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

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

The Wall Street Journal

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot as a sausage and ready to pop.


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

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

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

It could happen here.


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

“If what?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

Happy Hairball Awareness Day

It’s Friday, and I’m “working” remotely from home.  There’s just me and two cats, Rocco and Okie, three sullen males grunting their way through the day–as usual–while the wife’s out shopping for essential items.  Milk, bread, a tall vanilla no-foam latte, a 2024 calendar.

Rocco: “You insensitive clod!”

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

“Just leave me alone–okay?”

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

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

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

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

“Yip, yip, yip!”

“Funny strange, or funny ha-ha?”

“Strange. He seems somewhat–distant today.”

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


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

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

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

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

“Don’t you know what today is?”

St. Swithin: Peace out, dawg.

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

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

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

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

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

National Hairball Awareness Poster Child

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

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

“But I don’t . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camus: 1951 Existentialist Rookie of the Year.

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

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

“Musee des Beaux Arts?”

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

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

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

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

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

“But I want to.”

“No–you’re going to need it.”

“Why?” I ask.

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

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

Scooter & Skipper at the Roman Colosseum

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

                                              Bloomberg News

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Please Mr. Lion–sign mine!”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                The Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh

Edith Sitwell


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

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

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

“You got it pal.”

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

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

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

“Except what?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?” she asked.

“The Human Car Wash of Self-Esteem.”

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


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

“Uh, I didn’t,” Jeff said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?” Jeff asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s it–a dance?” Sally asked.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


After Losing Season, Parents Fire College Coach

WELLESLEY FALLS, Mass.  In this affluent suburb of Boston, parents will go to great lengths to ensure that their children get into a good college, even paying top dollar to “college coaches” who counsel the kids on their essays, SAT preparation, community service choices and overall application strategy.

“You’ve got to completely fill in the little oval with your #2 lead pencil!”


“It means so much,” says Marci Hallinan, whose daughter Courtney’s first choice was Mount Holyoke College.  “Get into the right school and someday you’ll be able to buy a $1.3 million starter home,” says the perky blonde who supplements her husband Rick’s income by working as a real estate broker.  “If you don’t, you may end up pushing a grocery cart through the streets picking up deposit cans.”

“If only I’d gone to Tufts!”


If Marci’s smile seems a little forced today, it’s because Courtney was not accepted from the “early decision” applicants to the prestigious women’s college, and wasn’t granted “deferred” status to be considered as part of the regular applicant pool, either.  “Flat-out rejected,” says Marci bitterly, and this reporter hears the sound of sobbing floating down from an upstairs bedroom.

“Just go away and leave me to my broken dreams, okay?”


The scene was repeated across town as clients of college coach Ron Dilworth received the bad news from Stanford, Harvard, Emory, Washington University in St. Louis and Northwestern, among others.  “He got the big goose-egg,” says angry father Todd Dremke, whose son Miles applied early decision to the University of Chicago.  “O for 8.”

“. . . bare ruined choirs where late the dweeb nerds sang.”


At a cost of six to eight thousand dollars a child, a college coach can do quite well, but “the only thing that counts is your record,” says Norton Zeligman, who “ran the table” this year, getting his clients into Yale, Oberlin, Vanderbilt and Georgetown.  “I feel sorry for Ron, but that’s the nature of the business.”

“Your essay should show you’re not just a grade grubber, you’re a well-rounded grade grubber.”


So Dilworth got the bad news this morning.  He’s been sacked, asked to clean out his flash cards, and told that his services won’t be needed next season.  “I don’t think I was given the chance I needed to turn this place around,” he said at a sparsely-attended press conference at the high school guidance office.  “I wish these kids the best of luck.  Given their scores in AP Biology, they’re going to need it.”

“I’m looking forward to spending more time with my family, and less with yours.”


Dilworth has no job offers at present, but hopes to catch on as a junior college coach in a less-affluent community.  “Some of those schools will take a kid if he fogs a mirror held under his nose and the parents’ check doesn’t bounce,” he noted in his farewell speech.  “Those are my kind of standards.”

