with CDs, albums, even 45s.

“I’ve made a special effort to build a collection that can be split fairly right down the middle so that you won’t have to liquidate it and split the proceeds–after estate taxes, of course.”

“That’s okay,” Sloan says diplomatically. “I . . . don’t really like jazz.”

“It’s more than jazz,” I say reassuringly. “It’s R&B, soul, spirituals. To give you just one example, I have two Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson CDs, his Greatest Hits and ‘What the Hell is This?’ Some people would say that’s not fair, the girl who gets the Greatest Hits comes out way ahead, but what they don’t realize is the other album has ‘I Don’t Want to Be President’–which is not on the Greatest Hits CD!

They look at each other and I think the lengths to which I’ve gone to be fair are starting to register. “Wow, that’s great,” Maya says.

“And ‘Boogaloo Down Broadway’ by The Fantastic Johnny C? Whoever gets that, the other girl gets ‘Funky Broadway’ by Wilson Pickett.”

“That’s super that you’re trying to be so fair,” Sloane says. For a moment there I thought she was stifling a yawn–but I know she’s been afflicted with the Curse of Bruxism; probably just stretching to keep her jaw loose.

“Music’s been a big part of my life,” I say, “and I want my descendants to appreciate the best and highest products of American civilization.”

“Thanks,” Maya says as she starts to stand up.

“Wait,” I say, not wanting to sound like a late-night cable TV come-on, but I can’t avoid it; “there’s more.”

“Like . . . what?” Sloan asks.

“Well, there’s literature.”

“I like to read,” Maya says.

“Then you’re going to love my collection of early 20th century comics.”

“You collect comics?” Sloane says, apparently incredulous at her good fortune.

“Yep. One of you girls will get my Katzenjammer Kids.” I see blank stares–perhaps Hans and Fritz are a bit too recondite for the girls, who’ve been forced to specialize early in their academic careers. “And the other will get Krazy Kat–see how it works out with each of you getting two capital K’s?”

The girls look at each other, each with a little moue on her lips. “It does seem awfully . . . fair.”

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be, that’s the way I want it,” I say with Solomonic wisdom. “Now you may notice that these comics–they contain a good deal of violence in them. Mice throwing bricks at cats, little boys setting their father’s shoes on fire–while their father is in them. Innocent stuff like that.”

“Are they really something . . . we should let our kids read?” It’s Maya–she’ll make a great mom someday!

“Absolutely!” I say. “It was good enough for the boys and for me and for my father, a member of the greatest generation who had to have a deep capacity for violence in his heart in order to defeat the Nazis!”

The greater seriousness of such a trivial aesthetic choice causes them to fall silent for a moment.

“Gosh,” Maya says. “I never knew our basic freedoms could come down to such an apparently insignificant thing like . . . a comic book.”

“That’s what our forefathers fought and died for, kiddo,” I say, giving her a wink that I hope she won’t take the wrong way.

“Is that . . . it?” Sloane asks. Probably wants to be alone with her thoughts for a while to ponder the gravity of everything I’ve revealed to them today.

“One more thing,” I say. “Let’s go out in the garage for a second.”

We make our way out to our spacious three-car garage, where vehicles from model years 2011, 2008 and 2004 sit snug and cozy, protected from the depredations of the mean streets of half acre minimum lot size suburb.

“Take a look,” I say.

“I’m not really into cars,” Maya says. “Whichever one Sloane wants is fine . . .”

“I’m not talking about the cars, hon,” I say as I drape my arms over their shoulders. “Take a gander at that state-of-the-art recycling center over there.”

The two of them lift up their eyes to the far wall, where separated neatly into brightly-colored bins are plastics, paper, cardboard, glass–you name it, we recycle it

“Is that . . . yours?” Maya asks, obviously impressed that I’m such an earth-head.

“Yep,” I say with pride. “Now count off the containers.”

The girls count from left to right, and Sloane says “There’s ten, right?”

