“Ripping Good Poetry” Punishes Boys Who Curse With Verse

WHARTON, Mass.  This bucolic town north of Boston is home to one of the oldest private schools in the country, the prestigious Pringy Preparatory, whose graduates include two vice presidents and a secretary of commerce, but as yet no president.  “It’s kind of a sore point,” says assistant headmaster Lyman Norton, alluding to the glittering alumni of its nearby competitor the Groton School, which has produced a president, a governor, two U.S. senators, a secretary of state and Fred Gwynne, the actor who starred in “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “The Munsters.”


“You get in the middle of the circle and we make fun of your family tree.”

 

But Pringy practices an aesthetic variant of the “muscular Christianity” that is a tradition at Groton; a program of Sunday poetry classes for boys who violate the school’s ban on swearing.

“There is so much that is beautiful in the English language,” says Norton.  “We try to teach the boys that there’s no need to use vulgar language to express themselves when they’re angry or frustrated because their date won’t perform a particular sex act on them.”


“Instead of ‘f**king,’ say ‘tupping’–Shakespeare did!”

 

Norton’s tastes run to classical narrative poetry of manly deeds, “not the obscure, self-centered cr . . . stuff that passes for poetry these days,” he says, catching himself just before committing the crime he’s been charged to punish.  The classes are known derisively as “Ripping Good Poetry” among students because they are “about as pleasant as a fart,” according to Todd Sneed, who’s already been required to get up early three times this semester for what he feels were “ticky-tacky, Mickey Mouse” violations; a “hell,” a “goddamn,” and a “your sister sucks donkey d***s” that he yelled at an opposing player during a squash match.

Today’s inmates include Todd, his friend Harrison Leathers, III, and Oliver Westcott, bound over until 1 p.m. today with Norton while classmates play on the greensward outside.


Trash talk, squash-style

 

“I hope you came prepared,” Norton snaps with the fury of a drill sergeant, “because if you didn’t, I’ve got all afternoon since I don’t give a rat’s patootie about the stupid professional football games you miscreants seem to find so fascinating.”

“Yes Mr. Norton,” the three violators intone with a decided lack of enthusiasm as they open their notebooks.  Each boy will be required to recite twenty lines of masculine poetry from memory, then give a report on some facet of the poet’s life or work they have dredged up from a compulsory stint in the school’s library.

“You first, Leathers,” Norton says.  “What work emplifying the manly virtues have you chosen to inspire us with today?”

“‘The Ballad of East and West,’ sir,” the boy replies without enthusiasm.

“Ah, Kipling–the master!  Proceed.”

Leathers selects lines from the poem’s conclusion, including the stirring coda that launched the memorable phrase “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet” upon the world.

“Done, but just barely,” Norton says, noting that the boy dropped two lines and had to be prompted with the words “Belike they will raise” when he was stopped cold at one point.  “Now–tell us a little something else about Kipling.”

“Did you know,” Leathers begins, “that in Kipling’s poem The Ladies he says it’s a good thing to sleep around with yellow and brown women so that you’ll learn things that will ”elp you a lot with the White!’”

Norton is nonplussed for a moment, but recovers quickly.  “Well, yes, indeed.  That is one of Kipling’s lesser-known works.  I’ll mark you down as complete.  Westcott–let’s hear from you.  Who’s your poet?”

“Alfred, Lord Tennyson, sir,” the boy replies.

“Good choice, let’s hear it,” Norton says, and the boy recites five stanzas of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the poem about an ill-fated sortie in the Crimean War in which hundreds of British soldiers lost their lives.  “Well done,” Norton says when he finishes.  “Now, if you will, a little something about the great poet.”

“Well, I read one of his other poems, The Lotos-Eaters, which is about sitting around and getting high by eating a natural narcotic.  It seems these natives get like totally wasted.  When they talk their voices are thin, as ‘from the grave; And deep-asleep they seem, yet all awake,’ and . . .”

“Very good, that’s enough, thank you,” Norton says before the boy can delve any deeper into the poem which seems to glorify a mindless escape from realty.  “Now, my best customer, Mr. Sneed,” Norton says sarcastically.  “What do you have for us today?”


