Wanted: America’s Next Prison Rodeo Queen

If you want to advance beyond your current dead-end job, experts say you must be nimble and quick to leap at employment opportunities that may disappear in the blink of an eye. Sort of like Jack, the guy who jumped over the candle stick. Just try and find a high-paying job with health insurance jumping over candlesticks these days–they’ve all been outsourced to India, where candles are still plentiful.

If you’re not paying attention, a job opening can slam shut before you’ve read Ziggy, checked the winning lottery numbers and finally made your way back to the want ads. By then, it’s too late.

Ziggy: His job is safe.


If you weren’t paying attention, for example, you might not have read that Jo Ann Cornell, Oklahoma prison rodeo queen, died a while back. When you come across a weird news item like this, you can’t afford to ignore it. You’ve got to pursue your enlightened self-interest and ask, “What does this mean for me?”

I’ll tell you what it means: There’s one less prison rodeo queen to compete with! Now is the time to spiff up that resume and start calling around to America’s state and federal prisons and ask “May I please speak to your human resources department? I’m interested in becoming your prison’s rodeo queen!”

“I see why Doc waived the entry fee.”


In the small town in Missouri where I grew up our family doctor sponsored a rodeo every summer.  M.D. degree, rodeo–what’s the connection, you may ask.  Simple. Rodeos produce injuries the way nits make lice. I think Dr. Lowe’s only entry requirement was that prospective bull-riders and calf-ropers have health insurance or a wallet full of cash.

Rodeo queens, on the other hand, are royalty, and do not have to risk life and limb to perform their job functions. You have to know how to smile and wave, not sit on top of 2,200 pounds of snarling future hamburger.

Unfortunately, the competition for jobs in rodeo queening outside of prison is fierce. That’s why an opening in the prison rodeo queen employment sector is so important. Here are some tips on how you can “get a leg up” on other applicants for the next prison rodeo queen position that opens up in your state.

Commit a crime: This is fundamental. You are much more likely to see a job posting for a prison rodeo queen opening if you’re actually in prison.  “So many girls overlook the basics because they spend to much time on their hair and makeup,” says Marilu Pfenner-Smith, a former Junior Rodeo Queen at the Central Missouri Home for Wayward Boys and Girls.  Care should be taken that the crime you commit not be one that exposes you to capital punishment, however. “If you are dead, you will be ineligible for most prison rodeo queen positions,” says Erroll Neuman of the Kentucky Department of Corrections. “You have to be able to fill out the paper work, not just ride around on Chintz, your golden palomino.”

Have your outfit ready. Do not show up for a prison rodeo queen interview in a tailored suit, sensible shoes and a white blouse with a floppy bow tie. “You need to look the part when you first meet the warden, look him or her in the eye, shake hands and say ‘I’m going to be your next prison rodeo queen or bust a gut trying!” notes Elena Jo Shortsleeve, whose reign as Arkansas State Prison Rodeo Queen was tragically cut short when a cockleburr embedded in her never mind became infected.

Nobody likes a pouty prison rodeo queen.


Be yourself. Too many girls try to “put on airs” and be someone they are not when they first embark upon their prison rodeo queen career. “We went through the ‘punk’ queens and the ‘goth’ queens and that is so 90′s now,” says Melva Louise Ritter, editor of Prison Rodeo Queen Monthly. “The fresh-faced-girl-next-door-convenience-store-holdup-getaway-car-driver look is so much more appealing to the state Boards of Correction who make prison rodeo queen hiring decisions.”

The Sure Cure for Writer’s Block

She takes her lattes extra skinny.
She drives a Cooper, it’s a Mini.
But when she takes pen in hand to put black on white,
the sad truth is—she can’t write.

His political opinions are properly aligned
towards the conventional wisdom, he’s inclined.
But as much as he tries to get his sentiments right,
His problem is—he can’t write.

They’ve taken the courses, responded to “prompts,”
you’d think that the scribbling part would be a romp.
But as much as they look like writerly types
They’re incapable of what’s known in the trade as “sitzfleisch”:

The ability to sit for hours on end,
to ignore dog, cat, internet, family and friends,
with your butt in your chair,
while your head’s in the air–

that’s what it takes if you want to give shape,
to airy nothingness, not a mouth all agape,
and an eye towards fashion and the au courant dance,
it’s the very opposite of ants in your pants.

