Scooter & Skipper and the Delayed Gratification Club

Summer’s mid-point is fast approaching, and signs of boredom are visible in the demeanor of our two boys, Scooter and Skipper.  Instead of riding their bikes to the corner store to buy baseball cards with money they cadge off their dad, they’ve taken to staying indoors in the air conditioning in a state of blissed-out electronically-induced torpor.  Time for a little parental discipline, even if the parent in question–me–is incapable of much discipline himself.


“Is this light beer?  Because I’m on a diet.”

“It’s too early in the summer for you two to be lying around like slugs in a hubcap of beer,” I say, harkening back to a favorite quasi-educational activity of my youth.  “You shouldn’t be bored out of your minds for another two weeks.”

“It’s too hot,” Scooter, the older of the two at twelve says.  I check the temperature on my phone and see that it’s 90 degrees.  If that were Celsius I could understand, but it’s only Fahrenheit.

“You kids must have inherited your mother’s upstate New York blood,” I say, referring to the woman I love, who carries a battery-powered pocket fan with her where’er she goes.  “Ninety degrees isn’t hot hot.”

“We could get cancer from the sun,” Skipper, our ten-year-old whines.

“I don’t seem to recall getting cancer when I was your age, but if you’re going to stay inside you need an activity.”


Not available in “guy” colors.

 

“Do we have to?” Scooter groans.

“I think you’re going to like what I have in mind,” I say, whetting their appetites.  By family tradition they’re entitled to a blood sugar-raising treat in the middle of the afternoon, so they don’t start beating each other up.

“What is it?” Skipper asks.

“Marshmallows!” I reply, and they both shout “Yay!” just like I used to do when I was a boy and earned a neato-keeno prize for . . . actually, I never did earn any prizes.

“We’ll turn it into a club,” I say.

“What kind of club?” Scooter asks.  Whatever kind it is, he’ll want to be President.


“Today we’re going to have fun by not having fun.”

 

“A delayed gratification club.”

“What’s ‘delayed grati-fi-ca-tion’?” Skipper asks, mincing the word out in hesitant syllables.

“Delayed gratification is when you put off something good in the present, so you can have more of it in the future,” I say.

“So . . . are we going to do this right now, or later?” Scooter asks.

“A little of both,” I say as I take a bag of marshmallows out of a hermetically-sealed metal canister my wife uses to keep them fresh.  I’m careful not to disturb the hermit at the bottom, he’ll be coming out mid-to-late August for his annual haircut.


“A little off the top, short back and sides.”

 

“Now, the way this works,” I begin, “is I put one in front of you, like this,” I say, placing one (1) plump standard-size marshmallow down on the table before them both.  “It’s up to you whether you want to eat it now or . . . hey, stop!” I’m forced to interject as Skipper has his candy in his mouth before I’ve laid out the rules of the game.

“But you said we were gonna get a marshmallow,” he says, on the verge of tears now that it’s clear I’ve gulled him.

“I didn’t say you weren’t going to get one,” I say, pouring oil on the troubled waters of his sense of injustice.  “I’m going to give you a choice.  You can have one marshmallow now, or if you wait fifteen minutes, you can have two.”

“That’s stupid,” Scooter says.

“No it’s not,” I say.  “If you can delay your gratification for that long, it shows you’ll be successful in later life according to a famous experiment.”

 

The little wheels in their brains start to turn.  Their faces take on the look of card sharks at the World Series of Poker; eyes narrowed to grim little slits, lips pursed.  “Well, I’m going to leave you two to your will power.  See you in . . . fifteen minutes,” I say as I leave the room.


“I’ve got a pair of marshmallows . . .”

It’s one of the many times I wish I had a two-way mirror so I could watch the boys undetected, but all I can do is wait.  You have no idea how slowly time can move when you’re trying to replicate a dubious psychology experiment on your sons.  Not as slow as it goes when you’re watching a Little League game go into extra innings, or when you’re waiting for your girlfriend to get her period in high school, but still–very slowly.

I check Twitter, email, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Netscape, AltaVista, aol.com, Yahoo, Pets.com and Internet Explorer to kill time.  When I’ve run out of failed internet companies, I check my watch and with thirty seconds to go, return to the laboratory.

I knock softly before entering, then push the door open to find–to my great disappointment–that there are two boys, but no marshmallows.  I mean, I’m not disappointed there are two boys, just that they ate their marshmallows.

“This isn’t good, guys,” I say, shaking my head.

“Yes they were!” Skipper exclaims.

“No, I mean it doesn’t bode well for your future.  According to the non-replicable results of the experiment, your inability to delay gratification for fifteen measly minutes means you’ll probably end up unemployed members of the underclass, abusing opioids, failing to complete twelfth grade, sleeping on heating grates, suffering from heartbreak of psoriasis and otherwise disappointing me and mom.”

“Maybe you, but not mom,” Skipper snaps.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because your experiment is dumb,” Scooter says.

“No it’s not.  Some very smart people at Leland Stanford Junior University devised it.”

“Well, then they were dumb,” Skipper says, “because mom always lets us have three marshmallows anyway, so why should we hold out for just two?”

Dawn breaks on Marblehead, as we say here in Massachusetts.

“Sorry guys,” I say, shaking my head, unable to keep from laughing at myself.  “I forgot about grade inflation.”

