The Maximum Security Book Group

          An alternative sentencing program in Massachusetts allows felons to choose between going to jail or joining a book club.

               The New York Times Book Review

Tiny and me-excuse me–Tiny and I–had been circling the block on Oakridge Road for probably half an hour, casing the joint where our book club was meeting.

“Pretty nice neighborhood,” Tiny says as he looked out his window at the houses that started at a million-three, easy.

“You betcha. The kinda guys who live around here, they got good grades in between when you and me was beatin’ em up in school, slammin’ em up against lockers in the hall.”

“Hmph,” Tiny grunted. “We gonna go in pretty soon? ‘Cause I gotta take a leak.”

I slowed the car to a stop. “Tiny”–his name was an example of “irony,” as he weighed about 300 pounds–”don’t youse know nothin’?”

“What?” he rejoined, with more than a little umbrage I might add.

“The first thing you do when you walk into a nice house is not ask to go to the bathroom.”

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll go on the lawn.”

“And have us both end up in back in the big house? Unh-uh, pal. You go in, greet the hostess, tell her how nice her place looks. We drop off the pear tart in the kitchen, say hello and nice-to-meet-you’s all around. Then and only then do you ask to use ‘the facilities’.”

“What facilities?”

“It’s a euphemism, you mook. You gotta use a euphemism for the bathroom.”

We’d been sitting there maybe a minute at most, and wouldn’t you know it, somebody had already called the cops about a suspicious car parked on the street. That’s the way it is in nice neighborhoods. There’s always somebody lookin’ out their blinds to make sure nobody’s doin’ nothin’ to bring down property values.

“Everything okay, gentlemen?” the cop said after he rolled down his window.

“Yes, officer, we were . . . uh . . . just looking for 37 Oakridge Road. We got book group tonight.”

The guy didn’t buy it, not for a second. I knew we were in for the third degree.

“Book group,” he said, his left eyebrow arching upwards with skepticism. “Whatcha reading?” He figured he had us, but I didn’t get a record as long as my arm without wrigglin’ out of a few.

The Namesake,” I shot back.

It was like I’d hit the bull with a lead pipe. He was stunned, and it took him a while to recover. “By Jhumpa Lahiri?” he asked, struggling a bit with the name.

“On the nosey,” Tiny said. “She’s got a collection of short stories out now–Interpreter of Maladies.

The cop looked at Tiny, all 6’2″ of him. “Isn’t that kind of-chick lit?” the cop asked, curling his lip in an expression of contempt.

“I’m comfortable with my sexuality,” Tiny said, looking straight ahead, completely unabashed. As Norman O. Brown might have put it, Tiny was polymorphously perverse.

The guy looked us over like we was a mismatched pair of socks. He didn’t have probable cause for nothin’. We were just sitting there, minding our own business, in a parked car. “Oh look,” I said to Tiny, putting on my best faux surprise demeanor. “There’s 37–that’s where Sally Henderson lives! It was right in front of us all this time!”

“Yeah,” said Tiny, picking up on my verbal cue. “I think the place is darling.”

We got out, shut the car doors–not too loud–and I clicked the remote entry key to our rented Toyota Highlander. If we had to make an escape, it would help us blend in with all the other SUVs.

“You gentlemen be careful,” the cop said out his window, apparently conceding. “Not too much chardonnay–okay?”

“We’ll be on our best behavior,” I said with a poop-eating grin.

“Yeah,” Tiny added. “Maybe we’ll bring a slice of cheesecake down to the station.”

The guy gave us a nasty little smirk that said we’d better be able to pass a field sobriety test when we walked out, stuffed with Trader Joe’s frozen hors d’oeuvres and hoarse from all our high-toned literary conversation.

Tiny held the dessert while I rang the bell. “Well hello there!” Sally said as she flung the door wide open. She was resplendent in a tailored sweater-skirt combo from Talbots. “I’m so glad you could make it!”

“Thanks for having us,” Tiny replied, rallying a bit. “You can’t imagine how much nicer your place is than the Norfolk County House of Corrections!” So he did have some social skills, way down deep behind that grim, psychopathic mask that he wore whenever he knocked off a pharmacy for Oxycontin.

“Come in and meet the gals!” Sally said. “You’ll know most of them if you belong to the Junior League or the PTO.”

We were ushered into her living room, which was really quite charming. A lot of “chintz and prints” as they say, but you won’t hear me complain. Frankly, I find the “Brutalist” style of my cell–the plastic bench and exposed toilet–a bit tiresome after three years, two months and twenty-four days.

Sally introduced us to everyone–the names buzzed by me in a blur but I recall a Tori, a Deirdre, a Liz and a Staci “with an ‘i’.” After we filled our wine glasses with Kendall-Jackson, we got down to the business of the evening in earnest; admiring the hostess’s taste, and gossip.

“Are you still using that decorator–what was her name–Lisa?” Tori asked.

“Yes, she’s a little expensive, but who has time to shop for fabric, what with soccer, and ballet and hockey for the kids!” Sally said, plainly overwhelmed by the demands of her busy suburban lifestyle.

“I know I don’t,” Tiny said, as he stuffed two mini-quiches in his mouth. “I barely have time to get any exercise in,” he added, and two of the other housewives nodded in sympathy.

“They’ve added a Saturday morning spinning class at HealthPointe!” Liz said enthusiastically. She keeps herself in terrific shape.

“Where’s Stephanie?” Deirdre asked.

“Uh, she’s not going to be coming for awhile,” Sally said, somewhat cryptically.

“What’s the matter?” Tori asked.

“She and the kids have moved to Colorado, to be closer to her parents.”

“What about Greg?” Liz asked. Her brain is never quite as toned as her body.

“You didn’t hear? He came home two days late from his office Christmas party,” Sally said. “She traced him by his credit card. He had checked into a room at the hotel with his administrative assistant.”

“Oh, dear!” Tiny said, oozing sympathy.

“I told her I wouldn’t say anything to anybody,” Sally added with a cautionary tone.

“Jeez, that’s awful,” I said as I finished my chardonnay in a gulp. “He’s gonna regret it. Someday he’ll want somebody to talk to about literature, not just a hot piece of ass.”

Tiny cleared his throat–I thought he was maybe choking on one of them quiches, but he gave me a disapproving look. Perhaps I was just a bit tacky, so I changed the subject.

“So what about this week’s selection?” I asked cheerfully. “What did everybody think?”

“I liked it!” says Liz. She always does–her tastes aren’t very discriminating.

“I didn’t really fall in love with the characters,” Tori says.