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

My Quest to Bring Karaoke to Mt. Everest

Sometimes, it takes a tragedy to change the way we view the world. For me, it was the story of David Sharp.

Sharp was a climber in distress who died 300 feet from the summit of Mt. Everest. A number of parties, including that of double-amputee Mark Inglis, passed him by, oblivious to his plight as they sought the small beer glory that comes to those who scale the world’s highest mountain long after the feat has become commonplace.

When I learned of Sharp’s death, I could only sigh in disgust at my fellow man (and the overwhelming majority of the world’s premier climbers are men).

And then it struck me–this never would have happened if the many highly-competitive egotists who passed Sharp by had only stopped to partake in the camaraderie of karaoke as they made their way up and down the mountain.

Since it was first developed in the 1970′s, karaoke has become a staple of after-work get-togethers around the world. The term is derived from two Japanese words, kara and okestura, which roughly translated mean “bad singing.”

Karaoke first became popular among Japanese “salary men” who are expected to go out after long work days and socialize into the night. Their bosses hope that bonding through singing will improve team spirit, leading to greater corporate profits. Simply put, it is impossible not to feel a sense of common purpose with someone who has heard you sing Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive” after you’ve had three Margaritas.

My goal: To bring the bonhomie that karaoke engenders to the mountain known to sherpas, the Nepalese natives who guide foreigners to its peak, as “Chomolungma” or “Graveyard of Lousy Tippers.”

My sherpa’s name is Pemba Dorjie, and he recommends the VocoPro Karaoke King, a 7 Watt, 120 volt beauty with a Signal-to-Noise Ratio of 65 db and Wow and Flutter of 0.35% WRMS. “This bad boy has two microphone inputs with individual volume controls,” he notes in his native Tibetan tongue. “Duets can thus be performed with ease, cranking the fun up another notch.”

We choose the southwest ridge for our ascent, and make base camp at 17,600 feet above sea level. Pemba asks if he can be the first to try out the VocoPro, and I gladly agree. I know him to be a big Barry Manilow fan and–wouldn’t you know it–his first selection is “Copacabana,” the 1978 disco hit that combined Latin rhythm and Borscht Belt nightclub shtick to produce what Rolling Stone magazine called the worst song of the decade.

“Pemba–you rock!”

Pemba’s voice is strong and soulful as it echoes across the mountain face, triggering an avalanche that wipes out a party of five below us who were trying to become the first set of quintuplets of Lithuanian descent to reach the summit. “Tough luck,” says Pemba. “Avalanches are the leading cause of death here.”

After a few weeks to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude, we move up the Western Cwm to the base of the Lhotse face. Before we turn in for the night, we stare into our campfire and think the thoughts that come to men as they reach into the heavens.

“Pemba,” I say. “This Cwm–why does it have no vowel?”

Pemba is uneasy at first. “We are a poor nation,” he says after a while. “We cannot afford all the vowels that you rich Americans toss around so freely.” I nod my head in sympathy, then show him how a “y” is the Swiss Army knife of the alphabet and can be used as either a consonant or a vowel!

“Thanks,” Pemba says with a smile. “This will bring many hours of happiness to my children.”

Over the next two days we pass through the South Col, the Geneva Spur and the Yellow Band until we hit the Death Zone. At 26,000 feet, we can survive only two or three days in the rarefied atmosphere near the summit, where there are estimated to be corpses of over 100 climbers who died without realizing their goal.

I begin to have trouble breathing, and Pemba urges caution. “Here,” he says as he hands me an aerosol canister of Cheez Whiz, the processed cheese spread. “Stick this up a nostril and squirt.” I do as he instructs me, and after an initial blast of the orange, viscous liquid hits my soft palate, my nostrils clear from the gases that propel this delicious treat onto corn chips, hot dogs and cheesesteaks across America. “Wow,” I say as the fluorocarbons jolt me into a heightened state of consciousness. “What a rush! Hope it doesn’t poke a hole in the ozone layer.”

