Surprised by the Fed

The Fed Should Surprise Us.

Headline, The Wall Street Journal

I have come to the headquarters of The Federal Reserve System, the nation’s central bank, on a mission: at a time when the nation’s economy is humming along with full employment, low inflation, and a booming stock market, something has to go wrong–and soon.  I want to be at ground zero when it happens.

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It was this lurking feeling of looming disaster that caused The Wall Street Journal to wring its hands with concern back when former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was starting to complain about “irrational exuberance.”  The editorial pages of the Journal rightly put their finger on the problem–a massively over-leveraged mortgage market, fueled by government subsidies–but it was too late, resulting in the “planet-shaking subprime-mortgage meltdown” of 2008.  The quoted phrase comes from the weekend edition of the Journal, in which a biographer of Greenspan wrote that, in order to avoid another crash, “The Fed Should Surprise Us.”  I don’t know whether the governors of the Fed have the wisdom and the courage they need to heed the Journal’s advice this time around.

I check in with the guard at the reception area, and am ushered into the office of Janet Yellen, the current Chair of the Board, and the first female to occupy that position in the history of the institution.  I understand that she is a sober, thoughtful academic type–one doesn’t get to be the Eugene E. and Catherine M. Trefethen Professor of Business at the University of California at Berkeley by being an office wag.

“Come in,” she exclaims cheerfully from behind her desk as she rises to greet me.

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“Sure Whoopee Cushions are fun, but for the initial shock I like a good, old-fashioned hand buzzer.”

“Thanks for allowing me into the ‘inner sanctum,'” I say facetiously as I stride across the thick carpet that the Fed, unlike more parsimonious agencies, can afford thanks to the fees they charge big banks.

“Pleasure to have you,” she says with a smile as she grasps my right hand, sending shock waves up my arm.

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“Yow!” I exclaim, but more from shock than the irritating sensation her hand buzzer gives me.  “Why”–here I bite my tongue to keep myself from using a profanity–“did you do that?”

“I dunno, I read in The Wall Street Journal Saturday that we’re supposed to surprise people.”

“I don’t think the guy meant it in that sense, it was more an argument against changing economic behavior by telegraphing what you’re going to do with rates.”

“Oh,” she says sheepishly.  “It was the weekend, I don’t really the paper that closely.  Would you like me to show you around a bit?”

“Sure,” I say, and she takes me down the hall after telling her secretary to take messages while she gives me a tour of the building.

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Jerome H. “Jay” Powell

We pass by the mail room where we see piles of correspondence stacked high upon tables.

“Wow–you guys must get a lot of important business correspondence, huh?”

“This is crank mail from right-wing conspiracy theorists.  The threatening letters from left-wing populists are over in Room 4B.”

We stop at a water cooler, and Yellen gulps down two cups.  “Liquidity is very important,” she says as she crumples the little paper cone and drops it in a wastebasket.  “Especially in a time of sudden asset deflation.”

She knocks gently on a closed oak door bearing the nameplate of Jerome H. “Jay” Powell and we look in to see the former Undersecretary of the Treasury under President George H.W. Bush, seated at his desk.

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“Jay, we have a visitor,” Yellen says, as she introduces us.  “Mr. Chapman is author of ‘Our Friends the Fed.'”

“I’m not familiar with it,” Powell says.  “Is it like one of our ‘Beige Books‘?”

“No, it’s not as funny as that,” I say.

Powell gives me a look like he’s just sniffed a carton of sour milk.  I guess he takes his job controlling the world’s largest economy seriously.

“C’mon in,” he says, and he picks up a can from his desk.  “You know, one of the benefits of being a Governor of the Federal Reserve System is the many wonderful presents we receive from grateful bankers across the nation.  I just received a can of peanut brittle in this morning’s mail–would you like some?”

“Sure, I grew up in Missouri–I love peanut brittle.  We used to buy it at Stuckey’s when we’d go down to the Lake of the Ozarks as kids.”

 fed3

“I know it’s not good for my teeth, but I’m just crazy about the stuff,” Powell says, as he struggles to open the can.  “Damned arthritis,” he says.  “I can’t get the top off.”

“Here let me help,” I say, as I take it from his hands.  “My dad always emphasized the importance of having a strong grip.” I say, but before I can finish my reminiscence three fuzzy snakes come whooshing out of the can and hit me in the face.

