For One Writing Coach, “Wranting” Doesn’t Cut It

SOMERVILLE, Mass.  Maggie Turbek is a writing coach who learned the hard way the perils of caring too much.  “I turned in a magazine article a day late because I wasted a whole Sunday on a nuclear disarmament demonstration,” she says ruefully.  “After that my name was mud at Travel & Leisure, where the editors are more interested in perks from advertisers than the survival of the human race.”

Turbek:  “People are going to die.  Get over it and get back to work.”

And so the woman who was once heralded as among the more promising writers of her generation tells her students that they must be guided by three basic principles in pursuing literary success:  “You’ve heard of ‘location, location, location’ in real estate?” she asks this reporter in her office just off Davis Square here.  “In writing it’s ‘selfish, selfish, selfish,’ or ‘me, me, me’ if you want to keep it to words of one syllable.”

Today Turbek is working with her young assistant Lorna Twellman, a recent graduate of Tufts University with a worthless English degree, to put out the fires of flame wars between her clients and other writers wasting time in on-line forums or on social media sites.  “The Middle East is a recurring nightmare,” she says grimly as takes a sip from a paper cup of black coffee.  “Who gives a rat’s ass whether a bunch of ragheads blow each other up?  There’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it, so finish your stupid coming-of-age novel already.”

“The poor Sans-Serif people of Upper Volta!”

“Maggie, come here, take a look at this,” Twellman says to Turbek, like a latter-day Alexander Graham Bell calling to her Watson.  “Good Lord!” Turbek says as she reads a Facebook comment by Michael Hofstrau, a blocked writer of young adult fiction.  “Can’t believe Biden is pulling troops out of Afghanistan,” Hofstrau writes.  “What a dingbat!”

“I’m on it,” Turbek says, and nudges the younger woman aside.  She does a search of Hofstrau’s prior media posts, and comes up with one from just three years ago taking the opposite position.  She copies it and pastes it to his Facebook page then begins to type:  “Hey Michael,” Turbek taps out on Hofstrau’s Facebook page, and Twellman recoils at the ferocity with which the seasoned pro cracks away at her keyboard.  “The Middle East has been in an uproar since Noah got off the Ark.  Do you really think anything you say or do is going to change that?”

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“If I see any of you getting into a political argument, I’m going to come to your house and break your #2 lead pencil.”

Soon the fruitless activity of the young writer ceases, a sign that he has turned back to his work; an anti-bullying novel that Turbek has been bullying him to finish since he signed on with her eight months ago.  “Some people want to be ‘wranters’ instead of writers,” Turbek says as she returns to her desk.

She taps her space bar to make her screen saver disappear, then checks the blog of Melissa Hurwit-Hwang, an M.F.A. from Skidmore who’s bogged down in a project a major publishing house has expressed interest in.  “Going to big march this morning even though I think if it triggers a nuclear war it will bring on the zombie apocalypse that we need,” the young woman has written.  “Maybe I’ll get inspired!”

“If words could change the world, a dictionary would be dictator.”

Turbek scans the post with disgust, takes a piece of chewing gum out of her mouth and tosses it in a wastebasket, then adds a comment that causes the younger novelist’s face to redden 90 miles away in Amherst, Mass.  “Melissa, sweetie–let me give you a little advice.  If you want to be a writer–WRITE.  If you want to save the world–get into another line of business.”

There is silence on the screen for a while before Hurwit-Hwang replies.  “Sorry Maggie.  I promise–I’ll get back to my epic Emily Dickinson–zombie mashup.”

Turbek then turns her attention to a male client whose productivity declines dramatically during the run-up to, the actual occurrence of, and the weeks after the NFL’s college draft.  “The Chiefs got NOTHING!” she sees when she logs onto the blog of Art Shmansky, a would-be crime novelist.  “The Broncos are going to pick apart your secondary like a supermodel’s lace Teddy.”

“Intentional ugliness, fifteen yard penalty.”

“What a nimrod,” she says with disgust.

“What?” Twellman asks, hoping to learn from the woman who’s considered the Mistress of Darkness among writers who’d sell their souls for a six-figure advance.

“He’s getting into it over a stupid football team,” Turbek replies.  She quickly logs on to the site––chooses a user name and a password and breaks into the discussion with a ice-cold blast of realism. “Hey Shmansky,” she writes.  “Do you think Raymond Chandler gave two shits about the Cleveland Rams vs. the Chicago Cardinals?”

Usually a rapid responder, the budding noir novelist is stunned into silence.  “Well, uh, my writing coach just called for a substitution,” he types after a while before signing off.  “I’ve been benched, so it’s back to my imitation hard-bitten, cynical prose.”

Your Stuffed Animal Advisor

Animals are our friends, but pets can also upchuck on our white wall-to-wall carpeting, or tear up a new pair of pumps we just bought last week on sale.  That’s why stuffed animals are often better friends than real ones.  Got a question about our fake little furry friends? Ask Your Stuffed Animal Advisor!

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Save the manatees–collect them.


Dear Stuffed Animal Advisor:

When I broke up with my boyfriend “Todd” a year ago because he could never bring himself to “pop the question,” I did not go out and get a cat like a lot of women I know.  I was not going to end up like them, making popcorn on a Saturday night and watching Lifetime movies with fourteen pounds of fur named “Kitzi” on my lap. So I began to collect stuffed animals which as you suggest are a lot easier to take care of.  They never escape outside and have to be lured back in by leaving a plate of food on the back porch like my girlfriends Mary Anne and Jeanie do whenever their cats run off into the woods.  Also they don’t pee on the rug.  The cats, not my girlfriends.

