Haikus for Troubled Times


, , , , ,

While we poison our earthly home, killer microbes emerge as if in retribution.  In 2003, it was SARS.  Again it’s China, but now, the Coronavirus.  Winnowing the human race might save the planet, but who among us would not fight to live another day?    


Inside the Great Hall
The Leader speaks — grave, subdued
(My, he looks so pale!)

“We have naught to fear
but … (snuffle, cough, wheeze, hack, sneeze) …”
(Oh, this isn’t good!)

“… Fear itself!  We will
fight it in our streets, our homes …”
(Hmmm … let’s wait and see!)


Bold red banners cry
Protect Yourself — Wear a Mask!!

Market fowl … vanished.
(Of course!  They started it, but …
No damned Peking Duck!)

Public places closed,
All cinemas shuttered tight.
(Oh, no! Starbucks too?)


A man is coughing.
Fearfully, I turn around.
Whew!  Just a smoker.

I hail a taxi.
Inside, it reeks of chlorine.
Four-wheel swimming pool.

She may be OK.
But, under that mask, who knows?
The thrill of danger!

I don’t feel so good.
Perhaps it’s my time of month?
No wait!  I’m a guy!

What doc says, I do:
“Sing Happy Birthday two times
While washing your hands!”

Then, I take my temp.
Suddenly, a startling noise!
Crunch! … I’m eating glass!

Bored, Bored, Bored, Bored, Bored.
No work, no play, makes Li Wei
Decidedly dull.

This is just awful!
But, at least, once it’s over,
Starbucks reopens!

Awfully Awesome


, , , , , ,

Unknown-3Once, on the road from Kano to Zaria (Nigeria), my travel companion and I came upon the scene of an accident.  A lorry carrying an enormous load of dried fish had overturned, spilling its cargo onto the road and into an adjacent field.  We got out to gawk.  There was no driver and no policeman, only a wrecked lorry, a lot of dead fish, and a suffocating smell.

A Nigerian stopped just after us, got out of his car, and, surveying the pungent scene, exclaimed, It is wonderful!  It is wonderful!

We said nothing, nodded goodbye, got into our vehicle, and headed quietly on our way.  But, once we were out of earshot, my companion vented:  How in the world could anyone with any sense say it is wonderful when it’s so obviously awful?

No, I ventured, I don’t think he was saying it’s exceedingly good.  Simply that it is full of wonder.  True, I was guessing, but I had heard enough Nigerian English to know that, in their creativity with the language, Nigerians sometimes deconstruct it, taking it back to what it once might have been.

(Thinking about this now, years later, I realize that the man could equally have said, It is awful, as in Full of awe, expressing the sentiment just as genuinely, but avoiding censure.)

Words and phrases can change their meaning rapidly, especially in our interconnected age.  Though changes may leave the traditionalist nonplussed, not every change is for the worse.

Each generation, understandably, makes its mark on the language, sometimes with good effect.  Cool, for example, expressed an attitude-shift decades ago by taking an existing word and giving it new life.  Even though, today, it is close to qualifying for Social Security, cool apparently continues to satisfy new generations.

But not every change is for the better.  This is especially the case with words that have a heightened emotional, almost religious, quality.  If we have lost the wonder in wonderful and the awe in awful, we are left with fewer ways of expressing our reaction to what is mysterious and moving.

One word we do still have in that category is awesome.  But it is rapidly slipping from the majestic and unknowable to the mundane and offhandedly meaningless.

Recently, at a local restaurant, I heard the death-rattle when a pleasant, and otherwise articulate, waiter asked if I was ready to order.  I said, Yes, and he responded, Awesome.  I would like to think that I have qualities that inspire so meaningful a response, but I think he was just saying OK.

God is awesome.  A volcano is awesome.  I am not, and my being ready to order my meal most certainly was not.

Of course, language changes, as our Nigerian traveler demonstrated.  Not even a disciplined army of English teachers could defend the fortress, nor should they. The old gives way to the new, and lamenting the decline of a favorite word is, I admit, futile.

New words, and new usages, will come along to liven our language, just as awesome has (or had) for so long.  Since it takes a long time for a new word to be reduced to non-meaning, I’d suggest gobsmack (literally, to smack in the mouth; figuratively, to amaze or startle), a salty Scots/English expression seldom heard in America and just odd enough to attract a following.

