Facebook devised a system known internally as “X-Check” that exempted certain high-profile users from its rules. Included among those “whitelisted” were soccer star “Neymar,” former President Donald Trump, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and a dog named “Doug the Pug.”
The Wall Street Journal
I don’t know if it’s really true, as I’ve heard, that the more time you spend on social media the more depressed you get, but it’s certainly accurate in my case. Every morning when I check the World Wide Web to see if Hilary Clinton is still covering up pedophile rings operated out of pizza parlors, I find myself low in spirits. Despite getting–on average–46 “friend” requests per day, I feel as if the 1.9 billion or so Facebook users . . . just don’t understand me.
There are, for example, all the people trying to get me to invest in bitcoin. Sorry, I had a coin collection when I was growing up, and that little venture into numismatics earned me exactly one cent per penny–I’m not getting fooled again. Then there are the people who take me literally when I was posting figuratively, and the reverse.
And the women! As protean blues songwriter Willie Dixon once said, “Great Googly Moogly!” They are, without exception, young, nubile and attractive. They are also, again uniformly, not the brightest bulbs on the scoreboard. Their every message to me starts out the same: “Hi! Do you like sex?” I don’t think a woman who asks the sort of question the answer to which is self-evident is going to win a Rhodes Scholarship, if you know what I mean.
But today I found out that, as usual, I’ve been going about things all wrong. Facebook has been running a secret society for the elite, sort of like the Skull & Bones club at Yale. While ordinary schlubs like me and probably you get the dregs of the on-line experience, internationally-known figures in the arts, sports and politics go to the head of the line, like those people who buy first-class plane tickets and are doted on by curvaceous stewardesses who pour them champagne while denying you your constitutional right to drink the quart bottle of malt liquor you thoughtfully brought on board.
As I read down the bi-partisan list of Davos-level celebrities who benefit from this platinum service–Donald Trump on the crazy right, Elizabeth Warren on the dingbat left–my blood began to simmer, but it hit a rolling boil, as the cookbooks say, when my eyes landed on a name that belonged not to a human, but to a dog, and an ugly one at that: Doug the Pug.
I don’t have anything personally against pugs, even though–or perhaps because–one relative of mine by marriage has owned a succession of them. My father-in-law proposed to get one, but as he was in his mid-80s the question arose: who would care for the dog when grandpa died? My mother-in-law said “Well, you would, of course.” To which I said ix-nay on the ug-pay.
My curiosity was piqued, however, so I had to look up this Doug the Pug. Who was he, what had he done to deserve special treatment, while humans like me toil for our allotted time on earth and end up obscure, a subject for Thomas Gray’s “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard.” Getting in touch with Doug was accomplished in a matter of seconds: He had (when I checked) 5,852,349 Facebook followers, and I quickly became the 5,852,350th.
Doug, as it turns out, while he is the self-proclaimed “King of Pop Culture,” was happy to engage with a Commoner of Pop Culture like myself. Here is our back-and-forth using Facebook’s annoying Messenger app:
Me: Doug, if you have a moment, I have a few questions about how I can attain your exalted X-Check status.
Doug: Sure, but it’s a lot harder than getting TSA Precheck.
Me: What exactly did you do to qualify?
Doug: I made people . . . happy.
Me: Ah, I see. That’s going to be a problem for me.
Me: I’m not a, how you say, “people person.”
Doug: Well, that’s not something I can fix.
Me: I know. Still, there are divisive X-Checkers like Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren. Can’t they make room for one more abrasive, irritating personality–like me?
Doug: Those two went out there and earned it. They shook hands, ate whatever foodstuffs were offered to them during their campaigns, told obvious lies and otherwise ingratiated themselves to millions of Americans. You stayed home, took naps, noodled around on the guitar, and wrote whimsical little “posts” on social media.
Me: Sorry, I’ve had no desire to run for public office since my single-term as 5th grade class president came to an ignominious end.
