Father Kniest, Jazz Priest

I’m getting too old for this, I thought as I made my way down Boylston Street, my tambourine in one hand, the Good Book in the other. I started ministering to the jazz scene in Boston back when Estelle Slavin and Her Swinging Brunettes were the house band at Izzy Ort’s Coney Island Club on Essex Street. Floogie Williams and the Unquenchables were ensconced at the Tip-Top Lounge, which didn’t sit well with the sconces that came with the place as trade fixtures, but so what? We were young and crazy for jazz—we didn’t care.

Boylston

But now I’m closing in on eighty, and eighty’s looking over its shoulder, nervous as hell. I’ll catch it soon enough–if I don’t die first.

Back in ‘55 I was just out of the seminary and was assigned by my religious order—the Congregation of the Hep—to Boston, one of the most Catholic cities in America, and always viewed as nothing more than a stepping stone. Cats in Boston lived in an existential no-man’s-land; always doubting whether they were any good as long as they stayed in Beantown instead of moving on the Big Apple. To them, I was Father Kniest—Jazz Priest.

Like The Disgruntled Threesome—“Buzzy” Drootin, Sparky Tomasetti, Cas Brosky. Man, those guys could swing. The name was facetious, of course; if you came into Wally’s Wigwam in a disgruntled mood, those guys would have you completely gruntled by the time they’d finished “Muskrat Ramble” the second time.

totem pole

But all that’s in the past, in the semi-glory days of Boston jazz. Now, I’m reduced by fifty years—a half century!—of rock, folk, disco and rap to trying to save a few forlorn souls from eternal damnation.

I pass by a soprano sax player in Dewey Square, or “Financial Center” as some urban planning goober decided to re-brand it in the 80’s. He’s playing “Chim Chim Cheree,” among other schmaltz-laden Disney tunes. I know the guy’s just trying to survive, but so are the hookers down on lower Washington Street—that don’t make it right.

I step out of the herd of faceless commuters making their way to South Station for the train ride to the suburbs, and pull a $5 bill from my pocket. The man says “thank you” without taking his mouth off his reed so he can keep the cash flowing, but I dangle the sawbuck in front of his face without letting it drop to let him know I’ve got something I need to say to him.

“I need to talk to you, man,” I say, and he finally stops playing.

“Really, thanks a lot, I . . .”

“You don’t get it,” I say with the seething demeanor Jesus must have taken on right before he threw the money changers out of the temple.

“What?”

“I’m paying you to stop . . . not keep going.”

sax monkey
“Blow Sax Monkey, blow!”

 

“But . . . I won’t make any more money that way.”

“Yes you will, if you’ll stop playing that crap and switch to something worth the breath it takes to play it.”

“Like what?”

“If you play ‘Cherokee’ there’s another fin in the wallet where this one came from.”

His eyes light up. “Heck YEAH, man,” he says, and he launches into a creditable rendition of the Ray Noble classic. I drop two fives into his instrument case, nod my head as I give him a look of commendation, and I’m off to rescue another frail reed about to break beneath the burden of a culture that doesn’t appreciate his art.

It’s over to La Fisherie, an upscale restaurant in “Copley Place.” I can only shake my head at that solecism. Copley Square was already a place, the aorta of the heart of Boston jazz. It was here that Leonard “Dizzie” Groot joined forces with Bunny “Fred” Buchanan and Tommy “Flip” Phlegman to come thisclose to getting a contract with Verve that coulda shoulda woulda made them stars in the same constellation as The Dorsey Brothers.

jazz band

But no. A cold sore hampered Bunny/Fred the night the A&R man from New York came to town to hear The Jazz Nocturnals at Mert’s Playland; by the second set his lip was bleeding and he could barely manage “In the Mood.” The guy from the record company got lost on the subway, like Charlie on the MTA. He didn’t know that there’s no inbound/outbound transfer at Copley, and he didn’t know that you pronounce the name of the place with a short “o”; it’s COP-ley as in “Cheez it—the cops!”–not COPE-ley, as in “I can’t cope with you any more, Laverne.”

There’s still one jazz venue left in the Square; the somnolent, soporific Swank Room in the basement of a Class B hotel where a Red Sox relief pitcher took his own life back in the 50’s, setting off a massive manhunt on the part of the ball club’s management to recover his $3.50 per day meal money.

I tread gently down the dimly-lighted steps and see a scene that would break any self-respecting jazz man’s heart; there’s four, maybe five tables occupied, one by Lydia Tournquest, “society” columnist for The Back Bay Schooner, a relic of a bygone era before the MassPike made it easy to commute to the suburbs and drained the city of adults with a recollection of what jazz once sounded like and the pocket money to pay for it.

On the bandstand is Wilson “Chet” Forskett, a Berklee student who’s wailing on alto sax; he’s chasing the Bird, playing an easy-swinging “Yardbird Suite” with enough invention to keep you listening while still tapping your feet to the Kansas City beat. I’m almost ready to get excited—is this the Second Coming of Boston Jazz?—when he ends on a mellow note and draws scattered applause.

girl singers

Down front a mismatched couple—he’s wearing a toupee, her burgeoning breasts are about to spill out of her scoop neck—takes it all in with a knowing, somewhat superior air. Why not? They sprang for the $19.95 Veal Scallopini Avec Porcini Mushrooms—the name of the dish is like a mini-United Nations Security Council.