“What’s with the smirk?”

 

“Edgar Allan Poe, sir,” Sneed says.  “‘Annabell Lee.’”

“Ah, very good.  Begin,” Norton says and Sneed does a passable job with the well-known poem about a beautiful maiden’s tragic early death, and how the poet seems to see evidence of her continuing love in nature.

“And now if you will, please complete your assignment by telling us something we didn’t know about Poe.”

“Did you know that when he was 26, he married his 13-year-old cousin, and . . .”

“That will be all.  Why don’t you three go outside and throw a frisbee or something?”

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

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The Boy With the Big Head

There once was a boy,
name of Fred,
who while otherwise normal
had a very big head.

Other kids would look at him in wonder
and break into giggles and furtive laughs.
Gamblers who bet on sports over/unders
made book on his hat size, which was 8½.

Butt of jokes, object of scorn
he often would question why he was born.
At last one day he sat down and cried
on a vacant park bench where he was spied . . .

. . . by a UFO, parked nearby
on a hunt for humans to abduct.
His sobbing done, he opened his eyes
and seeing the saucer, said “I’m—screwed.”

The spacecraft was filled with odd-looking beings–
large green eyes, and silvery skin.
They approached him slowly, with long pointy probes.
He was too scared to call his next of kin.

Just as the space folks were about to impale him
as part of a survey of earthlings they’d found,
one of their number stepped forward and stopped them
and gazed on him fondly, with a look profound.

“This one’s mine,” the she-creature said.
“I like his cute teeny-tiny head,”
which compared to hers, looked perfectly fine,
so she asked him to come with them and dine.

The two hit it off, as they discovered,
they both liked pizza and The Grateful Dead.
And so he took an alien lover
who cared not one whit ‘bout the size of his head.

Moral: Weirdness is in the eye of the beholder.

 

 

 

With Robert Frost, at Walmart

Town officials are considering zoning changes that would permit strip malls, fast-food outlets and big-box stores to be built a short distance from Robert Frost’s farm.

                   The Boston Globe


Frost

It’s Saturday morning, time for my weekly check on my fellow rustic poet, old man Frost, who lives down the road less travelled. He’s a cranky old cuss, but you would be too if you’d fallen as far as he has. In 1960, he was America’s most revered poet and spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. Today, he’s seen his star eclipsed by a Republican surety bond lawyer, Wallace Stevens, whose poetry Frost dismisses as “bric-a-brac.” You’ve got to love the old fart. Frost, that is, not Stevens, who’s an unloveable old fart.

Stevens
Wallace Stevens, going out for ice cream.

 

I stop at Frost’s mailbox. A few flyers, an oil and lube job offer from the local tire and battery store, an expiration notice from plangent voices, the quarterly journal of avant-garde poetry edited by my former lover, elena gotchko.


“my love is like a red, red rose/that’s somehow stuck inside my nose.”

 

elena and I had parted ways when she showed up at our little apartment with a skunk-streak dyed into her hair a few years back to announce that she’d had the capital letters removed from her name–and was leaving me.

“you stultify me,” she had said, eschewing the upper case as she spoke with emotion not yet recollected in tranquility. “you’re holding me back–you with your insistence on meter and rhyme.” Fine, I said, and I’d never regretted it. How she ever roped Frost into subscribing was a mystery to me, although he was a sucker for those Publisher’s Clearing House come-ons.


“This Frost guy’s apparently gone for a walk in woods. Who’s next on the list?”

 

I knock on the door and Frost opens it up right away–he’s always eager for a little company and to get out of the house. It must be lonely out here, living all by himself with nothing but the sound of cars rushing by.

“I’m ready,” he says, the cheap polyester “gimme” hat already on his head. I don’t know what it is with old men and free baseball caps–they can’t resist them.

“Hey, Bob,” I say as I try to straighten his cockeyed hat a bit. “I got your mail.”