“Well, let’s think about that,” I say. “Does anyone ever really like Iago?”

“Who’s E-AH-go?” Deirdre asks.

“Yeah,” Liz says, a bit defensively. “I don’t remember any character with that name.”

“He isn’t in the book,” I say, trying to explain. “He’s in Othello.

“Then why bring him up?” Liz asks airily. “I have enough trouble keeping track of characters as it is!”

The others laugh, and Sally offers everyone more wine. Deirdre holds out her glass, and Tori coos at the new David Yurman bracelet that hangs from her friend’s wrist.

“That is so pretty!” she exclaims. “You must have done some extra duty to get that little bauble, missy!”

The others gather round, and I give Tiny a nod of my head. He follows me out to the kitchen, and we look at each other-hard.

“Whadda ya think?” I ask him.

“I dunno. What’s next week’s selection?”


The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards,” I say grimly.

He inhales, and I know which way he’s gonna come out. “Do what you gotta do.”

I pick up the phone, and dial 9-1-1. The operator answers, and asks the nature of the emergency.

“We’re convicted felons,” I say. “We want to turn ourselves in.”

The Man Who Turned Into Bo Diddley

I’ve been channeling Ellas McDaniel–better known by his stage name, Bo Diddley–for so long that I didn’t realize I’d been transformed into him until I arrived at the coffee shop across from my train station this morning.

“That’s quite a jacket,” the woman behind the counter said, and I looked down to see that instead of my usual blue or grey suit, I was wearing a loud red plaid sport coat.

“Thanks,” I said, a little mystified.

“Medium?” the woman at the counter asked.

“Yes, please,” I replied.

“Anything for your friends?” she asked as she handed me a cup.

The Duchess, in a fleeting good mood.


I turned around and saw Jerome Green, Bo’s long-time maracas man, and “The Duchess,” his gorgeous sister.

“Unh, sure,” I replied, a little embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed them before.  “Sorry,” I said, “I didn’t see you two standing there.”

“Thass alright,” Jerome said.  “”I’ll have what you havin’.”

Bo and Jerome


The Duchess was a different proposition.  She could be moody, sullen, uncommunicative, haughty.  “You got any cross-ants?” she asked, showing off the French she’d learned on our tour of the Continent during the British Invasion of the ’60′s.

“No,” the woman behind the counter said.  “Just muffins and scones.”

The Duchess exhaled a little sigh of contempt.  “I don’t want no scone,” she said.  “Jest give me a coffee, unlest you got cappuccino.”

“We can make that for you,” the woman said, trying to be agreeable.  I felt sorry for her; she was just doing her job, and wasn’t used to dealing with royalty.

“Duchess,” I said, “I’ve got to make the 5:55 train.”

“Whuffo?” Jerome asked.

“So I can get in early,” I said.  “I’m more efficient in the morning.”

“You forgit,” Jerome said, “you ain’t no businessman no mo’.  You Bo Diddley.”

If anybody would know Bo, it was Jerome-subject of “Bring it to Jerome” and the party of the second part in “Say, Man,” Bo’s spoken dialogue hit that anticipated rap by twenty years.

“If you say so,” I replied.

The woman behind the counter had the cappuccino ready for The Duchess, and placed it on the counter.

“So, two regular coffees and a cappuccino, $8.75.”

I put down two fives, and the woman plunked a dollar and a quarter down on the counter.  That was enough to set Jerome off, and he began to shake his maracas to our trademark “Shave-and-a-haircut-two bits” beat.  CHICK-a–chicka-chick-chick–CHICK.

“That’s catchy,” the woman said.

“Thanks,” I said, as I dropped the quarter in the tip jar.  “Let’s go,” I said to my two new companions.

We got in my car and drove over to the train station, where we joined the usual early morning crowd; everyone silent, keeping to him or herself, contemplating the dreary day ahead.

“We goin’ to a gig?” Jerome asked.

“Yeah, but not the kind of gig you’re thinking about.”

The Duchess didn’t look happy.  “We gonna eat when we get there?”

“Duchess,” I said, a little exasperated.  “You had a chance to get something back at the coffee shop.  I can get you a croissant when we get into Boston.”

The train rolled into the station and we climbed aboard, me with my briefcase and guitar, Jerome with his maracas, The Duchess with nothing but her purse and her cup.

After we got settled in, the conductor came down the aisle, checking tickets.  I showed him my monthly pass, then he looked at my entourage.

“Where you goin’?” he asked Green.

“I dunno-he’s the headliner.  I’m just the maracas man.”

“Where you headed?” he asked me.

“South Station.”

“You payin’ for her too?” he asked, nodding at The Duchess.

She gave me a look that would have flash-frozen a pan full of peas, then turned and stared out the window.

“Two round trip,” I said, a little annoyed at the extra expenses I was beginning to incur as a rock ‘n roll pioneer forced to stay out on the road long after I could have retired if somebody’d told me not to give up the rights to my songs for flashy clothes and a Cadillac.

“You jest payin’ the cost to be the boss,” Green said with a sly little smile.

The train pulled into the Wellesley Farms station and who should get on but Todd Smirsky, an insufferable twit of a trader who bolted my firm last year, taking millions of dollars of business with him.

“Well, hello there,” Smirsky said.  “How’s it going?”

“Fine, fine,” I said trying not to be too friendly in the hope he’d shut his yap and let me ride into Boston in silence.


“What’s with the funny-looking guitar?” he asked, pointing at my trademark “cigar box” model.

“This?  Oh, sort of a new hobby.  I . . . uh . . . twisted my knee skiing this winter, so I decided to take up rhythm ‘n blues.”

“Really?” he asks, more a supercilious put-down than an inquiry, really.

“Yeah.  I . . . uh . . . go by ‘Bo Diddley’ now.”

I could tell from the look on his face what was going on in his mind.  “How déclassé!“  Smirsky’s idea of a wild weekend is two gin and tonics after eighteen holes of golf, year after year, stretching out in an unbroken line from here, to retirement, to the grave.  How boring.

“To each his own,” he says as he sits down with his Wall Street Journal and opens it up to the Money and Investing section.  “How’s everything at the old shop?” he asks.

What he wants to hear is my hollow-sounding claim that things couldn’t be better, business is booming, we’re going great guns, etc.  Instead, I give Jerome the cue, and he starts to shake out our trademark rhythm, while I launch into the hard-edged guitar sound that first got kids up on their feet, jerking spasmodically, a half century ago.

