A Day in the Life of a Federal Catfish Inspector

               To date the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent $20 million to set up a catfish office without inspecting a single catfish.  I’m not making that up.

Senator John McCain, remarks on Senate floor in opposition to the Trans-Pacific trade bill, Wall Street Journal

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“Ahem–we’re waiting.”

As I gazed out my window in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Catfish Inspection Office, a little internal voice that I recognized as my conscience told me that I probably shouldn’t spend the whole morning looking out at the Lake of the Ozarks just above Bagnell Dam.  After all, I needed something to do in the afternoon, after I came back from my two-hour lunch at Catfish Larry’s.  If I spent the first four hours of my day admiring the water–so beautiful and placid, like my girlfriend Verna Lee–I might be too bored to waste time looking at it in the afternoon.

No, things weren’t like they used to be at the USDA, ever since Senator John McCain got a bee in his bonnet about catfish inspectors actually–inspecting catfish.  How naïve could he be?  The Viet Cong must have fried his brain during his five and a half years in captivity, otherwise he’d realize that soldiers like him fought and died so bureaucrats like me could goof off.

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The word “fried” made my mouth water thinking about the catfish basket at Catfish Larry’s.  It comes with cole slaw and fries, so it’s a balanced diet of grease, carbs, more grease and artery-clogging mayo.  I stood up, put on my USDA Catfish Inspector hat so I’d get priority seating (“Law enforcement–step aside!”) when I heard a buzz and saw my receptionist’s extension number on the screen of my phone.

“Catfish Inspector Dillard speaking,” I said.  You have to keep the menial GS-0318’s in their place, otherwise they’ll start bitching that they’re “professionals” and don’t have to go on coffee runs anymore.

“There’s a school of fish out here that wants to talk to you.”

I gulped involuntarily.  “Did you tell them I was here?”

“I don’t get paid enough to lie.  For that you need to be at least a Cabinet Secretary, or a . . .”

Enough with your cheap cynicism about our federal government!” I snapped.  “Do you think I could duck out the back?”

“There’s a truck back there flipping the dumpster–you’re blocked in.”

Damn the Ozark Mountains, I thought to myself.  Everything’s so hilly here its nearly impossible to find a good parking lot, like they have in, like Kansas, or . . .”

“Are you coming out or not?”

I knew I was trapped.  “All right,” I said.  “You’ve got the Federal Marshalls on speed-dial, right?”

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You know you want it.

I heard a snort through the earpiece.  “You think you’re Abraham Lincoln or something?”

I’d had about enough of the punching-up backtalk from the receptionist, so I decided to face the music and dance.  The sooner I got over talking to catfish, the sooner I could eat one.  Or six.

I hitched up my pants, hesitated for a moment, then stepped into the reception area trying to look as cool as a cucumber–but I felt like I was lying in the sun at an outdoor produce stand, and so technically was sort of a hot cucumber.

“What can I do for you all?” I said in my most ingratiating federal bureaucrat voice.

The fish slithered across the floor to the point where I was standing.  Their slimy whiskers flipped back and forth across my “rough-out” suede cowboy boots.  Have to remember to write-up a claim for expense reimbursement after lunch.

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“He followed me home–can I keep him?”

 

“We’re here to stop government waste and abuse,” one of the smaller fry said.  Looked like the kind of fish who files his taxes a month early.

“Yeah–we want to be inspected!” another said.  I started looking around for the “60 Minutes” gotcha camera crew, but the fish had apparently come without human assistance.

“Now hold on, just a minute everybody.”  Just what I needed–a bunch of gill-breathing escapees from a Tea Party caucus.  “The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working hard . . .”

“You mean hardly working,” one of the fish said, and they all broke out laughing.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been mocked by a bunch of catfish, but it’s not pleasant.  I have to take a lot of bullhockey in my job, but at least it comes from the mouths of distinguished assholes, like congresspeople and citizens complaining about why I didn’t catch the latest e-coli or salmonella outbreak.  Hey–I was on break!

