Santa Baby!

Santa Baby!

A recent piece in the New York Times profiles a Santa Claus retreat on a Royal Princess Cruise to Alaska . The piece, “When Santa Goes On Vacation”, is part of the Times’ series, “Surfacing”, a column that attends to the intersection of art and life, pretty heady stuff one would suppose, but then, recent articles have examined the last two Dance Dance Revolution machines in New York and the positive effect of slime as an antidote to stress caused by overactive involvement with social media.

In any case, a reporter Aaron Reiss, and a photographer, Chris Maggio, tagged along as the Santas convened for both business and pleasure. Workshops (?) included instruction on where to place hands while placing humans on Santa’s lap, a slightly disturbing area of concern in that some of these Santas have been been hands-on for more than thirty years. These are what is known in the trade as “real bearded” Santas, men who essentially play the part throughout the year. They take their profession seriously, referring to themselves as Santa Bob or Santa Bill as one might introduce Dr. Harris or Professor Plum.

Not a bad boondoggle for Reiss and Maggio, but intersection of art and life?

My concern, of course, is that get-away cruising can only begin to contend with the terrible burden these Santas must carry in the aftermath of a long holiday season in which they experience the full range of human longing. Santa is not a mailbox into which one shouts a list of must-have goodies; Santa is the embodiment of all that is good and kind and generous in a world that is rarely good or kind or generous. I don’t know what the statistics show with regard to the emotional intensity of Santa encounters, but I’m going out on a limb (Douglas Fir) in identifying commonly occuring issues for the real bearded, professional Santa

  • Terrified children screaming relentlessly – 50%. This estimate is based on my observation of the Santa enterprises at our local shopping mall. I may be off by a few percentage points as it can happen that a family presents a pair of siblings in full howl, each egging the other on to greater feats of pitch and volume. This, see, this is one of the windows into a non-Polar world that our Santa has to see in full color and up-close. Not only is he responsible for calming (not possible) a child in meltdown, he also has a parent/grandparent/divorced dad/well meaning aunt/harried babysitter at the other end of this spectacle and a never-ending line of impatient customers fidgeting uneasily before him. And, let’s be clear. elves are of no use in this situation. Even the most charming and well trained elf is but a supporting player in this drama, a walk-on, a cameo. No, this is Santa business, inevitable and jarring.
  • Body fluids – 80%. In this case, I am going with the laws of probability and my own experience as a parent. A kid’s gotta go when a kid’s gotta, and noses run, folks, run like the Nile in November and December.
  • Heart-breaking vignettes – 40%. Santa knows all, sees all. Families barely scraping by, not scraping by, children of imploded and dangerous families, children with fresh bruises. He sees active alcohol and drug impairment, psychosis, delusion, entitlement, despair. Oh, my God. A busy therapist sees, what, ten clients a day at most? That’s a half an hour for Santa. They just keep on coming.
  • Rictus, Phlegm, Nasty Stomach Backwash – 50%. Try smiling for eight hours a day. It hurts and starts to resemble a death mask after about twenty minutes. Nasal impairment? Santa inhales disease at a rate approximately 700% greater than Emergency Room physicians; how long can the hardiest immune system hold out against the onslaught? Then, it happens, one too many day-old-oysters, a bad trip to Taco Bell, and whoops! Imagine sitting for hours with volcanic eruption only a heartbeat away.

Enough. Without consideration of whatever might be happening in Santa’s own personal life, the odds are that by December 26th, our man in red is ready for more than a ten-day cruise on a Princess liner.

I have a friend, a hypnotist, who plies his mesmerizing trade on ocean liners. He does two shows a day, feeds at the brimming trough liners present, and sees much of the world. Hypnotists, singers, ventriloquists, impressionists. Why not a therapist? Two-a-day sessions, one Santa at a time, and maybe some of these holiday heroes return restored and ready to place their hands in entirely appropriate fashion as summer melts to fall.

Oh, and I want a pinball machine, and a new sound system, and a DDR Revolution machine, and …

A Mouse Tale

A Mouse Tale

My niece is an artist, quilter, lampmaker, chef, baker, holiday planner, and budding author. I bring her to the conversation because she illustrates children’s books and has developed several ideas for books that sound pretty engaging to me. Over the years, I have intended to come up with a charming tale that suits her particular ouvre (as illustrated at the top of this article), but, as my loyals readers know, I’m lousy when it comes to fleshing out a narrative.

However, I have vowed to take on every genre, one-at-a-time, and so, with no expectation of producing anything worth while, here goes my tentative foray into Children’s Literature, the body of which follows a slight excursion to the local bookshop and some fluffle about the genre and books that end up in bookstores.

I like bookstores, for the most part, although I am easily overwhelmed by he volume of books published, and, to be honest, regretful that mine are not. Nonetheless, I wander, picking up the most egregiously awful potboilers, reading the first paragraph out loud and planning my suicide. Not true. Not quite.

There was once some relief in heading to the children’s section, where old favorites still lay in profusion. Babar still trumpeted mightily, Tin Tin still took on the odd gang of middle European mobsters, Charlotte still spun a web. Ah, but today! Today the racks of children’s books fill room after room, many of the books unlovely, and, I presume, unread. I don’t like to point to any particular series as most objectionable, but the trailer for Captain Underpants :The First Epic Movie has just been released. I’m just saying.

I started school in the “See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run!” era, but there were other early books that live in memory as well. I have some tucked away, and I think my brother has his copy of Bobby Had A Nickel, an otherwise entirely forgettable narrative, except that it touched upon a dilemma with which I struggled at the time. Bobby’s problem, and mine, was that there were so many ways to spend discretionary income, in Bobby’s case, a nickel. Bobby considers one enticing purchase after another, finally settling on a surprising choice.

Fortunately, I have been able to find the text, thus finding relief from a brain sapping set of couplets that I absolutely knew to be wrong.

Bobby had a nickel

(A nickel) all his own

Should he buy a penguin

or an ice cream cone?

