Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Movie Review

Howdy pards! Well, the feller at the newspaper asked me to review a movie for you, said he’d give me a hundred dollars to do it. Well, me ’n’ Patch — that’s my horse — we’ve been on the trail purt near two weeks now, eating nothing but beans and cactus, so this money means a bath, a night’s stay at the hotel and some tasty vittles for me and sweet hay for Patch. So I told that feller sure I would. Ain’t seen no movie for six, seven years anyhow, what with them theaters not letting in no horses on account of ordinances and such like. Thought it’d be a treat, and some spending money besides.

Well, let’s see now, this here movie opens up with two cowboys, young fellers, waiting on a job, and they get one too, tending sheep together. Now, that’s beautiful country out there in Wyoming, with a big old mountain by the name of Broken Back or such like, and lots of land to graze the sheep. And these two fellers got to camp right there and watch over them, ’cepting one’s got to pitch his pup tent exactly where the sheep is at night, while the other tends the main camp, cooking up the beans and making coffee and cleaning up. Well, this goes on for a spell, and these two cowboys get to know each other purty well and sorta take a liking to one another, with it so lonesome and there they two are, thrown together like that.

Then one night, when it come time for one cowboy to go off to the pup tent to watch the flock, well, he gets mighty drunk and can’t quite find his feet and winds up sleeping by the fire. So finally he gets cold laying out there when the fire dies down and comes into the tent to join his partner, just to sleep off the rest of the night and then ride out at daybreak. So there them two boys are, just a’laying there, when suddenly one of them grabs the other, and HOLY CHRIST! What the—? Whoa Patch! Down! Down, boy! Why, dang it they don’t commence to act like one of them’s a prize stud bull, wrassling in a way I ain’t hardly seen before! Pardon me, folks, I durn near swallowed my chaw! Jumping Jehosaphat! Right there’s some rough, tough, rootin’ tootin’ man love! Wee haw! Dang!

Well, after that come a lot of mushy stuff, what the ladies might like I expect. These two boys split up when the job gets done and fix themselves up with some gals and have kids and such like. Then out of the blue, one come to visit the other, and then they grab each other really rough and affectionate-like, and one of them puts a lip-lock on the other like he was working a plumber’s friend, and, well, right about there old Patch got mighty jumpy and I found it hard to follow the action after that, but I reckon it kept right on with the mushy stuff once them two boys simmered down.

Well, me ’n’ Patch give it one thumb and one hoof up. There’s some good rodeo scenes, and one of them horses looked a lot like good old Patch. I never knowed boys could be such friends before, and I reckon next time I meet up with my pal Willie Barrows out on the prairie and share a campfire, we got us something more to do than spit and play the harmonica.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Who’s Your Muse?

I have a theory that the great majority of bloggers out there, either consciously or unconsciously, want to be writers. Do you think I’m right? And I believe that of all the arts, writing is the form of expression that can most effectively captivate an audience and hold its spell indefinitely. A painting or photograph may keep the observer in its thrall for a minute or two. A movie or play can do the same for two or three hours. A musical performance, whether live or faithfully recorded and reproduced, might enjoy a similar duration. But a written work lasts for as long as the artist feels it should — twenty, thirty hours or more in the case of a book — and the reader, should he find the novel or essay or poem or short story interesting, must of necessity immerse himself in it and, in a way, “work with” the author. The best writing is nothing short of magical. I want you to consider the most absorbing book you ever read. Perhaps you picked it up one day thinking to read a snatch of it for 20 minutes or so. Instantly, your mind became a sort of canvas the writer used to fill with color and form; your imagination immediately conjured a vast stage, replete with extravagant props and lighted just the way you and the author directed; the number of characters could have been infinite and their variety limitless. A script for a scene in a play or a film might call for an exotic setting in, say, the phosphorescent, underground caverns of a faraway planet, where giant, multi-legged creatures with horrible pincers lie in wait behind natural pillars of glowing crystal, just as they did in this favorite book of yours. What a bother that would be for a production crew — the expense, the manpower, the logistics and so on — to pull something like that off. Yet, as you read your book, the whole job was done instantly and with no fuss. And the story, as it turned out, was so engrossing, that when you glanced at the clock, you saw to your amazement that an entire hour went by! The author “had you.”

Writing something and having it read is, I think, a kind of power. It’s just you and the reader — with you, as the writer, conducting the reader. Your point of view holds sway. You have the floor. Perhaps you might agree with me that there’s something distinctly exhilarating about that.

Anyway, the main question I want to ask is, do you, like me, feel a need to set things down in as interesting a way as possible? That it is not enough to say what you have to say, but to say it as compellingly and entertainingly as you can? I know that’s a stupid question — of course you do. But how do you do it? What can you draw upon for aid? How can you arrive at a writing style you think does the greatest justice to what you want to convey?

I know most of the bloggers I visit are readers. They have exposed themselves to many books and authors and have a great appreciation for what they read. Like many of them, I have a taste for the classics as well as the modern best sellers. I can finish a novel by Charlotte Brontë and next take up one by Michael Crichton or Ken Follett without turning a hair. Sometimes I go through phases where I stick with one author for several months — often winding up by reading their biographies. I went through a memorable Dostoyevsky period once; another time it was Hemingway. I’m a minor Shakespeare buff (I know about eight or nine of his plays and listen to audio performances of them from time to time). There are many, many authors I admire — and, I may add, there are more than a few bloggers I admire as well.