We’d have to come up with an adjective weighty enough to catch attention and rareimages-2 enough to warrant adoption.  We’ll leave that choice to the street.  In a decade or two, don’t be surprised if, when you tell your waitperson you’re ready to order, she says, Gobsmacking!, which would be awesome!

A Liberal Dilemma


, , ,

Recently, Denver has swung back-and-forth between allowing and banning camping by the homeless in public spaces.  We are, for the moment at least, in banning mode, which may have been solidified by the recent discovery of a rat infestation among camps on the grounds of the State Capital.

This public health dimension adds complexity to what has been primarily a constitutional and civil rights issue — are such bans cruel and unusual punishment, as a judge recently ruled?  are they tantamount to criminalizing the homeless, as some claim?

The issue is tough to parse, but worth a try:

UnknownA public space is intended to be open to everyone without regard to criteria — age, sex, ethnicity and the like — that are irrelevant to the general purpose and specifically intended uses of the space.

But every public space comes with limitations, including legally enforceable rules and restrictions, meant to assure that all its patrons can enjoy it as intended, without hindrance.

Where multiple uses are allowed, no single use should interfere with the others, and precedence usually goes to those most vulnerable.  On public trails, for example, if bicycles are allowed, they normally must yield to pedestrians.

Some activities are legitimately banned if they interfere with the intended use(s) of a public space: no bicycles on downtown sidewalks; no speed-skating on public rinks; no camping on public golf courses or in municipal ball-parks.

Public parks are the hardest to categorize because they have many legitimate uses, some of which (sun-bathing?) may not be specified.

Probably the best way to sum up the multiple uses of a public park is The Healthy Enjoyment of the Outdoors, aka Nature.

In a bountiful country like ours, we may take for granted access to nature in our mountains, forests, and seashores.  But most cities do not have these amenities, and public parks are their natural, and vital, substitute.

Camping isn’t within the normally intended use of any public park.  Whatever our sympathies for the homeless, by what right would we give up rare, essential, natural, public space to what is a private activity?

Would we ever countenance a millionaire’s setting up a similar living facility in a public park?  If no, on what grounds could we legitimately accept a homeless person’s doing precisely that?  The homeless should have our sympathy, but they have no more, and no fewer, rights in this regard than our hypothetical millionaire.

If, within the scope of reasonable, non-discriminatory laws, we say no to homeless camping in public facilities like parks, we aren’t necessarily criminalizing homelessness any more than we would be criminalizing millionaireness.

The question of homeless camping in public parks is a matter of principle, but also one of practicality.  One homeless camper in a park wouldn’t put a dent in its ability to provide city dwellers a nature break, but the homeless are highly mobile and they logically and sensibly gravitate to cities that are less unwelcoming than others.

How many tent-camps in the most cherished park in America’s most liberal city would it take to turn it from a model of compassion to an angry fortress?

This is not to trivialize homelessness.  We should be sympathetic to the homeless, but weimages should be practical.  Degrading one of our vital assets won’t work.  Worse, it risks giving us the self-satisfied illusion that we’ve done something to alleviate homelessness.

Public and private activism and resources are needed to deal with homelessness.  Asking our parks to bear the burden is no help to those who need it and worse than no help to a public resource we all need.

Reindeer Rebellion


, , , , , , , ,

Last year, we reported on Santa Claus as he returned home from his rounds, tired and frustrated.

We followed up last summer to see how he was doing.  It wasn’t good.  It was the reindeer.  They were trying to organize.  There was even talk of joining the Teamsters!

With Santa’s permission, we sat in on a meeting.  Here is some of what we heard:

Dasher:  It’s the imbalance that’s killing us.  We stand around most of the year doingimages-5 nothing, bored silly, and then, bam, insanity; 24 hours to cover every time zone and every house and apartment on earth.

Vixen: Well, really not every one.  Don’t forget, there’s the Buddhists and the Muslims and the Jews and …

Dancer:  … Yeah, so it’s only maybe 3 billion people, not 6.  So, what’s the difference?

Blitzen:  Look, numbers aren’t the point.  It’s the wear-and-tear.  We’ve gotta get it done, but at what cost?  We should at least have a fitness program to get us in shape so we’re imagesnot so wiped out at Christmas.