I don’t know where the penguin came from, but try to wedge that one from the mind once it has settled in. In fact, Bobby considered some candy or an ice cream cone, much less exciting in my view. By the way, that copy of Bobby Had A Nickel goes for about $50.00 on the open market, so if you own it, treat it gently.

Oh, yeah. Spoiler Alert! He spends the nickel in order to ride on a carousel. I’d much rather have a penguin.

Times change, but the dreadful implications of making a choice that excludes other choices (what economists call opportunity cost) remains in the mind of any child. So, herewith, my attempt at writing a book for children:

Lazlo had a Euro

Five Rubles and a buck

Globalization had ended

So he was out of luck

Should be go with Paypal

Dwolla, or maybe Stripe

Or maybe crypto coins

Of any shape or type………

This is going nowhere and has nothing for the fabulous family illustrator to illustrate, so – changing gears, and with an apology to real authors of books for children, here is my attempt at the sort of book I might have enjoyed in 7th or 8th grade, slightly creepy but short of shocking. You know, kids’ stuff:

Deep in the Carpathian Alps, the castle Alucard stood grey and grim, its rocky parapets seemingly inviting castle guests (although there were rarely guests at this castle) to take a final look at the majestic snow covered peaks above the castle and the roaring river below before stepping out into infinity.

The Count Alucard, a mouse of indeterminate age, as you will see, dressed in fussy finery each evening in a superbly tailored tailcoat with scarlet sash from shoulder to the hem of the jacket. By day? Well, the Count was not seen in daylight.

In the village, when ordinary townsmice spoke of the castle and the Count, ah, but then, they did not speak of either, not out loud. Children learned to speak of “that place” , and, of course, none dared climb the long trail to knock at the castle’s door.

An odd aspect of the town below was that the walls of the villagers’ homes were strung with wreaths of garlic and long strands of vervain, their slender stalks bearing small pale lilac flowers. The vervain smelled lovely; the garlic not so much.

From an early age children of the village were taught to look carefully when opening a door, never inviting anyone in who was not already known to them. Mice new to town were invited to visit the Mayor’s office, a long room lined with mirrors. Visitors unwilling to walk before the mirrors were not welcome and were quickly ushered to the train station and whisked away.

Some important facts can be left unsaid, and in this village there was no doubt that great danger lay at the top of the rocky crag above the river. As the years had gone by, villagers had disappeared into the night on a regular basis; once or twice a month. Usually villagers in their teens, those brave enough, or foolish enough, to leave their homes after dark. The lights in the castle burned brighter on nights such as these. No one talked of climbing up to find their friends, but a few brave souls thought they might give it a try, if any others would be willing to come along.

None were. So far.

Heironymouse B. Whisklett, a rather small and somewhat anxious mouse, had lived in the village all his life, daring little, certainly never daring to hike the trail to Alucard’s Castle, but for reasons that operate in stories such as these, on this afternoon, when the sky was uncommonly blue, the hills uncommonly green, the sun uncommonly warm, he couldn’t help but think what a pleasant climb it would be and how he could spin a fine tale of adventure to a crowd as they huddled in the warm parlor of the village inn. He rarely spoke, and when he did, the townsmice rarely listened. A real adventure, he thought, might be well worth talking about and listening to. He packed a small bag with water, several small apples, a few tawny cranberry biscuits, a slab of ripe cheese, and a piece of Muckleberry pie for the hike, adding a clove of garlic at the last moment, just as a precaution, and set out on his journey.

As he started out on the little used trail, he passed an old cottage, covered with vines, the windows shuttered. An older person, perhaps male, perhaps female, sat on the front stoop. Heironymouse raised his hand in respectful salute as he strode by, but the figure stood quickly and blocked his way.

Now he could see that she wore a long black apron and a wide brimmed soft black hat. “Good morning, Heironymouse,” she said with a rattle in her voice. “I see you mean to take he path to the castle.” She spoke of the castle without flinching, pointing to it without taking her eyes off Heironymouse. “It’s a long climb. Surely you’ve brought something with you to nibble on as you start your trip? Something an old woman might like on a fine afternoon?”

Heironymouse nodded and opened his pack, rifling through his belongings, pulling out the apples, biscuits, cheese, and pie. “You are welcome to anything I have,” he said, pointing to the pile of food he had laid on the table. “I brought some garlic as well,” he said, as he pulled the clove from the bottom of the bag, “but I’d rather keep that as I my need it when I get close to the castle.”

“Close to the castle,” She picked up the Muckleberry pie and shook her head. “You won’t be needing garlic today.” She shoved almost the entire piece of pie in what Heironymouse took to be a toothless mouth, and pointed to a small sack at her feet.

“Mufflleesnufflemubblebung”, she said, or something like it, leaving Heironymouse much confused. After a moment, the pie was finished and she continued. “Everything you need is in my sack,” she continued as she dusted off the crumbs that had landed on her apron. “You have three acorns in the bag. The first is white. You must throw that one on the ground that when you near the castle. Any who would stop you from reaching the castle will trouble you no more. The second is red. drop that when the Count invites you to dine at his table. Do not let him see you. Then feast if you will; you will find his meal delightful. The third is black. You must drop that when you step out upon the castle walls.” She paused and looked sternly at him. “This is most important. No matter how frightened you are, you must say, “Into every generation there is a chosen one . One in all the world.” Can you remember that?

The woman looked at Heironymouse closely, as if she could find something in his face. “You may be the one,” she said, “or maybe not.”. And she reached out to grab the ripe cheese. “Now, on your way.”

Simple enough, Heironymouse thought, and he pushed the sack into his pack and left the woman both cranberry biscuits. He waved his thanks and farewell and began the long hike to the castle gates. The sun was shining happily as he began, and a soft wind cooled him as he climbed. As the trail grew steeper, however, the sky grew darker and the winds picked up. Soon he was hunched over, his collar turned up against the cold, as he moved slowly toward the castle he could now see above him. Each step was more arduous; the wind had picked him up at thrown him sideways at times. Merry sunshine and clear sky were but a memory. Night was falling.