“You some kind of tree hugger?” Pemba asks scornfully. “Nature is your enemy, man.” And indeed, my concerns about global warming evaporate in the -100 degree Fahrenheit cold.

“That should last you a few hours,” Pemba says. “Just enough time to get set up.”

We hurry to hook a solar-powered generator up to the karaoke machine, then wait for teams of climbers to pass by. We notice one straggler, apparently disoriented from lack of oxygen to the brain, making his way up the slope. “Excuse me,” he shouts out as he draws nearer. “I’m looking for the Northeast Bancshares Summer Outing.”

Pemba and I exchange looks of concern. The man has been separated from his party, and is unlikely to survive a night alone. “You like Kool and the Gang?” Pemba asks tentatively.

“Who doesn’t?” the man replies, and before you can say “Jungle Boogie,” our new friend is laying down a loose groove of funky stuff to “Celebration.”

“Cel-e-brate good time–c’mon on!” he sings, not too well, but with more than enough gusto. The words ring out across the Kangshung Face and–out of nowhere–who should appear but Beth Lindsay, Director of Human Resources for the fourth-largest bank holding company in America.

“Ed Ferguson–we need you over on the northeast ridge for volleyball,” she says with concern as she checks her clipboard. “You two don’t mind if I steal Ed for awhile, do you?” she asks Pemba and me. “Karaoke doesn’t start until after dinner tonight.”

“Not a problem,” I reply with more than a little satisfaction at a mission accomplished. Pemba puts Ed’s microphone back into the VocoPro’s hard shell protective case, and we head back down the mountain.

“You know,” he says as we pass the body of a climber who was abandoned by his party after he fell forty feet from a ledge above us, “music can really bring people together.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Yes I Can’t!”

As Marathon Approaches, Race to Be Most Charitable Tightens

WESTLAND, Mass.  The Boston Marathon, the nation’s oldest, is today, so the weekend before would normally be a time of high anticipation for Nicole Stansler, who’ll be running in her fifteenth such event.  “I always do it for my college sorority sister May Dignan,” Stansler  says over an audible lump in her throat.  “She died of armpit cancer from the asbestos dress shields we all used to wear back then.”

dress shield
A ticking time bomb–who knew?

Nicole’s face usually graces the front page of the local newspaper, the Westland Times-Courier-Sentinel, the Thursday before the Patriots Day holiday in a touching tribute to her ongoing charitable crusade, but this year she was surprised to find her across-the-cul-de-sac neighbor Kimberly Greenlaw featured instead.  “I don’t know where the hell that rag gets off thinking she’s more charitable than I am,” Stansler snaps.  “We’ve been advertising with them for over a decade,” she says, referring to her husband Ted’s local business, an insurance agency where he sells life and disability policies for Modern Moosehead Insurance.

But talk to the Greenlaws and you hear the other side of the story.  “Our nation is plagued by an epidemic of fantods,” says Kimberly, a pert brunette who has a home organizing business and does volunteer work in her ample spare time.  “My college roommate Lisa Solari just keeled over from an attack of this dreaded disease when the PTO voted to replace the Evian in the water fountains at the middle school with Poland Springs,” a regional and less prestigious brand.  “One in five women over the age of 30 can expect to have an attack of fantods in her lifetime, the others will be okay and die of something else.”

Know the five warning signs of a fantods attack!  Or maybe it’s seven, I forget.

So Pete Mathewson, a career newspaperman who was recently promoted to Editor-in-Chief of the Times-Courier-Sentinel, was faced with a dilemma: honor the wishes of a long-time advertiser, or–counter-intuitively–bring something “new” to the news section of the weekly paper that most people in town read only to see their children’s names on the sports page.  “It was a tough call, but the Stanslers hurt themselves with their advertising budget,” he says.  “I couldn’t face my j-school classmates at reunion if they found out I engaged in ‘green’ journalism.”

