My Dark Horse Run for Anti-Pope

It was one of the darkest periods of my life: my girlfriend had dumped me,  the firm where I worked had broken up in a fight between two factions, neither  of which *sniff* wanted me to join them in their new ventures.  I was at loose  ends, with no one who’d listen to my troubles but my old buddy, Bates.


“I’m  running because I believe I can make a difference.  To me.”

“So you’ve got nothing lined-up, job-wise,” he said as he tipped back a  longneck Narragansett beer.

“I’ve got a few resumes out,” I said.  “Nobody’s calling me back.”

“Hmm,” he hummed.  “There always the comfy, cozy public sector.  Indoor work  and no heavy lifting, as we say in Boston.”


“You brought Cool Ranch Doritos?  Awesome!”

“I don’t know any politicians,” I said.  “That’s kind of essential, isn’t  it?”

“It’s the essence of essential,” he replied, staring out the window at a  breathtaking view of the Massachusetts Turnpike.  “How about saving men’s  souls?”

“You mean life insurance?  No, I’ve never been a salesman.”

“Not that, dingleberry.  I meant the Holy Roman Catholic Church.”

“Are they hiring?”

“For entry-level jobs–sure, all the time.”  He paused for effect.  “You take  a vow of poverty, and they make sure you keep it.”

“So why would I want to apply there?”

He snorted with contempt.  “You don’t answer the Help Wanted ads, stunod.   You aim high.”

“How high?”

Il Papa,” he said triumphantly.

It was my turn to laugh.  “Dude–I don’t think you’ve been paying attention.   The Pope is elected according to canon law.  He stays in office until he  dies.”

“Go to the head of the class–loser!” he snapped, and I felt the same hot  breath of scorn that had blown my hair dry in fifth grade as I rattled off one  correct answer after another in a lightning round session in the tenets of the  Baltimore Catechism, only to be pounded to a pulp at recess by boys apparently envious of my knowledge of the Communion of Saints.

“If you’re going to play by the rules, you’ll never get anywhere,” he said.   “If you want to BE somebody–run for Antipope.”


Pope  Peyton I, three-time RCC Player of the Year

It was a daring suggestion, fraught with risk–but it promised great  rewards.  The Vatican is the world’s second-largest private landowner, after  Starbucks.  They’ve got diamonds, jewels and great works of art.  I’d be ex officio Commissioner of CYO basketball leagues around the  world!

“How, exactly,” I began hesitantly, “does one go about . . . running for  antipope?” I asked him.

“It’s not as hard as you’d think.  Antipopes go almost as far back as Popes,”  Bates said, reaching for a handful of Cool Ranch Doritos, the unique combination  of great taste and good fun rolled into one great snack.  “The first–as every  good Catholic smart-aleck ought to know–was St. Hippolytus in 217  A.D.”

I cringed a bit.  I hate it when people throw Catholic lore or liturgy that I don’t know back in my face.  Like my Jewish friends who caught me leaning the  wrong way one night, confusing the Immaculate Conception with virgin birth.   Ouch!

“So,” I said.  “What’s involved?”

“You gotta ‘go into schism,’ like Pope Novatian did in 251 A.D.”

“What’s that mean?”

He turned and looked at me with a cold glare.  I sensed that he was trying to  figure out if I had the fire in my belly.

“You don’t mess around,” he said and there was a strange, hard element–like  carbon or titanium–in his tone.  “When everybody in the world is saying the guy in St. Peter’s is the Pope, you simply say–”

“What?”


H.L.  Mencken

“Ding dong, you’re wrong.”

The elegance of his solution struck me as bogus.  I’m a Menckenian, and  believe as he did that for every complex problem there is an answer that is  clear, simple and wrong.  “You can’t just announce that you’re Pope and  expect people to follow you,” I said.

Bates shook his head, as if in wonder at how hopelessly naive I was.   “Listen, you dingbat” he said as he got up to play Willie Ruff’s Gregorian  Chant, Plain Chant and Spirituals.  “Might makes right, and votes make  Popes.”

“What’s that mean?”

“The Pope was elected by the College of Cardinals.  You go out, get  yourself some disgruntled bishops, guys who lost a few parishes in the last  round of church closures, and get them to vote for you!”

“Can you really do that?”

Can you really do that?” he repeated in a mincing tone, mocking my  diffidence.  “Do you think Novatian asked anybody if he could ‘do that’ before  he did it?  No!  He just went out, rounded up three disaffected bishops from  southern Italy and–voila!  He’s just as much the Pope as your namesake,  Cornelius.”


Antipope Novatian, as drawn by my buddy Bates, making fun of Pope Cornelius

Bates was persuasive but still, there was something that didn’t seem  quite right about the whole scheme.  “If it’s that easy,” I said after taking a  moment to mull his plan over, “why don’t you become the antipope?”

Usually so confident, almost cocky in his approach to life, Bates flinched  like St. Sebastian getting hit in the armpit with an arrow.

“You think I don’t want to?” he said, a cloud of regret passing over his  usually-blase countenance.  “If I thought I had a chance, I’d be out on  the campaign trail in the batting of a gnat’s eyelash.”

“Is that shorter or longer than two shakes of a lamb’s tail?”

Way shorter,” he said.  “C’mere.”