As he neared the crest, Heironymouse heard the shrill caw of dark birds that flew in wobbling circles above the castle’s walls. Being a mouse of very little height and heft, Heironymouse was aware that he would make less than a beakful should the birds spot him. At the same moment, he heard the spit and rasp of a large cat, now barely visible in the path ahead. He had hardly begun to absorb the danger before him, when he saw the grass a few feet from him rustle and heard a low hiss.

Grabbing at his pack, Heironymouse found the white acorn, threw it on the hard ground before him and said, “Hope this works.”

The winds dropped, the clouds cleared, the grass grew still, the cat vanished from view, and the sky was empty of cawing black birds. Looking about him and seeing no danger, Heironymouse continued his ascent, reaching the walls of the castle quickly. Expecting all to be on a grand scale, he was surprised to find that the wide wooden door was no taller than the door in his own cozy house. Still, the castle was huge, the walls so tall that he could not see their tops.

Summoning courage he had not thought he had, Heironymouse tapped on the dark door. No response. He knocked more firmly. Nothing. With the spirit of adventure rising in him, he made a fist and pounded on the door so loudly, he could hear the echo resounding from within.

The door flew open. Before him stood a weasel of approximately his size. Heironymouse thought he had never seen anyone or anything so striking. Her dark fur shone and her sharp teeth glistened in torchlight as she spoke. She wore a maid’s apron and cap and stood glaring at him in the doorway.

“No need to pound the door,” she said, pointing to a doorbell next to the door frame. The bell rings loudly enough to wake us, and I certainly don’t need to feel the entire castle shake.” She peered at him closely. “I know you, don’t I? Whisklet? What business do you have here?”

Wondering how a weasel, a very attractive weasel, would know him, Heironymouse began to offer a halting description of his decision to strike out on the adventure, when she waved him silent. “It doesn’t matter. It never does. Hope you like pigs.” She turned her back and slithered into the hallway, indicating to Heironymouse that he should follow. She left him in a large empty room. The wall nearest him was filled with books, floor to ceiling. At the far end of the room was an enormous fireplace, easily the size of the entire village inn. Heironymouse walked to the bookcase and scanned the books on the shelves. Most were in languages he did not recognize, but some had titles he could read.

The First Five Centuries Are The Toughest

What To Do When The Villagers Attack

Life After Life

Don’t Drain Them All At Once: A Guide To Village Maintenance

Good Help Is Hard To Find: The Makeover Method Of Staffing A Castle

“Good evening and welcome,” a deep voice startled Heironymouse causing him to jump back from the shelves of books. “I see you have found my library. Please, feel free to borrow any books that interest you.”

A tall, slim mouse dressed in black evening clothes with a red sash across his chest approached Heironymouse and extended his hand. “Count Alucard, perhaps we have met before. I apologize if I have failed to recognize you.”

Finding it difficult to speak, Heironymouse shook the extended hand, pointed to his chest, and said simply, “I climbed to see the castle.”

“And see it you shall,” said the Count, clapping Heironymouse on the back. “You’ve saved me a trip, you know. I was heading to the village tonight, but your visit will allow me to do my business without having to leave the castle.” He turned toward the fire blazing in the enormous fireplace . “It’s become quite chilly this evening. I’ve just had Electra set the fire. What do you say to a spot of dinner before we take the tour? I’m quite peckish. Would you care to join me?”

Nodding his agreement, Heironymouse followed the Count from the huge room to a smaller chamber, elaborately decorated in red and gold. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling above a long table covered in crisp white linen. The table groaned under the weight of platters heaped with artfully prepared food. Acorn squash, browned and buttered filled one platter, long spicy noodles another, something like pizza but long and round steamed as strings of cheese melted on its plate. Cascading heaps of fresh fruit, compotes, soups, all ready for the diners to sit at the table and tuck in.

At each corner of the table a miniature pig dressed in red tailcoat and breeches and wearing a powdered wig stood silently waiting to serve them. They were pigs, Heironymouse felt, but not quite Their snouts were not as sharply square as they ought to have been, and each had traces of whisker and a long straight tale rather than the kinky tale a pig should have. Hironymouse guessed mice had been in some fashion transformed into pigs. One of them looked nervously at Heironymouse, silently imploring him to look more closely. For a moment Heironymouse thought he recognized Cammy D’Arte, a friend who had gone missing months ago. The thought did not entirely vanish; Heironymouse remained uneasy. He was hungry; it had been hours since he had eaten but one of the cranberry biscuits. His stomach groaned, his mouth watered, but this too grand feast ought not be presented to an unexpected and unexceptional mouse from the village.

Something was most definitely not quite right about the situation.

“I had a biscuit on the way up,” Heironymouse began, “I’m not all that ….”

The Count turned toward Heironymouse, drawing the small mouse’s eyes into his steady gaze. It seemed the Count’s pupils were spinning, spiraling down, deeper and deeper. Heironymouse felt heavy and heavier, as if lead overcoats were draped upon him, one after another.

“I’m sure you are hungry,” the Count spoke softly. “In fact, you are starving. The only thing you want right now is to sit at this table and eat all that you can.”

“All I want to do is sit at this table and eat all I can,” Heironymouse whispered.

The Count showed him to his seat, turned to instruct the pigs in the order in which the dishes were to be served, and excused himself for a moment. As he walked from the room, Heironymouse free of the Count’s power remembered the red acorn, which he pulled from his pack and dropped on the floor in front of his chair. In an instant Heironymouse felt both completely safe and genuinely hungry. He reached for the platter of noodles, slurping loudly while the small pigs looked on sadly. He then picked up the round pizza dripping cheese. He had never tasted anything so richly satisfying in all his life. Plate after plate slid across the table, the pigs helping now and shaking their heads in amazement. The Count returned carrying a coat and breeches and white wig, obviously expecting that he would find an entirely changed guest at the table rather than the unassuming mouse, dabbing his whiskers with a well used napkin.