He looks at it without interest and, as usual, launches into perfectly-formed verse:

A hushed October morning mild,
with leaves as frail as Kleenex tissue;
tomorrow’s mail, if it be wild
would bring, perhaps, a swimsuit issue.

I allow myself a little laugh. There are two things about being an old man I’m looking forward to: one, you can wear just about anything you want; and two, you can be a complete lecher, and say just about anything you want to women, and no one seems to mind.  At some point, you become entitled to a presumption of not innocence, but incompetence.

“No, that won’t come until February,” I say to him.

“Okay,” he says after he absorbs this information. He turns to close the door and his cat, an orange tabby named Demiurge, stakes out a wary watch on the threshold.

“I shan’t be gone long,” he says to the cat. “You come too.”

“Bob, we’ve gone over this before,” I say with repressed exasperation. “You can’t bring a cat into McDonald’s.”


Senior citizen coffee at McDonald’s

The thought of the golden arches causes him to lose interest in his cat. I can see by the far-away look in his eyes he’s thinking of the Senior Citizens coffee special and again, he can’t deny his muse.

I’m going to get my elderly java
by riding with you over dales and hills.
It tastes like ash and is hot as lava
but I can’t resist those free refills.

We head out towards State Highway 28 with the more distinguished poet in the car staring out the passenger side window at the bright fall colors; the orange of Home Depot, the red of Staples, the yellow Walmart smiley face on a billboard.

“Turn here,” Frost says sharply.

“Don’t you want to get something to eat first?”

“Depends.”

“Depends on what? Your only choice is fast food.”

“No–I need some Depends.”

Dawn breaks on Marblehead, as we say in New England.

“Okay,” I say, a little chagrined that I’ve forced him to disclose the one aspect of growing old I’m really not looking forward to.

We make our way through the parking lot and enter the store where we are met by one of the chain’s ever-present greeters, a white-haired old man in a blue vest festooned with inoffensive buttons. I try to avoid eye contact and accelerate past him when I hear Frost’s voice boom out–to the extent that he’s capable of producing such a sound, even metaphorically–”Well if it isn’t The Emperor of Ice Cream–Wallace Stevens!”

Stevens’ face registers the shock of recognition that Herman Melville spoke of, when a man of letters comes face to face with one of his rivals while working a minimum-wage job to make ends meet. Being the darling of the academy doesn’t do you much good if you have to mix wet cat food and pinto beans to make chili.

“Hello, Frost,” Stevens says in a frosty tone. “How’s the poet of–subjects.” He says this last word with a sneer.

“Fine,” says Frost. “Tell me, since you must know–down which aisle would I find–bric-a-brac?”

Stevens draws himself up to his full six feet, seven inches, looks down at Frost as if from Olympus, and begins to speak:

I placed a Hummel figurine,
Down to your left, in aisle three.
‘Twas much too tacky for myself
But not too gauche for one such as thee.

I can tell that Frost is pissed, but he’s trying hard not to let it show.

“C’mon Bob–we haven’t got time for this nonsense,” I say as I take him by the elbow. “We’ve got miles to go, and . . . ”

He cuts me off and glares at Stevens, not about to back off in this mano-a-mano poetry throwdown.

He squares his shoulders and even I can’t believe the fearful symmetry of what comes out of his mouth next:

Two aisles diverged ‘neath a yellow face,
that bore a sickly, foolish grin. And I–
I took the one marked “Incontinence,”
and that has made all the difference.

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

Sharing Crappy Memories Across Generations

The grandparents are in town, and because of a recent segment on 20th century American history at their school, my kids were more engaged in nightly dinner conversation than usual.


“Bratz dolls were a total waste of money, punkin’.”

 

“What was it like when you were growing up, grandpa?” one of them asked.

“Well, I’m old enough to remember Saturday afternoons when the Mennonites would come into town in a horse and buggy,” gramps said.  “We didn’t have a television when we were growing up, and when we finally got one in the ’50′s, the pictures were in black and white.”


Mennonite convertibles, with top down.

 

“Sort of like the noir films from the ’40′s they show on Turner Classic Movies?” my fourteen year-old, a budding film critic, said with wonder.