He led me into his room, to his closet, and reached up on the shelf above the  clothes rod.  He pulled down a stack of notebooks and sat down on his bed.   “Take a look at these,” he said.


Theresa  of Avila vs. Catherine of Siena: Cast your vote on-line–now!

We flipped through the pages, filled with drawings Bates had done of himself  in full papal regalia; mitre, crozier, the works.  Beneath them he’d practiced  signing autographs as “Pope Bates I.”

“I . . . had no idea,” I said as I patted him on the back to console him.   “So why did you give up . . . on your dream?”

“I’m a marked man,” he said, his voice catching on the lump in his throat.   “I took on the Pope over heretical baptism.”

“Ah,” I exclaimed, understanding immediately.  The question whether former  heretics need to be re-baptized in order to be reconciled to the Church has  started more bar fights in the neighborhood around St. Peters than who’s cuter,  St. Theresa of Avila or St. Catherine of Siena.  “Funny, isn’t it,” I said to my  old University of Chicago roommate.

“What?”


Leopold  and Loeb

“That the same dorm that produced thrill killers Leopold and Loeb produced  two Pope wanna-be’s.”

He laughed, more at himself than at my lame attempt at a joke.  “You go  ahead,” he said.  “I’ve got no chance.  The Pope and his cordon of nefarious  henchmen . . .”

“Like on Rocky and Bullwinkle?”

“Right.  They follow me everywhere–I wouldn’t live past the first  primary.”

“They aren’t monitoring your brain waves, are they?”

“How did you know?” he screamed in mock paranoia.  We both knew that, as  powerful as the Vatican might be, they couldn’t read our minds from afar.  As  long as we didn’t drink fluoridated water.

“Have you ever run for office?” he said as he put his notebooks back into the  closet of his broken dreams.

“Three times.”

“And what’s your record?”

“Two wins and one loss.”

“Pretty good,” he said.  “What were your wins?”

“Fifth grade class president, and trustee of the 337 Marlborough Street  Condominium Trust.”

“And the loss?”

“Junior High Student Council President.”

“What was the margin of victory?”

“I lost in a landslide,” I replied, and not without a trace of  bitterness.

“What was the problem?”

“I knew nothing about retail politics,” I said.  “I hadn’t heard Tip  O’Neill’s famous line.”

“All politics is local?”

“No–if you want people’s votes you’ve got to ask for them.”

“Right,” he said.  “Well–do you know any renegade priests who could use a  little–‘walking around money’ to vote for you instead of Pope Francis?”

I thought for a moment.  “There’s that guy with the clerical collar and the  tambourine who patrols lower Washington Street.”

“Okay, well–that’s a start.  Does he control any swing voters?”

“Sure.”

“Who?”

“An all-important demographic.  The winos on the bench outside South  Station.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Here’s to His Holiness: Fake Stories About Real Popes.”

Classical Conductor Ups Ante, Says “Call Me Jellyroll”

BUFFALO, New York. Conductors of major metropolitan symphony orchestras are known to be a highly competitive and egotistical lot, but a recent move by the Buffalo Symphony’s musical director has the normally-sedate world of classical music buzzing.


Scalzi:  “I also like to be called ‘The Big Boss With the Hot Sauce.'”

“It is my desire that other conductors should henceforth refer to me as ‘Jellyroll,'” said Riccardo Scalzi. “I am the big dog with the baton right now, and I think they should recognize me as such.”


Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton

The nickname “Jellyroll” was first used by Ferdinand Morton, the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz who learned his trade playing in New Orleans’ houses of prostitution. The word “jellyroll” alludes to the resemblance between the pastry and the male sexual organ, and its adoption by Morton served as public proclamation of his superior position in his predominantly male musical world.

Other conductors were quick to respond, with most saying they would not honor Scalzi by using his chosen monicker. “He ain’t da big dog,” said Isidore Mazel of the Sheboygan Philharmonic Orchestra. “I’m da big dog–I take two strong men and a boy with me when I go to the bathroom ’cause my doctor told me not to lift heavy objects.”


Ozara:  “Scalzi has sex on the brain.  He told me a story about a two-peckered billy goat who walks into a bar . . .”

Akira Marukawa, former director of the Billings, Montana Symphony Orchestra, refused to take sides in the dispute, but said that the strength of a symphony was based primarily on factors other than its conductor. “We are at best glorified timekeepers,” Marukawa said modestly. “A great symphony is made up of great musicians and a great selection of candies and snacks available at intermission, which people tell me is their favorite part of my performances.”

Mazel stood his ground, however, saying Marukawa was in no position to judge his talents. “That little schlong? Please. He couldn’t carry my jock strap to the podium.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Genteel Crowd: Being Vulgar is So Much More Fun.”

It’s Not Too Soon to Feel Crabby ’bout Christmas!

News item: A radio station began playing Christmas music before Veteran’s Day this year.

Holiday people, being too cheerful.
I’d like to give one or two a good earful.
Jolly like Santa, talking too loud-
I can’t avoid them, I’m stuck in the crowd.

It’s Christmas time-
Bah, humbug to you.
It’s not too soon–
to feel crabby ’bout Christmas.

