Ask the Department of Motor Vehicles Action Reporter!

Got a beef about a surly clerk at the license renewal counter?  Wondering if you can re-take your vision test now that you’ve got contacts?  Ask the Department of Motor Vehicles Action Reporter, he’ll cut through the red tape!

Dear Department of Motor Vehicles Action Reporter:

I have been a faithful patron of the Missouri Department of Motor Vehicles since I got my first learner’s permit back in 1964.  Whenever I need to renew my license or registration, I always “go to the source” rather than making a federal or even a local case out of it.

Anyway, I “gifted” my 2004 Toyota Camry to my granddaughter Vernice for high school graduation, she had already stained the back seat doing I-don’t-want-to-know on graduation night.  I bought a new Subaru (I know, it’s supposed to be a lesbian car, why didn’t anybody at the dealership tell me?) and was assigned license plate number RH666V. Department of Motor Vehicles Action Reporter, you should have seen the looks of horror when I drove into the parking lot at New Hope Church the next Sunday.

As you may know if you are religious, “666” is the mark of the beast with seven heads and ten horns in the Bible, and now there are rumblings of a movement to get me “shunned” because my license plate has revealed that I am the Bride of the Antichrist.  There are only two Missouri Synod Lutheran churches in town, and I don’t want to leave New Hope because the other one isn’t air-conditioned.

Thank you in advance for your help.

(Mrs.) Janice Lee Ann Mosby
Florissant, MO 63034

Oklahoma District Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod - Churches ...
The one that isn’t air-conditioned.

Dear Janice Lee Ann–

I checked with Sgt. Jim Hampy of the Missouri State Highway Patrol who said that you are allowed to turn your plate upside down so that the 6’s look like 9’s for religious reasons.  He also said you can return that Subaru under your state’s “Lemon Law” if you were fraudulently induced to buy it by a salesman who did not disclose its gender.

Hey there DMV Action Reporter–

Long-time reader, first-time writer.  I have been coach of the Lady Indians girls hockey team at Assaquinet Regional High School for the past 34 years.  (Yes, Assaquinet is an Indian name, and no we aren’t changing our mascot just because some underemployed vegan hipster liberal arts major doesn’t like it.)  I applied for a vanity plate that would say “ASSMAN” but was turned down by the Maine Department of Motor Vehicles on the grounds that it was “lewd and/or lascivious” and might “tend to offend other drivers or corrupt impressionable youth.”

Mr. DMV Action Reporter, “Assman” is not intended to be pornographic, the girls in my program have been calling me that for years as a token of their affection and appreciation for all I’ve done for Assaquinet High.  You can ask my wife Sharon, who played for me from 2010 to 2013, or my first wife Carole, who played for me from 1986 to 1989.

I am willing to make a political contribution to “grease the skids” in this matter, but would prefer not to spend more than $50.

Jim Holcomb
Assaquinet, Maine

“There’s nobody in line, but you still have to wait!”


Dear Mr. Holcomb:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to side with the DMV on this one.  If we don’t draw the line somewhere with today’s young girls, they could end up back-combing their hair, popping bubble gum in church or drinking Coca-Cola laced with aspirin really fast through a straw.  Just be thankful you have a “farm team” you can scout for prospects when you dump your current wife.

“Now hop on one leg and make a noise like your favorite animal.”


Dear Department of Motor Vehicles Action Reporter:

My wife Ginger and I are getting up in years and have begun to think about drawing up a will.  Unfortunately, we have been stuck in the “LICENSE RENEWALS ONLY!” line at the satellite registry office for six hours, and we still have the vision test and the Senior Citizen Cognitive Decline test to go.  We are both concerned that we are going to die here, leaving our assets to be scooped up by some shyster lawyer in probate court.

We are wondering if it is legal to draw up a will on the back of a DMV form.  There are plenty of people in line who could serve as witnesses, and we have a bag of Dunkin’ Donuts “Munchkins” to offer as an inducement.

We appreciate your help.

Vernon and Ginger Morgraine
Chillicothe, OH


Dear Mr. and Mrs. Morgraine–

You’re in luck–Ohio is one of the few states that requires only two (2) witnesses to a will, and not a pesky notary public to “attest” to their signatures.  Use the $2 you will save on notary fees and buy ten more “Munchkins” for your new friends!