But when it comes to a personal writing style and the influences that can be brought to bear, I can think of one author in particular I have chosen to emulate to some degree. It’s not necessarily that I copy him or try to be him or feel like I’m “channeling,” but I can almost sense his presence when I sit down to write, as if he’s peering over my shoulder and encouraging me. He is my muse, so to speak. I like how he writes and I try to do some of the things he does. He suits me. And that’s what I want to share with you today.

The man in the picture is W. Somerset Maugham (pronounced “mom”). Many of you have heard of him, and quite a few, I’m sure, have read some of his books. He is the author of the novels Of Human Bondage and The Moon and Sixpence. I made his acquaintance roughly ten years ago when someone in the building where I used to work set out a box of used books for people to sift through and take what they wanted. Among them was a collection of short fiction called South Sea Stories. I recognized the author’s name and thought I’d give it a try.

Not long after that, the family and I went on a trip to Disneyworld. Anyone who’s been there knows what it’s like to stand in line waiting to go on a ride — it can seem interminable. I am always in the habit of carrying a book with me and it so happened I brought along the Maugham paperback I claimed from that box. The result was this: as I look back on those three days in the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and MGM Studios, I remember more vividly the stories I read from that book than the attractions I paid so dearly for and waited so long to experience. Maugham had a natural talent for drawing the reader in and holding him there. The Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain were anti-climatic — I swear I enjoyed the time spent in line more!

W. Somerset Maugham is not considered a great writer. Maugham had even described himself as more of a storyteller than anything else. He was, however, a very successful and rich storyteller. As a young man, he attended medical school in England but never practiced medicine after graduating — by then he had already written a novel that sold very well. Later he made his fortune as a playwright. It wasn’t until he was in his forties — around 1920, I think —when he started writing short stories and resumed novel writing.

Maugham’s first short story during this period was called Rain. It is one of the best short stories I have ever read, and, to prove my good opinion of it, I can tell you I have read it over and over some six or seven times so far. I can’t tire of it. The plot, of course, is well known to me, but I enjoy witnessing again and again how he did it. I admire his character studies, the descriptive passages, the well-constructed framework of the story, and how he draws one of the principals in an unsympathetic light, only to later show redeeming traits which are then trodden upon when a fatal flaw becomes exposed. His gift for dialogue is superb. Maugham, in all of his stories, has an uncanny knack of placing you right there.

Here is the opening paragraph of Rain :

“It was nearly bed-time and when they awoke next morning land would be in sight. Dr. Macphail lit his pipe and, leaning over the rail, searched the heavens for the Southern Cross. After two years at the front and a wound that had taken longer to heal than it should, he was glad to settle down quietly at Apia for twelve months at least, and he felt already better for the journey. Since some of the passengers were leaving the ship next day at Pago-Pago they had had a little dance that evening and in his ears hammered still the harsh note of the mechanical piano. But the deck was quiet at last. A little way off he saw his wife in a long chair talking with the Davidsons, and he strolled over to her. When he sat down under the light and took off his hat you saw he had very red hair, with a bald patch on the crown, and the red, freckled skin which accompanies red hair; he was a man of forty, thin, with a pinched face, precise and rather pedantic; and he spoke with a Scots accent in a very low, quiet voice.”

Don’t you want to read more? Don’t you wish I had kept going?

Who is it for you? Can you claim to have a muse? A novelist, or a sports columnist, or comic book writer? Is there an author whose style you admire and feel, when transposed to your key, might suit you?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Accent Envy

Why am I such a sucker for an English accent? Why do I wish I could speak with one? Why do I think anyone with an English accent is sooo sophisticated and well-educated, while I, complete rube that I am, suffer by comparison? Why do I wish I could use “shan’t” in a sentence without being laughed at simply because I’d have to say it with my lame-ass, generic, white bread Massachusetts accent? “I shouldn’t think so, old man.” “Jolly good!” “I’ll ring you up then.” “Cheers!” How I’d love to say those things! But, instead, I’m stuck with: “It don’t sound right to me, buddy.” “Wicked pissa!” “I’ll give you a buzz.” “Catch ya later!” Not quite the same panache.

Of the many accents that sound so much better than mine, English is right up there at the top. Even the Cockneys, ’oo ’ave problems with their aitches, sound better than my boring, plain jane accent. Maybe it has something to do with our once having been an English colony. Maybe it’s because of The Beatles and the British Invasion of the ’sixties. Maybe it’s just because the English sound so bloody good and have a habit of putting things the best possible way. Who knows? But I dig a British accent.

Here’s a little story: one of our clients is English. One time he called me up to go over some edits to a sales brochure I was doing for him. When we came to, say, page 23, he directed me to scan down the page to the penultimate paragraph. Now, look, I went to college, and I’d like to think my vocabulary isn’t half bad, but I just didn’t know what penultimate meant. I had heard it before, naturally. Maybe I thought it was something like “more ultimate than ultimate.” In any case, I was stymied. Finally, I asked, “Which one?” and he repeated, “Penultimate.” Then I asked, “But which one is that?” There was an unmistakable sigh heard on the other end, followed by: “The last paragraph but one.”


Dumb Yank. Smart Brit.

