Me and My Parrot Walk Into a Bar

Lewis Rosensteil, head of Schenley Distillers, once had 5,000 parrots trained to say “Drink Old Quaker” bourbon, then gave them to bartenders.

The Wall Street Journal, review of “Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey” by Reid Mitenbuler

I believe it was Montaigne who first said, more or less, that no man is a hero to his valet, but the Frenchman never met my parrot “Poll.”  He’s named after the bird in the TV ads of my youth whose Poll Parrott Shoes, it was said, would enable me to run faster and jump higher.  Since I was slow of foot and once injured myself by hitting the crossbar high-jumping, bringing a stanchion down on my head, I longed for those shoes but could never convince my mother to buy them for me.  After my tragic high-jumping accident Karen Smirtka’s mother drove me home while Karen sat in the front seat looking at me with a mixture of disgust and disgust.  “It looks like you have an egg growing out of your head,” she said.  Karen pulled wings off flies for her science project.

Image result for paul parrotI got Poll for a song, even though he’s not much of a songbird.  He was laid off by Schenley Distillers after a failed marketing move in which he and 4,999 other parrots were taught to say “Drink Old Quaker,” a second-rate bourbon whiskey.  I guess nobody ever told the executives at Schenley that when you get the urge to have a shot of bourbon, the first religious group you think of is not Quakers.

Image result for stanchion high jumpPoll’s getting up there in years, like me, but he’s the restless sort while I’m slipping into senescence sensibly, slowing down, assiduously pursuing my new hobby of collecting sibilants.

“Are we going to do something tonight, or are you going to sit around listening to the Greatest Hits of the Thirties again?” he asked, and rather sharply I might add.

Image result for old quaker bourbon
Old Quaker bourbon: Try it with oatmeal!

“Is it my fault you’ve never shed the impulsiveness of youth, unlike the feathers you molt around the house every year?”

“You never want to go out, you just sit there looking stuff up in books.”

“You might feel differently if you had prehensile ability and could turn pages.”

“I want to go to a bar,” he snapped.

“It’s cheaper to drink at home.”

“That’s not the point.  You drink to be social, to meet other members of your species.”

“Sorry, I’ve already met enough of ’em.”

“Well I haven’t–let’s go to the Coach & Four.”  He was referring to the faux-Colonial watering hole where the elite of our little exurban town likes to meet and mate.  On any given night you may meet a local zoning attorney, perhaps a selectmen or an insurance broker on the make, wooing a no-longer-young divorcee from a neighboring town to the west who’s trying to climb her way into our acre-and-a-half zoning paradise.

Image result for women at bar
“Don’t even think about sitting next to us unless you’re a millionaire!”

“All right, but don’t blame me if you come up empty-handed.  You’re not exactly a spring chicken anymore.”

“Look who’s talking,” Poll said, giving me the gimlet eye of disdain.  “A guy who’s literally counting the days until he qualifies for the Senior Citizens Discount at Applebee’s.”

We hopped in my car, which elicited another critical remark from the bird in my hand.  “You know, the Olympics is every two years, presidential election is every four, census is every ten.”

“What’s your point?”

“Do you think you could wash this accident-waiting-to-happen once before it dies?”

Image result for pollen on car

“I’m waiting for spring pollen season to end,” I said as I squirted wiper juice on my windshield to clean off the sickly-green coating that greets me every morning.

We drove over to the bar and took one of the high tables off to one side, at Poll’s suggestion.  “This way you can scan the whole scene, and you’re not tied to the women on either of side of you.”

“Sort of like being a linebacker instead of a defensive lineman in a three-point stance?”

“I wouldn’t know–try to catch the waitress’s eye, would you?  You’re bigger than me.”

I raised a finger and attracted the attention of Dottie, a veteran of “The Coach” (as locals refer to the place) who has, in her twenty years on the sawdust-coated floors, seen it all.

“What’ll you boys have tonight?” she asked with her genuine smile as she wiped the table.

“I’ll have a Michelob Ultra and he’ll have the suet and a shot glass of water,” I said.

“Coming right up.”

“A Michelob Ultra–whadda you, training for the Marathon?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“We’ll do a blind taste test and see if you can tell the difference between that ‘beer’ and my water.”

“I didn’t know you were such a connoisseur.”

Dottie brought placemats and Poll hopped on his, eager to get at his suet.

“Pace yourself,” I said cautiously.  “Eating that stuff will make you drink faster and you won’t be able to perform if you get lucky.”

He gave me that querulous eye parrots are known for.  He started to speak–seemed to hesitate–then plunged ahead.  “You’re not actually trying to give me advice in the romance department–are you?”

“I’m a married man, just passing on–gratis–wisdom I’ve acquired at great expense.”

“If you think I need your help,” he said with a voice that was pregnant with machismo, “just hide and watch.”

With that he flew haltingly–I warned him about the suet–over to the bar and landed between two bottle-blonde–is “bimbos” too strong a word for the internet?  My guess is they’re either real estate brokers looking for listings or secretaries looking to quit their jobs and become kept women.

“What a cute little bird!” one says as she offers Poll a pizza-flavored goldfish.  He sniffs at it but doesn’t bite, clears his throat and, despite all the bravado he displayed when he was just hopping around on my table, he seems to–freeze in the face of the waves of peroxide that hang from the heads of the harpies of the bar.

