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

monk
“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!

monk1
“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!).

monk2

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.

monk3

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.

monk4

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?”

monk5

“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?”

How to Review Your Own Book

For those who want to make a living as writers, the situation grows more dire every day. There are increasingly fewer publications that review books, and space in the ones that remain is reserved mainly for celebrity and political bios and big-name novelists whose works are supported by large advertising budgets. Funny how that works out.

But you’ve got to believe in yourself before anyone else will. If you can’t get somebody else to review your book, why not review it yourself?

Mark Twain
A full-time staff of reviewers.

Mark Twain did. So did Samuel Langhorne Clemens, so that’s two Famous Writers right there.

Twain was a master of the literary hoax, passing off invented characters as real in squibs written for seat-of-the-pants newspapers that sprang up like mushrooms after a rain—and lived about as long–in the mid-19th century following advances in printing technology. Those publications were desperate for copy and less interested in fact-checking than making a splash, and Twain wrote more than one review of his own work that he palmed off on such papers, often generously waiving his freelance fee. As a critic, he found his writing to be exceptional, well worth the reader’s time and money. In this regard, Twain was ahead of his time and other, less perceptive critics.

But, you say, the frontier closed long ago, stealing a line from Frederick Jackson Turner, and he’d like it back, please. Where am I going to find a similar wide-open space in the 21st century where lawlessness reigns and the only rule is what you can get away with?

Turner
Turner:  “I’m sorry, you’ll have to come back later–the frontier’s closed right now.”

 

As the man said to his wife when she caught him looking at porn websites—“Duh, that’s what the internet is for!” Every major on-line bookstore accepts, nay encourages readers to submit anonymous reviews. And who better to remain anonymous about than yourself?

            Of course you’ll need an assumed name or your ruse will be too transparent. Twain had a large collection, including “Sergeant Fathom” and “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Perkins.” Where can one find a dependable, low-mileage, one-owner nommes de plume these days, after so many reviewers were retired as part of the Obama administration’s “Cash-for-Critics” buy-back program.

I don’t know about you, but I find the roll of former U.S. Secretaries of Commerce to be a mother lode of potential book reviewers’ names. Start at the beginning of the list with William C. Redfield, or “mix and match” pairs such as Daniel C. Roper and Roy D. Chapin, SECCOMMUS nos. 5 and 6. If you find when you get to Wikipedia they’re all taken, there’s a veritable cornucopia of current and former members of the Federal Communications Commission to choose from.

Redfield
William C. Redfield: I saw him first, get your own Secretary of Commerce.

 

If you prefer a less WASPy-sounding name, I suggest borrowing from menus at Middle Eastern restaurants. “Sojok Ghanough” will give you an air of diversity, although there are 90 calories in just one bite.

A position as a fictitious reviewer is not open to just anyone, however. Amazon.com, for example, requires Edmund Wilson-wannabes to make a purchase, then wait 4 to 5 days before penning their first critique. While you’re cooling your heels, you can spend your free time shopping for handguns, for which the waiting period is somewhat shorter.

As a reviewer, you will be inclined to be harsh on your subject in order to establish your objectivity in the reader’s mind; this is a temptation you should resist. Come down too hard on yourself and you may be discouraged from ever writing again. Instead, note your reservations primly and diplomatically near the end of the review, right before you resume your unstinting praise of the author’s vision and the “evident merit” of his work. I borrowed that last phrase from the form email rejection that The New Yorker sends in response to “Shouts & Murmurs” submissions; I find that it never grows tiresome, no matter how many times I read it.

One frontier newspaper that Twain did not write for was the Sedalia Bazoo, published in my home town in Missouri. Its masthead bore the motto “If you don’t blow your own bazoo, no one will blow it for you.”

You can find me blowing my own bazoo on the internet. Just don’t look under my real name.

My Fictional Tormenter

It was, I thought, an innocent act.  My publisher called to say that the manuscript to my first book, The Year of the Gerbil, was finished, and that he had obtained a blurb, a quote in praise of the book for the back cover, and from a former director of public relations for the New York Yankees, no less.  Had I, he asked, persuaded anyone to do likewise?

Having a single blurb is like having a single friend in grade school.  Which I usually did, until they moved away, in which case I got my next one.  It’s worse than keeping to yourself; when you do that, you could be a brooding genius, or an angry loner.  Walk around with the same kid every day at recess and when he gets the mumps everyone recognizes you for what you are; a leech, a lamprey, a bloodsucker, one who needs companionship but lacks the capacity for friendship needed to develop and maintain two friends at one time.

