NATO Rejects Freedonia Application, Asks for References

GLABZORG, Freedonia.  The rush of nations to join NATO in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues, with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Finland and Sweden all lining up to fill out the complicated five-page application and pay the $100 filing fee.  “It is good thing, NATO,” said Izotbegevic Tarilaj, coach of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s award-winning synchronized swimming team.  “You get coffee mug, mouse pad, also $5 off cool fleece pullover with mail-in rebate.”

But one country is still on the outside looking in; Freedonia, the fictional European nation formed after World War I from abandoned drive-in theatres, time-shares in Baltic Sea resorts, and returned Hammacher-Schlemmer do-it-yourself backyard ice rinks.  “What have we done to deserve this snub?” asks Provincial Prothonotary Cleixak Mruvnuk, a self-employed locksmith who has been pushing Freedonia to join NATO, the United Nations, or the International House of Pancakes in order to boost his homeland’s reputation.  “We are the most powerful fictional country in the world, they will regret ‘dissing’ us like this.”

The acronym “NATO” stands for “North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” an intergovernmental military alliance whose member states agree to defend each other from attacks by third parties.  “NATO has worked well,” says Under-Supreme Allied Commander Mike Krollnecht.  “If we let every Tom, Dick and Harry country in, the lines will be too long at the monthly buffet luncheons.”

NATO has stood its ground, saying applicants must be recommended by two current members and obtain references from at least eight countries with whom they have played “friendly” croquet matches.  “That should keep them busy for a decade or two,” says NATO Social Secretary Evelyn de Borchgrave.  “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to step up to the plate for a country that sent a goat to the Miss Universe contest a few years ago.”


“So we eat standing up–like horses?”

 

Applicants are also advised to invite ambassadors from current member nations over for “cocktails” and “hors d’oeuvres” where they can be assessed for social miscues and embarrassing personal habits.  “We are an isolated nation and do not know many of the rules that you Westerners learn in fourth-grade dancing classes,” says Zerblotk Numios-Jergenz, the current Quartermaster General of the Freedonian Dirigible Corps. “Why did no one warn me that playing ‘pocket pool’ with one’s testicles is frowned upon when conversing with a lady?”

 

Notarizing the World’s Largest Malted Milk Ball

In 1977, the creator of the world’s largest malted milk ball had it notarized.

The Boston Globe

I have to admit, many years after the fact, my mom was wrong.

“Get your notary license, it’s a good sideline,” she said.  “You’ll never be out of work.  There’s too many dishonest people in the world, you can’t trust anybody anymore.  That’s why notaries will never go out of style.”

Ha–fat chance.  Last time I proposed to my long-time, on and off girlfriend Cynthia DeMasio, she said no way.  “Not until you get a real job,” she said.  “Being a notary public you just have delusions of grandeur.”

But what delusions they are!  Maybe I can’t officiate at wedding ceremonies, like snooty justices of the peace, but taking acknowledgments on real estate documents?  Authenticating signatures on affidavits?  Notaries are still your best bet, and at $2 a signature, you can’t beat our everyday low prices!

mmb
“Look out!  They’re gaining on us!”

 

What my mom had no way of foreseeing was the revolution in technology that now permits people to sign documents electronically!  No need for the face-to-face, “sit-down” closing.  Your mark–whether it’s a simple “X” or a roccoco “John Hancock” is good even though signed miles away.

At the same time, there has been a precipitious decline in notarial ethics; notaries who take acknowledgments over the phone with a wink that no one at the other end of the line can see.  Notaries who “witness” signatures they’ve never seen, but have merely heard about, depending on the so-called “hearsay” exception.  Talk about bending the rules to the breaking point!

mansleep
“Can’t stay . . . awake.  Blog post . . . boring.”

I decide I might as well take a nap since the notary profession seems to be in such a deep depression, when my cellphone buzzes.  I look at the screen, see a number I don’t recognize, but decide to answer it any way.  In the immortal words of Roy Cohn, closeted gay Republican lawyer and assistant to Senator Joseph McCarthy, “Pick up the phone–it might be business.”

cohn
Roy Cohn

 

“Hullo,” I answer drearily.  How would you answer if your last notarial assignment was a retail installment sales contract–three months ago?

“Hello, I’m looking for a notary public–are you available?”

Thank God my phone is a cordless model, otherwise I might have choked myself lunging with excitement.  “Twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week!” I say breathlessly.  “What kind of job is it?”

“A record-breaking piece of candy.”

I review in my mind all the phone gags of my youth: Is your refrigerator running?  Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in a can?  Nope–nothing registers.

Raleigh
“Well, why don’t you let him out?”

 

“I . . . uh . . . might have to charge a premium for such an unusual request.”

“That’s okay–this is my only shot at getting in the Guiness Book of World Records.”

“Where are you?”

“Over at the Whoppers plant, in Canton.”

“I know it well.”  Only too well, as I have been known to ingest an entire Whoppers theatre-size box of the the flavorful treats before the previews are over at the Framingham 14 Megaplex, thereby bringing on a near-fatal case of the hiccups.  “I’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

I grab Dulcie, my pet lamb, and put her in the front seat of my 2006 Pontiac Torrent.  “You can shake it once on the drive, but save the second one for when we pull in the driveway.”