“Ha!  Got ya!” Powell says, as he accepts a gleeful ‘high-five’ from Yellen.

“You are such a cut-up!” she says.

I try to be a good sport about it, but I’m beginning to have my doubts about the people who have final say over the nation’s money supply.  “Sure fooled me,” I say sheepishly.  “But . . . can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot,” says Powell.

“Bang!” says Yellen, and they again break out in laughter.

“What I’m wondering is–should you really be fooling around with novelty items from a joke shop when we’re trying to reverse a depressed labor force participation rate?”

Powell’s face takes on a serious look.  “Well, perhaps not when you look at the long and distinguished history of this institution, going all the way back to William McChesney Martin.”

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William McChesney Martin:  “No punch for you!”

 

“He’s the one who said ‘The job of the Fed is to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going,'” Yellen adds with obvious pride.

“But then we read in the Journal that we’re supposed to surprise people,” Powell says.  “So–peanut brittle!”

Okay, I say to myself.  Everybody’s entitled to a little office fun, even the Fed.  Perhaps especially the Fed.  I wouldn’t want them screwing up the job and life prospects of my sons, just starting out in their careers, with the sort of hyper-inflation I lived through back when–speaking of peanuts–Jimmy Carter was president.

“Well, I’ve got to get back to work,” Powell says.

“Or appearing to work,” Yellen says, verbally goosing her male subordinate in the hope that he’ll do something about industrial productivity before the end of the year.

“Nice to meet you,” Powell says, but I spurn his offer of a handshake for fear of getting the hand-buzzer treatment again.  “Nothing personal,” I say.  “I’m kind of a germophobe.”

Yellen escorts me down to the end of the hall, where a windowless door–ever-so-slightly ajar–is decorated with the creepy pyramid that appears on the dollar bill.

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“What’s in there?” I ask.

“It’s kind of a secret,” Yellen says, as she starts to make a right turn down a perpendicular corridor.

“Well, I wouldn’t be doing my job as an investigative reporter if I let you keep me away from the inner workings of the American economy with such a casual brush-off,” I say, getting my back up a bit.

Yellen looks at me for the first time with an expression of concern.  “I really shouldn’t let you in there,” she says.

“All the more reason for me to see what you’re hiding,” I say.  “This is the problem with the Fed.  You lack transparency, you’re not politically accountable, you . . .”

“All right, fine,” she says, with resignation.  “I probably never should have agreed to let you in to the Federal Reserve Bank, but since you insist on seeing everything . . .”

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“Thank you,” I say, trying to be gracious but firm.  “Americans have a right to know what you people do here.”

“Don’t rub it in,” she says.

“It’s their money,” I say as I open the door–and a bucket of water falls on my head.

“What the . . .”

“Surprise!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Our Friends, the Fed.”

 

 

 

 

My Yoko Ono

Physicists currently believe that all rock bands–nay, all human groups composed of four men–can be broken down into elemental particles first identified by study of The Beatles through an electron microscope.

There is the Cute One–Ringo. The Dreamy One–Paul. The Actual Musician–that would be George. And the Verbal One–John. It fell to me, as a charter member of Otis & the Elevator Company who was neither cute, dreamy nor a good guitar player–to be the Verbal One.

None of us said, as John Lennon did, that we were more popular than Jesus, but if any of us had said it, it would have been me, whose mouth kept me out of National Honor Society until I was a senior for excessive smart-aleckiness.  But for one bright and shining week of my existence–the five school days after we beat The Ostentations and The Del-Vikings in my high school’s first-ever Battle of the Bands–we were more popular than Jesus, except among the Baptists who weren’t allowed to dance and the Good Kids on the Student Council.


Jesus welcoming me home after a hot day building recreational vehicles at Klassic Trailers.

 

We should have used that stunning victory–to which we were powered by a potent hybrid fuel composed of equal parts soul music (the “Otis” part) and psychedelia (the “Elevator” part)–as a springboard to gigs at the premier venues in town, such as the Dew Drop Inn, which we had heard paid as much as $500 a night! Instead, something happened that, as with the Beatles, planted the seed that grew the weed in the band’s garden.


Otis Redding

I met my Yoko Ono.