So I lied.  “Yes,” I said, “I’ve got a quote from a professor—quite a glowing one, too.”

“Oh, really,” the publisher said.  “What’s the guy’s name?”

“Have you got a pencil?” I asked.

“Shoot.”

“E-t-a-o-i-n . . . “

“e . . t . . a . . o . . i . . n?” he repeated.

“Right.  Last name, s-h-r-d-l-u.”

“s . . h . . r . . d . . l . . u?”

“That’s it.”

“How do you pronounce it?”

“EE-shun SHRED-lu.”

“What is that, Chinese?”

“Sino-Turkish,” I said.  “He’s Professor of Comparative American Literature at the University of Missouri-Chillicothe.”

“Never heard of it,” he said.  The guy was a real East coast provincial, ensconced down in some quaint little town in Connecticut, wholly ignorant of the world beyond the Hudson.  I couldn’t believe he’d never heard of the fictional land grant college I’d just made up.  “So what’s the quote?” he asked.

“A mere little book about baseball, in the sense that Moby Dick is merely a book about fishing.”

There was a pregnant pause at the end of the line.  “Wow—that’s great,” the guy said.  “I’m going to highlight that in bold at the top.”

I felt a sense of liar’s remorse.  It’s one thing to lie to your parents, your wife, your kids, your boss, the shareholders of a publicly-traded corporation or the congregation of non-mainline Protestant church, as so many televangelists do.  It’s something else entirely to lie to a man who’s persuaded himself that you’ve written what will become the best-selling book in his pathetic little company’s history, ordering a double run of not one, but two thousand copies.


Linotype machine

And yet, I thought to myself, what I’d just done wasn’t so bad.  Mark Twain had, after all, written reviews of his own books under a different name.  And I had laid the key to my deception out in plain view for the guy, and the world, to decipher, in the manner of C. Auguste Dupin, the Parisian amateur detective in Poe’s The Purloined Letter.  “etaoin shrdlu” is a combination of two sequences of letters on a hot-lead linotype machine, as every schoolboy who has ever taken a course in typesetting before the advent of computers surely knows.  When the machine jams, the entire slug drops so that these letters appear accidentally in the printed text.  It was, as Flannery O’Connor once wrote, as plain as a pig on a sofa.


Flannery O’Connor

But my publisher was a benighted occupant of that quotidian realm where these things have been forgotten; all he and anyone else cares about these days is relevant facts, not the useless trivia I had accumulated over a lifetime of woolgathering.

And so the book appeared in print, and the person of Etaoin Shrdlu was loosed upon the world.  He subsequently surfaced in a ficcione, a tale of his bootless pursuit of a reclusive poetess, modeled on one I’d met on-line.  I wrote that Shrdlu was a specialist in the Midwestern Smart-Aleck School of Literature, and that he was known for his writings on Ring Lardner and George Ade, neglected masters of the genre.  A state legislator in Missouri, Claude Boulrice (D-Knob Noster), read a wire-service report in which Shrdlu was mentioned, and rose on the floor of the General Assembly in the State Capitol in Jefferson City to denounce Shrdlu’s works as “frivolous, a waste of money, and a corruption of the morals of our young men and women at taxpayer’s expense.”  I had, by my mischief, exposed a fictional character to slander; I could only laugh.


Ring Lardner

But Shrdlu, however, could not.  He had been called upon to do more than one should expect of an imaginary man.  First, he had been brought into being—fair enough.  Second, he had been compelled to compare me to Herman Melville, a laughable simile, and one for which he had been justly criticized by other characters both high and low; Sutpens from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Fred C. Dobbs, an American prospector in B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Finally, Shrdlu had been forced to endure the obloquy of the unlettered, the scorn of the Puritanical solon, a typical example of H.L. Mencken’s booboisie for whom an open book was never an open book.  He would have his revenge.


Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs

And so I began to notice, when I would search for reviews of my writing, that I was mentioned as the author of works I had never heard of.  “Thirty Days to a Less Powerful Vocabulary” was included on my amazon.com author’s page.  “Figures of Dionysus in Topps Baseball Cards” was mentioned as the work that had first brought my theories to the attention of classical scholars.  “I Can Smell You From Here,” a memoir of my grade school years.  None ever existed, or ever will.