Now that I have joined the ranks of “virtual pet owners” I have a question.  I have a growing collection of stuffed dogs, cats and turtles.  I checked our local zoning code and it says nothing about legal occupancy for a one-bedroom apartment by unrelated inanimate figurines.  Is 162 (not including me) too many, or can I get the “My Little Puppy Friends” special Christmas edition when it arrives in stores next week?

Miriam Urshel, North Hollywood, Florida

Your best stuffed animal storage shelter value!


Dear Miriam:

Your Stuffed Animal Advisor says “The more the merrier!” when it comes to the toy buddies that make our lives so rewarding when human beings like “Todd” prove incapable of making a commitment.  Make sure you don’t block fire exits with your little furry friends, and you may want to buy a free-standing storage shelter to hide your “stuffed stuff” when nosy mental health professionals from local government bodies come snooping around.


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Get the Grab ‘n Go Sixpack.


Dear Your Stuff Animal Advisor:

I am a guy, as you can probably deduce from my name below.  As a boy I was excluded from many youth sports activities because of the crippling effects of Osgood Schlatter’s Disease, and as a result I remained attached to my stuffed animals longer than most young men.

I have now become engaged to a wonderful young lady–I will call her “Opal” because that is her name–who is a real “go-getter.”  She was recently re-elected to a second term as County Prothonotary, the second highest-ranking official around here with plenary powers to issue and revoke licenses for fishing and all-terrain vehicles. Opal has her eye on County Commissioner, and a run for higher office would put her in the local “media spotlight,” which is pretty intense around here what with a newspaper and two radio stations, one “Classic Country” the other “Top 40” format. My concern is that some jerk reporter will find out about my collection–which is now in the high three figures–and try to make an “expose” out of it.

I am willing to take the heat, but I do not want to impede Opal’s career and so am wondering if I should switch to a more conventional hobby such as bowling or fishing.

Norman “Bud” Ohlrich, Keokuk, Iowa

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Dear Bud:

The stigma formerly attached to adult male stuffed animal collectors has declined over the years as our society has become more “accepting” of our nation’s hobby diversity.  I say turn what some people may consider a liability into a campaign asset by becoming an “out-and-proud” stuffed animal nut!  Pollster Ed Francis of Mid-States Political Consultants says a lot of weird hobbyists are “swing” voters who can tilt an election against an anti-stuffed animal candidate in a close race.

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Dear Stuffed Animal Advisor Lady:

Please settle an “e-commerce” dispute for me.  I recently bought what was advertised as an original issue, limited edition “Furby” on from a seller named lloydinknobnoster.  When the package arrived the thing didn’t look right so I turned it upside down and the label said “Fruby,” made in Deng Xiaoping City, China.  I tried to stop payment but it was too late, so I filed a complaint with the webmaster who says there was nothing they can do, “lloydinknobnoster” is a “Platinum” member with an unimpeachable record.

I contacted “Lloyd” by mail–there are not that many people in Knob Noster so the postmaster knew who it was.  “Lloyd” says I should be thanking him, not complaining, it’s a collector’s item.  I said I wouldn’t take him to small claims court if he would abide by your decision and he agreed although he said he wasn’t waiving “sovereign immunity” whatever that means.

Curt Dwinnel, Hill Jack, MO


Dear Curt–

I’m afraid I’m going to have to side with Lloyd on this one.  Furbies with the spelling “Fruby” down in the crotch where you insert the two “D” batteries are commanding top prices on world collectible markets.  Apparently Chinese stuffed animal workers are only given one bathroom break per week and as a result sometimes lose consciousness while impressing plastic parts with basic information such as product name, serial number, and toll-free number to call if you spill something on the fur. I hope your new acquisition brings peace to your life.  If not, please stay off stuffed animal websites for awhile as I’m bidding on a number of items and don’t want to get caught up in your legal hurricane, thank you very much.

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

Is That Your Cat, or Are We Having Guacamole?

          An image that Google correctly categorized as a tabby cat was, with only a few pixels changed, subsequently identified by the same algorithm as guacamole.

The Boston Globe

We’re heading into summer, which means that my cats are even lazier than usual.  They stay indoors most of the day, venturing outside only in the cool of the evening to chill their ever-widening bellies on our bluestone patio, before rushing off into the dark to wreak havoc on chipmunks and squirrels.

Rocco left, Okie right.

“I’m getting concerned about your lifestyles,” I say to them as they take the two Adirondack chairs for a change of pace.

“Says the guy who drank a bottle of Malbec by himself last night,” Rocco says out of the side of his mouth.

“I’m serious,” I say, trying to re-take the moral high ground.  “You lie around all day, then you’re out all night.  You’re not twenty-one in cat years anymore.”

“How do you do the math in your head so fast?” Okie asks.  He’s the handsome grey tabby who’s gotten by on his looks, not his wits, his entire life.

“Don’t you remember anything?” Rocco snaps.  “He’s the former Boy Scout/Altar Boy who does fractions in his head when he’s swimming laps.”

“Seven and 15/16 laps.”

“Fractions–ugh!” Okie groans.  He’s lived the life of the beta male ever since his younger brother Rocco arrived on the scene.  For some reason whenever the cat food is divided in half, he only gets 40%.

“I’m only saying this because we love you guys,” I say.  I found this rhetorical turn to be very helpful when dealing with our sons as they grew up.  In essence, it boils down to “Don’t break your mother’s heart, you sullen teenager, you.”

“We have to live our own lives,” Rocco says as he gets up to follow the path of a chipmunk, who disappears under the wooden fence we put up around the air conditioning units.

