Get a grip

I was on a regional bus service going to O’Hare airport around Thanksgiving. It was night and completely dark inside the bus rolling along the highway. The driver announced over the intercom that once we got to the airport, he was going straight to Terminal 3 since no passengers wanted Terminals 1 or 2. 

I wanted Terminal 2 and had told the driver before we got started, but apparently he forgot. I was sitting about ten rows behind the driver and got up to walk to the front and ask him to stop at Terminal 2. 

In the dark as the bus swayed and bumped along, I grabbed a seat’s headrest with my right hand to keep my balance. I moved forward and gripped another headrest with my left hand. The headrest had hair, unfortunately, and was actually a lady’s head. 

She must’ve felt my fingers clamp onto her scalp like a giant bony spider for a second and then I let go and apologized all over the place. She was about fifty, with white hair, matted down now, and she had a female friend in the seat next to her. They laughed and said no harm done.  

I told the driver to stop at Terminal 2 and then apologized again to the woman on the way back to my seat, and apologized a third time as I was the first and only passenger to leave the bus at Terminal 2, but oh that poor woman, sitting innocently as a stranger grabbed her head for balance, I’m so sorry. 


My ancient dad just had major surgery and the surgeon was the classic personality type of his profession. My elderly mom and the doctor were standing over my dad’s bed and my mom pointed to my dad's low blood pressure numbers on a monitor and asked if it was a problem.  The doctor said, “I fail to see the relevance of that question.” End of conversation. 

The doctor put up side-by-side images on a screen, an x-ray and an MRI. My dad asked, “Which one is the MRI?” My mom said, “The one on the right,” based on her 30 years of seeing these things while volunteering in that hospital. The doctor snapped at Mom, “Are you a nurse?”

After the surgery was declared a success my mom said, “I’m so relieved!” and the surgeon snarled “Are you surprised?” The doctor’s webpage uses the word “compassionate” two times in describing him.

I watched Emperor of the North, an old movie with Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine about hoboes riding trains throughout the country in 1933. It had lots of action, grimy-faced men using hammers and axes as weapons, running along the tops of train cars in motion, and clinging to the bottom of train cars, inches from the tracks rushing by below. After the movie I had one last weekend chore and I vacuumed that apartment floor just like Lee Marvin would’ve, with a sneer. 

Young ones

Either someone is blowing soap bubbles outside my window or the neighbors are burping their baby way too hard. 

For the first time, I’ve been invited to a gender reveal party! Yikes, I thought. But it turns out to be for someone’s fetus.  

My friend’s son is starting second grade which is such a significant time — the year when I achieved my ultimate level of emotional maturity. 

Oh, Mom

My brother visited my parents at their house on a Sunday afternoon and when they started to run out of things to talk about, Mom suggested they go out and look at the flowers and plants around the house. They find some entertainment value in this, I guess. 

As always, Mom pointed out each plant and how they got it. This one came from Grandma, that one was from friends in North Carolina and it’s doing well, etc. They walked around to the south side of the house and my brother recognized a new one, a marijuana plant about a foot tall. Rather than speculate about what Mom and Dad were up to, he asked about it. Mom said it was from a bag labeled “Assorted Wildflower Seeds” that she bought from the local nursery. When Mom and Dad learned what it was, they yanked it out. 

Lucky for them, the neighbor who had full view of this specimen was 97 years old and didn’t report the thing. 

No transitions allowed

Should I take it personally when, right after I have an extended technical discussion with my boss, she notifies all staff of her upcoming vacation days?

I’m so tired of people saying “Everything happens for a raisin.”  That doesn’t even make sense. 

She looked up at me as if I were a phone. I’m not used to that kind of focused attention.

“Are you drunk? Get up!” An obese man had fallen on his face shortly after getting on the morning train and as I attempted to help him up, another man behind me did his part by commanding him to stand.  The fat man had a full head of grey messed-up hair and his face was red.  He couldn’t stand up and it appeared as if his legs had turned to jelly.  The train operator was summoned to our car at the next stop and she offered to call for an ambulance but the fat man refused help after he climbed onto a seat, huffing and puffing.  The fat man didn’t smell or act inebriated, so more than anything else I’ll remember that angry bystander who apparently brought some personal history to the situation by assuming the fat man was drunk. 


I contacted Steve, a childhood friend, 42 years after last seeing or hearing from him. We had lunch. I found that my memories are sometimes accurate, sometimes not. Also, it turns out people can acquire all kinds of things in that span of time — in my case, an awareness of neuroses, in his case, a family with triplets in college.  

I had searched online and found him working in downtown Chicago like me. I postponed emailing him but decided that if he happened to move to Australia next year I would feel really stupid about not even saying hi. 

Why reach out to this kid I mean middle-aged man? Because for the five years we were in school together all I remember is lots of laughs. We were still able to laugh during our 2017 lunch, just about grownup stuff now. 

When Steve was a kid he had Clyde the dog and Oliver the cat. But in my memory he had only a cat named Clyde. Why did my brain delete a dog and give his name to the cat? 

I remembered more things about our grade school than he did. Privately afterwards, this led me to conclude that I peaked in sixth grade and it’s been downhill ever since. Maybe not totally true. Steve and I both found good work in the big city. But his life is larger and more complicated and therefore maybe it compressed or decreased his memories of our old school.  

As different as we’ve grown to be, we have a few simple things in common. Standing at different cashiers in the Corner Bakery, we both ordered the BLT. We’re both interested in architecture, we have cats in our homes, and wonder why some people need to share photos of their meals. 

In the end, I was grateful to reconnect with a kind spirit and he may have been relieved that I didn't try to recruit him into Amway or Scientology.

Request for correction

Dear Estate of Carl Sandburg,
I’m writing to correct a grievous error in one of Mr. Sandburg’s poems. In the one titled “Fog” the first line is “The fog comes in on little cat feet.” As you can guess, he must’ve meant to write “The cat comes in on little cat feet.” I imagine Mr. Sandburg was getting old or at least distracted by the time he wrote that one and he surely can be forgiven. I found lots of other mistakes but this one was the most obvious. To preserve his reputation I hope you’ll reissue a corrected edition of his work in a new anthology. 