Doug: Were you impeached?
Me: No, I was promoted to sixth grade.
Doug: Okay. Well, even an allegation of criminal conduct won’t keep you off the X-Check Xpress if you’re popular enough.
Doug: Yeah. Consider Neymar, full name Neymar da Silva Santos, Jr.
Me: Who’s he?
Doug: HUGE soccer star, 150 million followers. How many do you have?
Me: Uh, five hundred and thirty-six.
Doug: That’s not going to cut it.
Me: What did “Neymar” do.
Doug: Posted nude photos of a woman who he said was trying to extort money from him.
Me: And he’s still got an account?
Me: But if I post nude photos . . .
Doug: Any woman who tries to extort money from you is barking up the wrong pant leg.
Me: (. . .) How do you know my net worth?
Doug: This is Facebook, we’re in the data business.
Me: Okay, but hypothetically . . .
Doug: If you post nude pix without consent your account is closed. One strike and you’re out.
Me: Seems unfair to me.
Doug: You know what John F. Kennedy’s father said to him?
Doug: Life is unfair.
Me: But people don’t have to be.
Doug: Says Mr. Unpopular.
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana. This city, the capital of Indiana, is also famed as the “Amateur Sports Capital of the World,” a fact that explains its selection as the site of the world’s first Carefulympics Games. “It’s a real feather in our cap,” says Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ewell Norton. “I don’t wear hats, so I stick the feather behind my ear,” he says with a twinkle in his eye to assure this reporter that he’s only “joshing,” a Midwestern folk tradition of ironic banter.
But public health officials are dead serious about the Carefulympics, an event intended to underscore the importance of being careful, which has come under attack as COVID-related restrictions on personal freedoms have become the object of contentious protests. “Haven’t we learned anything from the pandemic?” asks Marjorie Orthweiler, Head of Outreach at Marion County Extension Services. “I keep my mask on in my car and in the shower, and I think you should too.”
The genesis of the Carefulympics was the realization by the Indiana School Nurses Association that many physical activities carry risks, which led to a petition to the state legislature to fund “demonstration” games to see if potential harms could be reduced or eliminated. “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the improvements we’ve made to a number of sports that were plagued by injuries ranging from skinned knees to actual deaths,” says Eloise Hart, the group’s executive director. “If anybody gets hurt this weekend it’s going to be their own damn fault.”
The innovation game organizers hope will meet with the greatest acceptance worldwide is the use of airbags on soccer players, which should both cut down on concussions and reduce the practice of “flopping,” that is, injuries feigned by players in an effort to draw a penalty kick. Soccer coaches and players are not enthusiastic about the proposal, however. “You take away half my offense,” said Alejandro Norumbega, who plays midfield for the Freedonian National Team. “I trained for many years to perfect my flop, and spent much money on acting lessons.”
Indoors, basketball players are urged to use the “matador” defense, a term coined by Los Angeles Lakers’ announcer Chick Hearn. “A good defender such as Dennis Johnson or James Worthy uses every part of his body–hands, arms, feet, et cetera,” says Mike Alaweski of Basketball Today magazine. “A matador waves at offensive players as they go by him, maintaining a proper social distance at all times.”
In the swimming and diving pavilion athletes are inevitably thrown together in a veritable crockpot of each other’s germs, so event organizers have urged them to wear super-safe diving bells rather than skimpy Speedos. “Which is more important,” says judge Emily Northcutt, “coming in first or insulating yourself from a runny nose with time-tested 19th century technology?”
News item: Three stray cats evaded security and wandered around the main stage at a G-20 Summit meeting.
“I seriously don’t know what it is with these human ‘leaders’ who think they run the world,” Rocco said as we stepped onto the stage at the G-20 Summit.
“They’re delusional,” I said as I checked the placement of the microphones and the podium. “They believe they’re in charge, like some crazy guy who thinks he’s Napoleon.”
We were joined by Chester, an orange tabby who went walkabout years ago while just a kitten. He’d been on the run, or “feral” in human-speak, ever since, returning to our home on infrequent occasions to berate us for being domesticated house-cats, while he has fomented revolution where’er he went.
“ME get out? Why don’t YOU get out?”
“How did the G-7 become the G-20?” he asked.
“If you would come out of the woods every now and then, you might know,” Rocco said.
“I’ll take that to mean you don’t know,” Chester said.
“Ask Okie,” Rocco said. “He’s older–maybe even wiser.”
“Oak?” Chester said to me with a quizzical tone–or was it merely skeptical?
“It was expansion, like the Memphis Grizzlies, or the Florida Marlins,” I said. “Broadening the base gets more fans interested in the machinations of the lever-pullers who control the world’s economies.”
Billy Marlin: “Why am I wearing my pajamas at the ballpark? Why not?”
“Have they added a wild-card format since I went off the grid?” Chester asked.
“Everything but,” Rocco said. “You’ve got Turkey, Mexico . . .”
“Mexico?” Chester asked, incredulous. “That’s like adding an NBA franchise in Oklahoma.”
“They’ve got one of those too,” I said.
“Good Lord,” Chester groaned. “I step out of the room for 5 years and all hell breaks loose!”
“Enough with the kvetching,“ Rocco said. “We’ve got some serious ruling to do.”
“I’m with you,” I said. “The twenty humans they’ve assembled for this chivaree couldn’t find their asses with both hands.”
“We are the world . . .”
“Why is that I wonder?” Chester said.
“It’s the old student council conundrum,” I said.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“The kind of people who are attracted to world government are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near it,” Rocco interjected.
“Because?” Chester asked. He has been out in the woods a long time.
“Because of their vaunting ambition, and overweening self-regard,” Rocco said. He’s like that; a slumbering giant in the vocab department, but once he gets going it’s Katy-bar-the-door–whatever that ancient phrase means.
“Still,” I said, “I think there’s one world leader who deserves our support as cats.”
“Which one’s that?” Chester asked.
I could sense an explosion coming on, like Old Faithful or the Mount St. Helens volcano. It was Rocco, stifling a laugh, which he could restrain no longer, as he erupted like Vesuvius.
“And why on earth should we give a rat’s rear-end about her?” he asked with evident skepticism.
“Because,” I replied calmly, “she’s got the best lap of any G-20 leader!”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”
WESTLAND, Mass. It’s Sunday afternoon and Hal Hodges would rather be watching his beloved New England Patriots, but he’s up to his elbows in a legal brief that’s due at 8 o’clock sharp Monday morning. “No rest for the weary at this time of the year,” he says as he uploads a photo from his phone to his desktop computer. “I’ve got my game face on, except for that black stuff the players put under their eyes for some reason.”
Hodges is set to appear tomorrow in Dedham District Court on behalf of Myrna and Todd Grodolski, who have been cited by the Homeowners Association of Village II Townhouses for a twelve-foot inflatable dinosaur skeleton they’ve put on their lawn. The giant tyrannosaurus rex is an apparent violation of Article II, section 3.01(a) of the condo’s by-laws, but Hodges thinks he sees daylight to run for a touchdown.
“It’s not a ‘lawn display’ lawn display,” he says as he adds “Exhibit” tabs to the back of his legal papers. “It’s an article of personal property, a ‘chattel,’ that the Grodolskis can keep inside or outside their unit. So it’s none of those Nosey Parkers’ business.”
Hodges is known as the region’s pre-eminent practitioner in the growing field of holiday lawn display defense, a niche practice that has exploded over the past few years like an overinflated figure of the sort that appears outside suburban homes around this time of year. “The crunch begins in October with Halloween,” he says, “and continues with turkeys at Thanksgiving, followed by traditional displays of Christmas spirit, groundhogs and cupids in February.” While things slow down in the spring, there are leprechauns in March for St. Patrick’s Day and bunnies appear around Easter outside the residences of people who emphasize the candy aspect of the holiday rather than the passion and death of a major religious figure.