Image result for pizza-flavored goldfish
Pizza-flavored goldfish: Yum.

“What’s your name?” the other asks.

I wait, on tenterhooks, to hear his response, but nothing comes.  The tenterhooks are starting to dig into my Dockers “No Wrinkle Zone” chinos, with signature “Iron Free Straight Fit”–and try saying that five times fast.  I could hardly bear to see the little guy suffer, but since he was so insufferable just a few minutes before, I found the inner strength–somehow–to endure it.

He opened his little beak and, as I’ve done so many times in my own life, haltingly began to stumble over his words.

“Drink . . . Old Quaker!” he finally spat out–and the two women began to laugh hysterically!

“You’re so cute–I’m going to take you home with me!” the more buxom of the two said, as she tucked him into her cleavage and stood up to go.

Image result for woman parrot cleavage
“Don’t mean to suggest you’re a bird brain, but is that a parrot on your head?”

I could only look on in envy as the three settled the tab and got up to go.  Poll looked rather snug tucked into the décolletage that bounced by on their way out.  “Poll didn’t want a cracker,” he says as he passes by, “so you can have my goldfish.”

Is That Your Cat, or Are We Having Guacamole?

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

The Boston Globe

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


Rocco left, Okie right.

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

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

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

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

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


“Seven and 15/16 laps.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a newspaper?” Okie asks.

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


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

“It has other uses.”

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

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

“I like Garfield!” Okie says–figures.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

My Dark Horse Run for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award

It’s hard out there–to coin a phrase–for a guy who’d like to quit his day job and write.  You look for any advantage you can get.  A few weeks ago I read about a guy two towns over from me whose first collection of short stories received a glowing, full-page review in The New York Times Book Review.  He’s now wheeling his second collection around in a grocery cart, selling them at Little League weenie roasts and Elks Lodge shad bakes.  He’ll read you a sample page in the hope that you’ll buy a copy.

And so it was that I fastened upon the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award as a possible promotional tool.  I’d written a novel with bad sex in it–why not me? I asked myself.

The award was established by Carol Koenig, a literary critic, and Auberon Waugh, then editor of the Review, in 1993.  The prize,  a “semi-abstract trophy representing sex in the 1950s,” is given to the author who has written the worst description of a sex scene in a novel.  Spoiler alert:  my second novel, CannaCorn, includes sex between a baseball player and a cheerleader that involves the use of–and here I hesitate, for fear of bringing a blush to the cheeks of maiden readers–actual, unretouched cheers from my high school days.  I know–society’s going to hell in a handbasket, and I’m not helping.


Auberon Waugh

 

But I needed some juice, dammit!  So I called up my agent and asked her what she thought.

“It’s not an award for bad sex,” she said.  “It’s for bad writing about sex.  Surely you don’t want to have your name associated with such a prize–do you?”

“What did Samuel Johnson say?”

“Never give a sucker an even break?”

“No that was W.C. Fields, although they look alike.  He said ‘Fame is a shuttlecock.  To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.’”


Johnson:  “This is hot stuff!”

 

“Suit yourself,” she said, “but you’re going to have to work at it.  They’re not going to just drop it in your lap.”

“The book’s written–it is what it is.”

“Don’t go all Belichick on me.  What I mean is, Tom Wolfe won it, Norman Mailer won it posthumously, and John Updike received a Lifetime Achievement award, but those guys had big reputations to start.  You’re a nobody, a dark horse.  You need to campaign.”


“Hi–I’m running for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, and I’d appreciate your vote.”

 

I was mildly taken aback.  “That sounds . . . unseemly.  Shouldn’t I wait for the judges to make their decision based on the merits–or demerits–of my bad sex scene?”

“No, you’ve got to build ‘buzz,’” she said, and I could feel the breeze from the little finger quotes she made in the air several hundred miles away.  “What did Tip O’Neill say?”

I was ready for that one:  “If you want people to vote for you, you’ve got to ask them,” I said.  “Okay, I understand.  So what’s the game plan?”


A young Tip O’Neill

 

“I say let’s start bright and early tomorrow morning,” she said.  “We’ll hit the gates at factories when the first shift shows up, then the strip malls at noon when the moms are out shopping, then maybe a social event at night.”

It seemed like a lot of work to me.  In truth, the whole process had been a slog from the get-go, to mix British and American slang.  I’d had a hard time writing about bad sex because, well, sex has been okay for me.  Oh sure, there was Mimi, the tri-athlete who suggested we jog, play tennis, then squash, swim and finish things off with bowling before sex in her apartment without air conditioning, but she was the exception, an outlier.  For the most part, I’ve enjoyed sex, either alone or with another.

“What should I wear?” I asked.

“Always overdress,” she said.

“Well, I wasn’t going naked.”

“No, I mean you should always dress at least one level of formality above the people you’re meeting.”

“But won’t that make me look . . . stiff?”

“Perhaps.”

“And won’t people assume from my clothes that means I . . . don’t know much about sex.”

“Actually,” she said, “if that’s your concern I don’t think your clothes will have anything to do with it.”