Comet:  Who’s gonna lead it?  It can’t be Santa.  If anybody needs a fitness program, it’s him.  And if he hires some instructor, where’ll he get the money to pay?

Donner:  Maybe pay with toys?

Comet:  What good are toys?  The instructor isn’t gonna be a kid.

Donner:  Well, maybe he could sell them on e-Bay.  If people knew they were real Santa toys, collectors items, they’d bring a fortune.

Cupid:  The world is six-feet deep in Santa toys and you think they’d bring a fortune?!!  But, wait.  What the hell are we doing, talking about how we’re gonna pay some phys-ed teacher when it’s us that are the issue?  What we need to do is spread Christmas out evenly over the whole year.  Then our daily delivery load would be .0027 percent of what it is now.

Prancer:  How do you figure?

Cupid:  Just do the math.  Here, look at my calculator.

Prancer:  Where did you get that?

Cupid:  A couple Christmases ago.  It slipped out of the bag.  No one missed it.

Prancer:  Oy, if you’ll permit me, Vey!!  Anyway … look … this is ridiculous.  Even if it was aUnknown reasonable idea, which it isn’t, how would we get Christmas spread evenly throughout the year? We can’t do it.  It has to be the humans.  How’s that possible?  The Pope would have to approve it and he’s too busy with all that Me Too stuff.  And the different countries who’d have to agree are more divided than ever.  I mean, look at China and Hong Kong, the Brits and the EU, America and Every Other Country in the World!

Vixen:  Where do you get all that?

Prancer:  The PBS News Hour.

Vixen:  What!? How do you get a chance to see that?

Prancer:  A TV set slipped out of the bag and …

Comet:  And you were going after Cupid about a calculator?!  Jesus Christ!

Donner:  Amen brother!  If it weren’t for Jesus, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Comet:  If it weren’t for Him, we’d be standing in a blizzard on the tundra, pawing for moss and getting eaten by wolves!!!

Donner:  Good point.  We do have to be practical.  Maybe we should recruit more reindeer and …

images-7Rudolph:  Wait a minute, wait a minute!  While you guys’ve been blathering, I’ve been thinking.  You know the Christmas song about me, right?

All:  Yeah … so?

Rudolph:  So, it made millions!

All:  Yeah … so?

Rudolph:  So, they did all that without my permission.  That’s appropriation of my image without my consent.  I’m sure it’s covered by copyright law.

Dasher:  What makes you think that?

Rudolph:  The PBS News Hour.  And, no! I didn’t steal a TV set.  Prancer lets me watch his.  Anyway, we could at least check with a lawyer.

Cupid:  Wow, we could all retire and just eat moss.

Blitzen:  Yeah, but who’ll deliver the presents?

Cupid:  I think Santa has it right.  With Amazon and drones, in a few years, we’d be out of business anyway, so we may as well grab what we can while we can.

Blitzen:  What will Santa do?  

Cupid:  A few mall appearances, a movie every other year, he’ll do fine.  He can move toUnknown-1 Hollywood.  For that matter, we could too.  In a few years, we’d all have to anyway.  This place will be underwater.

All: In that case, let’s go for it!

When Mr. Trump Met Mr. Rogers


, , , , , , , , , ,


UnknownFor years, on PBS, Mr. Rogers gently talked children through the uncertainties of growing up.  We may have thought of him as a semi-fictional character, but the movie — A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood — suggests that what we saw was real and that he was as genuine with adults as with children.

His chance encounter with Donald Trump in March, 2000, in New YorkUnknown-1 City, a few weeks after Mr. Trump had abandoned his campaign to be the Reform Party’s Presidential candidate, reinforces Mr. Rogers’ image as eager to help, no matter who or what:

Excuse me, aren’t you Donald Trump?

Every sweet ounce of me.  And who are you?

I’m Fred Rogers, but you may know me as Mr. Rogers.

Yeah, I think I’ve heard of you.  You’re that sort of fairy-like guy on television who talks to kids.  

That might be one way of expressing it.

And you sing about the beautiful neighborhood, which is something I’ve done a lot of.  Not singing, but building wonderful buildings and resorts that are really, y’know, perfectly beautiful.