No man is an island, but I’m going to try, man.
At least for this Christhmus I’ll stay on my isthmus.
Or better, if we get shut in by the snow
I’ll be on my own archipelago.

It’s Christmas time-
Bah, humbug to you.
It’s not too soon–
to feel crabby ’bout Christmas.

Gathering round the Christmas tree-
Only enflames my misanthropy
Call it Chanukkah, call it Kwanzaa
Whatever the name, I just don’t wanzaa!

Holiday sentiments flow much too cheaply
For me to feel mine very deeply.
So just in case you think I’m a snot–
I hope you’re happy this Christmas, even if . . . I’m not.

Genetic Risks of Lawyer-to-Lawyer Marriage Raise Concern

CHICAGO. It was, Alicia Fahrquahr now admits, a cringe-inducing moment. “I picked up a ‘Daddy’s Little Lawyer’ onesie for Mikey without even thinking about it,” she says with a look of embarrassment on her face as she cradles her six-month old son in her arms. “When I got to the checkout counter at Babies ‘n Things this Goth girl at the cash register said ‘You’re not really going to do that to the poor kid, are you?’”

Alicia and her husband Bob are members of perhaps the most despised class of young parents in the nation; both are lawyers, and both saw nothing wrong with buying lawyer-related baby gear for their first child until they noticed the looks of scorn on faces of friends and were subjected to withering comments such as the one described above. “We’ve dialed it back a bit,” she says, “but every once in a while I . . . I just can’t help myself and I buy a Little Litigator Brief Case or a Junior Notary Stamps & Seals Kit.”

Geneticists say inbreeding among members of the legal profession may result in a genetic abnormality known as “Cardozo Syndrome,” after the Supreme Court justice. “It’s characterized by an inability to laugh at lawyer jokes unless they are told by a member of the bar in good standing,” says Dr. Philip Wertz of the Illinois Institute of Technology. “Also a penchant for cutesy legal memorabilia in the home and office, and in extreme cases, law-related infant wear.”


    Victim of law-related child abuse.

Social workers say they are prepared to remove children who are subjected to “My daddy & mommy are lawyers!” wear and other psychic abuses from the homes of two-lawyer families and place them in foster homes where they will be free from legal shoptalk that can cause narcoplepsy and crying jags among infants.

“We’ve recognized the risks inherent in second-hand smoke,” says Wertz. “The next step is to get to two-lawyer couples before they make their kids wear baby wingtips.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Lawyers Are People Too–Sort Of.”

My Alien Invasion Wedding

Frank Zappa edited an alien attack into his parents’ wedding video.

The Wall Street Journal

It was a big anniversary for us, either our 35th or 36th depending on when you started counting; the date of the actual ceremony, or the date almost one year earlier to the day when we got to know each other better in the Biblical sense. In either case, I thought I would give my wife a surprise by editing our wedding video, which had been filmed in the mid-1980s using technology that had long since been surpassed.

“Do you want to watch something special tonight?” I asked as we settled onto the couch to “Netflix and chill,” as the kids say these days.

“Um, okay–what is it?”

“I read about it in The Wall Street Journal. A man around my age–although dead–edited his parents’ wedding video to add an alien attack.”

She looked at me, like Cortez’s men in Keats’ On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, with a wild surmise. “Why . . . would you want to do that?”

I turned around to face her squarely, in my best heart-to-heart conversational pose. “That day . . . it was completely out of this world!” I said as I clasped her hand, 8th grade sweetheart-style.

“Don’t make me marry him!”

She didn’t seem convinced, but she got that look of hopeful resignation that used to come over her face when the wedding photographer–do they all have dandruff, or just ours?–was doing his thing. That expression that seems to say “He may be a dingbat, but he’s my dingbat.”

I clicked on the video remote and, as they say in Hollywood, the camera was rolling.

“Here are the bridesmaids going into the church,” I said as the camera panned to the shabby-genteel Protestant house of worship on Boston’s Newbury Street where our nuptials were held. It was the real deal; homeless guys sleeping off hangovers in front of the back entrance, an announcement of an upcoming ham and bean supper to support the Sandanista National Liberation Front, a lesbian minister in clunky leather boots.

“I’ve sort of lost touch with Janice,” my wife said, as her eyes began to moisten involuntarily.

“I think it’s inevitable,” I said. “I haven’t talked to Bill, or Rich, or Vince, or Mike, or Zlorg for years.”

“Who’s Zlorg?”

Image result for alien invasion 1950s

“He’s the big guy–over 7 feet–you see menacing your Aunt from Wisconsin.”

“Why is he doing that?”

“I told him to be on the lookout–she threatened to sing ‘O Promise Me,’ and if she so much as opened her mouth in song he was to blast her with his anti-neutrino ray gun.”

“What’s an anti-neutrino?”

“I don’t know, but I learned about it in Introduction to Physics for Non-Majors in college.”

The groomsmen filed into the church ahead of me from the side entrance, with my best man Bill carrying the ring–along with two rebel Xyklonites from the THX1138 spiral galaxy.

“I don’t remember those . . . creatures being in the wedding.”

“They weren’t, but . . . “

“Yes?”

“I didn’t have so much money back then, and I know you would have liked a bigger ring.”

“Mine’s just fine.”

“No, I want you to have something nicer, so those two are carrying a massive diamond from the mines on their planet Xyklon.”