Beatles fans will recall the grim details of Lennon’s first encounter with Ono, whose name, conspiracy theorists like to remind us, is an anagram for “Oo–nooky!” In November of 1966 Lennon visited an exhibition of Ono’s at a London art gallery. She passed him a card that said simply “Breathe”–thereby taking credit for something he was already doing. He then explored a work of hers–”Ceiling Painting”–described in the exhibit’s catalog as follows: “The viewer is invited to climb a white ladder, where at the top a magnifying glass, attached by a chain, hangs from a frame on the ceiling. The viewer uses the reading glass to discover a block letter ‘instruction’ beneath the framed sheet of glass – it says ‘Y E S.’”


“Er–what were you planning on doing with that hammer?”

 

Pretty powerful stuff, huh? Not clear how anybody could resist it, and Lennon fell for Ono like a ton of bricks, despite the fact that she was–to put it diplomatically–not as easy on the eyes as your typical rock groupie. Beatles’ fans ever since have blamed Ono for the group’s demise. Why did John have to be such a stupid intellectual, they ask, taking up with the conceptual artist generally credited with making the worst vocal recording in the history of the world? I quote verbatim from a highly favorable review of Ono’s Plastic Ono Band: “contains no actual words. [Ono] expresses herself here through wordless howls.” So do the dogs in my neighborhood, but that doesn’t make them rock singers.

My Yoko Ono was a girl sitting across the room at one of those teen drinking parties where the boys are trying to develop a taste for beer and the girls are drinking sweet cocktails such as sloe gin fizzes, rum & Cokes and screwdrivers. Everyone else was sitting around looking cool when she proceeded to do an imitation of a cat . . . washing itself.

If John Lennon fell for an intellectual chick who communicated by the words “Breathe” and “Yes,” how, I ask you, was I supposed to resist that?

My Yoko Ono was short and draped in hippie clothes that bespoke an artistic nature, or a desire to be perceived as such. My sister didn’t like her and didn’t find her attractive. Still, when one hears the siren call of artsy high school love, there’s not much one can do except go ahead and crash on the rocks, sending incense sticks and candles flying.

I could already hear lines of poems arranging themselves in my head–like geese falling into formation–when I saw her. I borrowed liberally from the Song of Solomon in composing them, but what the hell–the Bible’s in the public domain.

The other guys viewed the new addition to our entourage as a blot on our reputation. If you’re the best band in the school, you should be consorting only with girls from the top shelf–head cheerleaders, fast girls who held “mattress parties,” and bombshells like Elizabeth, the most beautiful girl in our class who was lusted after by both the cute guy and the dreamy guy. She made it clear that the only organ she would make available for sexual purposes until she was married (or at least engaged with a humongous rock to show for it) was her hand–and still the guys fought over her!

Into this mix I introduced someone who wanted to be Gertrude Stein, or at least Alice B. Toklas.


Kahlil Gibran, thinking VERY deep thoughts.

 

There was the obligatory beret, the constant book of poetry (Kahlil Gibran) under one arm, the third-world handbag. In short, the full bohemian starter kit.

Things fell apart, to borrow a line from Yeats I would read my first year in college, and which I probably used in a letter home to my Yoko Ono, who stayed behind in our small town. We drifted apart as we grew in different directions, and she took up with an autodidact high school dropout who supposedly knew karate. I hate to criticize a woman for her taste in men–especially after she’s dated me–but I began to wonder what I ever saw in her.

Still, she was right for me at the time, and she had one huge advantage over the real Yoko Ono.

Except when we were making love, she didn’t express herself in wordless howls.

Tomcattin’

It was late, later than usual.  Rain was expected the next day and so the farmers had been told to bring their seed to the warehouse and not to the fields where it would ordinarily be shaped into windrows.  Nobody wore a watch when they were working back by the pits, so they didn’t know what time it was until there was a break between trucks.  When they went back to the office to get a soda to clear their throats from the dust they saw it was ten o’clock, later than they’d ever worked before.

They walked back to where the doors opened out into the night and hoped they were done, but there was a pickup truck backing into the building.  It wouldn’t take long but it was still a disappointment to see it.

The man who got out of the cab was known to both Bill and C.J.; it was Mr. Reeves, who’d been their social studies teacher in eighth grade.   They said hello and the man, who believed he possessed a dry wit, said “I’m not keepin’ you up, am I?” with a wry smile.

“No load too big or too small,” Bill said, but from the tone of his voice you could tell he’d lost his sense of humor.