Clashes between competing charitable instincts are becoming more common across America, according to sociologist Myron Nowak of nearby Brandeis University.  “There’s really no point in doing volunteer work unless you get a lot of credit for it,” he says, as he surveys the programs he’s collected from a number of recent galas on behalf of–or more properly in opposition to–various fatal diseases.  “I tell my own children ‘If you want to save the world, fine, just make sure you bring a publicist and a photographer with you.’”

“Because of people like you, we raised over $200 to fight split ends!”

But that’s brings no solace to Nicole Stansler, who finds herself odd-woman-out after her long run–literally and figuratively–as poster girl for shin splints and dehydration for a good cause.  “I suffered dammit,” she says bitterly as she laces on her running shoes for a last workout before “Marathon Monday.”  “I don’t do all this charitable crap out of the goodness of my heart.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Spirit of Giving.”

IRS Turns to Eunuchs for Tough Tax Cases

HAZARD, Kentucky. Ray Bob Suggins, a career revenue officer for the Internal Revenue Service in this small town at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers, thought he had seen it all in his thirty years collecting taxes for Uncle Sam.

“I’ve seized a family’s satellite dish, I’ve put a lien on a guy’s blue tick hound–everything,” he says with a laugh. But his face clouds up with the latest directive from what he refers to sarcastically as “headquarters”–the national office of the IRS in Washington, D.C.

“Hey–don’t take that! ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ is on tonight!”

“Those guys sitting in their offices back east don’t know the people of Kentucky,” he says with emphasis. “Where they come up with some of their ideas I’ll never know.”

The idea that has Suggins’ dander up is Rev. Proc. 06-137, which will require IRS regional offices to implement “Project Eunuch,” an attempt to replicate in the U.S. the success Indian officials have had using eunuchs–castrated males who dress as women–to collect taxes.

Eunuchs in India.

“You can’t argue with the numbers,” says IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “Hijras”–as eunuchs are referred to in India–”have produced remarkable results through the use of embarrassment, a tactic we have overlooked in the past.” And indeed in Patna, an Indian city with a population of nearly a half million where only about 2,000 citizens pay their property taxes on time, local officials report that eunuchs collected 425,000 rupees ($9,240) in their first day on the job.

In India hijras accost taxpayers on the street–taunting, cursing or touching their hair and cheeks–or set up outside a residence where they chant and dance loudly until a deadbeat relents and pays up. The eunuchs, who for the most part live in poverty because of their status as sexual outsiders, are paid a commission on what they collect. “We did a cost-benefit analysis,” says Koskinen, “and eunuchs produce better results than boring techniques like putting a lien on somebody’s house and waiting for them to sell. Plus a lot of them are very attractive with all that makeup they wear.”


So Suggins agreed to be a “guinea pig,” subjecting himself to castration at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Louisville in exchange for two years’ extra credit towards his pension. “I should be able to retire at age 60,” he says as he squirms in his chair due to the discomfort that persists following the operation. “I figger it’s worth it if I live that long.”


As painful as it was to lose what he refers to as “the family jewels,” what comes next is even harder in his view. “I got to dress up like an Indian woman and go door-to-door and jingle my bells” to make delinquent taxpayers pay up. “That ain’t gonna be easy.”

After Suggins applies cheap rouge, powder and lipstick, he heads over to the Coffee Pot Café where he know Lyle Oehrke will be sitting with his buddies at their regular table, sipping coffee before he heads out to work–or not–as a used car salesman at O’Connor Chevrolet-Buick on South Highway 65. “Lyle spends most of his paycheck every Friday at the Golden Palomino,” a “gentlemen’s club” just outside the city limits where he is generous with tips for the “pole dancers” and strippers who work there.

Where Lyle works–sort of.

Suggins appears at the entrance to the Coffee Pot, spies Oehrke over in the corner, and goes into his carefully-rehearsed “song and dance,” a tribute to the Indian god Krishna in the form of Mohini, a beautiful woman who is a central figure in the culture of the hijras. “Hey, hey, hey,” he chants as he claps rhythmically, swinging his sari back and forth. “I’m really gonna make your day.”

