My Memoirs, to the Best of My Knowledge

The tradition of American memoir is a rich and varied one, from Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice to J. Edgar Hoover’s Memoirs of a Cross-Dressing G-Man.   That vein of silver has been tarnished by fabrications such as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years,” in which the author claimed she was adopted by a pack of wolves during World War II.


Frey:  Just kidding.

 

Now comes “Goodbye to Most of That,” written by a woman who says she was abducted by aliens from her home in suburban Atlanta, raised by two out of three Pointer Sisters and forced to work for Mary Kay Cosmetics.   It’s enough to make you question the critical faculties of top New York editors who let these howlers slip by. Everyone knows there are four Pointer Sisters.


Pointer Sisters:  Special 4-for-the-price-of-3 sale

 

In a variation on Gresham’s Law, counterfeit tales are crowding out true life stories such as mine, Barefoot Boy With Pogo Stick. To stop this disturbing trend, this country needs a self-administered exam, like a home pregnancy test, that could weed out made-up memoirs from the real thing before they hit the bookstores and separate unsuspecting readers from their $24.95.

What follows is my first crack at such a helpful writer’s tool. Use a #2 lead pencil to circle your answers and see if the memoir you’ve written is true or false!

You were raised by:

(a) wolves
(b) penguins
(c) your future first spouse


The flop, the turn, the river

Complete the following sentence: “I feel most alive when I’m . . .”

(a) chopping sugar cane with Che Guevara.
(b) playing Texas Hold ‘Em with my fellow geishas.
(c) telling Ty Cobb to stop picking on the sales help at Talbots.


Ty Cobb:  “Do you have any cable-knit cardigans?”

 

You knew from an early age that you were:

(a) a man trapped in a woman’s body.
(b) a wolf trapped in a penguin’s body.
(c) a commuter trapped on the 5:15 Framingham train next to a mime talking on a cell phone.

During World War II you were:

(a) tail-gunner on the Enola Gay
(b) Eva Braun’s electrologist
(c) roadie for an all-female gypsy guitar combo


Arena football:  It’s better in three dimensions!

 

Your favorite form of self-abuse is:

(a) taking over-the-counter drugs for coughs and colds.
(b) drinking frozen smoothies so fast you get brain cramps
(c) watching Arena Football games through 3-D glasses


“Bigfoot, darling, you’ve got some housecat fur on your upper lip.”

 

DNA tests prove you are the love child of Audrey Hepburn and:

(a) Bigfoot
(b) Wilt Chamberlain
(c) The Sons of the Pioneers


Pas de deux par dessus tombe jammer

 

You hit bottom the night you:

(a) flew into Paris with Lindbergh
(b) shared a jail cell with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rick James
(c) mistook Twyla Tharp for Truman Capote at a Bronx Banshees roller derby tryout


Jujubes:  Bet you can’t eat just one.

 

After decades of self-destructive behavior, you entered rehab to:

(a) take a break from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the wolf den
(b) kick a crippling addiction to jujubes
(c) meet new people and make new friends

You think the world would be a better place if we:

(a) learned to tolerate the personal grooming habits of people raised by wolves.
(b) resolved international conflicts by playing Twister.
(c) understood that it’s not enough to win an Ultimate Fighting Championship if you can’t find true love.


“We have fun here, but there’s a serious side to death, too.”

 

You turned your life around when you realized that:

(a) life is for the living, unless you’re a funeral director.
(b) don’t sweat the small stuff, unless the small stuff is a fatal virus.
(c) if you hold an empty gin bottle under hot running water, you can make it secrete another half shot.

Score three points for each “a”, five for each “b” and seven for each “c”.

If your score is 28 or less, you have an unfortunate penchant for the truth, and should stick to certified public accounting.   If your score is at least 29 but not more than 37 with less than two minutes to play, foul the man who catches the inbounds pass and hope he misses the front end of the one-and-one.  If your score is greater than 37, your memoir is ready for publication as either fiction or non-fiction, whichever comes first.

Oprah’s people want to talk to you–ask one of your personalities to give them a call.

This article first appeared, in slightly different form, in The Boston Globe Magazine

To Hell With Correct Posture Month

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

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

But that’s not how I remember it.

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


“Good posture can bite me!”

 

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


“A cordon of nefarious henchmen?”

 

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

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

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


“Hey Good Posture Boy–c’mere.  We wanna talk to you.”