“That’s right–five for each of you,” I say, perhaps a trifle smugly, but I am proud of what I’ve accomplished in life.

“So someday,” Maya begins, “all of this . . .”

“Crap,” Sloane says, finishing the thought her future sister-in-law left hanging out of courtesy.

“Will be ours?” Maya says.

“No, just the bins and containers,” I say. “I’m taking the crap to the dump next Saturday.”

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

Summer’s End Finds Grade School Cougars on the Prowl

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


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

 

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


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

 

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


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

 

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


“She’s a year older than me. What would we talk about?”

 

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

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

Keep on Noodling: A Salute to America’s Handfishers

Give a man a fish, goes the Chinese proverb, and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and he will bore you to tears on summer Mondays with an account of how he and his wife Marjene caught over 170 crappie at the Lake of the Ozarks over the weekend.


Crappie:  As a meal, about as bad as the name is spelled.

 

Teach a man to hand-fish, on the other hand, and he will regale you with tales of how he wrestled a fish that was bigger than a dog but smaller than a cow out of the water and into his truck; now that’s worth hanging around the water cooler for.


“Did I wash my hands before returning to work?  Uh, no.”

 

It can fairly be said that sports–that great male time-waster–has been at the vanguard of social change in America.  Think of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball.  Consider Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon.  Or how about Manny Ramirez, the first Dominican outfielder to take a leak behind a manually-operated scoreboard during a pitching change in an American League game.  Truly, as a nation, we have much to be proud of.


Kathrine Switzer, failing the Boston Marathon
cojones test.

 

But many are surprised to hear that, until recently, there were still obstacles to full participation in the athletic endeavors that make this country great.  One such barrier is laws, such as that in force in Missouri until the first decade of the 21st century, that made it illegal to “noodle,” or fish with one’s hands.


A guy named Phil, with a giant catfish caught by hand

 

As a teenage boy in a small Missouri town, I often worked with country people who spoke of noodling.  Not having much interest in fishing, I never accompanied them on their clandestine trips to muddy creek banks, where they told me they would stick their arms into hollow logs, risking bites by snakes or snapping turtles, to catch catfish by hand.  As a result, I have wrongly assumed all these years that the fish they caught would fit on a dinner plate.


Humping a giant catfish: Dinner and a movie not required.

 

It turns out these men were diving under water, holding their breath and sticking their arms into catfish “holes” where they would grab fresh-water behemoths, smaller than a jet ski but not by much, and wrestle them into submission.  Where noodling is permitted, a fish must typically be as much as two feet long in order to be a legal catch.  Catfish are bottom feeders who remain stationary for long periods of time, eating anything that floats by–smaller fish, dead dogs, outboard motors–and as a result can grow to be enormous.


“He followed me home–can I keep him?”

 

You would think that the Missouri legislature, in its wisdom, would have long ago followed the example of the other eleven states where handfishing (also referred to as “hogging”) is legal, and let man and fish fight it out fair and square.  Missouri’s scruples in the area of man-fish relations stemmed not from fear for fisherman’s safety, but from a solicitous regard for the fishes’ sex life.  Handfishing, according to fish and game officials, depletes the number of sexually mature fish.  Well, what do you want noodlers to do–knock before entering?


Moby Catfish

 

Since moving to the east coast forty-three years ago, I’ve gone deep-sea fishing a number of times and had naively formed the opinion that it was more challenging than fresh-water fishing.  Having conducted further research into hand-fishing, I now believe that the only way ocean fishing could measure up to the challenge of noodling is for the beer-sodden men who pay hundreds of dollars to fish off Florida or Cape Cod to crawl overboard, find a bluefish or a marlin and subdue their prey using nothing but wrestling holds learned on WWE Royal Rumble.


Exhausted noodlers

 

So here’s to America’s hand-fishers, true sportsmen who eschew fish-finders and other high tech doo-dads that unfairly tilt the pond in favor of humans.  I salute you, but I have one request.

If you don’t mind, I’d rather not shake your hand.