I’m sure you have and I’m sure they are, though my point is the beauty of the day, no matter what the neighborhood.  But that’s of secondary importance.  More important, you seem to be a bit down.  Is anything the matter?

Naaah!  Well … yes … in fact!  The idiots in the Reform Party have decided they don’t want me as their Presidential candidate.  Enormous mistake!  Really enormous!  But it’s their funeral!

And this makes you sad?

Are you kidding?  No, it doesn’t make me sad.  I don’t do sad.  Never have.  Sad is for suckers and losers!  Sad is moping.  I don’t mope.  I get angry and I get even, and I am angry!

I’m sad that you’re so angry.


It makes me sad when anyone is upset.  Being upset, being angry, is just sadness looking for a speedy way to be happy again.

What other way is there?  

Well, in your case, since someone other than you will win your party’s nomination, you could be happy for him and, if he wins the election, you could be happy that your party and its principles have won.  After all, that must be what you were hoping for your party and your country if you had won.  

What planet did you say you’re from?


Pittsburgh, eh?  This is New York.  I’m a New Yorker.  Ever seen West Side Story?  Do you think the Sharks and the Jets sat down at tea and discussed how to make a better neighborhood, and who would do the better job?  Is everybody in Pittsburgh a pansy like you? 

Ha ha, I think you’re trying to get me to respond angrily, which, if I did, would prove that I’m a hypocrite.  But let’s get back to your situation.  Do you have someone to talk to about your feelings?

It appears that I have you … at least until I can escape.

Ha, yes!  It’s important to have a sense of humor.  But I mean, really, someone you trust, someone who will be with you no matter what.  Your wife?  Your children?  Your friends?

It’s wives plural, which answers that part of the question.  Kids?  Maybe some day, but not now.  And there’s Rudy Giuliani and Roger Stone.  But, feelings?  I’d be better off talking to my dog.

You have a dog?  Dogs can help you relieve stress, though they’re not so good at offering advice.

Tell me something I don’t know.  But, look, I’ve got to go.  And, let me be frank.  You’re a nice guy, but you know what they say about nice guys and finishing last.  I’m not a nice guy and I’m not gonna finish last.  I figure, the less nice I am, the more successful I am and, by the way, I’m gonna keep being successful.  Just wait and see.  I’ll be President, maybe not this time, but some time.  Keep your eye out for me!  Anyway, I’ve got to get going.  So long.  (To himself, as he walks away: Man, it’s a good thing that doofus isn’t running for President.)

(Mr. Rogers, to himself, as he walks away:  It certainly is good fortune for the country that a dangerous egotist like him won’t be President.)

The First Thanksgiving


, , , , , , ,

Accounts of the origin of Thanksgiving differ.  At best, it was a gracious gesture of mutual respect between Pilgrims and Native Americans.  At worst, a cynical cover for the eventual subjugation of the land’s original inhabitants.

A recently-discovered document, recounting a discussion between a Pilgrim (P) and a Native American (NA) suggests a more innocent beginning:

P: How!

NA: How what?

P: No “what,” just “How,” as I understood your traditional greeting to be.

NA: Hmmm.  No, that is not what we normally say upon first meeting.  But this is very curious.

P: Curious?

NA: Just now, I seemed to envisage a situation in which future generations of my people would be portrayed as using that as a greeting, and also raising a hand, palm outward, as you did.  Why did you do that, as well?

P: We understand it to be a sign of peaceful intent among your people.  We are sensitive to your ways.

NA: That is appreciated, but, no, that too is not our custom, although one can see that it could be a non-threatening gesture, the position of the hand making it difficult to reach suddenly into the waistband or pocket for a knife.

P: So, what should I say and do in these circumstances?

NA: A simple nod is appropriate.

P: I will certainly keep all this in mind.  But, permit me to ask, where did you learn such perfect English?  Did you study in my country?

NA: No, you may be thinking of Tisquantum, whom you call Squanto, but, in all honesty, his English is rather rudimentary.  I, on the other hand, learned my English from my father, who learned it from his, and so on in a chain that goes back to the Vikings, who preceded you by some centuries.

P: To the Vikings?!?!  They were here?!?!  My God!  But didn’t they speak Nordic or something like that?