 

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Scooter & Skipper Hear an Alger Horatio Story

It’s finally summer in New England, which means that–much like the rest of the world–the days are longer.  We accordingly let the kids s-t-r-e-t-c-h out their bedtimes a bit, knowing they don’t have to get up early for anything other than day camp, archery lessons, junior t’ai chi, and Intensive French Mime lessons.  We wouldn’t want to be accused of “over-scheduling” them.  Still, after catching the last living firefly in the six-state region, they begin to show signs of fatigue.

alger1
“Can we hear the one about the basketball player again?”

 

“Up to bed, you two,” their mother says, hoping to clear some free space for herself on their hectic school vacation calendar.

“Dad, will you tell us an Alger Horatio story?” Scooter, the older of the two at twelve, asks with an overtone of a whine rising in his voice.

Alger

“It’s getting late,” my wife says, her brow furrowed with concern like a sorghum field in central Missouri.  I mean she’s concerned, not the sorghum.

“Just one, dad–please?” Skipper, the younger brother at ten years old, begs.

“What’s an Alger Horatio story?” my wife asks.

“It’s a riches to rags story, the opposite of a Horatio Alger story,” I explain.  “They help build intestinal fortitude.”

“What’s that?” she asks.

“I don’t know, but Paul Schwartz, my eighth grade football coach, said it was something you need if you’re behind at half-time and expect to come back and win.”

“Whatever,” she says.  “I’ll be out on the porch if you finish before the sun goes down.”

“Yay!” the boys scream in unison, then scramble up the stairs to their bedroom.

“Let’s see,” I say, as we settle down on the floor.  “Which one do you want to hear first?”

“Tell us the one about the Great White Rapper!” Skipper says as he snuggles belly-down on the floor and props his head up with his hands.

“Okay,” I begin.  “once upon a time there was a white rapper named ‘Vanilla Shake.’”

They both giggle.  The thought that boys are allowed to get sillier as they get older always amuses them.

alger2
“Hmm.  Is there anything I can do–today–to make myself look more ridiculous?”

 

“And he made a tape that he took around to all the record producers, but no one would listen to it.  So he’d go home at night and cry himself to sleep, wondering what he needed to do to become famous.”

The undercurrent of sadness, so characteristic of children’s fairy tales, disrupts the prevailing mood of levity and tugs at their heartstrings, if only just a little.

“Wasn’t he good at any sports?” Scooter asks, knowing this is the most direct route to popularity.

“Sadly, no,” I say, as I pat his little cotton-clothed shoulder.  He’s had a tough week in Little League, only getting two trophies, one for showing up, another for bringing water bottles.

“Is that why he became a rapper?” Skipper asks.

“That’s right, Skip,” I say in an avuncular tone, even though I’m their father, not their uncle.  “You’ll find, as Nick Carraway’s father said . . .”

“Who’s Nick Carraway?”

“He’s the narrator in The Great Gatsby, a book you’ll read when you’re freshmen in college.  Anyway, Nick’s father suggested to him that ‘a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.’”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, your English teacher will tell you what it’s supposed to mean, but to me it has always meant that some people are good at some things, and some people are good at others.  And you’ll find that most boys who are good at sports are terrible rappers, and vice versa.  Like Ron Artest.”

“Who’s he?”

alger3
Ron Artest:  Uh, keep your night job.

 

“He was a good basketball player, but not a very good rapper.  Anyway, Chocolate Bunny, one of the other rappers, saw Vanilla Shake sitting on his front steps one day looking very sad, and he said ‘Vanilla Shake–what is the matter?’  And Vanilla Shake said ‘I am not good at basketball, I am not good at rapping.  I am so sad I think I am going to kill myself.’  And Chocolate Bunny said ‘Don’t kill yourself–other rappers will do that for you!’”

The boys laughed at that one; I’m glad to see they’ve acquired my sense of black humor, and not the controversy-free comic stylings of my wife’s family.

“So did Vanilla Shake get shot?” Scooter asks.

“Nope,” I said, as I tousled his still-wet hair.  “That untoward comment . . .”

alger4
“Somebody told me this was one bad CD, so that’s a good thing, right?”

 

“What does ‘un-to-ward’ mean?” Skipper asks.

“Improper, indecorous, unpropitious.  Meaning it was a rather awkward thing to say . . .”

“Like the kind of stuff mom wishes you wouldn’t say when you go to other people’s houses?” Scooter asks.

“Exactly.  Anyway, that one rather rude remark got Vanilla Shake thinking, so he decided that from then on he’d take the same approach to life.  Pissing . . .”

They both laugh, knowing this counts as a “swear” for which I’ll have to put a quarter in a jar we keep by the back door.  The family member who goes the longest without referring to a private body part or sexual act or deity of a world religion gets to spend it all.  “Okay, he decided to pee everybody off as much as he could, and all of a sudden, he started to sell a lot of CDs and became very successful.”

“Like, what did he do?” Scooter asks.

“Well, he got a lot of very offensive tattoos to go along with one he had that said ‘Mom’ . . .”

alger5

“Why would he get a tattoo for his mom?” Skipper asks.

“I guess some mommies appreciate the gesture,” I said.

“Mom told us we aren’t allowed to get tattoos–ever,” Scooter adds.

