U-10 Girls Soccer Yakuza

WESTLAND, Mass.  In this leafy suburb of Boston fall weekends are dominated by youth soccer, and Department of Public Works employee Paul Quichette is dreading it.  “You’d think some of these families lived in a pig sty,” he says as he pokes at a discarded orange rind using a stick with a nail embedded in one end.  “I didn’t go to community college for two semesters to learn how to do this.”


Post-game mess in the making.

The overtime the town must pay and the damage to lawn mowers from plastic bottles in the spring forced a decision by the Board of Selectmen to resort to tougher measures than signs posted around soccer fields this season.  “I’d heard great things about the response of the Yamaguchi-guma,” Japan’s largest yakuza family, “to the Kobe earthquake in Japan,” says Town Manager Ellen Benoit-Walker.  “After a Sunday of twelve back-to-back games, we certainly have a disaster on our hands.”


“You gonna pick up that Evian bottle, or am I gonna have to get rough?”

Yakuza are members of traditional organized crime syndicates in Japan.  While police characterize them as boryokudan, a term that means “violence group,” the yakuza consider themselves ninkyo dantai, or “chivalrous organizations.”


“Mommy, that man’s scaring me!”

Like the Mafia, yakuza are organized along hierarchical lines that replicate familial and political structures.  While they derive their revenue from illicit activities such as gambling and prostitution, they have a penchant for order that makes them an outlaw alternative when civil society breaks down, in much the same manner that La Cosa Nostra keeps litter and crime–by people other than themselves–at a minimum in Italian urban neighborhoods on the East coast.


“No hanging back by the goal in 3-on-3 Kinderkick!”

A squad of two gokudo patrols the perimeter of Centennial Field here, watching the girls U-10 action on twelve reduced-size soccer pitches surrounded by orange cones.  Their irezumi–gaudy tattoos–draw stares from suburban parents who are used to seeing such grotesque physical embellishments only on boyfriends their elder daughters bring home from liberal arts colleges.


“What happened to your pinky?”

“Hey,” barks Hisayuchi Machii at a girl with blonde pigtails.  “Pick up your Evian bottle!”

The girl jumps, unused to such a harsh tone of reproof since her mother uses a cleaning crew composed of illegal aliens to pick up around the house.

“And put it in the trash container–over there,” seconds Jiro Kiyota.


“Go Westland–beat Wellesley!”

The girl complies, and the men nod their approval.  “This is correct, young kobun,” a term that means “foster child” and refers to one who has pledged allegiance to an oyabun, or foster parent within a yakuza family.  Seventy percent of yakuza are descendants of Burakumin, outcasts of Japan’s feudal era who were consigned to tasks considered tainted with impurity, and so trash collection is hard-wired into their genetic makeup.

There is a shout on the field as Emily Neidermeyer, the star of the Fred’s Hardware Comets, scores a goal, but the momentary burst of euphoria is chilled when a father from the opposite sideline approaches Nancy Thibeault, the team’s coach, and makes clear his displeasure with what he regards as illegal play.

“You can’t hang back in three-on-three Kinderkick because there’s no goalie,” he says, growing red in the face.  “I’m gonna report you to the league.”

The two men have only been working the sidelines for a month, but yakuza form strong bonds of attachment based on jingi, their code of loyalty and respect as a way of life.  They exchange glances, then spring into action.

“Excuse me, Wellesley-san,” Kiyota says.  “I believe the Code of Sportsmanship of the Metrowest Girls Soccer League requires you to direct your anger towards the referee, not your opponents’ coach.

“It is Rule 4.06,” adds Machii, with a menacing tone.  “That’s at Tab 4 of the white, three-ring binder provided to all coaches at the beginning of the season.”

The Wellesley coach, who was red-faced just a moment before, turns ash-grey when he sees the traditional Japanese swords borne by the yakuza.


“Can I have my pinky back after the game?”

“You’re . . . uh . . . right,” says the man.  “My bad.”

“That was not much of an apology,” says Kiyota.  “You must do more.”

“Like what?” the man says.  “Get down on my knees?”

“No, nothing like that,” says Machii.  “Hold out your left hand.”

The man’s face breaks out in an antic expression, as if he is going to have his hand smacked with a ruler.  “Okay,” he says with a goofy grin.  “Now what?”

“This,” says Kiyota, as he swings his sword down on the man’s pinky, cutting off the tip in the penance ritual of yubitsume, Japanese for “finger shortening,” also known as yubi o tobasu or “flying finger.”


It’s in there somewhere.

“Jesus Christ!” the man screams in pain, and a chorus of “Ewww” is heard from the Westland bench, where the severed body part has landed in a Yoplait strawberry yogurt.

Machii approaches the girls and removes the finger tip from the container, then presents it to Coach Thibeault.  “Here is your iki yubi” or “living finger,” he says.  “This asshole now accepts you as his kumicho.”

“What does that mean?” the owner of the suddenly-shorter finger asks.

“It may be girls soccer,” Kiyota says, “but she is now your godfather.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”

All the Charisma of a Shark

The great white shark is “one of the more charismatic, popular sharks in the world.” Greg Skomal, Senior Biologist, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

The Boston Herald

I was walking along the beach in Hyannisport, enjoying the warmth of the fall sun, when I spotted a basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, lying propped up on one fin, staring out at the Atlantic.

