The Great Pur-tenders

I see them reading in bed when I come in to say good night.

“Let’s play the pur-tend game, Gramps!” Jacob suggests, burrowing down under the covers, brown curls framing his sweet face, his book cast aside.

“It’s pre-tend,” I say.  “And sure, we can play one game before you guys go to sleep.  Three turns each.”

“You go first, Gramps,” Travis says, snuggling into his own bed, a smaller replica of his older brother, his book also forgotten.

“Okay,” I say, screwing my face into what I hope resembles a fearsome snarl.  “I’ll huff an’ I’ll puff ‘an’ I’ll blow your house down!”

“The big, bad wolf!” Travis shouts immediately.  At six years old, he is ever competitive and eager to beat Jacob, older by a year, to the answer.

“Right,” I smile.  “Your turn.”

“Okay…hmmm…”  After a moment, using his deepest voice, he says, “Fee, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood…”

“The giant!” Jacob cries before he can finish.  “The giant at the top of Jack’s beanstalk.”

“You hafta let me finish, Jake,” Travis complains, indignant at being cut off.

“Don’t worry, Trav,” I say soothingly.  “If Jake can guess them early, it means you’re doing a good job, right?”

Travis smiles triumphantly, pleased by this revelation.  “Right!” he says.  “I’m a good pur-tender.”

“Pre-tender,” I say patiently.  “And now it’s Jake’s turn.”

Jacob has his riddle all ready.  “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

Travis doesn’t reply right away, furrowing his brow as he tries to come up with the answer, so I say, “Sleeping Beauty.”

“Wrong!” Jacob crows.  “I get another turn.”

“Wait, wait, I know it now,” Travis argues.  “It’s the wicked, old queen who gave Sleeping Beauty the poison apple. She turned into an old hag!”

“Not fair!” Jacob pouts.  “Gramps gave it away!  He pur-tended to know the answer so you could get it.”

“Hey,” I protest, “that was my best guess.  And it’s pre-tended…which I didn’t do, by the way.”

“Okay, my turn,” Travis says, oblivious to my persistent corrections.  “You won’t get this one!   Wah…wah…what’s up, Doc?”

“Bugs Bunny!” Jacob says.  “That was easy!”

Crestfallen, Travis says, “Yeah, but only ‘cause I can’t stutter!”

“Bugs Bunny doesn’t stutter,” Jacob says.  “That’s Porky Pig.”

“Okay your turn, Jake,” I intercede quickly, heading off a potential squabble.  “This is your third round.  Make it a good one.”

“Okay, here it is.”  In a harsh, threatening rasp, he bellows, “Who’s that clip-clopping across my bridge?”

“Billy Goats Gruff!” Travis exclaims.  “That’s the troll under the bridge!”

“Very good, Trav,” I say.  “Now it’s your third turn.  Can you stump us?”

Adopting a lilting, sing-song tone, he says, “Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go!”

“The seven dwarfs,” Jacob shouts, eager to beat me, even though he’s used his last turn.

“Which one?” Travis says, wanting to stump his brother.

“All of ‘em, right, Gramps?”

“I think so,” I say.  “They all went to work, unless Sleepy slept in.”  My intended joke falls on deaf ears.

“Okay, that’s three for me an’ Trav,” Jacob says.  “But you got two pur-tends left, Gramps.”

This is the standard pattern when we play, which usually allows me to end the game without complaints from them about having to go to sleep.

“I have two pre-tends left,“ I say, “so here’s my second one.”  In my best attempt at a high-pitched cackle, I croak, “Who’s that out there, eating my house?”

“The witch, the witch!” the boys yell in unison.  “Hansel an’ Gretel!”

“Right,” I smile.  “You guys are great at this game!”

“Yeah,” Travis agrees.  “We’re the great pur-tenders!”

Pre-tenders!” I say, for what feels like the umpteenth time.  “You guys are great pre-tenders.  You remind me of an old song, and I’m going to use it for my final riddle.  Then it’s bedtime.”

“Sing it, Gramps,” Jacob urges.  “Sing it for us.”

They’ll endure anything to avoid having to go to sleep, I figure, but I sing the song anyway, tailored just for them.

Oh-oh-oh, yes, you’re the great pre-te-en-ders,

All cozy and ready to sleep,

You’ve played your games and you’ve guessed the names,

And now you must lay down your heads,

Pre-tending you’ll start counting sheep!

“That’s Little Bo-Peep!” Jacob yells, excited to have an answer for the last one.  “She lost her sheep, right?”

“You got it,” I laugh, hugging him, feeling his fleeting kiss on my cheek.

When I bend to hug Travis, he whispers, “I love you, Gramps.  We don’t have to pur-tend ‘bout that.”

Softie that I am, I feel my eyes filling up.  And this time, I don’t attempt a correction.

Sci Fi?

The subject of the weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group was sci fi, a topic about which I have very little knowledge and scant interest in. Here for your amusement is the piece I submitted.

* * * * * * *

I had no idea of the meaning of sci fi, the weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group, so I asked a few of my learned friends.

“I’m not surprised you don’t know,” my doctor friend sniffed with a whiff of condescension.  “It’s a medical term for sciatic filiarae, a spinal disease caused by a small, threadlike roundworm.  Sci fi is nasty stuff.”