“Bah,” she says.  “I was hoping to catch Antique Roadshow this afternoon.”  She’s so wooly-headed–she watches PBS all the time.

I head out to Route 128, America’s Technology Highway, then south to Canton, hoping to make it before this plum assignment gets scarfed up by somebody else in the high-powered stamp-eat-stamp world of notarization.  Because my notarial income has been flat for the past two decades, I don’t have access to GPS and must find my way by sight to the job, with Dulcie riding “shotgun” as she navigates.

Sheep
“Would you hurry the fuck up?”

 

“Turn off here,” she says sharply as we reach Route 138.

“Are you sure?”

“You’re asking me?” she asks, rhetorically and incredulous.  “You couldn’t find your way out of a Barnes & Noble bag if there were instructions on the sales slip.”

“Okay, maybe I am a little introverted,” I say.

“Now a left,” Dulcie says, and I see what has to be the world’s largest malted milk ball, sitting in the driveway of a modest split-level.  Not my tastes, but . . .

“The guy’s waiting,” Dulcie snaps.  “You can’t sit there woolgathering with an interior monologue!”

I get out, grab my notary bag, and approach a man who is throwing sandbags around the base of the giant confection in the apparent hope of stabilizing it.

“Glad you could make it,” he says.  “All the other notaries were busy.”

“It’s student loan application season,” I say, removing my stamp and seal.

“What’s with the sheep?” he asks.

“I need two witnesses, at least one of whom must be disinterested.”

“And believe me,” Dulcie says, “nobody could be less interested in your bloated malted milk ball than me.”

“You’re thinking of ‘uninterested,'” I say, parsing a fine point of notarial jurisprudence for her.  “‘Disinterested’ means you have no prospect of financial gain from your service, ‘uninterested’ means . . .”

“Would you cut the palaver?” the man says.  “There could be malted milk ball makers in parts unknown who are gaining on me.”

“Fine,” I say, and ask him to raise his right hand.  “Do you solemnly swear that this giant malted milk ball is solely the product of your efforts?”

“I do.”

“That it was made entirely of fresh, natural ingredients like sugar, corn syrup, malted milk, whey . . .”

“Like Little Miss Muffet, who sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey?” Dulcie interjects.

“On the nosey,” I reply, and return to the grave and solemn act of authentication.  “Along with 2% or less of really weird-sounding stuff like tapioca dextrin, resinous glaze, sorbitan tristearate and soy lecithin.”

“Soy isn’t so bad.”  It’s Dulcie again.

“Nothing in there I wouldn’t eat myself,” the man says.

“And is this your free act and deed?” I ask.

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” the man asks.

“That nobody’s making you do this,” Dulcie says.  “It’s part of the routine.”

“Of course not,” the man replies.  “Is it official now?”

“You didn’t say ‘yes’ yet,” I remind him.

“Freaking Mother-May-I . . . YES!” he nearly screams.  “I’m gonna be in the Guiness Book!”  The guy’s ecstatic, and as I look around at the pathetic life he’s living–aluminum siding on the house, cracking driveway, kid’s “Big Wheels” car in the yard–I can understand why.

“How much do I owe you?” he asks.

“Let’s see,” I say, taking out my price chart. “There’s usually 18 pieces in a 1.75 ounce package.  That’s, uh, 162 pieces in a pound, that thing’s got to weigh 500 pounds . . .”

“Easy,” says Dulcie.

“So, it would be $2 for a regular malted milk ball, 2 times 500 times 162 equals–$162,000.

“What?  That’s highway robbery!”

“Hey–you want your place in history or not?”

The guy stops and thinks a moment.  “I got a better idea,” he says.

“What?” I ask.  You learn to be skeptical as a person whose job it is to take sworn statements that can literally mean the difference between recording a condominium smoke detector certificate–or not.

“I’ll give you $3 and a free box of malted milk balls.”

“Deal!”

Among the Sexist Bonobos

Among the make-love-not-war bonobos . . . males are about 25% larger than females and sometimes bully them.  But females are on balance more powerful, because of their girlfriend coalitions.  Once . . . four females attacked an alpha male that was part of a group of four males who were harassing an estrous female, when out of nowhere, her three coalition partners came swooping in to her aid.  The females attack the male mercilessly, and he barely escaped with his life.

David P. Barash, review of “Power in the Wild” by Lee Alan Dugatkin, The Wall Street Journal

 

I was hanging with my buddies—Kruk, Alanalda and Thwok—commiserating about (what else) females.

“I don’t get it,” Kruk said.  “Why is it that they won’t give us something that means so little to them, and so much to us.”

“You’ve got to talk to them,” Alanalda said.  He’s the consummate beta male, always smiling at women, asking them how they’re doing, etc.  If there’s even a hint that they’re unhappy, he’ll look deeply into their eyes, give them his sad puppy dog look, then move in for the kill; full-bore sympathy, then a hug, which ruins the curve for all the other guys in class.

“Thwok no talk to them,” the brutish alpha male of our pack said.  “Thwok do his talking with this,” he added, pointing downwards to his groin.

“Good thing, that’s where most of your I.Q. is located.”  That was Kruk, a wiseguy like me.

