Happy Hairball Awareness Day

A rainy 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.

“Great 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.”


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. 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 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.”

Doo-Wop Castrati Tell Painful Truth About Their Falsettos

DETROIT.  For Marvin Deshields, former lead singer of the 50′s doo-wop group The Fabulous Croutons, every excursion out into public is an occasion for anxiety.  “Somebody like you,” he says to this reporter, “you don’t think twice about ordering a cup of coffee or picking up your dry cleaning.  For me,” he says, his voice faltering, “it’s a cross to bear.”

The Fabulous Croutons

Deshields was a soprano in the mold of Frankie Lymon, whose hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” with the Teenagers paved the way for later high-pitched male singers such as Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson.  But Deshield’s ability to hit the high notes came with a much lower price; he was a castrato, neutered by his agent Sol Kantrowitz in order to compete in a crowded marketplace for androgynous vocalists.

Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers

“It wasn’t the physical agony, although that was bad enough,” says Deshields, who spent a weekend in a tub of crushed ice until the pain caused by his operation subsided.  “It was knowing I no longer had any family jewels to hand down.”

The Hermanphrodites

As it turns out, Deshields was not alone.  Ellis Herman, lead singer of The Hermanphrodites, says he underwent the surgical procedure because he had heard that his brothers planned to replace him when his voice changed.  “They were on the verge of stardom,” he recalls.  “I had to ask myself–do I want to have a lotta money in my pockets, or just a coupla nuts?”

Castrati:  Note lack of pockets.

Castration of male singers in order to preserve the vocal range of prepubescence dates from the mid-sixteenth century, when women were banned from singing in church.  The Duke of Ferrarra was an early enthusiast and wrote the song “Duke of Earl”, a #1 hit for Gene Chandler in 1962.  The practice subsequently fell out of favor, but was revived in the 1950′s with the advent of regular municipal trash collection for discarded body parts.

The Obscurantists

As other doo-wop castrati have come forward to tell their tales in recent years, record labels have established a trust fund to assist former singers who sacrified their most precious assets in pursuit of musical perfection, but some say it is too little, too late.  “Other guys, you seem them alla time, playin’ pocket pool, adjustin’ themselves,” says Anthony Poindexter of The Obscurantists.  “Me?  I reach down there and I got nothin’.”

Some Cry Foul as Skinny Guys Again Dominate Marathon

BOSTON. The Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon, attracts runners from around the world every Patriot’s Day, a holiday on the third Monday in April that serves as an excuse for local bureaucrats to take the day off. “Running Boston is my dream,” says Ngtmbe Jpksgzi of Kenya, whose name was cobbled together from surplus letters left behind by American “eco-tourists.” “Perhaps if I win, I can afford a few more vowels.”

McKelvey: “It’s not fair!”

But local runners are beginning to chafe at what they say is a system that results in skinny guys and gals winning the event year after year, leaving them with nothing to show for their half-hearted efforts to stay in shape.

“That guy’s so skinny he has to pass a place twice to make a shadow!”

“I musta done ten, maybe twenty situps since last year,” says Chuck McKelvey, a regular at the Kinvarra Pub in East Roxbury. “They told me to forget about entering. Me–who grew up here!”

“When we get to Copley Square, let’s split a celery stick.”

So regulars stage a “drink-in” at the bar every Patriots Day, refusing to move from their seats until all the free snacks have been consumed and the winners have crossed the finish line in mid-afternoon.

Pizza-flavored goldfish on Salisbury Steak

“It’s tough, believe me,” says Bob Wychekowski, a long-time patron whose loyalty caused him to adopt the pub as his mailing address last year when he was going through a divorce. “I know the runners are in excruciating pain, but on the other hand they don’t start serving lunch here until twelve o’clock on the dot.”

“It tires me out just lookin’ at them guys!”

Until then, customers depend on a subsistence diet of honey-roasted peanuts and pizza-flavored goldfish served free at the bar, or garlic and onion potato chips and Andy Capp Pub Fries purchased from a vending machine next to the men’s room. “You got to suck it up,” says Mike Donahue, pronounced “DONE-a-who.” “Those urinal deodorizers can kill your appetite if you get a Bubble Gum or Wild Cherry scent.”

Cabernet-scented urinal deodorizer blocks.

Advocates say they will push for the creation of a new category for participants, just as the Boston Athletic Association, the marathon’s sponsor, eventually recognized female and wheelchair partipants. “I don’t see why they can’t have a separate Couch Potato Class,” says McElvey, whose weight tops out at around 250 pounds during the off-season. “Don’t they understand I have an eating disorder?”