It’s the time of year when folks on Cape Cod are more outgoing since the tourists are gone, so I sidled up to him.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Okay,” he muttered. I could tell he wanted to be left alone, but the Cape has a fairly high suicide rate, and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t so depressed that he’d try and end it all. If he made it to the Sagamore Bridge, the most popular place around here to commit self-slaughter, to wax Shakespearean for a moment, he’d tie up traffic for hours and I wanted to drive home around 2.

“Just okay?” I asked, hoping to get him to snap out of his melancholy reverie.

He let out a sigh. “‘Okay’ is exaggerating,” he said finally. “Pour some water on my gills, would you?”

I picked up a styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup and filled it with water. “Yuk,” he said. “French vanilla.”

So what’s the matter?” I asked.

“Did you see The Herald the other day?” he asked. We’re still a two-paper town; sharks read The Herald, dolphins read The Globe.

“It’s the first thing I read in the morning,” I said. “Was it something on the op-ed page?”

“No, a news item. Some ‘Senior Biologist’–whatever that means–said that the great white is one of the ‘more charismatic, popular sharks in the world.’ I nearly sprayed my chum all over the sports page.”

“You’re exaggerating,” I said. “I happen to know you’re a passive filter feeder whose diet consists exclusively of zooplankton, small fish and invertebrates–you don’t eat chum.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so blunt, but sometimes that’s the best way to handle a mopey shark.


“Ooo-you make me so mad!”

 

He was silent for a moment, except for a hissing sound that put me on notice that an explosion was on its way.

“Goddamn it!” he shouted, slapping his fin on the wet sand. “I can’t catch a break. The whale shark is the biggest shark–I’m number two–and now I find out the great white is Mr. Popularity, Mr. Charisma.”


Miss Popularity, board game once owned by my sister.

 

“The guy didn’t say the great white was the most charismatic or popular shark. And I can think of lots of sharks with less charisma than you.”

“Like who?” he asked.

“Well, to be completely bipartisan about it, there’s Rahm Emanuel for the Democrats. And Ted Cruz for the Republicans.”


Emanuel: “You say I’m a shark like it’s a bad thing.”

 

I let him stew for a moment, then began as quietly as I could. “You know, being charismatic and popular isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

He rolled over and gave me a look; receding hairline, big forehead, nerdy glasses. “And how exactly would you know?”

“How do you think? I read about it in a book.”


Dale Carnegie

 

“Which one–‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’?” he asked with a snort.

“Did you know that Dale Carnegie was born in Sedalia, Missouri–the town where I grew up?” I said, with no small amount of misplaced pride.

“Who cares?” the shark said. He was really in the dumps–I decided to stop being so flip for once.

“No, it was Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building. Did you ever read it?”


Max Weber

 

“I’m not a big reader. The only reason I finished Jaws was some doofus threw it at me when I got too close to his kayak.”

“That was a very successful book,” I said. “You can’t begrudge the guy a little positive p.r.”

“Hey–look me up in Wikipedia. It says I’m a ‘cosmopolitan species, found in all the world’s temperate oceans.’

“Well, you’ve got that going for you. On the other hand,” I said in a voice that reeked of reasonableness, “the great white has been glorified in movies and ESPN 2 fishing shows.”

“Big freaking deal,” he said.

I thought his defensive tone gave him away. “You’re just jealous,” I said.

“Jealous?” he said. “You think I’m jealous of a mackerel shark that’s so dumb it can’t tell the difference between a boogie board and a seal?”


“Say ‘Ahh’.”

 

“Here’s the deal with charisma,” I said. “Weber said that in a democracy it’s difficult to maintain because it’s based on short-lived mass emotion.”

“So that would explain Biden’s approval ratings right now.” he mused.  I was glad to see that he wasn’t so depressed that he’d stopped paying attention to current events.

“You got it. You can’t help but like the guy, but the Kool-Aid’s worn off for some of his cult-like followers.”

“The New York Times turned on him the other day,” he said.  I was impressed–not that many sharks read the Times on the Cape because they add a dollar to the cover price for transit costs.

“And some comedians are starting to mock him.”

“Get out.  Like who?”

“Not just Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, too,” I said, then was silent for a moment.  “Maybe you should stop worrying about other sharks, and work on your own personality.”

He rolled over and looked at me. “You think so?”

“Just a suggestion,” I said. “Every summer you float into Boston Harbor and people panic even though you’re harmless, all because you come on like you’re going to bite the ass off of every bikini-bottomed babe on the beach.”

“I’ll give you props for alliteration,” he said. “But the great white is scary. How did he get to be so popular?”

“What works for him may not work for you,” I said. “You’ve got to be yourself.”

I started to fill the cup again, but he spoke up. “I’m fine, thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Nope–all set. I think I’m going to swim over to the fish pier, entertain the kids a bit. Give me a push, would you?”

“Okay,” I said.


Sly Stone

 

I got him back into the water and he turned to say goodbye. “This has been very helpful.”

“No problem.”

“Where’d you pick up the shallow, pseudo-psychology that reduces apparently complex problems to simple answers composed almost entirely of words of one syllable.”