“Is that a real planet?”

“Well, no, but you don’t want me to spend real money on a fictional precious stone, do you?”

“I guess not.”

We had reached that poignant moment when we would exchange our vows and the lump in my throat was visible from the videographer’s vantage point way in the back of the church. Neither of us had wanted to get creative with an institution that is thousands of years old, so instead of writing some facile dipshit for our vows, we stuck to the Book of Common Prayer, which was alien to me since I’d been raised as a Catholic.

“It’s funny,” I said.

“What?”

“The nuns told us in grade school that if we went to Protestant Church we’d be committing a mortal sin.”

Image result for nuns in space

“What does that mean?”

“It’s pretty serious. If you die before you confess it, you go straight to hell, do not pass Purgatory, do not collect $200.”

We turned our eyes back to the big screen, where a ray of some sort beamed through a stained-glass window–and transported me bodily out of the church through the miracle of light-wave travel!

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“To get a beer.”

“No, I mean in the film you’ve so craftily edited.”

“I think I’m being whisked away to another dimension.”

“Which dimension is that?”

“The Guy-i-verse, where a being can burp quietly without being subjected to the penetrating glare of Wife-X laser beams.”

Me and Jim the Wonder Dog

A trip back to my boyhood home in Sedalia, Missouri presents me with an opportunity to visit with Jim the Wonder Dog, the most famous native of my hometown with the possible exceptions of Dale Carnegie and Scott Joplin.


“C’mon Jim–let’s go conjugate some irregular French verbs.”

Jim’s 97 years old in human years, which makes him something like 679 in dog years, so he’s not as spry as he was back in the twentieth century when he was amazing university psychologists with his uncanny predictions of Kentucky Derby and World Series winners, and translations of ancient Egyptian scrolls and avant-garde French novels.


Visit the Jim the Wonder Dog Shrine!

I pull up to the front porch of the Old Missouri Home for Aged and Infirm Canines and Jim hobbles down the steps to my car.

“Where the hell have you been?” he snaps. Same ol’ dog, I think to myself.

“I had to get some peanut brittle at the Stuckey’s out on I-70,” I say. “Want some?”

“Sticks to my dentures,” he says. “Let’s go to Hardee’s.”

We drive in silence for a while punctuated only by Jim’s wheezing. He can’t have much longer to live and I’m trying, as he reaches the end of his life, to make his final days as pleasant as possible.

“So who’s on TV these days?” he asks. They only have basic cable at the Home, and Jim–ever conscious of his legacy and the chances he missed by staying in the provinces–always grills me about rising canine stars.

“Well, Lassie’s still on TV Land.”


“Don’t worry, Lassie–we’ll find your Modern Library edition of L’Etre et Neant!”

Jim coughs, or at least I think he does before I realize that he spat on the rubber floor mat of my rental car.

“You okay?” I ask, playing innocent.

“Lassie was a hack,” he says as he looks out over fields of soybeans. “She couldn’t act her way out of a 25 pound bag of Purina Dog Chow. Who else?”

“Let’s see–Rin Tin Tin had a biography written about him.”


“Best wishes–Rinnie.”

“Probably by some studio flack,” he grumbles.

“As a matter of fact, it was written by Susan Orlean.”

“Of The New Yorker?” he asks, incredulous.

“That’s the one.”

“Good Lord–that magazine has gone to the humans ever since Harold Ross retired,” he mutters. “I mean–Rinnie’s not a bad guy, don’t get me wrong, but he’s no James Thurber.”


Susan Orlean: Her writing’s gone to the dogs.

“The whole general circulation magazine market is just about dead,” I say as I turn into Hardee’s, home of the Monster Thickburger, or as its friends call it, “Audacity on a Bun.”

We have to drive through due to local health regulations that ban dogs from common victuallers’ establishments, even though a former President of the United States has admitted to eating dog in his youth.

We get our burgers and park in the lot just as we used to do back in my misspent youth at the Wheel Inn, home of the Guber Burger. After the grease relief flows over our taste buds, Jim loosens up just a little.

“So, it must be easy for you to find all the books you want in Boston, huh?” he asks, a note of envy in his voice.

“Actually, it’s harder than you’d think,” I say, as I pop a Suzie-Q french fry in my mouth. “Downtown Boston has no new book store anymore–Borders and Barnes & Noble both closed.”

“You’re kidding–the freaking Athens of America?”

“Gone barbarian,” I say.

“Huh,” he says as he stares out the window at a cute poodle giving him the eye from the passenger side of a Chevy SUV. “So, you buy e-books?”

“No, can’t bring myself to do that–yet.”

“I feel better about life in the sticks all of a sudden,” he says. I sense a turn in the tide of his mood and decide to try and wangle some inside sports dope out of him.

“So you think the Patriots will make the playoffs?”

“I have no idea,” he says. “Besides, that was all a parlor trick, those sports predictions.”

“It was?”

“Sure–who in their right mind would bet against the Yankees in the ’30′s?”

He had me there. “Who you reading these days?” I ask.

“P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh–I want to spend my last days on earth laughing.”

“Good idea,” I say.


Conrad: “Your dog is drooling on me.”

“How ’bout you?”