“Sounds like it,” I shuddered.  But I didn’t think that was the meaning intended by the writer’ group, so I asked some other folks.

“Sci fi is a short term for scintillating fidelity,” my aging-hippie friend smiled dreamily, exhaling a fragrant plume of smoke through his nostrils.  “Just listen to the sound from these speakers!”  The large black boxes were pumping out the strains of Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds, never one of my favourite bands, so I turned and left my friend to his relaxed ruminations.

My brother-in-law, a pretentious, retired university professor, told me the meaning in no uncertain terms.  “It’s short form for sciolistic fieldwork, something we tenured academics do to advance the frontiers of knowledge.  It comes from a root-word meaning to dabble, like a dilettante.  Any thing else you’d like to know?”

Sorry I’d asked, I shook my head wearily and gladly moved on, still not convinced I had found the meaning for the prompt.

“Ah, I’m glad you came to me,” my ornithologist friend smiled when I approached her.  “Sci fi is how we birders refer to the extremely rare scissortail firebird, an eastern subspecies of the northern Oriolewith a distinctive split tail.  You must tell me where you saw it.”

“I haven’t actually seen one,” I demurred, “but thanks for the info.”

My business consultant friend had yet another answer.  “It’s a rather pejorative abbreviation for scion firms, companies that are being run into the ground by the wastrel children of wealthy industrialists.  No self-respecting financial advisor would ever recommend investing in a sci fi, believe me.  You haven’t, have you?”

“No, no,” I assured him.  “My money’s safe.”

Rather desperate now, I approached a botanist friend with the question.  Even she had to look it up, but she was quite confident in her answer.  “The term refers to the scirocco filaree, an invasive weed most often found in the southwest part of the country.  Ranchers hate it, because it’s like a noxious drug that poisons their herds when they ingest it, like locoweed.”

“I can sympathize,” I said, thinking of my hippie-friend. 

My next query was to the daughter of an old friend, a young woman who had recently graduated from a PhD programme in nuclear energy.  “Glad you asked,” she said, pleased to be consulted.  “My dissertation went on at length about sci fi, which is scintilla fission, the quantum-splitting of unicellular organisms, dividing the cell into two more-or-less equal parts.  If you have an hour or so, I can give you the executive summary of the process.”

Pleading time constraints, I thanked her graciously and took my leave, still quite frustrated at having no confidence in any of the definitions I’d been given.

At the next meeting of my writers’ group, I apologized for not having produced a response to the prompt.  “I could never pin down the meaning of the term,” I kvetched, hoping they would understand my dilemma.  “I went to a lot of authoritative sources, but everybody had a different definition.”

“Tell us what they thought it meant,” one of my writing colleagues said.  “There must be something that would fit the bill.”

I ran through the entire list of explanations I’d received from my friends, smiling ruefully all the while.  “That’s it,” I said when I finished.  “That’s all I got.”

“Wow!” another colleague exclaimed.  “I can see why you’re so confused.  Those are pretty far-fetched descriptions.  They could be straight out of some sci fi novel, for goodness sake!”

“Exactly!” I agreed, feeling somewhat vindicated.

And then, too late, the light went on.

Invisible

The weekly prompt from my Florida writers' group was to write a book review featuring the word invisible.  Here for your amusement is the piece I submitted.