Then there were the footnotes.  As Shrdlu’s oeuvre grew, his research was cited by others; a specialist on Kim Jong-il’s collection of DVDs; the author of a monograph on the NFL Cardinals’ dismal tenure in St. Louis; a history of “soul” dances—boogaloo, shingaling, hucklebuck—of the 1960s.  Shrdlu’s response was excessive, but to whom could I complain?


Sonny Randle of St. Louis (football) Cardinals, inside Coke cap

 

Finally, he administered the coup de grace; an obituary that described me as a former head of the Catholic Legion of Decency, responsible for the “Condemned” rating assigned to Hotfoot: The Bud Zaremba Story, a biopic of a practical joking knuckleball pitcher.  My career was over if I couldn’t get the Worcester News-Recorder to print a retraction.  I met Shrdlu at George’s Coney Island Hotdogs in that doleful central Massachusetts city, the Industrial Abrasives Capital of the World.

“You know what I’m here for,” I said to him as we sat down in one of the booths.

“A chili dog and a chocolate milk?” he said with a sneer.


George’s Coney Island Hot Dogs, Worcester, Mass.

 

“Real funny.  I want my reputation back.”

“What is it Little Milton says?  ‘Welcome to the club’?”

He had me there.  “Look—what’s it worth to you?”

“I never wanted to be part of your grimy little world, filled with snide remarks and characters whose names you think are so funny.”

“So what am I supposed to do now?  The book’s out there.”

“Well first, you can take down this stupid post.”

“The one we’re in right now?”

“The same—tonight.  That won’t be so hard.”

He was right about that.  It was up on a couple sites, but in a few weeks the cached pages would disappear from the internet.  “Consider it done,” I said with resignation.  “What else?”

“The books.”

“What about ‘em?”

“Take ‘em to the dump.”

I figured he was bluffing.  “C’mon—the publisher’s out of business.”

“You should have let him pulp those puppies when he offered to.”

“I’ve only got like . . . seventy-eight left.”

“That’s 1,922 copies floating around out there, putting words in my mouth that I never said.  Haven’t you done enough damage to my reputation?”

“What reputation?  You didn’t even exist before I put you on the cover.”

“So?  I’m fictional.  I didn’t have to come into the world with your original sin.”

In purely theological terms, he had a point.  He was a product of my imagination, not a just and merciful God.  Nobody ever chased a character in a novel out of the Garden of Eden.

“All right,” I said finally.  “It’ll take me a couple of weekends, but I’ll do it.”

He seemed satisfied.  “I’m glad we could come to terms.”

“And you’ll leave me alone now?”

“From this moment on, you’re only liable for what you do, not what I say you do.  And I’d be much obliged if you’d extend the same . . . professional courtesy to me.”

Why, I thought finally, should I care?  Characters came cheap in my brain.  They were as plentiful as dandelions and they had about the same life span, popping up only to get lopped off by the weed-wackers wielded by my two hands’ worth of literary lawn guys, who’d delete them at their whim whenever a new and more bizarre news clipping came along:  Giant Jellyfish Attacks 100 Off New Hampshire Coast.  Bear Hijacks Car in Yellowstone.  And my favorite:  Dog Nearly Itches to Death.

“Okay—you have my word.”

“That’s good enough for me,” he said.  “After all—I am your words.”

At the Farrah Fawcett Wing of the Smithsonian

 

 

Farrah Fawcett’s red bathing suit and a poster bearing her image have been donated to the Smithsonian.
                The Boston Herald

As I herded my class of seventh-grade boys from Ryan O’Neal Consolidated Middle School up the steps of the Smithsonian Institution, I had to catch myself more than once, the wave of emotions that swept over me was so strong.

“This isn’t like the Lincoln Memorial,” I said to the kids when I regained my composure. “That’s just a boring statue of a guy sitting in a chair who made a lot of people mad by giving away free slaves, then got shot at a theatre. Today’s trip will be about the woman who launched America into the Curling Iron Age, with side bangs that flipped up higher than any manned space craft the Russians ever launched.”


With sufficient Dippity-Do, no helmet is required.

 

My little guys soaked it all in; they’re good kids, just–so ignorant of American history! It makes me wonder what the hell their sixth-grade history teacher, Rose Alba Quince, taught them last year. Goldie Hawn? Connie Stevens as Cricket Blake in Hawaiian Eye? I tell you, it’s the decline of standards in American education that has allowed back-lot nations like Japan and Singapore to vault past us in mastery of TV starlets.