We got forty-seven billion in assets–
Our large cap fund is top-rated –
A Scandinavian receptionist, a company jet,
And none of our trades was back-dated!

“Oo-ee!” Jerome chimes in, and The Duchess begins to rock her head from side to side and snap her fingers.  I can see Smirsky is taken aback.  He was expecting to Lord it over me as usual, and instead he’s been hit by a rock ‘n roll tsunami; a pulsating, insistent beat and a fecund verbal imagination that he’s never encountered, even in the prospectus of the riskiest biotech start-up.

“That’s good to hear,” he says, then tries to change the subject.  “And how’s your better half?” he asks, dink-speak for my wife.

The question catches me off-guard.  I hadn’t expected Smirsky to drop his usual business one-upsmanship in favor of innocuous social chit-chat quite so willingly.  Jerome, however, doesn’t miss a beat-literally or figurative.

“Man, your wife’s so ugly she’s got to sneak up on a glass of chardonnay to take a drink!” he says to Smirsky, eager for an impromptu “dozens” match of rapid-fire insults.

Smirsky is silent for a moment, then asks me “Who’s this fellow?”

“That’s Jerome Green-my maracas man.”  As if to make the point with greater clarity, Jerome leans across the aisle and shakes his instruments in Smirsky’s face–CHICK-a–chicka-chick-chick-CHICK.

“Impertinent,” is all Smirsky says by way of rejoinder, and turns his attention back to the stock tables.

Jerome isn’t letting him off that easy. “You wife’s so ugly she broke yo brand-new iPhone when you took her picture!”

Smirsky gives Green a bitter, sardonic smile-the adult equivalent of “So funny I forgot to laugh.”  I guess the burden he puts on the left side of his brain as a top stock-picker has caused his right-brain–the locus of our creative and imaginative talents–to atrophy.

“Man-yo wife is so ugly, she sets off the security alarms when she walks into Talbots!”

Smirsky is smoldering now, and slams his briefcase shut. “You know ‘Bo’,” he says to me, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “I’m chairman of the membership committee at Pine Woods Country Club.  I seem to recall that you’re getting to the top of the waiting list there.”

All of a sudden, the downside of my walk on the wild side becomes apparent.  There’s no way I’m going to fit in with a bunch of white suburban males now that I’m possessed by the soul of Bo Diddley, except that my wild clothes will blend in with their weekend golf outfits.

“Bo Diddley’s a four handicap!” Jerome sings, but I extend my hand to silence him.

Pimpin’, or golfing–YOU make the call!


“Listen, Todd, I . . . uh . . . apologize for Jerome.  He’s new to the metrowest suburbs of Boston.  He was just engaged in a little signifiyin’.”

“Signifying?  He’s downright insulting.”

“He’s just joshing,” I say.  I’ve got a $2,500 deposit down on that club membership, and my wife will kill me if we blow it. Smirsky calms down a bit.  He didn’t get to be the top producer in our office by taking needless offense at friendly invective that’s part of an oral tradition dating back to dawn of history in Africa.

Jerome glares at Smirsky, his lower lip twisted into an expression of contempt, but he cools it, and stares out the window while he continues to pump out the beat.  The Duchess, however, is having none of my attempt at peace-making. “We don’t want to join your damn country club anyway,” she fairly spits out at Smirsky.

Smirsky snorts at her apparent presumptuousness.  “What makes you think we’d even consider you for membership?”

“Don’t you know nothin’ about the British Peerage?” she asks, incredulous.  “You all’s wives may be ladies,” she says, drawing herself with pride.  “But a Duchess outranks a lady.”

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

English Majors Name Screwtop Wine Bottle Most Important Invention of 20th Century

PLAISTOW, New Hampshire.  The fiftieth reunion of the class of 1973 of New England University is still four months away, but Development Director Debbie Haddix has been working overtime on the event since last fall.  “It’s a major giving opportunity,” she says as she wipes back a wisp of hair from her forehead and hits “send” to shoot out her latest update to alumni.  “People have forgotten how cold the winter semesters were by now, and they’ve also accumulated money to give us.”

Image result for new england college campus

So Haddix and her colleagues in alumni relations have come up with a series of reminders to members of the class, most of whom are retired, inviting them to “re-envision” their college experience in the hope of loosening four-and-five figure checks out of the residents of this region, often described as “flinty” and “thrifty.”  “Those are just euphemisms for ‘cheap,'” she says, and it appears from the expression on her face that she isn’t kidding.

Image result for screwtop wine bottles

One of the prompts for discussion Haddix came up with asked alumni which invention or development of the 20th century has, contrary to what they thought as undergrads, turned out to be the most important in their everyday lives.  “The answers were all over the lot,” says Assistant Development Director Angie Fahrquahr.  “Med students picked vaccinations, business majors picked computers–which ran by punch cards when they were here, and engineers chose synthetic materials–like polyester–which they wear a lot of.”

And what, this reporter asks, about English majors, who made up nearly 20% of the school’s 1973 graduates.  “They chose screwtop wine bottles,” Haddix says.  “Seems trivial by comparison.”

Mateus Rose Vintage
Mateus Rose: So classy!

A screwtop wine bottle is one that can be opened without a corkscrew by twisting off its cap.  In the last half of the twentieth century, such containers were used only for low-quality wines such as Boone’s Farm and Riunite, and high-alcohol “bum wines” such as Thunderbird.  “If you really wanted to impress a girl back then you’d get a bottle of Mateus Rose,” says class president Tom Oblingsen, a former life insurance salesman.  “You’d talk her into drinking the whole thing with a promise she could keep the bottle and decorate her dorm room with it.”

Image result for md 2020
          No longer declasse.

At some point the stigma attached to screwtops faded as wine lovers began to favor convenience over the old world charm of corks.  “Screwtops really don’t affect the quality of the product within,” says wholesale wine merchant Michael Ivanetti of Cape Cod Distributors.  “So it comes down to a question of, do you want to futz around with a corkscrew and maybe a busted cork for five minutes, or do you want to get plastered faster?”

For alums who were English majors the subject is no longer up for debate, as Aaron Driggs, class of ’72 and now professor emeritus at the college, makes clear in an intensive independent study he has set up for Chloe Williams in his faculty resident’s suite at G. Stanley Hall Hall, a freshman dormitory.  “Chloe!” he exclaims as he opens a second twist-off bottle of the sauvignon blanc he has been plying her with, “That ish the besht god-damn poem I’ve ever heard . . . and you’re beautiful!”