Don’t Go Breaking My Artichoke’s Heart

You’re so cruel, I can’t stand you.
You dip the leaves in butter when I hand them to you.
Then you pull them slowly though your teeth.
I’d hate to see what that looks like from underneath.

Image result for artichoke eating

Don’t go breaking my artichoke’s heart—
I can’t stand to see how you tear them apart.
You peel off their petals, one at a time–
And then you act like you’re a friend of mine.

Image result for artichoke eating

You eat them whether hot or cold.
I sit and watch you, it’s getting old.
I offer you zucchini and you say no thank you.
If it weren’t frowned upon I’d spank you.

Don’t go breaking my artichoke’s heart—
You treat it like a science when it’s really an art.
You dip them with care, then you eat them,
that’s no way for a human to treat ‘em.

Image result for artichoke eating

Personally, I can’t stand the fuzzy center.
It’s in a place I don’t want to enter.
I think it’s disgusting how you savor the heart–
That’s got to be the most emotional part!

Don’t go breaking my artichoke’s heart—
Not if you want to be my only sweetheart.
It’s a thistle that’s also a vegetable–
I find that totally unacceptable.

At Memorial Service, Co-Workers Learn Too Much About Colleague

NEEDHAM, Mass.  When United Blogtronics employee Chuck Blednarski passed away last weekend following a life-long struggle with Osgood Schlatter’s Disease, his co-workers were genuinely saddened despite the fact that they knew very little about the quiet, unassuming man who had serviced the company’s photocopiers and printers for seven years.

Chuck, doing what he did best.


“Chuck was always there for you if you had a paper jam in the automatic feed,” says Cheryl Nublez, an administrative assistant.  “And if a printer was low on toner, he was the one who got the black stuff on his hands changing the cartridge.”

The widespread feeling of sadness that followed Blednarski’s death at the age of 35 inspired management to put together, for the first time in the company’s relatively short history, a mid-afternoon memorial service yesterday, complete with refreshments, at which his colleagues could share their memories and gain insights into the life of this very private man provided by his sisters, who celebrated customary holidays with the bachelor, and others who knew him outside the office.

“I’ll have your new toner cartridge installed in a jiffy.”


After the reading of a sentimental poem alluding to the possibility, however slight, that the firm’s workforce would be reunited en masse in heaven, the firm’s CFO Bill Norgreen reads a letter from the deceased’s sister Noreen Sailey, of Keokuk, Iowa.  “A lot of people probably didn’t know it, but Chuck was a huge Barry Manilow fan.”

“Hey Chuck–I’ll see you in heaven.  Or not.”


The comment generates soft laughter of appreciation at the touching tackiness of their former colleague’s taste in music, but there is also a murmur of dissent heard from the back row of folding chairs.  Joe Vastiglione, a weekend guitarist in a blues-rock band called “Hellhounds on Your Trail,” stands up and, in a subdued voice but with less grace than might be expected at a celebration of the life of one recently departed, says “Sorry, I can’t feel much sympathy for somebody who liked that kind of crap” as he walks out the conference room door.

Next up is Chuck’s neighbor, Mark Hyman, who served with him on the Water & Sewer Commission in this western suburb of Boston.  “Chuck always tried to see the good in people, and worked very hard to make the world a better place, but he kept his political views to himself because, as he said, he’d rather lose an argument than lose a friend.”  There are nods of recognition, and more than a few sighs heard that seem to express a longing for less contentious times.  “In fact,” Hyman continues, “it may surprise you to learn that Chuck was a ‘closet’ Republican, because he knew he’d lose a lot of liberal friends if he was open about his views.”

“Chuck was apparently a schmuck!”


“Did you hear that?” Marie Oswald says to her fellow accounting department employee Rainette Oliver.

“What a jerk!” Oliver says, and the two stand up with approximately four others and make their way, quietly but with a common attitude of offended huffiness, to the exits.

The last speaker is Chuck’s sister Annette Viguerie, who lives one town over in Wellesley and who will inherit his cat Sophie while auctioning off the rest of his belongings at an estate sale.   “They asked me to come up with something that would surprise you about Chuck,” she says, looking down at handwritten notes.  “Well, I bet you didn’t know that Chuck was an avid skeet shooter.”