A Day in the Life of a Texas High School Prom Dress Coach

A high school in Texas requires female students to have prom dresses pre-approved by a school coach.

The Wall Street Journal

As I looked out the window of my tiny, bare-bones office onto the mesquite-speckled shrub land that rolled away to distant mountains, I had to ask myself–why the hell did I ever decide to become a high school prom dress coach?

Tommy Nobis: “Dang, girl.  You can’t go strapless in that get-up.”


The pay was lousy, and the hours were long–but sporadic.  Eleven months out of the year I sit around filing inserts in my Texas High School Prom Dress Coaches Handbook of Regulations, trying to keep myself busy.  Then come May, all of a sudden I’m hit hard, like a high-plains twister came down the halls of Tommy Nobis Consolidated Regional High School when I wasn’t looking.  Every girl has got to be checked out right now!  About the only consolation I get out of the job is the look of happiness I see on the face of the gals–especially the juniors–when I look down their bodices and tell them their dress passes muster.  “Where’s muster?” one of them asked me the other day, and I had to chuckle.  “It’s between Corsicana and Terrell,” I said.  “Once you pass it, take 45 North to Ennis, then 175 to Waxahachie.”  I don’t think she got the joke.

And then it all came back to me.  It was my Poppa-Daddy, Jim Earl Clayton, considered the greatest Texas high school prom dress coach of all time, who inspired me.  He led John David Crow Voke-Tech to 32 consecutive years without a prom dress code violation.  One day after I told him I wanted to become a doctor or a lawyer he said “Son, there ain’t a lot of money in bein’ a high school prom dress coach, but the satisfaction you get in making sure every girl’s nipples are invisible to the naked eye until the prom is over and she is safely ensconced in the back seat of her boyfriend’s Oldsmobile Rocket 88–well, that’s priceless.”

Poppa-Daddy was the man who came up with two of the most widely-used standards for Texas High School Prom Dress measurement; the “navel-latitude test” for backless dresses, and the “areola-must-be-in-controlla” for low-cut gowns.  He was tough but fair; if a gal could keep her nippers concealed beneath fabric for thirty seconds while singing either “The Yellow Rose of Texas” or “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You,” he didn’t care whether they flopped out later when she was dancing to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.”

Still, the amount of abuse I take for the work I do makes it hard sometimes.  Just the other day Vera Lynn Schwenger’s mother Nae Ann came stormin’ down the hall to appeal my decision on an orange taffeta dress that was as tight as a Creamsicle wrapper.

“Ms. Schwenger, I’m sorry, but Vera Lynn looked like an uncooked sausage in that outfit,” I said.  “And you know what happens when you cook sausage on the grill . . .” I said, my voice trailing off in self-censorship.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nae Ann said as she came closer, batting her paste-on eyelashes.

“She’s gonna sizzle–and then she’s gonna pop,” I said, hoping she would “get the message” without me having to “draw her a picture.”

“God DAMMIT!” Nae Ann screamed, and I didn’t know whether to shut my office door or leave it open.  “How the hell is Vera Lynn going to attract an auto dealer’s son if she don’t set some bait?”

Hot as a sausage and ready to pop.


I lifted my ball cap (“Jim Earl Clayton Jr. Prom Queen All-Star Camp”) and scratched my head in an effort to appear like I was thoughtfully considering her position.  “You know, Nae Ann, our primary mission here at Tommy Nobis High is educating our children, not making them look like pole dancers on Bourbon Street.  I believe the children are our future, and . . .”

“Don’t give me that high-minded intellectual crap,” she snapped.  “I breathe a sigh of relief if Vera Lynn doesn’t have anything worse than a C on her report card.  Her chances of making it through college are slim and none, and Slim has left town.”

When she put it that way, I had to feel a little sorry for her.  Her daughter’s only extracurricular activity in three years of high school was her “Keep the Beehive Alive!” campaign when the Waxahachie Superintendent of Schools threatened to ban the hairstyle for health reasons after reading a lurid account of a “do” that became infested with chinch bugs due to excessive use of White Rain Hairspray.

It could happen here.


“Well Nae Ann, I suppose we could make an exception if . . .”

“If what?”

“If she would add a devil-may-care, slightly off-the-shoulder stole, to . . . um . . . conceal her most precious assets, I might relent.”

“You didn’t lend me anything in the first place.”