“I’m on a mission,” I say. “One Shakespeare play a year, one Dickens novel, one Conrad. Maybe someday I’ll catch up with you.”

“Not likely,” he says, and I don’t disagree. Jim is an unsung literary pioneer, his autobiographical stream-of-consciousness eponymous “Jim the Wonder Dog” occupying a place within its genre–dog literature–comparable to the contributions made by James Joyce and William Faulkner to human fiction. It’s clear that he absorbed the lessons of the avant-garde even as he was “setting” coveys of quail in the fields of central Missouri.

“How much did Clarence Mitchell contribute to . . .”

“Him? As Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac, what he added wasn’t writing, it was typing.”

“You could have just hired somebody who wouldn’t want to share credit, the way Hillary Clinton did with ‘It Takes a Village or a Humongous Federal Agency or Department.’”

“Mitchell had me over a barrel. He had the contacts with the publishers, and he had the hands with prehensile ability to type. So I gave him the ‘by’ line.”

“It’s too bad,” I said as I turned the key in the ignition. Now everybody thinks it’s just another ‘as told to’ book, and they blame you for the typos.”

“What typos?” he snapped. Pride of authorship runs high among canine writers.

“Page 34 of the second edition–I believe ‘roll’ should be ‘doll.’”


Jim the Wonder Dog “Truther”

“At least one of my books has a second edition,” he said. He really knows how to hurt a fellow writer.

“As a matter of fact,” I begin in my own defense, “my first novel had a second edition.”

He casts a skeptical eye my way and snorts. “Meaning you self-published yourself twice? Isn’t that like switching hands after beating off?”

“No, the publisher of my second novel . . .”

CannaCorn was a stupid title.”

“Published a new edition of my first novel . . .”

“As was A View of the Charles . . .”

Product Details

“In an edited, re-packaged edition with a new title–Making Partner.”

“Meaning you erased all the shameful traces of its prior existence by re-naming it and cutting out 150 pages of semi-autobiographical crap in the vain hope that you might actually sell a copy to someone who isn’t related to you by blood or marriage?”

I bristle, and more than a bit. This is how writers hurt each other, going for the jugular–financial success or failure–belying their oft-repeated claim that they write only for art’s sake.

“That’s a god-damned lie,” I say, my eyes and lips narrowed into a grim mask of menace.

“Oh yeah? I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true. Nobody on my wife’s side of the family bought a copy.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Wild Animals of Nature!”

In Bid to Stem Inflation Fed Auctions Dream Date With Janet Yellen

WASHINGTON, D.C.   Faced with the nation’s worst inflation in four decades, the Federal Reserve today announced plans for a festive gala next month that includes a “dream date” with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as one of the items up for bid at a silent auction.


Yellen:  “So-called ‘pop collars’ are leading indicators of inflation.”

 

“She’s got it all,” said current Federal Reserve Chair Jerome “Boog” Powell.  “That suburban hausfrau haircut, an unerring sense of fashion, and a really tight fiscal policy.”


“Oh God–she’s not going to wear THAT for her Congressional testimony, is she?”

“Silent auctions” are conducted by mimes. They are frequently used by charities to allow donors to get rid of worthless crap that clutters up their attics and basements.  A “live” auction is conducted by a licensed graduate of an auctioneering school or a country and western singer performing the Leroy Van Dyke hit “The Auctioneer.”

Yellen agreed to participate in the affair with good humor, telling Randal K. Quarles, current Fed Vice Chair for Supervision, her favorite joke: “A Greek, an Italian and a Spaniard walk into a bar and drink all night–who pays?” she asked.

The banker thought for a moment, then said “I don’t know.”

“A German,” Yellen replied with a laugh before leaving on a shopping binge with Fed Governors Michelle Bowman and Lisa Cook.


Silent auction: “A cool fleece pullover with the Fed logo?  I’ll bid . . . $5.”

Inflation is traditionally defined as an economic condition in which too much money is chasing too few goods and services, this reporter notes after button-holing Powell as he made his way to the Federal Reserve cafeteria, where his favorite lunch entree–“American chop suey”–was on the menu.  How exactly is the promise of a date with Yellen supposed to dampen inflation?

“We don’t expect any bidders,” Powell says, “so the zero price of that commodity will trigger deflation.”

All the Charisma of a Shark

The great white shark is “one of the more charismatic, popular sharks in the world.” Greg Skomal, Senior Biologist, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

The Boston Herald

I was walking along the beach in Hyannisport, enjoying the warmth of the fall sun, when I spotted a basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, lying propped up on one fin, staring out at the Atlantic.

It’s the time of year when folks on Cape Cod are more outgoing since the tourists are gone, so I sidled up to him.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Okay,” he muttered. I could tell he wanted to be left alone, but the Cape has a fairly high suicide rate, and I wanted to make sure he wasn’t so depressed that he’d try and end it all. If he made it to the Sagamore Bridge, the most popular place around here to commit self-slaughter, to wax Shakespearean for a moment, he’d tie up traffic for hours and I wanted to drive home around 2.

“Just okay?” I asked, hoping to get him to snap out of his melancholy reverie.

He let out a sigh. “‘Okay’ is exaggerating,” he said finally. “Pour some water on my gills, would you?”