NEW YORK TIMES #1 BESTSELLER HOPEFUL

FROM HERE TO OBSCURITY
by
Hy Perbulley

Book Review by Times Critic
Cara Fulreader

     New York, NY - April 19, 2022 - High School Valedictorian.  Deans List.  Phi Beta Kappa.  Rhodes Scholar.  Nobel Laureate.  These highly-esteemed honours, although coveted by young Algernon Entatty, the subject of this forgettable biography, were never attained.
     According to author Hy Perbulley, Entatty’s story begins in 1949 when he was born to an unmarried mother living in a squalid third-floor walk-up in a dilapidated tenement building in a run-down neighborhood in New York City.  The baby was his unfortunate mother’s first and only child.
     Nothing is known of his first five years, but his ten years in grade school ended with a mercy-rule promotion to high school when he was fifteen.  Six years later, he left school after grade eleven to join the army.
     In his seven years of service, during which period he achieved the rank of Private, 2nd Class, he saw reluctant combat duty in Vietnam.  According to the author, Entatty surrendered five times to the enemy, but was promptly returned each time.  At the time of his discharge, he was the only American soldier ever to have been deemed unfit for duty by both sides, a distinction he holds to this day.
     Following his military service, shortly after the death of his mother who had never married, he began to openly profess a belief that he must have been the offspring of a virgin birth.  Over the next five years, he tried to align himself closely with the Billy Graham Crusades, following the famous evangelist from city to city, proclaiming himself the Chosen One.
     The author writes that, in 1980, Entatty began to openly solicit funds from Christian believers under the Graham letterhead---all donations to be sent to the address of a squalid third-floor walk-up in a dilapidated tenement building in a  run-down neighborhood in New York City.  These fundraising efforts continued until the Graham organization obtained a restraining order.
     Almost nothing is known of the next two decades of Entatty’s life, but at the age of fifty he burst into nationwide prominence on the cover of a national tabloid magazine, Police Court Gazette.  Possessing a strong resemblance to an infamous Mexican drug-cartel boss, El Crapo, Entatty was mistakenly arrested, charged, and convicted in New York, where he was sentenced to thirty-five years in federal prison.
     The author tells us that Entatty's picture continued to appear frequently in tabloids and television newscasts for the next half-dozen years, however, because his imprisonment did not result in the reduction in the volume of drug trafficking expected by the authorities.  They claimed he must have been managing the vast criminal enterprise from behind bars, a premise no one who knew him believed even remotely possible.
     Entatty was eventually exonerated when the real El Crapo---embarrassed that people were believing the remarkably incompetent Entatty could actually be him---surrendered to police in order to clear up the humiliating confusion and redeem his sullied reputation.
     The Bureau of Prisons quickly attempted to free Entatty, but after several fruitless searches through their records, they could not find him in the vast network of federal prisons.  A Bureau spokesperson told the author, “It’s like he’s…y’know, a non-entity.  He just disappeared.  We can’t find him.”
     Hy Perbulley, who claims he first befriended Algernon Entatty as a prison pen-pal, told this reviewer by phone he has never met the man in person.  He did spend time searching out close friends as part of his research, but finding none, resorted to interviewing anyone with even a passing acquaintance.  Hardly anyone remembered him, and no one was able to tell him anything of the remotest interest about the man.
     Perbulley claims he is negotiating with a major film studio that is considering whether or not to option his book for a blockbuster movie, tentatively titled The Invisible Man.  No independent confirmation of that claim has been obtained.  Perbulley has since dropped from sight and remains unavailable for further comment.
     This paltry book, From Here to Obscurity, numbers forty pages in length, and may be read in one sitting, should anyone care to waste time doing so.  It is not available in regular bookstores, but Perbulley said it may be ordered online for US$34.99 from the website---
www.ex-concon.com.
     The IP address for that site is located in a squalid third-floor walk-up in a dilapidated tenement building in a run-down neighborhood in New York City.  
BOOK RATING		1/4* (out of 10*)

One Leg At a Time

Several of the well-meaning coaches with whom I interacted across several years of playing hockey and baseball as boy and man were fond of telling me and my teammates not to fear our opponents because “they put on their pants one leg at a time, same as we do.”

I’m remembering that now because, alas, it seems I am no longer able to do that simple task while standing up unsupported.  And I’m pretty sure aging has something to do with that.

My dressing ritual each morning now begins by sliding one leg after the other into my undershorts while leaning against the bed.  If I try to do that without supporting myself, one of two things happens—either I lose my balance before finding the target, or my leg misses the target completely.  The first few times I missed, I forgot to let go of the briefs and fell over onto the carpet.

I now sit down to put on my socks—on those few occasions I wear them—and remain sitting to slide my legs, one at a time, into my pants.  I’m still able to stand, thank goodness, to hitch them up to my waist and cinch my belt.

It’s also necessary, I’ve discovered, to sit down to put on shoes, and to tie the laces.  As a result, I’ve defaulted to wearing sandals whenever I can.  But I have to lean one arm on something as I lift each foot to slide into the sandals.

Donning anything I have to pull over my head—such as a T-shirt, a golf shirt, a sweater—used to be relatively simple.  I’d slide my head through the neck opening first, then push one arm after the other through the sleeve openings.  Whether worn outside the waistband of my pants or tucked in, I was quite adept at completing the sequence.

No longer.  Those sleeve openings have for whatever reason become almost impossible to find once my head is through the neck opening.  And when I’ve repaired to the mirror to get a better look, I find myself confused between right and left.  I’ve resorted now to inserting one arm into a sleeve opening first, followed by the other arm into its opening, which makes it easier for some reason to then pull the article of clothing over my head.  Perhaps it’s because, at that critical juncture, I have only one head and one opening left.

On a few cursed occasions, I’ve even discovered I’ve put on the shirt or sweater inside-out or back-to-front, which means…well, you know.

On cool spring or autumn days when warmer clothing is needed, I have a mid-length squall jacket I like to wear, but lately I’ve been encountering a problem.  It’s fitted with a two-way zipper, so that when I’m driving (or sitting down anywhere) while wearing it, I can open the zipper from the bottom to accommodate man-spread.  That simple feature has been a blessing, but when I’m donning the jacket, it requires that I fit the zipper’s nub into, not one, but two pull-tab receptors at the bottom of the zipper—one that will slide up to zip the jacket, the other that will remain at the bottom to allow opening from that end.

Sounds easy, and it is when those two receptors are perfectly lined up.  My problem lately is that I never seem able to get them aligned, which leaves me struggling like a kindergartner to zip up.  Why, just the other day, a young hostess at a restaurant asked me if I needed help as I was getting ready to leave.  She even referred to me as “Dear”!  My bemused wife tells me I should be glad it isn’t another zipper I frequently use that’s causing the problem.

Egad!

Anyway, I hope you can appreciate the tussles I’ve begun to have when dressing myself.  I won’t even try to list the issues at the other end of the day, when I’m struggling sleepily to undress and get into my pyjamas.

It seems apparent to me, however, that these vexing problems have nothing to do with the onset of my senior years—after all, my age is way beyond the onset-stage.  The troubles I’m experiencing have everything to so with the persistence of aging, the relentlessness of aging, the unforgiving advance of aging.  For as long as I have left, my age is only going to increase, even as the utility of everything else about my mortal self is decreasing. 