“Do you remember a few summers ago, when Okie disappeared for weeks?” I say in an imploring tone of voice.  “How are we not supposed to be worried when something like that happens?”  When I want to, I can really implore.

“One for you, two for me.  One for you, three for me.”

“That was then, this is now,” Rocco says as he sits back down.  “If you want to be able to find us, just give us Google chip implants.”

“Yeah, sort of like the Italian dad down the street who put a GPS device in his daughter’s car so he could break the legs of any boy who tried to slide into home with her,” Okie adds.  He apparently listens when we talk at the dinner table.

I give them a look of pitiless contempt.  “You guys think you’re so smart–you’ve been watching too many cute cat food commercials that glorify the feline brain.”

“It’s true,” Rocco says.  “I read it on the internet.”

“Well, maybe you should pick up a newspaper some time.”

“What’s a newspaper?” Okie asks.

“It’s that stuff he puts in our litter boxes,” Rocco advises him.

“What’s a four-letter word for ‘excrement’?”

“It has other uses.”

“Right,” Rocco says.  “You can also line parakeet cages with it.”

“While that is generally true of The Boston Globe, every now and then you come across something useful in it besides the comics.”

“I like Garfield!” Okie says–figures.

“No, I mean stories like this,” I say, and point them to an article about an Artificial Intelligence conference where the shortcomings of the technology were demonstrated.  “Change just a few pixels, and Google thinks you two are guacamole.”

“You’re not going to put me on a nacho chip, are you?”

They are both silent for a moment, as they walk over the Business section.  “Gosh–I had no idea,” Rocco says, for once sounding . . . almost humble.

“So let that be a lesson to you, okay?” I say as I give them both a scritch on the head.

“What’s the lesson?” Okie asks, as usual missing the self-evident.

“Simple,” Rocco says, stepping in like teacher’s pet to explain.  “The difference between your brain and guacamole is, like, one avocado.”

Flock of “Super Early Bird” Specials Threatens Florida Meal Cycle

NAPLES, Florida.  This sun-splashed city on the west coast of Florida is a curious mixture of permanent and seasonal residents, with luxury cars idling on eight-lane highways next to “trucks driven by rednecks hauling watermelons” says Assistant Registrar of Notary Publics DeWayne Morris.  “We also have a lot of alligators, but for the most part they stay here during the winter.”

“Wine for breakfast?  Why the hell not?”


What there is widespread agreement on among the population, however, is the merit of “early-bird specials”; discounted dinners served by local restaurants to patrons who fill empty chairs during off hours, generally 2 to 4 p.m., before the evening rush begins.  “If it weren’t for the early-bird, I couldn’t afford to eat out much,” says Miriam Schnucks, a widow whose husband burned through their retirement savings betting on greyhound races and jai alai.

But the “early bird” way of life is undergoing a transformation as dining establishments compete with each other for the lucrative 15% tips senior citizens frequently leave behind.  “I’m not going to sit idly by while some chain restaurant steals my customers,” says Larry Archibald of Jungle Larry’s Steak House.  “The best defense is a good offense, and vice versa.”

“You can have lunch for breakfast, and dinner for lunch, but you can’t have breakfast for dinner–got it?”


So Archibald moved his early bird dinner time back to noon, and made a corresponding change to his lunch early bird, which now begins at 8 a.m., compounding the confusion many seniors experience as their cognitive abilities fade with age.

“I’ll have the prime rib,” says former auto parts salesman Harold “Hal” Marquand as he looks up over his plastic menu to Violette Armand this morning during peak breakfast hours at the Tropical Garden, a restaurant on Airport Pulling Road.

“If you’re here for last night’s early bird it’s too late,” she says with a smile that does a poor job of masking her impatience.  “On the other hand, if you’re here for tonight’s dinner early bird, you’re too soon.”

“What’d she say?” Marquand says to Amy, a fifty-something woman he married shortly after his first wife died in a tragic shower accident.

“You can’t get dinner early bird, you either have to eat regular breakfast or early bird lunch,” she says loudly into the better of his two failing ears.

“Since breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I’ll have a double gin and tonic.”


“I’ll be right back,” the waitress says as she scans the other tables assigned to her.  “I need to refill a few coffee cups.”

Economists with nothing else to study say so-called “super early-bird specials” are a drag on productivity, and threaten the region’s booming service sector.  “We don’t actually make anything down here besides oranges,” says Professor Myron Martin of Florida International On-Line University.  “Everybody’s cutting stuff–lawns, hair, poodles–or cooking and serving food, so it’s not like we can afford a bunch of 80-year-olds screwing up their digestive cycles eating BLTs for breakfast.”

But that doesn’t stop 86-year-old T.J. “Bud” Charrette, a retired guidance counselor from Oceola, Missouri.  “Let’s see,” he says as scans the menu at the Golden Outhouse Restaurant on Alligator Alley here.  “I’ll have a stack of pancakes, the open-faced roast beef sandwich and a hot fudge sundae.”

Among the Big-Headed People

My son once gave me as a present a “one-size fits all” Boston Red Sox hat.

It was a nice gesture, but hopelessly misguided.  I was able to use the occasion as a “teaching moment.” The three big lies of our time, I told him, are ”The check’s in the mail,” “Of course I’ll respect you in the morning,” and “One size fits all.”  There is no way, I told him, a one-size-fits-all hat is going to fit me–because I’m one of the big-headed people.

Johnny “Guitar” Watson, with large and small model heads.

I have a big head literally and, in some areas of expertise, such as the lyrics of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, figuratively.