NA: Of course, but also perfect English.  I’m not certain where they learned it.  Perhaps in their numerous forays into your homeland.  In any case, everyone knows that Nordics speak better English than the English do.

P: Well, if you speak the English you inherited from them, I’d have to agree.

NA: In any case, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?

P: It is about the squash …

NA: The game in a room, with a ball?

P: No, I don’t think that’s been invented yet, but it is an interesting idea.  No, it’s about the vegetable.  Much of our first crop has either withered on the vine or simply rotted before it could ripen.  Could you help?

NA: I would be happy to.  Why don’t we repair to my abode where we can share a distilled libation and discuss your agricultural problem.

P: Yes, certainly … firewater in your tent.  

NA: My heavens, what a narrow conception you have of how we live.  I would wager that our distillations in the comfort of a log structure such as mine would at least match the beer and ale found in your drafty public houses.

P: I would not doubt it.

(Note: At this point, there is an interruption in the document.  This may be accounted for by drinking superseding conversation, which eventually resumes.)

NA: Well, that is all we have in the house.  We should resume our dialect … I mean dialogue … when we are better able to focus.

P: Excellent idea.  And maybe then we can talk squash … the vegetable.

NA: Better yet, let us then eat some as well.  And turkey!

P: Ah yes, a frank discussion.

NA: No, not talk it.  Eat it.  The bird, that is.

P: A bird?  Really?  What does it look like?

NA: Well, it’s quite large.  Think of it as a cross between a goose and a chicken, but more delicious!

P: Ah, now that you mention it, I’ve seen them at a distance.  An excellent idea, eating turkey and squash. Thanks!

NA: Giving is its own reward!  Ha ha, I like that!

P: Pardon?

NA: We have joined “Thanks” to “Giving.”  An appropriate combination!

P: Indeed.  But, realistically, we two could not possibly eat all you propose. Should we not invite others to share in this … this … shall we call it Thanksgiving?

NA: Yes, we shall!  And, yes, we should not be selfish.  Still, we should not promise more than we can deliver.  I’m thinking … 



The Art of Diplomacy/The Diplomacy of Art


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Diplomacy is a buttoned-down profession — carefully-crafted talking points for the Ambassador’s meeting with the Foreign Minister; well-scrubbed reports to Washington; exquisite cimagesourtesy toward esteemed counterparts.

With all this on-the-job self-control, diplomats need a chance to unbutton.  Extra-curricular activities take many forms.  Mine were music and acting:

Kuwait:  After a small role in Man of La Mancha, I signed up for Gogol’s Inspector General, a send-up of bureaucratic stupidity.  A couple weeks into rehearsals, our director quit.  We couldn’t find a replacement, so we decided on a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland-ish Let’s put on a show in the old barn!!

We thought we all knew our lines and blocking, but, in performance, that turned out to be an illusion.  It was emphatically not a success, though we may have inadvertently mirrored exactly the bureaucratic stupidity we thought we were satirizing.  What in the world were you/we thinking?!

Abu Dhabi:  I joined a chorale, led by a mild-mannered Sri Lankan with a surprising Scottish accent.  He was a good musician, but too nice.  Rehearsals were convivial but undisciplined.  Every sub-group or soloist who wanted a concert spot got it, including the madrigal group I was part of.

I knew our concerts were not great, but I thought we were ok.  That is, until a few years ago when, in a fit of madness, I listened to a tape of one of our Christmas concerts.  What in the world …?! 

The madrigal group was a bit more disciplined and of slightly higher quality, with one indisputable success when we were roving choristers in straw-hats at the Ambassador’s 4th of July reception.  The guests seemed to enjoy it, possibly with the help of alcohol.  Most important, the Ambassador was pleased.

Israel:  I didn’t sing or act in Israel, but music was more vital to me there than in any other posting.

When the Gulf War broke out, the family was evacuated.  We who stayed, when we weren’t working, were instructed to stay home.  If we had to be out, we were always to carry a gas mask.  It was a desperately scary, lonely time.

To keep myself sane, I turned to our long-neglected piano.  By war’s end, I could playUnknown-2 Turkey in the Straw and Onward Christian Soldiers almost completely from memory.  I knew exactly What in the world …?! I was thinking.

Singapore:  I sang in a choral group there, but it was two solo gigs that stood out.