Joan Crawford

 

“That’s right,” his grandmother replied.  “Joan Crawford wasn’t just a gay icon–straight men liked her too.  In a masochistic kind of way.”

“Golly,” my youngest said.  “You’ve seen so much in your lives!”

“Oh, pshaw,” grandpa said dismissively.  “We were just livin’ our lives.  You kids are the ones who’ve seen change.”


Red Power Ranger, with young apprentice.

 

“Really?” the older of the two asked, incredulous.  “You think so?”

“Sure,” his grandfather said.  “Think of all the change you’ve witnessed in your lives.  You used to watch the Power Rangers every Saturday morning, didn’t you?”


Kimberly, the Pink Power Ranger–she’s from Massachusetts!

 

“Yes,” the kids replied together.

“Well, where the hell are they today?” their grandfather said.  “Nobody gives a flying . . .”

Grandma cut him off before he could lapse into the easy profanity he acquired in the Army.  “And think about Poke’mon Cards,” she reminded the kids.

“Yeah, where did we put those?” my eldest asked, looking up at me.

“I don’t know,” I said, trying to hide my guilt.  “Maybe gypsies broke into the house and stole them.”


“Poke’mon cards?  No, I haven’t seen them.”

 

“Doesn’t matter,” grandma said.  “You kids used to fight over them like they meant something.  Weren’t worth the match it would take to set ‘em on fire.”

I could see my youngest wince just a bit.  He was always a big Pikachu fan.


Pikachu

 

“No, you kids are the future,” their grandfather said, leaning back in his rocking chair and staring off into the distance.  “N’Sync, on the other hand, is like totally over.  Nobody gives a rat’s patootie about them anymore.”

I could see my eldest grow a little misty-eyed.  The group was one of his favorites, and he would imitate their lame dance moves in front of his bedroom mirror for hours on end, inflaming his little knees and hastening the onset of Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease.


Ow!

 

We eventually found a cure for his ailment at a shrine in Hollywood, Florida, where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to the faithful on one side of a grilled cheese sandwich, hold the tomato.  For a while, however, we considered whether we should ban all boy-band music from the house.


Could be the Virgin Mary, or maybe Mary Pickford.

 

It was time for bed, and I started to scoot the kids up to their rooms.  “G’night, grampa and gramma,” they said at the foot of the stairs.  ”Good night, you two,” their grandparents replied.

“I really enjoyed talking to you about transitory phenomena of the recent past,” my eldest said with a tone of sincerity that tugged at your heart.  “Do you think we’ll ever run out of ephemeral frippery?”

“No, scooter,” their grandfather said wistfully.  “Keeping up with the trivial crap the great engine of the American economy cranks out every day is like drinking from a fire hose.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Kids: They’re Cute When They’re Young.”

Mayor Demands Recount as Boston Slips to 7th on Rudest City List

BOSTON.  Mayor Marty Walsh lashed out angrily today at a survey that ranked Boston the seventh-rudest city in America, saying “We take a back seat to no one when it comes to pissing people off.”

walsh
“You know what you can do with yer bleepin’ rudeness survey, pal!”

 

“That’s gotta be wrong,” Walsh said in a freewheeling press conference that touched on a variety of lifestyle issues. “People come here for the culture, but they stay for the rudeness.”

 

rings
So many rings, so little time.

Bostonians’ rudeness has traditionally taken many forms, from the uplifted middle finger, signifying a act that is physically impossible except for conjoined twins, to more complex initiation rites such as the theft of vans filled with personal belongings of naive first-year college students.  “Boston was once a smorgasbord of rudeness that ran the gamut from snobbish indifference on Beacon Hill to intentional acts of  hostility by reckless drivers on dangerously quaint traffic ‘rotaries,’” says tourism director Angela Gomes.  “The upraised middle finger is the state bird of Massachusetts, and residents would playfully invoke it when greeting tourists who say ‘milk shake’ instead of ‘frappe.’”

boston1
Fistfight at–I kid you not–the Boston Symphony.

