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The rules are simple: no googling, not even a little; multiple guesses allowed. Winner gets a signed copy of my new book, Hapless Males, sent via post, if you don’t have one already.

Quiz: The following words are synonyms used in regional dialects of Britain for a common noun. What is it?


clinkerbell, cockerbell, conkerbell

dagger, daggler, dagglet





All thanks to Robert MacFarlane, and his book, Landmarks.


Holy cowly

I’m getting jowly

and maniacally


What’s this crap

this form uncouth

so lately a youth?

Google fountain + youth.

I hear there’s an app.



I even thought about what to wear, as if I had a choice. Nothing in my suitcase was laundered, much less unwrinkled. Not to worry. Everybody else was in jeans and t-shirts casual, so my tasteful pale blue short-sleeve Norsdstrom-Rack shirt was just another giveaway that I was an impostor.

2-A. What was I doing at this posh location? Flying home from NY where I went to teach private swim lessons in The Hamptons. See me lolling in the salt-treated heated pool and you’ll get a picture of how I suffered on assignment. You may find this incredible but I was not itching to take it on. I’d done it twice before in the summer and, forgive me for heresy, The Hamptons do not thrill me. Signs threatening instant towing wall off every beach. The villages are terribly cute but we have those here in the West too. The potato fields are pretty, that’s so. But I have no friends there, and nothing to do but the aforementioned lolling and reading and I ran out of what I brought with me all too soon. There was one novel in the unhumble house, an espionage thriller. I read half of it and didn’t much care if our agent saved us from nuclear war with Iran.

Last year I turned down the assignment. This year, what the heck. On impulse I asked if the offer of business class, made last year, was still good. It was. Shazzam.

Business class. Such gauche words. 2A was Prem level, according to the boarding pass. Of course we elite boarded first. I half feared somebody would call me out as I entered the tube, but no.

2A was not only a window seat, it was a two-window seat. Hooray. The waiter brought the menu, I mean the steward. I ordered the pasta and sauvignon blanc. This was going to work.

We were over Kansas by the time I figured out how to electrically maneuver my barge of a seat into the fully-recumbent position of a few of my neighbors. Once I achieved it something about the pronation along with the lovely drapery of the creamy blanket brought to mind a sarcophagus. I quickly (not so quickly) reversed the various buttons until I was upright at window level. If the plane was going to crash I would die sitting up. Besides, I could sleep in my own bed. I was not going to miss out on what came next. The steward asked if I needed another glass of water (I cut myself off the sauvignon blanc over the Mississippi) or coffee. He was nice. His face had the look of someone who stuffed a lot of feelings but was not embittered.

My neighbor across the snacks counter in 2-B asked him something and the steward pulled a dark blue box from the niche behind his seat. My seat had an identical niche with the identical dark blue box with a black zipper belting the middle. I investigated. My, my. The zipper made such a well-bred, obsequious sound as it separated to reveal a vault of treasures. Eye mask, lip balm, mouthwash, toothbrush and paste, tissues, lotion, and socks. Socks. How did they know I was out of clean ones? I was meant to take it, right, so when I walked off the plane I wouldn’t be a common thief, right? It didn’t matter. I was going to stuff it in my suitcase no matter what, everything inside completely intact. I thought of my mess kit, a slumped affair that used to belong to my father. If I was scouting for metaphors I might find one here: know a man by his mess kit. I even thought about collecting the ones my cabin mates left behind when the flight ended, if there were any, and I could do so in a very dignified manner.

My steward saw me looking around and pointed toward the front of the cabin. The loo. He was prescient. All those liquids. It was empty, and turned out to be an ordinary airplane loo with a flush that could suck the tattoos right off your skin. No jacuzzi that I noticed.

I didn’t intend to make myself a complete nuisance to 2-B so I abstained from further imbibing, except for one final cup of coffee. It was good coffee, served with milk my steward brought in a pitcher so I could pour it myself. Accompanied by a biscotto.

The rule of what goes up…by the time we got to Nevada it was just another airplane ride. There were a hundred movies to choose from and not one I wanted to watch. I thought about making conversation with 2-B but small talk over engine noise with a half-deaf person (moi) isn’t a foolproof recipe for satisfaction. What is the protocol for idle chat in Prem class anyway? Probably no different than in Pleb where you can see dialogue bubbles coming out of foreheads with the caption, “Please don’t talk to me.”