One was at the Embassy’s annual karaoke competition, the first of which was won by a guy who, honestly, couldn’t sing as well as me.  But he had a prop and a schtick.  Ah, I realized, acting and singing.  I can do that!

The following year, I threw everything I had into Heartbreak Hotel, and won it.  Afterwards, one of the Embassy’s local employees came up to me and gushed, I didn’t know political officers could do that kind of thing!  Plus, I got a radio.

As gratifying as that was, my most notable artistic contribution to diplomacy came more informally:

A few of us at the Embassy occasionally had lunch with Chinese Embassy counterparts, taking turns hosting.  At one gathering, idly conversing with the woman next to me, I asked if she knew what a kazoo was.  She didn’t.  Too bad, I said, I could have demonstrated.

Our Deputy Chief of Mission overheard and called my bluff.  He had a comb and was sure that the waiter could get the flimsy of a credit card receipt, which he did.

I couldn’t back out, but what to play?  One of our luncheon guests had studied in the States, at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., so I played Way Down Upon the Swanee River on my makeshift kazoo.  

Not long after that, U.S.-China relations seemed to warm.  Draw your own conclusions.

China:  I’ve already recounted my Pirates of Penzance experience (The Pirates of Mischance; Feb 4, 2014), which was the entree to working with the play’s music director, Nick Smith, in his choral group.

Our first, and most gratifying, performance was singing Mozart’s Requiem in the Concert Hall of the Forbidden City, reportedly its first performance in China since the Cultural Revolution.

The second was Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand, to open the 2003 Beijing Music Festival.  Our chorus joined about five hundred other voices from a variety of Chinese choruses, plus a children’s choir, and a group flying in from New York.  We had two rehearsals together.

Putting into the mix all these singers, who may or may not have prepared well, who didn’t know each other or our conductor, on an enormous stage where those in back couldn’t hear those in front, nor those on the left those on the right, all singing at the top of their lungs one of the most exhausting choral pieces ever composed, may not have been the best path to artistic excellence.

Our performance merited a stern What in the world …?! but, at least, not from the Chinese government and Communist party luminaries, most of whom slept soundly in their front-row seats.

Switzerland:  In Geneva, I sang with the choir of the European Center for Nuclear Research (the CERN Choir).  We were not great, but we were not awful.  What we were, at least, was polylingual — French for rehearsal directions, whatever language a particular piece was in for performance, and a virtual United Nations at break time.

Unknown-3We rehearsed, and sometimes performed, in the CERN headquarters complex, with sub-atomic particles whizzing soundlessly at unimaginable speeds in the tunnel beneath us.  They did not interrupt us, and, most notable, we had no What in (or beyond) the world …?! moments.

The Caliph Wears a Vest


, , , , , , ,

merlin_163885848_e635b8f5-bf95-48be-92f2-9d7132b276ca-superJumboYou may recall my insights into the challenges the leader of ISIS — Abubakr al-Baghdadi (aka the Khalifa/Caliph) — faced, trying to satisfy both the spiritual and the material needs of his flock (The Caliph Fills a Pothole; Sept 26, 2014).

He is now dead, allegedly at his own hand, by a suicide vest.

In light of my previous work, the Agency asked me to investigate the details of his demise.  Working with trusted sources, I have put together a rough but, I believe, accurate transcript of those final minutes:

(Doorbell):  Ring … Ring … Ring.

(Al-Baghdadi, from an inner room):  Someone get that.  It’s probably the postman.  I ordered a new vest.  Just sign for it.

(Servant):  But, sir, the postman always rings twice.  This was three rings.

(A-B):  Don’t be a nitwit!  (to himself) Why, in the name of Allah, did I include Turner Classic Movies in my TV package?!  (to Servant)  So, who is it?  What does he look like?

(Servant, looking through the keyhole and communicating through the closed door):  It is not a he, it is a they … three or four.  They have your vest.  They say you must sign for it.  But they do not look Arab; more like Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

(A-B, to himself):  Again, TCM!!!  But, far more serious, this could be the infidel Americans, may Allah curse them!  (to Servant)  Do not open the door!!  It must be the Americans!  Warn the rest of the household.  We must escape at once!