“OOT OOT OOT!” Thwok screeched, standing up and beating his chest.  He thought he’d been complimented.


“Oh, put a sock in it.”

 

“We’re going to have to agree to disagree on that point, old sport,” Alanalda said.  He picked up the jazz age lingo from a weather-beaten copy The Great Gatsby left behind by some American eco-tourists.

“NO AGREE!” I guess you can tell from the capital letters that was Thwok again.

“Precisely,” Alanalda said.  “This is a subject on which reasonable primates can hold divergent . . .”

Thwok started to circle Alanalda, but reason—in the diluted form of Kruk—intervened.

“Lighten up,” he said, and stood up to block Thwok’s advance.  “He’s just talking about mating, not stealing a female from you.”

“Him no steal female from me,” Thwok said, and I had to say I was surprised at his eloquence.  I didn’t know he was capable of italics.

“You up for a friendly wager?” I said, hoping to make this boring braggadocio fest interesting.

“Sure,” Thwok said.  “Me get any female me want!” and went into a little macho dance that foreshadowed an end zone celebration that would merit an excessive celebration penalty eons in the future.

“Oh really?” I said.

“Are you crazy?” Kruk asked me.

“Yes but so what if I am?”

“If you lose, Thwok gloats.  If you win, he beats the crap out of you with the jawbone of a dead chimpanzee.”

“That’s better than getting beaten with the jawbone of a live chimpanzee.”

“You’re asking for trouble.”

“I know something,” I said, tapping a temple with one of the articulated digits that gave me prehensile ability.  Such a handy tool for the evolving bonobo!

“Fine, but it’s your funeral.”

I gave him a smug smile.  “Hide and watch my friend.”

I got up and walked over to where Thwok was still doing his happy dance.  “Okay, big guy, you’re on.  You said you could get any female—right?”

“Right!”

“Okay, why don’t we say”—and here I adopted the attitude of a non-partisan arbiter of a close but disputed question—“Daisy over there.”


“Mom–where’s my daddy?”

 

Thwok’s mouth formed into a sly smile.  “Ha ha you dumb,” he said.  “Daisy and me do the dirty alla time.”

“Is that so,” I said thoughtfully.  “Well, I’ll bet you two bunches of bananas she won’t let you mount her.”

“YOU ON!” Thwok said with a look of idiotic glee.

As Thwok ambled off Kruk and Alanalda looked at me in disbelief.  “You’d better start gathering bananas, pal,” Alanalda said.

“Let’s see how this plays out.”

“If you don’t pay up, he’s gonna kill you!” Kruk said with alarm.

“Ever hear of a sucker bet?” I asked them.

“No, but you’re a sucker if you think Thwok’s going to go easy on you.”

“Let’s just say I have some inside dope.”

“What’s that?”

“Mr. Big Balls hasn’t been as attentive to Daisy as he should have been since she emerged from her last estrus phase.”

“What’s estrus?” Alanalda asked.  So simple, so naif—no wonder women love him.

“It’s when the females are in heat.”

“Heat?”

“In the words of an on-line dictionary that will someday be written, a period of sexual receptivity and fertility.”

“So—he was just doin’ what comes naturally,” Kruk said.

“It’s what he was supposed to be doin’ afterwards that counts,” I said.

“Like what?”

“Stay in touch, follow up, gather some flowers for her.”

“Sounds about right,” Alanalda said.  “I wouldn’t expect that from Thwok.”

“But she would,” I said.  “Instead, he did what insensitive males will be doing until the end of time.”

“What?”

“He got his, and then moved on.”

We watched as Thwok approached Daisy, who was talking to three of her friends.

“Look who’s coming,” one of them said.

“Who?”

“Old Dribble Dick himself,” another said.

Thwok walked up like the cock of the walk; confident, swaggering, nonchalant.  His back was turned to us, but I could tell from the furrows that extended to the nape of his neck that he had one eyebrow arched high in an expression of presumption; like Jean-Paul Belmondo, he knew he was going to get his girl.

Image result for jean paul belmondo
Belmondo

“HEY DAISY!” Thwok called out.  “I have bet I can score with you!”

“What makes you think you can?”

“WE DID BEFORE!”

“Yes,” Daisy said, and now it was her turn to raise an eyebrow.  “That we did, that we did.”

Thwok gave her a goofy smile, like he was getting both a cupcake and a surprise creme filling inside.  I thought I heard him laugh with that gloating “Hyuk-nuk!” sound he always made when he stole food from a smaller male.

“So now we do again—right?”

“Actually,” Daisy began, “since I didn’t hear from you . . .”

“Yes?”

“And you didn’t come around to take care of that baby we had . . .”

“Yes?”

“I think maybe instead of sex, let’s try a little violence.”

And with that her three friends pounced on Thwok’s back and began to beat him mercilessly, like a bass drum in a parade.  The last I saw of him he had climbed a tree, and the girl gang was standing guard to resume their tender mercies when he came back down.

“I guess you were right,” Alanalda said.

“Although I doubt you’ll ever collect,” Kruk said.

“That’s okay,” I replied.  “I derive enormous satisfaction from alpha male beatdowns.”