“Thank you,” Heironymouse belched, unable to hide his pleasure in the meal. The pigs waited anxiously at attention, but the Count merely smiled and said, “I think the time has come for you to see the castle now, from the bottom to the top.” He waved the servants away and took Heironymouse’s elbow. “I think you’ll find the view from the tower fascinating.”

They walked through great halls and grand rooms, past a row of portraits that Heironymouse at first took to be a gallery of the Count’s ancestors. A closer look, however, convinced him that each portrait was of the Count, the first in a Florentine villa, then at the Court of Elizabeth I, at Oxford, next to Washington and Jefferson, with Buffalo Bill Cody, at Harvard, in front of Castle Alucard.

“You have a striking resemblance to others in your family,” Heironymouse suggested with a wry smile. “Ah, yes,” the Count returned, “We all share the same blood.”

As they walked from one gilded room to the next, Heironymouse repeated the words he knew he must day: “Into every generation there is a chosen one . One in all the world.” It made no sense to him, but the old woman’s advice had been helpful thus far, and he was in no position to start doubting her as he walked alone with the Count.

“Please, watch your step.” the Count opened a doorway revealing a long and twisting flight of stone steps. They coiled up and out of sight. “After you,” the Count insisted handing the mouse a torch, and Heironymouse began the long ascent. Whereas the rest of the castle had been lavishly furnished and its stone walls softened by tapestries and paintings, this stretch offered only bare stone, occasionally marred by scratches that could only have been made by hands resisting the climb.

Heironymouse was puffing softly as he glimpsed a view of moonlight at the top of the stairwell. The air above was fresh and cold; he shivered as he burst into the open space at the top of the stairway. The walls of the tower were irregular; high barriers stood next to crumbled remnants of fortification. For the first time, Heironymouse wondered how long the Count and the castle had loomed over his village.

“Do you like the view?” The Count’s voice was low; he stood almost touching Heironymouse’s back. “I do so hope it is pleasing to you.” He brushed by the shivering mouse and strode to the wall overlooking the rocky ledges above the swirling river. “Such a long way down. So many jagged rocks. Such deep and angry water.”

He turned to face Heironymouse and shook his head with a mixture of anger and regret.

“You aren’t the first to come. The others have been more … impressive … but you’ve made it this far. You certainly deserve to know what you’ve found.” The Count bowed slightly, raising his arm as if introducing a symphony. “All that you see, all that is, begins here, with the Castle Alucard. Have you never wondered why the families of the village never leave? Why visitors are so rare? Have you never wondered what lies beyond this valley?

With a start, Heironymouse realized that he had not wondered. Not once.

“This is the Valley Alucard. Mine. You exist, all of you, to provide all that I need.”

How he found the courage to speak, Heironymouse would never know. “But everyone here. They aren’t mice. They aren’t from the Valley.”

The Count chuckled softly. “Oh, but they were.” He pointed to the village lying below the far wall. “I take what I need. What I want.” He pulled his sash more tautly across his chest. “My needs are many.”

Heironymouse breathed the name. “But Electra …”

“Ah, yes. Electra.” The Count shrugged. “Some work, some provide my sustenance.” He laughed and struck what he clearly took to be a boxer’s stance. “A guy’s gotta eat, you know.”

Heironymouse could hardly breathe.

“But now, the time has come to rid myself of the small annoyance that has been visited upon me today.” The Count leaned toward Heironymouse, the dark centers of his eyes beginning a slow swirl.

Before he was lost in that whirlpool again, Heironymouse pulled the last acron from his pocket, tossed it on the ground, and with the little breath he was able to summon, choked out the phrase he had been rehearsing constantly as he trudged his way to the top of the tower.

“Into every generation there is a chosen one . One in all the world.”

Count Alucard fell backwards. “What? What are you saying?”

His voice shaking but louder, Heironymouse repeated: “Into every generation there is a chosen one . One in all the world.”

“No, You can’t be the one.”

As he spoke, the Count began to stumble, and twist. Before Heironymouse could respond, the Count’s features became liquid; he swayed and then melted quickly and flowed down the drain at the tower’s center. As he changed, the tower too began to reconfigure itself, not dropping precipitously but shrinking in modest increments, and widening.

Soon the castle had become a flat circle of stone on which stood four confused mice, one of whom was indeed Cammy D’Arte who looked at his friend with a mixture of fear and joy. Electra, no longer a weasel, still shone, the loveliest mouse Heironymouse had ever seen.

She approached him and took his hand. “Let’s see what the world is going to be like now. ”

Heironymouse found his voice. “Better. Much better.”

Getting Cozy?

Getting Cozy?

In what is almost certainly a vain attempt to kick myself into gear, I set myself the challenge of writing in the mode of the most published genres, figuring that if I could catch the right tenor, the right vibe, I might be able to settle into my remaining years as a celebrated author of Romance, or Mystery, or Science Fiction, or even Young Adult Romance Science Fiction. Turns out that the strata are even more differentiated genre-by-genre than I had assumed. A few seconds into researching Romance, for example, and I knew I would have to start with something less daunting, something more familiar, and by familiar, I mean almost overwhelmingly complex.

Crime. Seems simple enough. Bad person does bad thing and is discovered or not and punished or not.

Uh huh.

Here’s a short list of types of crime fiction: The whodunnit, the historical whodunnit, detective fiction, the cozy, the locked room mystery, the psychological thriller, the legal thriller, the police procedural, the caper story, the spy thriller, the forensic crime, the hardboiled (Noir) crime, roman a clef crime,and parodies of each of those subsets.

Tossing aside the more subtly gradated types of crime fiction, I took comfort in knowing that there is considerable distance between the grimly evidential detail of the police procedural, dragging readers as they do into the morgue and across the autopsy table, and the benignly murderous, humorously affectionate world of mysteries known as cozies.