Another library story

Between years at college I worked at the hometown library. One week I was assigned to the children’s room. It hadn’t changed much since I first walked in there as a six-year-old. 

I was shelving thin books with lots of pictures and behind the books on the bottom shelf I saw something crooked leaning against the wall. I felt for it and pulled it out. It was a digest-sized magazine of erotic letters. No pictures, just x-rated descriptions of sex. I hid it inside a book and smuggled it home. 

It was disappointing. I’m sure I read every page but I was too critical to get anything out of it. One item described a woman who was so aroused that her nipples stuck out “one and a quarter inches.” That couldn’t be right, I read it again. It was the same, 1.25 inches. That couldn’t be. It made me think of being at a diner at the cash register where there's a spike on the counter on which they stick the paid receipts. Weren’t there any fact checkers on the editorial board of this periodical, or was that only for the New Yorker?

The haiku limerick

The haiku limerick was not invented by Kiyoshi O’Malley but he certainly popularized the form. 

Snow sparkles under 
Black boots. Fresh whiteness, blue sky. 
My gosh I must say,
If I could walk that way, 
I never would need any talcum!

O’Malley exploited the haiku limerick’s (and the limerick haiku’s) conventions to convey the sense of dichotomy that he felt pervaded twentieth century society. 

There once was a man from Nantucket,
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
Petals on the pond. 

Kiyoshi wrote haiku limerick songs in an effort to further popularize the form but their inherent shifts of rhythm were probably the reason they failed to chart. 

Leafy branch gently
Sways before a mountain view
He said to the lass,
“I don’t mean to be crass,
But in France I’m known as a genius!”


Years ago, Marc Maron trapped four feral kittens and brought them into his apartment to save them from a life on the street. At least he knew enough to keep them out of the bedroom:
When I shut the door to my bedroom to go to sleep, they’d all emerge. From under my covers, it sounded like my house was being ransacked and robbed. I would let it go on because I wanted them to have fun. When I woke up and walked into the living room there were no cats but half the couch was ripped open and the stuffing was all over the floor, books were destroyed, the rug was partially unwoven, and the TV was on.
From Maron's book Attempting Normal.

What I learned this year

A long time ago I was admonished for saying “damn” in front of a baby. Now that baby is 35 years old and has never found steady employment and I can’t help but feel responsible.

One can use the Current Events page on Wikipedia as their sole news source and avoid a lot of exposure to horrible chatter and events that are beyond one’s control. 

No amount of retakes will make a good headshot for the company webpage.

Oolong and Rooibos Vanilla are not only good types of tea, they’re good baby names. 

If you suspect a coworker is on the Autism-Asperger spectrum and you act with empathy in that regard it can make life easier. Better than trying sticks of dynamite with hissing fuses hidden in hot dog buns.

I was venting to my boss about some trivial frustration (not looking for a solution) and rather than just commiserate, she leaned over my papers to sketch out a fix. I got a sense of something familiar in her manner. Oh my, it was the same approach you see when a mom wipes chocolate off the face of her three-year-old. My boss is, by all indications, the ideal mother to her little kids, and she was applying her expertise to ME. Oy.

Just a reminder

If a population has a median IQ of 100, then by definition, half the population has an IQ of less than 100. 

That old Stevie Wonder song

He's a man 
With a plan
Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand
He's Misstra Know-It-All

Playin' hard 

Talkin' fast
Makin' sure that he won't be the last
He's Misstra Know-It-All

Makes a deal 

With a smile
Knowin' all the time that his lie's a mile
He's Misstra Know-It-All

Must be seen 

There's no doubt
He's the coolest one with the biggest mouth
He's Misstra Know-It-All

If you tell him he's livin' fast
He will say what do you know
If you had my kind of cash
You'd have more than one place to go oh

Any place He will play
His only concern is how much you'll pay
He's Misstra Know-It-All

If he shakes, on a bet
He's the kind of dude that won't pay his debt
He's Misstra Know-It-All

When you say that he's livin wrong
He'll tell you he knows he's livin' right
And you'd be a stronger man
If you took Misstra Know-lt-All's advice oh oh
He's the man With a plan
Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand
He's Misstra Know-It-All

Take my word, please beware
Of a man that just don't give a care no
He's Misstra Know-It-All (Look out he's coming)

Dum bum bum ba bum bum,
Dum bum bum ba bum bum
Bum bum bum bum bum Say
He's Misstra Know-It-All

Can this line
Take his hand
Take your hat off to the man who's got the plan
He's Misstra Know-It-All
Every boy take your hand
To the man that's got the plan
He's Misstra Know-It-All
Give a hand to the man
That you know he's got the plan
He's Misstra Know-It-All
Give a hand to the man
Don't you know darn well he's got the super plan
He's Misstra Know-It-All
Give a hand to the man
You know damn well he's got the super plan
He's Misstra Know-It-All
If we had less of him
Don't you know we'd have a better land
He's Misstra Know-It-All
So give a hand to the man
Although you've given out as much as you can
He's Misstra Know-It-All
Check his sound out
He'll tell it all Hey
You talk too much you worry me to death
He's Misstra Know-It-All

Written by Stevie Wonder - Copyright © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

Dear Mister Answer Man

Dear Mister Answer Man,
Should I tell a cute girl that her big ears remind me of a cartoon character?  I mean it as a compliment. 
Pierre T.

Dear Pierre, 
I don’t recommend it. In four out of seven cases it results in the girl crying, in my experience. 

Dear Mister Answer Man, 
I heard that Taylor Swift is giving up her career to become a ventriloquist. She’s going to have a ventriloquist dummy who’s a sassy girl named Lil’ T. Why would she do that?
Katie Z.

Dear Katie, 
I think anyone in show business would welcome the chance to work with Taylor Swift; she’s very popular. 

Dear Mister Answer Man,
I was walking south, carrying groceries home on a Sunday morning. The street was empty and it was quiet. Ahead of me a man in a black leather coat was also walking south. When he got alongside the auto dealership he hopped over a little divider and walked between two cars where he came up to a guy in shirtsleeves standing there. You could only see them from the shoulders up. They faced each other for just a second and then separated. 