How cruel!


“He what?” asks Jean Trace, a receptionist who is a self-described “crunchy granola” type who pays extra for foods labeled “natural.”

“He liked to shoot skeet,” her friend Norma Wylik says.

“Oh those poor little birds!” Trace says, the corners of her mouth turning down in sadness.

“I hear they’re on the endangered species list,” says Bill Orthwein, sitting a row behind the women.

“That’s enough for me,” says Trace, who stands up with several others and starts to leave.

When CFO Norgreen notices the declining numbers he moves to halt the outflow.  “Aren’t you guys going to stick around for cake?” he asks plaintively.

Trace gives him a look that could freeze a strawberry and says “I’ll take mine to go.”

Board Game Lessens Pain of Summer Reading Lists

BOSTON, Mass.  This city is sometimes referred to as the “Athens of America” because of its many colleges and universities, but that doesn’t mean young boys here like summer reading lists any more than their peers in the rest of the country.  “I suffered through nine months of fourth grade and now this,” says Timmy Kampner, the son of professors at Boston University as he holds a sheet of paper out for a reporter to examine.  “I read chapter books all year—I need a break!”

“. . . and then the poet blows his Fulbright on cocaine and a BMW!”


But some boys like to read, and the example they set is the envy of highly-competitive parents who want their children to acquire language skills at an early age in order to move on to more important academic functions, such as criticizing the work of other candidates for tenure.  “I wish my son were more like Ronnie Moskil,” says Jane Kampner as she watches her son pick his nose during Saturday “Story Hour.”  “That boy’s already finished the required reading for his sophomore year—in college.”

“Oh no–she got a Pushcart Prize!”


And indeed the young bibliophile is way ahead of other boys his age, a fact his parents attribute to their efforts to make reading fun.  “We created a board game called ‘Jr. Writers Fun Land!’” says Jane Moskil, a professor of English at Simmons College.  “It’s a good indoor activity for rainy days, which real writers use to write depressing poetry.”

Today Ronnie has Timmy Kampner and two other friends, Evan Slater and Frasier Moniz, over to play and the boys throw the dice to choose their roles.  “Yay–I get to be publisher!” says Evan, who rolled a six.  “I want to be editor!” says Frasier, who rolled a five.  “I want to be critic,” says Ronnie, who rolled a three.  “I guess I’m the writer,” says Timmy with a look of disgust, who threw a two.

“I’ll trade you a fellowship in Provence for tenure at an all-women’s liberal arts college.”


Play begins and Evan moves his piece six squares where he lands on the “Good Break” square and draws a card from the stack in the center of the board.  “Your college roommate is hired by The New Yorker.  Talk of the Town piece accepted—collect $700!”

“Yay!” Evan says as he pays himself from the bank of play money.  Next up is Frasier, who moves five spaces and lands on the “Writer’s Group” square and picks a card from that pile.  “Your girlfriend Chloe dumps you for a guy named Evan who wrote a sonnet to her—return to ‘Go.’”  “Darn it,”  he says.  “I never get a break.”

It’s Ronnie Moskol’s turn and he moves to the “Bad Break” square and draws his card.  “Your story ‘Abominable Snowwoman’  is about to be published when editor finds you previously posted it to your blog.  Repay $100 to Publisher.”  “Yay!” Evan shouts, “I’m getting rich!”

“Sorry–yucky boys can’t land on the Women’s Studies square.”


Finally Timmy moves his piece two spaces and lands on the “Death” square.  “What’s going to happen?” he asks Ronnie nervously.

“It could be anything,” Ronnie says reassuringly.  “You could draw a Ripe Old Age card and live long enough to become famous and sleep with a lot of college girls.”

Still, Timmy is nervous as he slowly turns over a card that says “You commit suicide at the age of 27 having published only one short story and two poems.”  A look of disappointment steals over his face.  “I guess I lose, huh?” he asks Ronnie.

“Are you kidding?” his more literary friend says with disbelief.  “You win!”

“But I hardly published anything and I killed myself.”