Connie Stevens: Go, girl, go!

 

No, I want my kids to understand where the hair styles of the girls they’d be dancing with at next Friday’s sock-hop came from. How America had progressed from the uptight tresses of Hesther Prynne, to the demure bun of Emily Dickinson, to the pageboy, to the bee-hive, then ultimately the heavenly tresses of Farrah, like the wings of a cherubim, in Charlie’s Angels. Don’t tell me you can’t make history exciting!


Emily Dickinson: Bo-ring.

 

I was already planning the study materials and exam I would give them the day after to gauge their mastery of what they would see. Sample question: In the famous poster of Farrah that sold over 12 million copies, which nipple is standing at attention through her bathing suit: (a) left, (b) right, (c) other, (d) none of the above. I know, I know–people say that “high-stakes” exams force teachers to “teach to the test,” but dammit–this stuff is important!


Kate Jackson: Compare and contrast–show your work.

 

I hope some of my students will go on to advanced studies in Charlie’s Angelsology, maybe write a master’s thesis like “Kate Jackson: Third Wheel or Brunette Glue That Held the Angels Together?” Or how about “Jaclyn Smith: What Happened to the Other Letters in Her First Name?” These are important questions, people!


Jaclyn Smith

 

What’s that, Timmy? Who are Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith? Oh-my-God! Do you mean to tell me that you think Charlie’s Angels was just a movie with Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu? Good Lord–it is just so sad to me when kids grow up ignorant of the past, not knowing our nation’s treasured heritage.

Did you know that Farrah styled her own hair for her iconic 1976 poster? That she applied her makeup without using a mirror? Or that her blonde highlights were further heightened by a squeeze of lemon juice? No? These are the sacrifices our forestarlets made for us!

I can’t believe it–it just breaks my heart.

Let’s go–everybody into the museum–now! And I want you to march straight to the Smithsonian Gift Shop. I may have to reach down deep into my own pocket–that’s what budget cuts mean for underpaid teachers like me–but I’m going to make sure each and every one of you leaves here today with a poster of your own!

William Faulkner, Insurance Agent

 

At The Hartford, we’ve been in tune with businesses for more than 200 years. (. . .) We’re here to help them, so that when the unforeseen happens, you don’t just endure–you prevail.

Advertisement for The Hartford insurance company

I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail.

William Faulkner, Nobel Prize acceptance speech

Popeye sat in the chair, watching the drunken coed sleep off her hangover.  She was blond and had her legs tucked up under her, like a cat.

She couldn’t have been more than eighteen, Popeye concluded.  Maybe she had taken college prep courses in the summer, Popeye thought.  Town folk would do that just to give their kids a leg up over good country people who were stuck behind a mule from sunup to sundown.

Temple began to stir.  She turned her head away from the wall, rubbed her eyes and flinched when she saw Popeye sitting there, silently smoking a cigarette.

“What are you doing?” she asked, a note of apprehension in her voice made husky by cigarettes and the moonshine whiskey that the college boys in Oxford had no doubt laced the punch with.  “What do you want?”

The shadows of the shades fell across Temple’s face as she said these words, making it seem as if she was speaking from behind bars–a prison of her upbringing, so far removed from the poverty and degradation and ignorance and pellagra and bad table manners and somebody stop me before I run out of conjunctions.

“Don’t want nothin’,” Popeye said as he picked his teeth.  “‘Cept to do you some good.”

“Do me good?”  Temple threw her head back and began to laugh, loudly and riotously, the way she had surely laughed the night before just as the party was getting going good.  “What could you possibly do that would be of any worldly good to me?”

Popeye glared at her but repressed the knot of lust and impotent rage that welled up within him.  “It would do you a world of good,” he said finally.  “You’re young, and if you start buyin’ whole life now, by the time you’re 54 you’ll have built enough cash surrender value to buy you a goddamn plantation.”

The fruit of the octoroon who had been his lover who had joined with him in flesh and thus had perpetuated his blood, yes his blood, that fruit now stood before him in the person of Charles Bon and asked for the hand of his daughter Judith who did not know could not know that the man she would marry was the son of her father, yes every son needs a father also daughters do too.

“I cannot allow this proposed marriage to go forward,” Sutpen said to Bon.  “I cannot condone or allow or permit or in any way stand idly by while the run-on sentences yes the sentences that began before I left Virginia for Mississippi were first conceived in the heat and humidity of the Southern summer it was never the heat no not the heat it was always . . .”