“Well, as the great social philosopher Sly Stone once said–different strokes for different folks.  Anyway, Vanilla Shake started to make a LOT of money, so he could buy anything he wanted.”

“What did he get?”

“Many cars, and a big house, and a lion and a tiger, and a boat and jet skis . . .”

“Cool!” Skipper says.

alger6
Cute widdle kitties!

 

“And a lot more tattoos.  And he’d buy presents for girls . . .”

“Yuk!”

“Like rings and bracelets and necklaces.  And he’d buy jewelry for himself . . .”

“Dad, why don’t you wear any jewelry?” Scooter asks.

“Well, Scoots, in our ethnic group, it’s not considered appropriate, okay?”

“But Vanilla Shake was white too, right?”

“Yes, but you didn’t let me finish my story.  So anyway, after buying all this . . . stuff . . . one day Vanilla Shake’s bank called him up and told him he didn’t have any more money.”

“It was all gone?” Skipper asks.

“Yep.  And he owed the bank money, so they sent people over to take all his cool toys away, then they towed his cars away and threw him out of his house.”

“Where did he go?” Scooter asks, a look of primal fear in his eyes.  His Boy Scout troop got caught in a thunderstorm on their last overnight hike.

“He took a seat on the sidewalk next to all the other daddies who run out of money.”

“And he has to live there now?”

alger7

I put my arm around Scooter, to comfort him.  “Yep.  And now he wishes he hadn’t spent his money on all those stupid things.  He should have saved his money so he’d have something to fall back on once people got tired of listening to him.  That’s a very important lesson, and I hope you kids ‘get it’–okay?”

The two of them have that look–made up of equal parts relief and terror–that the tragic arts inspire in us.

“Well, I get it,” Scooter says, just as my wife comes to the door to make sure the evening’s tale will eventually come to an end.

“What do you ‘get’?” she says, one eyebrow arching skyward in skepticism.

“You should never–ever–buy a girl a present,” he says with emphatic certainty, “because you might need the money later.”

She gives me a simmering look that could blanch an almond. I shrug my shoulders and say “That’s not quite what I intended to convey to them, sweetie.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” she says as she hustles them into bed.  “You probably just told them never to spend more than $10 on a gift for a girl.”

 

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

I Beat a Gypsy Curse, And So Can You

If my conduct in the case in question exceeded the normal bounds of professionalism, the circumstances provided an excuse.

A client of mine had lent a significant–to him–sum of money to a little Greek woman, working capital for the shop where she sold used phonograph records.  The loan was made during the dark ages when first cassettes, then CDs, had replaced the platters that teens had spun on their turntables at swinging parties, and the present, when vinyl is suddenly “cool” again, thanks to the added expense and inconvenience.  In other words, hard times for records.


Such a sweet, little old deadbeat.

 

The day for payment in full came and went–nothing.  Calls were made to the gnarled old crone, which went unreturned.  Dunning letters were written, sent first by regular mail, then by CERTIFIED MAIL, RETURN RECEIPT REQUESTED.  Still nothing.

“Any word?” my client asked me.

“No,” I said, a bit chagrined since I’d gotten him into the deal in the first place.

“Maybe you’d better drop by and make sure she hasn’t flown the coop,” he said, with the flat, menacing tone of a man who’s been screwed before, and fully intends to screw back–hard–if somebody tries to screw him again.

So I went to the woman’s store, several times.  She was a one-woman operation, and when she was out would leave a sign on the door that said “Back in 15 minutes.”  I can’t tell you how many hours I spent waiting for those fifteen minutes to pass, over and over again.  I would give up after forty-five minutes, chalk the experience up to my gullibility, and resolve to come back again, another day.


Old gypsy woman, or Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards?  YOU make the call!

 

Then one day I got lucky.  I arrived to see the door wide open, and the owner talking to a customer.  As the cash started its journey from buyer to seller, I intervened in my best officious intermeddler manner.

“Hold it right there,” I said, getting all huffy and puffy about it.  “You owe my client $20,000, not including interest, penalties, postage, costs of collection, attorneys’ fees, and telefacsimile charges–fork it over!”

There was an awkward pause, with the guy who was buying the Ray Coniff Singers’ 1956 Christmas album or whatever, looking first at me, then at her.

“Give him the money,” the old woman said with resignation, and the man did so–the princely sum of $5, which made such a small dent in the imposing edifice of the outstanding balance that, in retrospect, it wasn’t worth the effort, the heartburn, the embarrassment all around.

The man walked out of the store, happy to extricate himself from an unpleasant encounter.  Good thing; once he was out the door, things became even more acrimonious.

“You . . . you,” the woman sputtered at me, to which I responded as only a cold-hearted collection professional can.  For a cinematic depiction of the species, I highly recommend Harry Dean Stanton’s performance in “Repo Man.”

“I’m only doing my job,” I said.  “Either you starting paying, or we back a truck up here next week and take all your crappy inventory.”

“You’re not taking anything of mine,” she said, fuming ineffectually, like a damp firecracker.  “I PUT GYPSY CURSE ON YOU!”

My air of equanimity vanished with those words.  This was a novel experience for me; I’ve been called a lot of names, threatened with judicial sanctions, thwarted by bankruptcy filings–but a gypsy curse?  Wait ’til I tell the boys at Brandy Pete’s, favorite Boston lunch spot for hard-bitten cynical commercial types, I thought to myself.  The place has a sign that reads “The customer is always wrong.”  It’s so badass it filed for bankruptcy itself, so you could watch your cash payments go straight from the waitress to a Chapter 11 trustee as you grabbed a toothpick on your way out.