“Sixties hit machine Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stone, that’s where,” I said, not missing a beat.

“Really?”

“Yeah–‘Different strokes for different folks.’”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Wild Animals of Nature!”

Me and Barney the Purple Dinosaur

The weekend is my time to give back to my community and my favorite institution within it–our local public library. I remember when I was young how much I loved Story Hour on Saturday morning. Kids would assemble in the library basement to hear a story read to us by Miss Sharp, the lavendar-scented bibliophile who was the gentle cop of the Children’s Room beat; shushing us when our volume exceeded a library-voice level, looking the other way when we returned “The Witchcraft of Salem Village” two days late, cutting one’s chewing gum out of one’s sister’s hair when one stuck it there. She was special.


“A book is your friend, you wouldn’t wipe a booger on your friend–please don’t wipe your booger on a book.”

I’m not reading a story today, however. My job is to pick up Barney the Purple Dinosaur and his first wife Baby Bop, who will be participating in a “Use Your Imagination!” session for the kids of our town. If you have children under the age of say thirty-five I’m sure you know Barney, the sickly sweet tyrannosaurus rex who first appeared on public television in 1992.

Barney’s 50 in t-rex years this summer, and his career has been on the skids since his show went on “hiatus” in 2009. Since then, he’s joined the ranks of the “working famous”; actors from cancelled sitcoms, one-hit wonder bands and comedians who’ve been on The Tonight Show a few times but haven’t made it big. For a while he was able to eke out a pretty good living doing so-called “skip and wave” shows at big venues like the Boston Garden, but it was a grind. Two performances a day, then hit the road to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or wherever he was scheduled to appear next.

But those gigs looked good when he was downgraded to the “B” circuit in smaller auditoriums like The Centrum in Worcester, Mass. The money wasn’t as good, and he was forced to scale back, selling his condo in Cambridge, Mass. right across the river from the studios at WGBH, the public TV station in Boston that gave him his first break in educational show biz. He now lives in a crummy two-bedroom apartment in Allston, a grimy neighborhood in Boston that is best described as a college student ghetto.

I pull up to Barney’s “triple-decker,” a somewhat run-down example of the three-floored apartment buildings that make up much of Boston’s older housing stock. On the front porch I see Baby Bop, the thirty-five year old triceratops who rose to fame with Barney, then divorced him when his personal life spun out of control. They have recently reconciled, but “Babe,” as we all knew her back in the day, says she’s not getting hitched again.

“Hey,” she says as she comes around to my driver’s side window. “I wanted to get to you before you rang the doorbell.”

“He’s hung over again?”

“Yep. He’s having a cup of black coffee and a donut. He needs to shave, but at least he’s up.”

It’s sad to watch a great artist in decline, but youth is fleeting, and with it the fickle favors of pre-school fans.


The other Purple One.

I look up and see The Purple One–not Prince, Barney–come out the front door. He’s always been a trouper–I shouldn’t have doubted for a second that he’d make it.

“Hey Barn–what’s shakin’?” I say.


In happier times.

He winces visibly. “Keep your voice down, would you?” he says as he gets in the “shotgun” seat for the drive down the Mass Pike.

“You . . . party like it was 1999 last night?” I ask, teasing him gently.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, holding his head.

“We had half a liter of tonic left,” Baby Bop says. “He’s so cheap, he didn’t want it to go flat, so he had three more G&T’s.”

“Ouch. I did that one time, but I was going away for a week. Totally missed my plane the next morning,” I say, trying to commiserate.

“Am I talking to myself, or did you not understand what I said before.”

“Sor-ree!” I say, and drive in silence.

Thankfully, the toll booths on the MassPike have been replaced by electronic toll monitors so Barney doesn’t have to hear me throwing quarters in the metal bucket. When we’re out on the highway, he falls back against his window, sound asleep, and Baby Bop and I have a chance to catch up.


Screwed, just like Barney

“How’s he doing?” I ask.

“Still bitter. He never got a dime’s worth of royalties from the licensing deals.”

“Like all the old doo-wop groups, huh.”

“Yep. I’m trying to hold things together for him, but it’s been hard.”

“You’re a saint,” I say, and she gives my hand a squeeze.

“I love him, what can I say,” she says with lump in her throat.

The big guy stirs as we hit the Weston exit.

“Sorry, pal, I had to change lanes and slow down,” I say.

He grumbles a bit, but he appears refreshed. “I just needed a little cat nap,” he says as he stretches. “What god-forsaken hell hole am I performing in today?”

“You’re not going into the children’s room of my local library with that kind of attitude, you dig?”

“‘You dig?’” Barney says, mocking me in the sing-song hyuck-yuck-yuck voice that is part of his stage shtick. “What are you, a beatnik?”

“Just trying to get my point across,” I say, but I figure it may be time for an intervention. I know from personal experience that there’s nothing that works better with someone who’s slid into cynicism, as I did in my twenties, than to confront them with the facts, as directly as possible. “Why are you so bitter?” I ask.

Moi–bitter?” he says, a look of offended dignity on his face, but I know it’s just a pose. He knows he’s bitter–and he doesn’t care.