At the Bonobo-Chimpanzee Nut-Grabbing Super Bowl

Mr. Wrangham describes a “ball game” sometimes played by both male chimpanzees and bonobos, in which two males chase each other around a tree trunk trying to grab each other’s testes.

John Hawks, reviewing Richard Wrangham’s “The Goodness Paradox,” The Wall Street Journal

This is it–the ultimate test of primate skills: Testes Bowl LIII, in beautiful downtown . . . actually, there isn’t a downtown, or an uptown, or even a town yet.  We’re on the African velde, making our way to front row seats to watch the Tanganyika Chimps take on the Gambia Bonobos in what is sure to be a nut-grabbing classic.

“Dad?” my son says, his little eyes as big as kola nuts, he’s so excited to be here.

“What?”

“Will you let me play nut-grabbing when I’m older?”

It’s a tough question, one that his mother and I have argued about.  Sure, nut-grabbing helps build admirable monkey virtues such as ferocity, retaliation and spiteful vindictiveness, but you look at these old apes who spent their careers grabbing each other’s testicles for sport and they seem a pitiable lot.  “Remember that time I grabbed your crown jewels and threw you for a ten-yard loss?  Oook Oook Oook!”  Stuff like that.

“Well, son, we’ll climb down out of that tree when the time comes.  Maybe they’ll have improved equipment then.”

His mouth curls up into a little frown, and who can blame him?  He’s a red-blooded young primate, and doesn’t give a gazelle’s ass what the schoolmarms say about nut-grabbing being harmful to the players and to society, fostering “toxic monkulinity.”  Who wouldn’t run from a bunch of lily-livered do-gooders who want to deprive our offspring of the fun and camaraderie of organized violence and blunt trauma to the head–not to mention the cheerleaders!

We sit down and I buy him some souvenirs; official National Nut-Grabbing League licensed swag, with the pirate-proof hologram sticker to assure us we aren’t paying our hard earned nuts to some loser who’s trying to divert a raindrop of lucre from the torrent of money that flows the NNGL’s way.


Father and son mug for a selfie at the big game.

 

After an hour of pre-game ceremonies and sideline chatter by voluptuous arm-candy reporters, we’re set for the primates’ species anthem:

Oooka nurg Gralla bee–
Blar de urt norka boo.

The singer, a young chimpette, does her best, but she misses the high note in the last chorus.  The crowd gives her a big hand anyway–or they may just be relieved that their primitive musical ordeal is over.

The Bonobos win the toss and elect to be chased, rather than chase.  The officiating crew is likely to be a little cautious after a blown pass interference call in the Eastern Conference finals sent Burundi fans home disappointed, so their head coach figures it’s best to start off with the ground game.

The whistle blows and the Bonobos are off like a shot, using the short strides that characterize their “West Coast offense,” running up the score as they circle a Baobab tree six times in quick succession.  It’s going to be hard for the Chimps to stay close if this turns into a footrace, I say inwardly, anticipating the mindless monkey-level chatter that our supposedly advanced primate descendants will use someday in broadcast booths.


“I think the team that scores the most points is gonna win.”

 

I’m feeling pretty confident in my amateur prognostication when J.K. Kong–a beefy chimp with a good “nose for the nut” as the coaches like to say–makes a diving lunge for a Bonobo testicle and comes up with the first nut-grab of the day.

“Awesome!” my boy shouts, and turns to give me a high five.  (SPOILER ALERT:  Male celebratory techniques will not advance much in the next 6,000 years.)

“That was a good one!” I say, “but ‘awesome’ should be used sparingly if we’re ever going to develop a spoken language with nuance.  It should be reserved for those occasions when . . .”

My learned explanation is drowned out by a groan from the crowd.  The Bonobo coach has tossed his challenge bag of kola nuts, so play stops while the refs move in for a closer look.


“Wow–that is one humongous set of nuts!”

 

“What’s happening dad?”

“The bonobos are saying the chimp didn’t really grab him by the nuts.”

“How can they tell?”

“Oh, they’ll be able to tell all right–don’t you worry,” I say to him as I tousle his hair.  What does he know–his testicles haven’t descended yet.

Fairness is important, don’t get me wrong, but the addition of quasi-judicial remedies to what was once a free-spirited game is turning nut-grabbing into a slow slog whose primary purpose is to sell fermented beverages to dopes like me.  I could see dimly in the future an erudite supporter of tradition who would say that nut-grabbing combines the two worst features of primate life; violence and committee meetings.

The refs make their decision and the head of the crew turns to the crowd to announce it.

“The ruling on the field is that there was a completed nut grab.  Upon examination of the expression of excruciating pain on the face of the fallen Bonobo, the call on the field is confirmed.”

“What does that mean, dad?”

I looked into his eyes, and debated for a second whether it was too soon to explain the facts of life to him.  Kids grow up so fast, you want them to enjoy the innocence of childhood for as long as possible.  Still, he was getting to be mature.  He was twelve in chimp years, on the verge of adolescence.  If he didn’t hear it from me, he’d learn it on the streets.  I decided to plunge ahead.

“Son?”

“Yes?”

“You know about time-outs, right?”

“That’s when mom puts me in the corner for flinging feces or something trivial like that.”