Oehrke is at first surprised, then dismissive. “Well look who’s here,” he says with a knowing grin. “If it ain’t Sweetie Pie Suggins, lookin’ for a date.” He laughs and his friends join him, although their nervous tension is apparent.

“Pay up now, or I’ll have a cow!”

“I’m from the IRS, and I’m gonna lift up my dress, dress, dress–unless”–Suggins stops for dramatic effect–“you clean up your overdue taxes, penalties and interest mess!”

“I wish I could wear me somethin’ like that!”

Nae Ann Wingersheek, long-time waitress at “The Pot” as locals here refer to the restaurant, comes to the table for a last round of refills and to present the check. “You all gonna sit here all day or go out and earn a livin’?” she says with a good-natured jab at the group’s indifferent work habits. “Hey, Ray,” she says to Suggins when she notices the tax collector, his arms above his head as he rings his finger cymbals.

“Hi Nae Ann,” Ray replies as he scoots back a step to allow her to get by.

“I like that outfit,” she says, referring to the saffron sari that he flirtatiously lifts from time to time, threatening to expose himself but pulling back in the hope that the full range of tax collection remedies permitted by the new IRS procedure won’t be necessary.

“You don’t think it makes me look fat?” Ray asks.

She studies him for a moment. “From the front, no. From the back, it looks like two hogs fightin’ under a sheet!”

The table bursts out in laughter, which Suggins joins in with good spirits. “I walked right into that one,” he says with a grin.

The table of regulars starts to pony up and, when Suggins sees Oehrke pull his wallet from his back pocket, he pounces.

Krishna says “Pony up.”

“Lord Krishna, all-powerful, crush this deadbeat like a grasshopper beneath your heel–he is about to pay for his meal!”

“C’mon, Ray,” Oehrke pleads. “You know I got alimony to pay.”

“Alimony, palimony-don’t indulge in matrimony!”

“And I need my car to get to work.”

“Why should I worry about your work, when you treat your fellow taxpayers like a jerk?”

Everyone in the restaurant is watching now; Oehrke’s friends have ponied up, and tax collector and deadbeat stare each other down, mano a former-mano.

“All right, goddamn it,” Oehrke says with disgust. “Here,” he says as he pulls a roll of bills out of his back pocket and counts off two hundred dollars in twenties.

“The IRS Commissioner thanks you very much,” Suggins chants as he picks up his haul, “but I’ll tell him for the record you were not a soft touch.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Death, Taxes and More Taxes.”

My Poetic Nemesis

April is the cruelest month, wrote T.S. Eliot, and as a poet he knew whereof he spake. (Archaic past tense provided at no extra charge.)  April may be Poetry Month, but April is also the month in which the rejection letters and no-you-didn’t-win-the-Alice-Wambsley-Memorial-Poetry-Competition notices from the autumn submission cycle arrive in the mail.

Eliot: “Darn it—I lost again.”

But I’d been through all that before, so last fall I put on a Bush-Obama-Petraeus Verse Surge, sending out over 400 poems. I would become a published poet before turning–well, I won’t tell you what I’ll be turning–or expire tragically trying.

The fruits of my labor arrived yesterday. “We are pleased to inform you that your poem Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune has been accepted by plangent voices. Due to our extensive backlog, it is anticipated that publication will not occur until the fall 2025 issue.”

A (much) younger Hazel Flange

This, I thought, called for a celebration. I got in the car and headed over to the Coach & Four, the faux-colonial watering hole where the elite of our little exurban town—insurance salesmen, CPAs, the local zoning attorney—meet to eat and greet. And to confront my poetic nemesis, Hazel Flange.

Hazel has been lording it over me for years. She’s got all the good accounts in town: McBride’s Super Market, where she composes rhymed couplets for the flyers and paper shopping bags (“Looking for something to eat on Easter?  Our ham and lamb will make a feaster!”); Olney’s GMC-Chevrolet (“If you’re going to a gala, best that you should buy Impala!”); Muckerman’s Funeral Home (“We’ll bury your kin with quiet dignity—we promise our bill won’t be very bignity.”)