It’s as if I’m running into myself on a mathematician’s graph—my age-axis on a parabolic rise, my abilities-axis crossing it on a precipitous decline. 

It ain’t pretty, and never more so than when I’m trying to get dressed in the morning.  All I can do, I suppose, is keep trying to get those pants on, one leg at a time.

One. Leg. At. A. Time.

My Helping Tree

Here in Florida, the holiday season is full upon us with the advent of American Thanksgiving.  In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, I have set up my Wonderful Life Tree of Help once again, something I have been doing during every Christmas season since childhood. 

My helping tree is festooned with ornaments celebrating the many ways I have helped people throughout my life.  With all the modesty you have come to expect from me, I must tell you it is a magnificent display, and I am still adding to it.

Each ornament speaks to a person or group of folks whom I have helped along their way.  Some asked for my assistance, others were the unknowing beneficiaries of my kindness, and although things did not always pan out as intended, I’m pretty sure every one of them would have been appreciative of my good intentions.

Mind you, the ornaments are the reason I think that, as no one has ever actually bothered to thank me directly.

That aside, I have a beautiful ornament commemorating the first time I realized I had this compelling need to be of assistance to others.  In grade seven or eight, I saw two kids beating up another kid in the schoolyard, so I immediately stepped in to help.  The kid never had a chance against the three of us.

Another ornament celebrates the time I helped one of my friends who was really upset because, rather than kissing him during spin-the-bottle games, the girls always preferred to give him the nickel penalty and go on to the next boy.  I showed him how to open a bank account.

I have ornaments from my teenage years, too.  Once, when I was re-stocking shelves in a supermarket, a woman asked me which brand of toilet-tissue was best.  I was very helpful and told her on the whole, they’re all pretty good.

On another occasion, I was dragooned into helping my boss at a formal reception for his important suppliers.  My job was to stand at the entrance to the ballroom, like a doorman, and call the guests’ names as they arrived in all their finery.  They were quite astonished at the names I called them, and I awarded myself a beautiful ornament celebrating that occasion.  Lost my job, though.

Later, as a young married man, I was hiking a wilderness trail with my first wife when we saw a huge grizzly ahead of us in the path.  Although I knew I couldn’t outrun an angry bear, I was sure I could outrun my wife, so I told her I was going for help.  She’s not with me anymore, but there’s a lovely ornament on my helping tree to remember her by.

Around that same period, I offered two pieces of advice to a friend having marital troubles of his own.  With typical male smugness, I advised that the secret to a happy marriage was, first, to always let his wife think she was having her own way.  The second bit, I told him, was even more important—always let her have her own way.

Eventually, I became a father, and that’s when my propensity to help others really bloomed.  There’s a particularly lovely ornament on my tree marking the time I counselled a friend debating if he wanted to have children.  I reminded him of how he used to wonder why his parents were always in a bad mood.

I also have an ornament on my tree in honour of the time I told a particularly harried father that it’s not enough to put a loving note in his kids’ lunchboxes—he has to put food in there, too.

Lest you think I neglected my own parental responsibilities, let me assure you that I helped myself become a better parent by always finding out in advance what my daughters wanted to do, then advising them to do that exact same thing.  I earned so many ornaments for my tree by doing that simple thing.

– by Vickie Wade

All in all, my helping tree is a splendid sight, festooned with so many brilliant ornaments.  My favourite might be the one celebrating all the lost strangers who have asked me for directions over the years, directions I made up on the spot.  I wonder where they ever ended up?

Or perhaps it’s the ornament marking the time I helped my second wife with typing capital letters when she had her broken arm in a sling—I called it shift work.

Even now, at my advanced age, I find I’m still trying to help people, and I’m forever creating new ornaments to adorn my helping tree.  For example, I’ve lately been counselling aspiring writers who get frustrated when they run into blocks by telling them they’re not good enough to get mad.

More recently, I explained to a younger friend despairing about his lack of success in life that the two things holding him back are an abundance of witlessness and a justified dearth of confidence.  I’m not sure that cheered him, but I gave myself props for trying—and another ornament.

And just this morning, I earned my latest ornament by listening to a friend ramble on about his crackpot political leanings, then telling him I’d agree with him except that would make both of us wrong.

I confess it has become more difficult as I’ve gotten older to be of assistance to others.  I’m finding that most folks tend to look away when I approach, or even scurry away in unseemly haste.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it seems I now bring happiness and support to people, not wherever I go, but whenever I go.

Nevertheless, I persist in my relentless efforts to help whomever I can.  And to that end, may I suggest to you, dear reader, that if you find my advice tiresome and irrelevant, just stop reading!

No, no, wait…I mean…

Ugh! Back to School!

It’s the end of the first week back at school for thousands of students, from kindergarten to university. In recognition of their return, here’s an almost-but-not-quite-true tale from a long time ago, about me going back to school…and dreading the idea!

Today is the big day, the day when I have to go back to school.  The end of summer has come and gone…the time of year when news media publish articles aimed at all those mothers whose children are getting ready to go back. 

ALMOST THERE, MOM! or RELIEF IN SIGHT! are the headlines accompanying the stories, the point being that the world’s parents, fed up to the teeth with their children, must joyfully be anticipating the beginning of the new school year.

That’s certainly the case with my mother, who, it seems, can hardly wait to get me out of the house!