My next favorite accent is the New York City accent. Pick any one you want: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens — they’re all good. Anyone who speaks with a New York accent sounds worldly-wise, sassy, hip, and about ten steps ahead of you. You can chew gum and still look urbane and uptown with a New York accent. A friend of mine once remarked that New Yorkers are funnier than anyone else in the country. I think that’s true. Maybe that explains why half the comedians you see come from New York. Maybe that explains the mystifying phenomenon that was Andrew Dice Clay, whose material definitely wouldn’t have worked for a guy from, say, Southie (hint: think Good Will Hunting). Yeah, New Yawk…

Next on my list is the French accent. The peculiar pronunciations the French have of English words alone make them enchanting to the ear, with their knack of applying stress to the wrong syllables that inevitably make these words sound so right. The French, when speaking English, have a guttural sound that, somehow, doesn’t seem harsh to the ear like you think it should. They shape words like an accomplished sculptor of wood might carve a delicate nymph with a chain saw. On top of that, the French accent just sounds so European, so continental. Say anything you want in a French accent and it’ll come off as impressively old world and cultured.

Continuing, Italian follows in my list. When I hear anything spoken with an Italian accent, it conjures in my mind a musical staff hatched up into equal measures, which are overrun with a graceful series of tiny, tightly-packed sixteenth and thirty-second notes that flow up and down and up and down like a dance of diminutive black dots. Is there any wonder so many operas have been written for the Italian tongue? Is it not the most musical of languages? I’ll never forget a trip we took to Rome one year and listening to Italian spoken all around us, like hearing a variety of birds chattering away and calling to one another in an orchard. There is no question I would be very satisfied to have that expressive accent for my own.

There are other accents which appeal to me. Some African ones I think are intriguing. I think Jamaican sounds cool. Here is the question du jour: if you could choose an accent, which would it be? Have you ever considered the question? Are you content with your own, or would you prefer something more exotic? Is there anyone in particular (in my case, David Niven) you’d like to sound like?

Monday, January 23, 2006

In Space, No One Can Hear Your Meme

Ouch! Phil got me! Here’s the scoop for this one:

“The rules are simple: now that you have been busted, you must confess to 3 things you do that others don’t know about.”


1) Whenever I can, I read a book using a bookrest. They say using a bookrest improves your reading comprehension and I believe it. Not only that, it’s just so relaxing. Also, I try to have a dictionary nearby and dutifully look up words I either don’t understand or feel a little unclear about. Not just a dinky paperback dictionary either, but the big hard-bound one with more words in it.

2) Remember when you were a kid and you used to act in front of the bathroom mirror? I still do. I make funny faces at myself all the time, or pretend I’m an actor on stage.

3) Sometimes, when I have a problem falling asleep, I recite the Lord’s Prayer over and over in my head . . . in the voice of former Boston mayor, Kevin H. White. It goes something like this (very stridently): “AHH FAHTHAH, WHO AHT IN HEAVEN…”

Okay, here are the next lucky victims. I work with one of them and he lives with the other two, so they can’t claim ignorance (although they don’t have to do this if they don’t want to).

Darth Frollo

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hello Kitty

Just a word or two about my wonderful cat, Cleo. Ain’t she the cutest little thing? She was adopted by my family in 1998, back when my office was located near an animal shelter in Boston’s South End. Both Daughters Number 1 and 2 came to visit me at work one day, and, on a whim, after we had lunch at a local pizza joint, I took them to the animal shelter to see the doggies and the kitties. There, in one of the cages roughly at eye level, was little Cleo. Stuck to the thin metal bars at the front of her cage was a small placard that gave her basic information: her name (which was, as it is now, Cleo), the fact that she was a 2-year-old Siamese, and the reason she was given up, which was because she “talked too much.”

Well, I took one look at Cleo and I knew there was no chance I could leave without her. For one thing, she was exactly the same type of Siamese my old cat was who I grew up with, Junior. Other than lacking the crossed eyes and crinkled tail Junior had, they looked very similar. But what really did it for me was how forlorn she appeared. Cleo at that moment was very thin and you could read the sadness on her face. When I tapped on the bars and said, “Hey kitty!” she meowed in a plaintive way that utterly vanquished my heart.

When we brought her home, she spent nearly an entire week underneath the futon/sofa in the TV room. One time I dragged her out to show her where the food and water dishes and litter box were kept, which she then used only surreptitiously. Respecting her unease at being so abruptly placed in such strange surroundings, I did nothing further to force her out. She would allow me to stretch my arm in underneath the sofa to stroke her, which evidently pleased her from the loud purring it elicited. I could only imagine what horrors a poor, dumb creature such as herself might have experienced: expelled from her home of two years, kept in a small cage to be gawked at by strangers, and then suddenly finding herself in this unaccustomed environment.

After that week, however, Cleo fully took possession of her new home. In some ways I’m a little soft-hearted, and I quite consciously took pains to give her as much attention as I could. Because of that, I think, I became her favorite. To this day, whenever I’m home (and provided she’s not napping), Cleo is in the habit of following me around, hoping to play little games we’ve invented, or to hop onto my lap when I sit down. I like watching movies on the big television set downstairs, and, once I have installed myself just so, comfortable and prepared to stay in that position for an hour or two, I’ll call to Cleo and she’ll run to me, spring onto my lap and stay there for as long as I’ll let her.