“Right.  So what that means is the Bonobos are charged with a time-out.”

On Dylan’s Birthday, Appliance Dealers Ask “What If?”

HIBBING, Minnesota.  As tributes marking Bob Dylan’s 81st birthday appeared in the national news yesterday, word spread around this town of 17,000 in northeastern Minnesota that its most famous local musician was being celebrated for his longevity and not, for once, his creativity.  What did he think of the milestone, this reporter asks Al Sklarski, a shift supervisor at a local iron mine.  “You mean Gary Puckett?  I used to love that song of his, what was it–‘Lady Willpower’?”

[COVER_MAIN1]

When informed that the subject of the profiles was Bob Dylan, the world-renowned singer-songwriter, Sklarski drew a blank.  “Never heard of him,” he said as he took off in his pick-up truck.

The confusion stems from the fact that when Dylan left Hibbing at the age of 18 he was known as Bobby Zimmerman, son of a local appliance store owner.  Dylan changed his name after moving to New York City, and skyrocketed to fame when the folk themes and styles he revived found a new audience among college protestors in the 1960’s.


Dylan, ne Zimmerman

But others in this town recall Zimmerman/Dylan with a mixture of pride and regret.  “He could have been one of the great ones,” says Mike O’Dwyer, owner of O’Dwyer Appliances.  “He could’ve become manager of his dad’s appliance store and done real well for himself.  Instead, he took the easy way out and became a Nobel Prize winner.”

Dylan got his start singing at “Sidewalk Days” promotions for his father’s store, which handled several major “white goods” brands including Maytag and Frigidaire.  An early attempt to capture the discontent of the fifties was his “Dryin’ in the Wind,” about the superior quality of a stackable, front-loading Amana washer/dryer:

How may loads can one dryer dry
Before its motor conks out?
Where do you get the best appliance deals–
At Zimmerman’s, there’s no doubt.

Competition was intense among aspiring folk singers in the late 50s and early 60s, but Dylan outpaced others with his gift for wrapping political commentary in powerful lyrical images.  “A lot of people thought Phil Ochs would emerge as the voice of that generation,” says Arnie Welstead, former editor of Folksong! magazine.  “Where Phil went wrong was he was tough on warranty claims if your ‘big ticket’ item broke.”

Image result for phil ochs
Phil Ochs:  “If only I’d had Dylan’s background in gas and electric ranges.”

In addition to Dylan and Puckett, Hibbing was home to Kevin McHale, forward for the Boston Celtics and later coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the professional basketball team, not the carnivorous predators.  The local Chamber of Commerce here has invited the three famous sons to a “Celebration of Hibbing” tentatively scheduled for October of this year when Puckett will turn 80.  When asked if he would attend, Dylan, a reclusive artist known for his obscure lyrics, replied in a cryptic email “What time is the Early Bird Special at Applebee’s?”

As Remote Work Persists, Mob Moves in on Home Organizing

WELLESLEY HILLS, Mass.  Mindy Kavanaugh is a housewife who supplements her husband’s outsize income as a bond trader by working as a “home organizer,” but she’s been pleasantly surprised at how well her little business has done over the past twenty-four months.  “I’ll actually  make six figures this year,” she says modestly as she looks at the bottom line in the bookkeeping software on her computer screen.  “Of course, two of those are to the right of a decimal point, but they still count, don’t they?”

Kavanaugh’s business has been propelled to profitability by COVID-driven lockdowns, which have forced many professionals to work from home, producing chaos in formerly-orderly dens and dining rooms.  “I feel sorry for the hundreds of thousands of people who have died,” she says sorrowfully, “but my Lexus was coming to the end of its lease so this has been good timing for me.”

As with any upturn in a particular corner of the economy, success has brought competition to the quiet suburb where the Kavanaughs and other upper-middle-class families live.  “Chloe Fernald had business cards printed up saying she’s in the business now, and that’s fine,” Kavanaugh says.  “She’s a great gal, very nice, I know her from the Country Club.”  Her visage darkens and her brow furrows as this reporter asks her if there are any other new local members of her profession, which is still unregulated in this state.  “I’d rather not talk about it,” she says cryptically.  “You may be wearing a wire.”

Kavanaugh is alluding to the sudden if explicable entrance of organized crime into the home organizing business, exemplified in the New England region by the Scalzo Crime Family.  “With gambling and marijuana legalized, the Mafia has seen two of its biggest moneymakers disappear,” says retired U.S. Attorney Gerry Moevens, who sent a dozen career criminals to jail for loan sharking, money laundering and extortion over his 24-year career.  “Home organizing is a fragmented local industry so Fortune 500 companies aren’t interested, and it’s a cash business, so it fits the Mafia model,” he says as he looks at a spreadsheet showing sales of desks and chairs at local office supply superstores.  “There was no way the honeymoon was going to last for these stay-at-home moms trying to squeeze out a few extra bucks to blow at Talbot’s.”

At Moevens’ suggestion, I join him and one of his former colleagues on a “stakeout” of a modest but tasteful residence on Oakridge Road here, where electronic surveillance has indicated a possible attempt tonight by the Mob to “muscle in” on Ed Beltran, a client of Kavanaugh’s who has signed up for a $500 home office “makeover.”