They put their hands together in restrained admiration—probably don’t want to get the kid’s hopes up for a tip—and the woman speaks.

“Excuse me,” she says to the sax man.

“Yes?” he replies.

“Do you know Lady—by Kenny Rogers?”

The young man bites his lower lip but not, I think, because he can’t recall the changes.

“No ma’am,” I’m afraid we don’t.” I know what he’s thinking: he’s drunk the milk of Paradise, like the man in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan—the paradigm shifting music of bebop; he’s not going back to Classic Country.

“Aww, that’s a shame,” the woman says. I think I’ve got these two figured out. Mr. Hair Club for Men is her boss, she’s his secretary. How—sordid!

“Sorry,” the budding jazz man says.

“You should learn it,” the woman says. “It’s really beautiful!”

I see the kid’s neck stiffen; he’s trying to keep from shaking his head.

“Well, uh, sheet music is expensive,” he says.

“That’s okay—I can hum it for you, and you can fake it,” the woman says. She clears her throat—shoulda got that flu shot, I think to myself—takes her long-stemmed red rose in hand and begins to emote.

“Lady,” she sings in a husky contralto, “I’m your knight in shi-i-ning armor!”

“Stop!” I yell as I make my way down front. “Stop it before you infect this young man with whatever pop virus has corrupted your brain!”

clooney

“Hey—don’t talk to her like dat!” the man says. Now that I’m up close, I see that I’ve judged him unfairly; his hair’s real, only it’s combed over from a point just above one ear all the way over to the other. He looks like a Georgia cotton field infected with kudzu.

“I’m a man of the cloth, pal. I’m deputized by a higher power to save jazzmen’s souls from the lures and wiles and temptations of bad taste.”

I have bad taste?” the woman says. Apparently no one’s ever leveled with her before.

“Abso-freaking-lutely,” I say, drawing myself up to my full 5’10” height.

“I thought the rule was ‘Cha-koon o sone gout’,” the man says. “To each his own.”

“Nope,” I reply with authority. “There are certain immutable laws of beauty, and your ‘lady’ here is a veritable one-woman aesthetic crime wave.”

“How do you know she’s got bad taste?” the man asks, a bit miffed at my condescension.

“Easy,” I say. “She’s with you.”

This story originally appeared in Jerry Jazz Musician.

Great Gatsby Roulette

It was May of my senior year in college. Everybody was coasting, knowing either what they were going to be doing the next year, or that they’d be doing nothing. Except for one guy, Tom.

Tom had been accepted at medical school–Harvard, no less–so his future was pretty much mapped out for him, assuming he graduated from college first. Med schools are funny that way. They make you dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s” before they let you cut body parts off cadavers and stick them in the purses of the secretaries.


Fitzgerald: “The road to med school goes through me.”

 

And so as we assembled for one of our last nights of drug-enhanced conviviality, we felt a general sense of relief and hopeful anticipation–except for Tom, whose face was clouded by a look that suggested he had a lot of work left to do.

“What’s eating you?” somebody finally asked.

”I need to finish one course in the humanities to graduate,” he said.

“So–what’s the big deal?” came the question from one to whom a course in literature was a day at the beach.

“I need to write a paper on The Great Gatsby,” Tom said.

“Christ, I’ve probably read that book for three courses the past four years,” said somebody else.

“Well I haven’t,” Tom said.

“Haven’t what?” I asked. “Haven’t read it three times?”

“Haven’t read it at all,” Tom said sheepishly.

Like many pre-med students, Tom had spent so much time taking organic chemistry and other hard science courses that he hadn’t had time to take any electives to round out his personality, and his heavy load of classes, labs, shooting pool, going to the race track and Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park and staying up all night playing poker had left him little time to read for pleasure.

“You’ve only got, like, two days, right?” a guy named Alan asked.

“One,” Tom replied, like a prisoner on death row who’s just finished his last meal.

A collective gulp of five Adam’s apples was heard. “You have to read it and write a paper about it . . . tonight?

He was silent for a moment. “You got it.”

The gloom that had, just a moment before, been one man’s burden spread like a contagious disease on the wings of a sneeze. We all felt terrible for Tom, but we were on the South Side of Chicago, home of Saul Alinsky, inspiration to generations of radicals and later even a President of the United States!


Saul Alinsky

 

What we had learned from the example of Alinsky was that there was a time for talk, and a time for radical social action to improve the everyday lives of ordinary people. We looked at each other and at Tom’s downcast head and as if by telepathy, formed a common purpose.

“We’ll help you write your paper!” someone said emphatically.

“Yeah–all of us–together!” said another.

“Guys–I couldn’t ask you to . . .” Tom began, but I cut him off. “You were there for me in Rocks and Stars,” the elementary science course for English majors, I said. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have gotten that B that kept my grade point average where it needs to be in case I ever figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”


“You gotta work the shirt scene in there somewhere.”

 

Tom looked around the room and we could see his eyes misting over. “You–you would do that for me?” he asked, a lump in his throat.

“You’d do it for us, if you’d read the book and we hadn’t and we had screwed around like you and left the paper to the last minute,” somebody said.