I Am the Poetic Kiss of Death

In a line much admired by Borges, Christopher Marlowe’s Faust says to the apparition of Helen of Troy “make me immortal with a kiss.” I’ve got the opposite capacity–I am the poetic kiss of death.

In the six years since I began writing poetry seriously–and comically–I have persuaded editors to publish eight of my poems. If I’ve got the math right, that’s an average of 1.33 a year, just slightly more frequently than I have birthdays. I’d like to think this isn’t too shabby a track record for a tyro just starting out, but I don’t think I can continue at this torrid pace, in much the same manner that I predicted Pedro Ciriaco, the rookie shortstop of the 2012 Boston Red Sox, would cool down from his torrid .293 batting average to his current .213 with the Kansas City Royals. In his case, it was the law of averages.

Pedro Ciriaco, rookie shortstop phenom: Gone and forgotten.

But not in mine. I anticipate that the frequency with which my poems get published will dwindle and then come to an end entirely for one simple reason; I am the poetic kiss of death. If I keep writing poems and having them accepted, soon there won’t be any poetry publications left–for anybody.

My poems have appeared in five different publications; three have died shortly after they ran my stuff. Coincidence, or something more sinister? You be the judge.

Philip Larkin: “You sure you’re a poet, old man?”

Light Quarterly had been around since 1992, and had published John Updike, among others. Its subscribers included the libraries at Harvard, Brown and Columbia. Tough noogies. They made the mistake of accepting my Lines in Contemplation of a Tragic Accident, and the rest is history, or the end of their history. They’re gone.

Then there was Literary Dilettantes. I actually won their Parody of Epic Proportions contest with The Beerneid, a parody of Virgil’s Aeneid. For those keeping score at home, I hadn’t won anything since 1962 when my Little League Team shocked the world with a 4-2 upset of the Optimist Club team to win the B-level city championship. Chicago Cubs fans like to say that any team can have a bad century, and I can sympathize; I only had a bad half-century.

Virgil: Did he have something to do with it?

But before my poem ever hit the shelves I received an email from the publisher saying “our art director had some personal issues to take care of, which is why the launch was delayed. She was able to start working on the issue but the demands in her personal life are not allowing her to finish for the foreseeable future.” (Note that she didn’t avoid the gerundic, as Strunk & White recommend.)

Strunk & White: “You’re still confusing ‘that’ and ‘which.’”

So just like that, I’ve got two literary homicides hanging over me. The circumstantial evidence would strike a cynical, world-weary cop as suspicious. “What kind of freaking rag shuts down just because its art director has some personal issues to take care of?” you can hear him sneer as the glare of a bare light bulb shines down on my sweat-drenched face. “I don’t know, they said they were legit,” I say after he stops beating me with a rubber truncheon and the Yellow Pages. “They didn’t even charge an entry fee.”

“Okay, let’s take it from the top. You were mindin’ yer own business, imitatin’ Philip Larkin.”

Then I got two poems published in The Poetry Ark, an on-line anthology that was the product of a multi-round competition, like Dancing With the Stars, sort of a Who Wants to Be America’s Next Poet Laureate? I tried to track it down as I wrote this post and I found a reference to it on the internet, but when I clicked on the link I got that “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage” message, the same one I get when I try Nigerian websites hoping to get refunds for my kids’ on-line purchases of high-tech baseball bats.

So that’s three down, which leaves only The Christian Science Monitor and Spitball, “The Literary Baseball Magazine,” which published my poem “The Million Dollar Infield” a few years back. I’ve got a hard copy of the issue in which it appeared, and I’m guarding it with my life. I need something to show the grammar police when they knock on my door and say “Are you gonna come quietly, or do we have to beat you in iambic pentameter until you wheeze like a Hallmark greeting card?”

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

My Liebster Award Acceptance Speech

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, purse-sized dogs and cats.

Image result for purse-sized dog

It is an honor and a privilege to be here tonight as a recipient of a 2015 Liebster Award, the Oscar, the Heisman, the ne plus ultra for bloggers.

I need to thank a lot of people tonight, but first and foremost, Nikki Stern, for nominating me.  Nikki–are you here tonight?  There she is, ladies and gentlemen, over there at table 23.  Let’s give her a big Liebster round of applause.

[Tepid, golf-tournament level clapping.]

Oh, come on, people–you can do better than that!  Can I at least get a couple of “woots”!

[Louder, more enthusiastic clapping, punctuated by woots.]

Image result for woot woot

That’s more like it.  (clears throat nervously)  You know, Nikki is really the nicest person I know.

[Moderate applause.]