The guy in shirtsleeves crossed the street, got into a car, and drove off. The man in the black leather jacket went back to the sidewalk and continued south. At the next building there were bushes planted out front and the man walked over, grabbed a little shrub, yanked it out of the dirt and dropped it on the sidewalk. Then he kept walking south. 

I stood there until the distance between us increased and then I went home. What should I have done?
Bill McC.

Dear Bill, 
Anything else would have been much better: (1) Yell, “Hey man, you scared those other shrubs pretty good!” (2) Yell “Freeze! Landscaping Police!” and watch him jump. (3) Yell “Hey mister, put that back!” and stand over him while he shamefully repairs the damage he caused. 

Dear Mister Answer Man, 
My mother, in her advanced age, tends to worry about everything. To counteract this, I exaggerate how good things are when I write to her. I recently had a physical exam and everything was fine. To describe this event to my mother, I said that I was found to be so healthy that the doctor’s staff was inspired to carry me on their shoulders around the waiting room singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Is there any downside to shading the truth in this way?

Dear Reggie,
It’s possible that your mother will require ever-increasing levels of wonderfulness in your stories to prevent her worrying. The next time you mention finding a good parking space you may need to add that the parking lot contained the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, led by Sir Georg Solti who rose from the dead just to honor your good fortune. As long as she believes you, no harm done.

Another way of saying yes

From The New Yorker, 9/12/16
She and her boyfriend serve the ayahuasca — “Divine consciousness in liquid form” — at ceremonies in New York, Cape Town, Las Vegas, Bali. They showed me pictures of themselves harvesting plants in a verdant Hawaiian jungle, looking radiantly happy. I asked if they made a living this way. “We manifest abundance wherever we go,” she told me. Her boyfriend added, “Consciousness is its own economy.”
From “The Secret Life of Plants” by Ariel Levy, an article about ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic tea.


This was September 1991.  Y called and asked if I wanted to hang out at the Chicago Tribune news room on a Sunday. She was working there, answering the phone for customer service and it would probably be a slow day. We had broken up some years earlier and she had moved on — she was well into her first marriage. 

I got there and pulled a spare chair over next to Y at her desk. We were at one end of a big room with lots of desks, mostly unoccupied at that hour, and every desk had a desktop terminal with green lettering on a black screen. Y told me about one call earlier from a woman who asked if the Chicago Tribune would please do a story about her granddaughter’s “golden birthday.” What was a golden birthday? The caller explained that the granddaughter would be turning 2 years old on October 2, and when you reach the age that matches the date of your birth, that’s your golden birthday. Y did not promise that the Tribune would cover the story. 

I suggested that while she still had the caller she should have turned slightly from the phone and yelled “Stop the presses!” We imagined the scene down the line of printing presses as the word passed from worker to worker in dirty overalls: “Stop the presses!” (loud clear tenor voice, urgently) “Stop the presses!” (low voice, slow) “Stop the presses!” (nasal voice filtered through a speaker) and so on, voices getting fainter.

At the time, Y’s main job at the Trib was not answering phones but reviewing heavy metal music. She and the other music critics received lots of pre-release copies of CDs every week. She opened her backpack and it clattered with the sound of about a dozen plastic CD cases. She rooted around looking for a certain title — they were all unknown bands to me. “This one really stands out, it’s really good,” she said. The CD cover showed a baby swimming under blue water toward a dollar bill, a funny picture. I don’t think Y was the one to review it for the Trib though. 

That band’s leader may have suffered from depression like Y did, I guess, because they were both gone some years later. I’m still here just blocks from Y’s old workplace, but Michigan Avenue is so crowded it usually pushes away this kind of indulgence in memory.

I have one of the great temperaments

Travel and a change of scene can broaden the mind — the old cliché is true.  I used to take the first car on the morning train but on a whim I switched to the fifth car.  Completely different world.  I looked all around me and the people were all different.  The smells were alien to me.  The train stopped at my stop and when I got out it was like a platform in a foreign country.  I expected to see old women in shawls with young goats, or old goats in shawls with young women.  Come to think of it, you do see that last pairing on the Gold Coast.

If you buy more guns now because the president is going to take them all away, isn’t that like spending lots of money on comic books just before your mom throws out the entire collection?

I had forgotten what a good short story “Sea Oak” is, by George Saunders:
"What a nice day we've had," Aunt Bernie says once we've got the babies in bed.
"Man, what an optometrist," says Jade.

Mostly others

This is too easy but I cannot help myself: This year’s OCD Conference is held in Chicago. The keynote speech will be given July 29 at 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 4:30, and midnight. 
Consider, as a twenty-first-century working-mom artifact, my poor twelve-year-old 140,000-mile Volvo… So many of the Volvo’s dashboard lights are on, each trying to alert me to one malfunction or another, that turning the ignition key is akin to plugging in that big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.
— From The Madwoman in the Volvo, by Sandra Tsing Loh.  (Note: Despite the title and the excerpt above, there is very little about cars in this book.)

In the short story “The Introspections of J. P. Powers” by William Trevor, a driving instructor (Mr. Powers) is teaching Miss Hobish how to drive. She has been taking driving lessons for five years and she is 73 years old. Mr. Powers occasionally likes to remind her, for safety’s sake, to signal a turn not only with the car’s turn signal, but also with hand signals out the window.
On Tuesday September the twenty-first, Justin Parke Powers gave Miss Hobish her two hundred and forty-first driving lesson. He sat beside her, feet and hands alerted.
‘We’ve had no summer, Mr Powers.’ She sighed, settling herself. ‘One, two, three, four, up and back for reverse. Are we ready, Mr Powers?’
She drove raggedly from Cave Crescent to Amervale Avenue.
‘Hand signals,’ said Mr Powers, and Miss Hobish extended a scrawny arm and waved it arbitrarily about.

Please be normal

“Please be normal.  Please be normal.” A mother to her two children, heard in the elevator on the way up to the floor where the mother worked in our office building on the most recent Take Your Kids to Work Day.