Back when I was in the primary grades, going back to school was an exciting time.  I remember going out with my mother to do some shopping during the week before school started.  Clothes were always on the list, but my mother generally looked after that aspect.  The purchases that interested me were things like coloured pencils and a new lunchbox, things that reassured me I was starting fresh, embarking upon what was sure to be my most successful year yet.  Hope sprang eternal.

At home with my new stuff, I’d spend considerable time organizing and planning.  I’d get rid of all the leftover junk from the previous year, print my name carefully on the new stuff, and decide what clothes I wanted to wear on the first day back.  By the Friday before the Labour Day weekend, I was ready!

In some ways, things haven’t changed much now that I’m older.  Last week, I helped my mother as she chose new clothes for me to wear, I got my hair cut, and I stocked up on school supplies.  But there is one big change now, compared to before, a huge change!  I’m no longer excited about going back anymore, not at all. 

My mother woke me this morning, yelling up the stairs.  “Time to get up!  First day of school!  Let’s go!”

I stayed in bed, trying to convince myself I was sick, but she finally came into my bedroom to get me going.

“Hurry up!” she scolded.  “Breakfast is almost ready.”

“I don’t wanta go back to school, Ma,” I whined.

“Don’t be silly,” she said, pulling back the covers.  “Everybody’s going back.”  She lay out the clothes I’d be wearing on the bed for me.

“Nobody likes me,” I whimpered.  “All the kids hate me!”

“Nobody hates you,” she said, pushing me down the hall to the bathroom.

“They do so!” I said.  “And none of their parents like me either!”

“How do you know that?  Most of their parents don’t even know you.”

“Yeah, but the ones who do think I’m a jerk!”

“I’m sure they don’t,” my mother insisted.

“Not only that,” I protested, “the teachers don’t like me either!”

“Don’t be silly!” she said, pulling the bathroom door closed after ushering me inside.  “Now get washed, get dressed, and get downstairs for breakfast!”

It continued when I got to the table.  Dawdling over my cereal, I said, “I hate school, Ma!  The work is too hard.  I don’t even know what I’m doing half the time.”

“That’s just silly,” my mother said.  “You’re very clever.  You just have to stick to it and everything will be fine.”

Pushing my unfinished cereal bowl away, I said, “I think I’m gonna be sick.  I don’t feel very good!”  I held my stomach to punctuate my claim.

“You’re not sick!” she said.  “You’re just a little nervous about the first day back, that’s all.  Once you get there, everything will be fine.  You’ll see.”

“It won’t be fine!” I whined.  “Nothing’s gonna go right, I just know it!  Please, Ma!  I don’t wanta go back to school!”

“You have to go!” my mother declared, a touch of steel creeping into her voice now.  “Everybody else is going, and you have to go, too!”

Why?” I cried.  “Why do I hafta go?”

“You know why,” she said.  “You’re the principal!”

And so here I am.  It’s gonna be awful!

I Fixed ‘Em All!

An important objective for writers, so I’m told by those who are good at it, is to avoid clichés in one’s writing.  Clichés are used by a lot of us in normal discourse because they provide a verbal shorthand when we are engaging in conversation.  If our goal is to avoid confrontation when we want to express a strong opinion, for example, using a cliché can be just the ticket.

In writing, though, especially if we aspire to be original, clichés are to be avoided.

Clichés may be defined as: phrases or opinions that are overused and betray a lack of original thought; trite or stereotyped phrases or expressions; or expressions that have become overused to the point of losing their original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time they were considered meaningful.

As a means to improve my own writing, I have been attempting to purge it of clichés.  The best judge of my success will be my readers, of course, but here are some of the efforts I’ve made:

  • I’ve cleaned all the writing off the wall;
  • I’ve wiped up the spilt milk;
  • I’ve placed my eggs in two different containers in the fridge;
  • I’ve removed all the covers from my books;
  • I now make sure I’m reading on the lines;
  • I make sure my knickers are neatly folded; and
  • I don’t own a grindstone.

Thanks to my efforts, the characters I write about in my books no longer sleep on the wrong side of the bed, they’ve stopped circling back or leaning in, and I’ve made sure there is no thorn in their sides, no mote in their eyes.  They know that at the end of the day, it gets dark, but it’s not necessarily darkest just before the dawn.

Although many of my characters do drink, I make sure they never end up three sheets to the wind, nor do I allow them to put new wine into old bottles.  They know nothing smells like a rose, regardless of its name, although that conclusion was not something they would have jumped to without me.

In fact, because of me, they never jump at all—not down your throat, not in with both feet, not onto the bandwagon, and not with a hop and a skip.  Nor do they ever jump the gun, because that might give away the ending of the story.  Being my heroes, I never let them throw in a towel, grind an axe, bend over backwards, or get down and dirty.

I’ve worked hard to ensure my characters are neither brave enough nor stupid enough to grab a bull by its horns, burn a candle at both ends, bite a bullet, burn a bridge, or endure trial by fire.  Those things can bring a load of hurt! 

Instead, thanks to me, they are far more likely to avoid dealing with loose cannons, rocking anyone’s boat, barking up someone’s tree, sneezing at nothing, or opening a can of worms.  They are not lazy by any means, but they certainly would never work like a dog, attempt to leave no stone unturned, or go an extra mile (or even the whole nine yards).