No seriously, I truly don’t think she has a mean bone in her body.  That’s why I find her so . . . and I’m groping for the right word now, because I’m a happily married man . . . intriguing.  I mean, it’s like we’re those little Scotty dog magnets, the black and white ones you used to see in tacky gift shops?  The kind where you try to sneak one dog up behind the other, and the other–the one being snuck up upon, not the one doing the sneaking–whirls around as if propelled by some mysterious force.  Like, say, magnetism.

Image result for black and white dog magnets

(pauses for laughter that doesn’t come)  Is this mike on?  Anyway, Nikki is the author of “Hope in Small Doses,” which is a great title and a very heartwarming book if your heart needs warming.  Which mine does, no doubt about it.  “Hope” now comes in two decorator colors, green and orange, and as all good poets know, there’s nothing that rhymes with “orange.”

But I’ve wandered off the path a bit.  I was going to say that Nikki is so nice that she’s allowed me to make up my own questions, which is a good thing, because I was never good at “slam” books in high school, those self-administered personality tests that kids would pass around for you to record your deepest, darkest secrets in, like “Who do you think is better, Herman’s Hermits or The Dave Clark Five?”

Image result for slam books

No, I had a bad experience with slam books in 10th grade.  I had just started dating Lisa Flores–I think we’d kissed once at a homecoming dance.  When the latest slam book found its way into my hands and I flipped to the page that asked “Who do you think is the best kisser?” I ran my finger down the column to find Lisa’s entry and it read–Junior Fidler!

[Gasps from audience.]

Well, you can imagine how I felt–not so hot, lemme tell ya!

But again, I digress.  Nikki has been kind enough to allow me to make up my own questions, rather than struggle in vain to come up with a favorite color or a favorite TV show.  I’ve never been able to keep a favorite color for very long–I’m capricious that way–and I haven’t had any favorite TV shows since “Sea Hunt” with Lloyd Bridges went off the air.

Image result for sea hunt lloyd bridges

So here goes–no holds barred, lumberjack rules, you may tap out at any time by saying the safe word “Blog!”

1.  Where did you get that the ugly car you drive?

Seems strange to say, but I inherited the 2006 Pontiac Torrent that I drive to the train station every day from my son.  Not that he left it to me in his will, it’s just that he’s living in the city and it’s really expensive to keep a car and . . . maybe we better move on to your next question.

2.  Who was your favorite baseball player growing up and why?

Stan Musial, no question.  Great hitter, plays harmonica like me, and as my dad pointed out–he never argued with an umpire.

Image result for stan musial

[Hypocritical, self-congratulatory applause.]

Oh, please.  Like you don’t scream at the ump every time a call doesn’t go your way?  Next question.

3.  Were you raised by wolves?

What the hell kind of question is that?  Of course not.  They were muskrats, or something.

4.  Any scars or distinguishing marks?

Whadda you, the FBI?  As a matter of fact I have an unsightly mole on my right elbow that’s so big it has the right to vote in municipal elections around here.

Image result for raised by wolves
Family portrait, Christmas, 1963

5.  What surprising fact will people discover when they read your obituary?

You mean other than the cross-dressing?  I hope to have that under control by the time I die.  I guess it would be the curious fact that I played harmonica with both Mississippi Fred McDowell and Willie Dixon . . .

6.  Forty years ago, and you’ve been dining out on it ever since.

I thought you were supposed to ask questions, not make snide remarks.

7.  What exactly does “snide” mean, anyway?

Cutting, sly, malicious or sarcastic.  That counts as one of your questions, by the way.

8.  No it doesn’t.

You’d better quit while you’re ahead.

9.  All right.  What was the name of your first pet?

So you’re the one who’s been trying to hack into my bank account!

10.  No I’m not.

Gotcha–you’re out of questions.  So now it’s time for me to send each and every one of my 2,896 followers . . .

11.  You haven’t made it past the 3,000 reader threshold after you’ve been blogging for what . . .

Nine years.  Don’t rub it in.  Send them over to Nikki’s blog.

12.  Aren’t you supposed to recommend five other blogs or . . .

Or what?

13.  Or you’ll break the chain.

Let me tell you something my dad told me the first time I ever saw a chain letter.

14.  Okay.

Do you have to say everything with a number?

15.  I’ll stop after this one.

Anyway, he showed it to me, and told me anybody who’d send a dollar to a stranger because an anonymous letter said something awful would happen to them if they didn’t needed to have his head examined.

Like people who fall for the Liebster Award and spend time answering questions on the internet in the vain hope it will increase their readership and make them rich beyond the dreams of avarice?

Yeah.  Present company excepted, of course.