(A-B rushes to his bedroom):  Now, where did I put my old vest?  I had it on for our latest escape drill.  (to Second Servant):  Ismail, do you remember where I put my vest?

(Ismail): I believe you left it in the tunnel once our drill was completed.  You said it made more sense to have it there, ready, since that is our escape route.

(A-B): But I meant it to be washed and then returned there.  

(Ismail):  With respect, Khalifa, I believe I observed that to wash it would be to compromise its explosive potential.

(A-B): So, it’s still in the tunnel.  Well, I’m not going out in a dirty vest.  What would my followers say about a schmutzy Khalifa?

(Ismail): That he was an Israeli spy, perhaps?

(A-B): Don’t be smart with me.  

(Ismail): A thousand apologies, Khalifa.  But I have an idea.  Why not use the vest that the visitors at the door say they are here to deliver?!

(A-B): Are you a complete ninny?  They are the very ones who want me dead.  Why would I accept from them a vest that was designed to kill me?

(Ismail):  But, Khalifa, the vest that lies dirty in the escape tunnel is, itself, designed to kill you!  It is a suicide vest!

(A-B):  Yes, kill me, but in circumstances, and at a time, of my own choosing, if at all!

(Ismail):  Understood, Khalifa.  Ah, I have an idea!  That black vest you wear when you are sentencing violators to be stoned or burned or sliced into small pieces.  It is clean.  And we have a large store of dynamite that was to have been used to destroy what remained of Mosul as we retreated.  I could quickly fit that vest with dynamite.

(A-B):  An excellent plan.  Do it at once!

(Ismail packs the black vest with dynamite.  Al-Baghdadi dons it.  He and his family, with Ismail accompanying, climb down the ladder to the darkened basement and face the locked security door leading to the escape tunnel.)

(A-B):  I will do the combination.  We must be quick.  I hear their footsteps above.  Ismail, hand me the flashlight.

(Ismail):  Oh, my Allah, I have left it behind and they are right behind us.  But do not fear.  I Unknownhave  brought matches.  Yes, I have one now.  Let me light it so you can s……………………

End Note:  Yes, dead!  But apparently not quite by his own hand.  A small procedural detail with essentially the same practical result.

A Little Trick, A Little Treat


, , , , , , , , ,



One Halloween, when I was eight or so, I was an Indian.  I had a tomahawk, plus a feather on my head.  My breeches were old brown corduroys with patches.  And I had a really cool, mean-looking mask.

Ethnic insensitivity?  Cultural appropriation?  You could say so, but, after all, it was the early fifties, with insensitivity leaking from every Lone Ranger episode and every cowboys-and-Indians shoot-em-up movie.

What boy didn’t want to live in that world, at least for one night?  If I can’t be an Indian, I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue, or maybe I’ll run off and join the Apaches!

What parent could withstand that?  Look, he’s just a kid.  Let him get it out of his system.  And anyway, maybe it really is about the nobility of Indians, fighting for their land and their way of life!?

It wasn’t.  It was just the excitement of violence, without the reality.

All right.  Let him get it out of his system.

If there was at least a little bit of cosmic justice for my cultural myopia, it came from the mask.  It was rubber and, on a warm October evening, it retained heat and sweat like a sauna.  Halfway through my trick-or-treating rounds, I had to take it off.

Oh, look, it’s just Johnny from up the street.  And he’s got that cute rubber tomahawk.  Oooh, oooh!  Don’t chop me to pieces!!!  Just kidding.  So, how’s your Mom and Dad?  Say hi to them.  And don’t forget to take an apple.  Bye.

(An apple!!!  Everybody else is getting candy corn and Mars Bars and Bit-O-Honeys, and I get a goddam apple, and they know who I am so I can’t refuse!  What’s the point of Halloween if you can’t eat too much candy and throw up every once in a while!!??)

The following year, I made it clear I wasn’t going to wear any rubber mask.  No problem, my mother said, I’ve got an idea.  You know the movie we just saw downtown, “Alice in Wonderland”?  Well, I was thinking you could be The Ace of Hearts.

I couldn’t quite picture it, but Mom explained that we’d make my face up with white and a red circle on each cheek.  We’d get two squares of cardboard, paint them white, with a red heart in the middle, and strap them together like a sandwich-board.