By now Tom’s eyes were red. “You guys–you’re the greatest!” he said. He’d had a few beers.

“C’mon,” a guy named Bates said. “No time for emoting–we’ve got a lot of writing to do.”

As the only guy in the room who had mastered touch typing, I was assigned the role of scrivener. I loaded a manual typewriter with a sheet of white paper, rolled it up, and centered it for the title.

“Okay–’The Great Gatsby–colon,” I said. “What comes next, and it has to be a question.”

“Why’s that?” Tom asked.

“Because if it’s a question, you don’t have to have a thesis,” Bates said. “You’re just raising an issue . . . ”

” . . . for consideration by future generations of scholars,” said a guy named Jack.

“Uh, let’s see–Threat or Menace?” I offered.

“Too sociological. How about–’Process or Event’?” Jack suggested.

“You used that for your Haymarket Anarchist Bombing paper,” Bates said. “What about–’Icon or Shibboleth’?”

“Great,” I said and typed it in. “Okay–we’ve got to be organized, otherwise you’re going to drive me crazy,” I said. “We’ll go around the room–Russian Roulette style–and take turns. One sentence per person, then on to the next–okay?”

“I’m in,” said Bates, as he put on the Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation” album at a volume just slightly below the level that would attract the attention of a resident assistant.

“You really think that’s a good idea?” Tom said. “Don’t we have to like–concentrate?”

“Dude, you took too many science classes,” Bates said. “This is how creative-types do their thing.”

“First sentence–somebody, anybody,” I called out.  Bates had already taken a few tokes on a reefer on the quad below, so his creative juices were flowing freely.

“Uh, ‘The Great Gatsby is a seminal work that calls attention to, and plays upon, class distinctions that are customarily submerged beneath the surface in America due to the leveling pressure of democratic principles.’”

“Great start!” I exclaimed as I tapped out the opening lines. “Next.”

“The narrator, young Nick Carraway, serves as the . . . uh . . . sounding board for Fitzgerald’s critique of the American dream, as he is alternately attracted to and repulsed by the materialism with which Gatsby has surrounded himself,” Alan said.

“Got it–who’s next?”

“I guess me,” Jack said. ‘Carraway is sucked into’ . . .”

“Scratch that,” Bates said. “Not high-toned enough. Say ‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life’–something like that.”

“Okay,” Jack said, a bit peevishly I thought. Pride of authorship. “‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life because he is second cousin to Daisy Buchanan, whom Gatsby desires because she is from a social class above his, and thus unattainable.”

I looked over at Tom as I typed and noticed that his mouth was hanging open. “You guys are–incredible!” he said, a big smile on his face.

“Why don’t you take a turn?” Bates asked, as he passed the joint to Tom.

“Me? But . . . I only read the first chapter!”

“That’s enough man–go ahead,” Bates said. “Give it a shot!”

Tom inhaled, held his breath for a moment, then opened his mouth to allow the smoke to escape, along with these words. “In this respect, Daisy represents the American Dream, always luring us onward, always receding as we draw near it.”


Arnold Rothstein, fictionalized as Meyer Wolfsheim

 

“See–you don’t need to read the book,” I said. “It’s in the air you breathe.”

We continued in that vein for several hours until we had collectively banged out three pages–double-spaced, inch-and-a-half margins–of the most bogus symbol-spotting literary claptrap that ever issued from the mind of an American undergraduate. As we wrapped things up with the obligatory analytical pecking and poking at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, I pulled the last sheet of paper out of the typewriter, and everyone gathered around to admire our work.

“You know,” Bates said as took a final hit on what was left of the joint, “it’s true what they say about art having a cathartic effect.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. He was a little blissed out, but recovered enough to realize he may have missed something. “What exactly does that mean?”

“I dunno,” Bates said. “But it sounded good.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddling Anymore.”

The Ballad of the Headless Bunny

T’was a Sunday morning, the first week of May
A fine and fragrant playful day
I put on my bike shorts, prepared for a ride
Opened the garage door and went outside.

There I stepped down on what looked like a mouse
Bloody and lifeless outside of our house.
I took bag in hand and prepared to grab it
When I realized the thing was the head of a rabbit!

I stepped inside, to speak with Rocco
Our younger male cat, and sort of a jocko.
I said “Thanks for the present you left on the steps.”
“Just earning,” he said, “my keep as your pet.”

“I appreciate all the hunting you do,”
I said as I scraped the gore off of my shoe,
“But you should know, if you haven’t been told
That beheading bunnies is really quite cold.”

“It’s nature,” Roc said, with a cynical glare.
“He may have been cute, but he’s just a March hare
Who wore out his welcome, so I let him have it.
That’s the cause of the death of this beheaded rabbit.”

Up ambled Okie, elder cat statesman.
He’d spent the night downstairs in the basement.
His hunting days over, he’s now much the wiser.
He only chews cat food on his long incisors.

“Kid, you blew it,” he said as he walked up,
“When you rub out a rabbit, you don’t want to get talked up.
Silent but deadly, discreet terminations
Are the type that are favored by all criminal nations.”

The younger buck stood as if stunned by a shot.
“You mean you don’t celebrate, a lot or a jot?”
“No way,” said his brother, who’s now in his dotage.
“You don’t want to be covered by cat crime repotage.”