“Excuse me,” Tony “Pockets” Scalzo says as Beltran answers his front door.

“Yes?”

“We wuz wonderin’ if you’re finding your den a little messier than it used to be now that you got to work from home.”

“Yes, and I’ve already hired a friend to help me out, thank you.”

“Would that ‘friend’–be Mindy Kavanaugh?”

Taken aback by the mobster’s intimate knowledge of his private communications, Beltran stumbles over his words.  “Well, yes.  I mean, I play golf with her husband, and my wife’s in bridge club with . . .”

“Not sayin’ that’s a problem, although it could be.”

“What kind of . . . problem?”

“Lotta folks complainin’ about back pain from the cheap desk chairs she picks out of the ‘take it or leave it’ section of the Town Dump.”

“Really?”

“Not to mention the bugs in the padded seat cushions.”

“I hadn’t heard about that.”

“Would you be interested in a complimentary analysis of your home office needs?”

“Who are you talking to?” Beltran’s wife calls out to him from the kitchen, where she is preparing a dinner of stuffed peppers and quinoa.

“Uh, a fellow from . . . who did you say you were with?”

“The Scalzo Crime Family.  Over fifty years in business, with convenient locations throughout New England, including Seekonk and Swansea, Mass. and Misquamicut, Rhode Island.”

“Well, I’m about to put dinner on the table,” his wife says.

“This won’t take long,” Scalzo says as he steps into the foyer and peeks into the Beltran’s den, which is furnished with a mixture of Scandinavian pine furniture and standard-issue file cabinets and bookshelves.

“That’s a nice armoire you got there,” Scalzo says.  “Be a shame if anything was to happen to it.”

 

Is That Your Cat, or Are We Having Guacamole?

          An image that Google correctly categorized as a tabby cat was, with only a few pixels changed, subsequently identified by the same algorithm as guacamole.

The Boston Globe

We’re heading into summer, which means that my cats are even lazier than usual.  They stay indoors most of the day, venturing outside only in the cool of the evening to chill their ever-widening bellies on our bluestone patio, before rushing off into the dark to wreak havoc on chipmunks and squirrels.


Rocco left, Okie right.

“I’m getting concerned about your lifestyles,” I say to them as they take the two Adirondack chairs for a change of pace.

“Says the guy who drank a bottle of Malbec by himself last night,” Rocco says out of the side of his mouth.

“I’m serious,” I say, trying to re-take the moral high ground.  “You lie around all day, then you’re out all night.  You’re not twenty-one in cat years anymore.”

“How do you do the math in your head so fast?” Okie asks.  He’s the handsome grey tabby who’s gotten by on his looks, not his wits, his entire life.

“Don’t you remember anything?” Rocco snaps.  “He’s the former Boy Scout/Altar Boy who does fractions in his head when he’s swimming laps.”


“Seven and 15/16 laps.”

“Fractions–ugh!” Okie groans.  He’s lived the life of the beta male ever since his younger brother Rocco arrived on the scene.  For some reason whenever the cat food is divided in half, he only gets 40%.

“I’m only saying this because we love you guys,” I say.  I found this rhetorical turn to be very helpful when dealing with our sons as they grew up.  In essence, it boils down to “Don’t break your mother’s heart, you sullen teenager, you.”

“We have to live our own lives,” Rocco says as he gets up to follow the path of a chipmunk, who disappears under the wooden fence we put up around the air conditioning units.

“Do you remember a few summers ago, when Okie disappeared for weeks?” I say in an imploring tone of voice.  “How are we not supposed to be worried when something like that happens?”  When I want to, I can really implore.


“One for you, two for me.  One for you, three for me.”

“That was then, this is now,” Rocco says as he sits back down.  “If you want to be able to find us, just give us Google chip implants.”

“Yeah, sort of like the Italian dad down the street who put a GPS device in his daughter’s car so he could break the legs of any boy who tried to slide into home with her,” Okie adds.  He apparently listens when we talk at the dinner table.

I give them a look of pitiless contempt.  “You guys think you’re so smart–you’ve been watching too many cute cat food commercials that glorify the feline brain.”

“It’s true,” Rocco says.  “I read it on the internet.”

“Well, maybe you should pick up a newspaper some time.”

“What’s a newspaper?” Okie asks.

“It’s that stuff he puts in our litter boxes,” Rocco advises him.


“What’s a four-letter word for ‘excrement’?”

“It has other uses.”

“Right,” Rocco says.  “You can also line parakeet cages with it.”

“While that is generally true of The Boston Globe, every now and then you come across something useful in it besides the comics.”

“I like Garfield!” Okie says–figures.

“No, I mean stories like this,” I say, and point them to an article about an Artificial Intelligence conference where the shortcomings of the technology were demonstrated.  “Change just a few pixels, and Google thinks you two are guacamole.”


“You’re not going to put me on a nacho chip, are you?”

They are both silent for a moment, as they walk over the Business section.  “Gosh–I had no idea,” Rocco says, for once sounding . . . almost humble.

“So let that be a lesson to you, okay?” I say as I give them both a scritch on the head.

“What’s the lesson?” Okie asks, as usual missing the self-evident.