My dad is at that awkward age where his stated preferences apparently contradict his economic well-being. He wants to abolish government’s role in health care. Unfortunately, my mom gets a funny feeling in her chest every few months and they have to go to the emergency room. The last bill for this situation was $5,100 and Medicare paid for almost everything. If government got out of health care like Dad wants, they'd have gone broke years ago. He continues to grind his teeth over the tyranny of government. Just one more reason to bite my tongue on the next visit. (I’d rather keep the peace.)

On the train platform the woman with wiry grey hair has old shoes. Their heels, seen from behind, are beveled at a 30 degree angle to force her to walk bow-legged. She moves like a chess piece, a knight, while waiting for the train to appear. Step-step-stop. Step-step-stop. Thirty seconds in this direction, thirty seconds in that direction. 

The old man on the train plattform has a worn-down posture. When he walks in front of me from left to right he looks like the letter S. This could be me in some years. While waiting for the train he moves like a rook on a chess board — shuffling in a straight line, head down.  He’s not looking where he’s going but the grey-haired woman is, so one piece has never captured the other. 

It did do someone a lot of good

Somewhere in the world in the early 1990s there was a woman who adored Prince so much that she sent him a gift: a purple and pink afghan that she knitted herself. She mailed it to Prince at Paisley Park Studios in Minnesota. My brother worked there at the time. 

One of the Paisley Park staff opened the package and pulled out the bulky afghan. He carried it through the building on his way to the trash bin when my brother intercepted him, got the story about the origin of this gift, and offered to take the afghan. He imagined how much work had gone into the knitting (having received one from our grandma) and he didn’t want to think about all that work lying in the bottom of the Dumpster. 

He gave it to me and that’s why there’s a cat sleeping here on a purple and pink afghan every day. What is the lesson here? That if I have a Prince story, everyone in the world has a Prince story.


I saw a discarded Victoria’s Secret shopping bag on the grounds of a retirement home.  Make up your own story. 

If Humphrey Bogart had been allowed to carry an ice cream cone on the set of Casablanca: “Where I’m going, you can’t follow. (Lick) What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. (Lick) Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. (Lick) Someday you’ll understand that. (Lick)”

Voted Chicago’s Best Pizza.  Best Cheese Selection.  Best Sub Sandwich.  I have missed the voting for all these local elections.  

Voted Chicago’s Best Plumbing Company.  Best Air Duct Cleaning.  Best Children’s Magician.  Fortunately, I lack the experience to nominate someone or cast a vote in some of these contests.  

Voted Chicago’s Best Doughnuts.  Where was I for this one?  Are there term limits?  Is it too late to send an absentee ballot?  I’m willing to vote for bacon too, when the time comes.  

Voted Chicago’s Best Wedding Photographer.  Best Martini.  Best Therapeutic Massage.  For some of these elections I would have to be pretty busy in order to make an informed decision. 


The executive vice-chairman of Kellogg’s, the cereal company, recalls his long-ago one-night encounter with the college student who was the only woman he ever loved:

“On the final week of the semester, she told me that she was questioning everything in her life, that her relationship had in fact been over for some time, and that she didn’t know what to do. We continued to talk about this for the rest of the afternoon, over dinner that night, and the next morning over a balanced breakfast.”

From the short story “Kellogg’s” by B. J. Novak.

That you so richly deserve

At the office, my work email account gets a message with the subject heading “Congratulations! You reached a milestone!”  It's from an organization that tracks how many people have read work-related papers that you’ve published online.  

“Your research is in the spotlight,” the headline says inside.  Well, this is flattering to hear.  Under the title of my article is the message “Your article reached 20 reads.” This is for an article published ten years ago. 

Twenty reads in ten years.  That is some kind of milestone, technically.  I’d forgotten about it and frankly, I wasn’t lying awake nights wondering about the readership of what was truly a trivial piece.  It’s OK if no one else remembers it.  

Oh wait, there’s more to the email.  “Your achievement is shown on the home feeds of your colleagues and co-authors.”  Fantastic.  

The email won’t drop it: “Go to your home feed now to see your peers’ recent achievements.”  Yes, I need to see how popular everyone else is.

The parting comment is choice.  “Add a profile photo so they can instantly recognize you.”  No doubt so I can live through my own personal version of Beatlemania.  I should play along by sending them an image of Gollum just to see how long it stays up under my name.

More from Hometown

“Careful, it’s loaded,” my cousin said as my brother pulled the handgun from its hiding place.  We were in my cousin's living room for Christmas and my brother had been wandering around the room touching things at random as I told a long boring story.  “Loaded and cocked,” the man of the house said, and Brother put the gun back where he found it.  How many years have we visited that house not knowing there was a loaded gun within arms’ reach?  Jeez.

There in Hometown, Brother knows the woman who manages the grocery store because they went to grade school together.  He went in to pick up another seven day supply of Bachelor Chow and the manager flagged him down from several aisles away, as she often does.  “Shelly was in first thing Saturday morning and got four bottles of cooking sherry!” she called out across the store as she walked up to him.  “She finished the first bottle before she got in her car!”  Shelly was another classmate and the manager had been tracking her decline over the years. 

Finally, a car in a Hometown parking lot:

Loose cannon

In the office there is a young Cerebral Fellow, untroubled by the social conventions that regulate most people’s behavior.  He stepped into my cubicle to make a request and in so doing, he stood beside where I sat so he could point out something on my computer's screen.  

The C.F. talked and talked and then paused in mid-sentence, still facing the computer.  His face froze and I got the sense that he was tensing his stomach muscles.  A puff of air hissed out of his behind, right next to my ear, and he resumed talking.  It took just a moment and I didn’t acknowledge the faux pas. 

It’s becoming more common for me to feel out of touch with the customs of younger people.  But given that I was dealing with a C.F., I won’t assume that this episode represents some standard of Millennial business etiquette until I receive confirmation.

Bosses and notes

Heard over the cubicle wall, a boss talking about a huge project: “…when I get back from the Bahamas after New Years I want all this to be done.”  Employee replies quietly: “I’m taking a vacation too.”