“They say it’s ‘tacky’ like that’s some kind of valid argument,” says Todd Grodolski. “The whole point of Halloween is to be tacky,” he says with a straight face as his wife pats his arm trying to keep him from getting too worked up over what is, after all, a piece of plastic that cost the couple $132.49.
The two leading sources of resistance to over-the-top holiday lawn displays are condo associations and municipal officials, who are charged with enforcing democratically-adopted laws. “Are you aware that our zoning code specifically prohibits inflatable lawn figures over ten feet tall?” Selectman Ed Phronig asked Attorney Mike Comasini at the Zoning Board of Appeals in this western suburb of Boston Monday night.
“Mr. Selectman Sir, I am aware of that provision,” Comasini replies, “but I would point out that the skeleton in question was not inflated and is therefore exempt from the scope of the regulation.”
“And what category, pray tell, does it belong under, Councilor?” Phronig asks with a sarcastic tone.
“Yard waste, which may be maintained on premises in a residential district until the next regular trash collection day.”
A manatee said “hi” to me.
She was swimming one lane over from me.
She had on a suit, and proper goggles
So none of the humans her body would ogle.
We paddled along, sidewise eyeing each other,
She reminded me vaguely of someone or other.
The chubby young lass from my first grade class
who picked at her, uh, seat, while she knelt at Mass?
After we were done, to make her day complete
I offered to take her out for a treat;
We got in the car, turned onto the street,
and I wondered—what exactly do manatees eat?
So I asked her, as politely as I could’ve
although perhaps more directly than I should’ve
“What is it you manatees like to chow down on?”
It was then that she put a big manatee frown on.
“You don’t know the struggles I have with my weight!”
she said as she sobbed at a manatee’s fate.
“I eat nothing but vegetables; acorns, hydrilla–
turtle grass, algae—no cheese quesadillas!”
“Yet with all that dieting, and swimming all day,
you’d think I ate nothing but whipped cream parfaits!”
I pulled the car over and tried to console her,
but at more than a ton, it was hard to control her.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I just wasn’t thinking.
I’m sure diet soft drinks are what you’ve been drinking.
You’re actually quite svelte for your 2,000 pounds.
Slow-moving, yes—but you must get around.”
Her eyes dried a bit, and she stopped with her sniveling.
She gave me a smile, and her hips started swiveling.
She held out her fins, said “You’re awfully kind.
Just the sort of human that I’ve had in mind.”
I stopped her right there, and said “Let’s go no further,”
Recalling advice I’d heard from my mother:
“In addition not to take candy from strangers
I don’t want you dating a species that’s endangered.”
Moral: Even a slow-moving creature can be a fast girl.
The author of bondage and discipline-themed erotic novels is fighting to regain copyright in her works from her publisher, saying “These are the only things I’ll be able to leave to my grandchildren.”
“The Publisher’s Secret,” The New York Times
It was a nice day so I decided to take the kids out to see their grandmother at Shady Rest Acres Assisted Living. Grandma is getting close to life’s checkout counter and those coupons she’s been saving–thousands of good deeds, rosaries and novenas over the course of her 88 years on earth–have all expired. I want my children to see her before she slips into senility and can’t figure out the point-of-sale terminal, to extend my shopping metaphor to the breaking point.
Grandma hasn’t really been happy since grandad pre-deceased her a few years ago. The spark seemed to go out of her, as the man who’d been her companion for over six decades was suddenly gone after a brief illness. Grandma didn’t seem to know what to do with herself, and lost interest in life. She stopped overcooking the vegetables and adding salt to everything on her plate. We tried to get her interested in some of the other men at Shady Rest Acres, but she said no one could ever replace grandad and the way he submitted when she tied him up and beat him with her Oreck Hoky Carpet Sweeper 3000. “He was such a gentleman about it,” she’d say, fighting back the tears. “He never once complained, or at least I don’t think he did. I couldn’t hear him so well with the plastic bag over his head.”
