As Hyper-Sensitivity Spreads, Third-Hand Smoke Gets a Second Look

NEEDHAM, Mass.  It’s Thursday night, and Frank Defelice is trying to set the mood for a romantic weekend with his new girlfriend Dianna Holmstead at his bachelor pad in this western suburb of Boston.  “Jazz is supposed to be the music of seduction,” he says to this reporter, who he’s allowed to eavesdrop on his assignation for the first half hour or so, as he drops a live Miles Davis album “In Person at the Blackhawk” onto his turntable.  “We’ll see if it works its magic on Dianna,” a buxom throwback to the “sweater girls” of the 50’s.

The soft sounds waft through the room as Frank hands Dianna her drink, a “Riunite on Ice,” and he takes a seat on the couch next to her leaving space between them through which a flea circus could squeeze if they walked single-file.

“Think yew veddy much,” says Dianna, who has been practicing a British accent watching this week’s royal wedding in the hope that it will get her a raise when she moves to her next office receptionist job.

“Cheers,” Frank says as he raises his glass, but before Dianna can take a sip, she begins to cough.

“You okay?” Frank asks.

“Are you a smoker?” she asks.  “‘Cause I can’t stand the smell of cigarettes.”

“Nope, gave it up long ago,” Frank says, puffing out his chest with pride.  “I keep myself in great shape now.”

“Well, it seems awful smoky in here,” she says, then turns her gaze laser-like on the record album.  “Is that a live recording?”

“Yeah, it’s a classic from the early sixties.”

“There must be a lot of people smoking in that night club,” she says as she puts her drink down, picks up her purse, and excuses herself to “powder her nose” in the bathroom.

“Well, we’re off to a flying start,” Frank says with muted anger as this reporter excuses himself, hoping to be gone by the time the woman returns and takes her leave.

The date-gone-sour is a by-product of rising concern over so-called “third-hand” smoke, which is one step removed from second-hand smoke, fumes produced by one person but inhaled by others.  “Third-hand smoke hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves,” says Dr. Emil Nostrand, who has received a grant to study the long-term health effects of smoke exhaled in works of art.  “From tough guys to femmes fatale, smoke can kill off your favorite character or musician, causing emotional distress, dry flaky skin, and yellow waxy build-up.”

“If you don’t like it, go get a candy bar or somethin’.”


Smoking in works of art was common until very recently, as a cigarette, cigar or even a pipe was viewed as a helpful vehicle for stage “business,” the dramaturgical term for incidental activity performed by an actor or actress for dramatic effect.  “If Humphrey Bogart didn’t smoke he wouldn’t have seemed so cool,” says film historian Clement de Wine.  “Having something in your hands to fiddle with means you don’t have to clasp them in front of you like a stupid glee club member.”

“Glee club hands.”

But all that changed when the harmful effects of smoking became established beyond doubt, and works that predate the Surgeon General’s historic warning are now seen as potential sources of cancer-causing agents for those whose only contact with tobacco products is through films, records or books.

“This one’s for Kristin, schweetheart.”

Among that group is Kristin Helvig, a devotee of black-and-white films who’s invited some friends over to watch a newly-restored version of “To Have and Have Not,” the Howard Hawks screen adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  “I’ve got a ton of popcorn ready,” she says as she buzzes her apartment door to let in Julie Erman and Robing Ingua.  “I’m in here!” she cries from the kitchen, but her two guests screw up their noses as they enter.

“Is something burning?” Erman asks.

“No, the popcorn came from the store,” Helvig says, then stops to look around to make sure nothing’s amiss.  She doesn’t notice anything at first, then realizes that Bogart has just struck a match to light Bacall’s cigarette in her DVD’s “scene selection” feature.

“I’m so sorry,” she says as she turns to her friends, “I’ll tell him to go to outside.”


Pity the Poor Scrivener

Pity the poor scrivener, the guy with the pen
who goes back to his office when the confab ends
and tries to make tails, or maybe it’s heads,
of what happened in the meeting, what everyone said.

“Put something in there,” says one son of a gun
“like we did in another deal, I don’t remember which one.”
A prim matron hands him some notes that can’t be deciphered,
and asks him to add them, and he’d like to knife her.

He sits at his keyboard, trying to divine
what others were thinking, while they’re drinking wine,
and dining on veal, or salmon or mutton,
and saying “His job’s easy, you just push a button.”

His only revenge is to transcribe precisely
their illegible scribbles, and do it quite nicely
so that they’re confronted with their cryptic writing
which looked to him like a herd of snakes fighting.

Blockchain Promises to Bring Order to Plastic Containers, Sock Drawers

RAYWOOD, Texas.  Donna Lee Hightower considers herself an organized person, but the 43-year mother of two will be the first to admit she isn’t perfect.  “Don’t open that up,” she says to this reporter of a cabinet in her pantry.  “I can’t guarantee you’ll survive.”

Hightower is referring to the extensive collection of mismatched plastic containers and lids she has accumulated over four years in college and eighteen years of marriage, some as gifts and others purchased at “Tupperware” parties, but most saved after their contents–ice cream, potato salad, yogurt, and other assorted comestibles–were consumed.  “I don’t worry about global warming,” she says with a wry smile.  “The lids alone will kill me long before then.”

But an idle comment by her son Todd, home from his first year at West Texas State Teachers, Agricultural, Mining, Minerals and What-Have-You College caused her to see the chaos of her cupboards in a new light.  “Todd told me about blockchain, and he’s gonna spend the summer cleaning things up when he gets his ‘A’ round of financing.”

“Sorry kid, these are no good here.”


The chronic disjuncture between plastic containers and their missing lids is one that is ripe for the robust disruption of blockchain, according to Mike Amarak of Styx River Ventures, Todd’s funder.  “Blockchain promises to solve the remaining problems of the world that ‘cloud’ computing and ‘wi-fi’ did not,” he says, making finger quotes in the air to lend an air of deprecation to two recent waves of technological innovation that failed to deliver promised results.  “Blockchain is really cool because you get tokens that appear to have intrinsic value, but all you’d get in a liquidation would be something from the prize counter at Chuck E Cheese.”

Under Todd’s proposal, an anonymous exchange would verify ownership of matching lids and containers without an intermediary through the use of cryptography, a term that refers to photographs of dead people.  Once verified on a publicly-distributed ledger, transactions would be grouped into “blocks” containing cryptographic “hashes” made of diced or chopped meat and vegetables, which would then be stored in a plastic container after it is sealed.

Next frontier to conquer.


“This is real breakthrough,” says Amarak.  “Of course I say that about everything that makes money for me, but this time I mean it.”

With just three months to finish the work before he returns to school, Todd’s mom is concerned he’ll leave his room in a mess when he departs in the fall, but the young man seems blasé about the task that lies ahead of him.  “No worries,” he says in the off-putting parlance of today’s youth.  “I’m staring a blockchain exchange for my sock drawer called MissingHosiery, LLC.”

Squalid Conditions at Chinese Blog Factories Draw Human Rights Scrutiny

XIANGGANG, China.  Emily Costbinder doesn’t look like a crusader with her Patagonia fleece pullover, khakis and sensible shoes, but the slight Bryn Mawr student is taking a grave personal risk as she pulls out her cellphone once inside the Xianggang Xingxing Special Products factory here.  “I have to speak truth to power,” says the young woman of the independent study project she designed herself.  “The world has no idea where the flood of blogs and posts on the internet is coming from, but they will if I have anything to say about it.”

“Joe Biden say he fight boy who kicked sister off bike!”


She waits until a tour guide’s attention is diverted by a question from a harried-looking foreman, then surreptitiously snaps a picture of workers–mainly recent arrivals from the Chinese countryside–who slave away up to twelve hours a day in an unventilated building with only a half-hour mid-day meal break allowed.  “If they need to go to the bathroom,” she says, her face a picture of anguished concern, “they must stay after hours to meet quota of Kim Kardashian-Kanye posts.”

“Bigfoot . . . UFO . . . getting sleepy.”


Xingxing in Xianggang has emerged as the “Blogtown” of China, playing the role that Pittsburgh filled as “Steeltown” during the Industrial Revolution in America.  “X is the least-used letter in English,” says Dao Fang, the Minister of Social Media Industries of the People’s Republic.  “Our people can subsist on them much as American trophy wives get by on celery stalks and Triscuits, the 100% whole grain wheat cracker now available in ten different flavors including fire-roasted tomato and olive oil.”

“Write how chance encounter with Robin Williams changed your life.”


A large volume of blogging production shifts overseas during American mid-term elections, when domestic bloggers fall behind in the manufacture and delivery of umbrage and outrage.  “Every time your President Trump say he not on ballot, I must add second shift,” says Liu Ne De Ye, production supervisor at Xingxing.  “Every time Nancy Pelosi say MS-13 gang not animals, we add graveyard shift.”

“Who is Johnny Manziel anyway?”


American bloggers who outsource work to the Far East say a Chinese “dan ci gong yio” or “word janitor” will write blog posts U.S. typists turn up their noses at, and for far less.  “Kids these days want to go into dicey professions like medicine and accounting,” says Mike Aramak, who writes the “Smash Mouth Football” blog but sometimes falls behind in production.  “Nobody wants their kid to grow up to be a blogger.”

The Last Baseball Game

Don’t come ’round here looking for the fresh, clean, family-friendly content this site is known for this afternoon. I’m taking off at 3:30 to watch my kid pitch what may be the final start of his high school career. He will take the mound today with a 3-0 record and three home runs last week alone! He hit them, I mean; he didn’t give them up.

It’s an occasion that causes normally hard-bitten sports writers–and Boston has them by the pallet-load–to turn sentimental and wax rhapsodic. I have to say, now that I’m in their shoes, I can’t blame them. My kid didn’t get a scholarship and will thus try to walk on when he gets to college, but he may never play another competitive game.

Premature babi–hey, who gave them Sprite, the refreshing lemon-lime soft drink?


He’s 6’2″ and weighs 165 pounds, but when he came into this world, the prospects that he would ever develop into such a strapping young man were slim. He was born a month premature; for an infant boy, that means his lungs were dangerously underdeveloped.

“Is there anything you can do about it?” I asked the doctor who delivered him.

“We recommend that they go on drugs right away,” she replied.

“What kind of drugs?” my wife asked nervously.

“Steroids,” the doctor said.

Jose Canseco: He, uh, did a lot of push-ups.


I looked at my wife, and I could tell she was with me 100%. “Go ahead,” I said, “Triple the normal dosage.”

Thanks to the miracles of modern science, my boy was out of the incubator in a few days, but we kept him on the medication. No point in taking chances when a kid’s lungs are at risk.

It paid off, let me tell you. By the time he started T-ball he was hitting tape-measure shots, 565-foot home runs over everything. Eventually, we lowered the dose as the ‘roid-rage fines began to get expensive. I’ll never forget the look on the face of the teenaged umpire who called him out on a ball that just barely grazed the outside corner of the plate. My kid chased him back to his crappy Honda Civic and flipped it over–at the age of 10! That’s the kind of upper-body strength you need to hit with power to the opposite field.

As any parent of a young athlete will tell you, a lot of sacrifice goes into the making of a kid who can play at the Division I level. There was the $45 per half hour hitting coach, the pseudo-religious earrings a la Barry Bonds, the heavy chains that look like they could have been lifted off the neck of a Rottweiler or an investment banker’s second wife. But it’s all part of the great American tradition of baseball.

“I don’t really like you, but I’m 0 for 21 in June.”


I don’t mean to suggest that my kid’s career has been one long home run trot around the basepaths. Like any baseball player, he’s had his ups and downs. I remember when he was 11 and started the season 0-for-June for the Orthwein Insurance Agency A’s. One night I heard him sobbing to himself as I walked past his bedroom.

“What’s the matter, kiddo?” I asked as I sat down beside him and tousled his hair.

“I’ve lost it, dad,” he said through his sobs. “My career is over.”

“No it’s not,” I said reassuringly. “You’re just going through a dry spell.”

He calmed down a bit. “You think so?” he asked.

“Sure. What you need is a slumpbuster!”

“What’s that?”

“Well, it’s a girl who you might not really like as a friend because she hasn’t got the greatest personal hygiene or something, but you, uh, decide to . . . to spend some time with her to change your luck.”

He was silent for a moment. “So somebody like Susan van de Kamp?”

“Is that the chubby girl in your class who’s always wearing her Little Dutch Girl outfit to school on Show ‘n Tell Day?”

“That’s her,” he said. “She picks her butt in line to the cafeteria.”

My eyes misted over. “She sounds perfect. Why don’t you give her a whirl.”

“Like how?”

There are some things you can’t coach, but I gave it a try. “You do something to make her think you like her.”

“What do the big-leaguers do?” he asked me.

“They, uh, invite them over to spend the night, sort of like you and Timmy Salmon last Friday.”

“Yuk!” he said, clearly repulsed by the thought.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “At the Little League level, all you have to do is throw a spit ball at her.”

Republished annually after the fashion among weepy Boston sportswriters. Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Kids: They’re Cute When They’re Young.”