“This is why it’s so hard to get people to go into public service,” I remonstrated, and that shut the fish up.  I don’t think they’d ever even seen a remonstrator before.  I got it on cable TV, and it came with a battery-powered nose-hair clipper.

“We pay your salary, fat boy,” one of the more aggressive males snapped.  How do I know he was male, you ask?  He had a receding whisker-line.

“Folks, if you want to step into the conference room, I can receive your complaint in complete confidence.”  A lot of guys couldn’t pull off that high level of aplomb, but I got a Class 2 Plombers license after I got out of high school, and it comes in handy at times like this.

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“This appears to be some sort of chicken.”

I opened the door and the fish began to slither in, one by one.  “Would anybody like something to eat?”  Stupid negotiating trick:  Give some loser a free cup of coffee and subconsciously he feels he owes you something.  Which–if you’ve ever tasted the coffee in a federal agency break room–he most assuredly does not.

The fish looked at each other, making little moues with their wide mouths as if to say “What the hell, if he’s gonna offer, I’m gonna grab some!”

“I’ll have a couple hundred crappie,” one said.

“I’ll have a two-by-four and a tire,” said another.  Sheesh–I knew they were bottom-feeding trash fish, but I had no idea they were that disgusting.

“Okay, let me get Velma Jean in here to take orders,” I said, and after the receptionist had ordered out lunch, we sat down for some serious negotiating.

“I understand your frustration,” I said in a low, considerate voice once the door was closed.  “I know you’re upset that after spending twenty million dollars on catfish inspection we still haven’t inspected any catfish.  But you’ve got to understand–there are almost three hundred and twenty million people in the United States.”

“We’re not people,” one of them said.

“Fair enough.  I walked right into that one.  On the other hand I’m a people . . .”

“A people who needs people?”

“No, I’m a people who works for the federal government, so I’d much rather not have anything to do with people.  But catfish–that’s another story.”

I saw just a glimmer of approbation in their eyes.

“We’ve never had a catfish office in the history of the United States.  I’m going to be at the helm when we open up the first one.  Think about that.  I’m going to be the George Washington of catfish.”

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The Millard Fillmore of catfish

 

“Wow,” one of them said.  I didn’t think they were supposed to be too smart.

“So I’m only gonna get one chance in my life–America’s only got one chance.  I’m gonna get this right–okay?”

If they’d had feet, they would have been up on them, cheering me on.  What’s the old expression?  Patriotism is the last refuge of the catfish?  Something like that.

“When you put it that way,” one of the smart-aleckier ones said, “I’m behind you 100%.”

“No you’re not, you’re in front of me–right there!” I said as I poked him in his big, soft, white underbelly.

I had them eating out of my hand by then, so it was a good thing the receptionist was back with lunch.  “Let’s see, this is your–did you have fries?” I asked one.

“No–I had a deep fryer.  And a Cooper Mini.”

“Right, right,” I said as I passed around napkins, salt and those little coffee stirrer things–as an appetizer.

“What did you get?” one of them asked as I started to peel back the wax on my order.

“Oh, nothing you’d like,” I said as I discreetly dribbled catchup on the fried delight who, for all I knew, was a relative of theirs.

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Catfish basket–yum!

 

“C’mon, lemme see,” another said, and then, after he’d raised his ugly head to take a peek, recoiled in horror.

“You . . . bastard!” he hissed through whiskers that wiggled like those strands of crepe paper they put on room air conditioners in appliance stores.

“What?” one of the fish asked.

The offended fish looked around the room with utter contempt.  “You won’t believe it!”

“How bad could it be?”

“He got fries–and we didn’t!”

At the Bizarro Rotary Club

It’s noontime on Wednesday, time for me to head over to the Bothner Hotel for the weekly meeting of our local chapter of the Bizarro Rotary Club.  It’s a great bunch and when you’re a small business man in a small town, you’ve got to get out and press the flesh if you want to be seen as a regular guy–and keep the big chain stores at bay.

I wave to Ethel, my top salesgal, and even though she knows from many years of habit where I’m going, she asks “You heading over to Bizarro Rotary?”