 

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

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


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

 

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

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


Stan Musial, The Donora Greyhound

 

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

Happy Hairball Awareness Day

A chilly, sunny April Saturday. There’s just me and two cats, Rocco and Okie, three sullen males grunting their way through the day–as usual–while the wife’s running errands.


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, huh?” I say.

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

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


“Yip, yip, yip!”

 

“Funny strange, or funny ha-ha?”

“Strange. He seems somewhat–distant today.”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you know what yesterday was?”


St. Swithin: Peace out, dawg.

 

I search my memory. Not Arbor Day. Not my elder sister’s birthday. St. Swithin’s Day? Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding anniversary? “I give up–what?”

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

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

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

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


National Hairball Awareness Poster Child

 

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


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

 

“But I don’t . . .”

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

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

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

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

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


“You cheap bastard–giving a kid a cents-off coupon for a granola bar!”

 

“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.”

My Monkish Little Robot

The Longquan Buddhist temple in the mountains northwest of Beijing has created the world’s first robot monk, Xian’er, which translates as “Worthy Stupid Robot Monk.”  It is two feet tall and analyzes combinations of words to respond to questions including “What is the meaning of life?”

The New York Times

monk
“That’s a really stupid question.”

 

I have come to the mountains northwest of Beijing in a quest for enlightenment.  Believe me, I’ve tried everything: psychoanalysis, Ouija boards, hypnotism, double-entry bookkeeping, even Christian Science, the religion whose tenets H.L. Mencken proposed to test by holding one of its adherents under water for twenty minutes to see if he would drown.  Thankfully I had passed Junior Life Saving, and so tested out of that requirement.

No, I have been told that enlightenment is now available without the muss or fuss of giving away one’s life savings, or full-immersion baptism, or mortification of the flesh.  Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, all you have to do these days is come to the Longquan temple and (unless he’s hooked up to have his batteries re-charged) ask little Xian’er to tell you the meaning of life–and you’re good to go!

monk1
“You want my advice?  Lose the pigtails.”

They call him “Worthy Stupid Robot Monk” but he’s anything but–stupid, that is.  He’s supposed to be all-knowing, all-seeing.  He’s a deep thinker, with eight gigabytes of RAM, 24-bit color, a dedicated video card AND one gigabyte of free disk space.

Moreover, as well as moreunder, he’s undergone the rigorous training you’d expect of any Buddhist monk: clapping with one hand, concentrating his mind in the present, living wisely even though he’s only a 24-inch-high hunk of metal and plastic who looks more or less like one of those award-winning waste cans with the swinging lid (Free shipping!).

monk2

I climb up Wuling Mountain and walk the winding path to the temple.  There I hope to ask Xian’er a few burning questions that have been on my mind for a long time, like “What is the meaning of life?” and “Is the only purpose of an unhappy childhood to produce a great writer?”  Also, “Should I buy whole life insurance, or just a cheaper term policy and invest the difference in the stock market?”

Don’t let the “Worthy Stupid Robot One” monicker fool you.  He’s a new-in-the-box thinker, not your tired old thinking-out-side-the-box type.  The “er” at the end of his name that means “stupid” in translation is really a term of endearment, sort of like the way you’d call a loveable roommate “Knucklehead” or “Mad Dog.”  He is wiser than you think, just like Moondog in the comics is always straightening out his roommate Monty with his simple, straight-from-the-shoulder advice.

monk3

There’s a line of course, because it’s Friday; everyone wants to get tips on “How should I spend my weekend if I’m not in a relationship with anyone?” and “What is the best time to get the snow tires taken off my car on a Saturday so I don’t blow the whole afternoon?”

I’m number 17 in line, and there’s a woman who’s holding things up, asking a bunch of subsidiary and ancillary follow-ups to her question, which was “I don’t like the guy my daughter wants to marry–what should I do?”

I have to say, little Xian’er is handling her pretty well, but people are starting to look at their watches.  He shuts down promptly at 4:30 on Fridays, or sooner if his batteries die.  Then he goes into seclusion for the weekend, not checking email until shortly after the sun rises Monday morning.