“No, I mean ease up, cut her some slack.  Here–take a look at this catalog from ‘Your Night to Shine by Helga.’  She offers a wide-ranging assortment of accessories–and try saying that five times fast.”

Nae Ann took the picture book from my hand and was like a little kid with a Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog.  “These are nice–but is there enough time to order one and have it git here by next Saturday night?” she asked.

I hesitated a bit before I spoke.  It wasn’t my job to get a girl in under the wire if her no-count mother neglected to get her gown cleared early.  “I tell you what,” I said finally.


“If it don’t get here in time, Vera Lynn can drape my Houston Oilers autographed game-worn George Blanda jersey around her–it’ll drive any boy wild!”

To Hell With Correct Posture Month

May is supposed to be a merry month, going back as far as Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker, who wrote the deathless lines:

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!

But that’s not how I remember it.

The monthly grade school assembly for April when I was growing up was customarily closed with the announcement that May was Correct Posture Month, and thus would begin a reign of terror that recalled Robespierre, if you knew who the hell Robespierre was.

“Good posture can bite me!”

“So let’s all try and stand up straight all through the month of May!” Father Laudick would urge us in a genial tone, and his cordon of nefarious henchmen (as Rocky and Bullwinkle would call them) would then embark upon a program of vicarious vindictiveness that recalled the murder of St. Thomas a Becket by three knights of Henry II who happened to hear him say “Will no one rid me of this turbulent posture freak?”

“A cordon of nefarious henchmen?”

And so May would come in with a program of enforced good posture, leaving the bookish, the lazy and the just plain indifferent exposed to a program of rolling enforcement similar to “stop and frisk” in the ghetto; your every movement was the subject of unwanted scrutiny, and you risked both harassment for conduct that violated no law and punishment if you resisted a command to pull your shoulders back and suck in your gut.

The lay teachers at a Catholic school typically operate at a disadvantage, like eunuchs in a seraglio.  They have no authority to enforce the canon law of the church except by proxy, and so they seize on non-liturgical rules with the sadistic fervor of a chain gang guard.  “Do you know what month this is?” Mrs. Kennedy or Miss Imhauf might say as they brandished a weapon of classroom control in their hands.

“Why no, I don’t,” a young wag might reply.  “Is it . . . Girl Scout Cookie Mon–OW!”

With the rubber tip of a chalkboard pointer buried into your clavicle, you stood up straight whether you wanted to or not.

It wasn’t the strict enforcement of Correct Posture Month that used to get my goat so much as the patent unfairness of it all; School Library Month was April, and if you wanted to be able to show your face when the roll of those who’d completed their reading list was called up yonder on the auditorium stage, you had to get busy.

“You want me to use this on you?  Well–do you?”

But reading, as any bibliophile will tell you, produces bad posture.  H.L. Mencken, surely one of the 20th century’s most voracious readers, wore his bad posture as a badge of honor, referring in his later years to his “matronly” figure.

The harpies and the harridans of good posture, when confronted with this irrefutable argument, would appeal to a boy’s native sense of emulation.  “Don’t you want to be a big, strong athlete?” they’d say.  What boy could refute the implications of that loaded question?

Stan Musial Stance
Stan Musial, slouching.

Well, I could.  “How about Stan Musial?” I’d fire right back.  “He slumps back in his stance for power.  When he uncoils from his crouch, he . . .”

At this point reinforcements would be called in, usually Sister Mary Clarus, the Precious Blood sister known as the enforcer of good posture because of the power of her “monkey bite” grip on your elbow that would send you into paroxysms of pain.

Mussolini: Good posture is a leading indicator of pure evil.

But there were larger, real-world counter-examples.  Leaders of the Axis powers–Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito–all were good posture fanatics.  “You wouldn’t want me to grow up to snuff out the bright light of democracy–would you?”

That always gave the posture-powers-that-be . . . or were . . . pause.

“You know, Sister,” Mrs. Ilmberger would say to Sister Mary Joseph McCarthy, “he has a point.”

To which the Higher Power of the Hall Passes would say, “Yes–but if he combs his hair right, nobody will notice.”

I Wish They All Could Be Presbyterian Girls

(with apologies to Brian Wilson and Mike Love)

Well Hindu girls are cool, the way their foreheads have those spots,
Muslim girls who live in purdah–they don’t seem to get out a lot.
And what’s the deal with Episcopalians–are they Catholic, or are they not?
But I just love those Presbyterian girls even though they’re rarely hot–

Image result for hindu girl forehead dot

I wish they all could be Presbyterian girls
(wish they all could be Presbyterian . . .)
I wish they all could be Presbyterian . . .  giiiirls.