“Who wouldn’t be bitter?” he says after a beat. “‘Use your imagination!’ That’s what I get paid to say, one Saturday story hour after another. But you should take a look at the parents who’ll show up today. If any of them ever used their imagination, they’d call their accountant first to see if it was deductible, then their HMO to see if the imagination is covered in case they sprain it. They so rarely use them, they know they’re out of shape.”

I consider this, and have to admit he has a point. “There’s nothing stopping you from changing your act,” I say. “We have a pretty good library–lots of poetry, both print and audio books. The newer fiction is mainly best-sellers, but you can find the high brow stuff shelved by author in the Literature section.”


“You’re wrong–I returned ‘Invisible Man’ last Saturday–plenty of time to spare.”

He purses his lips as if he’s actually thinking about this, and looks out his window wistfully. “You just may have a point,” he says. “I guess it’s partly my fault, not adapting my act to changing tastes over the years.” He pulls out a pack of Newport Lites and pushes in my cigarette lighter.

“I really wish you wouldn’t smoke in my car,” I say.

“We’re on local roads, I’ll roll my window down,” he says as he fires up. “It relaxes me before I go on.”

I turn onto the road by the reservoir, hang a left past the community farm, then pull into the parking lot.

“This is it. It’s not Madison Square Garden, but the road back has to start somewhere,” I say.

“Okay,” he says, and he is transformed suddenly from the crabby mope he’s been for most of the ride into the consummate performer that he is. Think Elvis in Vegas, Richard Pryor on Sunset Strip. I can tell from his stride past the book return box that his hair’s on fire and he’s ready to burn the place down, as we say in show biz.

We stop in the vestibule where we’re met by Patricia Dineen, head librarian. She can’t restrain herself from the sort of star-struck gushing that Barney gets wherever he goes. “I’ve been a big fan of yours forever,” a dubious claim since she’s a fifty-year-old who would have been in grad school when Barney first came on the air. “Would you mind autographing something special for me?”


“Write ‘To Trish–my favorite head librarian.’”

“Sure,” Barney says. He holds out his hand, expecting maybe a VHS tape of “Barney & Friends,” when he sees Dineen lift up her blouse to reveal a white camisole.

Barney looks at me, and I shrug my shoulders with a look that says “The customer’s always right,” but Baby Bop intervenes.

“I have some autographed 8 1/2 x 11 glossies–take one,” she says sharply, then pushes Barney forward to a waiting crowd of fifty or so infants and toddlers.

“Yay–Barney!” one little boy screams, touching off a near riot. The kids crowd around, and it is all that Baby Bop and I can do to form a flying wedge and push our way up to the dais. I feel like a Hell’s Angel at Altamont.


“I love you . . . you love me!”

Barney launches right into his act, assisted by a boom box with his sound track that Baby Bop takes with them on the road. He has the kids clapping and singing along and, after he brings his big hit “I Love You, You Love Me” to a conclusion, he turns it down a notch for the spoken word segment–the important part of the program.

“You know boys and girls, you don’t need a TV or video games to have fun.”

“We don’t?” a precocious little boy down front asks.

“Nope. Each one of you has something more precious than any electronic gizmo, right in . . . here.” He taps his big purple head on the temple.

“What is it?” a girl asks.

“It’s your imagination. You can use your imagination to go anywhere you want. When your friends are off skiing at Gstaad over Christmas break, or on Nantucket for the whole month of August, and you’re stuck here in town–just use your imagination and it will take you anywhere you want to go!”

The kids are spellbound. Nobody’s ever put it to them this way–no one’s ever even taken the time to try. They hustle around like FedEx delivery men from soccer, to piano lessons, to hockey, to Scouts, to play dates. Nobody’s ever told them they can sit on their butts like zoned-out drugheads and just . . . imagine things.

And then comes the turning point–the moment when Barney transformed himself from the Jerry Lewis of the kids comedy circuit, all sappy, treacly schmalz, into its Lenny Bruce. “And you,” he says, turning to the parents. “You can use your imaginations too, if you have any left after all the getting and spending you do.” I’m impressed. I didn’t know Barney knew any Wordsworth.

The moms and dads in the back row shift uncomfortably, not used to having their lifestyles put under the microscope by a fuzzy purple dinosaur. “When have you ever picked up something totally crazy, like Edgar Allan Poe, when you came to the library with your kids? No, it’s stupid sports biographies for the men, and for the women, chick lit that’s one step up–and a very little one at that–from bodice rippers.”

There is a murmur of dissent from the adults, but no one wants to prolong the discomfort, so they say nothing that can be heard down front.


Joris-Karl Huysmans

“Try a little J-K Huysmans, fer Christ sake,” Barney says. “That’s using your imagination. Or how about Les Fleurs du Mal, by Baudelaire. That’ll rock your world in a way that Jodi Picoult won’t.”

I had no idea that the Barn Man had become such a litterateur in his years of obscurity. I guess he had more time to read without a one-hour episode to tape every week.

“Yes, Barney, thank you for calling attention to our somewhat underutilized Literature collection,” Dineen says, trying to pour some oil on troubled waters. “Why don’t I lead the parents on a tour of the stacks while you continue with the children?” She may be star-struck, but she’s still got her sensible shoes on.