“How’d you guess?” I reply facetiously–I’m known as a great “kidder” around town.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she says coquettishly.  “A little birdie told me.”

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“I’m expecting Jackson”–our desultory trashman–“to come by to haul away some cardboard boxes.”

“I’ll look out for him,” Ethel says.

“He’s like the Abominable Snowman,” I quip.  “If you blink–he’s gone and you may never see him again.”

We share a laugh and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail I’m out on Indiana Avenue and headed over to the meeting.  A lot of guys would view membership in Bizarro Rotary–the contrarian doppelganger of Rotary International–as a mark of failure, but not me.  Sure, I’m an upbeat, can-do, go-getter, but everybody needs a little negativity to recharge their battery from time to time.  I mean, if all you have is a positive charge, you’ll never get anywhere!

I recall my first apartment after college, with a roommate named “Ed” from Chicago.  Ed and I were friendly, but there was a wide gulf that separated our tastes in music.  Mine ended with bebop, and I leaned–quite dramatically, I might add–towards Clifford Brown on the trumpet and Johnny Hodges on alto sax.  Ed, by contrast, liked to listen to stuff that struck my ears as sandpaper Q-Tips: Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra.  To me, hearing McCoy Tyner recalled the sound you’d get if you dropped a piano out a third-story window.  And Sonny Sharock?  What he did to a guitar should have been illegal.

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Sonny Sharrock: Worst jazz guitar player ever?

 

“You know what you need?” Ed said to me late one night, dropping the quotation marks that he habitually wore around his name since we’d been deep into drink and drugs for some time.

“What?”

“You need some chaos in your life,” he said with finality, setting off one of life’s little epiphanies for me.  Perhaps, I thought, he’s right.  Maybe I did need some unbridled, in-your-face, don’t-stint-on-the-hyphens Dionysian disruption to balance the rational, orderly side of my psyche.

Of course, I’d had a germ of the Bizarro in my being from boyhood, perhaps best revealed by an unprovoked wise-crack I made in the very building I was about to walk into, in the Bothner Hotel Barbershop.  After getting my usual mortifying crew-cut, which my mother had trained the barbers to give me even if I asked for a flat-top, I hopped out of the chair, accepted my stick of Juicy Fruit gum and put on my cool crew jacket.

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What I WANTED to look like.

 

“You’re looking pretty sharp there, young man!” the barber named “Frosty” said as I walked towards the door.

“Forms a nice contrast, since you’re not,” I cracked, causing audible gasps to escape from the gaping mouths of the assorted idlers assembled in the little white-tiled shop.

“That boy’s headed for trouble!” a hare-lipped farmer said as I walked away, as if to put a gypsy curse on me.

“Pah!” I pahhed.  What did I care for the opinions of a bunch of yahoos, rednecks and hilljacks?  I was above all that, a Nietzsche in short pants.

But when I came back to my little home town after college, I found out that my reputation formed in childhood had hardened with time; I was, forever and irredeemably, The Kid Who Cracked Wise.

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Whoa–look out!

 

I tried to join the Lions, the Moose, the Elks.  Nothing.  I called up the Shriners, the Masons, and the Odd Fellows.  Nada.  Desperate, I called the Extremely Odd Fellows.  Even they turned me down.

But then one night when I was in my cups–or more precisely in my longneck beer bottles–a fellow embittered townsman “pulled my coat tail,” as they used to say in Harlem.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree, man,” he said as he reached in front of me for the last of the Pizza-flavored goldfish.

“How so?”

“You should try the Bizarro fraternal societies.”

I was vaguely familiar with the concept of Bizarro culture, the alternative universe created for Superman’s mirror-image antagonist.  Where Superman fought for truth, justice and the American Way, Bizarro fought for falsehood, injustice, and–uh–I guess the un-American Way.

“There are–Bizarro lodges?” I asked, incredulous.

“Sure–how do you think I can stand living in this boring burg?”

I looked him over and sized him up; an embittered post-adolescent like me.

“Do you think,” I began hesitantly, “I’d qualify?”

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“Let’s see,” he said.  “Are you shunned for your grotesque appearance?”

“Look at me!” I said, pointing to the numerous scars on my face.  There was the one from a football helmet that cracked during a freshman game, giving me a cut that required six stitches to close.  There were chicken pox and acne scars.  I hit myself over my left eye playing tennis–not an easy trick–three more stitches.  There was the one on my upper lip from a punch.  Finally, there was one from a potato rake; don’t ask me how I got that one, but it involved a tree, a dare and some youthful hijinks.  It was the 70s–everybody else was having sex.

“Okay,” he said, “You’ll pass that test.  Do you have strange speech patterns?”

I thought of the many hours I’d spent with crackpot speech therapists as a child; forced to recite poetry in the hope that it would untie my tongue, to this day I can recall entire stanzas from Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel on a bet.

“I got that one covered,” I said.  “What else?”

“Are you habitually contrarian, trying to make a joke out of everything, making cutting remarks . . .”

“You’re looking at the King of the Gratuitously Smart-Aleck Comment.”

And so I was inducted, after a brief instructional course, payment of first month’s dues and purchase of a goofy hat–a prerequisite for membership in any self-respecting men’s lodge–into Bizarro Rotary.

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Loyal Order of the Blue Buffalo

 

Bizarro Rotary, as the name implies, is the obverse of normal Rotary.  The Rotary Pledge is an inspiring set of principles that have seeped out of that order’s meetings into the broader stream of American life.  They are, quite frankly, words to live by, at least as far as idle remarks go.  And believe me, as the guy who once referred to one of his law partners as “The Blanche DuBois of the Boston bar” because he always depended on the kindness of strangers–idle remarks can go a long way.

Surely you have heard the Rotary Pledge, even if you don’t observe its tenets.  It has been translated into over a hundred languages, so you can’t say they don’t apply to you because you only speak Urdu.  Before a Rotarian says, thinks or does anything, he must ask himself these questions:

1.  Is it the TRUTH?

2.  Is it FAIR to all concerned?

3.  Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?

4.  Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

(As you can see, the “Caps Lock” key gets stuck a lot at Rotary headquarters, but you get the drift.)

If the answer to any one of these questions is “no,” a regular Rotarian may not say, think or do what he was ever-so-close to saying, thinking or doing just moments before.

At Bizarro Rotary, on the other hand, it works the opposite way.  If the answer to question 1 is “yes,” and the answer to any of the next three “no,” the Bizarro Rotarian must plunge ahead, consequences be damned.  Do think Jerry Spagnola’s tie is ugly?  It may be true, but it may not build a better friendship, so you’d better tell him so.

Do you think it’s likely Al Urquart’s daughter will never get married because she looks too much like him, instead of his gamine-like wife Marjean, who possesses a prize-winning collection of thimbles?  Sorry, but you’re going to have to break the news to him.

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“Shore is purty at sundown, ain’t it?”

 

As I walked into the lobby of the Bothner I spied Bob Gramach, our local Chevy-GMC dealer.

“Hey Bob–still selling those crappy cars like the lemon you unloaded on me?” I say by way of greeting.

“You better believe it,” he says with a smile.  “Are you still stuck in that dead-end job you hate?”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” I say.  I push the button on the old-fashioned elevator with the brass grillwork and we glide slowly up to the second floor, where we see a number of our fellow local bad-handers palavering about things.

“Des Moegelin!” I say when I spy our local farm implements dealer.  “How’s you’re inadequate sexual equipment hangin’?”

“A little to the left, but my little looks big next to yours!” he says and his buddies erupt in laughter–that’s the Bizarro Rotary spirit!

“Good to see you again,” says Mike Dworpkin, an insurance agent for Modern Moosehead Indemnity.  “That bump on the side of your nose is getting bigger all the time!”

“Thanks,” I say proudly.

Many people mistake the blunt honesty of Bizarro Rotarians for some sort of disorder, like Asperger’s Syndrome, but our demonstrated lack of empathy is our way of steeling each other for the hard rows we all have to hoe; if you want a lodge that’s going to give you a false sense of comfort, like life’s a big bag of marshmallows, get your ass over to the Knights of Pythias.