“That’s the best career move of all!”

Highway Poet Tells Bureaucrat to Hit the Road

ENFIELD, Connecticut.  Mike Abruzzioni is Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Roads and Bridges at State Highway Department District #2 Headquarters here, a position he earned after many years of service, plus frequent contributions to state legislators.  “It ain’t what a lot of people think,” he says of the keys to his success.  “In addition to hard work, there’s a lot of ass-kissing you gotta do.”

Image result for led highway sign

Still, after two decades climbing the bureaucratic ladder he thought he had achieved some measure of personal freedom to do his job as he pleased, including some latitude as to the messages he posts on the Department’s LED message signs.  “Frankly, I didn’t even know Connecticut had a poet laureate,” he says ruefully.  “Seems like a waste of money to me at a time when I got to lay off two brush-hog cutters.”

Image result for brush hog cutter
“I leave a wake where’er I go/That’s what you get whene’er you mow.”

Abruzzioni is referring to the run-in he had with Tristram Morgan, the state’s official poet until December 31st of this year, after he posted “Stay awake/take a break/for safety sake” along Route 1 over the July 4th weekend.  “I didn’t think nothin’ of it, then I get a call the Monday morning after from the Arts & Cultural Council saying they’re filing a grievance against me.”

Image result for led highway sign
“Zombies ahead/fear and dread/pretty soon you’ll all be dead.”

The complaint referred to the terms and conditions under which Morgan took the largely honorary position of state poet laureate, which pays only a stipend of $2,000 plus a 5-minute shopping spree at Annie’s Gently Used Romance Paperbacks in West Harford.  “POET,” the rider to the standard state contract terms and conditions reads, “shall be the official source of all poetry purchased by the STATE until the expiration of the term hereof,” which the assistant professor at Trinity College says entitles him to craft the traffic messages that are flashed to motorists.

“I found Mr. Abruzzioni’s little doggerel to be deficient in many respects,” Morgan sniffs when the question “Who cares?” is put to him by this reporter.  “An elementary, almost banal rhyme scheme.  The abbreviated line length–surely the marks of a poetaster.”

Image result for state highway headquarters command center
“Take the detour round West Hartford/or what the hell is all my art for?”

In its place Morgan began to post verse that, in the formulation suggested by Archibald MacLeish, tended to “be” rather than “mean” and echoed the work of the state’s most famous poet, the notably obscure Wallace Stevens:

Nutmeg State, Dunkin’ Donuts
Please slow down folks, and don’t go nuts.

When Abruzzioni objected, saying his work was protected by civil service regulations, Morgan began to write poems that crossed the line into advocacy, as Byron’s late work was enflamed by his support of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey:

Poems written by highway hacks–
They give me bad gas attacks.

Image result for highway line painter truck
“Hey–slow down/What the fuck?/Don’t you pass my/painting truck!”

Ultimately the conflict between the two public employees will be resolved by binding arbitration before a three-member panel composed of a writing instructor from the University of Connecticut-Storrs, an industrial accidents court judge, and Bob Nash, the driver of a line-painting truck who is hoping to move up from two-lane state roads to four-lane highways eventually.  “I’m gonna try to be an impartial judge,” he tells this reporter as he squints into the sun at the end of the workday.  “On the other hand, that D+ I got in senior English means I can never get a job at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.”

Available in print and Kindle formats on as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

No Country for Dangling Modifiers

The mozo was an old man with a bad leg named Luis who had fought at Torreon and San Pedro and later at Zacatecas.

The charro stood leaning against the front fender of the truck with one thumb in his carved leather belt smoking a cigarette.

–All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

No Country For Old Men' Never Underestimates Its Audience

We rode for two days straight into the high country up where the commas stopped growing and there was nothing but scrub brush and rocks.

Do we have enough commas to make it to Saline County my unnamed companion asked.

I don’t know you cain’t have none of mine.

We’re gonna need a lot.

Why’s that?

Because if we don’t have commas pretty soon we won’t understand each other.

Feliz Navidad I said.

It’s not Christmas.

I know but we are supposed to lace our conversation with random un-translated Spanish to show we are authentic or something and that is just about all I know except for Carlos Santana.