I picked up a styrofoam Dunkin’ Donuts cup and filled it with water. “Yuk,” he said. “French vanilla.”

So what’s the matter?” I asked.

“Did you see The Herald the other day?” he asked. We’re still a two-paper town; sharks read The Herald, dolphins read The Globe.

“It’s the first thing I read in the morning,” I said. “Was it something on the op-ed page?”

“No, a news item. Some ‘Senior Biologist’–whatever that means–said that the great white is one of the ‘more charismatic, popular sharks in the world.’ I nearly sprayed my chum all over the sports page.”

“You’re exaggerating,” I said. “I happen to know you’re a passive filter feeder whose diet consists exclusively of zooplankton, small fish and invertebrates–you don’t eat chum.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so blunt, but sometimes that’s the best way to handle a mopey shark.


“Ooo-you make me so mad!”

 

He was silent for a moment, except for a hissing sound that put me on notice that an explosion was on its way.

“Goddamn it!” he shouted, slapping his fin on the wet sand. “I can’t catch a break. The whale shark is the biggest shark–I’m number two–and now I find out the great white is Mr. Popularity, Mr. Charisma.”


Miss Popularity, board game once owned by my sister.

 

“The guy didn’t say the great white was the most charismatic or popular shark. And I can think of lots of sharks with less charisma than you.”

“Like who?” he asked.

“Well, to be completely bipartisan about it, there’s Rahm Emanuel for the Democrats. And Ted Cruz for the Republicans.”


Emanuel: “You say I’m a shark like it’s a bad thing.”

 

I let him stew for a moment, then began as quietly as I could. “You know, being charismatic and popular isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

He rolled over and gave me a look; receding hairline, big forehead, nerdy glasses. “And how exactly would you know?”

“How do you think? I read about it in a book.”


Dale Carnegie

 

“Which one–‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’?” he asked with a snort.

“Did you know that Dale Carnegie was born in Sedalia, Missouri–the town where I grew up?” I said, with no small amount of misplaced pride.

“Who cares?” the shark said. He was really in the dumps–I decided to stop being so flip for once.

“No, it was Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building. Did you ever read it?”


Max Weber

 

“I’m not a big reader. The only reason I finished Jaws was some doofus threw it at me when I got too close to his kayak.”

“That was a very successful book,” I said. “You can’t begrudge the guy a little positive p.r.”

“Hey–look me up in Wikipedia. It says I’m a ‘cosmopolitan species, found in all the world’s temperate oceans.’

“Well, you’ve got that going for you. On the other hand,” I said in a voice that reeked of reasonableness, “the great white has been glorified in movies and ESPN 2 fishing shows.”

“Big freaking deal,” he said.

I thought his defensive tone gave him away. “You’re just jealous,” I said.

“Jealous?” he said. “You think I’m jealous of a mackerel shark that’s so dumb it can’t tell the difference between a boogie board and a seal?”


“Say ‘Ahh’.”

 

“Here’s the deal with charisma,” I said. “Weber said that in a democracy it’s difficult to maintain because it’s based on short-lived mass emotion.”

“So that would explain Biden’s approval ratings right now.” he mused.  I was glad to see that he wasn’t so depressed that he’d stopped paying attention to current events.

“You got it. You can’t help but like the guy, but the Kool-Aid’s worn off for some of his cult-like followers.”

“The New York Times turned on him the other day,” he said.  I was impressed–not that many sharks read the Times on the Cape because they add a dollar to the cover price for transit costs.

“And some comedians are starting to mock him.”

“Get out.  Like who?”

“Not just Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, too,” I said, then was silent for a moment.  “Maybe you should stop worrying about other sharks, and work on your own personality.”

He rolled over and looked at me. “You think so?”

“Just a suggestion,” I said. “Every summer you float into Boston Harbor and people panic even though you’re harmless, all because you come on like you’re going to bite the ass off of every bikini-bottomed babe on the beach.”

“I’ll give you props for alliteration,” he said. “But the great white is scary. How did he get to be so popular?”

“What works for him may not work for you,” I said. “You’ve got to be yourself.”

I started to fill the cup again, but he spoke up. “I’m fine, thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Nope–all set. I think I’m going to swim over to the fish pier, entertain the kids a bit. Give me a push, would you?”

“Okay,” I said.


Sly Stone

 

I got him back into the water and he turned to say goodbye. “This has been very helpful.”

“No problem.”

“Where’d you pick up the shallow, pseudo-psychology that reduces apparently complex problems to simple answers composed almost entirely of words of one syllable.”

“Sixties hit machine Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stone, that’s where,” I said, not missing a beat.

“Really?”

“Yeah–‘Different strokes for different folks.’”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Wild Animals of Nature!”

One Retired Lawyer Gives Back By Boring Wayward Boys

BOSTON.  It’s Saturday, but an unused jury room in the Old Courthouse here is filled with young men, behaving as adolescent males have when forced to endure instruction since time immemorial; cutting up, cracking wise, and slinging spit balls at each other as they await the arrival of an elderly man who shuffles in without any noticeable reduction in the hijinx.

The old man turns towards the young and, in a voice that has called to attention countless juries over four decades, produces silence.  “Welcome to the Romance of Negotiable Instruments,” says Bayard DeWitt, a long-time trial lawyer who is using his golden years to give back to his beloved Boston by reforming young miscreants caught shoplifting, passing bad checks or engaging in other crimes against commercial mores.