Swiss Women Use Assisted Suicide to Combat Male Snoring

WINTERTHUR, Switzerland.  Selina Bless used to arrive at her job as a pastry chef every morning at 6:30 a.m., tired and haggard-looking.  “Once I am up, I am up,” she says with resignation, “and my husband Lukas, he snored so loud, I couldn’t sleep through the night!”

But that was before she spoke to her friend Nina Blauch, who told her of a treatment that sounded worse than the ailment it was designed to cure, but which has been a godsend to the 39-year-old, who has two children in gymnasium, the equivalent of American high school.  “Now I sleep soundly and wake up refreshed,” she says with a sigh of relief.  “The kids say I am not so crabby anymore.”

The Bless family had tried everything to reduce Lukas’s snoring, from nose strips, to a mouth guard, to a chin strap, but none was as effective as Selbstmord Assistiert, or assisted suicide.  “The mouth guard was always falling out, and the nose strips were useless,” Selina says as she rolls her eyes thinking about the years of sleep she lost.  “The chin strap was so goofy looking I couldn’t fall asleep for laughing.”

Switzerland was the first nation to adopt an assisted suicide law, and experts say it has helped the mountainous central European country keep its health costs under control.  “We were spending too much on heroic measures to extend life for the elderly maybe six months at most,” says Dr. Elias Zercher, a professor of public health at Thurgau State University.  “You don’t buy a new suit for your 86-year-old grandfather, do you?”

“Give it a try.  If you don’t like being dead I’ll ask for a refund.”


Religious groups have criticized assisted suicide laws as a slippery slope to euthanasia, but Selina Bless says the after-Christmas mark-downs at Winterthur’s “Little House of Death” were too good to pass up.  When this reporter asks whether she obtained her husband’s informed consent she nods her head enthusiastically.  “He always loved a bargain,” she says, “I know he would have approved.”

Scientific Breakthroughs in Sandwich Fixin’s

          To promote its experimental color television system CBS sold tickets to a closed-circuit broadcast of pieces of Swiss cheese and bologna.

 Lush Life, David Hajdu

Enrico Caruso


As the fateful day on which we would attempt to broadcast sounds over invisible “radio waves” approached, we all grew more nervous.  Mr. de Forest was beside himself, which made our cramped headquarters even more crowded.

“What if the world isn’t ready to receive transmissions from the Invisible Empire of the Air?” he groaned as he paced the floor, barking orders at our little crew of visionaries.

“The first broadcast is critical,” someone said.  “It is essential that we capture the imagination of New Yorkers, or we are doomed to failure.”

“Well, man–what would you suggest?” he snapped with a sharp tone that revealed his exhaustion–and exasperation.

“I think we should aim high,” one of the academics on the “skunk works” staff, a physics professor, said.  “A program of opera.  Get some big names; Riccardo Martin, Emmy Destinn–Caruso!”

de Forest seemed taken by the idea.  “I think you’re on to something,” he said, staring off into the middle distance as if hypnotized.  “It will be another forty years before greaser Italian singing groups will sing dreck like ‘Who put the bomp in the bomp-a bomp-a bomp.’”

I didn’t like the direction in which we were heading.  I had to head things off at the pass, otherwise the chance of a lifetime to take the tide of technology at the flood would be lost.

“I disagree–strongly,” I said, through gritted teeth.

de Forest turned around and took me in, all 5′ 10″ inches of me.  I’d kept to myself throughout the research and development phase of the project–he’d never acknowledged my existence beyond a slight nod of the head each morning.

“Well, young man,” he said with an upraised eyebrow and an ironic grin creeping across his face.  “What would you suggest?”

I swallowed audibly. This was my big chance to make a name for myself in the burgeoning field.

“I don’t know about anybody else,” I said affecting false modesty.  “But if it were me, I’d put on an egg salad sandwich on whole wheat, with maybe a slice of lettuce.”



I’d been working so hard that I’d lost all track of time, and when I looked up at the clock at Bolt, Beranek & Newman I saw it was–8:45!  Not again, I groaned.  For the third time in a month I’d be late for a date with my long-suffering girlfriend Ellen.  She said she understood the critical nature of the mission we had embarked on–a race against time to invent the internet before Al Gore–but a woman can only stand so much, she’d told me the last time I had called to cancel on her, a double date for the midnight show of The Day of the Triffids at the MIT Science Fiction Movie Club.

Still, I had to bite the bullet.  I had about a half-mile of code to write to meet the deadline for tomorrow morning’s beta test.  I gingerly picked up the phone, dialed KEndall 6-1527 and waited for her slightly adenoidal voice–we were all mouth-breathers back then!–to come on the line.

“Hello?” she said dully.  Probably expecting my call.

“Hi–it’s me,” I said in as pleasant a voice as I could muster.

“Not again,” she said more in disappointment than in anger.  What a gal–I had to marry her someday and produce carriers of my genetic makeup!

“We are so close,” I said.  “In fact, if you turn on your computer right now, I might be able to send you the first electronic mail-o-gram in human history!”

That snapped her out of her torpor.  “Really?  That’s exciting.  Okay–I’m going to hang up.  Shoot me an ‘e-mail’!”

“Will do!” I said with excitement and hung up.  I raced to my computer and was about to begin typing when suddenly it struck me; this was a moment which would live in infamy if I sent her a message that was inane, jejune–fatuous.  I had to make it meaningful.  I didn’t want to say I loved her–what if the Russians intercepted the message?  I wanted the first communique over the nascent technology to be momentous: A recognition of our place in history? Homage to the team members who had worked with me?  A paean to man’s questing nature that had brought us to this technological precipice?

And then it struck me.   It should be something . . . basic.  Something so intrinsic to man’s nature that future generations would see their own fundamental desires reflected in the first halting words transmitted over the Arpanet.  And so I began to type:

“I’ll be over about 10:15.  Could you make me a B-L-T, white toast, light mayo?”


Boston’s Bowdoin Square was covered in snow, and Alexander Graham Bell shivered in our unheated quarters. He had used up nearly all of the money he had raised from friends and family to construct his “phonautograph,” a machine that would someday enable suburban mothers to maintain constant contact with each other while they drove “automobiles,” if Henry Ford would ever get off his duff and mass produce the oversize SUVs that an impatient nation yearned for. At the moment, however, he faced almost certain business and personal failure, and I withdrew from his laboratory, pained as I was by the site of the man in his sore distress.

Blow man, blow!


When I reached the adjoining room, however, I heard the culmination of all of our hard work, as clear as a bell. “Mr. Watson,” I heard Dr. Bell say. “Come here — I want to see you.”

