Stolen Halloween

When I was a kid, Halloween was one of the events of the year. The others were my birthday, Christmas, the last day of school, and the first day of Little League. Easter was OK, but I think even then I viewed it as Christmas-lite. Also, rabbits sort of freak me out.

But who could beat Halloween? You dress up, you carry around a bag, strangers put candy in it – whether they want to or not – and you go home and eat it. No catch. Well, in my house the catch was that my dad took something of a house candy tax. It was due upon his inspection of our arrival and the official dumping out ceremony which took place on the kitchen table.

There was nothing like that moment – seeing all of your candy quantified on the kitchen table. Like something out of an adventure movie when the good guys see the treasure the baddies have been going for all along. It glitters in some production lights as they look on in awe.

In 1983, my sisters and I did just that. We dumped out our candy into separate piles with rigidly-guarded borders and we looked on in awe. And then my mother told us that we couldn’t have any.

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My Vote is with Mr. Rogers


Imagine you are in a Starbucks or wherever your brain brings you when you imagine picking up a coffee and a cake. Now imagine two men (or women, up to you) are in line in front of you. Guy the First speaks politely to the barista. He orders his coffee, waits, and gets his coffee. When it’s clear the barista has forgotten to include a lid, he asks her for one, dismisses her apology with a light-hearted joke about his own forgetfulness, thanks the barista, and goes on his way. Guy the Second is the opposite. He snaps his order to the barista, orders her around as if is something less demanding of human decency, and calls her a fucking moron for not including a lid. Instead of thanking her, he harshly berates her for ruining the rest of his day because of her gaff. And then he goes his way with a whistle.

I don’t think I have to go into the question of which of those two men you’d feel more comfortable or happy with and which you’d feel aggressively unpleasant towards and maybe be kind of embarrassed for. If you were the person standing behind these two men, you probably wouldn’t concern yourself with the first person at all. Your life would go on and so would his. The second guy would be different. You might think for a while – what the hell is wrong with that guy?

Last week Donald Trump took two stabs at Joe Biden. The first was that Biden would make the apparently embarrassing mistake of believing scientists. A good deal of American voters couldn’t quite figure out what the jab was and we looked around at each other with narrowed, confused eyes saying “I don’t get it. What was the jab?” Trump might as well have said “I’ve heard that Biden is just unbelievably good in bed” or “This Biden character pays all his bills on time and works out five times a week.”

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I am watching Foyle’s War. If you haven’t seen this brilliant (US: real good) detective show, then your life is not as good as it could be. It combines all of the things I love the most – World War II, historical backdrop, and the murder of a British person.

Burke, to say the least, does not share this interest. To her, a costume should be on a Disney character and a British accent should be on a mournful rich kid who’s recently gone skint. And if there’s one lesson I’ve learned about cohabitating with someone who isn’t a cat, it’s that you take little opportunities to watch shows you want to watch. Since the pandemic forces us to be home all the time, this is when she’s teaching in our office/storage room. This is when, amid songs about following rules and not stepping out of line thinly-veiled as pronunciation tunes, I cozy up to a British detective.  

It all started many years ago with Inspector Morse. I liked that there were no guns and that the detective, like Columbo, figured things out with sense rather than DNA and a world class laboratory. I liked the old wobbly BBC production value that looked as though it was done in my neighbor’s basement in 1987. And I loved that in Britain, people aren’t just murdered, they are absolutely torn to pieces. (Sometimes literally. One woman broke a mirror over a girl’s head and thrashed it back and forth, thus tearing her to shreds. She was upset because the girl was stealing her son, with whom she was having an incestual relationship. Tell me British TV isn’t awesome.) It’s as if the whole country’s TV bad guys are deep-whiskey-drunk pissed off about a bad cricket loss.  

I was perhaps six episodes into Morse when I realized that I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I could barely understand. Listen though I would, I still couldn’t pick up what was being said. British speakers of English have a completely different vocabulary, with a whole different set of idiomatic expressions, and put it all together in one of a variety of accents whose only uniting factor is that they all sound like someone mumbling the torah while eating peanut butter. On top of that, British plotting and dialogue are far more sparse than that of an American show. American characters are like Americans – direct, obvious, and profuse with their language. The Brits are indirect and they don’t say things that need to be said as much as they omit things that should have been said. And it’s tough to follow, because if you don’t know what’s been said, how the hell are you going to figure out what’s not been said?

Morse led to its sequel Lewis and then their prequel Endeavour (US: Endeavor). My UK English was careening towards proficient around then and I got cocky. I got most of Lewis and eschewed the subtitles.

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All the Light we Can’t not See

Frank the Light, Josie the Light, and Bigfoot (Larry)

I’m walking through the supermarket today. I have a list. And I’ve been asked (read: required) by Burke to adhere to it reasonably. Reasonably because she knows there’s no chance I’ll be able to avoid a tiny impulse buy or two. Usually those impulse buys are a bag of grapes or a box of taco shells, a few jars of fruit-on-bottom or oats-on-top yogurt. I have to justify my impulse buy upon return home and I use my walk home to practice that justification. I thought we could use these on…, It’s Friday, isn’t it?, Hey my birthday is in four short months.

But it’s usually ignored.

Today I walk by the endcaps with confidence. I look at my list and know that I am fine. But then I notice a few little capsules, like thick squat plastic pills the size of a coffee mug.

“What are you?” I ask them. As I’m wearing a mask, nobody can tell that I’m speaking. All is well. I pick one of them up.

Home Lantern.

Uh oh.

I begin to sweat almost immediately.