“I owe a great debt to this city,” DeWitt had said to this reporter in the hall before entering the den of disobedience.  “I came here virtually penniless, and when I die I will leave an estate that my wives and their boyfriends will fight over for many years.”

It is that sense of gratitude that compelled DeWitt a few years ago to propose his innovative program in juvenile reform; a Saturday session in the law of negotiable instruments–checks and promissory notes–that would inculcate in the minds of wayward boys a respect for Anglo-American jurisprudence.  “I could never make heads or tails of the law of bills and notes,” he says, ruefully recalling the one C grade on his otherwise distinguished law school transcript.  “I thought if I inflicted the same pain and confusion on the younger generation, it might dull their–shall we say–‘acquisitive’ instincts and turn them to a life of Oriental quietism under the influence of drugs.”


“Please sir–I want some less, sir.”

“All right, you young hooligans,” DeWitt booms out, and an uneasy quiet settles upon the room.  “I’ll have none of your grab-tail and shenanigans.  Now Peterkin–what did we learn last time?”

A boy rises from his seat, as he’s been directed to do by DeWitt, and says “We learned what the letters I.O.U. stand for.”  The other “students” laugh, and DeWitt joins them in a lightly-amused chuckle.

“That’s right, in a sense we did,” DeWitt says.  “But what did we learn about checks?”

A boy sitting up front, hoping to reduce his sentence from five to four Saturday sessions, shoots his hand up in the air.  “Dabney?” DeWitt says as he recognizes the boy.

“That you can spell it with either a ‘k’ or a ‘que’ at the end,” the boys says hopefully.

“Well, yes, I suppose.  But we learned something much more important.  Anyone remember?”


Fascinating!

DeWitt waits a pregnant moment or so, then supplies the answer himself.  “We learned,” he says, pausing for effect, “that a check is actually a draft, but it’s drawn on a bank!”  He smiles at the innocent but powerful truth of this proposition.  “A very important concept, but one that 99.8% of Americans are completely unaware of!”

Several boys stifle yawns, knowing that DeWitt treats a mouth open in fatigue as an invitation to call upon the perpetrator.  “Now that’s something you know, that I’ll bet your moms and dads and sisters don’t.”

The air conditioning in the public building isn’t on because it’s the weekend, and the heat makes the tedium of the subject matter even less endurable than it would be in comfortable conditions.  “Is it getting stuffy in here, or is it just me?” DeWitt asks, and a boy in the back row mutters “You’re always stuffy” sotto voce, setting off laughter from those within earshot of him.

“All right, I’ll open a window,” DeWitt says, and a cool ocean breeze flows into the second floor classroom.


Ellen Peters, Negotiable Instruments Heart-Throb

“That’s enough fundamentals for today,” DeWitt says with a gleam in his eye.  “Let’s turn to something more . . . captivating.”

The boys roll their eyes, knowing what’s coming next; a reading from A Negotiable Instruments Primer by former Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Ellen Peters, a favorite text of DeWitt’s.

“So simple, so elegant,” DeWitt says as he passes out a selection from the short work that he first encountered as a second-year law student 43 years ago, and which he keeps by his bedside if he can’t fall asleep after waking for his nightly micturation.  “It is from Peters that we learned what enduring metaphor for commercial paper.  Who can tell me?”

The class is silent, and a look of disapproval steals over DeWitt’s face.  “I thought we had mastered that one,” he says as he clucks his tongue, turns around and writes “A negotiable instrument is a courier without luggage” on a blackboard.  “This,” he says as he finishes, “refers to the stripped-down nature of these helpful handmaidens of commercial . . .”

He is interrupted by a scream, and then a groan.  The class runs to the window where they look down on the brick courtyard below and see Declan Thomas, their classmate, holding his ankle and writhing in pain.

“See what you did!” the boy named Peterkin says angrily to DeWitt, an act of insubordination that the former lawyer is too shocked to object to at first.

“What?  Why is that my fault?” he asks finally.

“You sent him over the edge with your boring talk!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Lawyers Are People Too–Sort Of.”

Me and Tennessee Williams at the Ten-Minute Play Festival

          
It’s been a long dry spell–six years–since I last had a play performed in the sort of church basement venues that community theatre is consigned to, but I’m hopeful–now that the President of the United States has declared the pandemic “over“–that things will start to pick up in the low-rent drama world that an amateur playwright such as myself inhabits.


Waltham, Mass., back in the day.

 

I’m sitting in The Busted Watch, a friendly neighborhood bar in Waltham that recalls the days when this little burg was known as “Watch City” because of all the timepieces it cranked out year after year.  “Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution” is another monicker it is known by, although I wouldn’t refer to it that way unless you’re like a really good friend of it; not just Christmas card friendly, in other words, but hey-let-me-buy-you-a-drink friendly.

I’m waiting to see if I’ve made the cut for the upcoming ten-minute play festival to be put on by The Watch City Players.  Maybe I won’t make the big Saturday night performance, but I’m hoping to at least make the Friday night lights of the junior varsity.  I don’t know what it will take for me to get “off the schneid,” as my dad used to say, by which he (and others) meant to break a losing streak.  I’ve never actually been booed, but I was hissed in Lowell, Massachusetts when one of the characters in my last play referred to his former girlfriend’s German/Yiddish heritage, whose language gave birth to the now archaic phrase.  Everybody’s so touchy these days.