I know we humans are fond of assigning certain characteristics of our race to the lower animals (remember: we’re animals, too!). We allow ourselves to think our pets are in sympathy with us, that there exists between master and pet an understanding and mutual regard. I remember my grandmother insisted her little tabby understood every word she said when she talked to it. You hear of great acts of heroism dogs perform for their masters, and we call this proofs of love. Well, here is one I sometimes dupe myself in believing: I could swear Cleo almost has a schoolgirl crush on me! For instance, I sometimes play rough little games with her where I sort of throw her around a bit on the bed and she takes playful nips at my hands in return. When at last I finish and walk away, often Cleo comes running after me and tries to hook me by the ankles with her paws, not willing to let me go so easily. When I walk into a room and shut the door against her, she’ll stand outside and yowl for me to let her in. Whatever room in the house I choose to be in, that invariably becomes her room of choice, too. She’ll stay there as long as I do. Such loyalty, respect, admiration and love I couldn’t possibly wring from my wife or daughters, but Cleo gives them to me freely!

Do you have a pet? Or did you? What kind? Any unusual pets out there, like snakes or lizards or falcons or orangutans? Are you as soft-headed about cute, furry creatures as I am? Let me know.


What can I say? Monday’s Monty seems somehow appropriate!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Hitler!

My name is William Schprockenberger. My friends call me Bill — you can call me Bill, too, if you want. I live in a quiet suburb just west of the city with my wife, Dotty, and little Bill Junior. We’ve got a fine ranch house there, with a big patio out back for the barbecue. Dotty keeps our home spic and span, and, when I get home from the office, she usually has the Philco tuned to my favorite radio station and a freshly mixed highball set right next to my easy chair. Yessir, she’s quite a gal, my Dot. And Bill Junior, why, he’s quite a little tiger himself, always getting into mischief. Heh, heh — yep, I’ve got quite a family.

Anyway, officer, my day started out like any ordinary day, except I was running late, see, so I couldn’t pick up Joe and Ernie, my two pals who I always ride into the city with. Joe’s in plastics and Ernie’s in sheet metal. Me, I’m an ad man. Anyway, Ernie was awful sore when I called him and told him the news, but Joe took it okay. He said he’d give old Ernie a lift in his Studebaker and not to worry.

Now, I know there’s a war on and I shouldn’t use all that gas for myself, but Dotty forgot to set the alarm clock, so I got up late. Old Man Higgins — he’s my boss — he was counting on me to make a big presentation at 10 AM sharp for the Gleam-O Car Polish account. I couldn’t be late for it. So Dotty packed up a lunch of Spam sandwiches and two hard-boiled eggs and I just had to hotfoot it into town all by my lonesome.

Well, officer, here’s where things start to get weird. I come to a red light, see, I’m slowing down all ready to stop, when I hear, just as plainly as you talking to me, “Dumkoff! Run zee light! Schnell! Schnell!”

Now, this voice I’m hearing, it’s pretty insistent, right? — like it’s not gonna take no for an answer. I don’t know why, but I just had to obey it. So dad blast it if I didn’t run that red light! You can see I’m telling the truth! Why would I admit to something you didn’t know about? I’m not a bad guy, officer, honest — I’m being cooperative. You can tell that, can’t you?

Well, that shook me up real bad. I got to work all in a terrible mood, just sore at myself for listening to that crazy voice — I could have caused an accident, for crying out loud! And where did that voice come from, anyway? I went into my office and told Miss Hairbun to hold all my calls. She said Mr. Higgins had called me twice already. I said, “Aw, you can tell Higgins to go . . . oh, never mind, I’ll call him myself in a minute.”

What was wrong with me?

Well, it worked out I met with Higgins just before we sat down with the Gleam-O people. “What’s the matter, Bill?” he asked. “You seem a little off your feed.”

“I’m all right, just a headache I guess, Mr. Higgins. But don’t you worry, I’ll sure sock ’em with this ad campaign I cooked up.”

I had the easel already set up for the Gleam-O presentation. Joe Lawson, the fat president of Gleam-O who was already puffing away on a big stogy at 10 in the morning, sat at the conference table right in front of me. I took my place next to the easel and started in:

“Gentlemen, I thought we could kick off the new campaign by holding a beauty contest — you know, for Miss Gleam-O. A national search for the Girl with the Gleam. Then we could take bathing suit photos of the winner in front of a brand new Ford, all shined up by Gleam-O Car Polish, and she could say, ‘Shine your car with Gleam-O, and I’ll take a shine to you!’”

Lawson interrupted. “I hope this ain’t the best you got, Schprockenberger, ’cause it stinks!”

“Well, no, it’s not all, Mr. Lawson, but I kinda figured it to be the centerpiece.”

“It’s crap. Can the whole idea. What else ya got?”

Well, then it started getting weird again, officer. Old Man Higgins, he was giving me the eye, like he was saying, c’mon Schprockenberger, think of something. I sure was nervous. But then I heard that voice again, loud and clear, only . . . only it was me talking — but it wasn’t me! I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true!

“You vill like ziss campaign, you schweinhund!” I heard myself say.

“What did you just call me?”

“Uh, Bill —” quickly interposed Higgins, “he was just kidding around, Mr. Lawson — Bill, tell Mr. Lawson you were just kidding.”

“Idiot! Dumkoff!”