I usher the kids down the hallway where they walk past the blank stares of residents who got tired of looking at the four walls of their rooms and can’t stand the excitement of the recreation center, where high-stakes bingo games have caused more than a few myocardial infarctions.
“What’s that smell?” asks Cindy, my ten-year-old daughter, holding her nose.
“Human urine,” I reply with clinical discretion. “Act like you don’t notice.”
We turn the corner and I peer into grandma’s room to make sure she’s awake and, if so, not drooling. She’s sitting up, her eyes half-closed, snoring as a golf tournament plays on her TV. Funny, I have the same reaction to the sport.
“Mom?” I ask quietly, but like everyone else watching television at Shady Rest Acres, she’s got the volume up to Lear Jet runway levels. When she doesn’t respond, I come around in front of her to show her I’m here, with the greatest gifts I ever gave her, Cindy and her 9-year-old brother Tommy.
“Why, look who’s here!” she exclaims, and I have to admit there’s a lump in my throat even though we’re paying an arm and a leg to keep her here instead of taking care of her ourselves.
“Grandma!” Tommy shouts, but Cindy beats him to the punch and gets the first hug and a wet, sloppy kiss. When they’re done, Tommy steps forward for the customary greeting. “Look at you!” grandma exclaims. “You’re growing so fast, I’m going to put a brick on your head!”
Tommy has learned to take grandma’s aging stock of Irish wisecracks in stride, and just smiles as she pinches his cheek.
“I brought you something,” Cindy says, and hands her a home-made greeting card that says “Happy Grandmother’s Day!”
“Is that a real thing?” grandma asks me.
“Yep–first Sunday after Labor Day.”
“President Carter,” I say, and leave it at that. I think she stopped keeping track during the Reagan years.
“Well, that’s awfully sweet of you honey,” grandma says and gives Cindy another hug.
“I brought you something too,” Tommy says.
“Whatever could it be?” grandma says with mock-anticipation.
“It’s a candy bar. My baseball team is selling them to go to Disney World.”
“How much do you want for it?” grandma asks.
“It’s free–I bought one for you with my allowance.
“That’s very nice of you–you know I love my chocolate!” Mom always had a sweet tooth.
“You’ll save that until after you’ve eaten your dinner, right?” I ask her. Since the parent-child roles are reversed in old age, I have to force her to eat her meat and vegetables before she digs into her brownie when I come to visit.
“Sure I will,” she says with a wink at the kids. “Since we’re exchanging gifts, I have a little something for you two.”
“Lemme see!” Tommy says.
“Here you go!” grandma says, and hands each of them a steamy bondage and discipline novel with images of torture and submission on the cover.
“This one’s for you, Cindy.”
“I Was a Love-Slave to a Grease-Trap Cleaner?”
“And here’s yours, Tommy.”
“Whipped by Wenda?”
“I hope you like them.”
“What are they about?”
“Well, they’re about people who like to be spanked.”
The kids exchange looks as if grandma’s lost all of the marbles in her bag, instead of just a few cats’ eyes.
“Why would anybody . . . like to be spanked?” Tommy asks.
“Well, to each his . . . or her own,” grandma says.
“I don’t like to be spanked,” Cindy says.
“Then you can be the spanker, and not the spankee!” grandma exclaims.
Cindy raises one eyebrow, and looks her brother up and down.
“Don’t even think about it!” he snaps.
“Thanks, mom,” I say, trying to defuse an incipient sibling scuffle before it starts. “But . . .”
“Do you really think this sort of . . . reading material is appropriate for the kids?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Well, uh, we try not to use corporal punishment on the kids, no matter how angry we get.”
“It worked out okay on you.”