Image result for 50s Fashion for Teen Girls

Catholic girls are sweet, they say novenas all the time,
but they marry late, and they’re slow to date, unless they live in tropic climes.
Baptist girls are nice unless they’re the snake-handling kind,
But I’m thinking ’bout my Presbyterian girl, you know I can’t get her offa my mind.

I wish they all could be Presbyterian girls
(wish they all could be Presbyterian . . .)
I wish they all could be Presbyterian . . .  giiiirls.


Presbyterian girls wear dress shields, ’cause they don’t like to perspire.
You try to cop a feel, and say, “What’s the deal? This isn’t helping my desire.”
Their hand jobs are the worst, so just let me tell you how:
She shakes your hand at the door, and says “Nothing more–
don’t go and spoil a nice date now.”

Image result for 50s date good night

I wish they all could be Presbyterian girls
(wish they all could be Presbyterian . . .)
I wish they all could be Presbyterian . . .  giiiirls.

Happy Hairball Awareness Day

It’s Friday, and I’m “working” remotely from home.  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 2024 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.”


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 today is?”

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’s 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.”

Scooter & Skipper at the Roman Colosseum

Italy is shopping for a corporate sponsor to shell out $33 million to refurbish the 2,000-year-old Colosseum.

                                              Bloomberg News

We were bogged down in traffic as we approached the stadium, but we eventually found a lot where we could park our chariot–for 30 denarii!–while we took in the one game we can afford to attend each year.

“The Lions stop the Saints runner for no gain.”


“The Lions are gonna kill the Saints!” Scooter, the older of my two boys said, taunting Skipper, the other.  Skip is two years younger than his brother, and instinctively roots for the underdog because of all the noogias he has had to endure over the course of his childhood.

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Skip says as he shuffles his holy cards and puts them back in his pocket.  “St. Ignatius of Antioch gained 200 yards last time these two teams met.”  I’m proud of the way Skip uses cold, hard-headed statistical analysis to back up his emotional attachment to his team.

We make our way into the Colosseum–excuse me, its the Prince Spaghetti Colosseum now–and take in the beauty of Italy’s national pastime; sadistic cruelty to wacko religious cults.

“Dad, can we get autographs?” Scooter asks.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, sacked by Lions’ defenders.


“Sure, sure,” I say, happy that my boys are into sports and not drunken Bacchic orgies like so many of their friends.  “Just be careful.  If a lion grabs your program–let him have it.”

“Okay, dad.”  He takes off for the Lions dugout, where along with hundreds of other kids he extends his scorecard or a statue of a saint for a pawprint that he will treasure for the rest of his youth, then sell for big bucks when his wife tells him to get rid of all his sports memorabilia when he gets married.

“Please Mr. Lion–sign mine!”


Skipper is his usual, quiet self.  “Dad, I’m going down to the Saints dugout, okay?”

“Sure, son, sure,” I say.  The Saints have been on a terrible losing streak, but Skip never gives up on them.  They’re the perennial cellar-dwellers of the Italian Martyrs League.  Always the bridesmaids–in fact, always the mangled and mauled bridesmaids–and never the bride.  I think it builds character to stick with an underperforming religious franchise that has little hope of ever displacing paganism.

I watch him hold out his Holy Cards, hoping to get a martyr’s autograph.  The Saints are strangely calm, given the fate that awaits them; another loss, and none of them with guaranteed contracts.

Scooter returns from his quest with just a few scratches on his arm, and two “pawtographs” of key Lions’ players.  There’s Aslan Gryphon, a #1 draft pick who the martyr pages are calling a real animal, and Leo Kefir, a big cat who’s in the twilight of a career that has him on the verge of breaking Lionel Simba’s all-time record of 714 devoured Christians.

Skipper returns to our seats and the Saints begin their slow, dejected march to the center of the field.

“Monotheism sucks!” Scooter yells along with all the other Lions’ fans.

“Scoot–watch your language,” I caution him.

“But everybody else says it,” he says, a bit confused.

“That doesn’t mean your mother and I will let you talk that way.”

“How come we can’t come to the games more often?” Skipper asks.