I checked when I thought about returning the hat for a fitted one; my head measures 24″–two feet!–in circumference.  From head to toe, I’m only 5′11″ dripping wet, 5′10″ on a depressing day.  A thirty-four percent head-to-height ratio has got to be right up there among the all-time leaders.

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“Maybe we could just tape one of the big hats on him.”

When I played Little League baseball as a kid, I used to dread the day they’d hand out the uniforms and the hats.  The coach would take a gander at each kid and guess what size he needed, small, medium or large.  No “L” hat ever fit me, so my hat would sit on top of my head like a cherry on a cupcake.  The other kids would look away and kick at the dirt.  One year, I just went out and bought an adult hat rather than subject myself to the embarrassment.

Victor Hugo and Anatole France

There is no direct correlation between head size and intellect.  During the years when both were alive, Victor Hugo had one of the largest heads in France, and Anatole France one of the smallest, and each was a more than competent scribbler.  In boxing, among other endeavors, size matters, but apparently not when it comes to (in the words of a late Boston sportswriter) putting one little word in front of another.

“I’m looking for a Sam Cassell Houston Rockets throwback hat.”

The popular conception is, of course, to the contrary.  Highly-evolved space aliens in science fiction are always depicted with massive crania to hold their super-sized brains.  The flip side of the future, however, is that as the brain grows, the heart shrinks.  Aliens are always portrayed as unfeeling, uncaring creatures, as if their emotions had been cauterized when they were young.

“Get a load of Egghead over there.”

Well, what did you expect?  Their whole lives, they’ve had a universe of creatures sniggering behind their hands at them.

Ever since they went out for Little League.

Riding With the Dead

The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles issued driver’s licenses to 1,905 dead people.

The Boston Globe

It was one of those miscues that causes you, in retrospect, to slam your palm to your forehead and say “How could I be so STUPID?”  I’d worn a raincoat to work in the morning, but the weather had cleared up by the time I left so I forgot to wear it home.  When I got off the train I reached in my pocket and, not feeling my car keys, realized what I’d done.  They were back at the office in my coat, and I had no way to start my car.

I called my wife’s cell, but she was at the ballet until ten, so I decided to download one of the “apps” I’d been hearing about from my kids.  You tap your phone, and some enterprising guy who wants to make a little money on the side picks you up in his car, which he probably keeps cleaner than a taxi that’s rented out by the day because the driver is the owner.

It was the work of a half-hour for me to overcome the technological challenges involved, but once I was hooked up my phone showed the driver making his way towards my location, on the bridge overlooking the commuter rail tracks.  Apparently his name was “Tracker”–unusual, but this whole “ridesharing” thing is new to me.  After a while the little red worm that was inching across the screen stopped and started to throb, and my phone rang.

hi it’s me i’m here i don’t see you,” a voice said in a monotone.

“Where are you?” I asked.

at the train station like you said.”

“I’m up the hill, on the bridge.”

“why didn’t you say that then.”  I thought I had, but I’m getting older and memory fades.  Still, not exactly a customer-friendly thing to say.

A rusted-out 1990s American model sedan made its way up the hill to where I was standing, and I had to say my first impression dashed my hopes that “gig economy” transportation would be an improvement over a cigar-infused taxi with empty fast-food containers strewn about the floor.  The vehicle looked like it had gotten into an argument with a car crusher–and lost.

“you must be my ride,” the driver said in a real-life version of the flat, uninflected voice I’d heard on the phone.

“That’s me.”

“you can sit up front if you want.”

I eyeballed the guy and politely declined.  He looked like he’d volunteered at a school of mortuary science and they’d put him to work as a cadaver.  “Thanks,” I said, “but I’ve got to, uh, spread some work out on the backseat.”

“suit yourself.  busy professional, huh?  that kind of hectic pace is not for me.  you know what John Maynard Keynes said, don’t you?”

“When the facts change, I change my mind?”


“Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”

“i think that was Yogi Berra.  no, i meant ‘In the long run, we are all dead.'”

Keynes:  “If you don’t mind, I’d like to get out of this post at the next paragraph break.”


He’d hit a sore point on one of my favorite whipping boys, to mix my metaphors.  “You know Keynes never had any children, right?”


“So, we pass on the effects of inflationary monetary policy and reckless public expenditures to our children, who must pay for them.”

“i don’t follow.”

“It’s easy to say in the long run WE are all dead, but in the long run, our children are not.  They’re dead in the longer run, and their children are dead in the even longer run.”

“are you an economist?”

“No, but I play one on TV.”  I was hoping he’d be taken aback, or even aforward by my oblique wit, but he pressed on.

i thought that was for doctors,” he said as he swung the wheel left at a stoplight.

“You know where you’re going, right?”

“just follow the bouncing ball,” he said, alluding to the special effect I so loved when I was a kid, a musical interlude in a cartoon in which the audience sang the lyrics to a song projected on the screen as a little white ball bounced along the syllables.  Guy must have been of my vintage–a precocious sixty-something varietal with a formidable nose and nice legs.

I looked over his shoulder at the GPS, which was in fact set up to display our progress along the route home by a bouncing little . . . was that a brain?

“Say, that’s a unique little gizmo you’ve got there,” I said, trying to draw him out with a bogus avuncular tone.

“had it made special.  i like . . . brains.”

“Huh.  That’s kind of an unusual . . . taste.”

“didn’t you write a poem with the phrase ‘side order of brains’ in it?”

Much to my surprise–he had me there.  “Why yes–yes I did.  How did you know?”

i like bad poetry.