Then there are the special commissions—birthday, anniversary and pet poems. Have to hand it to the old girl, she was the one who came up with business model. Go to another biddie’s house for bridge club, compliment the household dog, cat or goldfish, write a poem about it for the local paper. Then, when the owner is basking in the reflected glory of compliments from all her friends, offer to make her a laminated copy, suitable for framing—for twenty bucks. “I just love your little Poodie, he is such a darling cutie!” Gag me, as the Valley Girls used to say, with a spoon.

But now the shoe is on the other foot. With Kosher Vegetarian Commune I’m not only published, I’ve introduced a genre of my own creation to the world of verse; poems whose titles are at least 75% as long as the poems themselves! Count them off:

This is kosher, this is trayfe,
One unclean, the other sayfe.
All day long we work and slayfe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.

Pretty neat, huh? So it is with a new confidence that I stroll into the bar at the Coach & Four.  It’s not Les Deux Maggots, or The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death—but it will do. Except for the bathroom stalls—you know the one that begins “Here I sit all broken-hearted” don’t you?—the only poetry in the house is composed by Hazel, recited to a table crammed with her fawning sycophants.

I wave my hand as I stroll up to the bar and make the announcement I’ve been dying to proclaim for lo these many years. “Marty,” I say to the bartender, “potato chips and snack foods for everybody—and see what the boys in the back room will have!”

With that a scramble the likes of which have not been seen since the Oklahoma land rush begins; there are only so many bags of Cape Cod Parmesan & Roasted Garlic Chips on the Snack-Rack, and it’s every man for himself.

Eyes on the prize.

I order my usual—a Smutty Nose Elderberry Lite I.P.A.—and lean back to take in the room, holding the tall-boy bottle Jeff Bridges-style, oh-so-casually around the very tip of the neck. I cast a glance in Hazel’s direction—she gives me the steely-eyed gaze that has caused so many budding young aesthetes to realize there’s room for only one poetess in our town, and she’s not going anywhere.

I stand up and begin to work the room—suddenly I’m every man’s hero now that the out-of-work “consultants” and “advisors” in town are chowing down on Andy Capp Pub Fries on my nickel. After many slaps on the back and congratulations, I mosey over to Hazel’s table and, with an affected look of surprise, greet her.

“Why, Hazel,” I say, beaming, “fancy meeting you here! How’ve you been?” I don’t try to party-kiss her—in her dotage she has taken to applying rouge to her cheekbones. She read in Marie Claire that Celine Dion does something similar to make her nose look smaller.

“Hello,” she replies in a measured tone and just the hint of a combination smile-sneer—a “snile,” a “smeer”?—on her lips. “I see you have something to celebrate—finally.”

That hurts. Hazel had her first poem published when she was in fourth grade. I spotted it for the Christina Rossetti rip-off that it was—“Who can see the wind, neither you nor me, but when the wind is blowing, it tickles both my knees”—but apparently the editors of My Little Messenger weren’t as well read as me.

“Yes, yes, that I do,” I reply, trying hard to retain my composure. “Of course, it’s nothing to compare with the success you’ve had. Writing rhymed couplets for discount tire and battery stores.”

Image result for tire and battery store
“Whence from your car you do dismount, check our snow tires at deep discounts.”

There is a collective intake of breath by the circle of admirers at Hazel’s table, but she’s as cool as a poker player sitting on pocket aces. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” she says, going all Dr. Johnson on me.

The flow of air is reversed—the little group explodes with laughter—but I ignore the obloquy they think they are raining down on me. I’m after the Big Tuna Salad on White Toast Sandwich her own bad self.

“How’s about a little mano-a-womano verse battle—right here, right now, you and me?”

“Une petite slamme de poesie?” she replies, using up all the French she knows outside a Chef Boyardee can.

“That’s right. Winner take all. Must be original, spontaneous work, rhymed and metered.”

