Science won't change you

I haven’t gained weight but I think my head is getting fatter because my glasses are starting to pinch behind my ears.  So if you see that my head has gotten fatter you don’t have to tell me, I already know. 

What was Spock’s first name?  I think it was Larry.  How would this have changed the Star Trek universe if it had been common knowledge?  The title of their third movie would’ve been Star Trek III: The Search for Larry.

Finally, David Byrne speaks to anti-maskers:

Everything seems to be up in the air at this point
I need something to change your mind

Science won't change you
Looks like I can't change you

I try to talk to you to, to make things clear
But you're not even listening to me
And it comes directly from my heart to you

I need something to change your mind

…from “Mind” on the Fear of Music album by Talking Heads


From The Hills at Home by Nancy Clark, a scene in which high school students gather in the gym for an assembly called at the last minute:

"And then the theme music from that old-time space-voyage, homicidal computer, vast floating cosmic-embryo movie everyone’s parents thought was so great spouted over the P.A. system. The student body tensed, guarded and alert. The program was going to be Inspirational. Damn. They were going to be exhorted to get high on life instead of drugs and alcohol and video games. They were going to be given sunflower seeds to plant in barren corners of the earth. They were going to be assigned old people."


I was at the Borders bookstore on North Michigan Avenue some time ago. I was the only one browsing at the fiction shelves in the basement. A young woman, a stranger to me, came up alongside as I was looking at the spines of the books. She said “Let’s open up this space to others, shall we?” I didn’t know how my standing there prompted her speech, but I kept my thoughts to myself and backed away. 

In another year as I walked south down the street near my new home, I saw a young woman, a stranger to me, walking north toward me. As we neared each other she pointed to the Walgreens parking lot and said “Go in there and tell them somebody has a car with the headlights on.” Sure enough, a car in the Walgreens lot had their lights on. It was a time when I wanted to feel engaged in this neighborhood that was new to me, so I followed orders. Later I wondered why the young woman didn’t want to go in the Walgreens herself.

In 2016 I entered my apartment building through the sole glass door available. A young woman, a stranger to me, was standing facing me just inside the doorway, holding a cute little dog. I opened the door, pulling it toward me, entered and took a very quick 90 degree turn so as to not touch the woman and head for the mailboxes. As I got my mail she berated me for two minutes for my speed in entering the building and going around her. Since I lived in the building and expected we would cross paths again, I listened to her describe how disrespectful I had been. I didn’t want to argue, I was so tired. I didn’t ask why her feet had been planted to block the glass door’s sole entrance to the building. In hindsight, it was the Friday night after the election and maybe we were both extra excited about the great things to come from the new administration. 

Bonus: The young woman, a stranger to me, from last year (link).


I used to think I had social anxiety disorder but I must have outgrown it -- finally!

This is instructive — under the "Most Popular” section of a website, the Most Popular story happens to be the one that occupies the entire width of the homepage at the very top. 

In the first week of the lockdown, I got a letter from The Neptune Society, whose motto on the letterhead is "Cremation, Today's Sensible Choice." They wondered if I was interested in learning about pre-planning for cremation, which I guess is what you do before planning. 

I can certify this is true: To increase the surrealism of your experience, listen to the soundtrack from “My Fair Lady” while reading the morning news. 

The nature of the business

Is it bad luck when your haircutter has alcohol on her breath? And it’s 10:00 am? (It worked out.)

Varmint stew

A traveling cowboy visits a large family and is welcomed to their dinner table.  Maude is the mother of the family and she calls the cowboy “Captain.”
”This is my varmint stew, Captain,” Maude said.  
“Oh,” he asked politely, “what kind of varmints?”

“Whatever the dogs can catch,” Maude said. “Or the dogs themselves, if they don’t manage to catch nothing. I won’t support a lazy dog.” 

“She put a possum in,” one of the little girls said.  She seemed as full of mischief as her fat mother, who, fat or not, had made plenty of mischief among the men of the area before she settled on Joe. 