He is not a holiday he is a rock guitarist.

Jose Feliciano - Feliz Navidad #Christmas2015 (TMO Cover) - YouTube

I know that.

You should also know piso mojado so you don’t slip on wet floors.

Fine I will learn that too.

Our horses carried us up the hill slowly as if they were going to the end of the earth and their deaths and an afterlife where they would be free from suffering.

Our horses are fatalistic no?

Wait–who is talking.


I know it is you but who are you I lost track.

We turned our horses around and went back down the hill to the point where I said Feliz Navidad and figured out who was who and started back up the hill again.

As we came over the rise we could see clear to the town of Tyler Texas which had recently lost its comma in a tornado. We encountered an old mozo with a bad leg making their way up the hill toward us.

Hola the mozo said.

Hello I said because even though I didn’t know Spanish I knew enough to know he was saying hello. What is your name?

My name is Ramon.

And what is the name of your bad leg?

His name is Luis.

These are good names my companion said.

You could do worse I said.

Actually you mean their parents could have done worse nobody names themselves.

You have a point I said but if you comb your hair right maybe no one will notice. How come your bad leg has a name I asked the mozo.

It is because he misplaced my modifier the leg said.

Where did you see it last?

It was in my saddlebag when we left Juarez the mozo said.

Maybe if you broke up your long run-on sentences into smaller ones they would fit better and would not fall out my companion said.

There you go again I said cutting him off at the root. I have told you time and again to pace yourself we’ve got a two-day ride to the next chapter.

You could put in a semi-colon every now and then the bad leg named Luis said that would help.

I looked at Luis through narrowed eyelids. What makes you so bad I said.

Did you not read the little squib that introduces this piece Luis said I fought at Torreon and San Pedro and later at Zacatecas.

That is a lot of fighting for just a leg my unnamed companion said how did you pull it off?

It is simple to pull something off a leg the mozo said boots socks huaraches all of them easy-peasy.

Humph I said.

Look my companion said there is a charro coming this way in a truck.

Charo? The multi-untalented actress comedian flamenco guitarist and ubiquitous talk show guest whose full name is Maria del Rosario Mercedes-Benz Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza and who is known for her trademark phrase cuchi-cuchi the mozo asked.

No. Charro with two r’s meaning horseman.

If he is a horseman why is he driving a truck the leg asked.

The same reason police dogs do not wear badges I said.

The truck of the charro came to a stop and he got out along with his thumb which was smoking a cigarette. Buenos dias the thumb said.

I looked sideways at the two can I give you some free advice I asked.

As long as it is worth every peso we pay for it the charro said.

So what is your advice to us the thumb asked without removing his cigarette which dangled precariously from his lips.

This is no country for non-smokers so go ahead it don’t make me no never-mind but.

Yes the charro said.

Don’t go dangling your modifiers around here you may never see them again.

This piece appeared originally in The Spectacle, Issue no. 8.

Scooter & Skipper Learn About Ballet

It’s family vacation time, and against their noble savage instincts, we’ve decided to inflict some high culture on the boys by taking them to the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs.

“Do we have to?” Scooter, the older and more forthright of the two at twelve asked–or to be more precise, whined.

“Yes,” I said with grim determination as we made the turn down the Avenue of the Pines, which by coincidence was lined with pine trees.  “Learning to endure boredom is part of growing up.”


“It won’t be boring,” my wife interjected.  Easy for her to say; she’s been taking ballet since she was a chubby little girl, while I crapped out as the next Gene Kelly after one (1) class at Miss Finch’s School of Tap.  “There are interactive videos, so it will be like Disney World.”

“Will there be rides?” Skipper, the younger one asked.

“No such luck, Skip,” I said, “although that’s a great idea.  You could have the 32-fouette Don Quixote Tilt-a-Whirl.”  I snuck that one in just to show my wife that I do listen to her ballet talk, if only to mock it mercilessly later.


We parked and entered the graceful building, which is maintained in tip-top shape thanks to an endowment funded by 19th century robber barons.  “I’m going straight to the Kirov and Bolshoi exhibits,” my wife said, like a St. Louis Cardinals fan who makes a beeline for the Rogers Hornsby plaque as soon as he enters Cooperstown.