The Last Baseball Game

Don’t come ’round here looking for the fresh, clean, family-friendly content this site is known for this afternoon. I’m taking off at 3:30 to watch my kid pitch what may be the final start of his high school career. He will take the mound today with a 3-0 record and three home runs last week alone! He hit them, I mean; he didn’t give them up.

It’s an occasion that causes normally hard-bitten sports writers–and Boston has them by the pallet-load–to turn sentimental and wax rhapsodic. I have to say, now that I’m in their shoes, I can’t blame them. My kid didn’t get a scholarship and will thus try to walk on when he gets to college, but he may never play another competitive game.


Premature babi–hey, who gave them Sprite, the refreshing lemon-lime soft drink?

 

He’s 6’2″ and weighs 165 pounds, but when he came into this world, the prospects that he would ever develop into such a strapping young man were slim. He was born a month premature; for an infant boy, that means his lungs were dangerously underdeveloped.

“Is there anything you can do about it?” I asked the doctor who delivered him.

“We recommend that they go on drugs right away,” she replied.

“What kind of drugs?” my wife asked nervously.

“Steroids,” the doctor said.


Jose Canseco: He, uh, did a lot of push-ups.

 

I looked at my wife, and I could tell she was with me 100%. “Go ahead,” I said, “Triple the normal dosage.”

Thanks to the miracles of modern science, my boy was out of the incubator in a few days, but we kept him on the medication. No point in taking chances when a kid’s lungs are at risk.

It paid off, let me tell you. By the time he started T-ball he was hitting tape-measure shots, 565-foot home runs over everything. Eventually, we lowered the dose as the ‘roid-rage fines began to get expensive. I’ll never forget the look on the face of the teenaged umpire who called him out on a ball that just barely grazed the outside corner of the plate. My kid chased him back to his crappy Honda Civic and flipped it over–at the age of 10! That’s the kind of upper-body strength you need to hit with power to the opposite field.

As any parent of a young athlete will tell you, a lot of sacrifice goes into the making of a kid who can play at the Division I level. There was the $45 per half hour hitting coach, the pseudo-religious earrings a la Barry Bonds, the heavy chains that look like they could have been lifted off the neck of a Rottweiler or an investment banker’s second wife. But it’s all part of the great American tradition of baseball.


“I don’t really like you, but I’m 0 for 21 in June.”

 

I don’t mean to suggest that my kid’s career has been one long home run trot around the basepaths. Like any baseball player, he’s had his ups and downs. I remember when he was 11 and started the season 0-for-June for the Orthwein Insurance Agency A’s. One night I heard him sobbing to himself as I walked past his bedroom.

“What’s the matter, kiddo?” I asked as I sat down beside him and tousled his hair.

“I’ve lost it, dad,” he said through his sobs. “My career is over.”

“No it’s not,” I said reassuringly. “You’re just going through a dry spell.”

He calmed down a bit. “You think so?” he asked.

“Sure. What you need is a slumpbuster!”

“What’s that?”

“Well, it’s a girl who you might not really like as a friend because she hasn’t got the greatest personal hygiene or something, but you, uh, decide to . . . to spend some time with her to change your luck.”

He was silent for a moment. “So somebody like Susan van de Kamp?”

“Is that the chubby girl in your class who’s always wearing her Little Dutch Girl outfit to school on Show ‘n Tell Day?”

“That’s her,” he said. “She picks her butt in line to the cafeteria.”

My eyes misted over. “She sounds perfect. Why don’t you give her a whirl.”

“Like how?”

There are some things you can’t coach, but I gave it a try. “You do something to make her think you like her.”

“What do the big-leaguers do?” he asked me.

“They, uh, invite them over to spend the night, sort of like you and Timmy Salmon last Friday.”

“Yuk!” he said, clearly repulsed by the thought.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “At the Little League level, all you have to do is throw a spit ball at her.”

Republished annually after the fashion among weepy Boston sportswriters. Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Kids: They’re Cute When They’re Young.”

The Night My Wife Got Oil Can Boyd’s Autograph

I’ll never forget, ‘til I slip into the void,
The night my wife got an autograph from Oil Can Boyd.
We were dining in a restaurant in nearby Newton,
where people take yoga, and sleep on futons.

Image result for oil can boyd wikipedia

The former Red Sox pitcher was sitting at the bar,
making cracks about women, both near and far.
“Who’s that annoying fellow in the baseball cap?”
He was drinking a beer, but it wasn’t on tap.

I told her that he was a man named Dennis,
who’d excelled at baseball, but I don’t think tennis.
At some point in his life a fellow man
had tagged him with the nickname “Oil Can.”

“What does that mean?” she asked and I told her,
it referred to his drink, in the can that was colder.
“Down South booze is sometimes called ‘ignorant oil,’
because your cognitive faculties it tends to spoil.”

He was holding forth, so that all could hear,
a breach of decorum, that reached our ears.
Normally she would have harrumphed,
and that would have been that,
but some impulse over reserve did triumph,
and she shot out of her chair like a scalded cat.

Image result for oil can boyd wikipedia

“Excuse me,” she said to the nutty right-hander,
“I was wondering if I could get your autograph?”
She’s normally not capable of such forthright candor,
but Can didn’t know that, didn’t count it a gaffe.