I worried that the makeup might make me look girlish, but Mom assured me it wouldn’t, and I liked the playing-card part so we went ahead with it.

The results were mixed.  A lot of people commented on how clever my costume was, but they also fussed over how cute I looked, with my white face and red cheeks.

The real downer was the eyelashes.  Let me explain:  I had unusually long eyelashes (not a good thing for a growing boy).  With the white makeup, especially around my eyes, they stood out even more than usual.  It seemed like, at every house, it was:

Hmmmm, now who could this be?  Wait, I think I know.  It must be Johnny from up the street.  Of course!  I’d know those eyelashes anywhere, so beautiful!  So, how’s your Mom and Dad?  Say hi to them.  And don’t forget to take an apple.  In fact, for such a great costume and those beautiful eyelashes, take two.  Bye, and Happy Halloween.

Yeah, right!  The following year, I went back to a mask (not rubber) that hid my eyelashes.  From that anonymity, I could plead an apple allergy, beg for candy, and throw up when and where I wanted to.

Noah Gets a Call


, , , , , , , , ,


(God calls Noah, who is dozing in his rocking-chair)

Noah, it’s God.

Oh God!  I mean, Oh …… God!  You caught me by surprise.  What’s up?

I’ll get right to the point.  It’s the humans again.

You mean fornicating and idol-worshiping and all that?

Not exactly.  I’ve given up worrying about those kinds of things.  Actually, scientific studies suggest that fornication, in moderation, is an important part of healthy procreation, which is why I put them on Earth, though, considering what they’ve been up to lately — changing the climate and possibly killing off the life-forms I created — maybe letting them procreate wasn’t such a great idea.

But I thought I saw in some crazy blog that you solved the climate change problem a few months ago by showing them what the world would be like without a sky or trees or birds, or especially dogs.

Yeah, it worked for a little while, but it didn’t stick.  Now they’re back to their old “screw the environment, let’s party” ways.

So you’re planning to get rid of them?

Yep, and I’ll need help!

Tell me you’re not going to have me build another Ark, with all that monkey business and horseshit!  With my back, I just can’t shovel it anymore.

No … at least not precisely … but sort of.  Y’see, there are a lot more species of animals around than in the old days when you took your cruise …

It wasn’t a cruise, it was a business trip!

Just teasing you.  Anyway, a single little Ark won’t be enough.  We’re going to need a lot more space for the animals, and also for all the plant species we’ll have to save.  After all, plants are living things, and the animals will need them for food and shelter.

So, I’d need maybe three or four Arks?  I think I could manage that.  I’ve still got some timbers from before, out behind the garage, and the plans are somewhere in my desk, and, of course, with all the begetting, my family is much much larger, so they could help.

I’m afraid it’s a lot more complicated.  There are millions of animal species and hundreds of thousands of kinds of normal plants, not to mention algae and mosses and liverworts and …

Liverwurst??!!  That far I will not go.  On a crowded Ark, that stuff smells worse than horseshit.

No, liverworts are a kind of plant.  Anyway, the point is we’re going to need many thousands of ships, each the size of … say … the QE2.

What’s a QE2?

It’s a sort of enormous cruise ship, with lots of parties and liquor and dancing girls and…

You’re back on that cruise ship thing again?  And now with sinfulness?!  No, I won’t have anything to do with it!

Take it easy.  That’s just what they’re like now.  We’d only use them because they’re big and we’d refit them … though, I admit, it’s pretty diverting to think of a ship’s ballroom filled with dancing lions and tigers and bears.

“Oh my!” I’m tempted to say, but I won’t.  So, I’d have to refit the ones that exist and then build thousands of these things that are God knows how many cubits bigger than the Ark?  But I’m not a QE2 person, I’m an Ark person. 

Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging.  There are lots of shipbuilders.  They can work with you and your family, teach you, and help you build.  Once the work is finished, you and the family will take over, and, by the way, we’ll call all the ships “Arks” in your honor.

I guess that’s ok.  But I want to be sure that, whenever you plan to get the animals rounded up, I’ve still got my shipbuilders to make sure the ships are finished and ready for loading.  Last time, it was a complete balls-up!

Unknown-2You mean, this time, we really should put the Ark before the Horse?images

Ha ha, that’s a good one.

Yeah, these days, we need a few laughs!