“Well, it’s expensive.  Lions fans want to have the best team, but that costs money.  That’s why they’re taking on corporate sponsors and selling ads,” I say as I point to the walls festooned with banners pitching razor blades, wine and chariot tires.

“That’s not fair,” Skipper says, sensing the injustice of a system that’s skewed to favor big-market teams like the Lions over small but growing franchises whose fans hang on through millenia of lean times with cult-like tenacity.  “They ought to have revenue-sharing.”

“Skip, in case I haven’t told you before, it’s time I broke the news to you,” I say with resignation.  “Life is unfair.”

“Yeah, the Lions always win because they’re better,” Scooter says with the contemptuous tone of a first-born front runner.

“Well, Scoots,” I say, putting my arm around him as I always do when I’m about to give him painful but true fatherly advice that he’ll promptly ignore, “the race isn’t always to the swift.”

“What do you mean?” he asks, a look of consternation in his eyes.

“I think it’s a pretty safe bet that in 2,000 years the Lions will be on the endangered species list, while the Saints will be the third-largest landholder in the world after a company called Starbucks and a former cable TV magnate named Ted Turner.”

“Really?” Skip asks, a glimmer of hope breaking through the fog of despair that has hung over his favorite team for as long as he can remember.

“Yep, and the Saints will be led by an overpaid manager who wears a funny hat.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Scooter & Skipper Blow Things Up!

Do I Hear an Alarm, or is Someone Reciting Free Verse?

          Evelyn Waugh gave Edith Sitwell a pocket air-raid siren, which she would set off when people asked her whether free verse is more truly poetic than rhymed.

                The Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh

Edith Sitwell


As I turned the lock on the vault at the First Third Short National Bank, I could tell I was thisclose to realizing my dream; rolling in piles of dough, rifling safe deposit boxes for jewels and rare baseball cards, maybe even finding a pen in a bank that worked.

“You’re a freakin’ master,” my getaway car driver Mitch said. “It’s like watchin’ Einstein play the piano or sumpin’.”

I smiled at him and said “Thanks,” but held my finger to my lips. “I’ll need absolute silence.”

“You got it pal.”

Click-click-click I heard through my stethoscope. One more turn to the right and the tumblers would all fall into place! I held my breath and eased the dial ever-so-delicately with my fingers, but jumped back startled when I heard an alarm!

“What did you do?” I asked as I turned to look at Mitch.

“Nuthin’–I didn’t do nuthin. Except . . .”

“Except what?”

“Well, I did mumble a little sumpin’ to myself . . .”

“You fool!” I screamed, packing up my safecracking tools. “What was it?”

“Roses are red, violets are blue,
I like chocolate, and you can’t skate.”


The sky was dark and foreboding. There was a stillness in the air, an eerie calm that seemed to presage an unseen, unknown calamity.

The wind picked up a bit–I could tell by the way wisps of grandma’s hair were blowing where they came loose from her bun.

And then I heard it. The tornado warning siren from the National Guard Armory. There was no time to lose!

“Papa-daddy!” I shouted to my father. “Tornado’s comin’!”

My mom emerged from the kitchen, where she’d been canning okra and rhubarb for the winter. “Gramma!” she shouted, “into the root cellar–tornado’s coming!”

Grandmother turned her face to the wind and tilted her head towards town, the better to hear.

“We’re all gonna die!” my little sister Baby Elizabeth cried.

“No,” my grandmother said, slowly and thoughtfully. “That’s not the tornado alarm–”

“It’s not?” I asked as I tried to pull her out of her chair.

“No, sweetie,” she said. “That’s the siren they blow when a surrealist poet commits the pathetic fallacy.”


It was time for our monthly “duck and cover” drill, a routine we were all growing a little tired of. Yes, the Russians had the atomic bomb, yes Nikita Khrushchev had threatened to “bury” America, but still, the silly routine of getting down on the floor and covering our heads to protect ourselves from nuclear fallout had grown tiresome. We were all hooked on phonics, and would have much preferred to practice our “th” and “ph” sounds. Besides, I was tired of looking at Timmy Rouchka’s butt.

And then we heard it. A low moan at first, rising in pitch until it became a horrid scream–this time it was for real!

Sister Agnesita drew the blinds, the better to keep out radioactive isotopes such as strontium 90, the secret ingredient that enabled kids who wore Poll Parrot shoes to run faster and jump higher. “Hit the floor, kids!” she yelled as she comforted Susan Van de Kamp, whose show-and-tell presentation on the dikes of Holland would have to be postponed for the nuclear armageddon.