“Now Maggie, don’t be giving away my recipes,” Maude said.
— From Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry


Elvis Presley loved to collect sheriff’s badges wherever he went. Peter Guralnick detailed the best case of this in his book Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Elvis arranged to meet Richard Nixon in the White House in December 1970 so he could get a badge meant to signify (in Elvis’s mind) that he was an official undercover agent for the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. 

After getting his badge, Elvis got his friends, Sonny and Jerry, to also step into the Oval Office to meet the President. Nixon gave them tie clasps and cuff links with the presidential seal. 

“‘You know, they’ve got wives, too,’ Elvis reminded the President, and together he and Richard Nixon rummaged through the President’s desk drawer for suitable presents for the wives."

On dinner parties

“Just because they know everything about something that grows at the bottom of the sea does not mean they’re good fun to be sitting next to at dinner.” 
— Baroness Trumpington on an episode of Very British Problems

Gore Vidal, Jacqueline Susann

Gore Vidal remembers author Jacqueline Susann: “Although I have never read her I enjoyed meeting her several times with her large dark eyes whose thick false lashes resembled a pair of tarantulas in a postcoital state.”  From Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964 to 2006.

Weekend update

It was a quiet Sunday morning, the streets were deserted, and I was walking down the narrow sidewalk with big grocery bags hanging from each fist. A voice behind me said, “Excuse me, excuse me.” Rather than turn my head I just walked out into the empty street and continued in my direction. Back on the sidewalk a thin woman walked briskly past me, dressed in stretch fabrics, arms pumping, eyes straight ahead. I wondered why I had to be the one to vacate the sidewalk, but to be fair, she was Power Walking. 

The local stores have been doing more to encourage their customers to bring reuseable shopping bags. First they posted signs to that effect. Then they said there would be a seven-cent surcharge if they had to put your stuff in a new bag. Then last time the cashier asked if I would need a bag and I said yes, she reached under the counter and swung at my head with a baseball bat. I ducked in time, but still.

Collective nouns, S:

A squander of landline telephones was on display in the back corner of the store. 

Scattered around the lobby of the retirement home, a seepage of octogenerians occupied the armchairs and sofas.

A spite of Republican voters arrived early for the town hall meeting.

Contact your autonomy coach immediately

I don’t care if it’s an annual office tradition — I think Falsetto Day hurts our credibility, especially when we answer the phone. 

“Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I’ll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.”
— From The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.

I saw Supergirl (or a wannabe) walking from the direction of the Children’s Hospital last week.

Without changing what I wear, I have become a prude. I was the only one on the train who wore socks that covered my ankles. Why do I do this? Just out of habit. What would I gain by wearing socks that make my ankles cold? I am too scared to learn.

There was that species of disappointment, when you’re single and in your twenties, and you receive a piece of mail that is obviously a Valentine’s Day card, and you open it, and it’s from your mother. 

Thanks Mr. King

As a teenager I was working the summer in a branch location of the municipal library. This building was old and the wooden floors screeched and creaked every time we took a step. The interior of the library was one big room with a high ceiling and beautiful stained oak shelves and furnishings around the perimeter. 

This day there was no one there but me; I don’t remember where my co-worker was. It was a nice hot day outside; not unusual for the library to be deserted and perfectly quiet in that residential neighborhood. 

I was sitting on the high stool behind the massive checkout counter reading Danse Macabre by Stephen King. It had been staring at me from the New Books shelf directly across from the counter. In the book Stephen King described scary books and movies, and one of his recommendations for suspense was the novel A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin. 

It occurred to me that I was sitting in a large room full of books. I climbed down from the stool, went to the card catalog, pulled out a drawer and found a card listing the book. We had it in paperback. I went to one of the spinning squeaky metal paperback racks and found it — a beat up copy with vintage 1960s design on the cover. 