“Simple,” Rocco says, stepping in like teacher’s pet to explain.  “The difference between your brain and guacamole is, like, one avocado.”

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

For Sisters of Roller Derby, the Jam is Always On

SAN FRANCISCO.  In an alley off Market Street here the rays of the sunrise to the east are an unwelcome intruder as several men sleeping off hangovers from cheap “bum wine” shield their eyes from the glare.  “I don’t know why they can’t start with soft-white bulbs,” says a man who goes by “Mickey” as he pulls a heavy grey moving blanket over his eyes.  “It certainly ruins the ambiance, which is in short supply to begin with.”

Image result for bums san francisco

But bright light isn’t the only wake-up call for Mickey and three other men huddled beneath a loading dock.  From the end of the alley one hears the whir of rubber wheels, announcing a mission of mercy by the Sisters of Roller Derby, the only Catholic religious order to carry out its mission on skates.

“Up and at ’em, you mooks,” barks Sister Mary Joseph McCarthy, the 5′ 10″ Mother Superior at the local convent.  “Stop feeling sorry for yourselves and let’s get something on your badly-abused stomachs.”


“You self-pitying bunch of losers!”

 

The men sit up slowly, rub the crud from their eyes, then line up for a breakfast of cold cereal in Kellogg’s “Snack Packs” into which Sister Carmelo Anthony, a novice of the order, pours 1% milk.  “Thank you,” says a man who goes by the moniker “Red Dog,” an outdated football term for rushing the quarterback that reveals his age–70–and the cause of the post-concussion syndrome that bring him nightmares.  “Repeated blunt trauma to the head never hurt anybody,” says “Sister Joe” with scorn.  “It’s that damn Mad Dog you guzzle down every night,” she adds, referring to Mogen David wine, known on the streets as  “MD 20/20” for its high alcohol content.

The Sisters of Roller Derby were founded in 1972 as a reaction to the more-lenient ministerial styles of other religious orders.  “The Roller Derby Sisters adopted Joanie Weston as their model because the goody-goody nuns didn’t seem to be getting results,” says church historian Father Francis K. Loff, referring to the most famous personality in roller derby history.  “Weston was known for the vicious elbows to the chops she threw.  The sisters incorporated that into the Christian philosophy of turning the other cheek and hit you on both sides of the mouth to make sure you get the message.”


“Take THAT, sucker!”

Roller derby is a contact sport in which a skater known as a “jammer” scores points for her team by lapping members of the opponent.  “Blockers” try to prevent the opposing “jammer” from scoring by “blocking” her, and while blocking with elbows is prohibited, players frequently use this joint to inflict injury on opponents to render them less effective.  “It’s a very honest sport,” says Max Carmacki of Roller Derby Today.  “In basketball you’d get called for a foul for doing that, but in ‘derby’ everybody agrees it’s just good, clean, dirty fun.”

Efforts to have Weston canonized as a saint have faltered in the past due to the high level of violence involved in roller derby, but her acolytes in the order think they have found an ally in Pope Francis I, an enthusiastic devotee of the sport.  “Francis ‘gets it,” says “Sister Joe.”  “Do you really think you can save souls with a bunch of nuns who just play ping-pong in church basements?”

 

 

 

 

Paige Turner, Girl Novelist

When you’re a failed novelist such as I, you look for every sign, however slight, that your children will achieve the goal you fell short of.  So I remember my excitement when the nurse moved the little mouse thingy over my wife’s jellified belly in the OB/GYN’s office and we saw our little girl, still five months away from being born, already acting like a seasoned novelist hard at work!

There were unmistakable signs: She seemed to be sucking her thumb, searching for le mot juste.  Her hand went to her head, as if to slap it, just like I used to do when I’d have to kill one of my most darling phrases.  I half expected to see a little glass of malbec on the ultrasound screen, she seemed such une petite romancier!

 

ultra
“Look–she’s shifting her point of view to the first person!”

 

She slid out of the womb as if flying down a waterslide.  The way had been cleared for her by her two brothers, the first of whom weighed in at eleven pounds, the second at eight even though he was born a month premature,  It was as if she’d been a halfback behind a wall of linemen in one of the University of Missouri football team’s famous “student body sweeps” of the 1960s.

We named her “Paige” as a marketing tool.  We figured the books of an author named “Paige Turner” would fly off the shelves with the subliminal advertising provided by her nomme de plume. 

And we did our best to raise her right; we kept her away from short stories, that ticket to poverty among professional fictioneers.  There’s a guy two towns over from us whose short story collection received a favorable review in The New York Times Book Review!–and he’s basically living in poverty.  He wheels a grocery cart with unsold copies of his books down to the Town Green on minor holidays when townspeople gather there, like Veteran’s Day and Arbor Day, Opening Day for Little League.  He’s a pathetic sight: tattered flannel shirt, skinny black jeans he’s patched to cover the pre-fabricated holes he paid extra for when they were new so he can survive on the street in the winter.  I shake my head and think back to the days when I longed to be the male Flannery O’Connor and think–there but for the grace of a six-audiotape course on Marketing Yourself as a Writer go I!

 

oates
Oates:  “If you don’t like my tweets, stop following me!”