“Yes, Dr. Bell! I’ll be right there!” I could hardly contain my sense of relief and happiness as I closed my eyes, clasped my hands in prayer and gave thanks to the merciful god–whoever it might be–of telephony.

As I stood up I heard the great inventor’s voice again.

“One more thing,” he said.

“Yes?” I replied with great anticipation.

“When you come, could you bring me a tuna salad on rye, no pickle?”

How to Cheer Up a Sad Song

It is one of the most difficult problems of aesthetic philosophy: What do we mean when we say that a song or poem is sad? I’ve read Aristotle, Kant, Croce–Benedetto, not Jim–all the big names. As far as I can tell, nobody’s come close to answering the question.

Benedetto “Don’t Call Me Jim” Croce


More important—it seems to me—is why isn’t anybody doing anything about it. You’ve got all these sad songs out there—from the peaks of “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn to the swamps of “Feelings” by Morris Albert—walking around depressed, ready to do something drastic if somebody doesn’t cheer them up.

The main reason I ended my career in philosophy when I graduated from college is this do-nothing attitude. I’m sorry—you can’t just write A Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics like Kant and leave people hanging. You’ve got to deliver on your prolegomena, otherwise you’re just a tease.

That’s why I’ve gathered the Kindertotenlieder–“Songs on the Death of Children,” poems by Friedrich Ruckert set to music by Gustav Mahler, probably the five saddest songs in Western culture–for a holiday excursion.  School vacation doesn’t end until next Monday, I’ve got to get them out of the house, take them shopping, do something to snap them out of their morbid mood.

Mahler:  “What a bunch of brats.”


We pile into my Ford Taurus station wagon with the fold-up rear seat. It’s not the nicest car in our garage, but it’s the only one that will seat six comfortably.

“Where’s the seat belt back here?” It’s Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n, who’s always a whiner.

“The clasp is under the seat, the belt’s on the side rail,” I say, trying not to snap. It could be a long afternoon.

“I want to stop for coffee,” says Nun she’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen.  “And not at Dunkin’ Donuts.” Mr. Picky.

“Does this car have GPS?” Wenn dein Mutterlein asks. “Because you know you’re going to get lost.” I’m beginning to question why I thought this was a good idea.

“I know where I’m going,” I say, a bit testily. “We’re going out to the candlepin bowling alley on Route 9. They’ve still got the Santa’s Village display up!”

“I hate Christmas.” It’s Oft denk’ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen, who’s pouting in the back because In diesem Wetter! called shotgun before he could.

“I think you’re going to like this place. It’s got candlepin bowling . . .”

“Candlepins is hard!” says In diesem.

He’s right about that. “I’ll ask them to put the bumpers in, so you won’t throw any gutter balls.” He’s mollified, but he’s still got a grumpy look on his face. “Santa’s Village is cool,” I say, hoping to get them to think happy thoughts. “All the reindeer move their heads, and the elves in Santa’s workshop swing their hammers.”

“Is there food?” Wenn asks. That’s one thing I made sure of. The last thing I need is five German lieder with low blood sugar on my hands.

“There’s the usual assortment of soft drinks and candy in the vending machines, plus they have pizza.”

“Yay–pizza!” yells Oft denk’ich. Maybe there’s hope.

We pull into the parking lot and the songs pile out of the car. These guys have been around for over a hundred years, and yet they shuffle into the bowling alley like sullen teenagers. If it weren’t for my strong commitment to volunteer work, I’d say that no good deed goes unpunished.

We go up to the counter to rent shoes. I look down at their liederfüße and see that Nun will has forgotten to wear socks. “That’s going to cost us an extra buck-fifty,” I say with an upraised eyebrow to express my disappointment.

“It wasn’t my idea to come here,” he says as he checks his iPhone.

We have to wait for a while to get a lane with gutter bumpers. There’s evidence that Germans have been bowling since 300 A.D. so you’d think these guys would have picked up the game by now, but no, they still need a crutch that was invented for toddlers. I chalk it up to their lack of social skills. Don’t sit around the house like a gloomy Gus if you don’t have a date–get your friends together and make your own fun!

I get them Cokes—probably not a good idea with the caffeine–and let them have the run of Santa’s Village.  After a while I see them start to smile a bit, and I begin to sing—“I often think: they have only just gone out, and now they will be coming back home.”

“What?” says Oft denk’ich.

“Nothing,” I say. “Finish that soda–our lane’s ready.”

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

The Most Wonderfullest Christmas Ever

In that year, I was a young man on the verge (at least in my mind) of getting old.  It was Christmas time, which made the passing of youth that much more painful; I remembered the year I found both a basketball and a bb gun under the tree, and all the bright promise that lay ahead of me as a gun-toting sports hero, blasting into some one-gas station town like Knob Noster, Mo., to shoot free throws and squirrels.

But now I was, as Chuck Berry might have said, almost grown. My boss had said no vacations until the end of the year, there were too many deals to close. My girlfriend had taken off to see her parents with the suggestion that when she came back, our relationship would be over. I was alone in Boston, and none of my local friends had invited me over for Christmas dinner.

After feeling sorry for myself for a while, I harkened back to the teachings of Christ: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what” . . . wait, that was President Kennedy’s speechwriter.  Jesus said “Truly I tell you, whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). It was time for my annual trip to Boston’s principal homeless shelter, to give something back to those less fortunate than myself.

I packed up a box of clothes and headed down to the South End, Boston’s counterpart to the Bowery in New York. Here is where those who have dropped out of or been eliminated from the rat race of capitalism had historically congregated because of the area’s cheap single-room occupancy housing. The yuppie condo boom was still a few years in the future, so the area’s charming urban blight was unsullied by low crime rates and highly-educated newcomers who recycled their wine bottles instead of throwing them in the streets.

As I approached the Pine Street Inn, an old Dickensian hell-hole that would be replaced in a few years by a brand, spanking-new Dickensian hell-hole, I saw two familiar faces—Mitch, a grizzled white man with tobacco-stained teeth, and Tyrone, a non-grizzled black man who was missing a front tooth.

Tyrone, Mitch, and their Boswell.

“Well hello governor,” Tyrone said. I don’t know how he does it, but he always maintains a positive attitude towards life.  Maybe the cheap “bum” wine he and Mitch drink all day has something to do with it.

“You dropping off some Chriffmuff presents?” Tyrone said, his tongue poking through the hole where a tooth once lived.

“Sure am,” I said. I looked at Mitch and couldn’t stop myself from clucking my tongue. “You know, guys, the economy’s booming . . .”