They thought about calling George, the feeble-minded man they worked with, to come help, but the load wasn’t that big and he was high atop a mountain of seed that was being augered further into the building from the spot where it had been dumped earlier, when the pit was busy.  “Forget it,” C.J. said.  “There isn’t room in the truck bed for the three of us.”

When Reeves took the board out of the back end of the truck a good portion of the seed poured out onto the floor, and Bill started to shovel it into the pit.  C.J. got up in the truck bed and started in, first shoveling space out around the tailgate, then moving seed using his shovel to push like a locomotive at the rear of a train.  They were done soon enough, although they would have finished much faster five hours earlier.

Reeves went to the office to get paid for his seed while they shoveled, but returned just as they finished.  “You made pretty quick work of that,” he said as he replaced the board in the rear end of his truck.  “You boys tryin’ to get in shape for football?”

“No, I’m over that,” Bill said.  He’d quit after freshman year.

“I don’t know if I can play anymore,” C.J. said.  “I hurt my back.”

“Then whatta ya doin’ shovelin’ seed?” Reeves asked.

“You get paid for doin’ this.  You don’t get paid for tackling dummies.”

“Aw, some of those senior boys are smart enough,” Reeves said, and gave them a look that invited a smile back.  The boys managed a nod of a head in Bill’s case and a half-snort from C.J.  They were too tired to show much enthusiasm.

“Well, you’ll have something to put on your resume when you get out of high school,” Reeves said as George ran up, scurrying down from the mountain of seed.

“What?” Bill asked.

tomcattin1

“You worked with a village idiot—as an equal.”

As Reeves drove off George approached, an expression of grave concern on his face.  “I’m about to run out of room up thar,” he said.  He’d been shoveling the top off the pile and spreading it around, down into the corners of the building.  His face was black except for a white oval around his mouth, where he’d been wearing an air mask.  He looked like a sad clown, Bill thought, which fit his demeanor.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sam the boss said as he walked into the cleaning room from the office.  “Close the doors, we’ve done enough for the day.”  It seemed to C.J. that this summary was insufficient gratitude for what he counted up quickly was sixteen hours worth of work.

George could walk home to his father’s house from the seed house, but the boys lived in a town fifteen miles away, not far from where Sam lived.  Their parents would normally have come to pick them up, but they had called home earlier–when Sam had asked if they could stay late–to say that they’d be coming back with him.  The prospect of time-and-a-half pay had seemed enticing at 4 o’clock.

“Y’all ready?” Sam called to them as he stood by the door.  They were in the one bathroom, washing the dirt off their arms and faces over the sink.  “You don’t have to worry about my car,” he said.  “It’s got more dirt in it than some counties I could name.”

The boys got in, Bill in the front, C.J. in the back, and Sam pulled out onto the county road that led out of the little village.  The one restaurant was closed, as was the gas station.  There were some kids hanging around the horseshoe pit in the town square, but that was the only sign of life.

They drove past George walking by the side of the road to his father’s house.

“Poor old George,” Sam said, shaking his head.  “Wonder what he’s gonna do when his daddy dies.”

The boys were silent.  They were exhausted, but not too tired to talk.  They didn’t have anything to say to the older man, the one who paid them money to work.  He could talk to himself the whole way back for all they cared.

They crossed what constituted the visible edge of where they were coming from, the last streetlight before you were out in the darkness of the unincorporated land between the village and the town.  You could detect the rise and fall of the fields to either side and the road ahead, but the only guide to where you were going was the soft phosphorescence, a whitish-purple color, off in the distance that was the county seat.

Sam fiddled with the radio, but he wasn’t looking for music.  He was trying to get the agricultural market report in the last half hour before the radio station went off the air.  C.J. wondered why people stopped listening to music when they got old.

The county road ran parallel to the state highway, with the distance between the two closing as they got closer to the southwest city limit of the town.  You could look off to your right and see the neon lights of the truck stops and diners; the one country-music hall; the abandoned turkey farm that someone had tried—and failed—to turn into a drag strip.

They crossed another county road, which meant they were getting close.  Off to the left a gigantic house was being built by the owner of a car dealership.  Sam shook his head and said “Some people got more money than sense.”

They came over the ridge and passed the cemetery on their left, and then the motel that had lost its franchise loomed up in front of them as they came down the hill to the five-way intersection.  Now that they were bathed in the artificial brightness the silence seemed more oppressive as they waited for the light to change to green.