How popular was this copy? At that time all our books had the circulation card in the pocket glued to the first page. The card was stamped with all the due dates for when it had been borrowed. It hadn’t been checked out in 7 years. 

I acted in my capacity as a municipal employee. Any book that had not been checked out in 5 years was eligible to be withdrawn from the collection to make room for newer books. 

Back to the checkout counter: Sit on the high stool, reach to my far right for the ink pad and the little rack of rubber stamps saying REFERENCE, NEW BOOK, CHILDREN, here’s the one I want: WITHDRAWN. Stamp on the ink pad, stamp on the book’s first page, press that stamp onto the page good, no one wanted it. 

I started reading A Kiss Before Dying right then. Took it home, kept it with me at the supper table, read it after supper, I finished it that night or the next morning. I wasn’t disappointed; Stephen King was right.  Then I picked up Danse Macabre where I left off.

Postscript: You can’t go home again. I revisited that beloved building decades later and the beautiful interior had been replaced by smooth drywall painted teal with purple trim, the preferred look of that year.

This year

The train was stopped, doors open, at the Belmont platform during the evening commute. A tall young man on the platform pushed a grey-haired lady so that she fell down inside the train. The man yelled, “Don’t you push me, bitch!” and stalked away down the platform. The lady got up quickly, yelling in Spanish.  

Passengers called the train’s operator for help and he came back to offer assistance to the grey-haired lady but she just yelled more Spanish and then turned her back on the operator.  

While this was going on, a man at the other end of the car called out, “Let’s move it!  I’ve got PLACES to go!” Another man said quietly, “What places you gotta go — your mother’s basement?”

There were good people on the train; the operator knew how to be gentle with strangers in distress and there were women speaking in calming voices to our local version of Abbott and Costello. Try to remember the good parts. 


“At the end of February 1978 he [Roddy Llewellyn] flew to Mustique for a holiday, but was ‘badly run down,’ and went to hospital in Barbados. ‘His faeces were pitch-black,’ records Nigel Dempster, with off-putting omniscience, in his semi-authorized biography.”

From the book Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown.

Bob Dylan, Clothes Line Saga

When talking about a Bob Dylan song, I’m not one of those guys who’s going to analyze the lyrics and tell you that “the plowman” was really Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Agriculture and “the senator” was a reference to Barry Goldwater. The songs generally leave enough ambiguity for many interpretations. 

The song “Clothes Line Saga” is from the Basement Tapes album recorded in 1967. I still think it’s funny, like when I first heard it 35 years ago. 

The first verse is about a family hanging just-washed clothes on the clothesline outside. The second verse starts with:

The next day everybody got up
Seein’ if the clothes were dry
The dogs were barking, a neighbor passed
Mama, of course, she said, “Hi!”

The singer’s tone might suggest that he's resigned to the fact that Mama will always be the most sociable one in the family. Then the part that got me when I first heard it:

“Have you heard the news?” he said, with a grin
“The Vice-President’s gone mad!”
“Where?” “Downtown.” “When?” “Last night”
“Hmm, say, that’s too bad!”
“Well, there’s nothin’ we can do about it,” said the neighbor
“It’s just somethin’ we’re gonna have to forget”
“Yes, I guess so,” said Ma
Then she asked me if the clothes was still wet

On one hand, the news story is remarkable. On the other hand, the folks in the song accept it stoically and go back to chores. In the third and final verse there’s some small talk and the singer brings the dry clothes into the house. And every day for two years now I keep thinking “Well, there’s nothin’ we can do about it, it’s just somethin’ we’re gonna have to forget” and I do the laundry.

Lyrics copyright © 1969 by Dwarf Music; renewed 1997 by Dwarf Music

Ladies at lunch

From the novel Raney by Clyde Edgerton.

“I guess you have less cholesterol if you don’t eat meat,” says Aunt Naomi.