“Talkin’ Reaganomics!” Tyrone sang in a fair imitation of the “B” side of Johnny Taylor’s semi-hit “What About My Love?”

“Reaganomics,” greatest supply-side R&B song of all time.

“If you’d only spruce yourselves up a bit, I’m sure you could find a job.”

Mitch looked at Tyrone for a second, who returned his bemused gaze—then the two burst out laughing. “What the hell would I want a job for?” Mitch said. “Last job I had they wouldn’t let me drink between nine and five. What kinda crazy rule is that?”

I just shook my head. “So you don’t want first dibs on my swag? I’ve got some nice transition-to-self esteem items in here.”

“What you got—‘cause I know you too well,” Tyrone said, “is this year’s power ties you gettin’ rid of ‘cause they got soup stains on ‘em.”

I blushed a little. “You’re only half-right,” I said. “Some have chili stains.”

“Man, I told you not to be eatin’ chili at a business lunch!” Tyrone snapped, and I had to admit he was right.

“You know, come to think of it, we didn’t get the Arabesque Modeling Clay account.”

“See—I was right,” Tyrone said, and a bit smugly I might add.

“Okay, well if you guys are all set, I’m gonna let everybody else have a crack at ‘em,” I said.

“Go ahead,” Mitch said. “Check back with us next Christmas—we’re on sabbatical this year.”

“Right,” I said, laughing at his facetiousness.

“No, seriously—it’s a great way to refresh an employee who’s become burned out by mindless routine.”

“I’ll tell that to my boss,” I said, and I headed for the entrance.

The Inn keeps a well-manned front desk for security reasons and so that donors don’t have to make their way through the smell and visible misery of masculine failure and hopelessness.

“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” said the young man on duty. “You’re here to make a donation, not to spend the night—correct?”

“Very good!”

“I have a graduate degree in social work. What have you got for us?”

“Here, take a look.”

The kid began to paw through my discards. “This white-on-blue shirt—you’re giving that away?”

“Somebody told me it makes too much of a fashion statement for a junior person like me.”

“Okay—what else? What’s wrong with these tassel loafers?”

“They’re starting to pinch in the toe. I figured I should give them away before I busted through the front.”

“A lot of our ‘clients’”—his air of dubiety, not mine—“could do with an upgrade to their casual wear. Anything else?” he asked as he dug down to the bottom of the box, then said “Holy cow—look at this!”

“You’re giving that away?”

The security guard came over for a peek, and shared the young man’s enthusiasm.

“Those are some nice power ties, man!” he said to me, then to the attendant: “You don’t think I . . .”

“Forget it, pal,” the kid said. “All donated items are solely for the use of the under-privileged, not the moderately-privileged like you.”

“That’s a sucky policy,” the guard said, then moved swiftly to calm a bearded man who claimed the Pope was hiding under his bed. “How many times I gotta tell you–the Pope left town in 1979!”

“You want a receipt for tax purposes?” the attendant asked.

I looked off into the middle distance, and I saw a future in which an Ivy League-trained lawyer who would run for President and lose would take a deduction for underwear of her husband—who would become Presidentthat the couple donated to charity. But that someday of unalloyed generosity had not yet come.

“No, no, I don’t need it thanks. In my mind, it’s not really charity unless you’re willing to forego the $3.16 difference in your income taxes that a box of clothes you don’t want any more will make.”

“Yes we wrote off my underpants, but they were in good shape.”

“Thanks, man,” the attendant said. “That money will help pay down America’s deficit, and that means more money for social service workers like me.”

“My pleasure,” I said, and we knuckle-bumped—way ahead of our time on that score, and I walked out into the cold December air.

I passed Mitch and Tyrone—they were arguing about who was entitled to the “spit hit,” the backwash in the bottom of the bottle—and stopped for a moment. I stared off into the deep, blue-black night sky. I was feeling somehow—incomplete.

Maybe I should have gotten a receipt, I said to myself. It would be embarrassing if I came back next April, trying to reconstruct my donation. Somehow just giving useless crap away had left me—unfulfilled. What I wanted, what I needed, was human companionship on Christmas Eve, the one night of the year—other than New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, and maybe Valentine’s Day—when nobody wants to be alone.

Visit colorful Lower Washington Street!

But where was I going to go? Christmas Eve is also the one night of the year when everything is closed—it being Saturday night made it doubly worse.  I walked up Lower Washington Street—usually a festival of lights and gaily-dressed hookers—and saw nothing but darkened restaurants. Even Fuddruckers—the restaurant chain that was born to create the World’s Greatest Hamburgers™—was shuttered.

And then I noticed it—a star in the West, shining brightly over Tower Records. And I heard the strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” What did it mean? Was I supposed to “ransom captive I-i-israel?” I checked my wallet. I had sixty bucks—you couldn’t even buy one of the Golan Heights with that kind of money.

Still, I was led onward, as if by some magnetic force, through the darkened streets, towards the MBTA’s Green Line. I paid with a token—and not a token token, but a token that was as good as any of the others, even though it wasn’t the brightest token in the fare box.

“Stupid car crossed in front of me while I was eatin’ my donut!”

“Where is this train going?” I asked the conductor, who had a donut, a cup of coffee and a copy of the Boston Herald–the paper I would begin to write for a decade later–spread out in front of him in order to insure passenger safety.

“This is a ‘C’ car,” he said, not looking up from his paper.

And so it became clear. I was headed to Brookline, the clean little disproportionately-Jewish town I’d lived in during graduate school, where if you ain’t pareve, you ain’t nothin’. I took it as a sign.

I rode in silence for awhile until the driver said “This is probably where you wanna get off,” as we hit the intersection of Beacon Street and Harvard Ave. “Thanks,” I said, and stumbled off, zombie-like, to an unknown fate.

I turned right, as if drawn by some magnetic force, and then I saw it; a star shining brightly above Ho-Toy Chinese Restaurant, another atop Mr. Chang’s Kitchen, a third blinking its welcome from Sichuan Gourmet. It was like a Henny Youngman joke: how do you know you’re in a Jewish neighborhood—all the Chinese restaurants. And every one open for business!

Why didn’t I think of it before? And what mysterious force had drawn me hither—or was it “thither”?

An embarrassment of riches—like finding a three-pack of gold, frankincense and myrrh under the tree! Which one to choose?

Ho-Toy was first on my route, so I opened the door to find it packed to the gills with members of the tribe of Abraham, being served by Confucians—everybody merry, nobody celebrating Christmas.