I prefer reading procedurals but am probably most at home writing a cozy. The rules of writing cozily, such as there are, are broadly these: Eccentric or amusing characters are more important than mystery. Crimes are solved by clever and intuitive amateurs, many of whom have an uncommon ability to see the true nature of the characters she (usually) meets. Gentle humor abounds, often at the expense of the amateur sleuth. Rough language is generally avoided. “Hellish” and “Damnation” are about as gritty as dialogue gets; an unbidden “Oh, Dear!” or “Mercy!” is more common. Finally, murders are rarely thrust in the reader’s face or presented in gruesome detail. Body parts, heads in jars, severed limbs rarely have a place in a cozy mystery.

The hardest part for me then is in finding a sleuthing name appropriate to the almost accidental untangling of crime in a cozy setting. The setting is easy – the country inn, the village bakery, the college campus. But the name! I read almost all of the John Dickson Carr “Locked Room” mysteries because the cerebral, almost entirely incapacitated by bulk, Dr. Gideon Fell had such an impressive name. Rex Stout’s detective, Nero Wolfe, a man of mystery, born in Montenegro and even less capable of movement than Gideon Fell, was literally an armchair detective. These novels were not cozies; humor was secondary to clever detection. But the names!

Here are my first attempts at naming a cozy female sleuth:

Helga Von Swiggart (psychic and healer, cat named Hecate), Trixie Sunshine (perky private investigator on retainer with MGM, puggles named Debby and Reynolds), Miss Amanda Tennyson (British dowager permanently on cruise around the world, collects exotic weapons), Tammy Nelson (recently divorced pastry chef newly settled in Bozeman, Montana, goofy mutt named Bourdain), Carla Montez (veterinarian, practice birds and fish, cocatille named Laura Esquivel), Calliope Turner (yoga instructor, cats named Huey, Dewey, and Louie), Madame Olga Rostapovich (Parisian, claims to be last of the Romanovs, speaks twelve languages).

Now, to plot, remembering that narrative drive is the least of my capacities:

Let’s set this in Bozeman, a small city of about 45,000, home to Montana State University, the Siebel Dinosaur complex with the largest collection of Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons, and to superb hiking and fly fishing. Once something of a cowboy town, Bozeman is thoroughly boutiqued with an emphasis on expensive outdoor recreation. A pastry shop would do well there, especially one that features healthy, outdoorsy pastries, such as Tammy’s Sesame Trout Bagel.

A successful fly fishing enterprise, Rainbow Wranglers, has been plagued by a series of unfortunate mishaps on the MacKenzie River. Two guests and a guide have gone missing. The Wrangler’s owner is in Bozeman on business, stops at Tammy’s cafe, and shares the story with her. Having fished that stretch when married to her husband, a former river guide for Rainbow Wranglers, Tammy turns the pastry shop over to her former mother-in-law, her best friend, Kitty Hyde. Shoving Bordian into the back of her Subaru, Tammy sets out for Whitefish to begin nosing around.

My thought is that Tammy has to meet some eccentrics, maybe a Native guide who senses dark forces on the river, a crusty female homesteader, the feckless son of the tech billionaire angling to open up public lands for vacation estates, rough and ready environmentalist/eco terrorist ready to serve the techie as a main course, the slick agent of the huge corporation looking for rights to bottle spring water, and, of course, the ex-husband, still smarting from Tammy’s depiction of him as a caveman with fish on the brain.

All of that now neatly in place, a little research on the area, fly fishing, water rights, Native lore, geopolitical commercial investment, and pastry, and I’m ready to tear off the first in a series on Montana based thrilling (but cozy) adventures which allow Tammy (and Bourdain) the opportunity to solve crime, punish the guilty, and find love in all the right places.

The Title? Something Fishy in Bozeman? A Fly in the Bagel? A River Runs Through Him? Face Down In the MacKenzie? Pick one.

But … then, I can’t imagine spending ten minutes more in this scenario. I just have to walk away, readying myself for immersion in the next genre.

Next in the lineup of challenges is a Children’s book, the most frequently published genre. About 30% of all books published are kids books, but apparently as a group, they generate the lowest financial return, so are of no interest to agents, who are looking for Young Adult Romance Science Fiction. I can’t do Young Adult yet; I’ll need a personality transplant. But let’s see what I have in the tank after I finish Bobby Wants A Girlfriend and a Flamebot.

Coulda Been An Ad Man?

Coulda Been An Ad Man?

My ambitions have always been relatively modest.  Would I like to be lionized and taken seriously by writers who know something about writing?  Sure, but I’m ok diverting myself with the odd flight of fancy and the occasional undirected foray into whimsy.  As a younger biped, I had some thoughts about writing professionally, but, as I seem unable to create or sustain a narrative over three or four pages, I figured my chances of hitting pay dirt were slim.

I did think about going into advertising, not writing copy, but turning out the sorts of catchy jingles that had adhered in the midbrain over several decades.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy to capture the sort of cortex scathing impact of the truly great jingles, but I thought I could probably come up with a few worth humming.  After all, “Winston tastes good like a (bum bum) cigarette should” was not beyond the reach of the moderately creative.

Not so the Hall of Fame jingles:  

It’s Ajax, the foaming cleanser, foams the dirt right down the drain (bass run of bubbling down the drain)

Call Roto Rooter, that’s the name, and (another bass run) away go troubles down the drain.  Roto Rooter.

Brusha, brusha, brusha, with the new Ipana, with the brand new flavor, it’s dandy for your teeth.

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz.  Oh, what a relief it is.

These four share a common and inescapable narrative thread; these are basically declarative sentences.  Ajax foams the dirt, troubles go down the drain. Pretty easy to sort out the message.

Some were more daring, wandered into the fabulous, danced in the realm of imagination:

I wish I was an Oscar Meyer Weiner

That is what I truly wish to be

‘Cause if I were an Oscar Meyer weiner,

Everyone would be in love with me.

Everyone?  Really? No matter.  I bought it hook, line, and sinker.  The way to love? Become cylindrical bologna.  .

Some were more than simply instructive; they were demanding.

Gimme a break

Gimme a break

Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar.

Not much room for misunderstanding there.  You want trouble? Go ahead. Don’t break off a piece of that Kit Kat bar.  See what happens.