 

Tape #1 had told the tale: Whatever you do–don’t become a short story writer.  That way lies penury, madness and rejection.  Worst of all, you’ll be showered with the obloquy of all right-thinking literary critics at the end of your career, who’ll sniff “A capable practitioner of the short form, he never developed the literary cojones necessary to pull off a full-length novel.”

So we dropped waterproof copies of “Little Women” and “Jane Eyre” into the tub at bath time, and hooked a mobile hung with Jane Austen characters from the headboard of her crib.  No daughter of mine was going to grow up to get a $100 check from Cricket Magazine when she could earn the big bucks selling movie rights to 300-page potboilers!

But the day will eventually come in the life of every father of a little girl:  “Dad,” Paige said as she hesitantly approached my easy chair one night.  I was just lighting my pipe and finishing off the last hit of my Falstaff beer, just as my dad had done four decades earlier.

“Yes, sweetie?”

“Can I talk to you about . . .”

“Of course you can–you can talk to me about anything.”

“Before you say that, you should probably hear me out,” she said, her eyes downcast with shame.  I began to grow concerned.

“Did you finish your required reading for Bodice Rippers 101?”

“Yes, dad.”

“And did you tweet out some dingbat political pablum on your Twitter account, like Joyce Carol Oates?”

“I’m totally up to date supporting student movements that don’t believe in the First Amendment.”

“Okay, well–so what is it?” I asked.

“I’ve been reading some Southern Women’s Literature,” she said, biting her lower lip.  “I want to write short stories.”

 

eudora
Eudora Welty

 

My gorge began to rise; I was just glad there were no white-water rafters traveling down my esophagus, they would have been completely and utterly swamped!  “But honey–why can’t you be satisfied with Gone With the Wind?

Her eyes darted around the room, avoiding my plangent gaze.  “I . . . I think it’s”–here she hesitated, as if to summon up the courage to challenge her parents and all the time, money and effort they’d put into her upbringing–“it’s overwritten, and overwrought.”

“Well of course it is!”

She looked at me as if I were daft.  Her parents didn’t raise any dummies, even though she could have inherited some dummy DNA from one of them.  “You–don’t have a problem with that?”

I lifted her up and dandled her on my knee.  She’d always loved being dandled when she was a little girl, even though neither she nor I knew exactly what the word meant.  “Look,” I said in my best avuncular tone, even though I was her father, not her uncle.  “That kind of stuff sells.  Wouldn’t you like to make a lot of money?”

“I don’t know.  As long as I have enough to live on . . .”  Her voice trailed off.  It was time for an intervention, a sharply-focused act that would bring her to her senses.

 

GWTW
“Ooo–you make me so MAD!”

 

“Wait here,” I said, and I left the room to change into my Scarlett O’Hara costume.  When I returned, she knew I meant business from the dirt I’d spread all over my face, and the disheveled wig on my head.

“Who are you supposed to be?” she asked.

“I’m Scarlett O’Hara, as portrayed by my high school Speech & Debate partner Cathy, who went on to a successful career in one of the Armed Forces, I don’t know precisely which.”

“And . . . why are you dressed up like that?”

“To teach you a valuable lesson,” I said, as I got down on my hands and knees.  “You can write great short stories, like Why I Live at the P.O. by Eudora Welty, or The Jockey by Carson McCullers, or Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor, and you’ll get maybe . . . maybe . . . a check in the mid-three figures.”

 

carson
Carson McCullers

 

“That’s a lot of money,” she said.  Ah, youth!  So innocent–so naïve.

“Not when you have to pay for braces, and bicycles, and college, and weddings.  It’s nothing.”  She was suitably chastened, so I continued.  “But Gone With the Wind is the second most-popular book in American history.”

“What’s number one?”

“The Bible.”

“I didn’t finish that,” she said.

“You could rent the movie,” I said.  “Anyway, she made a fortune, which you’re never going to make writing short stories–okay?”

I heard her try to stifle a sniffle.  Perhaps I had been a little hard on her, but if I didn’t teach her–who would?  Certainly not her “creative writing” instructor, who’s always foisting off literary fads on her, like flash fiction–the cigarettes of literature: they’re short and stunt your growth.

That seemed to mollify her, but we still needed a reckoning, a catharsis, a personal breakthrough that would divert her from the error of her youthful ways, before it was too late.  “Make a fist,” I said.

“Why?”

“Just do as I say,” I said.  “Now repeat after me.”

“Okay.”

“As God is my witness . . .”

“As God is my witness . . .”

“They’re not going to beat me.”

“They’re not going to beat me.”

“I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.”

“I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.”

gwtw1

 

“I’m going to write a honking big novel . . .”

“I’m going to write a honking big novel . . .”

“Like GWTW, or The Thorn Birds . . .”

“Like GWTW, or The Thorn Birds . . .”

“If I have to perpetuate every stereotype, and use every shopworn cliché in the book . . .”

“If I have to perpetuate every stereotype, and use every shopworn cliché in the book . . .”

“To make enough money to have a mansion of my own, like Tara . . .”

“To make enough money to have a mansion of my own, like Tara . . .”

“As God is my witness, I’ll never be a hungry short story writer again!”