This was the third boss I’d heard over the years thinking that (1) they’re the only ones taking a vacation over Christmas and New Years and (2) they wanted to be absent from the building while their staff carried out some big unpleasant task. It just gave me a little charge to hear the employee’s reply. 

Speaking of bosses, how many U.S. Secretaries of Defense inspire poetry from the people they command?  

Rumsfeld is a dick
Won’t flow the forces we need
We will be too light

The poet was Army Colonel Steve Rotkoff, inspired to write while preparing for the 2003 start of the Iraq war (Information from chapter 11 of State of Denial by Bob Woodward).

Something not about bosses: “Bemsha Swing” by Thelonious Monk was in my head this week for unknown reasons and then I heard the start of it in the CTA station.  When I waved my CTA pass over the turnstile reader it gave that two-note audio confirmation that I could go through and the G note going up to C was the same as the start of the Monk song.  Thereby lending credence to the conventional wisdom that CTA employees, black and white, thin and fat, young and old, are all hard bop fans.

Too marvelous for words

“My butt must be good luck,” I thought on the crowded rush-hour train, “for as often as people need to rub it.”  People were pressed against me left and right, front and back.  Then there was a little poke in my back.  I turned and looked down and a little man growled, “I told ya four fuckin times to get out of the way!”  Most of the people on the train got quiet. 

He was sad, middle-aged, heavy-set, and hobbling along with a cane and one leg in a plastic brace.  I leaned over onto the kids bouncing around near their seated mom and the man squeezed past me.  A young man gave up his seat and the sad man eased himself down.  

I looked at his face.  He yelled “Don’t you fuckin look at me, after the day I had, or I’ll…”  He ran out of words.  I stayed silent like the rest of the train and he calmed down.  

It was like seventh grade.  That was the first year when some boys, strangers to me in the new school, would come up to me and be as aggressive as they could manage.  I didn’t understand until I noticed that they were about a foot shorter than me.  They never articulated what their problem was, but they all had that one thing in common.  Nowadays, grown men are socialized enough to keep it to themselves, but it might still be in there somewhere.

Secular grieving

Yes, there’s a God but there is no afterlife.  Gotcha!

The cat was lying by the door to greet me when I got home but she didn’t get up. 

Sure, there’s an afterlife but there is no God.  It’s like a high school lunchroom. 

The cat was lying by the door but she couldn’t stand up.  I had a year’s advance warning of this. 

Her age was the equivalent of 88 for humans.

The vet came to my door and I stood up. 

A third of my life with that cat

The first injection made the cat tuck her head down and fall into deep sleep.

She was always free of ringworm and fleas; something I hope to say at age 88.

When the home is suddenly empty of pets you have a 25-hour day, an extra hour that throws off your rhythm.  My day is going back to 24 hours later this year.


In an upstairs room of the cat shelter where I volunteer there used to be an adult cat named Hans.  He loved to sit in my lap and nibble on my shirt right over my stomach.  Then one day, staff coming through the room saw this and said, “Oh that’s adorable; he’s nursing!”  Suddenly I wasn't sure I wanted people to see this.  

If all goes according to plan, this shelter might be torn down a year from now.  The organization is building a new facility north of here to replace the current one which must’ve originally been a private home built around 1930.  

People want to give their cats to the shelter for various reasons.  One winter, a young man brought his cat to the front door but was told that the shelter was full (over 100 available for adoption, dozens in clinical care) and it lacked the resources to take on more.  The man threw his cat across the threshold and left.  That grey tabby was kept and was scared of all humans (go figure) until he finally got a good home.

It looks like short-term handiwork has held the house together for decades, and there must be ten layers of paint smoothing out the contours on what would be some interesting carving on the woodwork framing the rooms.

You do get to meet a variety of customers here.  A middle-aged lady came to the door on a Saturday morning and said she was going to adopt Butternut the kitten.  Staff told her that the shelter would open for business at noon, please come back in a couple hours.  She got angry, cussed out the staff, and stomped out of the building and down the stairs to the sidewalk.  The shelter’s child volunteers were out front selling cookies to raise money and the lady’s parting shot to them was “...and your cookies are crap!”

The house is not ideal; it’s been expanded and compromised to serve its current purpose.  I’m going to miss it anyway because I know its rooms so well as a comfortable spot to sit with a cat and dispense imaginary milk.

The endorsement deals were disappointing

Remember when “manspreading” on public transit was not a problem but just a friendly competition? (Link)

Fact checking of history

It’s important to beware of the unreliable narrator when reading history.

1974 - Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas

"Everybody was kung fu fighting"

Strictly speaking, not true.  In many Presbyterian congregations, large proportions of people did not participate in the kung fu fighting. 

1977 - Car Wash by Rose Royce

"You might not ever get rich
But let me tell ya it's better than diggin' a ditch
There ain't no tellin' who you might meet
A movie star or maybe even an Indian chief"

Working at the car wash was, in fact, better than digging a ditch.  The likelihood of meeting a movie star or Indian chief varied by location, however. 

1976 - Disco Inferno by The Trammps

"To my surprise, one hundred stories high
People getting loose y'all, getting down on the roof”

This was true.

"Folks are screaming, out of control
It was so entertaining when the boogie started to explode”

Also correct. 

"I heard somebody say
(Burn baby burn) disco inferno
(Burn baby burn) burn that mother down
(Burn baby burn) disco inferno
(Burn baby burn) burn that mother down”

I heard someone say the same thing verbatim.

"Satisfaction came in a chain reaction
I couldn't get enough, so I had to self-destruct”

Here is where things might deviate from the historical record.  There was no doubt that satisfaction came in a chain reaction.  Nevertheless, to claim that self-destruction was inevitable simply because one could not get enough is paradoxical (where did the author go?) and could cause one to question the veracity of the entire account up to that point.

Everybody Loves Raymond

“I’m an occasional drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard.” 
— a character in the short story The King in Yellow, by Raymond Chandler 

Reading the signs

I swear I thought the ad in the grocery store said “Discover Poopability” because it was one of those ads posted on the floor of the store and I was looking at it upside down.  It was actually “Discover Poppability” with respect to Snyder’s Pretzel Poppers.  I should’ve known; I wasn’t in the pharmacy section.