I’ll give a nod to Folgers as well, who also skipped the highfalutin description of slowly roasted beans hand picked on the greenest mountainsides in Colombia and simply told it as it was.

The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.

Simple.  Declarative.  No nonsense. No room for argument.  Clarity counts as in this declaration attributed to Winston Churchill – “I like pigs.  Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” Not all that melodic, but the reasoning is hard to escape.

There was a more lyrical and culturally specific coffee jingle when I was but a lad.

Chock full o’ Nuts is that heavenly coffee

Heavenly Coffee, heavenly coffee

Chock full o’ Nuts is that heavenly coffee

Better coffee Rockefeller’s money can’t buy.

Nelson Rockefeller sued to have the family’s name removed from the ad, a gesture I thought simply twerpy until I found that the issue had to do with Rockefeller investments in other coffee enterprises rather than with the protection of the family’s name.  Great fun, though, to have great fortune pitted against a homely cup of coffee.

Today, however, the jingle has gone the way of Howard Johnson restaurants, transistor radios, rabbit ear antennas, and Kodak cameras.  Some would say that the jingle persists, and as a fan of very local radio, I can attest to the number of Mom and Pop roofing companies that still trot out jingles with real staying power.  But national ad campaigns? Pathetic.

The two most egregiously vapid both belong to the insurance industry.

Farmers’ has added a catch phrase – “Seen it.  Covered it” – but their jingle, while declarative, is so primitive that even in the rendering of it, I am disheartened. The Farmers site presents this official rendering of the “lyrics”:  We Are Farmers!  Bum da-dum bum bum bum.

Seriously?  Why even bother?  I assume the massed choir is meant to be a band of earnest farmers, the grange glee club, farmers so moved by their profession of profession that they burst into song.  How this translates to trust in the agency covering your car, boat, or home, I cannot tell, but this I know and know full well, this threadbare jingle does not move me to shift my account their way.

Liberty Mutual, perhaps?  This is the company that cunningly poses actors in front of the Statue of Liberty, a ploy so far from subliminal that the clip serves only to suggest that Liberty Mutual seeks the dimmest of customers.  In an attempt to further dumb down the campaign, they’ve hired a trained Emu “named” LiMu (LiMu the Emu, get it?) to team up with a mustached crime fighter (Doug) in a buddy cop pastiche in which the duo fight against the “crime” of paying too much for insurance.

Is Liberty Mutual saved by the edgy brilliance of their jingle?  You be the judge.

Liberty!  Liberty! Liberty!  The last “Liberty” is divided, the emphasis on LIB … then ER…TY.

That’s it; not even a bum bum bum.

It may appear that the devolution of the jingle has reached its rock bottom with these two, but another insurance company reminds us that a good jingle can pack an entire narrative into a single statement.

Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

Both obscure and particular, evoking the entirely mythical but eminently comforting presence of a neighborly friend or friendly neighbor while maintaining an open-ended horizon.  Where there? There at the point of impact? There in offices answering telephones? There in a consoling, hand-holding visit as the last leaping flames turn to embers?

Good neighbors, of course,  would be “there” with casseroles, I guess, and all those sundries that live in the back of the cupboard – tinned sardines, canned artichoke hearts, packets of onion soup.  Comforting, I suppose, but ah, the check? Neighborly kindness goes a long way at point of impact, but speedy settlement of claims depends on an entirely different sort of relationship.

Like Rockefeller, State Farm is there?  Ooops, forgot.

Could I do better?  We’ll see.

Recognizing that the printed word cannot carry a tune, I am forced to grab a recognizable tune in order to show the full range of my jingling.  I’ve my client from the list below and a tune generally regarded as among the most familiar.

Ads appearing most frequently on television in 2018:  Liberty Mutual (#1! Baby!), Lifelock Identity Theft Service, Gold Bond Skin Protection, Zantac 150, Maximum strength heartburn medication, Allegra D Allergy and Congestion, Coffee Mate Season Flavor – Pumpkin

Most recognizable tunes (other than Happy Birthday/Yankee Doodle):  Spice Girls Wannabe, Elvis Presley Devil in Disguise, Survivor Eye of the Tiger, Roy Orbison Pretty Woman, Britney Spears Baby One More Time.

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want

So tell me what you want, what you really really want …

Pumpkin flavored Coffee Mate?  Too easy.

Let’s get messy with a truly challenging product and tune.

TheGold Bond family of skin products is extensive, actually divided into two branches of products.  The basic Gold Bond items, from the Cracked Skin and Fill and Protect to the Medicated Original Strength Body Powder are in one constellation while the Ultimate Collection containing specialized and more refined cosmetics, including Pedismooth, Radiance Renewal, and Neck and Chest Firming Complex, are in another.    

So, mix and match, here goes:

Risin up, cracks on my feet

Need some fill, need medication

Smell the difference, now my world is complete

Pedi Smooth made me sure to survive

I got the thigh of a tiger, got the cream for this fight

Risin’ up to the spots that are darkening

And the neck and the chest grow more firm every night

With Gold Bond, there’s no scabs on this tiger.

Maybe some dreams are never meant to come true, some avenues better not walked.  There are days when I just wish … I was an Oscar Meyer weiner.

Gravity 2, Ego 0

Gravity 2, Ego 0

Facing disturbing reality has never been nearly as pleasant as wallowing in oblivion, but, in an era in which partisan and magical thinking appears to have gathered hurricane force, and, as I am far enough down the broad highway of life to take responsibility for my part in allowing nonsense to take the place of reason, the time to face reality’s cold glare has apparently arrived.  Truth planted both proverbial feet in my midsection yesterday, in what was a safe visit to the doctor’s office. I had barely scanned the latest edition of Communicative Disease Quarterly in the waiting room when a person attached to the office called me to account.

“Let’s get you weighed and measured,” she suggested, an invitation I seem powerless to resist.  Ordinarily, no problem. I have a set of scales at home and have a reasonably well informed estimation of my weight. No surprise there. I do not measure my height, however,  haven’t had any occasion to, haven’t had any interest in my stature.

I’ve been five feet and eight-and-a-half inches since my last years in school.  A lifetime, as it were. One of the few fixed elements in a universe of constant change.  My weight has elevatored up and down. My hair has thinned, gone grey, thinned more resolutely.  My feet are flatter and wider. My nose and ears require some barbering.

I’ve made adjustments, accommodations.  I’ve faced aging without complaint. Pretty resilient, yes , no?

And then …

“How tall do you think you are?”  

Let’s begin by wondering why this question as I am about to stand on the device which answers that question.  Am I the control group in this exercise? Does my answer in any way change the recording of whatever appears as the flange is pulled down?  Just checking? Checking what? My awareness of the world about me? My veracity? My general state of mental acuity?

No, it’s clear as I call out my answer – five eight – recognizing that gravity has probably had its way with me over the decades, finally willing to let that significant half inch go, but before I’ve even stepped into the frame, this angel of mercy responds, “You think so?”

“You think so?”

That is not a question; this is taunting.   “What a sap! Living in a world of make believe.  How sad, really. How pathetic. ‘Five eight’? It is to laugh.  Why do they persist in such painfully obvious attempts at deception?  Who’s being fooled? Certainly not I, the health professional. Not I, the mistress of the actual, I, handmaiden to science.  No,once again, I do the job that only I can do. For only I can instruct this grotesquely self-delusive sod before he attempts to mislead another person of worth in his meaningless round of pointless errands at the tail end of his pointless life.”

Or something along those lines.  

It turns out that I am  now five foot six inches tall, if tall is a term that can be applied to five feet and six inches of male human in the 21st Century.  It was Robert Burns who in his “To A Louse” put the issue of self awareness before us in words that ring through the ages, at least to those who like a nice Scottish rhapsody.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An foolish notion;

Wat airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,

An ev’n devotion.

The crux of the address (to a louse, I’m just saying) is that it might be devastating to see ourselves as others see us.  Probably. We are mysteries to ourselves, so what else have we really got to do but wonder about the billions of individual life stories playing out in heads other than ours.  Not to get all Matrix, but since we can’t actually know the essence of what is outside of ourselves (wax is wax, Descartes argued, until it is touched by flame – a not-very-helpful analog to the figure/ground, observer/event paradox), so what the heck?  Let’s keep as far as possible from a probably mistaken view of ourselves.

That digression aside, this moment of clarity reduces itself (as it were) to one final truth.

I’m shrinking.

I can’t remember if those actual words are spoken by the central character in the 1957 film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, a somewhat hokey Sci Fi thriller written by Richard Matheson, a pretty fair twister of tales and a regular contributor to The Twilight Zone.  He’s the author of “Nightmare at 20,000 feet”, generally considered one of the top five episodes and plenty creepy. The basic plot of The Incredible Shrinking Man is that there’s this man, see, and he shrinks, an inch a week, which causes all sorts of problems.  I was too young to understand the terrible burden intense shrinking would bring to a marriage; let’s just say that the central character’s wife does not handle his predicament very well. She finally moves out, although by this time her hubby has become so small that they could cohabitate without much scuffling for space.  There are all sorts of thrilling challenges in the Stuart Little, man vs. cat mode, but the lines that pack some punch come at the end of the film.

Don’t mistake me.  This is a hokey movie without much in the way of true terror until …

There are really only two ways this film could have ended; either the effects of the mysterious shrinking cloud wear off or are reversed, or the guy shrinks until …

Yeah, and that was the part that drove me batty.  The actor prattles on about the comfort he finds in being reduced to subatomic oneness with the universe, but I was in no way comforted by his acceptance of his fate.

“I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close — the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet — like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!”

The answer to the riddle of the infinite.  I was eleven years old. I had no place to put the riddle of the infinite, and from that point onwards, childhood ended, intimations of mortality overwhelmed me, and every day became existential boot camp.

All of which is to say, physicians beware!  You can weigh me, take my blood pressure, staple the little gizmo to my finger, but this shrinking man is hanging on to his sixty six inches with every fiber of his shrinking being.  

Ninja Warrior Production Meeting

Ninja Warrior Production Meeting

Scene:  Production offices NBC

Present:  Production team of American Ninja Warriors

Season Eleven!  We’re on now, what? Six? Eight? Channels. Plus On Demand? We need content, people I’m thinking three new productions a week. Same format . Expand the number of cities.

Huh? Iowa’s not a city. Let’s sharpen up here.

Yeah, Omaha is not in Iowa. Don’t worry about venues. We’ll figure that out. Content. Think Content.

No, what we don’t need are ninjas. Every gym has a nut jobs climbing walls and hanging from rafters. We got more ninjas than we can use. And they keep coming back for more. We need new. New content.

No, we’re not going to do Junior Ninjas. Sorry. I know there are no bad ideas in a creative meeting, but… that’s …. Thanks for your contribution, Bill.

Why? Because torturing kids is bad tv. Torturing adults? Gold.

Think. Not the same old courses. Something more … intense.

Animals? Bill, what does that even mean? Animals running the course?

Oh, part of the course. That’s not bad. What do you have in mind?

Badgers? Like the honey badger?

Yeah, I’d call them intense. Let’s pull the whole eviscerating fast moving cranky family of fanged predators from consideration for now. Wolverines, weasels …

What? Snakes? That’s insane … well …I guess constrictors could work. Focus!  The course, team. We need to pump up the challenge on the courses. The usual courses are fine for the prelims, but once these ninjas get good, most of them get through.

No, we don’t want them to get through. Or many of them. One or two.

Right. Because painful, shameful failure is great tv, and fat guys in Barcaloungers want to see these crazed chiselled ninjas hit the water.

OK, the snake filled water.

So what elements have we not considered? We did the enormous rolling log. That was good. No place to grip and the certainty of being crushed. Crushed then pitched into the water. More like that would be great.

Flaming darts?  Really? Great visual, but we can’t kill people.  We need obstacles, people.