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Knights of Pythias: What the hell–are you guys a glee club or something?

 

We begin to take our seats at the round tables that are set up for lunch and our Grand Scorchmaster, Ted Wyboldt, offer’s the day’s invocation.

“Heavenly Father,” he intones as we all bow our heads, “you have made one gigantic hot steaming mess of the world.”

“A-men,” we all murmur humbly, recognizing that our pitiful inadequacies in the here and now are nothing compared to the way the Creator of All Things has screwed things up.  They say on the seventh day he rested, but my guess is he looked upon his work and decided it was too broke to fix.

The speaker on program today is the new head coach of the Oklahoma A&M Fighting Stinkbugs, Joe Ray Diggs, an up-and-coming offensive genius who has turned around every team he’s touched so far in a career that has every appearance will end up with him on national television some New Year’s Day.  After the obligatory business part of the meeting–unpaid dues, recognition of how poorly the winners of our local oratorical contest did in the regionals–it’s time for some game film and football talk.

“Thanks for having me today, Ted,” Diggs says as he fumbles with the remote that turns on the projector.  “How many A&M grads we got here today?” he begins, using the old public speaking gimmick of getting the audience on your side from the get-go.  Approximately a third of the hands in the room go up, and Diggs smiles.  “That’s good,” he says with a smile.  “May I remind you that every check you write to the Booster Club does not have to be reported to the NCAA.”

The crowd laughs appreciatively, and Diggs moves on to his pitch.  “Folks, I know A&M has let you down over the last few decades,” he says.  He’s been told to tell the truth and not sugarcoat it.  “My predecessor was the kind of guy who couldn’t find his ass with both hands, to tell you the truth.  He couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if there was instructions on the heel.”

Diggs plays these for laugh lines, but when he realizes that such rough talk is permitted–even expected–he continues.  “Me?  I’ve got a different philosophy,” he says.

“What’s that, coacher?” ask Gene Haskins, a beefy man down front who played for the Fighting Stinkbugs during their last winning season a decade-and-a-half ago.

“If you want to win,” Diggs says with squinting eyes that evince his seriousness, “you’ve got to pay your players enough.”

 

For Some US Students Heavy Backpacks Are No Burden

QUIBDO, Colombia.  It’s “Day of Return” in this, the capital of the Choco, a department (roughly equivalent to a U.S. state) of Colombia.  “Today we put the Children of Affluence back into the belly of the big silver songbird,” says Jhon Diaz, a young man in his twenties who hopes someday to come to the United States to have the middle two letters of his first name reversed.  “We will miss them when they are back home playing video games and eating double-stuffed Oreos.”

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Diaz is referring to forty ninth-graders from Nellie Fox Middle School in the suburbs of Chicago, who for the past two weeks have lived in this village on a trip that has cost their parents $5,000 in tuition, plus airfare and gear such as waterproof ponchos to keep the children dry during Colombia’s spring rainy season, which falls in April and May.  “These children have been a gift from God,” says village elder Vasquez Osorio.  “Before we had to buy pack mules, but thanks to American cultural enrichment programs, we are now paid to take little human beasts of burden,” he says with a smile as he tousles the hair of Timmy Felknap, a 15-year-old with braces and a shy smile.

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“Ungh!”

Choco suffers from devastating mudslides in the spring, and in the past villagers have used burros to haul the mud back to the top of the Baudo mountains so that it can slide down again the following year.  “It was back-breaking work for the poor animals,” says Diaz as he shakes his head in sympathy.  “The Nellie Fox students have been hauling heavy books around since kindergarten, and are suited to mind-numbing work due to standardized testing.”

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Despite being a wealthy nation capable of providing its children with expensive technological doo-dads, America forces young children to haul heavy textbooks around on their backs even though a “thumb drive” no bigger than a human thumb can hold more information that a typical school library.  “We checked and it’s true,” said Morris Barnum, immediate past president of the American Association of Vice Principals.  “We squeezed all the Chip Hilton stories I loved growing up onto a little thingy that holds thirty-two gigabytes, whatever they are.”