There goes your tip, pal, I thought to myself.  “What is it . . . exactly . . . you like about brains?”

aren’t you the guy who tells his mother-in-law ‘i like it because i like it’ when she asks you why you eat yogurt?

Again, he had me dead to rights.  “I . . . have been known to say that, yes.”

well, that’s how it is with zom . . . with me.  they ease my pain.

O-kay.  Starting to get a little too much information, as the young people say when they go on their “social media chat sites.”  Still, I was curious, if a bit yellow.  “And how . . . exactly . . . do brains ease your pain?”

i eat them–like you eat yogurt.

I gulped, and the lump in my throat didn’t go down my gullet easily.  We were thankfully getting close to my house.  I looked over at the community farm that presents such a pleasing prospect on my commute and saw the same white-faced cow lying against the fence that had been there in the morning when I’d driven by going in the opposite direction.  Nice work if you can get it, even if they do put cold metal suction cups on your nipples twice a day.

“Well, as the great social philosopher Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stone used to say, different strokes for different folks.”

are you ever bothered by headaches?” the driver asked.

“Not a lot,” I said, as we turned onto my street.  “I fell off an eight-foot loading dock a few years ago and landed on my head, though.  Every now and then it starts to tingle.”

He turned around and gave me a look that made me feel like a cold cut in a deli case.  “if you’d like,” he said, “i could take a look under the hood.

His eyes grew larger and he smiled beneath brows that gave off an air of menace.  “Thanks, but I’m all set,” I said as his car slowly rolled to a stop.  “Well, uh, this has been my first time in one of these car services.  Sure has been a . . . unique experience.”

He threw his arm over the back of his seat and grabbed me by the wrist.  I thought of all the crap I’d wasted my brain on over the years–Steve Miller Band albums, high school French class dialogues, the hagiography of Roman Catholic saints–and regretted that what little grey matter I had left was about to be consumed by a member in good standing of the undead.

“Please,” I begged, “can I just go inside for one minute.”

“why?” he asked skeptically.

“I want to say goodbye to my wife.”

goodbye–but you just got home.

“Aren’t you going to eat my brains?” I said, looking down at his viselike-grip.

eat your brains?  no–i just wanted to ask you for a five-star driver review.  so i don’t get fired.”

Feminist Gift-Shopping is Man’s Work

High school graduation time is here, which means that over-achieving young women across America are preparing for the next phase of their lives–matriculation (which is not as painful as it sounds) at an expensive four-year liberal arts college. One of them is the daughter of friends.

Expensive four-year liberal arts college (not shown actual size).

“We need to get a graduation gift for Alicia,” my wife said yesterday.

“Isn’t that your bailiwick?” I asked.

“She says she needs something feminist,” she replied. “Why is that?”

“At most of your better schools, it’s mandatory, sort of like the swim test,” I replied. “So the cheerful, outgoing co-captain of our state champion all-white Hip-Hop Dance Team–”

“That’s her . . . “

“First team conference All-Star in field hockey . . . “

“The same . . . “

” . . . is going to become a grim, humorless feminist?”

“I guess,” my wife said with indifference.

I was silent for a moment, taking this in.  “Well, good for her!” I replied finally. Of course, I went to college in the seventies, when a mildly insensitive comment by a male was often rewarded with verbal and physical abuse by gangs of marauding females. I learned my lesson orientation week when the most affable, outgoing guy on campus was kicked in the shins for giving the wrong answer to the litmus test riddle about the child who’s in a car accident with his father, wheeled into surgery and examined by a doctor who says “I can’t perform the operation–that’s my son.” (Hint: Some doctors are women.)

Burger: “I do not now, nor have I ever, owned a Helen Reddy album. Well, only her Greatest Hits.”

My wife, on the other hand, is eight-and-a-half years younger than me and graduated in the early eighties, when many gains sought by the feminist movement had been achieved.  Oh sure, the Equal Rights Amendment and comparable worth legislation are still a distant dream, but the right of whiny, nasal female singers like Helen Reddy to record feminist pseudo-anthems such as “I Am Woman” was affirmed by a unanimous Supreme Court, 8-0.  Chief Justice Warren Burger, a night law school graduate, abstained because his wife was a woman.

“Leave it to me,” I said reassuringly. “Shopping for feminist stuff is a man’s job!”

Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap

I harkened back to my time on the South Side of Chicago, where I first imbibed the potent brew of radical feminism. Those were heady days; at the University of Chicago, an alumna–radical bomber Bernadine Dohrn–was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List (take that, Ohio State!), proving that a woman could do anything a man like her future husband Bill Ayers could.

Bernadine Dohrn: Bombs away!

My pals and I would sit in Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, drinking Heileman’s Special Export beer, pondering the apparently unsolvable mysteries of The Second Sex (Simone de Beauvoir’s term, not mine). “Hey Jimmy,” we’d shout at the bartender, whose real name was Bill, but who had acquired his nomme de biere along with the furniture and fixtures when he bought the joint.

“What?” he’d reply, speaking in monosyllables in order to keep his overhead down.

“Settle a friendly wager for us, would you?” we’d say, and then repeat Sigmund Freud’s enduring question, “What does a woman want?”

Nat Fleischer: “Pound for pound, Emily Dickinson was the greatest feminist poet who ever lived.”

“Jimmy” would reach behind the cash register for the reference books he used to adjudicate bar bets–the Guiness Book of World Records, Nat Fleischer’s Ring Encyclopedia, The Collected Lyrics of Joni Mitchell.

“Let’s see,” he’d say as he flipped through them. “Sugar Ray Robinson, Lake Chaubunagungamaug–okay, here it is. ‘A woman must have everything.’”