Steve?  Some kind of grasping thing with tentacles?  

OK, and  suction cups.  Still not clear on the …

Not alive. Good.  A machine. Programmed to do what?

Hold them under water?  Isn’t that another way to kill people?  This is Ninja Warrior not Guantanamo.

Oh, just until they start to black out, then what?

Shoot them out of a water cannon?  Where?

The pinball level.  What’s the pinball level?

And the giant flippers do what?

We’re back to the flaming darts, people.  Test of stamina is one thing; death by giant flipper?  Not a good visual.

I’m sorry.  Did you say “reading challenge”?  Moving right along.

“Wall of pain”.  Sounds good, Liz.  How’s it work?

Who operates the nail gun while they try to climb the wall?  

The computer just shoots randomly?  Maybe hits; maybe misses? That could work.

Look.  The rolling log has been fabulous.  What else could we use as a rolling obstacle?

Bill, we’re not going to use a rolling animal.  Not going to cross that line. What is it with you and animals?  No, actually I don’t want to know.

“Balls of Doom”?  Don’t even …

An ice wall?  A wall made of ice?  Not bad. Not cheap, but not bad.  

Think hanging.  We knock off about three quarters of the ninjas when they have to hang.

Hooks?  I don’t think so.  Ninja Meat Locker. Not good.

We already have poles.  Nobody has any problem with poles.

What kind of adhesive?

We’re not going to wrap the ninjas in teflon.  Viewers like seeing nearly naked ninjas. That’s how Survivor gets thirty eight seasons, Folks.

Whirling blades?  Won’t that eliminate competitors a bit more forcefully than a splashdown?

Oh, like a jet engine fan, blowing them sideways.  Sure, sure. That could work.

Yes, Bill?

Pretty sure we’re not going with mascots, but if we do, you are first in line.

Sense of Humor

Sense of Humor

The challenge was to come up with a production that Broadway could not adapt and turn all jolly and holiday-appropriate.  Virtually everything seems fair game – Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, The Waitress, Moulin Rouge, 17 Again, Beaches, Spider Man, Archie, Beetlejuice.  

Thus, my conviction that with time, even Silence of the Lambs will, like the death head moth, move from its larval resting place in filmland and emerge on billboards beckoning theatergoers to a musical encounter with Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter.

I’m now in month three of trying to write a parody that is not relentlessly tasteless.  Not much to show for the effort:-

“I hear them in my sleep, the lambs I cannot rescue. 

The rabbits don’t scream; they’re bleeding in the fescue.”

OK, maybe still more edgy than I intended.

I spent some time imagining what Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade host Al Roker would have to say as the Buffalo Bill Skin Suit Balloon followed Pikachu and Buzz Lightyear, but it all seemed a pointless exercise until I began thinking about the nature of humor.

It’s clear than funny for one person does not amuse another.  I’m not talking about humor that could offend the sensibilities, or humor based upon the listener’s most carefully guarded inadequacies; there are elements in every life that are out-of-bounds.  No, I’m talking about relatively vanilla humor, lighthearted, jolly humor, puns, for example.  I happen not be a fan of the tortuously contrived pun, but I do admire spur-of-the moment witticisms.

Here are examples of puns that feel a bit contrived:

“The Past, the Present, and the Future walked into a bar.  Things got a little tense.”

No?  Nothing?

Of course, even relatively mild puns can be offensive.  World War I vets would probably not enjoy this one:

“A soldier who survived mustard gas was a seasoned veteran.”

Does everyone have a sense of humor?  Do animals? 

These are questions beyond the scope of this piece.  As are these:  Where does the capacity for humor come from, and is that capacity innate, developed, inherited, or acquired?  Do some people have a greater capacity than others?  Again, is that genetic or learned?  Rich stuff here for doctoral candidates in search of material to dessicate, but much more than I can contend with in the few minutes a casual reader gives to posts such as mine.

I don’t tell jokes, and I don’t think I’d do well as a stand-up comedian.  My idea of humor is as impenetrably idiosyncratic as the next guy’s, developed over years of exposure to a range of experiences, some of which were presented as humorous, and others which amused me more broadly than they should.  Slip on a banana peel?  Not funny.  Three Stooges correcting each other with hammers?  Well, yes.  Of course.

Once upon a time, in a land that exists only in clouded memory, there was a class of writers generally known as humorists.  Mark Twain was the first I encountered, although his brand of humor was less immediately impactful, depending as it does on the sensibility of a rational adult.  I was neither, but I knew he was presenting wry observations with considerable wit.  James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Max Shulman, Ring Lardner, P.G. Wodehouse, Bennett Cerf, S.J. Perelman – all humorists, as are Dave Barry and David Sedaris. 

It’s a noble calling and one that saved my tortured pre-adolescent, adolescent, and post-adolescent soul.  Writers of my ilk (that’s a funny word, no?  Ilk? … ok … maybe not … see what I mean?) cherish words and word play.  Playful, that’s us.  Whimsical at our most fey, satirical, ruminative, verklempt.   The bottom line is that I write the sort of frothy one-sided conversation that I’d enjoy reading, and since Wodehouse is no longer putting Bertie Wooster into uncomfortable tangling with titled relatives, and Benchley and Parker are no longer tossing off zingers at the Algonquin, I’ll continue to cough up keen observations as they arrive and hope I do little harm.

Here’s an example of the Bennet Cerf limerick and my own version – humorists of differing generations battling head to head:

Bennett Cerf

There was a young princess of Niger

Who smiled as she rode on her tiger

They returned from their ride

With the princess inside

And the smile on the face of the tiger.

OK.  Whimsey?  Check.  Scans?  Check.  Tiger rhymes with tiger?  Check minus.  

And mine

A charming young man from Quebec

Routinely typed hunt and peck

Missing one key

He sent this to me

O’m a cjarm<inbg tuomh bam drom Wuebev”

OK.  Whimsy?  Nothing but!  Scans?  Come on!  Rhymes Quebec with Wuebev?  Check Plus.

I am amused.