“Higgins, I think this advertising genius of yours just insulted me!”

“Oh, no, no, Mr. Lawson! It’s just that off-beat sense of humor of his. That’s what makes Bill so special, you know!” Then Higgins turned to me and said loudly, “Say, Bill? What about that other thing? You know, the thing you left in your office? Maybe we better go get it to show Mr. Lawson.”

“Vat zing?” I asked.

“Ha ha! Ha! Bill, that’s funny . . . Mr. Lawson, uh, heh! heh! . . . to your office, Bill . . . be back in just a moment, Mr. Lawson. What a kidder, huh? Ha ha!”

As soon as we stepped outside the conference room, Higgins wheeled on me. “Schprockenberger, just what the hell’s gotten into you? That’s the Gleam-O account in there, our biggest plum, for God’s sake! Explain yourself!”

“It must be this headache, Mr. Higgins.”

“Listen, Bill, I’ve got some damage control to do in there now. I want you to head into your office, lock the door and don’t come out until Lawson and his group leave, understand me?”

“Yes sir.”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay, Mr. Higgins.”

Well, the Old Man sure settled my hash pretty good. I slunk back to my office past the inquiring gaze of my secretary, Miss Hairbun. What was happening? Why did I say those things?

So there I was, stuck in my office. I could hear Miss Hairbun typing just outside my door. Through the wall, I heard Bob Wajowski, one of the account reps, talking on his phone in the office next to mine, the big one with the window that overlooked the park.

The office I always wanted.

Then I got this idea, a real screwy one, but, officer, it was like some madman was doing the thinking for me, I swear! I didn’t even hesitate. I hit the switch on the intercom and said, “Miss Hairbun, tell Jimmy from the mailroom I want to see him.”

“Yes, Mr. Schprockenberger.”

Several minutes later, young Jimmy Springer walked into my office. “You sent for me, Mr. Schprockenberger?”

“Yes, Jimmy, I did. Sit down — take this chair, the nice, comfy one. Now tell me, Jimmy: do you see yourself always working in the mailroom?”

“Heck, no, Mr. Schprockenberger, someday I want to be an important man, like you, sir.”

“Ha ha! Well said, Jimmy! I’m very glad to hear that. Ambition is good. It’s good if you know how to use it, and it can drive you on to big things. Now listen, Jimmy, you must know someday I’ll be the top dog around here.”

“I’ll bet you will.”

“Oh, you can count on that. And that day might come sooner than later.”


“Look, Jimmy, let me tell it to you straight: when I get to be in charge around here, you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll remember anyone who helped me get there.’

“Gee whiz! You mean you could use my help?”

“Heh, heh! You’re a smart one, Jimmy! That’s right. As head boy of the mailroom, I’ll need your help, yours and the other fellas you have working for you.”


“You talk to them, Jimmy. I want you all to form a kind of . . . well, a kind of brigade. A youth brigade. Let’s call it — let me see now — why don’t you call yourselves the Schprockenberger Youth, eh? It’s got ring to it, wouldn’t you say?”


“Enlist them all, Jimmy, and have everybody meet me in my office at 11:30. It so happens I already have a ‘mission’ in mind.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Schprockenberger!”

I knew I could count on Jimmy to get them on my side.

Look, I don’t want to make a long story out of this, officer. This is how things went: at 12 noon, myself and six of the mailroom crew marched into Wajowski’s office armed with rubber band slingshots. Each member had several hundred rounds of paperclips at his disposal, while Wajowski, caught by surprise, had only a letter opener and a paper weight. We ousted him from his office in less than a minute under a hail of paperclips and pink erasers. I now controlled two offices on my floor. By 1:30, through a program of indoctrination and intimidation, half the floor was mine. The secretarial pool fell without a single shot being fired and my army swelled to 16 in number. I made Miss Hairbun my Minister of Propaganda and I promoted Jimmy to Reichsmarschall. The supply room was next to fall after 15 minutes of heavy fighting. Jackson, the office manager, lit several jars of correction fluid before retreating, but we doused the flames and secured our position with minimal losses. On we went — the break room, the janitor’s closet, the executive washroom, office after office —we were unstoppable! By 2:00, I was sitting at Higgins’ desk, sipping a snifter of brandy from the Old Man’s private bar. I had conquered the entire eleventh floor!

Was I contented? No, assuredly I was not! Officer, my company occupied only one floor of a 17 floor office building. One floor was not enough!

I sent Miss Hairbun on a secret diplomatic mission to the ninth and thirteenth floors. See, I was friendly with Henderson of Bric & Brac Accounting Services, and Wilthorpe, of Noodlestrom Plumbing Fixtures, Inc., owed me a favor. What we needed were allies! I knew Bric & Brac had a simmering feud going on with AAA Accounting on tenth, and there was no love lost between Noodlestrom and Wilson Pipe and Joint Co. of the twelfth floor. We were on the eleventh. Don’t you see? With a little muscle, we could cut the F. W. Finkelstein Building in half!

Well, Miss Hairbun did her job, all right. She’s not such a bad looking dame, you know, and Henderson and Wilthorpe weren’t exactly blind to her charms. At 3:00, my company, Bric & Brac and Noodlestrom launched an all out attack. Staples flew everywhere! Rubber bands, erasers, thumbtacks — the air was thick with them! Peterson, the guy from accounting who always chews with his mouth open, disabled the elevators and sent a commando unit to control the stairs. By 3:30 we conquered floors nine through thirteen, and by 4:00 we owned the entire top half of the building! Ha ha!