The winner would accept congratulations from the house and enjoy a beer at the loser’s expense.

It was from such diligent study that I acquired a working knowledge of the best in feminist thought, which I pass on to you gratis, to make your graduation day shopping a breeze.

Non-fiction. Two classic choices, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. The first comes with some baggage of the mauvais foi (bad faith) sort; while writing her, uh, seminal work, de Beauvoir allowed Jean-Paul Sartre to boss her around like a chambermaid. Worse, she used to procure les jeunes filles for the google-eyed Sartre–and watch as they went at it.  What’s up with that? Go with La Friedan.

Anne Sexton: “Look nonchalant–like this?”

Poetry. The obvious choices here are Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, two confessional poetesses who committed suicide. But this is poetry–you’ve got to look beneath the shimmering surface. Emily Dickinson is the Cal Ripken of feminist poetry; she goes to the ball park every day, bangs out a couplet or two, and by the end of her career has an oeuvre that, pound for pound, makes Plath and Sexton look like flyweights. To mix my sports metaphors.

Fiction: Plath’s The Bell Jar is a perennial favorite, but you should also consider The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French, which sold twenty million copies. French said her modest goal in life was “to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world.”  Perfect for the young woman who’s feeling sorry for herself because she missed the season finale of Grey’s Anatomy.

Drama: Irony of ironies, the greatest feminist plays have been written by men. Sort of like how the Red Sox used to trade their best players–Babe Ruth, Red Ruffing, Sparky Lyle–to the Yankees. There’s Lysistrata by Aristophanes, about the eponymous character who persuades the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands as a means of forcing them to end the Peloponnesian War. There’s Hedda Gabbler, by Henrik Ibsen, which is loads of laughs. And there’s Medea by Euripides. I summarize the plots of the first two plays for my wife, and am about to describe Medea to her when she gets up from the table.

“Excuse me,” she says, “I need to see whether Mr. Jock,” our wayward senior, “has finished his final assignment.” She goes to the foot of the stairs and explains “FOR THE LAST TIME, FINISH YOUR GODDAMN INTERNSHIP REPORT OR YOU WON’T GRADUATE AND I’LL BE STUCK WITH YOU HERE NEXT YEAR, WHICH BELIEVE ME I AM NOT LOOKING FORWARD TO!”

Children: They’re cute when they’re young.

She returns and I give her a synopsis of the Greek tragedy; Medea kills her husband’s lover, then their two children.

“That sounds nice,” she says. “I’ll keep it–send Alicia the other two.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “The Difference Between Men and Women.”

A Day in the Life of a Supermodel Armpit Makeup Artist

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen had “to hold really still whilst makeup was applied to her armpits.”

                    The Boston Herald

It was 6:30 a.m., and my CD player-alarm clock sounded the opening notes of Albeniz’s “Asturias,” which is familiar to 60′s drugheads as the intro to The Doors “Spanish Caravan.”  It fit my mood; anxious, edgy–depressed.

Some of my early work.


I’d been out of work as an armpit makeup artist for three months following a disastrous shoot for “American Girl” magazine.  I had prepped precocious Cindy Hammer for a feature on Camp Pa-He-Tsi in Winnisquam, Michigan, using every tool in my portable makeup kit; styptic pencil, upper armpit blusher, highlighter.

Then the little twerp went and switched from a side pose to a full-frontal/arms-extended look, exposing her wispy alfalfa-sprout armpit hair to view.  Scoutmaster Mary Louise Fernald had told me we didn’t have time to prep both armpits on all the girls–they had Junior Life Saving at 1:30, gimp necklaces at 2:00.   I’d been caught leaning the wrong way.

No, don’t!


When the proofs arrived back in New York, the editor 86′d them and told me not to bother calling him anymore.  Needless to say, I didn’t get a nomination for the “Harrys”–the armpit makeup industry’s prestigious annual awards–and my name was mud from Manhattan to Hollywood.

Still, I forced myself to get up every morning.  They say that’s essential when you’re out of work.  You’ve got to be just as disciplined when you’re unemployed as when you’re working; shower, shave, make breakfast (the most important meal of the day!), scan the want ads and make some calls.  If you don’t, you’ll end up sleeping on a heating grate in a couple of years as the inexorable downward undertow of self-pity drags you . . .

The phone!  Maybe a call-back!  I knocked over my bowl of Special K–the lightly toasted, lightly sweetened rice cereal by Kellogg’s that is high in flavor but low in calories–lunging to answer it.

“Hullo?” I said into the mouthpiece, trying to sound eager, but not desperate.

Excellent source of 11 vitamins and minerals.


“Is this Duane Fontana?”

“That’s me.”  Dammit–should have said “It is I”, I thought, remembering the telephone-answering skills I had learned in 4th grade English class.

“Dov Lemuelson here–how are you?”

“Fine, fine–just fine Mr. Lemuelson.”  I was talking to the head of Dov Modeling Service, one of the largest agencies in Southern California.

“Keeping busy?” he asked, and a tremor of fear shot down my spine.  I couldn’t sound like I was too busy, but I also couldn’t let him sense how far I’d fallen.  “Sure,” I said after I composed myself, “but never too busy to work with you, one of the top . . .”

“Skip the obsequies.”  I think he meant “flattery,” but he’d probably been taking a “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary” course and had assumed that the word for funeral rites was derived from “obsequious”–i.e., fawning attentiveness.  I started to correct him, but on second thought bit my tongue.


“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“I jutht bit ma tung.”