As for the students, many of whom refuse to do chores at home, the chance to help illiterate third-world villagers has been an enlightening experience.  “It’s only work if you have to do it,” says Melinda Bassett, who will highlight her expensive Colombian experience on her college applications.  “If your parents pay for it and it looks good on your resume, it’s fun!”

One Standup Comic Never Counted Out His Dream

PARAMUS, New Jersey.  Mike Ross, Jr., comes from a long line of entertainers.  His grandfather, Aaron Ross, was a tap dancer, his father Mike Sr. a slick-haired crooner in the 50′s, and his mother Annette a ventriloquist.


“Don’t touch me there, lady–I’ve got termites.”

“I was encouraged to go into show business,” he says as he waits in the wings of The Comedy Corner, a bar that is considered a stepping stone for comics on the way up to the big time in Manhattan, or on their way back down.  “Actually, ‘pushed’ is the better word,” he adds with a professional’s timing.


“But seriously, folks.  You should consider a Roth IRA.”

Mike has flirted with fame in the past, logging a Tonight Show appearance and a week-long engagement opening for Celine Dion in Las Vegas, but he says the applause and the laughter left him strangely unfulfilled.  “It was what my parents wanted,” he says ruefully, “but it wasn’t what I wanted.”


“This stuff is a scream!”

And so Mike studied on the side, sneaking off to night school when he didn’t have a gig, sometimes telling his wife Mona “little white lies about where I was going,” he says with obvious embarrassment.  Then one night last month, after she caught him with a roll of calculator tape in his pocket, he was forced to confess.

“I want,” he told her tearfully, “to become an accountant.”

After a heated exchange in which she threatened to leave him, Mona gradually came to understand that “‘for better or for worse’ means you’ve got to let your husband follow his dream,” she says with look of hopeful resignation on her face.  “I’ll miss the free cocktail napkins,” she adds.


“A beefalo tax shelter?  You’re cracking me up!”

Mike is blunt about what he saw before him if he stuck with comedy for the rest of his life.  “Sure, maybe I’d get a guest host slot for Leno at some point, or a special on Comedy Central, or maybe even my own telethon for a crippling disease,” he says.  “But in the back of my mind, I’d always know that I could be preparing K-1′s for a wealthy family’s limited partnership, or consoling a young couple who were late with their estimated tax payments.  Making people laugh pales beside that kind of responsibility.”


“ . . . and the guy from the IRS says ‘You call this a home office?’”

Mike’s apprenticeship with a six-man accounting firm hasn’t been easy, but he says he’s willing to “pay his dues” in order to earn the coveted designation of C.P.A.  “Some of the senior tax guys heckle me when I’m filing an extension with the IRS, but it’s something you have to put up with when you’re a nobody just starting out,” he says with a smile.  “I don’t mind as long as they don’t throw the federal tax code at me–that thing’s heavy!”

Everything I Know About Nature I Learned Indoors

Coriolis Effect Has Things Topsy-Turvy Down Under

AUCKLAND, New Zealand.  The morning skies are grey as our plane touches down at Auckland Airport, but that doesn’t dampen our spirits as my family and I peer out the windows for our first glance at New Zealand, the adopted homeland of my cousin Mary Beth and her husband Gary.


Auckland Airport

“I wanna go to the bathroom and check out the sink,” my son says.

He’s interested in seeing the Coriolis effect, the force first described by French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis that causes water in sinks and toilets in the Southern hemisphere to drain in a counterclockwise direction, the opposite of what we Americans are used to seeing in the Northern hemisphere.

“Not now, sweetie, the seatbelt light is still on,” my wife says.

“We’ll have plenty of time for that later,” I say as we pull to a stop and passengers stand up and begin to de-board.

We spy Mary Beth and Gary as we emerge from the jetway and, after hugs and kisses all around, Mary Beth asks if we’d like to grab some dinner.