“There are health advantages,” said Mrs. Shepherd. “And also our women’s group has been concentrating on how eating less meat can help curtail hunger in the third world.” 

“On another planet?” says Aunt Naomi.

“Oh, no. Developing nations,” says Mrs. Shepherd. She finished chewing and swallowed. “Developing nations."


I think this approach is too harsh: Headline "Task force sets goal of cutting Illinois female inmate population in half.”

This phase has to pass soon, of doctors’ assistants’ ending every sentence with “for me.” “Would you sit down there for me?” “Would you hold out your left arm for me?” If the assistants said that all day long, I imagine in some cases it accidentally happened again after work during marital relations but you’ll have to make up your own joke for that.

I used to listen to Penn Jillette’s podcast but he spent so much time talking about atheism, a concept with which I could be sympathetic. I quit listening because he was preaching to the unconverted. 

I'm not sure apathy is the word

Years ago, Gloria Estafan advised me that the rhythm was going to get me -- I'm only just now starting to lower my guard. 

I saw Mom and Dad on Father’s Day a couple weeks ago. We were talking about how extremely hot weather can lead to people dying where they live, like in Chicago in the summer of 1995. My dad said he didn’t understand why people didn’t know enough to get out of the heat. Later that day he said he didn’t understand why some people kill themselves in response to online bullying. Every Father’s Day at some point I think of the same question: What word means the opposite of empathy?

Every time I see that thrift shop advertising three socks for a dollar I have a mental grimace. 

The Information by Martin Amis

In The Information by Martin Amis, six-year-old Marco asks his father Richard a question:

"Daddy? Are you bold?”

“I sometimes like to think so, yes, Marco.”

“Will you always be bold?”

"Despite the ills that await life’s balm, Marco, though made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek —"

“Have you always been bold? How did you get bold?”

Richard closed his eyes. He dropped his pen onto the desktop and said, “You mean bald. Go elsewhere, Marco.”

The child remained. He went on gazing at his father’s hair. “Have you got male-pattern boldness?”

“I suppose so. I suppose that’s the kind I’ve got.”


From the Anita Loos novel But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1927) in which we read the diary of Lorelei Lee:
Well, a dramatic travelling company had come to San Diego called The Frederick Morgan Players, and one Wednesday afternoon when Dorothy was playing hookey from school, as usual, she attended the matinay. Well, the production that day was called “The Tail of Two Cities” and the gentleman who portrayed the title role was Frederick Morgan himself.
And Frederick Morgan had the type of personality that, as soon as he came out on the stage, everybody knew he was there. Because he had the habit of walking on backwards, so that the audience could not see his face. And as soon as he felt that they could hardly stand the suspence any longer, he would suddenly turn around quick and hold a pose. And Dorothy says that when he did it, the thrill that went down her spine almost made her think that the back of her chair had been wired for electricity.

Deep breath

I pushed the gate and it would only swing open a little and then freeze, but I was able to slide through sideways, same as every Saturday for the last three months.  I was getting onto the premises of the newly built headquarters of the place where I volunteer once a week.  I had heard that there were other eccentricities in the new construction that also weren’t quite perfected yet (the larger parking lot gate, a sink in the utility room). 

Suitcase wheels sounded behind me, outside the gate.  It was Amelia, the stout senior citizen who also volunteered on Saturdays.  She was towing the suitcase, toddling at her usual slow pace.  The week before, she had asked me what to do with a dirty dish and I said as tactfully as I could that the volunteers just wash stuff like that when we find it; we don’t need to ask permission.  

Amelia was naturally a bit dim and here she came trundling up to the gate, not knowing it was broken and wouldn’t open enough to let her through — forget about the suitcase.  “I’m sorry this gate won’t let you through, I’m afraid,” I said, and she said hi, pulled on the gate, and it opened 90 degrees giving her all the room she needed to follow me into the building. 

Age matters

Things could be worse — what if your last name was Alzheimer and you had to deal with an obligatory joke every time you met someone?