In my books, I make sure the heroic characters are unafraid of their own shadows.  They are smart enough not to wait for cows to come home, they do not turn over random stones, they avoid yanking anyone else’s chain, they never get down and dirty, and they avoid anything resembling a plague.

So as you can see, dear reader—and it doesn’t go without saying—I have worked my fingers…well, not to the bone, I guess, to rid my writing of clichés.  For what it’s worth, push no longer comes to shove for me, nor do I ever consider going back to some mythical drawing-board.  Whenever I’m seized by an annoying urge to employ a cliché, I try to nip the urge…umm, somewhere other than in the bud, so to speak.  And in my proofreading, rather than attempting to weed them out, I simply expunge them.

In fairness to myself, I must point out that the struggle to eliminate clichés is a never-ending one.  I’ve discovered that being original in my writing is much more fun than being banal or hackneyed, but it’s ever so much harder. 

So in closing, let me just quote this piece of doggerel from an online commentator, a sentiment to which I heartily subscribe—

For what it’s worth,
At the end of the day,
It is what it is:
A cliché’s a cliché.

The Back-Seat Driver’s Test

In just over a year-and-a-half, I shall reach the age of eighty, and shall therefore be obliged to undergo a mandatory senior’s driving test.  I regard my hitting that ripe, old age so quickly as a bizarre twist in the space/time continuum, but there you have it.

By a strange coincidence, the weekly prompt from the writers’ group I belong to in Florida asked us recently to compose something on that very topic—the seniors’ driving exam.  Here is the piece I wrote—

I accompanied my eighty-year-old Grandpa Fred to his mandatory driving exam recently.  My being there wasn’t because he needed my support, however.  Rather, it was to keep my Grandma Ethel, who insisted on going along, out of his hair.

Easier said than done, as it turned out.  The oral and written parts of the exam were ordeal enough—but nothing compared to the on-road portion.

In the exam-room, the first question asked of Grandpa was about his vision.  Before he could answer, Grandma was heard muttering, “Blind as a bat!  Can’t see the forest for the…the bushes, or whatever it is.” 

I tried to shush her, but one of the examiners heard, and asked Grandpa if he needed glasses.  “Not when he’s drinking beer!” Grandma whispered loudly.  “Which is way too often!”

Now it’s true, Grandpa does wear glasses, and is also a tad hard-of-hearing.  He often cups his hand behind one ear while listening to someone.  The same examiner, noticing that, asked if he could hear properly.

“Deaf as a post!” Grandma groused, loudly enough that even Grandpa heard.  “Never hears a word I say!”  Grandpa grinned slyly at that.

Still and all, even with Grandma’s unhelpful comments, Grandpa survived the interrogation.  But worse was to come during the in-car session.  At first, the examiner tried to prevent Grandma from getting into the car at all, per the normal procedures.

“Not a good idea, sonny,” she scoffed.  “I’m the one has his meds if he strokes out again.”  She patted her purse knowingly as she spoke.

So, she got to come along.  But the examiner asked me to join them, as well, in the back seat with Grandma, ostensibly to keep her from interfering.  Fat chance!

“Buckle up, Fred!” she ordered as everyone was getting settled.  “Click-it-or-ticket, remember what they say?”  She was sitting in the seat directly behind him.

As Grandpa slowly eased the car backwards out of the parking slot, Grandma suddenly yelled, “Look out!  Look out!”  Grandpa stomped on the brake in alarm.

“What the hell, Ethel!” he huffed.

“Don’t you what the hell me!” she quickly replied.  “You didn’t even see that other car, did you?”

What car?” Grandpa exclaimed.  “There’s no other car!”  I hadn’t seen one, either.  The examiner wrote something on his clipboard.

Once safely out of the parking lot, heading down the main street, the examiner asked Grandpa to take the next left.

“Use your turn-signal, Fred!” Grandma declared.  “Left means pull the lever down, remember?”  Once Grandpa had safely completed the maneuver, she added, “Don’t forget to turn the blinker off!”

“For God’s sake, Ethel!  It goes off automatically!  I know how to use the turn-signals!”

“Oh, really?  So why did that policeman pull you over last month for failing to signal?  Remember?  You didn’t enjoy paying that fine, I know that!”

The examiner continued writing notes.

In order to help poor Grandpa, I tried engaging Grandma in conversation to distract her from what Grandpa was doing—but with limited success.  In the middle of a chat I managed to get going about her recent jam-making session, she interrupted herself to shout, “Fred, you’re following too close!  You’re gonna hit that guy if he stops suddenly!”

“We’re already stopped, Ethel.  We’re at a red light.”

Grandma peered through the windshield to see if he was right, then said, “Okay, okay, but it’s turning green now.  Go!  What are you waiting for?”

“We’re turning right,” Grandpa said through clenched teeth.  “I’m waiting for the pedestrians to clear.”

“Turning right?” Grandma said.  “Have you got your blinker on?”

On our return route to the test-centre, the examiner asked Grandpa to back into a parking-spot on the street, a space about a car length-and-a-half between two other vehicles.

“Don’t park here, Fred,” Grandma said.  “There’s not enough room!”

“There’s lotsa room,” Grandpa replied confidently.  He stopped beside the car in front of the space, his right signal blinking, and slowly began to reverse, turning the wheel incrementally as he crept backwards.