“If the newlyweds receive many counter-top appliances as wedding gifts, these may bring happiness to an otherwise-loveless marriage,” Xian’er says as a couple of burly bouncer-monks escort the woman off the mountain.  They dump her unceremoniously in the gift shop, where her acquisitive nature is satisfied with souvenirs and tchotchkes–meditation rugs, bumper stickers that say “This car found enlightenment at Longquan Temple!,” and the home version of Xian’er which, like the popular Magic 8 Ball toy, answers your questions about life and the universe in the comfort of your living room.

monk4

The line inches slowly forward–“Should I dump stocks if interest rates rise?” . . . “Should I take the points on the road?–until finally it’s my turn.  I bow low as the Buddha advised, the acolyte to Xian’er’s right signals that I may speak, and I take the plunge:

“Oh mechanical reincarnation of the Bodhisattva, can you tell me . . .”

“Yes,” he intones deeply for an object that looks like a little yellow cookie jar.

“What is the meaning of life?”

monk5

“My master says the meaning of life is to help more people finally leave behind bitterness and gain happiness.”  This is apparently a stock answer he’s been programmed to give in order to increase throughput.  You can’t make any money in the living-deity-on-earth biz if you’re going to personalize each response.

“But . . . what if I don’t know any bitter people?” I ask.

“Then work on yourself, you stupid doody-head.”

I look at his acolyte with an upraised eyebrow of disapproval.  “It’s getting towards the end of the day,” I say.  “Are his batteries running low?”

The human monk takes a look at Xian’er’s touch screen.  “Nope–still four bars showing.”

I make a little moue with my mouth–what other body part would I use?–and turn back to Xian’er.  “Doesn’t seem very . . . ‘enlightened’ of you to get snotty with me,” I say.

“Hey–it’s been a long week,” he says.

“Okay, still.  If I get an email Monday saying ‘Will you rate your transaction with Xian’er?’ I’m going to have to say . . .”

“Fine,” Xian’er says.  He’s probably hoping to beat the rush hour traffic and slip out to the Chinese equivalent of an Apple “Genius Bar” for a little WD-40 lubricant with a hot server with a female outlet.  “You get one more–but that’s it!

I think long and hard, knowing this is my one shot, my one opportunity (to quote the great American folk poet Eminem)–so I’d better not blow it.

“All right,” I say after clearing my throat a little longer than is actually necessary in order to buy more time.

“C’mon,” Mr. Acolyte says, “we haven’t got all day.”

“Okay,” I say finally, gulp, then begin.  “The Patriots lost their first round pick because of Deflategate, and Brady’s four-game suspension was upheld.  Should they use the 60th pick for a quarterback, or just go with the best athlete available?”

How to Review Your Own Book

For those who want to make a living as writers, the situation grows more dire every day. There are increasingly fewer publications that review books, and space in the ones that remain is reserved mainly for celebrity and political bios and big-name novelists whose works are supported by large advertising budgets. Funny how that works out.

But you’ve got to believe in yourself before anyone else will. If you can’t get somebody else to review your book, why not review it yourself?

Mark Twain
A full-time staff of reviewers.

Mark Twain did. So did Samuel Langhorne Clemens, so that’s two Famous Writers right there.

Twain was a master of the literary hoax, passing off invented characters as real in squibs written for seat-of-the-pants newspapers that sprang up like mushrooms after a rain—and lived about as long–in the mid-19th century following advances in printing technology. Those publications were desperate for copy and less interested in fact-checking than making a splash, and Twain wrote more than one review of his own work that he palmed off on such papers, often generously waiving his freelance fee. As a critic, he found his writing to be exceptional, well worth the reader’s time and money. In this regard, Twain was ahead of his time and other, less perceptive critics.

But, you say, the frontier closed long ago, stealing a line from Frederick Jackson Turner, and he’d like it back, please. Where am I going to find a similar wide-open space in the 21st century where lawlessness reigns and the only rule is what you can get away with?

Turner
Turner:  “I’m sorry, you’ll have to come back later–the frontier’s closed right now.”

 

As the man said to his wife when she caught him looking at porn websites—“Duh, that’s what the internet is for!” Every major on-line bookstore accepts, nay encourages readers to submit anonymous reviews. And who better to remain anonymous about than yourself?

            Of course you’ll need an assumed name or your ruse will be too transparent. Twain had a large collection, including “Sergeant Fathom” and “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins.” Where can one find a dependable, low-mileage, one-owner nommes de plume these days, after so many reviewers were retired as part of the Obama administration’s “Cash-for-Critics” buy-back program.