They were back in what the boys knew to be civilization; a country club, a go-kart track, drive-in hot dog and hamburger stands.  Bill thought of how much money he’d made over the long day, but couldn’t hold the pleasant prospect of spending it in his mind for long.

They turned right on 16th Street; C.J. knew they were two miles from home now as he’d clocked it on his odometer to know how far he’d gone before he ran out to the football coach’s house to lift weights.  The houses were big at first—there was the home of the man who owned the ice plant, who had silver dollars in his front patio he was so rich; then they got small as they drove further away from the new part of town, into the older neighborhoods.

They stopped at the only stoplight on the street, at an intersection where a tavern was located.  There were cars and trucks parked outside, and a man had a woman backed up against a pickup where he was pushing his hips against hers.  Sam looked up from his driving and over at the two shortly after the boys noticed them; a smile crossed his face.

tomcattin

“Gettin’ a little late for tomcattin’, don’t ya think?” he asked, then winked at the boys.

Bill smiled, involuntarily.  “Not too late for them, I guess.”

Sam turned right, drove a block down and took Bill home, where his mother was standing outside on the porch under a bare yellow bulb, the kind that doesn’t attract bugs.

“Got a good day’s work out of him for once,” Sam yelled to Bill’s mother.

“Thank you, he needs it,” she called back.

“See ya tomorrow,” Bill said as he closed the door.

Sam turned left three times as he went around the block and they passed by the bar again.  The woman who’d been kissing the man was fixing her hair as the two prepared to go back inside.

“Some people no sooner get it than they spend it,” Sam said.  “Like the guys who trade cocoa futures.  One day they’re drivin’ a Cadillac, next day they’re drivin’ a cab.”

C.J. nodded but he didn’t understand what Sam meant.  The stoplight changed to green and he was home before he could work up the nerve to ask the old man why.

 

From “The Flight of the Wicked.”

Your Food Freshness Safety Advisor

Have a question about a multi-colored piece of cheese in the fridge?  Stomach rumbling from a heaping helping of leftover tuna noodle casserole?  Before you head for the bathroom, ask Your Food Freshness Safety Advisor for help!

Dear Food Freshness Safety Advisor:

Yesterday, I made a ham sandwich with two pieces of rye that I’d totally forgot about in the bread basket.  They had a little white and green mold on them which I scraped off before I ate it, I’m no dummy.

Shortly after I finished the sandwich and washed it down with a Ne-Hi Orange Soda, I entered a realm where time ceased to exist.  The draperies in the den were dancing like The Rockettes, sounds had colors that were visible to my eyes (with my reading glasses on), and I realized that my cat Fritzi is a reincarnation of the Egyptian sun god Ra.

When my husband Lyle got home I told him I thought that Fritzi was a divinity who ruled over our lives and he says “Like I didn’t know that before” and went into the den to watch his stupid North Dakota State Sioux 2008-09 hockey highlight tapes for like the forty-leventh time.


“You’re seeing double?  So what–I’m seeing quadruple.”

 

I was wondering whether I might have ingested something I should not have, and if there are precautions I can take in the future to avoid such a hyper-lucid state.

Sue Ellen Spinorkle, Auxvasse Hills, North Dakota


“Sorry if I gave you a bad trip.”

 

Dear Sue Ellen:

That mold on the rye bread may have been ergot fungi, which contain no lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) but which are used to synthesize an analog of and precursor for synthesis of LSD.  I know that is complicated, but as long as you throw out any tie-dyed t-shirts you may have purchased on your “trip” and do not listen to Janis Joplin albums, you should remain flashback-free.


Rigger’s license final exam.

 

Dear Food Freshness Safety Advisor:

That’s a mouthful (no pun intended).

I have a question about bananas.  I have been dating this girl Murleen for two years, she is bugging me to get married but I want to wait until I have my Class 2 rigger’s license so I can support her in the style to which she’d like to become accustomed.

We always take turns with birth control, and it was her turn last weekend.  She comes over yesterday and says a home pregnancy test says she’s “expecting” and I said how could that happen, you took care of things, right?

Here is where the bananas come in.  She says yes of course I did, but did you refrigerate the Jell-O salad with the bananas in it?  I said yes, you can’t make a Jell-O salad unless you chill it and she says you dummy, that turns bananas toxic, you could’ve killed me!