Just then the classroom door opened and we saw the principal, Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea. “Back to your multiplication tables,” she said brusquely.

“What happened?” Sister Agnesita asked with a mixture of relief and confusion.

“Some dingbat named e. e. cummings tripped the alarm.”

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

The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem

It was one of those dinner parties where everyone had had a little too much to drink, and the conversation around the table had grown more . . . shall we say, spirited. Changes were being rung on the usual male-female antinomies–shopping, burping, etc.–when one of the wives went a little too far.

. . . and don’t get me started on his back hair!”


“Jeff doesn’t know which end of a hammer is up,” a woman named Sally said with a laugh, which the other women joined in. The men, however, did not. They knew that no matter how inept your husband may be at home repairs, the male ego is such that you don’t embarrass him in front of other men on this score.

A chilly silence descended upon the male half of the table, which the women–insensitive clods that they can be sometimes–eventually noticed. I considered my usual gambit for diverting conversation from an uncomfortable topic–”How ’bout those Red Sox?”–but it seemed too transparent. I considered bringing my philosophical training to bear on the subject–”Does a hammer really have an ‘up’ and a ‘down’ end, Sally?”–but decided it would only prolong the agony.

No, what was needed was “direct action,” as the Wobbly Party used to say. “Sally, I know you probably didn’t mean to, but I think you’ve hit Jeff where it hurts–bad.”

“Well,” she replied, a trifle defensively, “it’s true.”

“There are many true things that needn’t be said.” I could feel a breeze on my legs from my wife’s efforts to kick me, but she was sitting too far away to make contact. “If this matter isn’t put right, I’m afraid you two won’t have sex tonight, then Jeff will be grumpy next week, his productivity will fall off, his year-end bonus will be inadequate, you two will end up getting divorced, and your kids will drop out of school and end up collecting deposit bottles and sleeping on heating grates for the rest of their lives.”

“Gosh, I didn’t know it was that serious,” she said.

“It is, and drastic measures are called for.”

“Like what?” she asked.

“The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem.”

The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem (drawing by Sage Stossel)


I looked around the table and saw only blank stares. “I guess this means none of you read my first novel,” I said, and I had a hard time keeping the bitterness out of my voice.

“Uh, I didn’t,” Jeff said.

“Sally–I thought your book group was going to read it,” I said sharply.

“We . . . we have so many other books to read first.”

“Chick lit,” I spat out with contempt. “Let me guess: in this week’s selection, a husband cheats on his wife, or he dies.”

“Actually both,” she said. “We wanted something with a happy ending.”

“You know, if just one of you would buy a copy of A View of the Charles I might move into the coveted top 8 million books on amazon.com–but no.”

“But–you have so many unsold copies in your garage,” the guy to my left said. “It seems such a waste of natural resources to have your print-on-demand publisher crank out another one.”

“I’d like you to know,” I said defensively, that it’s now in a second edition, with a new cover, a new title–’Making Partner’–by a new publisher.”

“Why’s that?” Jeff asked.

“So it won’t be associated with the failure of the first edition,” my wife said unhelpfully.

I could feel my face reddening, but I couldn’t let my personal embarrassment get in the way of my mission; to save a marriage that was in trouble.

“C’mon everybody–into the living room for the Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem.”

“How do we do it?” my wife asked, finally joining in the fun against her better instincts.

“Do any of you remember ‘The Stroll’?”

“Remember, you’re the oldest one here,” my wife reminded me, so I had to explain.

“On American Bandstand, the guys and gals would form two lines, and dancers would take turns strolling down between them.”

“That’s it–a dance?” Sally asked.

“There’s more. As the people make their way through, they close their eyes and we touch them.”

“Like running the gauntlet?” Jeff asked, “the Native American form of torture in which an individual runs between a double file of men who strike him with clubs or other weapons?”

“Sort of, but no weapons, and gently, like the soft foam scrubbers in a car wash.”

“That wouldn’t do much for my self-esteem,” the guy to my left–who was now standing to my right–said.

“That’s not all we do. We also murmur . . .”


“Murmur . . . words of encouragement and support. In Jeff’s case, something like ‘You did a great job screwing in that light bulb last weekend sweetie,’ or ‘I can’t believe you know how to pump your own gas!’ Something like that.”