I don’t know about you, but I find the roll of former U.S. Secretaries of Commerce to be a mother lode of potential book reviewers’ names. Start at the beginning of the list with William C. Redfield, or “mix and match” pairs such as Daniel C. Roper and Roy D. Chapin, SECCOMMUS nos. 5 and 6. If you find when you get to Wikipedia they’re all taken, there’s a veritable cornucopia of current and former members of the Federal Communications Commission to choose from.

Redfield
William C. Redfield: I saw him first, get your own Secretary of Commerce.

 

If you prefer a less WASPy-sounding name, I suggest borrowing from menus at Middle Eastern restaurants. “Sojok Ghanough” will give you an air of diversity, although there are 90 calories in just one bite.

A position as a fictitious reviewer is not open to just anyone, however. Amazon.com, for example, requires Edmund Wilson-wannabes to make a purchase, then wait 4 to 5 days before penning their first critique. While you’re cooling your heels, you can spend your free time shopping for handguns, for which the waiting period is somewhat shorter.

As a reviewer, you will be inclined to be harsh on your subject in order to establish your objectivity in the reader’s mind; this is a temptation you should resist. Come down too hard on yourself and you may be discouraged from ever writing again. Instead, note your reservations primly and diplomatically near the end of the review, right before you resume your unstinting praise of the author’s vision and the “evident merit” of his work. I borrowed that last phrase from the form email rejection that The New Yorker sends in response to “Shouts & Murmurs” submissions; I find that it never grows tiresome, no matter how many times I read it.

One frontier newspaper that Twain did not write for was the Sedalia Bazoo, published in my home town in Missouri. Its masthead bore the motto “If you don’t blow your own bazoo, no one will blow it for you.”

You can find me blowing my own bazoo on the internet. Just don’t look under my real name.

My Fictional Tormenter

It was, I thought, an innocent act.  My publisher called to say that the manuscript to my first book, The Year of the Gerbil, was finished, and that he had obtained a blurb, a quote in praise of the book for the back cover, and from a former director of public relations for the New York Yankees, no less.  Had I, he asked, persuaded anyone to do likewise?

Having a single blurb is like having a single friend in grade school.  Which I usually did, until they moved away, in which case I got my next one.  It’s worse than keeping to yourself; when you do that, you could be a brooding genius, or an angry loner.  Walk around with the same kid every day at recess and when he gets the mumps everyone recognizes you for what you are; a leech, a lamprey, a bloodsucker, one who needs companionship but lacks the capacity for friendship needed to develop and maintain two friends at one time.

So I lied.  “Yes,” I said, “I’ve got a quote from a professor—quite a glowing one, too.”

“Oh, really,” the publisher said.  “What’s the guy’s name?”

“Have you got a pencil?” I asked.

“Shoot.”

“E-t-a-o-i-n . . . “

“e . . t . . a . . o . . i . . n?” he repeated.

“Right.  Last name, s-h-r-d-l-u.”

“s . . h . . r . . d . . l . . u?”

“That’s it.”

“How do you pronounce it?”

“EE-shun SHRED-lu.”

“What is that, Chinese?”

“Sino-Turkish,” I said.  “He’s Professor of Comparative American Literature at the University of Missouri-Chillicothe.”

“Never heard of it,” he said.  The guy was a real East coast provincial, ensconced down in some quaint little town in Connecticut, wholly ignorant of the world beyond the Hudson.  I couldn’t believe he’d never heard of the fictional land grant college I’d just made up.  “So what’s the quote?” he asked.

“A mere little book about baseball, in the sense that Moby Dick is merely a book about fishing.”

There was a pregnant pause at the end of the line.  “Wow—that’s great,” the guy said.  “I’m going to highlight that in bold at the top.”

I felt a sense of liar’s remorse.  It’s one thing to lie to your parents, your wife, your kids, your boss, the shareholders of a publicly-traded corporation or the congregation of non-mainline Protestant church, as so many televangelists do.  It’s something else entirely to lie to a man who’s persuaded himself that you’ve written what will become the best-selling book in his pathetic little company’s history, ordering a double run of not one, but two thousand copies.


Linotype machine

And yet, I thought to myself, what I’d just done wasn’t so bad.  Mark Twain had, after all, written reviews of his own books under a different name.  And I had laid the key to my deception out in plain view for the guy, and the world, to decipher, in the manner of C. Auguste Dupin, the Parisian amateur detective in Poe’s The Purloined Letter.  “etaoin shrdlu” is a combination of two sequences of letters on a hot-lead linotype machine, as every schoolboy who has ever taken a course in typesetting before the advent of computers surely knows.  When the machine jams, the entire slug drops so that these letters appear accidentally in the printed text.  It was, as Flannery O’Connor once wrote, as plain as a pig on a sofa.