“I think we’ll roam around for a bit,” I replied.  “I want the kids to get a broader sense of the history of the dance, rather than just a limited focus.”  I narrowed my eyes as I uttered these words to distract her from noticing how deeply my tongue was lodged in my cheek.

Hornsby:  “What the hell am I doing in a ballet post?”


I wandered the halls with the boys, taking in the many colorful and informative exhibits.  As I stopped at a video of Judith Jamison, I got the sense that they had, after five minutes, just about had enough.

“Dad–do you like ballet?” Skipper asked.

“Some of it,” I replied.  “I like the older stuff, as long as it’s not a story ballet.”

“I like stories,” Scooter said.

Everybody likes stories, Scoots, but in ballet a story means that the dancers cock their heads and put their hands under their cheeks to show that they’re sleeping.  It’s like something you’d do in kindergarten.”

“Why don’t you like the new stuff?” Skip asked.  He’s young, and in his world new–baseball gloves, bicycles, etc.–is better than old.

“I don’t know why the dancers in the new stuff are so angry all the time.  I mean, they’re doing what they love for poverty-level wages.  They’re giving up the best years of their lives and any chance of having a family.  They get to stay overnight at the artistic director’s apartment and get dumped a year later when a younger dancer comes along.  It’s all good!”

“Why the long face(s)?”


“So . . . if you don’t like the new stuff and you don’t like the story stuff–why are we here?” Skipper asked with the relentless logic of a pre-adolescent boy who’d rather be eating ice cream.

“We’re here because mom likes ballet,” I said, and I got down on one knee, as I always do when I want to drive home a point to the kids.  “Guys, you’re going to find when you get older that you’re going to want a mommy.”

“We already have a mommy,” Scooter said with a confused look on his face.

“I mean a girl–a woman–like mom who you’ll want to play house with.”

“Ew!” Scooter exclaimed, almost involuntarily.

“Trust me, Scoots, you will.  Anyway, when you find the right girl, you have to start giving things up so you can live together.”

“Like what?” Skipper asked.

“Well, chances are as you grow older you’ll pick up a friend named Mad Dog in high school or college.  She’s going to want him out of your life.”

“Why?” Scooter asked.


“Well, it’s kind of hard to explain.  Your friend Mad Dog will be the guy who stood by you when you said you couldn’t go any further and had to give up.  He’s going to encourage you, really push you to keep going when you don’t think you can go on.  He’s going to make you drink another beer, and then another, and another, until you’ve matched and exceeded your personal best.”

“Beer stinks,” Scooter said, and screwed up his nose in disgust.

“Sure it does, at first,” I said.  “But sometimes in life we have to learn to accept and even enjoy unpleasant things if we’re going to barf our guts up later.”

This last truth caused the two of them to launch into their respective imitations–complete with sound effects, facial expressions and gestures–of the act of upchucking, which they have perfected to a high degree of artistry.  Unfortunately, there is no National Museum of Vomit.

“Are there other things you have to do to make mommies happy?” Skip asked when they were done.


“Well, you’ll probably have to let her decorate your room.”

“No way!” they both screamed.  Over the years they have acquired a valuable collection of posters of athletes from the four major sports groups, plus a boy band or two and a few sullen-faced rappers.

“Unfortunately, that’s the way the world works,” I said.  “That’s why it’s important that all the furniture you guys buy when you’re out on your own be very lightweight.”

“Why’s that?” Scooter asked.

“So the mommy won’t hurt herself when she throws it out on the curb.”

Available in print and Kindle formats as part of the collection “Scooter & Skipper Blow Things Up!”

Dancing With the Refrigerator

In the fifties when the madness of dance
descended upon the youth of the land,
enflamed by images of other teens
flickering across TV screens


from Philadelphia, of all places,
practice was essential if perfection
was to be achieved, and a necessity,
since able males willing to serve as partner

were in short supply.  It was as necessary
as a pessary had been to their mothers
for girls to practice their steps holding
on to the handle of a refrigerator.


Stoic, stolid, the appliances stood
doing their duty as men would,
allowing the girls to shine; after all,
a fridge is just an appliance.