Everyone exchanged looks of bemusement that seemed to say “What have we got to lose?” and “Well, I guess I’d do it for Jeff and Sally,” also “This is stupid but what choice do I have?”

Our dinner guests formed themselves into two lines, and it was up to me as host to designate the first human car to be scrubbed. “I think Jeff’s entitled to go first, since he’s the one’s who’s hurting right now.”

“Okay,” he said, a bit chagrined to be put in a position of weakness, but still needing the help that only the Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem can provide.

“Go ahead, sweetie,” Sally said with an audible lump in her throat.

Go ahead–you’ll feel much better when you’re through.


“Okay,” he said, as he closed his eyes and began to make his way through the scrubbers of his friends’ arms.

“I’m sure you’re not as bad as Sally says,” the wife of the guy to my left said.

“You can’t be any worse than my husband,” another said.

As Jeff was softly stroked by his friends, you could see a smile come to his face. When he emerged into the drying zone and opened his eyes, he was a new man, no longer sullen and brooding over the uncalled-for insult to his manhood. “You’re right,” he said. “That was great!”

“Who’s next?” I said, beaming with pride over the one thing I’ve invented in my life.

“Me, me!” Sally said. She was like that, a real trouper, always ready to make a party truly special.

“Okay,” I said. “Any fears, insecurities or troublesome issues we need to address?”

“Well, Jeff did make a crack about my weight last weekend.”

You could almost feel a wave of female hormones about to crash on the beach of our living room, like the roar of a distant tsunami that is faintly heard from afar–not to wax too poetic.

“Jeff!” the wife of the guy on my left said.

“It’s not my fault–she asked me the trick question: Does this outfit make me look fat?”

There were nods of sympathy from the other two husbands. “It’s a no-win situation,” one of them said.

“All right, let’s put the past behind us,” I said. “Sally–start strolling!”

She closed her eyes and stepped forward gingerly, where she was met by the soothing caresses of her girlfriends.

“Don’t you listen to him when he answers a loaded question,” one of them said.

“You’re so beautiful–inside and outside,” another said.

It was my turn and I struggled for something to say that would comfort her and at the same time wouldn’t show up her husband.

“You know,” I began tentatively, “the top is the best part of the muffin.”


Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Blurbs From the Burbs.”


The Taliban Painted My Living Room

When I heard the news that the Pakistani army had captured Muslim Khan, a top commander of the Taliban, I was overcome by a simultaneous sense of shock and relief.  “That’s him,” I screamed at the TV set overhead in the bar where I was having a drink.

Muslim Khan:  “It took longer than I expected because your depraved Western children were always underfoot!”

“The guy who’s the spokesman for Tehreek-E-Taliban?” Smitty, the bartender asked as he dried an Old Fashioned glass.

“That’s the one,” I replied.

“You know,” Smitty continued, “he’s also the leader of the TTP Swat’s negotiating team in talks with the provincial government of the Awami National Party.”  Boston bartenders are like that–knowledgeable, thorough, almost cocky in the amount of information they have at the tips of their tongues.

“Not only that,” I said, my eyes glued to the set, ”he painted my living room.”

Reggie Lewis

A hush fell over the room, a stillness I hadn’t heard in a Boston watering hole since Reggie Lewis collapsed during a 1993 Celtics playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets.

“You mean,” the guy to my right began slowly, “the same Taliban who blew up the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan?”

Explosion of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan

“The same,” I said, taking a sip of my Sam Adams Lightship beer.

“Did they blow up anything of yours?” an attractive blonde asked, suddenly interested in me now that I was linked with the international war on terrorism.

“No, for the most part my wife doesn’t decorate with un-Islamic graven images,” I said, making it clear–in my own subtle way–that I was spoken for.  “We certainly didn’t have any little Buddha statues around.”

Ix-nay on the uddha-Bay

“Tell me more,” she persisted.

“I’m not sure how much I can tell you since much of what we learned during the paint job is still classified,” I began.  “Still, my tongue has been loosened by the effects of alcohol, so I might as well continue.”

I grabbed some loose mixed nuts to sustain myself–a big risk with COVID going around, but I like to live dangerously.  “It was the late 1990′s–the Taliban had decided to focus on interior decoration as the way to bring down the Great American Satan,” I began.  “Khan became a housepainter in the western suburbs of Boston, where we lived.”