The parents nod in agreement and follow the librarian out of the room, and Barney quickly downshifts to the happy-talk patter he’s perfected over the past two decades.

Baby Bop gives me a look of relief, and we step outside into the sunlight.

“Does he go off like that very often?” I ask.

“Not since he’s back on his medication,” she says.

“What’s that?”

“Nesquik Chocolate Milk, in the convenient one-pint Grab ‘n Go bottle.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”

The Night of the Red Sox Living Dead

One afternoon, while heading home
Upon a hot commuter train,
I fell asleep, and dreamed this poem,
As summer’s light began to wane.

I saw a scene of baseball’s past
When stadiums were built to last
With brick-and-ivy outfield walls
Bombarded hard by sluggers’ balls.

And every man, and every maid
Would swelter in the noon-day heat.
And by the time the game’d been played
They’d smell as bad as postmen’s feet.

My reverie became a wish
That bordered close on heresy:
That Fenway Park, the Red Sox home,
Become an air-conditioned dome.

And as I slept the train rolled on
Past Back Bay then to Newtonville,
My narcoleptic state absorbed
What otherwise was time to kill.

Through Wellesley Farms to Wellesley Hills
And Wellesley Square I slept.
Through Natick and West Natick too
The engineer his schedule kept.

When hot and groggy I awoke
To the conductor’s awful yawp,
The scenery out my window showed
We’d rolled four stations past my stop.

I stumbled off the train to see
A wave of fans in front of me
With baseball caps upon their heads
That bore the letter “B” in red;

it was–

The Night of the Red Sox Living Dead.

Their heads had swelled (or was it mine,
That lay asleep for all that time?)
“Ortiz” and “Schilling” on their backs.
With wild surmise and looks quite wacked.

They staggered towards me, two by two,
I froze, then turned and tried to flee.
Well, what exactly would you do,
If I were you, and you were me?

They seemed intent on mayhem mad
Or maybe something even worse.
As I imagined just how bad,
A mother hit me with her purse.

“Get out the way, we’re comin’ through!”
She screamed from deep within her lungs.
She pushed a snot-nosed kid or two–
Why is youth wasted on the young?

I stumbled back on to the train
Not knowing how or even why.
Crushed flat beneath a press of flesh
I thought that I was going to die.

We rattled back towards the town
From whence I’d come when wide awake,
Squeezed tight so I could make no sound
Squashed flatter than sardine pancakes.

West Natick first, plain Natick next
By Wellesley Square I’d caught my breath.
“Excuse me,” I could finally say,
“I’m getting off, my stop is next.”

“This guy here thinks he’s getting off!”
A ghoulish fan saw fit to scoff,
And then a chilly chorus said,
“He didn’t say the magic word!”

I racked my brain both high and low,
Then left, then right and upside down.
What sound would cause the zombie hoard
To let me off at Wellesley town?

I couldn’t think, I had to beg,
“Please tell me,” I implored a girl.
“I’m really not too bad an egg,
If not the nicest in the world.”

She looked at me with deep brown eyes
That bore through me like fine drill bits
A loyal fan, quite undersized,
She’d brought along a catcher’s mitt.

Child of the Damned, in schoolgirl clothes,
A tartan kilt of blue and green;
She wore a pair of Mary Janes
Her brown locks tossed by breeze unseen.

“If you want to get off this train
In Wellesley Square, one stop away
You’ll have to say the magic word!
Or ride with us to Yawkey Way!”

I didn’t want to go that far, I’d rather
–if the truth be known–
Be sitting in my easy chair
And watch the stupid game at home.

She read my mind by ESP
The zombies then advanced on me.
“Just say the simple syllable
And we’ll ride on while you go free!”

My mouth was dry, no words would come
I guess you’d say I’d been struck dumb.
In fear I struck a fetal pose,
And on they came, as zombies come.

The little girl sank to the floor
Like Jolson, skidding on her knees,
And screamed “You silly nimmynot–
The word you need to say is ‘Please’!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Red Sox and Yankees: Why Can’t We Be Enemies?”

At the Feline G-20 Summit

News item:  Three stray cats evaded security and wandered around the main stage at a G-20 Summit meeting.

cats

“I seriously don’t know what it is with these human ‘leaders’ who think they run the world,” Rocco said as we stepped onto the stage at the G-20 Summit.

“They’re delusional,” I said as I checked the placement of the microphones and the podium.  “They believe they’re in charge, like some crazy guy who thinks he’s Napoleon.”

We were joined by Chester, an orange tabby who went walkabout years ago while just a kitten.  He’d been on the run, or “feral” in human-speak, ever since, returning to our home on infrequent occasions to berate us for being domesticated house-cats, while he has fomented revolution where’er he went.

cats1
“ME get out?  Why don’t YOU get out?”

“How did the G-7 become the G-20?” he asked.

“If you would come out of the woods every now and then, you might know,” Rocco said.

“I’ll take that to mean you don’t know,” Chester said.

“Ask Okie,” Rocco said.  “He’s older–maybe even wiser.”

“Oak?” Chester said to me with a quizzical tone–or was it merely skeptical?