“Ha,” I laughed, but it sounded empty, hollow, even to my own ears, as it surely did to my client’s debtor.  (Pro tip to general circulation media: The debtor is the one who owes the money, not the creditor.)  As much as I might pretend not to worry, I was dealing with a power with which I had no familiarity, one wielded by a tribe–the Roma–who can trace their roots back 1,500 years.  If they remember to bring tracing paper with them as they travel around the globe, constantly fleeing the forces of social order.  All I knew of the gypsies I learned from Django Reinhardt records; I figured that probably wasn’t enough.


Django Reinhardt

 

So for awhile I went about my business with an air of paranoia, constantly looking over my shoulder, wondering when the curse would be fulfilled and I’d be struck by an out-of-control gypsy wagon.  After awhile, I began to drop my guard–my life seemed to be more or less the same as before; dull, uneventful, no thefts of babies from my house or other assorted misdemeanors that the Roma have been accused of for centuries.

So I began to wonder–how, exactly, did I beat the gypsy curse?  What had I done that shielded me from death where others had been stricken with mysterious wasting diseases?  Maybe there was a best-selling self-help book in it for me.

As I looked back over my particular–some would say peculiar–tastes, habits and conduct that distinguish me from your run-of-the-mill late middle-aged schlub, I’ve come up with a few key indicators that separate me from the common herd, and apparently protect me from the baleful effects of the “evil eye” by which gypsies have destroyed their enemies for a millennium and a half.  I offer them to you–gratis–even though I acquired them at great cost; their use has made me an object of scorn over the three score and six years of my life:

Old Spice Classic Roll-On Deodorant:  The men with whom I share health club dressing rooms never pull the traditional red plastic tube from their gym bags when it’s time to apply anti-perspirant protection.  I, on the other hand, learned at my father’s knee that Old Spice was the real deal, capable of neutralizing body odor that other deodorants couldn’t touch.  Ban?  Right Guard?  Please–don’t make me laugh.  They didn’t even exist when I was first singing along to my brand’s commercial jingle, whose stirring words I can remember to this day: “Old Spice–said the Captain to the bo’sun.  Ask for the package with the ship that sails the ocean!”

Yogurt-covered raisins:  A culinary breakthrough in the decade when I came of age as a professional, this quasi-natural treat has been my snack of choice since they first appeared in stores in the 1980’s.  Don’t be led astray by spoilsports like “Amelia,” a self-proclaimed “nutritionist, chef and mom” blogger who says they’re as bad as candy.  If “Amelia” was any good as a nutritionist, wouldn’t she have enough clients to be able to afford a last name?  ‘Nuf said, as Red Sox fans used to say.


“Shh–people are looking at us!”

 

Ventriloquism:  I have been trying and failing to master “throwing my voice” since grade school, with mixed results.  Still, the point is–I try, where others have given up on their dreams.  Does ventriloquism make me different from the ordinary “knowledge worker” you may encounter?  Well, answer me this:  how many people do you see talking to their hands on the train every day?  Not many I’ll bet.

So there you have it; an exhaustive, if not entirely scientific, survey of options if you’re ever cursed by a gypsy, and begin to suffer adverse side effects, like those that the drug pitchmen rattle off at the end of commercials, going about 80 words per minute.

Me?  I’ve lived a life of comfort, ease, and deep, refreshing, untroubled sleep since that fateful day.

Except for that time I fell off an 8 foot loading dock at our town dump.  Or when I slipped on the hobnailed platform strip at South Station and blew out my knee.  I should also probably mention the time I stepped into a hole where a brick had been removed from the sidewalk and I stumbled onto Atlantic Avenue in Boston in the face of high-speed oncoming traffic.  And the fact that we lost two cats, one to coyotes, one to . . .

 

 

 

In Gamble on Future, Race Track Bets on the Young

EAST BOSTON, Mass. Sol “Nosey” Niman has been playing the horses at this second-tier track in a working-class neighborhood of Boston for over half a century, and he says he’s never seen the place in worse shape. “All the old guys are buying the farm,” he says, shaking his head. “Without we get the kids interested in the ponies, horse racing is gonna die out.”


A day at the races.

So management has tapped a core group of regulars including Niman to pass on the traditions of the track to youngsters whose attention spans have been shortened by video games. “I hate to think of a kid sittin’ indoors all day at his computer when he could be out in the fresh air,” says 74-year-old Mike “Money” Antonucci as he puffs on a cigar.

The old guard looks as nervous as freshmen before a college mixer as they stand at the Blue Line subway stop and prepare to meet the first contingent from the local chapter of the Young Turfmen’s Club, the name that has been chosen for groups of junior plungers around the country who will get their first taste of “The Sport of Kings” under the watchful eye of experienced horse players.


“Now you look like a real bettor, kid!”

“Hey there kiddo–how ya doin’?” Niman says to 11-year-old Timmy Salmon, whose name came to the attention of track owners when they hacked into the customer database of a local video store and discovered that he had rented “My Friend Flicka.” “First thing we need to do is get you a new hat!” Morty “Moxie” Graberman says as he removes the boy’s baseball cap and plops a fedora down on his head.