Ms. FFSA, I’m wondering if you ever heard of this theory.  I asked Murleen and she said she thinks she read it in USA Today, and I don’t have time to go to the library and check back issues.

Chuck Weesing, Latrobe PA

 

Dear Chuck:

The belief that refrigerated bananas are poisonous has been discredited by a study funded by the federal government, which as you know rarely lies about food safety issues.  A so-called “double-blind” test in fact produced more deaths in the control group that ate unrefrigerated bananas, even though subjects in what turned out to be the “death pool” were carefully selected from heroin addicts in the alley behind the laboratory.  I suspect Murleen is pulling your leg, if not some other body part of yours.


Arena Football League: Safe in small doses.

 

Dear Food Freshness Safety Advisor:

Settle a bet for me and my wife.  I say when the stalks of iceberg lettuce turn orange they are dangerous and you should throw them away.  She says it is a natural process, like a tadpole turning into a frog, and they are safe to eat–the lettuce leaves, not the tadpoles.

I raise this because last night at Shoney’s I sent back my “Classic Turkey BLT Club” because the lettuce had green and orange stripes like it was some kind of Arena Football League team’s jerseys.

We are long-time readers and have agreed to abide by your decision.

Claude and Maribeth Schuchs, Sweet Springs MO


Shoney’s Tadpole Basket

 

Dear Claude and Maribeth:

I salute you for the wise health decisions you are making by coming to the Food Freshness Safety Advisor before taking such a risky step as eating unsafe lettuce!

There is a simple mnemonic device you can use to tell when you should throw out old lettuce.  It goes “Leaves of green, your lips between, leaves of orange . . .”

Unfortunately, I can’t think of any words that rhyme with orange, so I don’t know how this little jingle ends.

 

Available in Kindle format as part of the collection “Take My Advice–I Wasn’t Using it Anyway.”

Poppin’ Fresh, Advertising Icon and Poet, Dead at 51

MINNEAPOLIS.  Poppin’ Fresh, the smiling doughboy who appeared in over 600 commercials for The Pillsbury Company, was found dead in his apartment last night, an apparent suicide at the age of 51.

 

In life.

 

“Poppin’ Fresh reflected the image of our company–slightly chubby from too many carbohydrates–for half a century,” said Pillsbury spokesman Arthur Birney.  “He will be sorely missed except by sourpusses who get up to get a beer during expensive commericals we pay for.”


In death.

 

Poppin’ Fresh was known for his cheerful demeanor, but he was in fact a frustrated poet whose sole published work–the couplet “Nothin’ says lovin’, like somethin’ from the oven”–came to haunt him as he toured the country playing the role of Pillsbury’s goodwill ambassador.  “Why can’t I write?” a page from a notebook found in his bedroom reads.  “All I do is roll around in flour all day, dredging myself lower and lower.”

 
Plath:  “Uh, Ted, I think it’s your turn to cook dinner.”

Mr. Fresh was an admirer of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, two confessional poets who took their own lives.  “Good career move,” Sexton is reported to have said after learning of Plath’s suicide by sticking her head in a gas oven.

Mr. Fresh was found inside an “Easy Bake” toy oven, his body burnt beyond recognition.  “He looked like a crescent roll,” said his nephew, a Pizza Bagel who lives in the frozen food section of a wholesale club in Bemidji, Minnesota.  “No self-respecting baker would have served him in that condition.”


Easy Bake Oven.

 

Funeral services will be private.  In lieu of flowers, donations to the Harmon Institute for the Study of Burnt Baked Goods are suggested.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fauxbituaries: The Lighter Side of Death.”

Stevie Smith: Not Drowning But Prevailing

Suicide is the occupational hazard of female poets, like falls from buildings for window washers.  The western suburbs of Boston, where I live, form a sort of Bermuda Triangle of this phenomenon: Sylvia Plath, raised in Wellesley, took her life by her gas oven; Anne Sexton, born in neighboring Newton, locked herself in her garage in Weston, one town over, with the car running.


Stevie Smith

Whether suicide and poetry are companion products of the creative mind is unclear; to some extent, the culture of contemporary poetry may foster self-destructive tendencies by promoting the belief that the only good female poets are the suicidal ones.  When Anne Sexton heard of Plath’s suicide, she is reported to have said “Good career move.”