“But–it’s nine o’clock in the morning,” I say, a bit puzzled.

Now it’s her turn to act surprised.  “Yes–so what?”

“Uh, I think the kids should get some breakfast in them,” my wife says.

Suddenly, the source of our confusion becomes apparent to Mary Beth.  “You two are still on Northern hemisphere meal times,” she says with a laugh.  “Down here, we start the day with meat, potatoes, broccoli–the works!”

I look at the kids, who don’t seem enthusiastic.  “We’ll just grab some orange juice,” I say as we head towards the short-term parking lot.

We stow our luggage in the trunk of our hosts’ car, and Gary eases his way out of the parking lot.

“Look out!” my wife exclaims as Gary pulls into the left-hand lane of the high-speed motorway that surrounds the airport.

“What?” Gary replies, somewhat startled.

“Oh, I forgot, you drive on the left side down here,” my wife replies, a bit calmer now.

“Yeah, and not just that–watch,” Gary says as he makes a sharp right-hand turn from the left-hand lane.

My wife is unimpressed.  “People do that all the time in America,” she says.  “We call them ‘senior citizens.’”

I glance in the sideview mirror and notice a double-trailer truck bearing down on us at high speed.  “Uh, Gary,” I say a little nervously.  “You see that truck coming, right?”

“That guy?” Gary replies.  “Don’t worry–I’ve got plenty of room,” he says as he pulls into the passing lane.  “You forgot–objects in mirrors are further away than they appear down here.”

“Oh, right–the Coriolis effect,” I say.

I’ve noticed as I’ve watched Gary’s maneuvers in and out of traffic that Mary Beth has remained remarkably calm, a placid smile on her face.  “I think it’s great that you don’t criticize Gary’s driving,” I say to her.

“Do women do that where you live?” she asks incredulously as he cuts off a young couple in a Volkswagen Scirocco with a “Baby on Board” window sign.  I look at my wife, who makes a pugnacious little moue with her lips.

“It’s in my DNA,” she says.  “If the Coriolis effect means I couldn’t bitch about your dingbat driving, I say to hell with it.”

We take an exit ramp and stop at the toll gate.

“From the airport?” the attendant says as he examines the ticket that Gary hands him.  “I owe you four dollars and twenty-five cents.”

“Gosh,” my wife says.  “They pay you to drive on the highway?”

“It’s the Coriolis effect!” Mary Beth exclaims.  “We used to take the bus but they only pay you $1.50 for that!”

Gary tells us a little bit about the country as we head into downtown Auckland.  “Did you know that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand?” he asks the kids.

“Wow,” my daughter says, fascinated.

“We have lots of sheep in America too, sweetie,” my wife says to her.

“We do?”


Mel Carnahan

“Yes, like people who elected Mel Carnahan to the Senate after he died.”

The kids nod in wonderment, and Gary pulls up in front of a movie theatre.

“Are we going to a movie?” my son asks.

“It’s such a hot day, I thought this would be a good place to keep cool,” Gary says.

“What’s playing?” my wife asks.

“It’s a noir Presbyterian film festival,” Mary Beth says.  “Really dark themes with perverse characters and ironic plot twists.”

My wife, a lifelong member of the United Church of Christ, the straightest Protestant denomination in America, absorbs this information with a disturbed look on her face.

“You mean–no happy endings, or upbeat sound tracks?”


Olivia John-Newton

“No,” Gary explains.  “The Coriolis force has a significant impact on our popular culture.  Take Olivia John-Newton,” he says, referring to the relentlessly pleasant Australian pop singer whose last name is “Newton-John” north of the equator.  “The only people who listen to her down here are depressed, suicidal Goth kids.”

My wife recoils involuntarily, as if someone has just punched her in the gut.  She may be experiencing Coriolis-induced vertigo, a malady that affects travelers from the Northern hemisphere much as Montezuma’s Revenge keeps American tourists confined to Mexican hotel bathrooms.

She looks nauseated, and I put my hand on her forehead.  “Are you okay?” I ask.

She takes a deep breath, then bursts into tears and blurts out–”I want to go home!”