Flannery O’Connor

But my publisher was a benighted occupant of that quotidian realm where these things have been forgotten; all he and anyone else cares about these days is relevant facts, not the useless trivia I had accumulated over a lifetime of woolgathering.

And so the book appeared in print, and the person of Etaoin Shrdlu was loosed upon the world.  He subsequently surfaced in a ficcione, a tale of his bootless pursuit of a reclusive poetess, modeled on one I’d met on-line.  I wrote that Shrdlu was a specialist in the Midwestern Smart-Aleck School of Literature, and that he was known for his writings on Ring Lardner and George Ade, neglected masters of the genre.  A state legislator in Missouri, Claude Boulrice (D-Knob Noster), read a wire-service report in which Shrdlu was mentioned, and rose on the floor of the General Assembly in the State Capitol in Jefferson City to denounce Shrdlu’s works as “frivolous, a waste of money, and a corruption of the morals of our young men and women at taxpayer’s expense.”  I had, by my mischief, exposed a fictional character to slander; I could only laugh.


Ring Lardner

But Shrdlu, however, could not.  He had been called upon to do more than one should expect of an imaginary man.  First, he had been brought into being—fair enough.  Second, he had been compelled to compare me to Herman Melville, a laughable simile, and one for which he had been justly criticized by other characters both high and low; Sutpens from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Fred C. Dobbs, an American prospector in B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Finally, Shrdlu had been forced to endure the obloquy of the unlettered, the scorn of the Puritanical solon, a typical example of H.L. Mencken’s booboisie for whom an open book was never an open book.  He would have his revenge.


Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs

And so I began to notice, when I would search for reviews of my writing, that I was mentioned as the author of works I had never heard of.  “Thirty Days to a Less Powerful Vocabulary” was included on my amazon.com author’s page.  “Figures of Dionysus in Topps Baseball Cards” was mentioned as the work that had first brought my theories to the attention of classical scholars.  “I Can Smell You From Here,” a memoir of my grade school years.  None ever existed, or ever will.

Then there were the footnotes.  As Shrdlu’s oeuvre grew, his research was cited by others; a specialist on Kim Jong-il’s collection of DVDs; the author of a monograph on the NFL Cardinals’ dismal tenure in St. Louis; a history of “soul” dances—boogaloo, shingaling, hucklebuck—of the 1960s.  Shrdlu’s response was excessive, but to whom could I complain?


Sonny Randle of St. Louis (football) Cardinals, inside Coke cap

 

Finally, he administered the coup de grace; an obituary that described me as a former head of the Catholic Legion of Decency, responsible for the “Condemned” rating assigned to Hotfoot: The Bud Zaremba Story, a biopic of a practical joking knuckleball pitcher.  My career was over if I couldn’t get the Worcester News-Recorder to print a retraction.  I met Shrdlu at George’s Coney Island Hotdogs in that doleful central Massachusetts city, the Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World.

“You know what I’m here for,” I said to him as we sat down in one of the booths.

“A chili dog and a chocolate milk?” he said with a sneer.


George’s Coney Island Hot Dogs, Worcester, Mass.

 

“Real funny.  I want my reputation back.”

“What is it Little Milton says?  ‘Welcome to the club’?”

He had me there.  “Look—what’s it worth to you?”

“I never wanted to be part of your grimy little world, filled with snide remarks and characters whose names you think are so funny.”

“So what am I supposed to do now?  The book’s out there.”

“Well first, you can take down this stupid post.”

“The one we’re in right now?”

“The same—tonight.  That won’t be so hard.”

He was right about that.  It was up on a couple sites, but in a few weeks the cached pages would disappear from the internet.  “Consider it done,” I said with resignation.  “What else?”

“The books.”

“What about ‘em?”

“Take ‘em to the dump.”

I figured he was bluffing.  “C’mon—the publisher’s out of business.”

“You should have let him pulp those puppies when he offered to.”

“I’ve only got like . . . seventy-eight left.”

“That’s 1,922 copies floating around out there, putting words in my mouth that I never said.  Haven’t you done enough damage to my reputation?”

“What reputation?  You didn’t even exist before I put you on the cover.”