It is a mystery to me how anyone in a window seat can pull the shade down and not look out, how one can one get blasé riding the clouds. “Yosemite on the left,” the pilot announced. The landscape unfolded, as it always does, one mystery after another, formations human and otherwise.

Over the Coast Range, its golden contours freckled with oaks, we began our descent.  There below were the shimmering green, pink and orange lagoons of the South Bay as the plane approached the SFO runway.

Landed. My life as a toff ended. Thanks to all the little people who worked so hard to make it happen.


Six months of garden construction in my neighbors’ garden have led to this auspicious moment: the nailing down of the lawn. How green upon the eyes it is even if not so in an ecological sense. These new and ever more improved fake lawns are more popular than ever. Wow! No maintenance. But…but…but… early adopters, those who rolled out the carpet five or so years ago, now face an unexpected problem. Weeds are coming up through it, persistent damn invincible weeds, almost impossible to eradicate. Now what? Do you have to mow your fake lawn? Of course not. There’s Monsanto to help out.

Is the sun which so far seems beyond our manipulation going to stop degrading plastic? What happens when the plastic cracks and the weeds take over?

Don’t tell me. I know. By then the detritus of the loquat and guava trees will have buried this artifact a foot deep, and the next generation of gardeners will dig down and curse, wondering what the hell is buried down there.  If we’re so lucky.


Every man who has fallen off a ladder has said to himself, it won’t happen to me.

So I take the next step up, the last one before THIS IS NOT A STEP. This is one of those 8-foot ladders, so now I am at 7.35 feet or thereabouts. From the eyeball perspective, it’s a long way down, concrete below. I am in pursuit of the Santa Rosa plums that seduce from on high. Dark, rich wine color. Darker than wine. Heading toward black.

Three are within arm’s length. The first I pick looks seconds away from dropping overripe, oozing where the stem joins the fruit. It is soft. It is juicy. It is so delicious that were I a fainting type I might faint, although the timing would be greatly inconvenient. The other two are merely sensational.

More more.

I move the ladder again and again, reaching higher, taking greater risks. I do tadasana on THIS IS NOT A STEP, a master of balance. I pull on a branch to bring the prize toward me that thus far eludes my fingertips. If this little branch tears from the limb, I will be propelled backward into space and the cast factory. This is really stupid, but there, I’ve got it. Well worth the risk.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

William Carlos Williams


The letter from His Eminence was timely. I had quit my job under the misapprehension that since I sold one screenplay the following one, a sequel, would be easier. But you can’t have a sequel if the original isn’t produced. My agent Sheila was hinting about dropping me. I was auctioning my comics collection on Ebay to pay the bills.

My history with His Eminence dated from a decade past when I was hired by an enterprise called The Wellbeing Foundation as a consultant to “position” the institution and create a brochure to facilitate fundraising. From what I gathered the main function of The Foundation was to host champagne parties at which rich stiffs inflated the ego of His Eminence. Such a noble institution, created single-handedly. Or, if they really wanted his attention, what a prophet he was.

The Board had hired me, which was unusual since the Board rarely made a move without his imprimatur. He was clearly threatened by me, and railed about what a colossal waste of money I represented, that I should be replaced by someone who knew The Foundation “from the ground up.” He was pleased with this witticism. That he lost this battle, a very rare loss, I attributed to two factors: I had an unbreakable contract and my likely replacement would be Clara, His Eminence’s bedraggled, overworked and under-appreciated secretary suffering from lifelong unrequited love.

He was far from accurate; I wasn’t a threat—what did I care about the old windbag and his Foundation?—although one of my recommendations was that the Board assume more control, that a distribution of power would be conducive to more creativity. Everybody of course knew that already. The fact that it was in the open made no difference whatsoever.

I am a believer in pissing the direction the wind is blowing. The brochure was one itty-bitty step from total parody in the way most hagiographies are. His Eminence was mentioned at least twice on every page: visionary, philanthropist, ideal husband, “early adopter.” I’m still embarrassed by those last two words, in vogue at the time. If the Board of Directors realized they had a dung pancake on their hands, they were powerless to do anything but chew. To everyone’s great astonishment, it brought in truckloads of dough, so much so that pride dusted my soul like yeast mold.