“Terrific.  Say, I’ve got a supermodel out on a spread for Marie Claire–”

“The publicathion that women turn to for infomathion on fathion, thtyle, beauty, women’th ithues and careerth?”

“That’s the one.  Anyway, the armpit makeup artist just walked off the job.  I need to get someone out there quick, before they cancel and I’m stuck with nothing but a ‘kill’ fee and have to pay Frederica out of my own pocket.”

As he spoke, I’d been bathing my tongue in the remaining milk in my bowl to ease the pain of my self-inflicted bite.  By the time he’d finished, I was ready to pounce.

“Just give me the address, and I’m on my way.”

“3820 Feliz Navidad Boulevard.”

“I’m already gone,” I said as I slammed down the handpiece.

By the time I reached the scene, the structured atmosphere of your typical high-fashion photo assignment had descended into chaos.  Up against the adobe wall of the San Luis Obispo mission lay the shattered fragments of a Mitchum Smart Solid deodorant container, apparently hurled in a fit of pique by Duchess Frederica von de Velde, one of the world’s most temperamental supermodels–and that’s saying something.

“Hello,” I said as I walked up to her.  “My name is Duane Fontana–Dov sent me.”

“Then you know who I am,” she said, with a bitter tone.  “Everybody does.  I have no privacy!”

An odd complaint for someone who makes a lot of money spreading her bony ass and leggy body all over glossy magazines, but I let it pass.

“I’m here to help, Ms. von de Velde.”

“Please–let us not stand on these silly formalities.”


“Call me ‘Duchess’.”

Bo Diddley:  “Nice pits, babe.”


So she wanted to maintain a professional distance between us.  Fine.  I made small talk while I unpacked my bag.  “Didn’t Bo Diddley have a sister named ‘Duchess’?”

“Who is this Bo Diddley of which you speak?” she asked in the stilted English she had learned in European boarding schools.

“He’s dead.  Rock ‘n roll pioneer–’Shave-and-a-haircut–two bits’ beat.”

“Oh,” she replied blankly.  I understood that she did that a lot.

I held up my light meter and took some readings.  Bright sun called for a #4 armpit masque, with just a hint of groin shadow on top to give that chiaroscuro finish that female readers respond to by renewing their subscriptions early.

“You have really nice pits,” I said as I went to work.

“No I do not,” she said.  “They are ugly.  I got them from my father’s . . . how you say–jeans?”

“No, ‘genes’.”

She gave me a look that would have dried a prune.  “I know that all of you makeup types are homonymphos, but please–do not pull your homonyms on me.”

“Sorry,” I said, “just trying to help.”

“Do your job,” she said with disdain as she lifted both arms over her head.

“Okay,” I said as I took out my Dust It Mineral Makeup Brush.

She may have been a bitch, but she was a pro.  She held herself stock still, and in five minutes she was camera-ready with a pair of armpits that most women would die for.

“All set,” I said as I poofed her with a glistening atomizer to give her that last touch of musky moistness that a man forced to flip through next month’s issue as he waits for his wife in a women’s clothing store might find a tad erotic.  “It’s been a pleasure working with you,” I said, and I meant it–if only for the money.

“Thank you,” she said as she walked over to the photographer’s umbrella, her arms akimbo to keep her pits in picture-perfect shape until the shutterbug was ready.  “I am always happy to bring pleasure into the lives of little people like yourself.”

She walked away and, as I stood there admiring my work, a thought occurred to me.

“Duchess?” I said timidly, causing her to turn around.


“Would you . . . “  I hesitated, unsure of myself.


“I’d like to have a memento of my work with you.”

“Like a publicity photo?”

“No.  If you don’t mind–would you autograph this dress shield for me?”


Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Bad Girls.”

My Quest to Bring Karaoke to Mt. Everest

Sometimes, it takes a tragedy to change the way we view the world. For me, it was the story of David Sharp.

Sharp was a climber in distress who died 300 feet from the summit of Mt. Everest. A number of parties, including that of double-amputee Mark Inglis, passed him by, oblivious to his plight as they sought the small beer glory that comes to those who scale the world’s highest mountain long after the feat has become commonplace.

When I learned of Sharp’s death, I could only sigh in disgust at my fellow man (and the overwhelming majority of the world’s premier climbers are men).

And then it struck me–this never would have happened if the many highly-competitive egotists who passed Sharp by had only stopped to partake in the camaraderie of karaoke as they made their way up and down the mountain.

Since it was first developed in the 1970′s, karaoke has become a staple of after-work get-togethers around the world. The term is derived from two Japanese words, kara and okestura, which roughly translated mean “bad singing.”

Karaoke first became popular among Japanese “salary men” who are expected to go out after long work days and socialize into the night. Their bosses hope that bonding through singing will improve team spirit, leading to greater corporate profits. Simply put, it is impossible not to feel a sense of common purpose with someone who has heard you sing Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive” after you’ve had three Margaritas.

My goal: To bring the bonhomie that karaoke engenders to the mountain known to sherpas, the Nepalese natives who guide foreigners to its peak, as “Chomolungma” or “Graveyard of Lousy Tippers.”

My sherpa’s name is Pemba Dorjie, and he recommends the VocoPro Karaoke King, a 7 Watt, 120 volt beauty with a Signal-to-Noise Ratio of 65 db and Wow and Flutter of 0.35% WRMS. “This bad boy has two microphone inputs with individual volume controls,” he notes in his native Tibetan tongue. “Duets can thus be performed with ease, cranking the fun up another notch.”

We choose the southwest ridge for our ascent, and make base camp at 17,600 feet above sea level. Pemba asks if he can be the first to try out the VocoPro, and I gladly agree. I know him to be a big Barry Manilow fan and–wouldn’t you know it–his first selection is “Copacabana,” the 1978 disco hit that combined Latin rhythm and Borscht Belt nightclub shtick to produce what Rolling Stone magazine called the worst song of the decade.

“Pemba–you rock!”

Pemba’s voice is strong and soulful as it echoes across the mountain face, triggering an avalanche that wipes out a party of five below us who were trying to become the first set of quintuplets of Lithuanian descent to reach the summit. “Tough luck,” says Pemba. “Avalanches are the leading cause of death here.”

After a few weeks to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude, we move up the Western Cwm to the base of the Lhotse face. Before we turn in for the night, we stare into our campfire and think the thoughts that come to men as they reach into the heavens.

“Pemba,” I say. “This Cwm–why does it have no vowel?”

Pemba is uneasy at first. “We are a poor nation,” he says after a while. “We cannot afford all the vowels that you rich Americans toss around so freely.” I nod my head in sympathy, then show him how a “y” is the Swiss Army knife of the alphabet and can be used as either a consonant or a vowel!

“Thanks,” Pemba says with a smile. “This will bring many hours of happiness to my children.”

Over the next two days we pass through the South Col, the Geneva Spur and the Yellow Band until we hit the Death Zone. At 26,000 feet, we can survive only two or three days in the rarefied atmosphere near the summit, where there are estimated to be corpses of over 100 climbers who died without realizing their goal.

I begin to have trouble breathing, and Pemba urges caution. “Here,” he says as he hands me an aerosol canister of Cheez Whiz, the processed cheese spread. “Stick this up a nostril and squirt.” I do as he instructs me, and after an initial blast of the orange, viscous liquid hits my soft palate, my nostrils clear from the gases that propel this delicious treat onto corn chips, hot dogs and cheesesteaks across America. “Wow,” I say as the fluorocarbons jolt me into a heightened state of consciousness. “What a rush! Hope it doesn’t poke a hole in the ozone layer.”

“You some kind of tree hugger?” Pemba asks scornfully. “Nature is your enemy, man.” And indeed, my concerns about global warming evaporate in the -100 degree Fahrenheit cold.

“That should last you a few hours,” Pemba says. “Just enough time to get set up.”

We hurry to hook a solar-powered generator up to the karaoke machine, then wait for teams of climbers to pass by. We notice one straggler, apparently disoriented from lack of oxygen to the brain, making his way up the slope. “Excuse me,” he shouts out as he draws nearer. “I’m looking for the Northeast Bancshares Summer Outing.”

Pemba and I exchange looks of concern. The man has been separated from his party, and is unlikely to survive a night alone. “You like Kool and the Gang?” Pemba asks tentatively.

“Who doesn’t?” the man replies, and before you can say “Jungle Boogie,” our new friend is laying down a loose groove of funky stuff to “Celebration.”

“Cel-e-brate good time–c’mon on!” he sings, not too well, but with more than enough gusto. The words ring out across the Kangshung Face and–out of nowhere–who should appear but Beth Lindsay, Director of Human Resources for the fourth-largest bank holding company in America.

“Ed Ferguson–we need you over on the northeast ridge for volleyball,” she says with concern as she checks her clipboard. “You two don’t mind if I steal Ed for awhile, do you?” she asks Pemba and me. “Karaoke doesn’t start until after dinner tonight.”

“Not a problem,” I reply with more than a little satisfaction at a mission accomplished. Pemba puts Ed’s microphone back into the VocoPro’s hard shell protective case, and we head back down the mountain.

“You know,” he says as we pass the body of a climber who was abandoned by his party after he fell forty feet from a ledge above us, “music can really bring people together.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Yes I Can’t!”

Pope Urges Onanists to Return to Church

VATICAN CITY.  Continuing his efforts to welcome “lost sheep back to the fold,” Pope Francis I followed up yesterday’s historic outreach to remarried Catholics by urging onanists to return to the faith that once shunned them.

Image result for pope francis
“Don’t touch my National Geographic!”


“To the many who have touched themselves inappropriately, the Church will now take a ‘hands off’ approach,” the Pontiff said in a papal bull entitled “Laudato masturbare,” or “In Praise of Self-Love.”  “If we’re going to forgive some guy who dumped his wife for an au pair, I suppose we can’t turn away a mere monkey-spanker.”

“Onanist” is the technical scientific euphemism for a person whose love for him or herself crosses the boundary from an appropriate level of amour-propre into the forbidden realm of the physical.  “This is an area of inquiry that is rife with euphemisms,” said Professor Norbert Weinman of the Lobaugh Institute for the Study of Auto-Eroticism.  “My favorite is ‘choke the chicken’–it’s such a colorful term.”

Image result for st peters
“To the thousands who have come here to seek forgiveness–you’re all set!”


Self-abuse has historically been forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church as a mortal sin, but it will be down-graded to the level of “venial,” Latin for “not a big deal.”  “Where before you burned in hell forever for just one Playmate of the Month,” said Father Ignatius O’Keefe of St. Columbkille’s parish in Brighton, Mass., “now you say three Hail Mary’s, an Act of Contrition and you’re good to go.”

Initial reaction of onanists to the Pope’s outreach were enthusiastic.  “You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this day,” said Bob Pfeiffer, a former communicant at St. Columbkille’s who journeyed to Rome to express his gratitude.  “Let me shake . . .” he began, before the Pope recoiled in apparent horror.

“Please,” the Vicar of Christ on Earth said with barely-concealed disgust.  “No touch-a the hand.”