 

The survey by Kristin Salaky for “thisisinsider.com” noted that Bostonians have lost their edge due to the recent success of their professional sports teams, and have now become almost as gracious as the St. Louis Cardinals fans who gave up their tickets in 2004 so that Red Sox fans could see the team’s first World Series win in 86 years.  “I felt sorry for the guy,” said Dave Durham from Centralia, Illinois.  “He’s begging for something but he’s got this awful accent so nobody can understand him.”

Psychologist Morton Adelman notes that “A Boston boy in his twenties today will have experienced three World Series wins by the Red Sox, five Super Bowl victories by the Patriots, a Stanley Cup for the Bruins, an NBA championship for the Celtics and something called a North American Super Liga by the Revolution, whoever they are.  His apartment will typically be littered with foam ‘We’re #1!’ fingers, unless his girlfriend threw them out.”

boston2
Maggot Puke, winners of the 2017 Battle of the Obnoxious Bands

 

Walsh pointed to Allston-Brighton, Boston’s “student ghetto” whose youthful population uses loud music and drunken parties to endear themselves to permanent residents.  “We may not be as rude as some of the great bands that preceded us,” said Tweeze, bassist for Maggot Puke, a local band that is one of the leading practitioners of the “Deliberately Annoying” sound.  “On the other hand, there aren’t as many major record labels as there used to be, so there’s more competition.”

Walsh is a former state legislator who has been known to use his political power to retaliate against those who have crossed him.  “You gonna write sumpin’ nice, right?” he asks as this reporter takes notes at the press conference. “You bettah, cause I know where you pahked your cah and I wouldn’t want nothin’ to happen to it.’”

Angered by School Switch, Buyout King Retaliates

WELLESLEY FALLS, Mass.  Newcomers to this upscale suburb of Boston, Don and Sherry Fagles thought their five year-old, Brett, was set when they bought a house in the affluent Fulton school district.  “We were comforted by the fact that he’d be playing with some of the wealthiest children in America,” says Sherry, a former commercial real estate broker.  “Then our dreams came crashing down around us.”


In happier times.

The cause of Sherry’s dismay is a redistricting plan that shifted them from Fulton Elementary School to the less-desirable Gates district, where the median home price is $800,000, less than half the $2.8 million the Fagles paid for theirs.


Home Sweet de-valued Home

“I’m not the kind of guy who sues somebody at the drop of a hat,” says Don, principal in a leveraged buy-out firm in Boston.  “But if I’d been wearing a hat when Sherry called me with the news, I would’ve sued somebody.”

home
The Horror:  $750,000 starter home.

Instead, Don and Sherry and other couples who were redistricted out of Fulton and into Gates due to a population shift and space constraints sat down and analyzed their predicament as a business proposition.  “When we put our heads together and looked at the situation objectively,” Don says, “we were able to come up with a rational business plan that’s a win-win for everyone involved.”


“Are you gonna take our slide, mister?”

The plan?  A $20 million leveraged buy-out of Fulton Elementary School, lock, stock, barrel, modeling clay and principal.  “It’s really a unique solution,” says Eric Tines of the Boston Merchant, a regional business publication.  “Most people would just say ‘Screw it–let’s send little Evan or Emily to private school’, but not these folks.”

The hostile takeover is being funded by high-yield bonds in minimum denominations of $100,000, secured by future earnings of the pre-schoolers who have yet to pronounce their first “See Spot run!”  “Grandparents are our most active buyers,” says Scott Wherling of Bache Securities.  “They’re looking for good returns, gilt-edged security and a picture of their little darling on the face of the instrument.”


“Grammy and Gramps–Thank you for buying my Baaa+ Rated Kindergarden Buy-Out Bond.”

Gates School principal Allan Watkins, a career educator who makes around $87,000 a year not including benefits, says he’s giving the buyout offer serious consideration.  “I’d be remiss if I didn’t weigh the pros and cons of a proposal that will have a profound affect on the lives of so many young children,” he says, his brow furrowed with the apparent gravity of the decision he faces.  “That plus I’d get a BMW, which makes me wet my pants just thinking about it.”