The boys take seats in the grandstands where they are treated to hot dogs and sodas as their pari-mutuel professors explain the basics of betting to the tyros. “You got three basic bets,” says Niman, “win, place and show.” He explains the nuances of each–how a “show” bet is the safest because it pays off as long as your horse finishes in the top three, and how a “win” bet is the biggest payday for your betting dollar. “There’s a real life lesson for ya there,” he says, as his fellow faculty members nod knowingly. “The greater the risk, the greater the reward–the lower the risk, the greater the chances you’ll win.”

“Yeah, you can go into business and make the big bucks, or you can be an accountant and you’ll do okay, but you won’t get rich,” says Antonucci. The kids fidget a bit as they will in classrooms a week from now, but they become animated again as their instructors lead them over to the betting windows for some hands-on laboratory experience in the art and science of playing the odds.

“Who you like in the first?” Graberman asks Bobby Del’Appia, a studious boy with a head for figures.

“I think . . . um . . . Cogan’s Bluff,” the boy says as he chews on a stubby pencil.

“Did you read your Daily Racing Form there?” Graberman asks skeptically.


“I got Nostromo in the first–who you like?”

“Well, yeah,” the boy says hesitantly.

“Well, look at the sky. It ain’t rainin’, so the track ain’t muddy. Nostromo’s your best bet on a day like today.”

“Thanks for the tip!” the boy says as he plunks down a $5 play money bill provided to him as part of his “stake” by the track, then reaches in his pocket for a real bill to play the daily double combination that he’s learned about in the orientation session.

Over at the betting window, Antonucci shows young Nicky Panagakis a trick he sometimes uses to stretch his betting dollar when times are tough. “Lotta guys, they forget they bought a place or show ticket, they throw it away when their horse don’t win,” he says as he picks through tickets on the tile floor. “Somebody’s a sucker like that, you don’t give him an even break.”

The boys take their seats and when the starting bell rings for the first race, they rise to their feet and stay standing right down to the wire, where Nostromo beats Cogan’s Bluff by a nose, causing the senior members of the group to clap Del’Appia on the back. “See–I told you,” Graberman says, and the boy repays the man for his tip with a box of raisins his mother had given him for a snack.

As is typical, the boys pick both winners and losers over the course of the day, then assemble for their “graduation” ceremony under the grandstands while their parents look on proudly. “Youse kids–you did a great job out there today, okay?” Graberman says before handing out individual awards. “I think our big winner today–the guy who’s got the biggest roll in his pocket right now is . . . “–he hesistates for dramatic effect–”Timmy Salmon! C’mon up here and get your swag!”


“And they’re off!”

The young boy steps forward and receives a Certificate of Achievement, an undersized cigar tailored to a youthful mouth and lungs, and what he is expected to value most highly–his bettor’s nickname or nomme du track. “Let’s see–you’re kinda short and sneaky,” Antonucci says as he sizes the boy up. “How ’bout ‘Timmy the Weasel’?”

The boy’s face takes on an expression of distaste and he looks at his mother, who by her glare admonishes him to be grateful.

“Whatsa matter–you don’t like?” Antonucci asks kindly as he bends down to look the boy in the eye.

“If you don’t mind,” he says meekly, “I’d rather be ‘Timmy the Hamster.’”

 

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

Summer Party Advice, From Father to Son

We were sitting outside, enjoying a clear night after a spring of constant rain, when my wife told me that our eldest son was going to Martha’s Vineyard with friends for the Fourth of July.

“You’ll talk to him, right?” she asked nervously.

“Absolutely,” I said. “I was young and twenty once/and did things that befit a dunce.”

“I wish you wouldn’t recite poetry when I’m trying to be serious.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I sorta meant it. “But when poetry chances to hit my ear/I recite it aloud, for all to hear.”

He was out on the driveway, practicing his lacrosse shots. I sauntered out, gin-and-tonic in hand, warming up to my best fatherly-advice tone.

“Hey there,” I said. “Off to the Vineyard, are we?”

“Yep,” he said, as he continued to whip shots at the goal. At his age, filial piety is best expressed by ignoring his parents.

“You’ll remember some of the things I told you when you came home . . . inebriated a while back?”

“I know,” he replied impatiently. “Whiskey on beer, never fear.”

“You’ve got it backwards. It’s ‘Beer on whiskey, never risky.’ And ‘Never mix, never worry.’”


Sandy Dennis, in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

 

“Who said that again?” he asked. Maybe I had gotten through to him–if only just a little–when we spoke before.

“Sandy Dennis, in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’.”

“Right, right,” he said dismissively, and went back to shooting.

“It’s important,” I said, returning to my theme of responsibility.

“It’s no big deal,” he said.

“Yes it is. I see so many young men your age making tragic fashion mistakes.”

“What?”

I got right up in his face. “Madras shorts with those candy-ass Brooks Brothers shirts? If you wear stripes with plaids, you’ll look like a TV test pattern.”

That sobered him up a bit. “Maybe you’re right dad,” he said, with a serious tone. “Even though I don’t know what a TV test pattern is since I grew up with cable, I sure as hell don’t want to look like one.”

“Attaboy,” I said as I tousled his hair. We heard a horn honk out front.

“That’s Will,” my son said. “I gotta go.”