I’m waiting for the panel of judges to hand down their decision when who should sit down next to me but Tennessee Williams, whose plays continue to be performed nearly four decades after his death.  He’s achieved what all playwrights hope for as long as they live–posthumous fame!  Yes it always comes too late, but then so does my wife when we’re going out to dinner.


               Tennessee Williams

 

“Mind if I join you?” he asks, and it is all I can do to keep myself from gushing all over him like an autograph hound and saying “Oh my God–you’re one of my biggest fans!”

Williams and I couldn’t be more different.  He’s a successful playwright, I–well, if you want to meet someone who’s had a little success writing plays, I’ve had as little as anybody.  He’s gay, I’m straight.  He’s short, I’m . . . average in height.  He’s an alcoholic, I’m a moderate social drinker who never imbibes more than a pre-dinner sherry, a six pack of beer, a gin and tonic, a bottle of red wine, an after-dinner port and maybe a single malt scotch in a single sitting.

“So what’s eating you?” he asks, cutting right to the bone.  I’m not surprised; he seems to have a penetrating insight into the emotional injuries that cause people to run off the rails, to mix my metaphors.

“I’m a failure–isn’t that enough?”

“You’re not a failure–yet,” he says with calm assurance.  “Not until you die before you give up.”


          “Oh, please–get a grip.”

 

“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve had a play performed,” I say.

“Like that didn’t happen to me, at the beginning, middle and end of my career?”

“Very Aristotelian of you, but I don’t think you ever went seventeen years without having a play performed in New York,” I say.


                Bruce Jay Friedman

 

“Ouch,” he concedes, then nods to the bartender and orders a martini.  “That is bad.  And the last one was?”

“‘Welcome to Endive,’ in 2005.  At least I was on the same bill as Bruce Jay Friedman.”

“Don’t know him.”

“Wrote ‘The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life.'”

“Never read it.”

“They made it into a movie with Steve Martin in 1984.”

“Who’s Steve Martin?”

“I guess I should probably keep my references to the years before you died, huh?”

“That would be helpful, yes.”  He took a sip of his martini and looked me up and down.  “My guess is you’ve still got a shot.”

“You do?”

“Yessss,” he drawls out.  “I happen to know that you and I have a lot in common.”  Death will do that for you–all of a sudden you’re omniscient, you can see through people like those “Visible Man” and Visible Woman” kits they used to sell in hobby stores.

“Like what?”

He closes his eyes as if to communicate with the inchoate and the extramundane.  “I seem to see a connection to the University of Missouri.”

“My two sisters went there, and I went to a lot of their football games.”

“How about that 1960 Orange Bowl!” he says, recalling the win over Navy that capped a perfect, if slightly marred, 11-0 season.   “I went there but dropped out when I failed ROTC.”

“How, exactly, does one fail ROTC?” I ask.  “Isn’t it just marching back and forth and handling dummy rifles?”

“Yes but I wasn’t cut out for that.  While I was there I pledged Alpha Tau Omega.”

“You’re kidding!” I say.  “I went to a drunken rush party there!”

“And you decided on the basis of that Bacchanalian beer fest to attend college elsewhere–correct?”

“Yes, yes I did.”

“Well, I went on to Washington University in St. Louis.”

“One of my sons went there!”

“So I gather.  And during the summer I worked at International Shoe Company in St. Louis.”

“My mom and dad met there!”

“That’s so sweet,” he says drily as he nods to the bartender for another drink.  “I couldn’t stand it.”

“I can’t say either of them had an artistic temperament,” I say.

“I wrote poems on the sides of the damned shoeboxes.”

“Now, now,” I say, as the son of a former shoe company owner.

“It was mind-numbing stuff.  I lived for a while in Provincetown.”

“So did I,” I say, then add sheepishly, “but only for a weekend.”

“I had a play–Battle of Angels–performed in Boston.”

I’ve had a play performed in Boston!”

“And did you make any money on it?”

“Well, no.  It was community theatre.”

“That’s okay.  You know the old saying?”

“What?”

“You can’t make a living in the theatre, but you can make a killing.”

“Ha,” I replied, and I meant it.  At this point I’m running a deficit if you add up all the play contest entry fees I’ve spent and put them in the balance across from my *cough* receipts.

“What else?” he asks.

“Well, I’ve been to Chicago, New York, Miami and Key West–and you have too, right?”

“True but trivial.  Anything else?”

“I was raised Catholic.”

“I was converted, but it didn’t take.”

“Yeah, those Ten Commandments are awfully tempting.”


“Are those do’s . . . or don’ts?”

 

“I was a failure as a screenwriter,” he says.

“This is getting downright . . . eerie–so am I.”

“Okay,” he says, as he signals to the bartender to bring him his check.  “I think you’ve got enough to go on.  Now get back to your desk, get your ass in your chair, and get to work, okay?”

“Thanks,” I say, and I mean it.

“One last piece of advice?”

“Sure.”

“Don’t depend on the kindness of strangers.”