By this time, the bottom floors began to get wind of what was going on. Metropolitan Candy Bar and Wing Nut, on eighth, was the most vulnerable, and frantically called for the other companies to come to its aid. My staff and I reviewed the rest of the businesses. Most could be defeated, we could see, but Galactico Extruded Plastics, which occupied the bottom three floors, could prove intractable. Luckily, early intelligence reports indicated that their president, Thaddeus P. Toodlebottom, was an isolationist. If Galactico could just stay out of the way, all would be well.

But then the unthinkable happened. Henderson, who now went by the moniker of El Douché, launched a surprise attack against the Galactico shipping department! Reports of overturned containers, slashed truck tires, wedgies, and shredded shipping manifests began to pour in. What was he thinking? Why wake a sleeping giant? In the eerie calm that followed, we heard the PA system, from several floors down, crackle to life. It was the voice of President Toodlebottom himself:

“This day, January 18th, 1943, a date which will live with a whole bunch of other dates that aren’t too good to look back upon, the forces of Bric & Bric Accounting Services did, without provocation, attack the mechanized fleet of the Galactico Extruded Plastics shipping department. There now exists, between Galactico Extruded Plastics and Bric & Brac Accounting Services, along with its fellow Axis of Bad Business Practitioners, a state of war!”

Cheers followed this proclamation. Holy cow, we were in for it now!

Well, officer, I won’t belabor this story any longer. For an hour or so, it was touch and go. We modified several hand trucks that gave us an advantage for a while, but the Allies unveiled the Super Dumpster. First we lost control of the stairs, then the elevators came back on line. We made one final push, but were repulsed on the fourth floor. And then you and Officer McClusky pulled up in your squad car and put an end to things once and for all. Seems our paperclips and staplers were no match for your guns.

So here I am, officer. I’m a living example of what can happen when you commute by yourself. Because…

(faces camera)

…when you ride alone, you ride with Hitler!

Special thanks to the fabulous Mrs. T for posting that inspirational poster on her blog!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Landlord/Tenant Relations Update

For all of you following the strange, troubled saga taking place between myself and everybody’s favorite tenant, Guildenstern, here is where matters presently stand: I now have an unequivocal letter from him stating his intention to quit the apartment at the end of the month — plus he has pledged to cooperate with me in my effort to shield poor, honest Rosencranz from this mess. You know, I can really be a soft-hearted sap. Some may argue that it would be to my benefit to bring them both to court, and this gambit to leave Rosencranz out of all of this may necessitate my going through the whole process a second time. But I'm willing to give it a try, and so is Guildenstern.

I went to the Edward R. Brooke Courthouse in Boston last Thursday morning to take advantage of the “Lawyers of the Day” project, a volunteer program the legal community has set up enabling anyone to get free advice on specific matters. On the 5th floor, in front of Courtroom 15, there was a table set up just for landlords. I spoke to a young lawyer named Ed, who wore a dark, pinstripe suit and a ponytail and who carried a soft-leather briefcase with a sticker on it that read, “Justice Works.” I briefly explained the story of my conflict with Guildenstern and expressed my desire to protect Rosencranz. He told me that, so long as Rosencranz was willing to give me his new address should the clerk magistrate rule his presence necessary and a second hearing needed to be arranged, then he saw no problem with my plan of only bringing Guildenstern to court.

I think I’ve mentioned before that Rosencranz is the quiet, unobtrusive type. If you strike up a conversation with him and take an interest in his history or job, he’ll give you very thorough answers to all you ask with the honesty and openness of a child. It is then when he can become quite voluble. There is absolutely no guile in him — and I can’t begin to explain how refreshing I find that. He represents the obverse side of the coin which he shares with his roommate, Guildenstern, who, in the latter’s case, strikes you as worldly-wise, articulate, friendly to a point, but not unafraid to offend you if such an offense may lead to personal gain. One is simple and prefers to see things as either right or wrong, fair or unfair, black or white. The other knows perfectly well what is black and what is white, but can exist comfortably in the grey areas in between.

I tried calling Rosencranz from the courthouse hoping to reach him so I could file the paperwork right then and there, but could only leave a voice mail. He didn’t return my call until 3:00 that afternoon, long after I left the courthouse and returned to work. I explained to him what I was prepared to do to keep him out of this action. Filing the claim against only Guildenstern would cost me $40 and I would need to take a vacation day to have my day in court. Having to do it again would cost another $40 and another vacation day, but, for Rosencranz’s benefit, I told him I’d take the chance.

Nevertheless, Rosencranz became distraught over this news. He just couldn’t understand why, if he’s done everything right, if he’s made no trouble and faithfully paid his share of the rent, should he even run the risk of being involved at all? I advised him to ask this question to his friend. I told Rosencranz that, as much as I liked him, I couldn’t just let $1,800 go for his sake (that’s how much Guildenstern owes me). Sometimes during the conversation there were long gaps of silence, when I ran out of things to say and Rosencranz pondered the potential ramifications of being found delinquent by association in paying his rent. At one point, he declared he would find his own place and to hell with Guildenstern. I didn’t know what to say to that.