“It was expansion, like the Memphis Grizzlies, or the Florida Marlins,” I said.  “Broadening the base gets more fans interested in the machinations of the lever-pullers who control the world’s economies.”

cats3
Billy Marlin:  “Why am I wearing my pajamas at the ballpark?  Why not?”

“Have they added a wild-card format since I went off the grid?” Chester asked.

“Everything but,” Rocco said.  “You’ve got Turkey, Mexico . . .”

“Mexico?” Chester asked, incredulous.  “That’s like adding an NBA franchise in Oklahoma.”

“They’ve got one of those too,” I said.

“Good Lord,” Chester groaned.  “I step out of the room for 5 years and all hell breaks loose!”

“Enough with the kvetching, Rocco said.  “We’ve got some serious ruling to do.”

“I’m with you,” I said.  “The twenty humans they’ve assembled for this chivaree couldn’t find their asses with both hands.”

cats4
“We are the world . . .”

“Why is that I wonder?” Chester said.

“It’s the old student council conundrum,” I said.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“The kind of people who are attracted to world government are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near it,” Rocco interjected.

“Because?” Chester asked.  He has been out in the woods a long time.

“Because of their vaunting ambition, and overweening self-regard,” Rocco said.  He’s like that; a slumbering giant in the vocab department, but once he gets going it’s Katy-bar-the-door–whatever that ancient phrase means.

“Still,” I said, “I think there’s one world leader who deserves our support as cats.”

“Which one’s that?” Chester asked.

“Angela Merkel.”

I could sense an explosion coming on, like Old Faithful or the Mount St. Helens volcano.  It was Rocco, stifling a laugh, which he could restrain no longer, as he erupted like Vesuvius.

cats5
“BAD cat!”

“And why on earth should we give a rat’s rear-end about her?” he asked with evident skepticism.

“Because,” I replied calmly, “she’s got the best lap of any G-20 leader!”

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

“Celebration of Mediocrity” Draws to Close With a Bang

OMAHA, Nebraska. This city is abuzz today as municipal employees paint lamp posts and spruce up planters in the downtown area for an unprecedented celebration that some say is bigger than a world’s fair or an Olympic Games. “We’re only one spoke in the wheel,” says Chamber of Commerce President Orel Heinze, “but we’re the one that has the baseball card attached to it with a clothes pin.”


Hruska: “You say ‘mediocre’ like it’s a bad thing.”

Heinze is referring to the conclusion of a four-city, four-year “Celebration of Mediocrity,” the first such event ever, which began in Boston, moved on to Memphis, then Indianapolis and will conclude with a grand finale here. “Those are all great cities, don’t get me wrong,” Heinze says with a mischievous gleam in his eyes, “but when it comes to mediocrity, we’ve got them beat hands down.”


Snooky Lanson

The occasion for the celebration is the unlikely confluence of birthdays a century ago of three entertainers who have come to epitomize mediocrity in America; Sonny Tufts in 1911, Durward Kirby in 1912 and Snooky Lanson in 1914. “The only comparable grouping of birth dates of such notable artists was the 100-year span that included Vivaldi in 1678, Bach in 1685, Mozart in 1756 and Beethoven in 1770,” says cultural historian Wil van de Verde of Shimer College. “Those guys were pretty good, but it still took them almost a century to do what Kirby, Lanson and Tufts did in four years.”


Vivaldi: “Here’s a little song I wrote for Wayne Newton called–you guessed it–‘Danke Schoen.’”

Omaha was the home of none of the three greats, but it was the final resting place of Senator Roman Hruska, who defended mediocrity in a speech that challenged critics who complained that Judge Harold Carswell, nominated to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon, was “mediocre.” “Even if he were mediocre,” Carswell said in a stirring peroration that is still studied in oratorical classes here, “there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? And you notice how I nailed the subjunctive back there?”


Durward Kirby:  The model for all subsequent affable sidekicks.

Each of the three entertainers celebrated as the festival moved from city to city had his own unique claim to mediocrity; Kirby virtually created the model of the “affable sidekick” to TV host Garry Moore that continues to this day on late-night TV shows. “He may have been born in Kentucky,” says Indianapolis city historian Ewell Cutrino, “but he really used Indianapolis as the one-meter springboard to his fame.”


Sonny Tufts?

Lanson, who was born in Memphis, and Tufts, who was born in Boston, share one reliable indicator of mediocrity; both were the butt of jokes on the “Rocky & Bullwinkle Show,” a 60’s afternoon cartoon feature that sprinkled obscure pop culture references throughout its regular features in order to convey coded messages to Russian spies through the characters of Boris and Natasha.


                 Sonny Tufts!

While scholars will debate the relative merits of the entertainment greats in a Festschrift, a collection of scholarly essays that will celebrate their respective lives and contributions to the bland cultural pudding that is America’s leading export to the world, those with extensive backgrounds in the nascent field of mediocrity studies say the smart money is on Sonny Tufts to emerge as pre-eminent among the four when the dust of the academic rug-beating settles. “You look at Tufts’ Wikipedia entry, and he was lampooned by everybody,” says van de Verde. “It takes a special kind of dud to be picked on by Rowan & Martin, Dick Van Dyke and Bullwinkle the Moose.”

A Manatee Said “Hi” to Me

A manatee said “hi” to me.
She was swimming one lane over from me.
She had on a suit, and proper goggles
So none of the humans her body would ogle.

manatee4

We paddled along, sidewise eyeing each other,
She reminded me vaguely of someone or other.
The chubby young lass from my first grade class
who picked at her, uh, seat, while she knelt at Mass?

manatee1

After we were done, to make her day complete
I offered to take her out for a treat;
We got in the car, turned onto the street,
and I wondered—what exactly do manatees eat?

manatee2

So I asked her, as politely as I could’ve
although perhaps more directly than I should’ve
“What is it you manatees like to chow down on?”
It was then that she put a big manatee frown on.

manatee

“You don’t know the struggles I have with my weight!”
she said as she sobbed at a manatee’s fate.
“I eat nothing but vegetables; acorns, hydrilla–
turtle grass, algae—no cheese quesadillas!”

“Yet with all that dieting, and swimming all day,
you’d think I ate nothing but whipped cream parfaits!”
I pulled the car over and tried to console her,
but at more than a ton, it was hard to control her.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I just wasn’t thinking.
I’m sure diet soft drinks are what you’ve been drinking.
You’re actually quite svelte for your 2,000 pounds.
Slow-moving, yes—but you must get around.”

Her eyes dried a bit, and she stopped with her sniveling.
She gave me a smile, and her hips started swiveling.
She held out her fins, said “You’re awfully kind.
Just the sort of human that I’ve had in mind.”

manatee5

I stopped her right there, and said “Let’s go no further,”
Recalling advice I’d heard from my mother:
“In addition not to take candy from strangers
I don’t want you dating a species that’s endangered.”

Moral: Even a slow-moving creature can be a fast girl.

Run for Munchausen Syndrome Hobbled by Injuries, Real or Imagined

WESTLAND, Massachusetts. Fall in New England means cool temperatures, perfect for the many 5 kilometer runs and walk-a-thons that are a staple of fourth-quarter fund-raising by the region’s many non-profits.

“It’s a real incentive after a hot summer,” says Myrtle Gallo, executive director for the Massachusetts Munchausen Association, a charity that raises funds to fight the deadly if feigned disorder whose causes are obscure to doctors, but obvious to laypeople. “People love to get out in the crisp autumn air for a good cause, even if it’s a fake one.”

But race organizers had their hands full today, with medical aid tents overwhelmed by injuries and ailments suffered by runners who appeared to be perfectly fine to the doctors who volunteered their time.

“Where, exactly, does it hurt?” asks Dr. Linda Semolini, an orthopedist at St. Swithin’s Hospital in Brighton, Mass.

“Everywhere!” screams Mike Tikamoyer as he grabs his right calf muscle and grimaces in pain.

“What kind of pain are you feeling,” Semolini asks as she checks his vital signs.

“It’s sharp and shooting, like somebody stabbed me with a knife,” he says. “Also dull and throbbing, like when you’re hit with a blunt object.”


Baron Munchausen

 

“Munchausen Syndrome” is the name given to a factitious disorder on self, whose victims claim to be suffering in order to draw attention to or sympathy for themselves; it is named after Baron Munchausen, a fictional character created by Rudolf Erich Raspe who was modeled after a real 18th century German baron known for telling exaggerated tales about his military career. “Munchausen Syndrome is tough to treat,” says Dr. Morton Shusterberg, Professor of Fictitious Infectious Diseases at the New England School of Medicine. “Thankfully, even if we can’t cure a victim, we can double-bill for the treatment since it has both a physical and a psychological side.”

But that is no solace for Gallo, who finds herself scrambling from one water station to another to keep things moving while many of those who signed up to run drop out, lie injured beside the road, or simply whine. “Can somebody please help me!” a 42-year-old sufferer named Carl Dunbar cries out as he stumbles to the shoulder of state route 135.

“What’s wrong?” asks Carol Shimkus, a student at nearby Wellesley College who will receive credit in a political activism course for the time she spends help out today.

“I’ve got a fictional disease,” Dunbar says, “and it really, really hurts!”

 

Partnership for Kale-Free America Makes Salad of Political Opponents

BOSTON.  To a casual observer, Morton Freeman, a 62-year-old executive, and Kaitlyn Munro, a 26-year-old environmental activist, look like an odd couple as they stand outside Luciana’s, a “fast-casual” restaurant in downtown Boston known for its salad bar.  “I’m not here to save gay baby whales,” Freeman says with the sardonic humor he normally uses to abuse business competitors.  “This is a single-issue collaboration,” Munro says as she gently ushers a “no-see-um” bug off her tattooed forearm to avoid killing the tiny insect.

Image result for businessman leaflet
“If present trends continue, we’ll have to open the windows in the board room!”

 

What has brought the two strange bedfellows together in a political salad is the Partnership for a Kale-Free America, an unusual coalition of business and environmental groups united in their desire to stop the spread of kale, the leafy, green vegetable that has swept the nation’s cuisine in the past decade because of its nutritional value and awful taste.  “Sure kale has potent anti-cancer properties,” says Freeman as he hands a “Please don’t eat kale” flyer to a woman.  “But it’s also the major cause of office flatulence, which is a significant drag on service industry productivity.”