“The tabloids are vicious, the front page pics grisly,
The stories they offer are hot and quite sizzly.
When word gets round you’re big cat on the block
Every tom in the hood wants to give you a knock.”

So Rocco, a feline who learns as he goes,
Decided he’d rather be writ up in prose.
No Song of Rocco, for this black and white moppet
He ordered the author of this poem to stop it.

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

Who Is Gilbert Blythe?

           The email appeared in his inbox from a name he didn’t recognize, Patricia Donlan.  When he opened it up and began to read it, it didn’t make sense at first; the writer took off like a runner hearing a starter’s pistol, eager to stake a place on the inside before the first turn of the track.  “Dear Tom,” it began, “I hope you remember me and have been well all these years since we were in school together long ago.”  He had never been in school with anyone named Patricia Donlan, but he read on.  “I am currently in a hospital in California, waiting for a liver.  Last year I was diagnosed with Autoimmune Hepatitis (persistent liver inflammation).  Shortly thereafter I was diagnosed with Non-Alcoholic Cirrhosis of the Liver, and I am now in Liver Failure.”  The capital letters struck him as an odd formality.  “I am using my daughter’s email account so she can keep track of things in case I become unable to respond—explanation below.”

 

blythe

He scanned to the bottom of the page and saw the name “Mary Beth (Schumacher) Donlan,” and made the connection.  It was from a woman he’d gone to grade school with.  He’d lost touch with her when he transferred to public high school so he could play football, because their Catholic school didn’t have a team.  He remembered her as shy, slender, pretty in a quiet way, but not the type who would stand out in a crowd of girls as the most attractive.  Something about her—maybe her forehead was too high or too wide.  She was smart.

 

“I remember peeking over my shoulder at you in the back of the room,” the writer continued.  “I had a sort of Anne of Green Gables/Gilbert Blythe crush on you.”  Who is Gilbert Bythe? he asked himself.  He hadn’t read the book, so he stopped for a moment to look up the reference.  “I secretly competed against you for best grades in long division and spelling, you probably didn’t even realize it.  Like all the other boys, I bet you were too busy looking at Carolyn Schuster’s newly-developed boobs.”

 

He laughed when he read that.  That was true, and he had, for a time, been the favorite of the girl with the earliest-burgeoning bust.  Then he had screwed things up.  Too embarrassed to buy her a box of candy or a bottle of perfume and carry it past the other boys in class, he had slipped a dollar into her Valentine’s card, then endured a shame worse than the one he had tried to avoid when she walked the length of the classroom and placed the dollar on his desk.  “How was I to know?” he asked himself, with a snort and a smile on his face.  “It’s what I would have wanted for Valentine’s, it was what my grandmother gave me for my birthday.  I didn’t know you don’t give a girl money—I was only twelve.”

 

blythe1

“All that is in the past, however,” he read again.  “I am now slowly dying, and my only hope is that I can live long enough to get a liver.  In the meantime, my medical bills are piling up.  I was only part-time at my last job, and didn’t qualify for health insurance.  I’m divorced (husband number two), and have a seventeen-year-old daughter who has a tough life ahead of her without a mother.”

 

It was a sad story, one that caused him to be conscious that he was swallowing, more affected physically than he realized at first.  He considered himself fairly impervious to personal appeals; he brushed off panhandlers both morning and night as he made his way through the train station in Boston.  He wasn’t in touch with any family members other than two siblings, and with them only to the extent necessary; his father was part of a large Irish family, and his cousins, like their fathers, weren’t successful financially.  They struck him as the type who might ask him for handouts, and possibly large ones, if their lives got any worse.

 

Mary Beth’s name struck a note with overtones, however.  He recalled a cold spring day when the kids in his seventh-grade class had, on an April lark, decided to go to the public tennis courts as a group after school.  There they had fooled around—since it was a weekday there were no adults to be annoyed by their conduct—and she had come and sat next to him when it was others’ turn to play.

 

blythe2

“How are you and Carolyn getting along?” she had asked him bluntly.  He wasn’t able to answer right away; they had barely said anything to each other beyond “Hi” during the seven years they’d known each other.  He looked over at the court, where the girl he wanted to be his was playing tennis with another boy.

 

“You should probably ask Marty that,” he said with as much bitterness as he could stuff into the words, not turning his head.  She was sitting close to him, on the ground, their backs bowing into a tennis net, and her nearness made him nervous.

 

“Who should I ask you about?” she said sharply, causing him to turn around and see her staring at him with an ambiguous cast to her lips that was part challenge, part invitation.

 

“I don’t know,” he had said, and then from someplace deep inside him an impulse arose that caused him to say, “maybe you.”  He regretted it almost immediately, but it was too late; some instinctive sense of honor within had told him that when a girl opens up to you in that way, you should yield.  She had smiled, and he noticed for the first that she was wearing pink lipstick, which she must have applied for the occasion since girls weren’t allowed to wear make-up at St. Vincent’s.

 

blythe3

So that was who was writing to him after—he counted the years; four high school, four of college, three years goofing around, two more years to get another degree, so thirteen.  Then thirty years of work—forty-three in all.  He was both flattered and non-plussed; what, exactly, could he do for her?  If he sent her a check his wife, who balanced their accounts, would see it.  She paid their credit card bills, too, and would sometimes ask him about charges she didn’t recognize, so that wouldn’t work either.  And then he recalled that he had a budget at work for charitable contributions, he could use that and his wife would never know.  It wasn’t as if he was doing anything wrong, either way; it was a worthy cause, and it wasn’t like he was meeting the woman from his past for sex at a motel.  It was a simple gesture of kindness, that was all.

 

“Dear Mary Beth,” he began to write.  “Of course I remember you, and fondly.  We had that brief thing going there in seventh grade, but went our separate ways.  I am sorry to hear about your”—he paused to think; was it an illness or a condition?  He began again: “I am sorry to hear that you are not doing well, and of course I can help out a bit.”  He scrolled down the screen, which included a link to a site where you could contribute, post a message, and be recognized or not, depending on your preference.  At the bottom of the page in small print there was a paragraph of disclaimers; contributions weren’t tax deductible, the site charged a fee and so on.  It all seemed well-organized, as the girl had been when she was young.

 

The goal was to raise $25,000, a figure that struck him as cheap to save someone’s life.  He tried to think of something he’d paid that price for—a car a long time ago came to mind–so if it only gave her five more years, it would be worth it.  He took out his business credit card, clicked on the link, typed in a contribution of $250, then thought again, and increased the amount to $500.  It might be hard for her, a part-time reading instructor at an elementary school in a small town, to find enough people who made as much money as he did, he thought.  She was good enough to remember him after all these years, and to recall for him a time when romance might have hurt more when you lost, but was more innocent.  He recalled her directness—the skinny little girl who had apparently had her heart set on him, but who had never said anything until their lives were about to diverge forever.  He wondered what might have been; if they had connected back then, he might have been spared a long search for a mate that came to its first stop with a woman he had taken away from a friend, an affair that ended in four fairly disastrous years of living together and no marriage.  Then four years of dating before he met his wife, a practical woman and a good mother to his children, but a mate of mature reflection, not the object of a youthful passion.

 

            “Are you coming to bed soon?” his wife called to him from the door.

 

            “Be there in a minute,” he said as he closed out of the site with a fumbling urgency, hoping he could clear the screen before she came around behind him for a kiss and saw the image of his short-lived grade-school girlfriend, with her deep-brown hair, violet-blue eyes and a smile that seemed too genuine for one who was dying.

 

He was at work the next day, filling out a form to explain his contribution, when he received a second email from the daughter’s address.  He opened it up and read: “Dear Mike, I hope you remember me and have been well all these years since we were in school together long ago,” it said, and the text that followed was the same that had been sent to him describing Mary Beth’s current situation.  Apparently she had developed a template she was using to save time.  He could hardly blame her—after all, she was dying.

 

“I remember peeking over my shoulder at you in the back of the room,” it continued.  “I had a sort of Anne of Green Gables/Gilbert Blythe crush on you.”

 

He exhaled, then moved his cursor to the “Reply” button.  “Mary Beth,” he wrote, “I think you meant this for someone else.”

 

 

 

Dinner With the Footnotes

My wife’s phone gave off a strange sound and, after she’d looked down at its screen, she said “Oh no,” and not in a cheerful way.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“It’s Pam Footnote,” she said as she picked up her mobile device, the better to see the full text of the message that lay concealed beneath the placid green screen.  “They want to have us over for dinner.”

I groaned, inwardly and outwardly.  “I thought we were done with them,” I said, recalling my Reverse Triangular Strategem for Getting Two Annoying Couples Out of Your Life With One Fell Stroke; I had invited them to dinner with our most liberal friends, hoping that the latter twosome’s strident political approach to all issues great and small would cause them to permanently break off our friendship, and that the former’s indifference to anything other than conspicuous consumption–golf, decorating, travel, etc.–would constitute a bridge too far for the leftie couple.

“Your brilliant idea completely backfired,” my wife said, and with more than a little smug satisfaction.  “Both couples left congratulating themselves on how tolerant they were, and how they’d made friends of people who were totally at the opposite end of the spectrum from them.”

“It was worth a shot,” I said, as I stuck my nose back into my glass of Malbec, hoping the vapors would send me to a place far, far away, where scents would overrule sense and the irrational would ride astride the rational mind like a child on a supermarket mechanical horse.  “So, do we have to accept?”

“I can hardly say no,” my wife said.  “I saw her in the grocery store the other day and let slip . . .”

“The dogs of war?” I asked, reverting to Shakespeare, the last grip I had on Western Civ before I fell asleep.

“No, silly, that we were in town for the weekend and didn’t have any plans.”

“You know, if this were a World War II movie, I would have you prosecuted for treason, and maybe even shave your head.”

“Like Sinead O’Connor?”

“A little.  That’s how they punished the French women for sleeping with Nazis.”

“The Footnotes aren’t that bad,” she said as she tapped a reply to the distaff half of the couple.

“History has yet to hand down its judgment,” I said as I finished my wine and toddled–as if I were the City of Chicago–off to bed.