“My apartment has a separate meter,” one of her followers says, displaying the level of ignorance that is required in order to appreciate Hazel’s verse.

“Stifle it, Maeve,” Hazel snaps at the woman, and then says to me—”You’re on.”

“Peachy,” I say with a smarmy smile. “Ladies first—and no crib notes.”

The room is so quiet you can hear a chip drop, and from the bar I detect that Bob Muldowney, head of the Public Works department, has let one fall to the floor.

“If I’m not mistaken, that was a Cool Ranch Dorito?” I say with a note of expectation in my voice as I wait upon the answer, showing off my ear.

“That’s amazing,” Muldowney says.

That’s the kind of ear it takes to be a first-class poet,” I say smugly. “Hazel—your serve.”

The dowager versifier clears her throat. She cocks her head a little to one side, like a parakeet—my guess is what she comes up with will be as derivative as “Polly want a cracker?”

She steadies herself by putting her fingers on the table, closes her eyes, tosses an errant spit curl aside and begins.

How lovely to be a poet
How wonderfully rewarding
It is like a free vacation trip
On a cruise ship you are boarding.

But each night when I’m finally done
I brush my teeth and floss.
A poetessa’s job is this:
To pluck wheat from the dross.

I’m tempted to yell “mixed metaphor,” but it’s the playoffs, and I know I’m not going to get the call.  No ref wants to blow a freestyle poetry battle in front of a big crowd and I have to say, even though it’s against my interests, that I agree—let ‘em play.

Woman with distaff: Whence it came, hence the name.

Hazel’s toadies are applauding politely but this is a bar, the audience is disproportionately male, and most of the guys are sitting on their hands, waiting to hear something from the non-distaff side.

“Great stuff, Hazel,” I say magnanimously. “I’ll give you the email address for The New Yorker when we’re done.” This is known as “trash-talking,” and as a Celtics fan during the Larry Bird Era, I learned from the master.

“Shhh—Larry’s going to recite now!”

The guys at the bar are looking at me with a mixture of hope and trepidation. They’re the ones who’ve been scratching doggerel on the walls of the stalls in the men’s rooms, inking haiku above the urinals, suffering under the yoke of genteel feminine poetry for so many years as Hazel asks them to turn down the games on the four giant-screen TVs so her umpty-dumpty-dumpty/umpty-dumpty-dump lines can be heard. If I can take her down, it will be a Spartacus-like moment; the joint will once again be free for belching and bad language worthy of Dizzy Dean, who drew the scorn of St. Louis English teachers for saying “He slud in there” on the Baseball Game-of-the-Week.

Dizzy Dean: He really said it.

“Hazel,” I begin with an off-hand, informal air that catches her off guard,

this is stupid stuff;
your pansies and violets—
your fairies at dawn or later in
the gloaming.

what the hell is a gloaming anyway?
and why would you bother to use it when poeming?
I do not like it, and no man could;
find another word please, if you would.

but in the meantime, hear me out;
the matter, we say, is free from doubt.
a bar’s not the place for poems like lace doilies,
and also I noticed your nose is quite oily.


I hesitate to use the word “claque,” but the guys are behind me all the way on this one, and the place erupts with a noise not heard since Jason Varitek stuffed his catcher’s mitt in Alex Rodriguez’s mug. They don’t call it “home court advantage” for nothing.

The ladies’ table is a bit taken aback by the rough tactics and the thunderous acclaim, but Hazel recovers like the pro that—I have to admit—she is.

“Nicely done,” she says, although I can tell that it pains her to put a smile on her over-glossed lips.

“Thanks—you’re still my favorite poet named Hazel,” I say. Good sportsmanship is contagious, I guess. “Have a drink on me, okay?”

Hazel considers this for a moment, then says “Yes—I think I will,” and advances to the bar where Marty says “What’ll ya have?”

“I think,” she says as she eyes the racks of expensive liquor behind him, “a Brandy Alexander—with Courvoisier VSOP Cognac.”

“Hey,” I say quickly before Marty can pour. “I meant anything under five bucks.”

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