Now out of the fog of the past came the letter, impeccable on Foundation stationery. His Eminence wrote charmingly that now that he was in his late 80’s, he had an “inkling” he wasn’t going to live forever and he wanted me to ghostwrite his memoir. The world would be a poorer place without an account of his illustrious life. I agreed to meet him with the disclaimer, an escape hatch or a bargaining chip, that I was incredibly busy and the chances of being able to do the job were next to nil.

Other than jowl slippage and increasingly maniacal eyebrows, he hadn’t aged much. Nor had his self-absorption diminished a watt. After he made his proposal. I demurred, questioning whether there was enough material. I remained a pillar of skepticism until he said, “I know I’m going to have to pay to get a first rate product. I’m not a rich man but I do have a Matisse, not a large one and maybe not one his better works, but my Edith and I have gotten our pleasure from it, and it’s time to sell.” He wanted a topnotch product, not some tacky self-published knock-off. Hard cover, dust jacket, glossy reproductions. The works. The memoir would be his laurel crown.

I said I would think it over.

My ambivalence was disarmed by the generous salary I included in my proposal “When do we start? How about this afternoon?” he asked the moment he received it. I said I had a golf date, I who have not played a hole of golf in my life. He twitched, he hyperventilated. We were off on the right footing.

I met with him the next day. At that initial session I taped his ramblings about his childhood in Minnesota. He called me a few days after I sent him the transcription. I think even he saw how flat it was. “Why are you asking so many questions about my parents? They were good parents. They made their mistakes. They sent me away, they thought it was for my own good. We don’t have to spend a lot of time on my childhood. When are we meeting again? What are we waiting for?”

“We’re waiting for you to sign the contract and fed-ex it back to me.”

I had my nephew the lawyer look over the contract before I sent it over. He said it looked airtight. Three days later the signed contract came back with a check covering the first quarter of my salary. Matisse, nice knowing you. After the check cleared I called Clara, his secretary, and made a second appointment.

Unsurprisingly the boy growing up in the frozen vastness of Minnesota exhibited marks of greatness and election. At eight he was spirited away from his parents to live with a childless rabbi and his wife in St. Paul and attend a private boy’s academy for the gifted. The school was a fertile field for ambitious sociologists. The boys were prodded and measured and quizzed. He was desperately lonely. One midwinter evening he walked away from the rabbi’s house in his pajamas. They found his body, his heart stopped. When his body was warmed—after an hour or more had passed—his heart started up again, one two rest, one two rest. There was no brain damage. No deleterious effects at all. “But I never saw a blue light,” he said and laughed. He told me this story several times with the same punch line.

In the forge of his alienation he honed his mathematical gifts. Local newspapers—he showed me yellowed clippings—ran features on the boy able to do complex multiplications in seconds, to tell instantly what day of the week June 23, 1023 fell on, to reel off decimals of pi until you cried uncle.

In his telling, his was the arching life of the hero, tribulation followed by triumph. He got rejections from Yale, Columbia, and M.I.T. which he blamed on anti-Semitism although his overall academic performance was mediocre. He took a job in a small upstart lab in Boston. There he discovered/invented a chemical reaction that opened the gates of the world to even more plastic junk. Suddenly he was very rich and very young, a condition which, you won’t be surprised, counted as a tribulation (even though it came with a Matisse, not one of his biggest nor one of his best.) He was a celebrity in his field of chemical engineering. All the perks meant nothing to him. He embarked upon a period of recklessness and dissolution, of psychic exploration. (See the photo of him lounging with Timothy Leary.) Then he met Edith in a bar in Trieste and his life began anew.

The second quarterly payment arrived three days after its due date. I did not make an issue of it. Narrative-wise we were in the doldrums, the family years, the babies, the moving from city to city as his career rocketed upward. His kids were about to enter college. (He rarely gave either of them a thought if he could help it. That was his biggest mistake, he volunteered.) He became dean of the Engineering School. Despite his many national and international awards, despite his adorable wife, something was missing. He wasn’t fulfilling his life’s mission. He quit academia to become a leader in the Human Potential Movement. (An early adopter, you might say.) He became an Esalen sage.

Equanimity was one of the virtues he had outgrown.  At that stage of our interviews he was almost violently irritated by the process. “What does it matter who else got the OBE? I told you what the Queen said to me. She said she was pleased to meet a scientist will a full head of hair.”