“But I didn’t like it. It’s sick to do it for pleasure.”
Her eyes mist over at my hard-line attitude. “Honey, please . . . this is all I have to leave to my grandchildren.”
When I hear these words, the focus of my concern shifts to her financial well-being. “What happened to all that money you and dad saved up?”
“I spent it on self-publishing.”
“I bought my Ken doll some new clothes,” my wife said as she returned from her regular round of Saturday shopping.
“What’d you get me?”
“New boxer shorts.”
“I needed some, thanks.”
“And a pair of khakis.”
Since she’s not a native New Englander, she pronounced it the way your dictionary tells you to. It is a reliable shibboleth in this part of the country that those born and bred here put on their car-keys, then look around for their kha-kis. Must be something in the Atlantic.
“Did you get pleated or plain?”
“Pleated–that’s the kind you like, right?”
“I prefer whatever’s currently out of fashion, so pleated it is.”
She handed her haul to me and I seemed to notice a typo in the tag on the pants. “This says they’re ‘irony-free.’”
“Don’t they mean ‘iron-free’?”
She came up to me with that sad little girl look on her face that means she loves me despite all my faults and is about to tell me something I won’t like.
“I was hoping . . .”
“That the irony-free kind would help you cut back on your . . . smart-aleckiness.”
When I heard those words you could have knocked me over with a feather. It would have to be a really big feather, like from a California condor, but still.
“You think I’m . . . too ironic?”
She screwed her mouth up into a little moue, which wasn’t easy for her since she didn’t take French in high school or college.
“It’s not just the amount, it’s how you do it.”
“What’s wrong with how I do it?”
“You keep a straight face, so people . . .”
“Well, my mother.”
“She doesn’t count.”
” . . . and Jim and Judy.”
“I’m not going to trim my sails for a couple with an accounting degree and an M.B.A.”
She looked up into my eyes, and I knew the knockout punch was coming. Her eyes were watering over. “And me.”
“You? I didn’t think I could fool you.”
“Sometimes I can’t tell when you’re kidding.”
“But that’s the whole point of irony. If you can’t slip smart remarks over on somebody every now and then, you’ve failed.”
“But I’m your wife.“
She had me there. “All right, I’ll try them. But if I don’t like them, you’re taking them back.”
“I thought,” she said as she dropped the mask of offended ingenue, “as the son of a former ladies ready-to-wear retailer you objected to people returning clothes after they’d worn them.”
I grumbled a bit. “Okay. Maybe I’ll just wear them on formal occasions where cracking wise is inappropriate, like state funerals and first-time weddings.”
I tried the pants on and they fit all right, then laid down for a nap. When I woke it was 4:30, time to shower, shave and get ready to go out for her night of relief from defrosting and micro-waving home-cooked meals for me.
We headed over to Sunflower, the new boit-de-nuit in town, where tattoos peek out from under the sleeves of the all-black shirts the wait staff wears.
“We have a reservation for two at six,” my wife said to the maître d’, a young man who had yet to drop the French word for “master” in order to avoid offending some unknown bilingual diner.
“Perfect,” the kid said. My wife stole a glance at me, hoping I wouldn’t make my standard-issue crack to sales help who use this nonsense formula; that we must be in heaven because there’s nothing perfect on earth. I didn’t even have to bite my tongue.
“These things must work,” I said.
“I hope so,” she said. “They were $58.”
“Walk this way,” the young man said, and I was again tempted to use one of the many snappy come-backs I’ve collected over the years: par exemple, “If I could walk that way I wouldn’t need talcum powder.” Sure it’s old, but so am I.
“You’re doing great!” my wife said, and she actually ran her arm under mine, like I was an indicted CEO on my way into a sentencing hearing.
We were seated outside–it was a mild autumn night–and after the obligatory third degree about whether we wanted free tap water or the expensive bottled kind, we ordered drinks. She got her usual chardonnay, and I ordered the least weird-sounding beer.
“See, isn’t this nicer than confusing people with your stupid attempts at humor.”
“I suppose,” I said. “But I feel awfully . . . stifled.”
The waiter arrived with our drinks and, no sooner had he set them down on the table than a lazy fly landed in my blueberry IPA. It was, quite simply, the comic opportunity of a lifetime.
“Waiter,” I said as our server was about to depart.
“What’s this fly doing in my drink?”
He could have responded with any number of punch lines to that set-up: “The backstroke.” Or “Shh–if others hear you everybody will want one.” Timeless classics that have, in the words of William Faulkner, not just endured, but prevailed.
“Sorry–I’ll get you another,” the guy said, then whisked my drink off to be dumped in a sink.
“These pants–they must be very powerful,” I said.
“They apparently work by osmosis on anyone who comes near them.”
When my drink had been restored, the waiter ticked off the specials, then asked if we needed a little more time.
“I think we’re ready,” my wife said.
“Certainly.” Not sure why there was any doubt, but apparently it had been resolved.
“I’ll have the braised pork, but can I substitute spinach for the squash?”
“Of course you may.” My wife voluntarily eats foods that I considered punishment as a child.
“And for you, sir?”
I started to speak, but instead uttered a little cry of pain.
“What’s the matter?” my wife asked, alarmed that I was having a heart attack without enough life insurance.
“I seem to have snagged my pants on a furniture tack,” I said as I examined a little rip.
“And they’re brand-new!”
“I’m so sorry,” the waiter said. “Let me get you another chair.”
He pulled the offending furniture back and grabbed a seat from an adjoining table.
“Much better, thanks,” I said. “I’ll have the hake.”
“I’m sorry, we’re all out of it.”
“Do you have any other fish?”
“Scrod . . . do you like it?”
“I like it, but I didn’t know that was the past tense.”
The waiter looked at me with puzzlement. “It’s a joke–screw, scrod.”
“Oh, I get it. Very good, I’ll put your orders in and bring you some bread.”
My wife gave me a look of disappointment. “You were doing so well,” she said. “What happened?”
I showed her the tiny little hole in my pant leg. “I guess the spell is broken.”
WESTLAND, Massachusetts. Fall in New England means cool temperatures, perfect for the many 5 kilometer runs and walk-a-thons that are a staple of fourth-quarter fund-raising by the region’s many non-profits.
“It’s a real incentive after a hot summer,” says Myrtle Gallo, executive director for the Massachusetts Munchausen Association, a charity that raises funds to fight the deadly if feigned disorder whose causes are obscure to doctors, but obvious to laypeople. “People love to get out in the crisp autumn air for a good cause, even if it’s a fake one.”
But race organizers had their hands full today, with medical aid tents overwhelmed by injuries and ailments suffered by runners who appeared to be perfectly fine to the doctors who volunteered their time.
“Where, exactly, does it hurt?” asks Dr. Linda Semolini, an orthopedist at St. Swithin’s Hospital in Brighton, Mass.
“Everywhere!” screams Mike Tikamoyer as he grabs his right calf muscle and grimaces in pain.
“What kind of pain are you feeling,” Semolini asks as she checks his vital signs.
“It’s sharp and shooting, like somebody stabbed me with a knife,” he says. “Also dull and throbbing, like when you’re hit with a blunt object.”
“Munchausen Syndrome” is the name given to a factitious disorder on self, whose victims claim to be suffering in order to draw attention to or sympathy for themselves; it is named after Baron Munchausen, a fictional character created by Rudolf Erich Raspe who was modeled after a real 18th century German baron known for telling exaggerated tales about his military career. “Munchausen Syndrome is tough to treat,” says Dr. Morton Shusterberg, Professor of Fictitious Infectious Diseases at the New England School of Medicine. “Thankfully, even if we can’t cure a victim, we can double-bill for the treatment since it has both a physical and a psychological side.”
But that is no solace for Gallo, who finds herself scrambling from one water station to another to keep things moving while many of those who signed up to run drop out, lie injured beside the road, or simply whine. “Can somebody please help me!” a 42-year-old sufferer named Carl Dunbar cries out as he stumbles to the shoulder of state route 135.
“What’s wrong?” asks Carol Shimkus, a student at nearby Wellesley College who will receive credit in a political activism course for the time she spends help out today.
“I’ve got a fictional disease,” Dunbar says, “and it really, really hurts!”
WESTLAND, Mass. For three decades Beth Dormitzer had been proprietor of The Natural Nook, a craft shop on the main street of this western suburb of Boston, with little to show for her efforts. “She’d make a little money, but she wouldn’t pay herself anything,” says her long-suffering husband, manager of a local bank branch. “It was a labor of love, which means I would have cut her off long ago if I didn’t love her.”
But all that changed two years ago when upscale women’s clothing stores moved in on either side of her, causing her rent to go up. “I became very creative with my excuses,” the distaff half of this sixty-something couples says. “I tried ‘My dog ate the check,’ then my landlord found out I was a cat person.”
Dormitzer was thinking of giving up when an idle comment by a customer inspired a change in her marketing strategy. “This man was gazing at my overstocked shelves of macramé owls and said ‘That looks like the Northern Spotted Owl, the one that’s on the endangered species list.’ A light bulb went on over my head, and it wasn’t fluorescent.”
Dormitzer rushed into the conversational breach left open when the man jingled his car keys to signal to his wife that he was getting impatient. “That is the Northern Spotted Owl,” she exclaimed, “and a portion of the proceeds of each sale goes into preserving the little fellow,” she said, not specifying exactly how much she was willing to contribute to the survival of the species.
“Well, uh, in that case, I suppose $5.95 . . .”
” . . . not including sales tax.”
” . . . isn’t so much.” The man plunked down seven dollars, told Dormitzer to keep the change, and The Natural Nook’s transformation into a guilt-tripping retail powerhouse was born.
“The turnaround was dramatic,” says Morton Shusterman, the Dormitzers’ solo practitioner accountant. “Before he was subsidizing her, now she’s clearing enough to pay my fees out of her own checking account.”
Dormitzer changed the name of her store to “Change the World” and swapped the “Take a penny/Leave a penny” label on glass jar next to her cash register for one that says “Leave the change you don’t want to see in the world,” her humorous take on a saying attributed to either Mahatma Gandhi or Yogi Berra. Teddy bears became “Endangered bears,” and mugs boldly proclaimed that they held only “fair trade” coffee or tea within.
New England’s guilt-ridden history made it a receptive area for the concept, says retail analyst J.J. “Jake” Curtin of Brand Strategies LLC, a consulting firm that helps turn around struggling businesses. “The Puritan ethos is strong here,” he says, mimicking the tone of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, a side effect of his long career working with clients on the precipice of bankruptcy. “As soon as they make money they feel guilty about it, but spending it doesn’t help unless there’s some distasteful moral element to it, like an ugly but long-lasting L.L. Bean sweater.”
While not by nature a political animal, Dormitzer has taken to her new persona as a nagging over-the-counter scold with gusto, urging her customers to make the world a better place by putting money in her pocket, and expressing her disapproval in a not-so-subtle manner when she sees one about to leave without making a purchase.
“You sure I can’t interest you in one of these cute pillows?” she asks with an upturned eyebrow as Maeve du Clos starts to walk out the door empty-handed.
“I don’t know,” the woman says, returning to take a final look at the wares on display out of courtesy. She picks up an odd blue number in the shape of a fish with the word “Sikppy” embroidered on it. “What does S-I-K-P-P-Y stand for?” she asks.
Dormitzer clucks her tongue in a quiet expression of disapproval at the woman’s insensitivity to the disabled. “That’s Skippy, the Dyslexic Whale.”