Anne Sexton

 

Florence Margaret Smith, known from childhood as “Stevie” after a jockey a friend thought she resembled, is a notable exception to this rule even though her early life gave her many reasons to leave it.  Her father abandoned the family when she was three after his business failed; he ran away to sea and communicated with her only sporadically and telegraphically thereafter; “Off to Valparaiso–Love Daddy” read one of his post cards.  Perhaps Stevie’s unsentimental style was conceived by the chilly and clipped written voice that was all she knew of him.


Smith

 

Raised by her mother and a feminist aunt, Stevie developed an independent streak and never married.  The transformative event of her childhood was her hospitalization for tuberculous peritonitis at the age of five; she was sent away to a sanatorium intermittently for the next several years.  Distressed at her separation from her mother, she began to suffer from depression, a condition that would afflict her for the rest of her life.  She traced her preoccupation with death–most famously expressed in her poem “Not Waving but Drowning”–to this period.


Sylvia Plath

 

Unlike Plath and Sexton, however, Smith looked upon death as an ultimate consolation, not a short cut.  As a result, she not only endured until she died of a brain tumor at the age of 68, she prevailed, enjoying her greatest popularity after she retired at the age of 51 from her lifelong job as private secretary to the owner of a publishing company.

If Smith is under-appreciated today (I think she is), it is due both to her failure to make the ultimate dramatic gesture of suicide, and because she wrote almost exclusively in the deprecated form of light verse.  To channel one’s inner John McEnroe, she can’t be serious.  Most of her poems are–God forbid–funny, but not in the manner of the amateur who attempts to amuse an audience with doggerel at a rehearsal dinner or business luncheon.  They are dyspeptic reflections on human nature, as alien from the sort of verse that used to appear at the bottom of newspaper columns (and in The New Yorker) as an Edgar Allen Poe short story is from a Sunday homily.  Such versifying is viewed by the poetic-industrial complex as a poor reflection on their aspirations, the angst they undergo in an effort to produce and defend serious poetry.

The mordant tone of “Not Waving but Drowning“, in which the friends of a drowned man mistake his signal of distress for a sign that he is “larking,” offers an insight into the state of mind that, like a grain of sand, served as the irritation that causes an oyster to produce a pearl.  Stevie could have slipped beneath the waves, but she righted herself and swam ashore.

Jets Owner to Brits: You Need to Spend More on Cornerbacks

NEW YORK.  When President Donald Trump announced today that he would nominate New York Jets owner Woody Johnson to be U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, he did so in a way that reflected his scrappy “bridge and tunnel” upbringing in the borough of Queens, where the football team had its home for many years.

“Woody’s gonna be great, just great, okay?” Trump said.  “He’s gonna go over there and remind them we had a war and they lost, so they’re losers.”


“I tried to give the Prince a Jets table lamp, but he turned it down.”

 

Job number one on Johnson’s diplomatic “to-do” list?  “We’re gonna get England to start paying more for their defense, just like I told all those other cheapskate NATO countries,” Trump said.  “And nobody knows more about spending money on defense than Woody.”


“$39 million is not too much to pay for a halfway decent cornerback.”

 

Johnson has a reputation of over-spending on cornerbacks, offering contracts to both Antonio Cromartie and Darrelle Revis that topped $30 million.  “I believe that the best offense is a good defense,” Johnson said in what was seen as a shot across the bow of the U.K., which has no cornerbacks according to Jane’s Fighting Ships, an annual reference book on the world’s warships written by a woman named Jane.  “When your offense is ranked 26th out of 32 NFL teams, it’s not as if they’re doing any good on the field anyway.”


Revis:  “Shit, man.  I ain’t playin’ in no NFL Europe.”

 

The Jets are a semi-professional football team that was banished from New York to New Jersey in 1984, in much the same way that English soccer teams can be “relegated” from the Premier League to the less competitive Football League Division One for poor play.  The Jets have remained in exile ever since, giving rise to a “cargo cult” that worships Weeb Ewbank and prays for the return of Joe Namath, a Dionysiac messiah figure who disappeared after making an incomplete pass at sideline reporter Suzy Kolber.


Prince Charles:  “So these men–they have corners on their backs?”

 

Johnson made a courtesy call to Prince Charles, Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the British throne, telling him he was watching a “friendly” match between French Guiana and Curacao, a liqueur.  “Nobody can put the damn ball in the net!” Johnson exclaimed.  “Why don’t they pick it up and throw a pass fer Christsake!”