My glasses fogged as emotions welled up inside me—or was it the dumplings on the steam table?

I looked around the room with satisfaction. The hostess walked up to me. Table for one? she asked.

“Yes,” I said, and I couldn’t keep a tincture of sadness out of my voice.

“Oh, so sorry,” she said. “You should try buffet, maybe you meet nice person in line.”

“Good idea,” I said. I took off my coat, picked up a plate and got in line behind a short, bearded man wearing a black hat. I guessed he was a rabbi, and I was right.

“Nobody’s eating the pork ribs,” I said to him as he surveyed the fare. “Something wrong with them?”

“Nothing that isn’t prohibited by the Book of Leviticus,” the man said. “You alone for Christmas?” he asked.


“Gotta be tough,” he said as he helped himself to a heaping spoonful of the chicken fried rice. He turned to me, his eyes welling over with ecumenical sympathy. “You can join my family at our table if you’d like.”

“Really? You’d do that for someone whose co-religionists have harassed your people for two millennia?”

“It’s Saturday, and three stars have yet to appear in the sky,” the rebbe said. “We need a shabbas goy to open the fortune cookies.”

The Year the Meanest Man Stole Christmas

There is a little town not far from here, a very prosperous town, one that people aspire to live in. Couples scrimp and save to build up a down payment on a house there, knowing their children will receive a good education in its schools, and their old friends will say “They must be doing well if they can afford to live in Swellsville.”

Another thing that people like about Swellsville; town officials are just as thrifty as the people who live there. They work hard to keep taxes low, for which they are justly praised. They know that if they slip up and spend too much money on storm drains or fire trucks or playground equipment, it can mean the end of a very good job for them, and they’ll end up at a less affluent town, at a lower salary.

One such town is Needsville, right next door to Swellsville. Town fathers and mothers in Swellsville keep an eye out for rising talent in the competitive crab bucket of municipal managers, and when they heard that Mike Macree had kept costs so low that Needsville’s bond rating had gone up, they made a discreet inquiry as to whether he’d like to make a switch to Swellsville.

“How much does it pay?” Mike asked, and when he was told, he said “That’s not enough for me to buy a house in Swellsville.”

“That’s okay,” they said. “One of the many advantages of our town is that the help can’t afford to live here.”

Mike thought about it for a while, and decided he would take the job after he was told that, as a town employee, his kids could attend Swellsville schools even if he didn’t live there.

Mike set to work with the high energy he’d brought to every job he’d ever had before, poking and probing for fat to be cut. He deferred some maintenance on street lights, cut a position at the Department of Public Works, and talked a principal into early retirement. He wasn’t ready to pat himself on the back, though. “I’ve just skimmed the surface,” he said one night as he made himself another cup of coffee for a final pass through the budget, determined to deliver the goods for his new employer.

As the clock ticked past seven and he began to get bleary-eyed, Mike’s energy flagged. “Maybe I should go home and start again tomorrow,” he said to himself, but he only had thirty-four more pages to go; best to soldier on, he thought, hoping to find some hidden pocket of waste, fraud or abuse the good government types are always confident can be eliminated to keep taxes low and the level of services high.

Then, like a hidden figure in a children’s puzzle that suddenly stands out from the background, he found it: “Christmas lights–$50,000! Good gravy! I should be able to cut that by more than half!” And so he fired off an email to the head of Swellsville’s Department of Public Works. “No overtime for Christmas tree lighting this year. Put a string of lights on the tree in front of Town Hall, and call it a day.”

The next morning when town offices opened and the Director of the DPW turned on his computer, he was shocked and saddened. “So this is what we have come to,” he said, shaking his head. “They’re going to take Christmas away from the people of Swellsville, just to save a measly five figure sum!” He clicked “Reply” and typed “Will do—although I’m sure this will generate a lot of controversy among people who are opposed to merciless budget-cutting that kills the spirit of Christmas.” He sent a copy to himself, and when it popped up in his in-box, he sent it to every town employee and to the town’s listserv. First shock, then disbelief, then outrage radiated outwards across Swellsville, like rings from the spot where a rock hits the surface of a pond. “How could he?” wrote one. “How DARE he!” exclaimed another. “Who IS this Mike Macree guy?” asked a third.

Soon, the humble city manager became an object of scorn by all right-thinking residents of Swellsville. After it had been determined by universal acclamation that the man’s heart was as small and black as a Spanish olive, he passed into the realm of ridicule. Someone noticed that his initials were the same as “meanest man,” and he came to be called “Meanest Man Mike Macree.” Another noticed that he had not two but one eyebrow, and he was reviled as “Monobrow Mike Macree.” “In fact,” one person wrote in her blog on local affairs, “his eyebrows seem to form one big ‘M’ on his forehead, like a mark of the monomaniacal monster that he is!”

Thanksgiving passed, and all lamented the lack of lights on the town green and on Main Street, where in years past the little white bulbs had lent an air of homespun commercialism to the scene. “What are we going to do about this jerk?” one burgher—the owner of an upscale cheese shop–asked another.

“We need a grass-roots movement,” said the other, who owned a high-end jewelry shop. “The man is menace to society, and society should hold him accountable!”

And so a social media campaign began to speak truth to power, and a march was organized. With candles in hand, hordes of angry citizens descended upon Town Hall, where they demanded Mike Macree’s head, or at least his job if his head wasn’t available under the terms of his employment contract.

“WE WANT CHRISTMAS BACK!” they chanted, louder and louder. The town clerk, an elderly woman, slipped out the back door, not wanting to be associated with the executioner-style budget cutter who was in charge of things.

“WE WANT CHRISTMAS—NOW!” they screamed, and the bookkeeper in the assessor’s office decided to take a personal day to get in a little shopping.

“WE WANT OUR CHRISTMAS LIGHTS!” they shouted, loudly enough to wake the napping in their chairs at the town’s senior center.

Mike Macree looked up from his work and out the front window and exhaled deeply. “Well, it isn’t pleasant, but I guess it comes with the paycheck.” He took a last sip of soda, tossed the can into a blue recycling bin, and strode forth down the hall with the aspect of a man who has an irksome but necessary job to do, like a sheriff in a western movie who’s forced to confront a lynch mob, or a gang of outlaws—he wasn’t sure which.

As Macree stepped out onto the wide stone steps that led up to Town Hall, he was met with a crashing wave of obloquy the likes of which hadn’t been heard in Massachusetts since 1693, when the last witch was hanged in Salem. “WE DEMAND OUR CHRISTMAS LIGHTS BACK!” screamed one particularly obstreperous group of older women wearing red hats, which were designed to convey that they had unimpeachable moral authority—or something.  One of them stepped forward and shook her finger in Macree’s face, saying “You’ve stolen our Christmas!”