That night Guildenstern called me after he came home to the apartment to find Rosencranz waiting for him; Rosencranz instantly unburdened to Guildenstern everything in his troubled heart. Over the telephone, Guildenstern and I confined ourselves strictly to talking about what we could do to keep Rosencranz out of the courtroom; there was no discussion at all about Guildenstern’s side of the case or mine. The conversation was very amicable, as most of our conversations tend to be. For some reason, I don’t bear a lot of ill will toward Guildenstern. Perhaps this might point to a defect in my character, but I don’t think there is anyone I’ve ever met whom I can say I hate or am willing to brand as “evil.” My grudges never seem to last very long. When I have a dispute with someone, I think I make a far greater effort to see the other’s point of view than does my antagonist try to see mine. My wife thinks I’m too trusting and innocent and easy prey for the unscrupulous types she sees all around us; she thinks I am blind to the innumerable hidden agendas and ulterior motives we all need to be wary of. My opinion of myself doesn’t quite match that, as I think my eyes are a bit more open than she gives me credit for, but I will say I’m more in the habit of finding the good in people than the bad; if I’m ever cynical, it’s usually about my fortune or my prospects and not so often my fellow man.

In the end, Guildenstern agreed to write a letter which would, in simple terms, say that everything about the suit I’m bringing against him is all his doing — Rosencranz is completely blameless. I said that sounded good, and yesterday I filed my claim in housing court. And that’s where we are right now.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Human Condition

The other day, the missus and I went for a walk and wound up having a coffee and pastry at a funky grocery store/deli/restaurant in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner (not far, incidentally, from JFK’s birthplace). Seated at a table near us was a very old woman with a middle-aged female companion whom I guessed was the old woman’s daughter. For some reason or another they drew my attention. The elderly woman had to be in her nineties. Her sallow skin was entirely covered by a tracery of wrinkles and her face was fined down to an austere bony sharpness. Her nose was beaked and her eyes deep set; she looked like a grizzled old bird, perhaps a kind of vulture, severely hunched over from osteoporosis.

There was nothing sudden or alarming about their movements, but you could tell the old woman was in some distress. She kept touching her face and hair with tremulous fingers and her daughter inclined her head constantly toward her in a solicitous way. They spoke in whispers; you could see the younger woman was asking questions and the elderly woman was answering them, although perhaps not always very clearly. Finally, the daughter stood up and walked to another part of the store to get something for her mother, leaving the old woman alone at the table. Now my attention was completely arrested. The woman’s back was more or less toward me, so I had no fear of being caught openly observing her. Her shaking fingers continued to work her face and touch her hair and I wondered if she might cry. Her head was hung low. I saw her hair was quite thick and luxuriant, and, just as I asked myself if it could be a wig, she abruptly answered the question by snatching it off her head, as if that had been the thing weighing her down. The effect was startling. You don’t see very many people doffing their wigs in public. Her actual hair was pure white, thin and tousled; delicate pink skin showed through the white strands. After she placed the wig into her large handbag, she massaged her scalp and rubbed her face for a minute or two until the daughter returned with a cup of water.

As thoughts frequently do, sparked by trivial occurrences and then flitting this way and that, I found myself provoked into asking the question: how often do we confront the idea of our own mortality? The notion that eventually we’ll cede our vitality to old age and finally die? That is a profoundly sobering thought, one that we all, of course, recognize as a certainty, just as we’ve been taught to know that one plus one equals two, but how often does it truly hit home?

My first full realization of this universal condition occurred to me when I was 17. I was working a summer job in between my junior and senior years of high school at a steel punch factory, one that threw me in with a whole bunch of different people — all sorts of backgrounds and ages. Perhaps you could say I lead a sheltered life, but I had never mingled with true blue collar types before, men and women who may have never graduated high school, many of them immigrants. I saw people in their 40s and 50s doing work that any kid my age could pick up and do as well with only a half a day’s practice. They were all loud and good-naturedly gruff and friendly. One man, I remember, looked as if he could have been an aristocrat if you dressed him up in the right clothes. I enjoyed their conversation during breaks and it was quite a thing for a boy to be accepted as a peer among grown-ups. This was in 1973, so many of the older men I hung out with probably came of age during World War II. You half expected to see Betty Grable pin-ups on the break room walls and tattooed anchors on their arms.

One man I befriended was well into his 60s. His name was George. He had a kind of Latino-Native American look, which was reinforced by a characteristically slow, deliberate manner of speaking you tended to associate with the Indians you saw on TV shows. Although he had a vigorous shock of thick, white hair and retained an erect carriage for someone his age, there was no mistaking he was close to the age of retirement. The jobs they gave him were less physically demanding than the others and his movements were measured and slow. George didn’t speak much, but this paucity of speech had the effect making him seem wise rather than dumb. I was a set-up man, the guy who went around with a hand truck, hauling away the full bins of steel toe caps turned out by the machines and supplying empty ones in their place, so I saw George at least several times a day at his workstation.

One slow day I seated myself in the same room as George. For some reason, circumstances were such that the kid could enjoy some leisure time while the older man toiled. Idly, I watched George perform his task. I looked at how slowly and minutely he moved. I observed the set of his face, the lines age had drawn into his forehead, and the veins that stood out on his hands. Suddenly, without warning, the realization struck me that someday I’d be as old as George. I would someday be as close to the end of my life as I was, at that time, near its beginning. I wouldn’t always be young. I would follow the same route as George, the slow-moving, quiet, unimportant old man in front of me. Someday I’d be George!