“Who’s it for?” he said with an upraised eyebrow.
He seemed . . . skeptical, and dubious somehow.
Was she playing the role of a distaff John Alden
while I—mortified—was the shy Myles Standish?
When a guy wants an autograph he does his own callin’–
instead of burying his head in his barbecue sandwich.

“It’s for my friend . . . David!” she said with a smile.
“Who’s David?” he asked, then supplied his own answer:
“I suppose he’s a kid who’s dying of cancer.”
I’d never seen her pull off such duplicitous guile.

Image result for blond yuppie woman autograph

Can eyed her up, then also down,
saw her wedding ring, made a little frown.
Cocked his head, made a little moue,
then signed a napkin, as ballplayers do.

She thanked him, and he watched as she walked away.
He didn’t seem to mind her, but down to this day–
I don’t know what happened, what turned her around,
to make her a late-in-life autograph hound.
She’d always been shy, and also retiring,
A mistress of etiquette, really quite inspiring.

She didn’t know Can from a hole-in-the-wall,
had no idea he’d begun his fall
in the ’86 Series, against the New York Mets,
that we’d watched together at a party one night.
He was the Game 7 starter, and he was all set,
to end Bambino’s Curse, the Red Sox fans’ plight.

But a rain delay allowed the Sox skipper
to start another hurler–Bruce Hurst.
Can didn’t like it, and not feeling chipper,
went to the clubhouse, and bad turned to worse.

He drank ignorant oil from twelve-ounce cans,
removing himself from relief pitching plans.
Except for one season, he was never the same;
with the Expos, in ’90, when he won ten games.

Image result for happy couples restaurant newton mass

So the next time you see a former major leaguer,
in a bar having drinks, and you’re wife’s feeling eager
to get him to add his forlorn scribble
to an ephemeral item, stop her, don’t quibble.

The man’s entitled to his peace and quiet,
and he might need a drink–go ahead and buy it.

Death of Loved One Brings Office Loner Out of His Shell

BURLINGTON, Mass.   Software engineer Tim Philman acquired a reputation as an office “loner” during the decade he spent at Infomatrixtech writing code for its popular left-handed spreadsheet program.  “I think human relations are overrated,” he said in an interview that was “spiked” before it appeared in the company newsletter.  “And no,” he told the in-house marketing assistant who was writing the article, “I don’t want to hear about your kids.”


Orthen-Bean:  “Tim–was that a nice thing to say about someone’s children?”

 

But then his employer merged into its larger West coast rival Intektron to form Infomatektrixtronics, resulting in a combined company with more than double its previous market share.  “Sometimes big is bad,” says V.P. of Human Resources Linda Orthen-Bean, “but having a stronger balance sheet means better compensation and benefits.”

One upgrade that employees now enjoy is an enhanced bereavement benefit.  The company offers a dollar-for-dollar match of contributions that employees make to help colleagues through difficult times before they can find out what’s in their parents’ safe deposit boxes and unfreeze assets held in joint name with a deceased spouse.  “A lot of people don’t realize that when a loved one dies, the impact isn’t just emotional,” says Orthen-Bean.  “You may have trouble draining the checking account that your deadbeat husband’s been using for years to buy tacky jewelry for his mistress.”


“Dear Mr. Qwerty:  We are returning your quick brown fox to you, postage prepaid.”

 

It was this program that finally caused the unmarried Philman to take notice of the feelings of those around him.  “I wouldn’t spend a nickel on chocolate bars for your daughter’s U-12 soccer team to go to Disney World,” he says with an uncharacteristic display of sympathy, “but if the company’s going to let me free ride on their fifty cents when somebody dies, I guess I might feel differently.”

And so Philman and a few others like him–sharp-eyed finance people, office supply clerks who supplemented their meager income by selling stolen Post-It Notes–began to respond for the first time to firm-wide emails soliciting contributions, and the unexpected thawing of stand-offish personalities caused a warming trend to move in where a chillier office climate had previously prevailed.

“Tim’s really not a bad guy once you get to know him a bit,” says Orthen-Bean, who has signed off on more than one review in his personnel file complaining that he’s not a “team player.”  “He’s a totally different person now, it’s very gratifying,” she says.

Image result for office worker coffee cup
Tim, just about to reach Level XVII of “The Legend of Zenda’s Breath.”

 

So changed is the self-described video game “junkie” that today is his turn to open up to others and receive condolences on the loss of his father.  “Thanks so much, really appreciate it,” he says to Meredith Bialostick, a VP of Marketing who stops by the employee lounge to put $10 in the “kitty,” to be matched by the company under its new policy.

“I know how hard it is to lose a parent,” Bialostick says, although she doesn’t since both of hers are still alive.

“It’s tough,” Philman says, “but at least he’s at peace now.”

“When is the funeral?” Bialostick asks, her face contorted by conflicting desires to express her condolences and to get an early start on the weekend.

“Let’s see,” Philman says, scratching his chin and looking off into the distance.  “I guess it was 2015, right before the merger.”

Ballet Twister

“You’re not going to try and stay up late with us, are you?” my wife said apropos of a little soiree we were having for her ballet friends Saturday night.  “You need your rest for the work week,” she said, her face a veritable picture postcard of concern.


“Dear God, please don’t let him stay up and make stupid ballet jokes!”

 

“Actually, I think I’ll take a long nap in the afternoon so I can keep up with your fast crowd,” I said, but she was having none of it.