“So?  I’m fictional.  I didn’t have to come into the world with your original sin.”

In purely theological terms, he had a point.  He was a product of my imagination, not a just and merciful God.  Nobody ever chased a character in a novel out of the Garden of Eden.

“All right,” I said finally.  “It’ll take me a couple of weekends, but I’ll do it.”

He seemed satisfied.  “I’m glad we could come to terms.”

“And you’ll leave me alone now?”

“From this moment on, you’re only liable for what you do, not what I say you do.  And I’d be much obliged if you’d extend the same . . . professional courtesy to me.”

Why, I thought finally, should I care?  Characters came cheap in my brain.  They were as plentiful as dandelions and they had about the same life span, popping up only to get lopped off by the weed-wackers wielded by my two hands’ worth of literary lawn guys, who’d delete them at their whim whenever a new and more bizarre news clipping came along:  Giant Jellyfish Attacks 100 Off New Hampshire Coast.  Bear Hijacks Car in Yellowstone.  And my favorite:  Dog Nearly Itches to Death.

“Okay—you have my word.”

“That’s good enough for me,” he said.  “After all—I am your words.”

At the Farrah Fawcett Wing of the Smithsonian

 

 

Farrah Fawcett’s red bathing suit and a poster bearing her image have been donated to the Smithsonian.
                The Boston Herald

As I herded my class of seventh-grade boys from Ryan O’Neal Consolidated Middle School up the steps of the Smithsonian Institution, I had to catch myself more than once, the wave of emotions that swept over me was so strong.

“This isn’t like the Lincoln Memorial,” I said to the kids when I regained my composure. “That’s just a boring statue of a guy sitting in a chair who made a lot of people mad by giving away free slaves, then got shot at a theatre. Today’s trip will be about the woman who launched America into the Curling Iron Age, with side bangs that flipped up higher than any manned space craft the Russians ever launched.”


With sufficient Dippity-Do, no helmet is required.

 

My little guys soaked it all in; they’re good kids, just–so ignorant of American history! It makes me wonder what the hell their sixth-grade history teacher, Rose Alba Quince, taught them last year. Goldie Hawn? Connie Stevens as Cricket Blake in Hawaiian Eye? I tell you, it’s the decline of standards in American education that has allowed back-lot nations like Japan and Singapore to vault past us in mastery of TV starlets.


Connie Stevens: Go, girl, go!

 

No, I want my kids to understand where the hair styles of the girls they’d be dancing with at next Friday’s sock-hop came from. How America had progressed from the uptight tresses of Hesther Prynne, to the demure bun of Emily Dickinson, to the pageboy, to the bee-hive, then ultimately the heavenly tresses of Farrah, like the wings of a cherubim, in Charlie’s Angels. Don’t tell me you can’t make history exciting!


Emily Dickinson: Bo-ring.

 

I was already planning the study materials and exam I would give them the day after to gauge their mastery of what they would see. Sample question: In the famous poster of Farrah that sold over 12 million copies, which nipple is standing at attention through her bathing suit: (a) left, (b) right, (c) other, (d) none of the above. I know, I know–people say that “high-stakes” exams force teachers to “teach to the test,” but dammit–this stuff is important!


Kate Jackson: Compare and contrast–show your work.

 

I hope some of my students will go on to advanced studies in Charlie’s Angelsology, maybe write a master’s thesis like “Kate Jackson: Third Wheel or Brunette Glue That Held the Angels Together?” Or how about “Jaclyn Smith: What Happened to the Other Letters in Her First Name?” These are important questions, people!


Jaclyn Smith

 

What’s that, Timmy? Who are Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith? Oh-my-God! Do you mean to tell me that you think Charlie’s Angels was just a movie with Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu? Good Lord–it is just so sad to me when kids grow up ignorant of the past, not knowing our nation’s treasured heritage.

Did you know that Farrah styled her own hair for her iconic 1976 poster? That she applied her makeup without using a mirror? Or that her blonde highlights were further heightened by a squeeze of lemon juice? No? These are the sacrifices our forestarlets made for us!

I can’t believe it–it just breaks my heart.

Let’s go–everybody into the museum–now! And I want you to march straight to the Smithsonian Gift Shop. I may have to reach down deep into my own pocket–that’s what budget cuts mean for underpaid teachers like me–but I’m going to make sure each and every one of you leaves here today with a poster of your own!