“Wait, wait!” Grandma yelled.  “There’s cars coming!  Someone could hit us!”

“They can see us,” Grandpa said.  “Nobody’s going to hit us.”  He was alternately checking his right-side mirror and looking over his shoulder through the back window.  I thought he was doing marvellously well.

With no warning, there was a loud crash, followed by the sound of breaking glass.  Grandpa jammed on the brake, though we’d been hardly moving.

“Now you’ve done it!” Grandma yelled.  “I told you someone would hit us!”

Grandma,” I said disbelievingly, “they hit your door!  Why did you open your door while the car was moving?”

“Because I wanted to get out and check if there was enough space to back in here,” she declared righteously.  “I still think the space is too small.”

The examiner scribbled furiously on his clipboard.

After a long delay while Grandpa and the other driver exchanged insurance information, and after determining Grandma’s door would close well enough to enable us to continue, we returned to the test-centre.  Grandpa trudged forlornly inside behind the harried examiner.  By the time he came back, Grandma had moved up to the passenger seat.

“This is where I sit,” she told me firmly.  “I’m definitely not a back-seat driver! You should see me drive.” I bit my tongue.

When Grandpa climbed in behind the wheel, I asked, “So, did you pass?”

“I did!” he boasted proudly, and showed us both the certificate he’d been given.

“Well, I find that hard to believe!” Grandma said grudgingly.  “But good for you, in spite of everything!  You’re lucky I was here to help!”

Later on, when I found myself alone on the front porch with Grandpa, both of us sipping our Stonehooker beers from Cherry Bros. goblets, he said, “You know why I passed, don’t you?”

When I shook my head quizzically he said, “The examiner showed me what he’d written on his clipboard, told me he had no choice but to give me a passing grade.”

“No choice?” I said. “Why?  What did he write?”

With a wink, Grandpa said, “He wrote, and I quote, This man must have his license renewed so that his wife will never be the driver in the household.” 

“Wow!” I exclaimed.

“Not only that, he’s going to ensure Grandma won’t pass her test next month.  By passing me, he makes sure the two of us will still be able to get around under our own steam.”  

“That’s great!” I said.  “I won’t say a word.”

“Good,” he sighed wistfully.  “Now, if only we could get Grandma to follow your example!”

* * * * * * *

I have been enjoined by [NAME WITHHELD] to assure readers

that the grandma I live with bears no resemblance to the grandma in this story.

Karao-kay!

So, here’s the thing—you don’t have to be a good singer!  You don’t even have to be a mediocre singer!  All you need is that you like to sing.

For some time now, as some of you know, I’ve blended my bass voice with mates on the risers of a large men’s chorus, the mighty Harbourtown Sound.  And it’s been a comfort to me to know that no one listening would actually be able to pick my voice out of the throng.  I mean, I do contribute to the wondrous wall of sound we produce collectively, but my solo voice is anonymous, much to my liking.

However, on my last birthday, which took me past my mid-mid-seventies, my wife and two daughters gifted me with a karaoke machine.  Never in my wildest imaginings would I have thought to ask for such a thing—although, in my younger years, I did take part in more than one karaoke session, usually after a few beers in the company of good friends whose critical faculties were undoubtedly somewhat impaired.  In fact, I think I remember stepping up in one or two open-mic sessions, as well.

As I recall, I was never asked back to the same venue twice.

Still, I’ve discovered I love my new machine.  The internet is chock-full of karaoke versions of popular songs, arranged exactly as the original artists sang them, with the correct lyrics scrolling on the screen.  Copyright restrictions apply only if one intends to use them for commercial purposes, which I most assuredly do not.  After all, if it were my intent to sell any of the songs I record, I’d need a buyer, right? 

‘Nuff said.

Ballads are my preferred genre, some of them even older than I.  A partial list of artists whose songs I have attempted includes Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Mathis, Willie Nelson, Jim Reeves, and Frank Sinatra.

Still to come, I hope:  Perry Como, Tennessee Ernie Ford, John Gary, perhaps even Pavarotti!  After all, I’m singing for an audience of one!

I’ve also essayed solo versions of songs by several different groups, including Abba, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, The Irish Rovers, and The Platters.  Still on the horizon: The Everly Brothers, The Lettermen, The Seekers, and probably others I haven’t yet contemplated.

If you have assumed by now that my wife and daughters have inadvertently created a monster, I could hardly gainsay you.  But I’m benign, I assure you.

My process is to sit with the machine, which is connected by Bluetooth to a song dialled up on my laptop.  I sing it through a couple of times, adjusting the volume of the instrumentals as needed, boosting the mic volume up or down accordingly.  There is a reverb feature, too, which enhances my voice on most of the songs.

If I manage at some point to sound okay to my own ears, I record the song and add it to my little library.  Some of the songs, as you might imagine, are never recorded!

I quickly discover which of the songs will take me beyond my somewhat limited vocal range, and discard them.  Even with my bass singing voice, I can manage a falsetto if not too high, so that helps a little.  Breath control is the biggest single problem I encounter—running out of air before a phrase ends is never good, resulting in a cracked whimper that brings no joy to anyone ever.