“Okay,” I said. “But I want to talk to him.”

We made our way to the front driveway where I saw a carful of boys, energized with youthful high spirits.

“Whut up, dawgs?” I said in a cheerful tone. If you want to communicate with kids these days it helps to know the latest in “hip-hop” slang.

“Hi, Mr. Chapman,” Will, the driver said. “Whut up wif you?”

I approached the car and put my hands on the driver’s side door. I gave Will my best look of grave concern. “You’re going to be cautious–right?” I asked with an upraised eyebrow.

“Don’t worry,” the boy said, unconvincingly.

“Because it’s every father’s nightmare to think that his son will come home someday–”

“I know, in a casket.”

“No, actually, in those goofy-looking pants with the little whales on them.”

The seriousness of the situation finally hit him. “I understand,” he said with downcast eyes. “I’ll keep your son out of the nicer men’s wear shops–promise.”

I gave his arm a comforting pat. “Attaboy. Have fun,” I said.

“Wait a minute,” he replied. “You’re forgetting your ham-handed attempt to appear cool by using hip-hop slang.”

I was mortified. “You’re right. Peace out, brother!”

“Peace out to you too,” he said, a big smile on his face.

My son was throwing his stuff in the back of the Volvo station wagon, but I had one more topic to cover with him.

“You know,” I said as I took him aside, “I went to a fair number of wild parties at East Coast fleshpots in my chequered youth,” I said to him. “I know you’re saving yourself for your wedding night . . .”

“Absolutely, dad.”

“ . . . but you’re probably going to meet some pretty wild girls. I just want to make sure you’ve got some . . . protection.”

“Right here,” he said as he reached for the wallet in his back pocket.

I gave him a look of disappointment. “Not that kind of protection,” I said.

He appeared confused. “Then what are you talking about?”

“The Amazing Flying Monkey Sling Shot!” I replied.

“The one you gave me when I went off to college–for no apparent reason?”

“That’s the one. There’s nothing that sends the message that you’re a poor marriage prospect–and someone a girl doesn’t want to find in her bed the next morning–like a screeching simian projectile hurtling towards her.”

He seemed a little embarrassed that he’d overlooked this detail.

“Thanks, dad, I’ll go get it,” he said, and started to run up to his room.

“Wait a minute,” I said as I stopped him with my hand on his chest. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“What?”

I nodded at the car. “You’ve got three friends in there, and you’re going to someone’s vacation house, so you need to bring a hostess gift.”

It was my wife’s turn to get involved, since shopping for gifts is a native art form among her clan. “There’s no time to get a really nice gift now,” she said, her brow furrowed in concern.

I had to allow myself a moment of self-satisfaction. “You all make cracks about my lack of social skills, but it looks like I’m the only one who planned ahead.”

“What do you mean?” my wife asked.

“I had the foresight to buy the 7-Monkey ‘Me and My Homies’ pack for only $25.95, not including shipping!”

 

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

This Brain’s For Rent

It was a sultry summer morning, the kind that takes Boston by surprise–like clockwork–every year.  The Fourth of July rolls around and all of a sudden it’s hot and humid, as if the Gods of Geography decided overnight to take a few degrees off our latitude and add them to our temperature.  Just for the hell of it.

I was sitting in my office by South Station, looking at approximately the same view I’ve had for nearly four decades.  Next to the train station, there was once a bus terminal and a package liquor store–a “packy,” in local parlance–visible out my window, which made one-stop shopping convenient for the winos who tend to panhandle in public spaces.  A few years ago some urban planning goobers decided to spruce up the neighborhood; the bus station was moved, the liquor store was sent–pun intended–packing, and plain old South Station was re-christened The Michael S. Dukakis Transportation Center at South Station, as if it were an upscale shopping mall, or a pricey private golf club.  Some things never change, though; as I look down I see two panhandlers who’ve been in business for as long as I have.  Apparently, they didn’t get the marketing brochure.

I remember my first clients, two Asian guys who walked up from Chinatown just a few blocks away, back in the last year of the self-absorbed 70’s.  One was on his way back to Hong Kong, and he wanted to leave some money with his buddy to start a restaurant.  After leading them through some cautionary foofaraw–I can’t represent you both unless you sign a waiver–we got down to business.

“We want note,” one said; a promissory note, an I.O.U.–what I would spend a good part of the next two score years drafting.  I inquired as to the nature of the relationship; did Man 1 want to be co-owner of Man 2’s restaurant?  Yes?  Then what you need, I said, is stock because your interest is more in the nature of equity than debt and . . .

“WE WANT NOTE!” they said together, with urgent emphasis, since time, tide and international flights wait for no man.  And so was launched, with a few deft strokes of pen on paper–nobody had a computer back then–my career of financial infamy.

From those humble beginnings I have come to a humble end.  There have been peaks, sure, but if you have more than one peak, you have to have a valley in between.  I won’t go into the gory details–suffice it to say that of the five firms I’ve worked at, three no longer exist.  I seem to have that effect on people.

And so, as I say, I find myself back where I started, going through old files, throwing out those that have turned into dead letters, trying to find a home for those that still have some life in them.  I’m not sure what I’d do at this point if a really big case walked in the door.  Twenty years ago, I didn’t turn down anything.  Dog-walking deals, fallen tree lawsuits–you name it, I took it.  Now?  Unless it piqued my rapidly-declining interest in the human misery of humans other than myself, I think I’d . . .