“Why was that?” the bartender asked.

“Because I worked in Boston,” I answered.

“Not why did you live there, why did he become a house painter?” the bartender continued.

“I think because he didn’t like to clean gutters,” I said.  “Painting the interiors of Colonial-style suburban homes may be boring, but at least you don’t risk falling off ladders.”

“And yet our image of the Taliban is that they’re fierce warriors,” a flamboyantly dressed investment banker to my left said.

“That’s what they want you to think,” I explained patiently.  “Historically, they and their ancestors have been capable of intense short-term bursts of fighting, but they’re not well-suited for protracted battles.”

The bartender tossed me a complimentary bag of Beer Nuts, the snack food with the unique “sweet ‘n salty” taste.  “Thanks, Smitty,” I said.  “Anyway, maybe we were naive dupes–I don’t know.  Khan came in with the low bid, and he promised to finish the job in one week.  Everybody else said it would take two.”

“It’s hard to find good painters,” the blonde said.  “I know what you must have been going through.”

“Our kids were young–the house was always in an uproar anyway,” I explained.  “We didn’t want to make it any worse.”

“So–did you talk to the guy?” the investment banker asked.  I had to savor the moment; it isn’t often I can impress a guy who makes five times what I do.

“For the most part I leave communications with tradesmen, contractors and international terrorist organizations to my wife,” I explained.

“Yoo-hoo, Mr. Taliban!  You missed a spot.”

“You’re gone all day, right?” the bartender asked.  “When you get home you just want to play with the kids.”

“Exactly,” I said.  “So all my exchanges with him were very perfunctory.  How are the wives, how are the kids, how ’bout those Red Sox.  Still, as a precaution, I always record my conversations with guys who are on the Treasury Department’s List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons.”

“Just to be sure,” the blonde said, nodding her head.

Mid-’90′s Red Sox torture

“Yes, even though it’s illegal in Massachusetts to tape someone without their consent, I wanted to do my part in the War on Terror.”

“Do you–have the tape with you?” the investment banker asked, curious.

I glared at the guy.  “You think I’d ever let it out of my sight?” I asked, incredulous.

“Well, no, I . . . uh, just, uh,” he stammered.  “Do you think we could listen to some of it?”

I eyed the four of them–Smitty, the blonde, the banker and the one whom everyone knew only as “the guy to my right.”  I sized them all up.  “Do you promise that none of you will use what you are about to hear against the United States of America, so help you God?”

“Promise,” the blond said.

“Swear on a stack of bibles,” Smitty said.

“Cross my heart and hope to die, boil in oil and stew in lye,” the guy to my right said.

I looked at the investment banker.  “Can I use it to make money by shorting stocks or making investments in defense-related industries?” he asked tentatively.

I thought about it for a moment.  I remembered what Calvin Coolidge, the only Republican President from Massachusetts, had once said; “The business of America is business.”

Calvin Coolidge

“All right,” I said.  “But I get 10% of any short-swing profits or long-term capital gains.”

“Deal,” he said.  I took my pocket tape recorder out of my suitcoat and hit the “Play” button:

ME:  How’s it going?

KHAN:  I put a coat of primer on today, just waiting for it to dry.  Also waiting for the obscene and immoral culture of the West to die.

ME:  (Laughing)  The kids must have been watching Barney the Purple Dinosaur while you worked today, huh?

KHAN:  There is a woman in the house all day who does not cover herself.

ME:  You mean my wife?  Yeah, I talked to her about that.  She can’t find a nice burqua at Talbot’s.

Also available in cranberry, oyster and charcoal.

KHAN:  She is the source of all my troubles!  Constantly changing colors!

ME:  What do you call that shade you’re mixing now–pink?

KHAN:  It’s actually “Dusty Rose.”

ME:  Just do what she tells you, pal.  I’ve learned that it’s better just to go along to get along with her.

KHAN:  This is why we must establish a world-wide caliphate under Shariah!  You wimpy western husbands!

“Pick up the toys in the driveway–NOW!”

ME:  You know what her nickname is?

KHAN:  What?

ME:  “The Ayatollah.”

KHAN:  Really?

ME:  Seriously.

KHAN:  (silent for a moment)  Wow.  So if she wants me to re-do the trim I should . . .

ME:  Just do it.

KHAN:  In the name of Allah?

ME:  No.  In the name of world peace.