I should provide some backstory, as they say in Hollywood.  The Footnotes–Pam and Dave–go by a different surname, which shall remain undisclosed for fear of libel claims and social retribution.  We gave them their nomme de whatever after sitting through too many dinner and cocktail parties with them, and enduring their dreadful conversation.  They are a mutual perpetual emendation machine, hitting on two cylinders at all times to refine, improve, expand or correct each other’s bland and boring statements.  If Dave says they joined the Woronoco Country Club in 2002, Pam immediately jumps in to say no, it was 2003, that was the year her mother died, she remembers it well.  If Pam says their favorite restaurant Estella’s is at the corner of Clarendon and Newbury Streets in Boston, Dave swoops in like a red-tailed hawk on a field mouse to insist that Dartmouth is the cross-street, don’t you remember, that’s where that parking lot is located.

“Oh yes,” Pam will say, and they’re off, pulling each other further into the Labyrinth like Hansel and Gretel off to find the Minotaur.  A private conversation in a nearly-private language ensues while everyone else sips their drinks, too polite to change the subject, too embarrassed to try and direct them back to the main path of the evening’s discourse.  After awhile the Footnotes emerge back into the sunlight, like cheerful kittens kept in the basement overnight, and blurt out “So how’s work going?” to the first male who catches their eye, or “What’s new with Chloe/Caitlin/Chelsea?” to the first female.  By then the rest of the crowd is too deep in their cups to say anything other than “Fine.”

In short, they are a walking illustration of Noel Coward’s gibe about footnotes: “Having to read footnotes resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love,” and so we thusly christened them.  In fact, I have often wondered what love-making might be like at Chez Pam et Dave:

Pam:  (. . .) What are you doing?

Dave:  But . . . you like that.

Pam:  Since when?

Dave:  Don’t you remember?  That time in Bermuda, right before we were married?

Pam:  At the little inn that was once a provincial courthouse?

Dave:  Right.

Pam:  No, that was the time we went down with the Palmers, we didn’t have sex that vacation.

When the night for the Dreaded Encounter came, I steeled myself ahead of time with a rye on the rocks, like some character out of a John O’Hara short story.

“You’re drinking before we go?” my wife asked.

“It’s the only way I’m going to get through the evening.”

“Just let them talk, eventually they’ll wear themselves out.”

“Easy for you to say,” I said.  “You can always go fuss in the kitchen over the pre-fabricated Trader Joe’s hors d’oeuvres you bring.”

With the ground rules thus established, we found ourselves soon enough on the Footnotes’ doorstep and, after the obligatory exchange of air-kisses, made our way into their overheated living room, whose walls are covered with the sort of conventional prints a conventional New England couple inherits from their conventional parents when they suffer the end to which we are all headed by nature, not convention: sail boats, a Cape Cod sunset, one vaguely experimental painting purchased on a madcap weekend in New York and, off to the side, the poorly executed work of a relative whose sense of perspective could trigger an LSD flashback.


The kids

“How have you two been, it’s been ages!” my wife asked with an air of conviviality that, God love her, sounded sincere.

“Oh, puttering along,” Pam said, and I hoped Dave wasn’t going to make some stupid pun about golf, a subject that always sets off my narcolepsy.  “Have you two taken any vacation lately?”

On my scale of Universal Weights and Measures of Boredom, the surest sign that two couples have nothing left to say to each other is when one side asks the other this question, but that may just be me.  My wife pounced on it like a duck on a June bug, as they say where I come from.

“We went to Saratoga Springs last summer to see ballet,” she said, and we were off to the races.

“Oh, I love dance!” Pam said.  “I wish Dave would take me.”

“I took you once,” her worse half said.

“No you didn’t!” Pam countered, with mock outrage.

“Yes I did, that time with the Nugents.”

“When?”

“At that big auditorium.”

“The Convention Center?”

“Not the new one, the old one, on Boylston Street.”

“That wasn’t ballet, that was some Chinese cultural thing.”

“You said ‘dance.’  There were dancers on stage.”

“You had to go because of work, it was free, so that doesn’t count.”

I stared down into my drink and, seeing that it was both half-full and half-empty, got up to refresh it in the kitchen.  I figured by the time I got back the Footnotes would have reached the intermission of the long-forgotten event, and we might have a chance to get things back on track.

Sure enough, when I returned the Footnotes had stopped for re-fueling, and had turned over the conversational driving to my wife.

“How are the kids?” she asked innocently, perhaps thinking that it would be hard for any couple to disagree as to the basic facts of their children’s existence.

“Oh, Jeremy’s fine but he quit his job at the consulting firm and is working on an ‘app’–whatever that is.”

Risky life decisions by offspring–while rich fodder for conversation among our other friends–struck me as a cue for infinite regression on the Footnotes’ part, so I quickly interjected with something less sensitive, and more quantifiable.

“Where’s he living now?” I asked.

“In South Boston,” the husband said.

“It’s not South Boston where he lives, it’s something else,” Pam corrected him.  “The South End . . .”

“That’s not the South End,” Dave said.  “The South End is way the hell over on the other side of the Turnpike.”

“Well, it’s the Seaport, or the Innovation District, or the Waterfront or something, but it’s definitely not South Boston.”

“South Boston is trendy now, they should stop trying to name it something else,” Dave said in a voice devoid of defensiveness.  That’s how the Footnotes are; never contentious, always dry, academic, just-the-facts-ma’am, the Joe Fridays of social chit-chat.