I was in shock for about a full minute. I had never, until that time, truly grasped the ephemeral nature of my existence. And, to tell you the truth, I don’t think I have been so profoundly struck by the idea since.

How often do you think of this? I’ll admit it’s not very cheerful to do. Is this line of thought something you’d be better off avoiding? Or does it lead to intriguing spiritual or philosophical questions, ones that you feel are enriching and worth examining? I sometimes wonder about the afterlife. Like many people, I can’t conceive of myself simply stopping altogether. I have this crazy theory that our soul or consciousness or essence is like matter, in that it can neither be created nor destroyed. I think reincarnation makes more sense than the concept of heaven and hell. I feel that our time on earth is merely a stage of our existence, just a phase, and that eventually we’ll evolve or graduate on to something else.

What do you think?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Trauma and Drama on the Home Front: Part 2

Anybody wondering if our situation with the two upstairs tenants, Guildenstern and Rosencranz, has cleared up, allow me to quickly disabuse you of that too sanguine notion: it’s gotten worse. Guildenstern the Bad is still not paying his half of the rent and has not written and signed a letter I requested of him stating his intention to leave the apartment on January 31. Rosencranz the Good did pay his share of the January rent and wrote his letter, but, unfortunately for him, his fortunes are tied with Guildenstern’s, as both their names appear on the same lease. So this is what we had to do:

This morning (Saturday), we had a constable come to our house. My wife, who works in the court system, had gotten his name from a friend. His name was Pat and he stood at least six feet tall and was fat in a stocky and powerful way; in other words, he really filled a doorway. He strode up to our front door wearing a tapered cap and athletic training suit. His manner was hearty and bluff and he had a face that was ruddy and still youthful; he couldn’t have been more than 30. It was the sort of face that could show cheerful friendliness or cold hard-heartedness with the same ease. When I shook his hand, it felt like grasping a small ham. He accepted my check for $60 and then I handed over to him two 14-day notices to quit for failure to pay rent. In exchange, he gave me a succinct letter detailing the service he was about to render.

I directed him to the rear of the house, where he rang the buzzer for the upstairs apartment. When Guildenstern and Rosencranz didn’t respond, I let him in the back entrance where he proceeded up the private stairway to the landing where the apartment door was. From downstairs I heard him rap on the door very loudly while calling out in a booming voice, “Hello! Hello! This is the constable!” We found out afterward that it was Rosencranz who was first roused and answered the door. Pat told him to go wake his friend, as this was an important matter he shouldn’t miss. Rosencranz presently brought Guildenstern back with him and the constable gave them each their notice to quit. When he asked if his visit came as a surprise to them, Guildenstern replied, no. And that was that.

This little incident capped a busy week for me. Besides returning to work, I’ve been showing the apartment (with Guildenstern’s and Rosencranz’s cooperation) nearly every night. I advertised it over the Internet and the apartment drew a good response. I think if you’re the type who likes to meet people, a career in real estate might satisfy that desire. While I’m no misanthrope, I can’t claim to be a meet-and-greet kind of guy. I have a tendency toward shyness, owing perhaps to a slight stammer, so doing this sort of thing, meeting strangers and trying to sell them something, requires a certain exertion of will. But in spite of this, I think I carried things off remarkably well. The apartment, of course, is perfect. It really is. It’s only been lived in for a year and everything in it is completely modern. It has an unusually large, marble-floored bathroom that features a huge, claw-footed tub. Both bedrooms are way over the average size, the ceilings are rather high, each room has its own ceiling fan, and there are hardwood floors throughout. It even has central air conditioning! Who wouldn’t want to live there?

The missus and I have settled on a young couple with a five-month-old child. They are moving from San Francisco. The husband is a microbiologist by training who works as a field engineer in robotics. He tried to explain to me what he did in some depth, sometimes remarking, “Well, you must have heard of this,” or, “Certainly you’re familiar with that term,” but nearly everything he said of a technical nature bounced directly off my skull. He was very friendly and could speak Spanish, which certainly helped ingratiate himself with my wife. His wife, by the way, is Japanese, and she also has some lofty scholarly attainments to her own credit, only I can’t remember them now. Both the missus and I have a very good feeling about them.

What made this morning’s incident painful to me was involving poor Rosencranz, who has been a model tenant. He and Guildenstern are truly a study in opposites. While Guildenstern has the unctuousness and glib tongue of a snake oil salesman, Rosencranz is simple, friendly and open. He appreciates an interest in taken in him and gives honest and thorough answers to anything asked. Quite frankly, he’s my kind of guy. It really caused me some distress to serve him a notice to quit along with his deceptive friend, and, after an hour or so, I called Rosencranz on his cell phone to apologize for his being dragged into this mess. We had no other choice; Guildenstern forced our hand. Both tenants had to be served. I promised him I would try everything possible to keep him out of it, and this Thursday, during an appointment I have scheduled with an attorney, I will explore what can be done. Rosencranz is very concerned about his name going on record in a negative way (as he’s done nothing wrong) and I don’t blame him. I suggested he speak to his friend about it.

This story isn’t over over, of course. Certainly there will be more to come.