Business One-Upmanship 101

Stephen Potter, a British humorist who has undeservedly faded into obscurity, is the father of “one-upmanship,” a strategem for besting an opponent–somewhat unfairly–without actually cheating.

One accomplishes this by throwing an opponent off his game without violating any rule.  Thus, when playing pool, the accomplished one-upsman doesn’t cough or stand in the field of vision of an opponent who is lining up a shot, but corrects others in the room for talking too loud or disturbing the shooter.


“Stop crumpling the carbon paper!”

In these perilous times, when a layoff could strike you just as easily as the fellow in the next cubicle, it is important that you develop and maintain your office one-upsmanship skills if you are to survive in the dog-eat-dog, piranha-filled tank that is today’s office environment and pet store.  After all, if one of you is going to end up sleeping in bus stations and diving into dumpsters for leftover moo goo gai pan, it might as well be him.


“Nobody told you about your going-away party?  My bad!”

Here are some practical applications of one-upsmanship gathered over my white-collar career that spans 38 years, 2 months and 15 days, not that I’m counting or anything.

The Toxic Memo to the File.  This trick was pulled on me by a colleague in the 1980’s, a young man with two middle names–I’ll call him James A. K. Runnerson–that created a British effect that went well with his horn-rimmed glasses and bow tie.

“Say,” he’d say as he sauntered into your office.  “Do you remember the Rule in Dumpor’s Case from law school?”

“Let me see,” you’d say.  “Was that in Contracts?”

“No, no–you’re thinking of Twyne’s Case.  Dumpor’s Case had something to do with pretermitted heirs, or estates in tail, or accretion of tidal lands.”

“Sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.”


Vaguely disturbing but irrelevant picture of backyard weightlifters.

 

“Right, right,” he’d say thoughtfully, rubbing his chin.  “Just thought you might know.  Thanks.”

Two years later, after the guy left the firm and I was assigned to one of his cases, I was flipping through the file and came across the following:

TO:  File

FROM:  James A. K. Runnerson

RE:  Rule in Dumpor’s Case

Spoke to Chapman today regarding the Rule in Dumpor’s Case, a critical principle in the law governing the assignability of real estate leases.  He indicated that he knew nothing–absolutely nothing!–about it.

The Worrisome Good Word.  Timing is critical for the successful use of this technique.  You should ideally be headed out the door on your way to vacation, so that further conversation is cut off and your competitor is left to stew in his own foul juices while you’re away.  You stop in to the office, your bags packed, and on your way out, make a special point of saying farewell to your colleague.  “Hey,” you whisper confidentially as you’re about to walk away, “I don’t care what the Board of Directors says–I think you’re doing okay.  See ya!”

The temptation, since you’re headed off for fun in the sun, is to become too enthusiastic and say “you’re doing great,” but this approach isn’t fair; by over-praising, you give someone a false sense of security that may cause them to pass up the buyout offer that is their last, best hope of avoiding a life on the streets.

Ethical Considerations.  Given the heightened sensitivity to schemes to defraud widows and orphans out of their life savings, it is essential that businesses operate in a transparent and ethical manner in all aspects of their operations.  Say you and another Assistant Vice President are competing for the promotion to a single Second Vice President slot.  You drop down to her office and, after chatting about kids and the weather, she needs to take a call.  You excuse yourself and, just as you close her door, say in a stage whisper that can be heard all the way down to Human Resources, “WE COULD DO THAT, SHARLENE, BUT IT WOULDN’T BE ETHICAL.”


“Honey, someone at your office sent this to me.  Do you like it?”

 

The Nuclear Option.  If all else fails and you see your competitor “Jim” about to snag a big raise for closing the Farquahr Fastener deal, drop by your local Victoria’s Secret outlet for final mark-downs on intimate apparel.  Pick out something slinky and send it to the boss’s wife with a card saying “I’ll never forget our ‘scavenger hunt’ together at last summer’s company picnic–Jim.”

And for Jim?  Change-of-address cards from the US Postal Service make a great going-away gift!

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