“Well, I think he calls it something else.  Fort Point Channel?”

I looked at my watch, and I didn’t try to hide it.  I felt as if we were trapped inside an encyclopedia, and were only halfway through the volume with Aa-As on the spine.

“What’s that I smell from the kitchen?” I interjected.  No one’s ever actually died of starvation at the Footnotes, but I didn’t want to take a chance.

“I’m making noisettes du porc au pruneaux,” Pam said.

“Sounds yummy!” my wife said.  “What’s that?”  I’m the Francophile in the family.


Yum!

“It’s a six-day bicycle race in France,” I said.

“Oo, you’re bad!” Pam said to me, then to my wife, “It’s pork with prunes.”  To my shock and surprise, the next words out of Dave’s mouth didn’t include a correction.

“We tried it when we took a tour of the Loire Valley in 2005,” he said.

“It wasn’t 2005,” Pam replied, “that was the summer right before Jeremy graduated from college, so it would have been 2004.”

“It wasn’t 2004, I would remember.  That’s the year the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.”

I was tempted to jump in with some sports talk and break the mind-forg’d manacles that always seemed to lock up the Footnotes’ talk, but I hesitated and was lost.

“It had to be 2004, he graduated from high school in 2000, so . . .”

“You’re forgetting,” Dave said, gently reminding her.  “He got that F in biology on his junior year abroad, so he didn’t graduate until 2005.”

Pam was, for just a moment, speechless; there it was, out in the open, for all to see, like an upchucked chipmunk from their cat Mitzi on the rug in front of us.  The shame, the embarrassment that our children can cause us, we who like to present a placid exterior to our social equals, betters and inferiors.  I could detect in her face the hot flush of blood rushing to her cheeks.  It took her a moment, but–like the dinner party trouper she was–she shook off the blow and in a second had her wits about her again.

“It wasn’t biology,” she said finally.  “It was organic chemistry.”

A Letter

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the football team had gathered to check in their equipment at the stadium. The atmosphere was a mixture of chagrin and relief; the team had lost the last game of the season and finished 5 and 5, no great shakes, but at least all the hard work was over. There hadn’t been that many seniors on the team—only five—so that was some kind of excuse. There had been six sophomores who saw a lot of action on offense or defense, and a couple of others who played on special teams, so the coaches were optimistic about the future and in a good mood.

Joe was one of the seniors, and the only one who hadn’t earned a letter at the start of the season. He was a bit undersized, but there were smaller kids who were better than him. He was fast enough—technically he was a halfback and defensive back—but he didn’t seem to make good use of his speed. He tended to run in a straight line, as if he were a chalk mark on the coach’s blackboard, and so when a hole closed or never opened he went nowhere, and on defense, he’d run right at a guy who’d put a move on him and be gone.

He’d done everything they’d asked all four years he’d played, but he was still on the junior varsity the year before. He got a dinky junior varsity patch that he put on his right breast, but on his left all he had was a letter for speech and debate. From a distance they all looked the same, and so Joe would pal around with the other four seniors and hope that their reflected glory would shine a little status on him.

He thought he’d built up a fair amount of goodwill with the coaching staff, then the school had gone and fired the head coach from the year before and replaced him with somebody from a junior college in Kansas. It was the man’s first head coaching job—he was apparently an offensive genius—but it meant that Joe had to start over and show the new man what a hard worker he was even if he wasn’t that good.

The coach had laid down the law the first day of practice, August 15th. He’d handed out a mimeographed sheet telling you what the rules were; everybody had to get a crew cut, coats and ties on game day, no alcohol, no smoking, and an eleven o’clock curfew. There was to be an honor system—if you saw one of your teammates break the rules you had to turn him in. And you had to run a six-minute mile with your equipment on—after practice. You had to keep trying until you could do it.

Joe had accomplished the feat the first day—he’d been in training all summer long—but the coach barely noticed it. He just made a check next to Joe’s name on his clipboard and yelled at the others who came in behind him.

It had continued like that the whole season. Joe was on the scout team, but he was never called upon to play the part of the other team’s number one back; when the head coach stepped in to demonstrate something, he was always directing his instruction towards the first team. Joe might have been just a cog in the machine, his dad told him, but machines still needed every one of their cogs. Hang in there, he’d said; hard work is the one thing that’s always rewarded in this world.

You had to play twenty quarters—half the season–to get a letter; Joe didn’t know if the assistant coaches kept close track, but he knew he had been in nineteen. There were three quarters—two of them mopping up–against a weaker team the first game, and he’d allowed himself to get his hopes up. Then there were three non-conference games that he got into for two quarters each on the kick-off team. He figured if the team played halfway decent ball he’d get at least two quarters a game the rest of the way, once when they kicked off at halftime or the beginning of the game, a second time when they scored. By the end of the fourth week he had nine quarters.

The fifth week the conference schedule began, and the coaches began to pit one player against another for playing time to see who was tougher. They had “hamburger” drills halfway through practice every day; one-on-one challenges to see which kid would drive the other back, no “cupping” around because there were tackling dummies on either side so you had nowhere to run. Joe didn’t see what that had to do with his position; he was a back, not a lineman.