“Mr. Sutpen,” Bon said by way of interruption.  “I will support your daughter in the style to which she has become accustomed even if she is [SPOILER ALERT] my half-sister.  What possible objection could you have to our union?”

Sutpen seethed and gritted his teeth and words hissed out of his mouth like vipers out of a cave.  “I looked at the insurance certificate in the glove compartment of your four-wheeled horse-drawn brougham,” he said.  “You’ve only got $100,000 liability insurance per accident, and $300,000 in the aggregate.  That’s the kind of limits white trash half-breeds buy.”

It was nigh to midnight and it had set in to rain when he woke us.  Peabody’s team had come up, lathered, with the broke harness dragging and the neck-yoke betwixt one critter’s legs.

“Come in the house,” Cora says.  “It’s Addie Bundren.  She’s gone at last.”

“No, ma’am.  It ain’t Addie Bundren.”

“Well, then who is it?” Cora says.

“It’s one of them oxen.”

“What about it?”

“It done fell in a ditch.”

She looked at me.  “That is the fate of all of us in the South, we will fall in a ditch eventually, a ditch with run-off rainwater that tastes so fresh, yes, but which at the same time gorges our mouths and at last finally yes at last makes us shut up,” she said.  “There is nothing can be done.”

That man looked like a drownded puppy in them overalls, without no hat, splashed up to his knees where he had walked them four miles in the mud with absolutely no sympathy whatsoever from the omniscient narrator.

“Yes there is something can be done, Cora,” I says.

“What?” the man said.  “You can’t bring no oxen back from the dead, that’s only for Jesus Christ and Lazarus and such in the Bible.”

“No, you can’t bring ’em back,” I says, with resignation and finality and despair but without bitterness.  “But there’s something in this miserable God-forsaken, Christ-haunted South you can do about it.”

“What’s that?” he says.

“You can make a claim under your homeowner’s policy.  Cattle is chattel, personal property, and you should be covered for loss after payment of a standard deductible.”

Give-a-Damn-Ship

As you go through life–and I know you will–you will often find it necessary to exercise Give-a-Damn-Ship (“GADS”).  The practice is sometimes referred to as “Give-a-Shit-Ship,” although this usage is discouraged in order to spare impressionable children and the frail elderly who use the internet to give away their life savings.


*Can’t . . make out . . score . . over her shoulder.*

 

GADS is both a form of physical engagement with another human being, and a psychological attitude composed of equal parts insincerity and indifference.  As between husbands and wives, the failure to practice GADS is responsible for our nation’s high divorce rate, as illustrated by the following examples.  The first occurs in a “casual” restaurant:

WIFE:  . . . so I took the fabric samples back, but now I’m thinking that for the living room curtains–you’re not listening to me, are you?

HUSBAND:  Huh?  Sure I was–you were talking about decorating or something, and HOLY CRAP!  THOMAS HIT THE LAYUP!  WE’RE GOING TO OVERTIME!

Or take this corollary female-to-male instance of failed GADS, recorded at a family dinner table:

HUSBAND:  . . . so this could be a really big deal.  I mean, literally years of hard work pays off with a great new client.  Maybe I could finally afford that robin’s egg blue Thunderbird roadster I’ve always . . .

WIFE:  KEVIN–IS YOUR HOMEWORK DONE?

SON:  (from bedroom, with repressed hostility) Almost.

WIFE:  WELL, DO IT!  I’m sorry–you were saying something about work?  Or something . . .

Outside the warmth of the home, however, we must depend on the kindness of strangers, Blanche Dubois-style, for business, professional advancement, and sexual favors.  I mean human companionship.  That is why an understanding of GADS is so important to your personal and professional development.


Blanche DuBois
You, like her, must depend on the kindness of strangers.

 

Practicing GADS in a business setting requires total control of facial muscles so as to be able to stifle yawns when a prospective client grows wistful at the end of a business lunch or dinner and reveals his innermost secret to you:

PROSPECT:  So I’m sort of on the glide path to retirement right now.

YOU:  Um-hmm.

PROSPECT:  Trying to bring it in for a soft landing.  Then, when Marguerite and I have the time for it, we hope to realize our dream.

YOU:  What’s that?

PROSPECT:  (Pauses, unsure whether to open his heart, then abandons caution)  We want to be Ballroom Dance King and Queen of the Ferndoc Place Assisted Living Facility!