“I worry about your health, sweetie,” she said.  What she meant, of course, was that if something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to keep working like some kind of dumb animal for another ten years.

“No, seriously,” I said, “I’ll take a nap in the morning after I swim to warm up for my afternoon nap.  That way I won’t pull a muscle when I yawn.”

“No, you’re so much older than the rest of us,” she said, as if that mattered.  I’d be the only one out on the roads biking at six the next morning, but the thought of riding with a hangover gave me pause, and caused me to agree with her for reasons of my own.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said.  “I’ll excuse myself around 11 . . .”

“Why not 10:30?” she interrupted me to ask.

“What’s the rush?”

To the extent that she’s capable of embarrassment, she appeared to be embarrassed.  “Well–it’s just that . . .”

“Yes?”

“We have so much more fun when you’re not around.”

I think she regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth.  I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, what with my highbrow tastes in literature like Joseph Conrad and my lowbrow tastes in music like Walter “Wolfman” Washington.  Still, it wasn’t a nice thing to say.


Wolfman Washington, left, Joseph Conrad, right: Have never appeared in same sentence before.

 

“Fine,” I snapped, and I made sure she knew how I felt.  “I’ll just toddle off to bed like a good little boy who’s been allowed to come downstairs to recite ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ for a dish of ice cream.”


The Wreck of the Hesperus: Use the mast as a flotation device!

 

“It’s really for the best,” she said.  She leaned in to kiss me just like the female CEO told her to, but I jerked my head back like Muhammad Ali avoiding a roundhouse right.

“I won’t overstay my welcome,” I said and I left her to wrap asparagus in filo dough.

The guests arrived fashionably late because they do everything fashionably.  They’re married but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at their driver’s licenses. She’s Pierina Ivanovna Plietskayanovaulanmarkovachessinka, a woman whose name is so long after you add the patronymic that when she steps outside for a smoke it extends into our neighbor’s screened-in porch, a source of much friction over the years.

He, by contrast, has only one name, Georg, pronounced in the European manner, “GAY-org,” which makes him sound like a non-profit web domain.  I guess they figured since her name takes up half the phonebook in our little suburb, he should cut back on his to reduce their nomenclature footprint.

Pierina is hard to take, but Georg is truly unbearable.  He never goes anywhere without a scarf, even to the bathroom.  I hope he uses it as a handtowel.

We greet our guests at the door, exchange air kisses, and then get the party started.  Pierina isn’t sure she can eat a whole stalk of asparagus, so she just masticates a piece until it looks like something you’d scrape off a lawnmower blade, then removes it daintily from her mouth with a napkin–a cloth napkin, I might add.

After dessert my wife starts to make rather conspicuous throat-clearing noises, a signal that I’m supposed to say I’m really beat after a long week at work, and for everybody to carry on without me.  Which I do.

“Oh, now don’t go to spoil the funs we are have so much of already!” Pierina says.  English is her first language, but she studied Broken English at a Berlitz school so she’d sound Russian when she interviewed for open ballerina jobs.

“No, really, I’m tired.  I’ll just clear these dishes and let you–young folks–get on with the serious business of BOLL-ay talk.”  Note how I hung that Mikhail Baryshnikov pronunciation of the term on them, so they’d know I’m no slouch in the dance department.

As I brushed my teeth I reflected bitterly on my fate: If we’d had my friends over, it would have been . . .   Wait a minute: like a lot of busy guys, I don’t have friends anymore; all our friends are carefully selected by my wife to ensure that she enjoys talking to the distaff half of the couple, and if I don’t like the husband, that’s my tough yupkas.

I went to bed and thankfully the dance crowd was quiet enough for me to fall asleep, but I was awakened–as is typical of men my age–by the need to relieve myself.  I propped myself up on one elbow, looked at the clock–3:30 in the morning–then turned to my wife’s side of the bed, and saw that she wasn’t there!  I listened and heard the sound of laughter floating up the stairs, and resolved that, Terpsichore or no Terpsichore, it was time to put my foot down.  In a non-dance way, of course.


Terpsichore, Muse of Dance:  The original wardrobe malfunction.

 

I tiptoed to the top of the stairs, determined to learn what exactly these aesthetes do with my wife until all hours of the night when we have them over.  One look tells me all I need to know: it’s a veritable orgy in progress down there, with limbs flailing away around bodies packed together like a scrum on the floor.

“So this is how you repay my hospitality!” I say with as much outraged umbrage–or is it umbraged outrage?–as I can muster.

The looks of surprise on the three faces reveals their guilt.  So there has been some sort of sick menage a trois going on all these years!  I grope for the words of contempt I’m looking for in French, the universal language of ballet.  Merdre?  Sacre bleu?  Des saucisses sans doubte?

“Honey, it’s not what you think!” my wife exclaims as she runs towards me.  I stiff arm her like a Heisman Trophy, however.  “It’s too late for apologies!”

“I wasn’t going to apologize–I was going to invite you to play Ballet Twister with us!”

“Yes, please–do join us!” Georg says, all smarmy superciliousness.

“You’re–really playing Twister?” I ask hesitantly.

“Yes,” Georg replies.  “It’s the game that ties you up in knots!”

“Produced by the Milton Bradley Company,” Pierina begins in her stilted tone of voice, “Twister is a game of physical skill played on . . .”

“I know what Twister is, Pierina,” I say, cutting her off.  “I was playing Twister before you tied on your first pair of toe shoes.  There is no such thing as Ballet Twister.”

“But there is now–we made it up!” my wife exclaims.

I decide to give her the benefit of the doubt.  “What makes it different from ordinary Twister?”

“It is simple!” Pierina says.  “Instead of four rows of colored dots, we have one row of famous ballets, one row of choreographers, one row of prima ballerinas assoluta, and one row of famous ballerinos.”

“What’s a ballerino?” I ask.

“It’s the male of the species,” Georg says.  He’s actually using a civil tone, so I’m somewhat mollified.

“Well, I’m up now–how does it work?” I say.

“Same as regular Twister.  We twirl the spinner, and it tells us where to put our hands and feet!” Pierina says.  She’s currently spraddled across her husband in a contortion that looks like something out of Cirque de Soleil.

“Go on, honey–give it a try!” my wife says.

“Well, all right,” I say.  “But I am not putting on a tutu.”

“You don’t have to!” Georg says, and with that my wife spins.  When the needle stops, she announced “Right hand–Balanchine!”

“I don’t see his name,” I say, but Georg breaks out laughing.

“It is underneath Pierina!” he says.

Okay, fair enough.  I decide to play along and slink like a lizard beneath the two of them.

It’s Georg’s turn, and my wife spins him a tough one: left foot, Coppelia.


Coppelia

 

“Oh, man!” Georg says, and for once his voice is drained of its normal preciosity.  Maybe he’s actually having . . . fun.

The guy is lithe, I’ve got to say that for him.  He wends his leg through a little arc formed by his wife’s right arm, and . . . with just inches to spare . . . busts a move that may clinch the game for him.

“I dast you to beat that, sweetie,” he says, using the substandard present tense singular and plural of dare. Frankly, I didn’t know he had it in him.

“Okay,” Pierina says.  “How do you say–‘Let ‘er rip!’”

The dial is spun and–Good Lord!–it is the most difficult move on the mat: a right foot Cynthia Gregory!

Pierina has trained for this moment all her life, however; it is her turn in the spotlight, and as she considers her options, her face takes on a look of fearless calculation.  It is the look of a puma about to leap on the neck of some stupid crunchy-granola hiker who’s ignored the warning signs placed on the trail by the Sierra Club that say CAUTION: THERE’S A PUMA BEHIND YOU.

“I tinks,” she says, “I see an opening,” and with that she spins her torso so she’s facing the floor, thrusts her leg just beneath my abdomen and . . . nails it!  We are now sticking together like a clot of day-old spaghetti left in a collander overnight.  I can’t see how any of us will ever be able to move again.

“Just a minute,” Georg says.  “You committed the fatal error that is the undoing of so many Twister divas.

“What is that?” his wife asks, exposing for the first time a rift between the two love-boids.

“Your knee touched the floor in violation of official Twister Rules!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dance Fever–Catch It!”

Revive His Flagging Sex Drive The Wall Street Journal Way

What to Do When a Man’s Sex Drive Flags? 

Do new nonsexual things together.  Take up a new hobby, try a new cuisine, ride a roller coaster.

The Wall Street Journal

As I entered the gates of Six Flags Over New England in beautiful Agawam, Massachusetts, I had no idea what surprise my wife had in store for me.  She said she’d be a little late, and that I should meet her at the ticket booth to the “Doomsday Express,” which I was having a hard time processing.  She’d always hated scary amusement park attractions, and would frequently send our sons links to news stories about accidents resulting in death and dismemberment on carnival rides.  “See?” she’d say in the white space above the tale of a gruesome catastrophe, “Maybe mom knows best after all.”  People always say they hate to say they told you so, but they say the check is in the mail too.

We’ve hit a bumpy patch lately, both of us busy with our lives, and my guess–and hope–is that she’s trying to jump-start our relationship by throwing me off guard in some way.  The amusement park has got to be a diversionary tactic–a head fake.  She’ll show up with a really nice picnic basket from Crate & Barrel with a crisp Vouvray and lobster salad sandwiches, and we’ll spend the afternoon poking a stick at the dying embers of our love life.

I see her approach but, instead of a picnic basket, she’s got several containers of take-out food and a large album in her hands–somewhat out of character, as she usually works on her scrapbook in front of the fireplace, so she can destroy any photos of her youthful self that she finds too unflattering to preserve.


Freedonian take-out.

 

“Hi there!” I call out and rush to help her.  “What’s all this?” I say, half-feigning surprise because I knew she wouldn’t arrive empty-handed.

“I don’t want to eat amusement park food.”

“You don’t?” I say, with sincere disappointment.  Some of my happiest culinary memories involve Prono-Pups, a/k/a “corn dogs”–I would devour as a boy on the grounds of the Missouri State Fair.

“No, all that salt and grease.  Here–take this,” she says as she hands me the album and we sit down on a bench.

“What is this?”

“The food, or the book?”

“Well, both.”

“I don’t know,” she says, somewhat evasively.  “We haven’t had a ‘conjugal visit’ for a long time, so I thought maybe philately and spicy food would put us in the mood.”

I bristle emphatically, hoping to convey to her that whatever sick sex trick she has in mind, I’m not interested.  “I don’t care what your artsy friends are into,” I say, drawing myself to my full 5’10”–and shrinking!–height.  “There are still sodomy laws on the books here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, even if they aren’t enforced.”

She looks at my as if I’m daft–perceptive woman–then she figures out my perplexity.  “Philately isn’t some weird sex thing that was considered perverse just a few years ago but which now deserves not just your tolerance but full-fledged advocacy according to a major political party,” she says breathlessly, and I have to say I’m impressed at the amount of public policy she’s packed between those punctuation marks.  “Philately is a fun hobby for both old and young that includes the collection and appreciation of postage stamps, our little mucilage-backed buddies in the upper-right hand corner of the envelopes we love to send and receive.”

“So . . . an activity that doesn’t involve licking anything?”

“Absolutely not!  If you lick a stamp it loses much of its value to collectors.”

“Well, you’re the expert, I was a numismatist when I was a kid.”

“I thought you were raised Catholic.”


Look closely, and you can see the mark of a nefarious plot to corrupt American youth.

 

“No–coin collector.  I still get all misty-eyed remembering the crazy conspiracy theories of my youth about the supposed Communist hammer-and-sickle symbol on the Kennedy half dollar.”

“Was that the subject of your prize-losing oration?” she asked.

“You’re conflating two speeches,” I said, using a high-falutin’ term I picked up from either The New Yorker or Grit.  “One was ‘Values: American vs. Communist’ and the other was ‘Did Lee Harvey Oswald Act Alone?'”

“I thought there was something about drugs and space aliens in there too.”

“You have been paying attention!” I said with no small amount of spousal gratification.  “There was also ‘UFOs–Friends or Foes?’ and ‘LSD: Insight–or Insanity?'”

“You really were a Renaissance Boy weren’t you?”

“That was my goal, but I was born six hundred years too late.  So what kind of take-out did you get?”

“Freedonian.”


Lusty but chaste Freedonian youth, making goo-goo eyes at each other.

 

“Freedonian?  But . . . that’s a fictional country.”

“I know, but you’re always writing about it on that stupid . . . I mean on your ‘blog,’ so I found a place that actually makes it.”

I kissed her on the forehead, the way I did in 9th grade to Pam McAlister–a girl who for all I knew pulled wings off flies.  It’s a way to show affection that is deeper than sexual attraction–in case you’re into that kind of thing.

“So . . . what’s the inspiration for all this ceremony?” I asked as we began to chow down on the cardamom fritters, weasel steaks and sticky eggplant buns that are so popular among Freedonians.

She lowered her eyelids in what I took to be a display of modesty, then she looked up at me through those beautiful blue contact lenses she wears.  I detected a tear in her eyes–then she spoke over a lump in her throat.

“Do you . . . still love me?” she asked.

“Of course I do.  Why do you ask?”

She looked down again.  “Sometimes, you don’t seem . . . interested in me any more.”

I put my arms around her and hugged her tenderly, with as much heartfelt sincerity as I was capable of.  Chicks dig that sort of thing.  “So this crazy combination of a hobby, and weird food . . .”

“Don’t forget the roller coaster.”

“It was your idea of a way to re-kindle our love life?”

“It actually wasn’t my idea.”

“One of your girlfriends came up with this cockamie cocktail of erotic stimulation?”

“No, it was The Wall Street Journal.”

“The ‘Daily Diary of the American Dream.'”

“That’s the one.”

“But I thought you just read that for the earnings reports, and the Mansion section on Friday, and ‘Life & Arts’ in the weekend edition.”

“Apparently they’ve gone into the romantic advice business now too.”

I emitted a little snort, and became flush in the face.  I remembered all those article pitches I’d sent to the Journal over the years on a wide variety of political and artistic topics–ranging in tone from serious to whimsical–only to get the same withering put-down email rejection.  “I wish they’d done this years ago,” I said.

“Why?”

“My love life is the one thing I’m the world’s leading expert on.”

Walk for Congenital Smart-Alecks Finds Many Feet in Mouths

NATICK, Mass.  The start time for one of the Boston area’s many charitable walks is fast approaching, but while other fund-raisers are stretching and filling water bottles, one couple remains in their car, the distaff side with her head in her hands.

“Why did you have to say that to my mother–of all people!” Lynn Herrikus is saying to her husband Jason.

“She left herself wide open,” he replies, explaining, but not justifying his crack “So you like the feel of a wild beast between your legs?” to his 83-year-old mother-in-law after she said she’d like to try horseback riding.


“Nice cankles!”

 

Herrikus has CSAS, an acronym that stands for Congenital Smart-Aleck Syndrome, an affliction that walk sponsors say affects two million Americans.  “I was diagnosed at a very early age, long before the American Psychiatric Association listed it,” he says ruefully, but not entirely so.  “I figure as long as I suffer from my ailment, everyone else should too.”

CSAS victims are overwhelmingly male, and their symptoms grow worse as they hit middle-age and realize they will not achieve youthful ambitions.  “As they grow older their smart-aleckiness can take a darker turn,” says Dr. Oliver Maslan, a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts State Home for the Criminally Sarcastic, the largest public facility of its kind in New England.  “I don’t know why they’re so bitter.  Look where I ended up in life, instead of some cushy private practice in the suburbs.”

A “smart-aleck” is an obnoxiously conceited and self-assertive person with pretensions to cleverness, according to the current edition of the Physician’s Desk Reference.  Symptoms include a tendency to crack wise in inappropriate circumstances, although those outside the profession say no setting can ever justify a cutting remark since if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all.


“We didn’t say anything smart-alecky the whole way!”

 

Proceeds of the walk will fund the cost of research at the Lauren B. Holcomb Institute for the Study of Cynical Expression, but Jason Herrikus says he has his doubts as to the prospects for a cure.  “Research–hah!” he exclaims as he strides a few steps behind his still-steaming wife.  “By ‘research’ they mean ‘new BMWs for all the lard-ass doctors on the staff.'”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “I Hear America Whining.”

Happy Hairball Awareness Day

A windy April Saturday. There’s just me and two cats, Rocco and Okie, three sullen males grunting their way through the day–as usual–while the wife’s out shopping for essential items.  Milk, bread, a tall vanilla no-foam latte, a 2023 calendar.


Rocco: “You insensitive clod!”

And yet something’s–not quite right. Okie, the elder cat, seems–distrait. Taciturn. Phlegmatic. And those are just leftover vocab words from my son’s senior English class.


“Just leave me alone–okay?”

He sits on a windowsill, staring off into the middle distance, as if he’s depressed. He’s indifferent to my attentions, or perhaps I should say more indifferent that he–or any other cat–is normally. Rocco’s outside rolling in the dirt, so I amble up to him for a sidebar.

“Nice day if it don’t rain, huh?” I say.

“Yeah. I’m going to hassle those stupid long-haired chihuahuas next door.”

“Okay, but get that out of your system early–I want to take a nap this afternoon. Hey–have you noticed anything funny about Okie?”


“Yip, yip, yip!”

“Funny strange, or funny ha-ha?”

“Strange. He seems somewhat–distant today.”

Rocco looks at me with a pitiless expression and shakes his head. “You are so freaking clueless.”

“What?”

He takes a second to scratch for a tick under his chin. “It’s all about you–isn’t it? You sit there at your computer all day in your own little world. Never thinking about anybody else.”

“Hey–if I don’t sit at my computer all day, you don’t get any Iams Low Fat Weight Control Dry Cat Food.”

“Oh, whoop-de-do! That stuff’s so bad I’d rather eat the bag.”

“You’ll thank me in a couple of years when every other cat in the neighborhood has a gut that’s dusting the floor. But seriously–is something the matter with him?”

“Don’t you know what yesterday was?”


St. Swithin: Peace out, dawg.

I search my memory. Not Arbor Day. Not my elder sister’s birthday, although that’s coming up sometime in the next month–or two.  St. Swithin’s Day? Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding anniversary? “I give up–what?”

Rocco closes his eyes, as if he can’t believe how stupid I am. “It was Hairball Awareness Day, you mook!”

I’m confused. “Okie’s a short-hair. Why would he get emotional about hairballs?”

“You are such an insensitive clod,” Rocco says, licking his white ruff. “Hairballs can strike any cat, at any time–long or short-hair.”

“I didn’t know. We get so many solicitations at work. United Fund. All kinds of diseases. You don’t expect me to keep up with all of them, do you?”


National Hairball Awareness Poster Child

“Look–just because there’s no washed-up comedian doing a telethon for Hairball Awareness doesn’t mean you can completely ignore a cause that means so much to someone right in your own home!”


“Ack-ack-ack–it’s the sound of a hairball attack!”

“But I don’t . . .”

Rocco cuts me off. “Okie’s mom died of a hairball.”

Okay. ‘Nuf said. I “get it.” “Jeez–I didn’t realize.”

“You should go talk to him. Maybe buy a bracelet, or at least a ribbon.”

I take out my wallet. I’ve got four ones and a twenty. Stupid cat won’t know the difference.

“And don’t try to stiff him like you do the mini-mites hockey kids who accost you at the stoplights with their coffee cans.”

“You’re right. I’ll go talk to him.” I go back in the house and Okie’s still sitting where he was when I left, his chin on his paws.

“Hey Oke,” I say, “I’m . . . uh . . . sorry I forgot about Hairball Awareness Day.”

He looks up at me without anger. “That’s okay,” he says. “Who was it that said the universe was indifferent to our suffering?”


Camus: 1951 Existentialist Rookie of the Year.

“I don’t know. Either Albert Camus–or Yogi Berra.”

He lets out a short little sigh. “I think of the poem by Auden . . .”

“Musee des Beaux Arts?”


Auden: “At least this post has a smoking section.”

“Right. How suffering takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window . . . “

” . . . or just walking dully along?” I say, finishing the line for him. Nothing like the consolations of art–their purgative powers–to help one get over sadness.

“I tell you what,” I say. “I’ve got $24–I’m going to make a contribution in your mother’s name to the National Hairball Foundation.”

His eyes mist over–or at least I think they do. “Save your money,” he says.

“But I want to.”

“No–you’re going to need it.”

“Why?” I ask.

“For some Resolve Multi-Surface Fabric Cleaner. I upchucked a hairball on the dining room rug.”

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