For One Marathon Runner, Race is Not Always to the Swift

HOPKINTON, Mass.  The rows of portable toilets that line the streets of this bucolic suburb on the morning of the Boston Marathon see heavy duty just before the starter’s gun goes off as runners nervously empty their bladders before the race, but one contestant who emerges from the turquoise and white enclosure stands out from the crowd.

Image result for porta potties hopkinton

“I know I’m different,” the male runner who identifies himself only as “Sam” says to this reporter, “but my needs are the same.”

Sam is conspicuous by his shortcomings; he’s not nearly as tall as any of the other entrants, and despite a diet that consists entirely of seafood, he’s nowhere near as slim as the world-class competitors who will line up against him at precisely twelve noon.

Image result for penguins running
Training run.

“Lotta people are counting me out,” says the three-and-a-half foot emperor penguin.  “I’ve never let other people’s opinions hold me back.”

The Boston Marathon is the nation’s oldest, and it has gradually expanded from an event for able-bodied men only to one that features ten different divisions, including male and female runners, male and female handcyclists, male and female wheelchair competitors, and unisex categories for cosmetologists, osteopaths, calligraphers,  Aleutian Islanders and excommunicated members of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.  “The race now reflects the colorful tapestry that makes Boston such a vibrant city,” says Chamber of Commerce Spokeswoman Edie Miniscus.  “I just hope the penguins don’t litter the streets with krill.”

Image result for first woman boston marathon
Switzer:  “Get out of my way–the penguins are gaining on me!”

There was no official bar to penguins entering the historic race, which is patterned after the 26.1 mile course run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a military victory, but a culture of anti-penguin sentiment worked to discourage the aquatic birds from entering.  “In high school I showed up for track and field and the coach told me I’d be better off on the yearbook staff,” says a determined Sphenisciform wearing bib number 16,001 named “Lyle.”  “I went to one meeting and couldn’t get away from those goody-goody types fast enough.”

And so it took guerilla action similar to that employed by Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the race with an official number that she obtained by the apparent subterfuge of signing her registration papers as “K.V. Switzer.”  Sam and Lyle mingled with other runners at the starting line last year and jumped into the field as it took off, only to be accosted by Boston Athletic Association officials when they slowed down to climb “Heartbreak Hill” in Newton, Mass.

Image result for penguins
“Guys–remember to stretch!”

“I don’t mind them birds racing,” said Jock Semple IV, great-grandson of the race official who tried to remove Switzer from the race course.  “As long as they remain flightless, which I figure ain’t gonna change for a couple million years of evolution.”

The penguins make good time through Ashland, Framingham and Natick, but begin to slow as they reach the half-way point, alongside the campus of the all-female Wellesley College.  There, young women lavish attention and affection on them in addition to the customary cup of water as the birds re-hydrate in style, then linger longer than their race-day game plan calls for.

Image result for wellesley college boston marathon

“How you feeling?” Sam says to Lyle as the latter climbs onto the lap of Meredith Gersh, a senior English major from Nyack, New York.

“I’ve got a cramp,” Lyle replies.  “I think I’d better drop out.”

The Lost Worcester Poems of Elizabeth Bishop

          Elizabeth Bishop was born and lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, and is buried there, but “had no fond feelings” for the city.

                                                 The Boston Globe

 Image result for miss worcester diner


Diner Sonnet

I am in need of Worcester home fries, the kind
that the counter-man makes jump in the skillet
at the Miss Worcester Diner. He really kills it,
underneath the railroad bridge, where you find
pigeons at any hour of the day. It may be a grind
but he with pride has made it his life’s trade.
I will wake tomorrow with indigestion, I’m afraid
but even with sweat-drenched brow he doesn’t mind.

The secret, the Worcester-magic, is in the paprika.
In no other city is this ingredient added to the mix.
It is not just the spice, it is the oddity, the loneliness
of this recipe in the world. Who first said “Eureka!”
when sprinkling the red powder, perhaps for kicks,
and created a dish that I celebrate for its only-ness?


Image result for elizabeth bishop

South Main Nocturne

And now creeps down
Grand Street from South Main,
to the top porches of the town’s
triple-deckers, a mother’s pain:

“Karen,” she cries to her kin,
“Put that pigeon down,
you don’t know where it’s been!”
The girl looks up and frowns.

Later, at Guertin’s, a waggish crone
calls out to the owner regarding his fare:
“Richie–are them pigeon eggs?” She is alone,
the publican lets the question hang in the air.

Image result for main south worcester

Stupid Argument

The City Council’s proceedings
are there for all to see,
in the paper, for the reading.
The Mayor’s adversary, a hack,
calls him “Stupid.”
Hizzoner’s response is not muted,
he says “Stupid!”–quite cursory–back.

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