Turn Mr. Not-Quite-Right Into Mr. Perfect!

You know the problem. You’ve found a man who is fun to be with and could be “The One,” but there’s that little something about him that holds you back from true love and long-term commitment. Ms. Not-Quite-Right provides sensible solutions to women who need a “man makeover.” Let’s dip into the mailbag.

Dear Ms. Not-Quite-Right:

I have been dating a man for two years now, and we have a ton of fun together every weekend at medieval festivals where we “role play” as knight-in-shining-armor and damsel-in-distress. The only problem is that on the drive home if we stop at a restaurant for a nice dinner together he has a hard time getting “out of character” and will pick up his prime rib and gnaw on it. Or he’ll want another beer and yell out “Where’s the wench with the mead?”


Minding her manners.

This has caused me no end of embarassment, but dammit–I am trying to make this relationship work! I would appreciate any suggestions you may have.

Miriam Rosacia, Williamsville, New York


Her get-up.

Dear Miriam:

You are quite the lucky girl! I’ll bet your co-workers and friends would just die for a man who, when he is ready to pop the question, will “plight his troth” or “troth his plight,” whichever is right, I forget. Here’s a suggestion for bringing your medieval man into the modern world: Next time he reaches for his prime rib, grab it out of his hands with the words “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga!” This is Olde English for “Put that down–you have the manners of a freaking Poland China hog!” If he has been paying attention during Medieval orientation sessions, he will get the message.


Poland China hog: Actually, they’re quite neat.

Dear Ms. Not-Quite-Right:

A friend of mine introduced me to a guy she knew–I will call him “Ray”–and we went out several times. He is really sensitive and nice, and I agreed to go back to his apartment after dinner last Saturday night. When we walked in and he turned on the lights there was this giant lizard sitting on his kitchen counter. I screamed and ran back out into the hall but he says don’t be afraid–it’s just Sparky, his Komodo dragon.


“You and that stupid lizard!”

Ms. Not-Quite-Right, I have a hard time being comfortable around a four-foot long, eighty pound lizard. ”Ray” keeps Sparky penned up when we are in bed, but there is just a flimsy little chicken-wire fence between him and me, and I can hear him breathing when the lights are out, which scares the bejeezus out of me. Now Ray thinks I am not attracted to him because I can’t relax.

Do you see any way out of my dilemma? I have tried on-line dating services, but dial-up internet access takes forever.

Diane Gianocopoulos, Watertown, Mass.


“C’mon! I want to wink at nopets14!”

Dear Diane:

There is a simple solution to your problem. Next time you sleep over, turn out the lights, open the door to the hall and let Sparky run free. Komodo dragons are friendly and approachable, and can survive for weeks in the wild on small animals, plants and toddlers. With Sparky out of the bedroom, you’ll get some much-needed rest and put the “spark” back in your love life.

Dear Not-Quite-Right Lady:

I have been dating a strolling accordion player whom I met at a Girls Night Out party me and my friends threw. “Leon” is very artistic, and I am sometimes concerned that I am a little too “humdrum” for him and will not fit into his creative lifestyle.

When I expressed my misgivings to him he suggested that he incorporate me into his act. I am not at all musical, but I told him I would give it a try. He and I now go around the room at a restaurant or lodge hall, whatever, bunny-hop style with me in front and him in back. I noodle around on the keys but I am just faking it, and he says that’s okay.


Faking it.

I am concerned that this talented musician is only using me because I wear a size 40D-cup bra and add a certain erotic interest to his act, which otherwise is limited to virtuoso pieces such as “Lady of Spain.” How can I let him know–without hurting his feelings–that I do not like being used in this fashion?

Courtney Allbritton, Durham, New Hampshire

Dear Courtney:

The full-figured gal is always suspicious of men’s motives, and this often causes bitterness towards others that is undeserved. I would suggest a few music lessons may help you build the confidence you need to tell him how you feel. If he doesn’t “get it,” you can drop him like a bad habit and strike out on your own. Then you won’t have to share your tips!

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

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