Macree was taken aback by the vehemence of the angry people, but he collected himself. “Folks,” he said, “if you’d like to hear what I have to say, you’ll have to quiet down just a little, okay?”

An embarrassed silence descended upon the crowd—perhaps they had been a tad importunate.

“All right—go ahead. Speak,” said an elderly gentleman who’d been caught up in the madness of the crowd.

“Thank you,” Macree said to the man. “Folks, it’s like this. I was hired to do a job. Nobody likes it when their favorite program is cut, or eliminated, but we all have to make sacrifices. Like you,” he said, pointing to the head of the DPW.

“Me?” the man replied, with feigned innocence. “I was only trying to give the people a warm and wonderful Christmas feeling that they’d remember long after I’m gone.”

“And enjoying the pension, paid for by all the same folks, that grows larger each year with all the overtime you make—am I right?”

The DPW Director looked down at his feet, and shuffled them back and forth. “Well, there’s that too.”

“We could be spending that money on our schools—right? Maybe hire another kindergarten teacher?”

The DPW Director was silent for a moment, then was recalled to the train of his argument by an irrelevant whistle of a non sequitur he heard in his mind’s ear: “But–it’s the spirit of the thing that’s important!”

“Yes, the Christmas spirit!” someone shouted, and Macree turned to address her.

“Great—Christmas spirit!” he said. “Who could possibly object to that—unless one of the many Hindus and Muslims and Jews and atheists and agnostics who live among us?”

“They’re just . . . lights,” the woman said.

“If you believe that, you should probably go home and get in bed.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because Santa won’t come down the chimney until you’re asleep.”

A collective gasp escaped from the lips of the crowd. “There’s no need to be sarcastic!” a man snapped.

“You’re right,” Macree said. “This is a serious matter, and no one knows that better than me.”

“Well, you sure don’t show it!” one irate man said with a scolding tone.

“Maybe that’s because I still haven’t gotten over what happened in Needsville a few years ago.”

“What was that?” a woman asked.

“We were putting up the Christmas lights on the town square as we always did. The men were working away, using a cherry-picker truck. A young man was up in the basket, stringing the high branches, when a gust of wind came along. It toppled the truck over on its side, and the man died.”

The crowd was silent, and if one looked closely there could be seen on the necks of those that weren’t concealed by scarves big lumps of sadness sliding down their throats.

“Did he . . . leave a family.”

“Yes. A wife and three little kids.”

An audible groan was heard.

“But—isn’t that sort of thing covered by insurance?” asked a man with a worldly air that signaled he understood such things.

“Yes, of course. There was $250,000—not a penny more–to take care of those four. For the rest of their lives, or until the mother could afford childcare and go to work.”

“That was it?” the worldly man asked.

“Well, you want to keep your taxes low, don’t you?”

“Didn’t they take up a collection for the poor people?” a woman with a saintly manner asked, her voice infused with sympathy.

“Sure they did—they had a bake sale, and a charity basketball game. Raised another $837. With that kind of generosity, that poor mother should be all set, right?”

The crowd was silent. “If I’d had the money that town paid to put up Christmas lights to give to her, I’d have felt a lot better,” Macree said.

The crowd began to dissolve, first at the fringes, then throughout the mass of humanity that had been so strident and unified in purpose just a few moments before.

“Just a moment,” Macree called out over the backs of the heads that were now moving away from him slowly. A few turned, others stopped still in their tracks, while some just kept going.

“Go home to your families,” Macree said, “and give them all the love you’ve got. That’s what Christmas is about, not a bunch of crappy plastic lights.”

Moral: Sometimes it’s the hard candy that has a soft, gooey center.

Ugly Christmas Sweaters May Be Cause of Moth Decline

CONCORD, Mass.  This bucolic town north of Boston is the birthplace of Henry David Thoreau, often cited as America’s first environmentalist, and his spirit lives on in the attitudes of many current residents such as Millicent Fish, whose family can trace its roots here back to the 18th century.  “It’s a lovely place, and we’d like to keep it that way,” she says as she throws a pail-full of garbage onto her backyard compost heap.  “But I worry about the kind of planet we’re going to leave to the next generation.”

Concord, Mass.:  History so thick you can hit it with a stick.

Fish is always on the lookout for signs of natural decline, and undertook a hive-to-hive census of the town’s beehives last summer after she read of a decline in the population of the flying insects.  “Thank goodness they were all present and accounted for,” she says as she brushes a stray wisp of greying hair out of her eyes.  “I can move on to the next planetary crisis–moths.”

Save the moths!

With her preternaturally sensitive antennae for the detection of looming ecological disasters, Fish was able to decipher the meaning of a phenomenon that others missed, or even applauded.  “Unless my solar-powered calculator isn’t working, the number of moths has dropped dramatically in the past few years,” she says as she checks a spiral notebook in which she keeps a daily log of her observations, like Thoreau.  “There haven’t been as many flying around our porch light as there used to be, and I blame the whole ugly Christmas sweater fad.”

Fish is referring to the enthusiasm for gauche, tacky multi-colored sweaters depicting Christmas themes that has been adopted with an ironic attitude by young people.  Traces of the woolen clothing items, often required as tickets of admission to holiday parties, have been detected in the digestive systems of dead moths by those weird enough to look for such things, touching off “canary in the coal mine” alarms among scientists who own both canaries and coal mines.

“If present trends continue, America will have enough ugly Christmas sweaters by the year 2029 to fill the Mariana Trench–and no moths,” says Christian Zwabekc, Professor of Lepidopterology at the Pringy Institute of Fashion in New York.  Why would anyone want more moths, this reporter asks him, to which Zwabekc replies  “I have to have something to study here, all the articles of clothing are taken.”

Mariana Trench:  Best place for your Christmas sweater.

Moths are winged insects that do stupid things such as fly into flames and eat sweaters.  They are related to butterflies, their better-dressed cousins who get all the favorable publicity received by the Lepidoptera family because they are pretty while moths have this creepy dust that comes off on your hands when you smush them.

Scientists speculate that toxic dye in threads used to make the colorful holiday apparel are responsible for the premature death of the moths that eat them, but fashion experts disagree.  “It is not the taste of the fiber that kills,” says Letitia Von Barings, a personal shopper at Ye Olde Shopping Mall in nearby Framingham.  “It is the atrocious taste in clothing that is fatal.”