Pitch problems are a concern, too, and I sometimes hear myself landing just short of the intended note—what a layperson might call singing flat.  That’s also associated with running short of breath, and can be corrected with proper breathing intervals.  I have yet to record even one song, however, without at least one pitchy problem.

But who cares!

I mentioned earlier that I sing for an audience of one.  That’s not entirely true, though, because I do send along those songs I’ve recorded to my wife and daughters—it’s they, after all, who unleashed the monster.  I also forward the recordings to my three long-suffering sisters, together with a plea that they resist the urge to tell me to stop.  I suggest to them they have three choices—

  1. enjoy the song,
  2. endure the song, or
  3. DELETE.

I implore them not to laugh as they listen (though I’ll never know if they do), nor compare me to the original artist.  Rather, I ask that they think of this as one, perhaps forlorn, attempt to make music with only a modicum of talent, for no other reason than the sheer joy of making music. 

And you, dear reader, might even try it yourself—in the shower, in your car—or, if you’re lucky, on your very own karaoke machine.

Karao-kay!

A Striking Beauty

“Beautiful!” I said.  “Incredible!”

Reclining in a commercial-grade lazy-boy, staring through a huge, panoramic window onto the icy waters of the Alaskan fiord slipping past the ship, I was halfway through a herbal-oil scalp massage my wife had talked me into—an experience I had stoutly resisted, but to no avail.

The sun was gleaming off the water, off the glacier, off the long, blonde hair of my Swedish masseuse hovering over me.  Her name was Inga—short for Ingeborg she told me when we’d been introduced.  My wife was in a similar chair in the cubicle next to mine, the two of us separated by a thin privacy wall.

A striking beauty, Inga was exactly the type I’d have assumed would be working in a shipboard spa.  Taller than I, shapely in her white salon dress, she gazed directly at me through green eyes lit from within.  Her smile would have dazzled the most jaded of men.

As I’d settled into my chair, my mind had raced off in all directions.  This lovely vision was undoubtedly in her late-twenties, embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, probably searching, even if leisurely, for a husband of means, a rich widower who might endow her with everything she could ask for.

The warm oil she’d poured on my scalp, and the sensuous fingers working it in, further inflamed my imagination.  I knew it could never be I she would settle on; after all, I was four inches shorter and several million dollars shy of the mark.  Plus, I was already married—happily, I firmly reminded myself.

Despite the magnificent view through the window, I felt my eyes closing as Inga worked her magic on my scalp, my neck, my shoulders.  I’d undoubtedly have drifted off into who-knows-what erotic imaginings if she hadn’t begun talking, her voice a dusky alto, her accent delightful.

“I love this job,” she said, “especially on this ship, and on this voyage.  The scenery is magnificent.”

“How long have you been doing it?” I asked, eager to keep hearing her voice.

“Not long,” she said.  “I found I couldn’t stay home alone after my husband died, and this was something I always fancied doing.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said automatically.  And I was—and surprised, too, to hear she was a widow at such a young age.  “How long were you married?”

“Thirty years,” she said.

Thirty years?  I gave my head a mental shake.

“He was a partner in a large firm,” she went on.  “His partners bought his shares from me, so I am financially independent.  My youngest son is in medical school in London, my oldest is a commercial pilot, and neither one needs their mother anymore.  So here I am, on my own, free as a bird.”

My mind was frantically doing the math.  A son in med school would have to be at least twenty-four, so even if she’d had two kids by the time she was twenty, she’d still be in her mid-forties—maybe even early-fifties!  And being wealthy in her own right, she was likely in no hurry to tie herself down to one man.  This woman, if so inclined, would have no shortage of companionship. 

I felt her warm breath in my ear, interrupting my thoughts.  “Oh, look!” she said.  “You are so lucky!  Many people never get to see this!” 

She moved closer to the window, and I saw a pod of orcas, seeming to race the ship up the fiord, leaping and twisting and falling back, their sparkling splashes transforming glassy sunlight into shattered shards. 

“Brad!” my wife called from the other cubicle.  “Are you watching this?”

Indeed I was.  The whales, a jumble of white-and-black juggernauts, were actually moving faster than we were.  Inga, her hands splayed on the glass, smiled over her shoulder at me, lighting my soul.

“Beautiful!”  I said.  “Incredible!” 

And they were—the whales certainly, and Inga most definitely—a tableau etched unforgettably on my memory.

I looked into Inga’s green eyes for the last time as we shook hands while my wife settled the cost at the desk.  “I hope you will enjoy the rest of your voyage,” she said.  “Thank you for sailing with us.”  And with that, she was gone.

Over drinks on the lido deck later, my wife asked if I’d enjoyed myself. 

“I did,” I said.  “You were right about the massage.  Did you like it?”

“For sure!” my wife said.  “Karin, my masseuse, was delightful.  And what a treat it was to see the orcas!”

“Yeah,” I said, reliving the window-scene in my mind.  “By the way, how old would you think my masseuse is?”

“She’s twenty-eight,” my wife said.

“That’s what I thought!” I exclaimed.  “But she’s in her late-forties, at least, maybe early-fifties.  She has a son in med school in London, and another son who’s a pilot.  I can’t believe she’s that old!”

“Yeah, we heard her telling you about herself,” my wife said.  “But Karin told me it’s just a story Inga tells to ward off all the older men.  She’s actually twenty-eight and single!”

“A story?” I whispered.  “Older men?”