I wonder what passions pulsed
through their Freon tubes,
trapped beneath their skins of
avocado green, harvest gold and white.

To feel the warmth of a girl’s hand upon
their handles, tiny lights unlit within; up
in their freezer compartments their brains
frozen like those of boys they stood in for.


For the duration of a 45 rpm record, they might
believe themselves beloved, but of course
nothing would come of it.  The most
morganatic marriage Faulkner could dream of

did not contemplate that an icebox
would lose its cool over
a gamin’s brown locks.  And
as for those girls, now long grown,

let us hope they have men
as solid, if less cold, and capable
in their domestic dealings
of better expressing their feelings.

How to Talk to Your Cats About Shakespeare

My cats are big Shakespeare fans; in the case of Rocco, who’s been letting himself go a bit, a huge devotee of the Bard–fifteen pounds at his last checkup.  We have assembled on the patio for a reading from Julius Caesar.  Titus Andronicus was checked out of our local library, and my wife, the family Shakespeare-hater, is out of town.

“This foul deed shall smell above the earth/with carrion chipmunks, groaning for burial.”


I’ve told them the best way to read Shakespeare is that taught to me by Merlin Bowen, my freshman humanities teacher; once through quickly without checking the footnotes, then the second time more slowly, and thoughtfully, looking up the buskins and petards as you go.  Easy for him to say since he didn’t have chemistry and social studies and phys ed and French and drugs to take at the same time.

“I didn’t finish the reading assignment–okay?”


Rocco is a quick study, as I was when a youngster, while Okie is a stolid, phlegmatic type, like Jim Bob Mergen, the farm boy who was compared unfavorably–I think–to me in the second grade.  The nun said I picked things up easily and valued them less as a result, while Jim Bob struggled to learn things, and consequently treasured the correct spelling of “cat” more highly than I for the rest of his life.

“Did you put the cats down in the basement?  Because I’m going to bed.”


It may seem strange to you to read from Shakespeare with your pets, but this is an advantage I want my cats to have.  I first read about such a thing in a short story by Cynthia Ozick when I was in my twenties, too late for me.  Apparently, some high-toned families engage in such pursuits while clans like mine were watching “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Fugitive.”  Children from families of the former type showed up on the first day of freshman English class to mention in a blase, off-hand way, that they had just finished their second novel while I–I had taken the road more traveled by and had a cool collection of record albums.

“Let me have cats about me that are fat; yond Okie has a lean and hungry look.”


We don’t use the folio version of the play, it would take too long.  Instead, I picked up two copies of Iams Lite Shakespeare for Less-Active Cats at Pet World this morning.  It contains all the essential quotes a growing cat needs, with 10% less fat and archaic English!

The problem with mixing cats and Shakespeare, as with most students, is their short attention span.  We customarily hold our reading on the back patio, and in the conservation land to the west there is a constant flow of fauna; deer, chipmunks, wild turkeys, even coyotes.  Okie caught a rabbit and a snake last week alone.  It’s hard to keep the guys on the text, but I try.  They’re prone to improvise.

“Your line,” I say to Rocco.

“Where were we?”

“‘Another general shout!’”

“Oh, right.  Uh, ‘Why cat, he doth bestride the narrow world like that stupid Doberman down the street; and we petty cats walk under his huge legs, and peep about.’”

“Over to you,” I say to the Oakmeister.

“Uh, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are cats.’”

It’s Roc’s turn, but when I give him his cue I see him gazing across the back yard, to the edge of the grass, where a rabbit has poked his head out from under a rhododendron, those ungainly plants that Virginia Woolf compared to suburban stockbrokers.  The rabbit’s munching on clover; the stockbroker lives across the street.

“Roc–you paying attention?”

“Uh, sorry,” he says and looks back down at his script.  We proceed in this halting fashion through Acts I and II; a field mouse sees the weighty atmosphere of high culture, and can hardly believe his good fortune.  The cats are playing a tragedy, and it’s comedy to him.

“Nyah nyah, nyah NYAH nyah.”


Okie detects the mouse’s insolence, and makes a false start towards him, scaring the bejeezus out of the poor rodent.  “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” he says in a voice that projects to the cheap seats over by the daisies.  “The valiant never taste of death but once.”