YOU:  Super!  So, can I put you down for two or three container shipments of the medium-size binder clips?


“Why do I love him?  Because he’s rich and senile!”

 

The workplace has become a minefield of potential liability for those who are unable to practice GADS, as the slightest misinterpretation of a glance, gesture or ambiguous word can touch off a company-crippling sexual harassment lawsuit.


“There’s got to be 30 cents worth of deposit bottles in here!”

 

A conversation fraught with erotic tension can be diffused with proper use of GADS, the way bomb squads use their training to disable packages of oatmeal raisin cookies dropped by mothers on their way to the post office.  In the following exchange, the mouth of the older male executive should be filled with hors d’oeuvres at an office holiday party, or a ball point pen if on company premises:

YOUNG WOMAN:  So my fiance has been spending a lot of time in New York lately.

OLDER MAN:  Mmmphf?

YOUNG WOMAN:  Yes.  He even got an apartment there.

OLDER MAN:  Grrgsklfmft.

YOUNGER WOMAN:  I know.  Do you think I should be worried?

OLDER MAN:  Nflgthfk? Nnng.

YOUNGER WOMAN:  He brought a strange child home last weekend–he said it was a “loaner” his secretary wanted him to try out.  You–you seem so–solid, and stable, and dependable.  And affluent . . .

OLDER MAN:  (Clears throat)  I was wondering–is Viagra sold over-the-counter, or by prescription only?

For Some Young Musicians, Folk Music Begins With the Folks

NEW YORK.  Evan Sletsky is a budding folk musician who looks the part: with his faded jeans, jean jacket, tousled hair and jean underpants, he’s a 21st century version of Bob Dylan when the former Bobby Zimmerman first burst upon the Greenwich Village Scene.  “Those guys were rebels, revolutionaries,” he says of the folk revival that coincided with the rise of social protest in the U.S., and gave voice to a generation’s yearnings for a better world.

There is a disconnect between the earnest young man and the two friends with whom he has formed a folk trio they have tentatively dubbed “The Latter-Day Outlaws,” however.  “We’re not old enough to get into clubs,” says Will Parete, a freckle-faced twelve-year old who accompanies Sletsky on banjo.  “I have a lot of homework to do at nights,” adds their friend Adam Zunitz, who plays string bass, “and on weekends we go to the Hamptons or skiing in Vermont.”

folk

The boys’ age and affluence might have ended the careers of less-determined young men, but these three Manhattanites instead began to till the soil closer to their homes.  “We love the old songs about outlaws,” Sletsky says, “that’s why we chose our name.”

“Yeah,” Parete adds.  “Billy the Kid, Pretty Boy Floyd, Jesse James–those guys were awesome!”

And so the boys began to compose original songs about the baddest men they knew; their fathers, all of whom hold high-ranking positions in financial services.

“I love my dad, don’t get me wrong,” Sletsky says.  “He’s bought me all of my guitars, and paid for a lot of music lessons.  But you have to look at him from all sides.”  What, this reporter asks, does he mean?  “Well, like you don’t want to go into the bathroom right after he’s through.”

Parete and Zunitz nod their heads in agreement.  “We learned in creative writing class that you should write what you know.  Well, we’re just singing what we know.”

folk1
“If you would learn the ukulele, it’s important that you practice daily.”

 

As if on cue, Sletsky strums a chord, and the other two fill in with notes above and below him as he begins to sing:

You think your old man’s cool,
Working for a measly hundred thou a year.
Me?  I think the guy’s a fool,
I’ll bet he drinks domestic beer.

There’s a fine line between recounting a tale of outlawry and glorifying crime, and the boys tread gently when it comes to deeds of financial derring-do that are still recent enough that the statute of limitations has not yet run:

My dad shorted the market for housing,
I’m sorry about the crash.
He took the money and went carousing
with all his hard-earned cash.

The mood changes to a more somber tone with a lament composed by Parete about the time his dad got caught in a risky financial maneuver that meant, as he recalls it, a “crappy vacation on the Jersey Shore” instead of his family’s usual month on Nantucket:

What did you do with the money, dad,
The dough from last year’s bonus?
“Short-against-the-box?”–that’s really sad,
To tell mom is on you the onus.

The boys’ are getting psyched about their first paying gig, an end-of-year dance at the exclusive private school they attend together, and this reporter asks if their fathers will attend.

“Mine won’t,” Zunitz says.  “He’s under house arrest.”