Some of the younger backs were sturdier, more compact than Joe, who was wiry. He’d tried everything to put on weight, drinking milk shakes and supplements, but then he’d run it off trying to stay in shape. He told himself it was better to be lighter and quicker and in good shape when August rolled around than to be heavier and puke up your guts the first week.

And so when it came his turn for the hamburger drill he got pushed around, and would grow frustrated that a bunch of sophomores were gaining on him, then passing him on the depth chart. He couldn’t believe the coaches would put some younger kid into a conference game that counted against a good team, he who’d been working so hard for so long.

So at the halfway point in the season he had eleven quarters, then he only got into two quarters the next three games, then only one quarter the last two games–that was nineteen. He figured they’d round up, or cut him some slack because he was a senior. It was no skin off their nose whether they gave out one more letter, he figured.

He sat on the bench next to his locker and fiddled with his stuff, waiting for the head coach to come out of his office so he could say goodbye and thank you, maybe talk to him for a second. His dad had told him that was important, that was something you’d learn in life; to make a connection with people, look them in the eye, make a good impression so they’d remember you when the time came to make an important decision. Joe knew his dad was talking about adult things like raises and promotions, but there wasn’t anything more important to him in the world right now than getting a football letter.

He saw the coach emerge from his office with Don, one of the sophomores, a little water bug of a kid with acne and glasses who didn’t look much like a football player, but who played with a reckless abandon that scared Joe a bit, and the defensive coach named Skip.

“Love to hit, love to hit, love to HIT!” Skip was saying as he put his arm around Don and clapped him on the shoulder. The head coach shook Don’s hand and said “You’re gonna be the first kid lined up outside the gate the first day of practice next summer, aren’t ya?”

“I’m gonna sleep outside the night before,” Don said with a big smile on his face. He shook Skip’s hand and walked off looking down at a piece of paper the head coach had given him, and the two coaches watched him go with obvious appreciation of a fine piece of football flesh.

“Coach?” Joe said softly and then, when he saw the two men talking to each other, “Coach?” a little more firmly.

“Huh? Oh, hi Joe. What can I do for you?”

“I . . . uh . . . just wanted to say thank you and I . . . uh . . . enjoyed playing under you, even if it was only this year.” He stuck out his hand and, after the coach looked down, they shook.

“Well, thanks, Joe, nice of you to say that. I came in not knowing anybody and it’s nice to hear I had some impact on people.”

“No, really, it was a great year even though we coulda done a little better, I think you’ve got a nucleus here for next year’s team.”

Skip interrupted to say “I’m gonna go to the equipment room to start taking inventory.”

“Okay,” the head coach said. “I’ll be in the office for awhile.”

The head coach turned and started to walk away as Joe spoke, after swallowing a little.

“Coach?”

The coach didn’t hear him at first, so he spoke again.

“Coach?”

“Yeah? Oh, sorry, I thought we were through here.”

“I was wondering . . .”

“Yes?”

“I was wondering whether I was going to get a letter.” Joe looked straight ahead at the coach, but he felt the eyes of the players behind him trained on his back.

“A letter?”

“Right. I’m a . . . senior, and I think I got into enough quarters to get a letter.”

“Well, Joe, I don’t know what being a senior has to do with it. It’s not a perfect attendance award. You get a letter in football for accomplishing something, not just showing up. You have to get into the games and knock somebody on their butt.”

Joe inhaled, even though his lungs already felt full. “I think I had enough quarters, coach . . .”

“I don’t think so Joe. I’m pretty good at arithmetic. Even if you did, hell, son, you have to make a difference out there on the field.”

The room had grown quiet as the man and the boy spoke. “Coach, I tried to make a difference every time I got into a game.”

“This is a good lesson for you,” the coach said, then turned to face the boys sitting on the benches that ringed the room, “and for all of you boys. This is a life lesson for you all, right here. Don’t ever confuse effort with results—got it?”

Joe couldn’t see the boys behind him but he could feel them exhale, as if relieved that they were being spared as another was sacrificed.

“Before you got here . . .” Joe began, but the coach cut him off.

“It doesn’t matter what happened before I got here, son,” the coach said with a half-measure of empathy in his voice. “The only thing that matters is what I think because I’m the head coach now. If you can understand that, you can understand why I can’t just hand out football letters like they’re penny candy. That wouldn’t be fair to the other kids who came out and worked just as hard as you—maybe harder–but who got better than you, see?”

Joe looked down and said “I see,” and then “thanks.”

“No problem. Hey, good luck in college next year wherever you go, okay?”

“Okay,” Joe said.

The coach stepped into his office and Joe walked over to the bench and stuffed his gym bag with the few items of equipment that were his to keep; his mouth guard and his jockstrap and an extra pair of socks he kept in his locker.

He knew all the other boys in the room to call them by their first names, but he said nothing to them as he walked out.

The Year the Meanest Man Stole Christmas

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

christmas

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

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

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

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

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

christmas1

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

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

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

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

christmas3

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

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

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

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

christmas2

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

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

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

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

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

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

christmas4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that?” a woman asked.

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

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

“Did he . . . leave a family.”

“Yes. A wife and three little kids.”

An audible groan was heard.

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

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

“That was it?” the worldly man asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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