“I’m gonna GIT you sucker!”


“Roc–over to you,” I say.  He hasn’t been paying attention, but he picks up where Marc Anthony returns to view Caesar’s lifeless corpse.  I’ve used that phrase before, and for the first time I’m forced to ask myself–what other kind of corpse is there?

“O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,” he begins, but in a flat, lifeless tone.

“C’mon–put some feeling into it.  You’re Marc Antony, and your best friend’s just been killed.”

He looks at me, then out at the lawn, where the joint is jumpin’, so to speak.  Critters here, varmints there, unprotected species everywhere.

“That I am meek and gentle,” he continues, then pauses to watch a wild turkey hen with two chicks tiptoeing as if on eggshells over our acre and a half of fresh, native New England rocks.  As former president of my high school National Forensic League, a triple threat in debate, extemporaneous speaking and dramatic interpretation, I can’t take it anymore.

“Here,” I say, ripping the script from his paws.  “Let me show you how a real actor plays this scene.”

He shrugs his furry shoulders and turns his attention back to the yard as I begin:  “Blood and destruction shall be so in use at our house, and dreadful objects so familiar on our front and back porches, that mothers shall but smile when they behold their infant chipmunks, squirrels and robins quarter’d with the hands of war.”

I see their backs turn and their butts wiggle.  Now they’re concentrating.

“All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds, And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge . . .”

A rabbit, stricken with a fatal flash of inspired confidence, makes a dash across the lawn.

“Shall in these cofines with a monarch’s voice/Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the cats of war!”

I’ve barely got the words out of mouth when I see them bolt from our bluestone stage and make for the rabbit, who suddenly the wiser, reverses course and heads for the woods.

“Hey, aren’t we gonna finish?” I yell after the cats.

“I’m taking an incomplete,” Rocco says, to which Okie echoes “I’m dropping this course.”


Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

“Days of Starch” Festival Celebrates Benefits of Carbohydrates

KEOKUK, Iowa. This town of 10,780 in southeast Iowa proclaimed itself the “Starch Capital of America” in 1991 after a Parade Magazine survey found that residents depended on starchy foods such as potatoes, bread and pasta for more than 80% of the carbohydrates in their diet. “It’s a tradition we grow up with,” says Oliver Yoder, a farm implement dealer who eats mashed potato sandwiches for lunch three days a week.  “I’d eat ’em every day of the week but our daughter Lurleen is trying to keep her slim, girlish figure.”

Deep-fried mashed potato sandwich.


That sense of civic pride was amplified when the National Starch Council, the leading trade association and lobbying group for starch producers, decided to move its headquarters here from Muncie, Indiana, bringing both jobs and prestige to a town whose most significant previous claim to fame was native son Ernie Doerk, a dirt-track stock car racer of the 1950′s.

Ernie Doerk, dirt-track champion.


“Ernie did a lot to put Grain Valley on the map but you ask a kid who he was these days and all you get is a blank stare,” says Yoder.  “I think some of ’em may be on drugs.”

Miss Starch of 2019

So residents were flattered by the national media attention they attracted in 2016 for the first annual “Days of Starch Festival,” complete with nightly fireworks, a Miss Starch contest, and unlimited free samples of spaghetti, breads and potato products from exhibitors. “We had the Today Show do a live feed from the ‘Name That Tuber’ display,” says Melinda Forsberg, a school teacher who loves starch so much she calls her three children the “Tater Tots.” “Al Roker isn’t as fat as he looks on TV,” she adds with a knowing smile.  “He’s fatter.”

Roker: The camera adds five pounds, or about one helping of mashed potatoes.


Starch producers ramp up for the four weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, their peak sales period when stuffing, potatoes and bread may be consumed at a single holiday meal. “We’ve got to make hay–or at least spaghetti–when the sun shines,” says NSC Executive Director Wilbur Freeling. “When spring comes, everybody switches to rabbit food.”

Residents complained about constipation when last summer’s starch festival ended, and town officials say they will have EDTs–emergency dietary technicians–on call beginning next week with high-dosage fiber supplements. “If it helps get the world to pay attention to starches,” says Yoder, “a little widespread intestinal pain is a small price to pay.”