“Hello.”

I looked towards my standard-issue low-rent frosted glass door and saw a pair of legs that froze my gaze from rising any higher.  My guess was she was a dancer, from the looks of those gams; well-toned, slender ankles, a chiaroscuro effect where the Achilles’ tendon slithered down to her heels.

I tried to suppress a sharp inhalation, but if you’re reading this with your speakers on, you heard it.  You meet a lot of dames in my business–down-on-their-luck, on-their-uppers, a little something on the side.  I thought I had every female dimension covered, but I’d never seen any like this one.

“Can I help you?” I asked, letting my eyes linger just a little longer on her lithe legs.

“Probably not–I know you too well.  I’m your wife, dingbat.”

I looked up finally and found she was right.  She was indeed the woman I’d married thirty-two years before.  “An honest mistake,” I said as I swiveled to get a better view of her.

“And one you’ve made before,” she said, referring to the time I got in line behind her in a coffee shop and was admiring her legs without realizing they were attached to the body of my fiancé.

“I got a poem out of that little mix-up,” I said, referring to my deathless verse “On Mistaking One’s Wife’s Legs for Another’s”–and try saying that five times fast.

“And did you make any money out of it?” she asked.  Buffalo, New York produces cold women–must be all that snow.

“No, but someday, when I’m dead and you’re not, the royalties from my Collected Poems will start rolling in.  Then you’ll be glad you married me.  You know what Clarence Darrow said.”

“Who’s Clarence Darrow?”

“Shortstop for the Cleveland Indians in the fifties.”

“What did he say?”

“Inside every lawyer is the wreck of a poet.”


Darrow: “Roses are red/Violets are blue/I’m not a poet/and neither are you.”

 

“So why can’t you keep your wreck of a poet inside you like everybody else?”

“I try, but he keeps slipping out at night.”

She sat down in my single office chair and gave me a hard-boiled look, one that I recognized from the eggs she buys by the bag at Whole Foods.

“That’s not all that’s slipping out,” she said.  She reached in her purse and took out a tube of lipstick, which she applied to–of all places–her lips.  “You know, there are software programs that are better at recognition than you are,” she said with a gimlet glance.

“That’s not fair,” I said.  “I have an uncanny ability to remember the names of people who aren’t members of my immediate family, which you have relied on at many a social occasion in the past.”

I had her there.  She’ll often turn her back on someone across the room at a party and ask me if remember the name that’s attached to the face.  I’ll start to turn around and she’ll say “Don’t turn around, you goombah!”–a form of mental torture psychologists refer to as the “double-bind dilemma.”

“You know what I mean,” she said.  “You can never remember the names of restaurants we go to.”

I offered no resistance on that point.  I was long ago diagnosed with Hip Restaurant Aphasia, the inability to retain the goofy names that celebrity chefs hang outside their fashionable little boites de nuitShe, unlike me, doesn’t need to take a box of matches from a non-smoking restaurant to remember if it’s called Truc or Troc or Tric or Grill 147 or Grill 86-93-72-Hike.  I have left instructions in my Health Care Proxy that if I am ever found unconscious and can’t recall where I had dinner last, I am not to be put to sleep.

“I have a lot on my mind,” I said, affecting an air of busyness that was belied by the relatively clean surface of my desk.  I was like the Sergeant of the Lawe in Chaucer, who made himself look busier than he really was.  “I’ve been at this for thirty-eight years, eleven months–not that I’m counting or anything.”

“Um-hmm.”

“My brain’s for rent from 4:30 in the morning until I fall asleep at night for all sorts of trivial uses–leases, deeds of trust, debenture indentures.  It’s no wonder if certain details that are important to you . . .”

“Like whether you’re supposed to bring our neighbor’s kid home from soccer practice . . .”

“Right.  Ticky-tacky, Mickey Mouse administrative things like that.  I’ve got multi-million-dollar mega deals on my mind.”

She clucked her tongue with subdued disapproval and gazed out the window, looking at the ocean.  If the question came up, I was prepared to respond, lightning-round style, “The Atlantic,” just like contestants on “Password” used to do.

“Don’t pull that ‘Billy Big-Deal’ stuff on me,” she said.

“I don’t need to,” I said.  “There are certain little things you can never remember that I never forget.”

“And vice versa,” she said.

“So if both of our minds are going–just in different places–it’s probably best if we stick together.  Sort of a patchwork quilt approach to cognition.”

She pursed her lips and nodded knowingly.  “So–two heads are better than one?”

“Right.”

“That would explain something.”

“What?”

“Why my mother looks at you like you have two heads when you’re trying to be funny.”

Boring Our Children to Safety

“They’re at it again,” my wife said with concern.

I looked up and saw flames rising from a pile of dead branches off in the  distance. Another Friday night, another bonfire in the woods beyond the stone wall that  separates our property from conservation land.

“They’re just kids being drunken, destructive, nihilistic kids,” I said as I  knocked back the spit hit at the bottom of my bottle of Bud Light Lime and returned to Paradise Lost, the special 350th anniversary edition that  comes with the free t-shirt of John Milton.


Milton: Preferred his bonfires on the  beach.

 

“We should do something to stop them,” my wife said, growing alarmed as the  flames climbed higher.