I’ve got to be sure to give a good co-worker review of Emily; she’s the only one in the office who can stifle a yawn while I’m speaking.

Interpreting that memo from Human Resources was like looking at an Escher print. 

When you sit down in the haircutter’s chair and she starts in with the sharp instruments and you smell alcohol radiating out of her mouth, that’s not a mandatory cause for alarm, is it?  It worked out OK. 

Virtue of youth

[Mrs. Pardiggle] was a formidable style of lady, with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice, who had the effect of wanting a great deal of room.  And she really did, for she knocked down little chairs with her skirts that were quite a great way off.  As only Ada and I were at home, we received her timidly; for she seemed to come in like cold weather, and to make the little Pardiggles blue as they followed. 

“These, young ladies,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, with great volubility, after the first salutations, “are my five boys.  You may have seen their names in a printed subscription list (perhaps more than one), in the possession of our esteemed friend Mr. Jarndyce.  Egbert, my eldest (twelve), is the boy who sent out his pocket-money, to the amount of five-and-threepence, to the Tockahoopo Indians.  Oswald, my second (ten-and-a-half), is the child who contributed two-and-ninepence to the Great National Smithers Testimonial.  Francis, my third (nine), one-and-sixpence-halfpenny; Felix, my fourth (seven), eightpence to the Superannuated Widows; Alfred, my youngest (five), has voluntarily enrolled himself in the Infant Bonds of Joy, and is pledged never, through life, to use tobacco in any form.”

From Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

The final stage is bequeathing

I just discovered that I can increase the ringing in my ears by pressing on the top of my head with both hands, so now I have something new to do on the train. 

The New Yorker magazine is 90 years old and has published well over a hundred cartoons.  I like this one.  (Link)

In the middle of the work day Daniel came over to my cube and said, “Look at this old postcard I just found in my desk.”  He handed me a postcard from the 1980s in which you could see our office building.  “You can have it,” he said.  I said, “Hey, are you thinking of quitting? This is what Cathy did the day before she resigned.  She came over and stood where you are and gave me a stack of old reports she said she didn’t need anymore.”  Daniel said, “Oh, no no no,” and smiled.  Two months later he quit after 20 years with the company.

The Wake Up Shot

From The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene:

For a moment Yusef seemed about to sink again into drugged sleep; then with an effort he got on an elbow… 

He shook his head, so that the white lick of hair flapped; then putting out a vague hand he stretched for the syphon…

Yusef dragged the syphon towards him across the table knocking over the bromide glass; he turned the nozzle towards his face and pulled the trigger. The soda water broke on his face and splashed all round him on the mauve silk. He gave a sigh of relief and satisfaction, like a man under a shower on a hot day.

From Joy in the Morning, by P. G. Wodehouse

“You can’t go by what a girl says, when she’s giving you the devil for making a chump of yourself. It’s like Shakespeare. Sounds well, but doesn’t mean anything.”

— Bertie Wooster advising a friend on how to deal with criticism.

Meditation for busy people

When should I meditate?

Ideally, practice meditation at least once a day for 10 to 20 minutes.  Twice a day would be better, if you can. 

Where should I meditate? 

In a quiet place where you can close your eyes, sitting in a chair or on the floor, in a comfortable position. 

How do I meditate?

Think of a nonsense word and repeat it to yourself to empty your mind of distractions or worries.  Don’t be surprised if distracting thoughts or worries occur anyway, because our minds are prone to wandering all the time.  When this happens, pound yourself in the forehead three times and whisper “dummy.”  Then let the distraction or worry pass downstream and go back to repeating your nonsense word. 

Why should I meditate?

By practicing how to be aware of when your mind wanders, you can eventually improve the ability to concentrate even when you’re not meditating.

Isn’t the “nonsense word” also known as a mantra?

Sure, if you want to be weird about it. 

How do I know when the 20 minutes are up and it’s time to stop meditating?

This is essential.  Before you begin, connect a timer to an electric buzzer or horn of the type used at NBA games to signal the end of a quarter.  This will free you from the worry of watching the clock, allowing you to achieve a tranquil, meditative state.

Donuts, coffee, and hot romance

The guy was probably just trying to establish some kind of rapport, but when he was ahead of me at the donut shop and said, “Those pumpkin spice donuts — are they any good?” I had to wonder what he expected as an answer: “No, they’re essentially baked vomit with frosting on top. And don’t get me started about the rats’ tails inside.”

Imagine here a clever transitional sentence from donuts to coffee.

One particular guy at work used to be a Navy Seal and he carries his official Navy Seal coffee mug wherever he goes.  Once he must’ve been in top physical condition.  He still uses military slang in his casual conversation.  I have this perverse idea to buy the identical Navy Seal coffee mug for all coworkers, male and female, young and old, so that we can all carry them around the office. 

Here would be a good place for a graceful change of subject from Navy Seals to little old ladies.

I was standing (up straight) at the PC terminal at the public library and an elderly lady brushed against my butt as she walked past.  I attributed it to faulty eyesight or unsteady legs.  When she brushed against my butt a second time walking in the opposite direction, I had to speculate.  Still, I did not pursue this relationship with someone who, as Dana Gould says, “shouldn’t buy any green bananas.”  It would’ve been a charming story to tell how we met, though.

Hands up don't taunt

In my suburb police torture is distressing to the locals.  Cops will confiscate your smartphone and replace it with last year’s model.  They will force grown men to ride their bikes in the street instead of on the sidewalk.  They will take a black permanent marker and mark out the “H” in the logo of your North Face jacket so it looks like “The Nort Face.”  

They will use that same black marker to draw big circles on the headlights of your BMW so that the front of the car looks like it’s cross-eyed.  They will glue junk food to the flowering shrubs in front of your house so it looks like they're growing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  They will trick you into thinking that, under the teachings of traditional Chinese medicine, your dominant element is Metal when in fact it’s Earth.  Advocates for reparations are getting organized. 

Unknown pleasures

I just found out that my oldest co-worker, the one closest to retirement, used to be a drummer in a postpunk band around 1980. This soft-spoken expert in government data had a secret past, I found, while I was looking for his research online. This was like discovering that Queen Elizabeth played baritone sax behind Little Richard on “Tutti Frutti” in 1955. 

In the ten years before this, the only time he and I talked about music was when he had gone to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle, an opera production so long that it takes four nights to see the whole thing. “My tastes have changed,” he admitted when I brought this up. 

His band had originally been punk, playing in the style of the Clash and Sex Pistols, he said, but they dropped their entire set list and switched to a Joy Division kind of sound just to attract a better-behaved audience to their live shows. 

Top ten military drones or Old Spice fragrances

1. Arctic Force 

2. Hercules

3. Pacific Surge

4. Outlaw Seahunter

5. Fire Scout

6. Danger Zone

7. Smooth Blast

8. Global Hawk

9. Hawkridge

10. Switchblade

Numbers 2, 4, 5, 8, and 10 are U.S. military drones; numbers 1, 3, 6, 7, and 9 are Old Spice fragrances. 

Why chicken, why?

At the office, it’s not that strange to see a newspaper discarded in the wastebasket in the men’s room.  But I don’t understand why I saw the remains of a chicken leg in that same wastebasket.  I wasn’t there to see who walked into the bathroom, lunch in hand.  

Theories: He needed privacy to eat.  The smell of bathroom deodorizer whetted his appetite.  He liked to watch himself chewing in a mirror measuring twenty feet wide and five feet high.  He went in there just to wash his hands before lunch but then on impulse he tore into the chicken like a lusty man.  He didn’t go in there to eat, but when he cleaned out his pockets he found some lint, a gum wrapper, and a chicken leg.  Or actually, he went in there after lunch and coughed up a whole chicken leg because he didn’t chew thoroughly.

Three eligible bachelors

I was on the train sitting behind a lone man who was talking loudly into his smartphone, using non-stop profanity to tell someone to leave him alone.  He wasn’t pausing in his speech; it was a continuous monologue and it was a classic, including references to the U.S. Marines, the Kennedys, and repeated threats of litigation.  I doubted that anyone would be on the other end of his call listening to all that abuse.  The phone's display indicated that he would have been talking to someone whose phone number was “9.”  

A woman sitting nearest to the man got up and moved to a seat further away.  This angered the man and he put his phone down to curse only at her.  She looked horrified until the man got off the train five minutes later.  Weirdly, he started talking into his phone again as he stepped off, saying he had a question about the album cover for the Rush album "Hemispheres."  

On another day, another train, a talkative single man was benign, simply asking every man who stepped onto the train if he was an attorney.  None were. 

The third case was again harmless but different.  He had come onto a train that was almost empty.  A row of aisle-facing seats was empty except for a young woman at the far end.  The man walked with confidence past all the empty seats and sat almost on top of the young woman.  She asked him to “please” get off her lap.  

This is when the few passengers present looked up from their phones and the man seemed embarrassed enough to curse at us all, especially at the one guy who seemed primed for a fight.  They both got off at the next stop, each daring the other to throw the first punch.  They were still standing awkwardly, arguing as the train pulled away. 

Because, in this country, guns are more important than life itself, I have to remember to keep my mouth shut.  In these cases (all from this year) some perverse part of me was tempted to say “He’s actually my daughter’s violin teacher.  He is so good with kids.” 

Sowiwoquy by Elmer Fudd

Bweathe deep the gathewing gwoom,
Watch wights fade fwom evewy woom. 
Bedsittew people wook back and wament, 
Anothew day's usewess enewgy spent. 
Impassioned wovers westle as one, 
wonewy man cwies for wove and has none. 
New mothew picks up and suckews hew son, 
Seniow citizens wish they wew young. 
Cold heawted owb that wules the night, 
Wemoves the colows fwom ouw sight, 
Wed is gwey and yewwow white, 
But we decide which is wight. 
And which is an iwwusion. 

Words and music by Justin Hayward and Peter Knight

Arizona business acumen

Last week Arizona’s governor vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature.  The bill would have allowed business owners, on the basis of their religion, to deny service to gay and lesbian customers.  I hadn’t been following the news closely so I’d missed the larger story that Arizona business owners have acquired the power to deduce a stranger’s sexual orientation just by looking at them. 

This is significant.  Gossip magazines and sites devote lots of space to whether certain celebrities are gay or straight.  As soon as famous people went to Arizona, they’d be outed, if necessary.  

How did business owners acquire the skill to spot the gay/lesbian minority on sight?  I suspect that it’s simply part of that discernment that boosts any person above the level of common employee to chief executive officer.  

Even though the bill didn't pass, all the same, whether you’re famous or not, if you’re in an Arizona convenience store trying to pick up a gallon of milk, men should be extra-masculine and women should be obviously feminine to avoid suspicion.  

But what if you’re another kind of Arizona business owner, like an internet service provider?  How can you confirm that all your customers are hetero when you can’t see them?  A quick fix would be to add another Terms of Service agreement to certify how the customer uses his/her genitals.  The downside is that when the company forwards all its customer’s private data to the government, it lacks the gays’ information.

In the big picture, for the sake of consistency, the state might consider expanding the “denial of service” concept to also prohibit “breathing the same air as gay people.”  The short-term remedy for businesspeople would be to hold one's breath, as was proven to be effective against cooties in the first grade.

How was your holiday?

We are living in the worst of all possible worlds and all news is bad news, according to the relative I saw over Thanksgiving.  At one point we were driving through my home town and as we passed various stores or restaurants, the relative pointed out how each place contained evidence that the Affordable Care Act was already destroying the country. 

I have no opinion yet about the ACA other than that the web site is crappy, but when the relative pointed out that a certain provision of the ACA had already caused the end of the world, I had to point out that the provision had actually been postponed to January 2015. 

Would this be good news?  No, the relative started to spin fantasies about the horrible effect of the delay.  

Family members are those whose psychoses you know best, but in this season I have to remember that it’s rude to mess with people’s dearly held faiths.

Yes boss, the training was definitely worthwhile

“Oh, those poor people,” Abigail said, looking out our office window.  She was looking  into a window of the skyscraper next door where we could see a conference room.  There was obviously some team-building exercise going on over there.  Around the long table people were paired off and standing to face each other, making silly gestures.  A young woman with long straight hair was at the head of the table, giving orders.  

I’ve had good and bad corporate training.  The bad reduced us to four-year-olds divided into teams and searching through piles of magazines to find pictures that illustrated “leadership” or “teamwork.”  After one minute of that I was even more impatient to be back at my desk doing something useful and challenging, so maybe the class was good for some. 

Mark well the lesson of my brother, who attended mandatory training on Honesty and Communication in the Workplace.  After the class he was asked what he thought of it; he said it was a waste of his time and the next day he was fired. 

Avian behavior and the marriage paradigm

As a child, I'd browse through the sheet music on the family's upright piano and look for the only pages that had a cartoon on the front: The Woody Woodpecker Song.  Here were the words that went with the song I heard on the TV cartoons.

Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
That's the Woody Woodpecker song
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
He's a peckin' it all day long

He pecks a few holes in a tree to see
If a redwood's really red
And it's nothing to him, on the tiniest whim
To peck a few holes in your head

This described the character I knew, short and hyperactive.

Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
That's the Woody Woodpecker's tune
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
Makes the other woodpeckers swoon

Though it doesn't make sense to the dull and the dense
All the lady woodpeckers long for
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
That's the Woody Woodpecker song

I didn't remember a lot of lady woodpeckers in the cartoons, but I'd take their word for it.

Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
Woody Woodpecker's serenade
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
On the woodpecker hit parade

Though he can't sing a note, there's a frog in his throat
All his top notes come out blurred
He's the ladies' first choice, with a laugh in his voice
He gives all his rivals the bird

I wonder about the connotation of that last line when the song was written in 1947.  It was the next part I really didn't understand.

Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
He'll be settlin' down some day
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
He'll be hearin' the preacher say

For the rest of your life you'll be Woody and wife
And the choir will sing along with
Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha!
The Woody Woodpecker song 

Even though the lyrics said "He's the ladies' first choice," I couldn't get a grasp on how he was the marryin' kind.  "He'll be settlin' down some day"?  Will there be cartoons of that?  I tried to picture Woody and his wife-to-be standing at an altar of some apparently Christian denomination, and it just didn't compute.  

It was easier to imagine the post-divorce Woody seeking adventure again while his ex confided to her girlfriends about his fear of intimacy.  On the other hand, I believe Droopy Dog had a long and nurturing marriage.

Song by George Tibbles and Ramey Idriss, copyright Universal Music Publishing Group and EMI Music Publishing.

Informed consumers

Italian dictator Mussolini claimed an ability to make the trains run on time.  There's never been any evidence of a fascist takeover at the Chicago Transit Authority.

Elsewhere, this summer I tried my best to explore the incredible variety of entertainment available to a person.  I watched a highly-regarded movie by a French director I'd never heard of and then checked out a novel by a well-reviewed British writer I'd never read before.  It turned out to be the same story twice.  The movie was an adaptation of the book.  Movie: La Ceremonie directed by Claude Chabrol.  Book: A Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell. 

When I moved to this neighborhood years ago there was one grocery store and it was good.  Things have changed and now there's a spot where, depending on which direction you face, you can throw a rock and hit any of three grocery stores.  People wandering within a mile of the area, busy with their lives, will find themselves distracted by the thought of food.  They will be magnetically diverted to one of the grocery stores and, in a trance, spend a few dollars on artisanal broccoli or something. 

A few weeks ago I was on my way to a public restroom and found a little tableau directly in front of the mens room door.  A mom was kneeling down to a two-year-old boy while the dad stood nearby.  The mom was saying to the son, "Do you want to use the bathroom?  Can you do it yourself or do you want me to help?  Do you want Daddy to help?  Do you have to go to the bathroom? or would you like to visit the pet store?  Would you like to see the doggies? or do you need to go to the bathroom?"  The poor kid, already overwhelmed by the experience of standing up outside of his crib, was clearly doing his mental best to make a decision.  Wait 'til he gets to the cereal aisle.

(Love Theme from) Contagion directed by Steven Soderbergh

I enjoyed the movie Contagion (2011) starring Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow in a story about the spread of a deadly disease.  The movie lacked one thing that it would have had if only it had been made in the 1950s or 1960s: A song, the Love Theme from Contagion.

The song would've occurred in a scene in the first 30 minutes of the movie, where the male and female lead characters meet in a night club where there's live entertainment.  In the background there would be a singer accompanied by a piano player and a guy on conga drums, and their song would be played in a minor key to a moderate calypso beat, and it would go something like this:

What I'm catching is you
It's raging
And it feels like the flu

I hope what I'm saying to you is truly 
For I'm sure that there's no remedy
Swallowable or chewable

By the idea of you
By a heart that is true

I'm plagued by the symptoms of something that might be 
Let us run away to find a cure in my sporty

Oh darling
Please do not quarantine me
This virus
Got someone and I mean me

…you get the idea.

No transitional sentences today

"I was going to do it your way, but to be fair, after we spoke, I had an imaginary conversation in which you agreed to let me do it my way."  -- Prepared excuse for the office; haven't used it yet; feel free.

Abrupt subject change:  Short men of Chicago: You need not wear extra-long shoes.  They are an affectation.  You don't see short men wearing sandals that stick out four inches ahead of their toes.  

Another abrupt subject change:  A man in the Chicago area was found guilty of murder Friday even though his attorney gave him wire-rimmed glasses to wear during his trial.  Years ago another defendant here put on glasses for his trial; his crime was running onto the field of a White Sox game and attacking the umpire.  The glasses in the courtroom are supposed to make you appear innocent.  (Link to article about glasses for defendants)

Nightly videos of violent offenders, all of whom happen to wear wire-rimmed glasses while on trial, are bound to have a detrimental effect on my reputation (I have to wear glasses).  Defense attorneys, please adopt another tactic because this one has worn out.  If you thought juries would fall for dressing murderers to look like tenured college professors, it shouldn't be a stretch to try The Mork (rainbow suspenders over a long-sleeved t-shirt), The Disney (a giant duck suit), or The Shirley Temple.