Munro came to her opposition to kale from an entirely different angle.  “Kale farts release methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which increases global warming,” she says, her forehead furrowed with lines of concern.  “It’s bad enough that Americans eat cows so we have like entire herds of stupid animals standing around pumping gas into the atmosphere.”

Image result for handing out flyers
“Read it, okay?  And then just have a smoothie.”

Kale’s gas-producing properties are caused by raffinose, a sugar that is difficult for the human body to break down.   Raffinose belongs to a group of carbohydrates called oligosaccharides, a small group of sugar molecules that control human internal organs the way oligarchs control many governments.  “Once oligosaccharides get into your small intestine, you can kiss democratic elections goodbye,” says Dr. Emil Nostrand of Massachusetts Gastrointestinal Hospital, or “MassGas” as it is referred to colloquially.  “You have no choice–all you can do is say either ‘Excuse me’ or ‘I didn’t do it.'”

Image result for kale
Kale:  The kulprit.

 

The lunch hour winds down and the two leafletters prepare to part as reinforcements arrive from the home office of the organization, which is located upwind.  “I guess our work here is done for now,” Freeman says to Munro as he removes a brightly-colored vest with the group’s logo over his heart and struggles visibly to relate to the much-younger woman.

“Yeah, I guess,” Munro says.  “Well, see you around.”

“Would you . . . like to duck into Starbucks and maybe have a cuppa Joe?” Freeman says, using shopworn slang that he learned in college four decades before.

“Joe who?”

“That’s a ‘hep’ term for coffee,” Freeman says affably, trying to hide his embarrassment.

“Sorry,” Munro says as she heads for the subway.  “I’m a vegan.”

For One Craft Shop, Endangered Species is the Owner

WESTLAND, Mass.  For three decades Beth Dormitzer had been proprietor of The Natural Nook, a craft shop on the main street of this western suburb of Boston, with little to show for her efforts.  “She’d make a little money, but she wouldn’t pay herself anything,” says her long-suffering husband, manager of a local bank branch.  “It was a labor of love, which means I would have cut her off long ago if I didn’t love her.”

But all that changed two years ago when upscale women’s clothing stores moved in on either side of her, causing her rent to go up.  “I became very creative with my excuses,” the distaff half of this sixty-something couples says.  “I tried ‘My dog ate the check,’ then my landlord found out I was a cat person.”

Dormitzer was thinking of giving up when an idle comment by a customer inspired a change in her marketing strategy.  “This man was gazing at my overstocked shelves of macramé owls and said ‘That looks like the Northern Spotted Owl, the one that’s on the endangered species list.’  A light bulb went on over my head, and it wasn’t fluorescent.”


Macramé owls: A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but these . . .

 

Dormitzer rushed into the conversational breach left open when the man jingled his car keys to signal to his wife that he was getting impatient.  “That is the Northern Spotted Owl,” she exclaimed, “and a portion of the proceeds of each sale goes into preserving the little fellow,” she said, not specifying exactly how much she was willing to contribute to the survival of the species.

“Well, uh, in that case, I suppose $5.95 . . .”

” . . . not including sales tax.”

” . . . isn’t so much.”  The man plunked down seven dollars, told Dormitzer to keep the change, and The Natural Nook’s transformation into a guilt-tripping retail powerhouse was born.


Extensive selection of socially-conscious junk.

 

“The turnaround was dramatic,” says Morton Shusterman, the Dormitzers’ solo practitioner accountant.  “Before he was subsidizing her, now she’s clearing enough to pay my fees out of her own checking account.”

Dormitzer changed the name of her store to “Change the World” and swapped the “Take a penny/Leave a penny” label on glass jar next to her cash register for one that says “Leave the change you don’t want to see in the world,” her humorous take on a saying attributed to either Mahatma Gandhi or Yogi Berra.  Teddy bears became “Endangered bears,” and mugs boldly proclaimed that they held only “fair trade” coffee or tea within.

New England’s guilt-ridden history made it a receptive area for the concept, says retail analyst J.J. “Jake” Curtin of Brand Strategies LLC, a consulting firm that helps turn around struggling businesses.  “The Puritan ethos is strong here,” he says, mimicking the tone of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, a side effect of his long career working with clients on the precipice of bankruptcy.  “As soon as they make money they feel guilty about it, but spending it doesn’t help unless there’s some distasteful moral element to it, like an ugly but long-lasting L.L. Bean sweater.”


L.L. Bean sweater: With any luck, it will wear out in three generations.

 

While not by nature a political animal, Dormitzer has taken to her new persona as a nagging over-the-counter scold with gusto, urging her customers to make the world a better place by putting money in her pocket, and expressing her disapproval in a not-so-subtle manner when she sees one about to leave without making a purchase.

“You sure I can’t interest you in one of these cute pillows?” she asks with an upturned eyebrow as Maeve du Clos starts to walk out the door empty-handed.

“I don’t know,” the woman says, returning to take a final look at the wares on display out of courtesy.  She picks up an odd blue number in the shape of a fish with the word “Sikppy” embroidered on it.  “What does S-I-K-P-P-Y stand for?” she asks.

Dormitzer clucks her tongue in a quiet expression of disapproval at the woman’s insensitivity to the disabled.  “That’s Skippy, the Dyslexic Whale.”