“I cleaned out the brush at the back of the lot,” I said. Maybe it was the Milton, but I seemed to speaking in blank verse.


Bud Light Lime: Cleanses the pallet for late night blank verse slams.

 

“No, I’m thinking someone will get hurt,” she said. “One of the boys will get  drunk and fall in it, or maybe one of the girls will get too close and her scarf  will catch on fire.”

“Well, what do you suggest I do?” I asked.

“You could go out there and bore them away. You’re pretty good at that.”

I stood up and squinted, the better to see what was going on. “I don’t know,”  I said. “It’s been a long time since I took on a crowd that big.”

“When was that?”

“The American Society of Chiropodists convention, 2009.”

“Please, do something,” my wife said. “If anybody gets hurt we might be  blamed–for doing nothing.”

She was right about that. In today’s litigious society, because of obnoxious lawyers like me you can’t be too careful.  Still I hesitated, but then I reflected that I’m in the seventh decade of my life; I’m somewhat concerned about my legacy as a bore, my place in the history of boredom.  When I die, I’d like to be remembered as one of the greats, like William Haley.  The sentimental, interminable versifier, a patron of William Blake, not the Father of White Rock ‘n Roll.

Bill Haley
Not that Bill Haley.

 

“Okay,” I said grimly. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, I was too  proud to run.

I hacked my way through the tall grass and came to a clearing where the kids  were seated around the fire. I recognized a few of them; Derek, the scrappy,  pass-first point guard from my U-12 CYO basketball team; Chris, the pot-smoking  son of pot-smoking aging hippie parents; Meghan, the nimble vegan vixen who  introduced my elder son to the joys of . . . uh . . . BK Veggie Burgers in the  front seat of our Toyota Highlander.

“Hi kids,” I said affably as I ducked under a pine tree branch. “How’s it  going?”

The gang looked up at me with surprise. They thought they were beyond the  prying eyes and censorious looks of old farts like me.

“Hi, Coach,” Derek said. There was silence; I think they expected me to be  judgmental, to tell them to put the fire out and go home, but that’s not how I  operate. I accept teenagers as they are, in the fullness of their adolescent  stupidity. It’s why we get along so well.

“What’s up?” I asked, my voice a model of equanimity.

“Uh, we came out here because we got bored playing video games,” Chris  said.


Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley

 

“I don’t blame you,” I said. “You know, when I was a kid . . .”–I hesitated  for just a moment to see if I had their eyes rolling yet–”we didn’t have video  games, but we had great cartoons.” I waited for someone to say “Really?” or “No  kidding?” Hearing nothing, I continued.

“Tennessee Tuxedo, Top Cat, Underdog.”

Again, silence. Finally, the vegan girl spoke. “I think I saw Underdog in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade once.”

“That’s him!” I said with enthusiasm. I was glad I was getting through to  them. “Those cartoon shows had great theme songs,” I said, as one of the boys  stood up, tried to conceal a quart bottle of malt liquor under his shirt and  shuffled off.  “Come on and see, see, see–Tennesee Tuxedo!” I sang.

They were good listeners, those kids. They sat there and seemed to hang on my  every word.

“The Top Cat theme went like this: ‘Mmmmmmmm–Top Cat! The indisputable  leader of the gang! He’s the boss, he’s the king, but above everything, he’s  the most tip-top–Top Cat!’

“I’m not really into cartoons,” one of the kids said when I was done.

“That’s okay,” I said. “There’s plenty of things we can talk about. How  about–life insurance?”

To say that the kids were stunned by this segue would have been a  gigantic understatement. I truly don’t think they’d even  considered life insurance before.

“You know, there are basically two different kinds of life insurance,” I said  quickly, before I lost their attention.

A kid whom I’d heard the others call “Dragon” on the soccer field spoke up.  “What difference does it make if you’re dead?”

“Good question.  Well, there’s whole life, which has an investment component, and there’s  term life, which is just a basic death benefit,” I said, passing on the wisdom  of the ages. “Pretty soon, one of your classmates will become a life insurance  saleman, and he’ll start hounding you to buy whole life.  Don’t let him do  it!”  I said this with a stern tone of admonishment.  I didn’t want these  kids to go down the wrong path in life.  “Buy cheap term life, and put the  difference between the premiums into an S&P 500 index fund!”

“You really seem to know a lot,” said a Goth girl in a black S&M restraint-style bodice. “I’m going to go home and write this all down before I forget it.”

“Good idea,” I said cheerfully as she walked off with three others. I noticed  that the fire was dying out, but some of the hard-core kids were holding on,  hoping for something to break the dreary monotony of the sheltered lives they live in our upscale zip code.


Paul Goodman, sticking burning leaves in his  mouth out of alienation.

 

I looked into their eyes and saw a great void–a blank where their imaginations should have been. “Do you guys have summer jobs?” I asked  after a while. As Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth  in the Organized Society, one of the reasons adolescents rebel is the lack  of meaningful work available to them.

“I’m working at the snack bar at the country club,” one of them said after a  while.

“You know,” I began, “that reminds me of the summer I spent driving an ice  cream truck. That damn jingle–‘Ding, ding, ding–da DING ding  ding’–drove me crazy!”

I turned to face them with an avuncular smile–and they were gone!

Just another day at the office, for a full-bore bore.

 

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