Ninety per cent of what he told me he told me before. We were too near the finish line to blow the whole thing up. I would have loved to slap him down but  one of us had to be the adult.

He kept filibustering, especially when I went in the direction of intimate relationships, not a bad thing since I was stuck, in the first flush of panic. The past was advancing upon the present. How could I turn these secretions into silk? I needed to put something into his hands. My only solid strategy was to use the first person. I wouldn’t worry about accuracy. It was his story, not history.

My agent Sheila called. During one of the doldrums I had worked up a 5-page outline of a screenplay, an original, not a sequel, and sent it off to her without  expectations. It was about a hyper-intelligent boy, a prodigy, torn from his family and sent to a proto-fascist academy that he eventually subverts. There is an incident of hypothermia and resuscitation that transforms his exceptional abilities into superpowers. I left the ending open because I hadn’t figured it out. I am bad at endings.

Sheila was over the moon. “This is fantastic. I’m going to New York next month and to LA after that. I want to show it around. Make the boy Episcopalian, and come up with a better ending. Give it the works.  Get it to me by the end of the month. We’re in Fat City babe.”

My ending wasn’t entirely original, but it was edgy. It probably arose out of my frustrations around the memoir. The ending was bloodbath like at the end of If, the kid on the roof with a semi-automatic. Or not; I wasn’t going to be stubborn, if it was too controversial.  Although some controversy is a good thing, a ticket to fame. I’d wait to hear what Sheila thought.

Getting back to the memoir I confronted the inertia that had settled its distortions over it. Boredom is the loam of the meta-narrative. The perceptive reader would peer below the surface and recognize me, the minion in his gilded cage, painting a grotesque portrait of a narcissist. This meta-narrative, I tried to convince myself, might make the memoir interesting but I failed, so I reverted to the strategy that worked so well back in the days of The Wellbeing Foundation: the flattery blitz. Flattery would paddle my canoe through the swamps. That’s what he was paying for, after all.

The first draft, even with all the pictures, came to 110 pages. Panic flared up again. I fingered through the verbiage to unearth wrigglers; the dominant mother and recessive father; the rare coin collection; the OBE. Who knew that one of the founders of the London School of Economics was George Bernard Shaw? Who knew that the son of Shah Jahan forbade the use of the coins his father minted because they bore Islamic phrases which infidel hands would defile? Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the Taj Majal as a monument to his own magnificence, was killed by his son. Were we uncovering historical parallels? Digressions became backwaters of extraneity. Eventually I had 189 pages, plus index.

I patched up the copy with the pictures into a prototype book. I was weirdly proud of what I created pretty much ex nihilo. When I gave it to him I let him know that my original cost estimate had been too low, that the project demanded many more hours of research than I had foreseen. He said, “You’re bleeding me to death. I am not a rich man,” forgetting, perhaps, that the month before I had been a guest in his house in Bel-Air, drunk Veuve Clicquot from his wine cellar, and admired the Bactrian gold piece a dealer had offered twenty thousand for. And seen the Matisse. He hadn’t sold it.

When the third check arrived it was for the same amount as the first two. Again I did not protest, choosing my battles. We were a yard from the finish line, the thing, the book itself. Seeing the proofs of the dust jacket that featured his own photoshopped, eyebrow-trimmed mug he was uncharacteristically pleased. I think a part of him had given up hope we’d get to this point.

The question arose; how many to print. He asked my opinion. I said two hundred and he was insulted. “Two thousand,” he said. He asked if I would accept delivery, that he would get his son to transport the boxes to his office in Pasadena. I sent him the final bill with the accumulated costs.

The books arrived; payment didn’t. I called his office and there was no answer. On the fourth attempt Clara picked up the phone. Before I knew it she was sobbing. “We buried him yesterday. Wednesday I went into his office. I thought he was sleeping, his head down on his arms. But he was gone.”

When I talked to his son about the books, about the plan for him to take them to Pasadena or wherever, he said he didn’t know a thing about the books and why would anyone want them? I called the widow. Her caretaker said she couldn’t talk to me.

There are forty books per box. Okay math genius: two thousand books, forty per box, equals how many boxes? They’re sitting outside on the deck. Rain is forecast.


Get excited now. Coming soon from Ithuriel’s Spear Press: