Stump the Nuns!

IRONDALE, Alabama. An edgy, innovative game show–”Stump the Nuns!”–has turned into a ratings sensation for the Eternal Word Television Network, the nation’s leading provider of televised Catholic content.

“What is the Communion of Saints?”


“It’s a combination of ‘Survivor’ and ‘College Bowl’ says Sister Mary Agnesita, the show’s host. “We take four very strict nuns and match them up with boys who were cut-ups in their grade school classes. A lot of these kids became successful contrary to the predictions their teachers made when they sent them to the principal’s office.”

The authoritative source.


The show requires quick-draw responses to questions from the Baltimore Catechism, the official authority on Catholic liturgy and theology that is drilled into students from their first day in parochial school.

Today’s taping features Kevin Mullaney, an options trader who was expelled from Chicago’s Holy Name Elementary School in the sixth grade; Joseph Mooney, a graduate of Xaverian Catholic High School in Westwood, Massachusetts, who is now an investment banker; Bob Rakunas, a devout boy who considered a career as a priest before taking LSD in high school; and Con Chapman, a frustrated writer from Boston who has a scar on his left hand from a blow inflicted by Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea, his sixth-grade teacher.

*sniff* It still hurts!


“Tommy Dickman was showing me how to ‘flip the bird’,” Chapman says, his face revealing the pain of the sole black mark on his otherwise sterling grade school transcript. “‘Sister Joe’ snuck up behind us and hit me with the metal edge of her ruler, right there,” he notes, pointing to the middle finger of his left hand, which bears an ugly ridge of scar tissue. “I’m gunning for her,” he says bitterly.

Along with Arimathea, the other members of the nuns’ team are Sister Mary Clarus, the music teacher who caught Kevin Mullaney talking in line during a fire drill, the incident that led to his expulsion; Sister Gabriella Marie, a mentor to Bob Rakunas whose decision to elope with the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish set off the boy’s downward spiral into drugs; and Sister Mary Mark Piazza, an intimidating six-footer who schooled Mooney in the finer points of the low post position when she coached his sixth-grade CYO basketball team. “Joe could have been somebody if he’d applied himself,” she says. “I can beat him at H-O-R-S-E to this day.”

Sister Agnesita starts things off with a tough question that falls on the ears of the contestants like a helmet-to-helmet hit on the opening kickoff of a Boston College-Notre Dame game. “What is,” she begins, pausing for emphasis, “the Communion of Saints?”

Modeling clay depiction of Communion of Saints.


The nuns confer among themselves for a split-second, and the hesitation creates enough daylight for Mullaney, a former halfback for his high school football team, to burst through with the answer. “The communion of saints is the spiritual solidarity which binds together the faithful on earth, souls in purgatory, and the saints in heaven in the organic unity of the same mystical body under Christ its head,” he spits out in the rapid-fire delivery he uses to make millions each year in the pits of the “Merc,” the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

“That is correct!” says Sister Agnesita.

The audience applauds as the points for the team of former bad boys is posted on the scoreboard. The show uses a unique scoring system in which a correct answer is worth thirty-seven points, a combination of “3″ and “7″ which are considered mystical numbers by more credulous members of the Catholic faith.

“For God’s sake woman, put some clothes on!”


“Next question,” Sister Agnesita announces, keeping the show on the fast track that keeps audiences at home and in the studio on the edge of their seats. “Is it possible,” she begins, “for a soul in limbo to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven?”

A buzzer sounds from the nuns’ side of the stage, and Sister Mary Mark Piazza speaks. “No, because they aren’t baptized. You can’t go to heaven if you’re not baptized.”

Sister Agnesita is quiet for a moment, a signal to the other team that the answer is in some way deficient. Joe Mooney hits his buzzer.

“Yes?” Sister Agnesita responds.

“Limbo is the temporary place or state of the souls of the just who, although purified from sin, are excluded from the beatific vision until Christ’s triumphant ascension into Heaven following the second coming,” he says with a note of hesitation in his voice.

The crowd goes wild.


“That is–correct!” The crowd erupts in a cheer at Mooney’s willingness to take a long-shot for his team.

“You never knew that in sixth grade,” sniffs Sister Mary Mark.

“That’s because there wasn’t any money on the line,” Mooney says with a sneer.

“That’s seventy-four points for the boys who used to have to stay after school and bang the blackboard erasers together,” Sister Agnesita says with a personable smile on her face. “All right–next question. What is the name of the sin that one commits by selling an indulgence?”

The nuns, each of whom is in her late 70′s, don’t hear the question at first, giving the bad boys an opening. ”Simony!” shouts Bob Rakunas. Sister Agnesita hesitates a moment for dramatic effect, and then cries “Correct!”

The crowd erupts in cheers, and the nuns’ faces turn ashen.

“Three times 37 is 111 points, three digits in one number indicating the oneness of the trinity in a single God!” Sister Agnesita exclaims, and the audience applauds in appreciation of her numerological mumbo jumbo. “You know what that means, right boys?”

“The Torture Chamber!” says Chapman, alluding to an isolation booth in which a single nun and her former student square off for a lightning round of hagiography, the lore of the Catholic saints.

“Pick your victim, boys.” The men confer among themselves and then Mooney, the team captain, announces that they have selected a mano a hembra match-up of Chapman vs. Arimathea.

Into the booth the two go, and a clock with a sweep second hand is set for 60 seconds of intense interrogation of the grade school principal by her former student.

St. Stephen getting stoned.


“Why is St. Stephen like John Belushi?” Chapman asks.

“Who’s John Belushi?” the nun asks.

“I get to ask the questions–they both died from getting stoned.”

“Correct,” says Sister Agnesita.

“What is the nickname of the teams from St. Sebastian’s School in Needham, Massachusetts?” Chapman asks.

“I don’t follow high school sports,” the nun replies weakly.

“No excuse.  They’re called the Arrows, ’cause that’s how he died.”

“Correct,” Sister Agnesita interjects. “One more miss and you’re out, Sister,” she warns.

“All, right,” Chapman begins, his face a mask of cold, repressed fury. “There are two offerings that a virgin may make to St. Agnes in order to receive a vision of her future husband in a dream,” he says. “Name them both.”

St. Agnes


The audience gasps. Has the former youthful reprobate made a tactical mistake? As a virgin herself, isn’t Sister Arimathea likely to answer this question and escape from the head-lock he has her in?

The graying nun seems confident as she clears her throat. ”If she fasts all day and eats only a salt-filled egg at night, her future husband will visit her in a dream,” she says.

“That is–correct!” Sister Agnesita says.

“Lucky guess,” Chapman says bitterly. “What’s the other?”

“The virgin takes a sprig of rosemary and a sprig of thyme, sprinkles each two times with water, and puts one in each shoe. She places a shoe on each side of her bed, then says ‘St. Agnes, who’s to lovers kind, Come, ease the troubles of my mind.’”

Sister Agnesita waits for a moment, then speaks to Chapman. “True or false?”

He laughs a mirthless little laugh. “Are you kidding? What a bonehead mistake!”

“You think you’re so smart!” the nun fires back at him. “I nailed it!”

“Sister, sister, sister,” he says as he shakes his head back and forth. “Sprinkle with water two times? Please-she’s got to do it three times or she’ll end up married to a butt-ugly fast-food shift manager.”

“Game over!” shouts Sister Agnesita. “But we have a consolation prize for our losers–the home version of ‘Stump the Nuns’ for hours of catechism fun in the comfort of your convent!”


Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Fun With Nuns.”

New Drug Helps Bored Couples Have Make-Up Sex on Demand

CONCORD, New Hamsphire.  Ted and Gina Holcomb have been married for twenty-two years, and while the two have a good relationship now, they admit their early years were sometimes difficult.  “Gina’s more sentimental than me,” her husband says.  “She cries at McDonalds commercials, while I like to watch sports where guys get concussions.”

“I liked how you interrupted me, then contradicted me!”


The side benefit of their early sparring was “make-up” sex, a well-known phenomenon where erotic pleasure is heightened by the passions that are unleashed, then quelled, when a couple reconciles after an argument.  “Ted is stubborn and so am I,” Gina says as she snuggles up next to her husband on a sectional sofa.  “It made for some awful fights, but really mattress-rattling orgasms for me.”

With their fractious early years behind them, the Holcombs realized recently that they were in a rut that troubled them both, and so they turned to Ted’s urologist, Dr. Michael Meska, for help.  “Ted’s sex drive had declined, while at the same time they’d both learned to overlook the kind of petty issues that cause marital strife,” he says.  “They needed to get back into the wild mood swings of their youth if they were going to avoid early deaths of boredom.”

“Life is more fun when we argue!”


And so Meska wrote Ted a prescription for Vitriolis, an erectile-dysfunction drug with a side effect that is usually the subject of a warning, but which can also be viewed as a benefit.  “Vitriolis is designed to put a man in an irritable mood,” Meska says, “then give him an erection.  It’s just what the doctor–in this case a urologist–ordered.”

Extensive clinical trials of the drug were required in order to win FDA approval, and double-blind testing produced encouraging results.  “A control group was given a placebo,” says chief chemist Anthony Solis of Xize Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s manufacturer.  “When the woman told the man to take out the garbage, he said ‘In a minute,’ watched television until the next commercial, then did what he was told.  There were zero pregnancies.”

“The time-release kicks in when his mother-in-law drives off.”


The test subjects who were given Vitriolis, by comparison, told their wives to “put a sock in it, touching off explosions of sarcasm, recriminations over past forgotten gift-giving occasions and comparisons to former boyfriends,” Solis says.  “It was like somebody flipped a cigarette butt at a fireworks display.”

The Holcombs have graciously allowed this reporter into their living room on a Wednesday night, when they try to make time for each other on what they like many others consider “hump day,” halfway through the work week.  “It’s our chance to relax and catch up, then watch a little ‘Heartbeat,’ my favorite show about the woman heart surgeon,” Gina says with a smile.

“No we’re not,” Ted says as he grabs the remote.  “The NBA playoffs are on tonight.”

Bud Zaremba, Knuckle Ball Pitcher and Joker, Dead at 86

KEOKUK, Iowa.   Elwood “Bud” Zaremba, pioneering knuckle-ball pitcher, died in his sleep in a nursing home here Sunday night after a brief illness.

Zaremba played with five major league teams over a 17-year career during which he gained a reputation as a solid middle-reliever and a practical joker par excellence.

“Bud was always up to something,” said Red Rodney, his manager when Zaremba was with the AA Sault Ste. Marie Frost Heaves.  “One time he beat me home from the ballpark and got into bed with my wife to pretend they were having an affair.  I had to stop for gas and a quart of milk and got back a little late and, well, let’s just say nature took its course.”  Rodney’s wife had twins as a result of the gag gone awry, but his manager never begrudged Zaremba the indulgence.  “I raised those kids like they were my own–Bud was such a fun guy to be with.”

On another occasion Zaremba gave umpire Jim Barnes a “hotfoot,” a trick that involved sticking a wooden match between the sole and leather of someone’s shoe, and then lighting it.  Barnes’ pants caught on fire, causing third degree burns over most of his right leg and an end to his career as an umpire.  “That was just Bud being Bud as they’d say nowadays,” Barnes said from his wheelchair.  “Some people thought he was mean, but he was really just a cut-up.”

Lenny Bruce:  “Bud, you crack me up!”

Zaremba’s career paralleled that of Moe Drabowsky, another pitcher of his era who liked to pull zany pranks on his teammates.  “If Drabowsky was the Bob Hope of baseball practical jokes, Bud Zaremba was the Lenny Bruce, because his jokes would really sting you,” said baseball historian Peter Arsdale of Iowa State University.  “Moe would put a snake in your shoes, but Bud once put a live alligator in the back seat of an opposing pitcher’s car.  The guy lost half his hand, and they started calling him Leonard ’Two Fingers’ Curley.”

Moe Drabowsky

Zaremba didn’t leave his sense of whimsy in the dugout either.  “One time I went out to the mound and called for an intentional walk,” Red Rodney recalled.  “Bud said ‘Why waste my energy on three extra pitches?  I’ll just hit him.’”  Zaremba wound up and fired his mediocre fastball at the batter’s head, producing an injury that required a three-inch Band Aid to close.

Zaremba holds one major league record that is unlikely to be broken.  Every team he played on subsequently moved to another city, changed its name or both.  He spent his rookie year with the St. Louis Browns, now the Baltimore Orioles; four years with the Milwaukee Braves, who moved to Atlanta; four with the Kansas City Athletics, who moved to Oakland; and seven with the second coming of the Washington Senators, who became the Texas Rangers.  In 1969, his final season, he appeared in 23 games for the Seattle Pilots, who a year later became the Milwaukee Brewers.  “I don’t know that Bud had anything to do with it,” historian Arsdale notes, “but after you’d played with him for awhile, most people wanted to get out of town.”

Funeral arrangements will be private.  In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Institute for the Study of Beanball Induced Head Trauma.

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Fauxbituaries.”

My Memoirs, to the Best of My Knowledge

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

Frey:  Just kidding.


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

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


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

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

You were raised by:

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

The flop, the turn, the river

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

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

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


You knew from an early age that you were:

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

During World War II you were:

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

Arena football:  It’s better in three dimensions!


Your favorite form of self-abuse is:

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

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


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

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

Pas de deux par dessus tombe jammer


You hit bottom the night you:

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

Jujubes:  Bet you can’t eat just one.


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

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

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

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

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


You turned your life around when you realized that:

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

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

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

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

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

To Hell With Correct Posture Month

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

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

But that’s not how I remember it.

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

“Good posture can bite me!”


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

“A cordon of nefarious henchmen?”


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Stan Musial, The Donora Greyhound


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Happy Hairball Awareness Day

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

Rocco: “You insensitive clod!”


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

“Just leave me alone–okay?”


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

“Nice day, huh?” I say.

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

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

“Yip, yip, yip!”


“Funny strange, or funny ha-ha?”

“Strange. He seems somewhat–distant today.”

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


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

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

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

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

“Don’t you know what yesterday was?”

St. Swithin: Peace out, dawg.


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

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

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

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

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

National Hairball Awareness Poster Child


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

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


“But I don’t . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Camus: 1951 Existentialist Rookie of the Year.


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

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

“Musee des Beaux Arts?”

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


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

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

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

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

“But I want to.”

“No–you’re going to need it.”

“Why?” I ask.

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

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

My Monkish Little Robot

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

The New York Times

“That’s a really stupid question.”


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

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

“You want my advice?  Lose the pigtails.”

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“What is the meaning of life?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey–it’s been a long week,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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