An acquaintance, a middle-aged man, approached a college campus building at the same time as a young woman.  They got to the door at the same time and the man opened the door for the woman.  She stopped and said that he was committing a Micro-aggression by acting as if she couldn’t open the door for herself.  The man gave a little apology and that was the end of that.  

On the other hand, if the man had opened the door for an elderly woman, she probably would’ve appreciated it.  I should learn from this and try to calculate my etiquette based on an instant demographic analysis of strangers.  Age can make a difference. 

It’s like that billboard I kept seeing this month for a new TV show called Siren, about a mermaid.  Luckily for ratings sake, the mermaid happens to resemble a skinny 22-year-old supermodel.  If the mermaid had instead been 75 years old, in average physical shape for an American of that vintage, and suffering from osteoporosis, the show would probably attract a smaller audience.  The age thing.

The old man sat in front of me on the bus.  His head was shaved.  He had a bump located behind his right ear.  If I had pressed on the bump I believe it would’ve made a high-pitched squeak like a dog toy.  My left hand clamped down on my right hand.


After one month
The little grey cat is still hiding under my sofa, scared of his new home.  The big orange cat is new here too but likes the place and walks freely through every room.  He’s seen Grey but doesn’t go under the sofa to meet him; he's content to rule the apartment alone.

After two months
Grey came out from under the sofa for the first time.  I was eating breakfast.  Grey walked slowly up to Orange and they touched noses.  Grey flinched at every sound in the room and soon scampered back under the sofa, his white paws flashing.  Orange didn’t care. 

After three months
Grey wants to get to know Orange.  Orange wants to be left alone.  When Grey gets within six inches of Orange a fight breaks out with ugly snarling noises, but when I break it up there’s no harm done.  And after a minute Grey goes right back to sniff Orange’s face.  Orange stands still now.  It looks like Grey saying “Are you OK?”

After six months
Orange is sleeping on my lap as he has from day one.  Grey walks in the room; Orange sees this and gets up, hops down, and leaves the room.  Grey hops onto my lap, curls up and falls asleep.  This happens every week now. 

Whenever I get home from work, little Grey greets me at the door and Orange hangs back, not wanting to come near Grey.

After one year
Every night, Orange sleeps at the foot of my bed.  Grey had been sleeping in the living room.  One night at bedtime Grey tried to hop onto the bed with Orange and a horrible fight broke out.  Orange will continue to defend the bed as his territory.  

After one year, six months
I work a half day, getting home at 1:00 pm, a rare thing. No cats greet me at the door.  I go into the bedroom and find Orange and Grey sleeping on the bed, two furry circles just a foot apart.  They look up at me frowning.  They put their heads down, one after the other, to sleep again.

After two years
Grey walks up to Orange every day at some point.  Grey bows his head and Orange forcefully licks the top and back of Grey’s head for ten seconds.  Grey walks away, no fuss.

"I don't want any trouble"

I started taking self-defense lessons. There’s a full-length mirror covering one wall of the training room. In my practicing of defensive moves I look like a marionette operated by a puppeteer who’s being tickled by a spastic giant sitting on a wobbly chair.

Luckily I haven’t punched myself in the head yet. In these early stages,  I’m awkward and the experienced students are graceful; their movements hit the target with accuracy and force. 

In matters of physical coordination I have to remind myself that a long time ago I didn’t know how to tie a necktie and now it’s something I’ve done thousands of times without thinking. If only attackers could be intimidated by the sight of me staring at them unblinking while tying a four-in-hand knot.

It’s been decades since I was this uncomfortable in a learning situation; last time it was piano lessons I was forced to take for a few years. Out of principle, I never played piano after I was allowed to quit. Just as well; I can’t imagine a scenario where there’s a gun to my head and the request is for a Scott Joplin rag in a “sprightly” mode. 

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?

S. 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. 

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.

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.

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.