I suppose we all wonder what we manifest of our parents. This has become something of a theme for my middle life crises, which are various, fruitful, and evidently multiplying. I got my mom’s cheeks and my dad’s hair. I got my dad’s temper and my mom’s tendency to discuss topics and argue out loud in public alone. And I got my dad’s impulse buy tendency. Which is our jedi trait.  

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Absence Makes the Heart Grow Cheesesteaks

scrapple (side salad unintentional)

In the last week of August, I was asked by the kid’s magazine to write an article called My Hometown. The premise was relatively simple: write an article on some basic trivia and ins and outs of your hometown. As several of the writers are from other countries, there were a few asked to do this. I did my first draft on the basics, writing from the information in my head. Selected clips:  

Philadelphians love sports. We have a team for each of the four major professional sports. Our Phillies (baseball) won the World Series in 2008. Our Eagles (football) won Superbowl LII.

The Declaration of Independence was signed there in 1776 and Washington’s Crossing is where George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night to surprise attack the British. It worked so well that we won the Battle of Trenton. It’s why you have to learn American and British English in school.

Philadelphia has lots of delicious food that will make you very fat. Soft pretzels are our preferred street food for a snack. Scrapple is a breakfast meat and if you go to Philadelphia you have to get a cheesesteak.

I finished the draft and, as usual, closed the file for a day while I let the ideas permeate. In the meantime, I let the ideas come and jotted them down. I looked through some articles for inspiration: 32 Things that Make Philadelphia Special, 20 Things We Love about Philadelphia, 9 Things that are SO Philadelphia.

As I read through the articles, I said this a lot: “Oh yeah. I need to mention that.”

As it so often does, the second draft reflected the dearth of my research.


Philadelphians love their sports teams. We have a team for each of the four major professional sports. Our Phillies (baseball) won the World Series in 2008 after an absence of 27 years. Our Eagles (football) won the Superbowl in 2017 for the first time. It was a great moment for the city.   


America was born in Philadelphia in 1776 when The Declaration of Independence was signed there. Washington’s Crossing is where George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night to surprise attack the British. It worked so well that we ended up opening a can of whoop ass on them and winning the Battle of Trenton. It’s why you have to learn American and British English in school (ha ha). Elfreth’s Alley is the oldest continuously-used street in America. Philadelphians have been using it since 1704.


Philadelphia has lots of delicious foods that will make your mouth water. Soft pretzels are our preferred street food for a snack. You can buy them on the street from vendors. Scrapple is a breakfast meat that’s very common and if you aren’t from Philadelphia you won’t understand its appeal. It’s sort of like tlačenka*. If you go to Philadelphia you have to get a cheesesteak. The most famous places for that are Pat’s and Jim’s, but each section of Philadelphia has their own special place for a cheesesteak. If you like cold meat sandwiches, you can have a hoagie, Philadelphia’s special name for a submarine sandwich.  

Famous People

There are many famous people from Philadelphia. Kevin Hart and Will Smith are two of them. Founding father, statesman, philosopher, and inventor Ben Franklin ran away to live in Philadelphia when he was 17. He probably needed a cheesesteak.

As usual, I closed the file on the second draft and let the ideas and words seep in and permeate. I worked on other projects, but found that my thoughts were drifting back to Philadelphia. This is perhaps also due to the fact that I couldn’t go home this summer. Summer is the time of year I get my “home fill” of all things Philly. I eat water ice and ice cream with jimmies, go to the Jersey Shore, eat four cheesesteaks, a couple Italian hoagies, go down to Center City and visit Independence Hall. I sit at a sports bar and watch a Phillies game and listen to the sports talk guys gripe about an Eagles season that hasn’t started yet. And yet none of this was possible this year. And I soon found that I was consumed with Philadelphia.  

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The Second War of the Flies

In the morning I go to the kitchen and I smile. I’m at the age that a clean kitchen in the morning makes me happy. Since I spend my early mornings there working, it makes me extra happy. N between these times, I often wonder what disappointment my twenty-year-old self would regard me with.

The table is clean. The counter is clean. I rub my finger along the stainless-steel stovetop and find embarrassing happiness at the cleanly squeak it makes. I click the coffee maker. It’s when I turn on the tap that something disconcerting happens.

Something takes off. From the sink. Correction: somethings.

Fruit flies.

I’ve dealt with these guys before.

It was 2016 when I first dealt with fruit flies. Not really, but 2016 was the first time I cared that I had fruit flies. In the two decades before that, I acknowledged fruit flies as annoying little roommates that moved in during the summer and died in the fall. They didn’t pay rent and they only ate stuff off the counter, but I didn’t like them. They were flying around like shrapnel. Also they were judgmental. The way they flew around and made jokes about my cleaning ability in the voice of the third-grade nun.

In 2016 I waged a war of cleaning products and internet hacks.

I begin a similar campaign in 2020.

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The Social Dilemma Dilemma

Last Sunday, Burke had won TV rights and so I was cleaning the bathroom while grumbling. When Burke has the TV, it usually means true crime or 90 Day Fiancée. History has shown that while I grumble about these shows, if I end up in front of the TV, I will instantly get involved. Who’s that? Wait, he’s with her? Oh, she’s a bi-atch. That guy has no neck!

I understand that this makes me something of a goldfish, but it is what it is.

On Sunday I made the mistake of walking in the room while Burke watched a docudrama called The Social Dilemma. Wait, who’s that? I asked. And it was over.

The brief: The Social Dilemma is about just how bad social media is for our mental health, for our productivity, and how extraordinarily addictive it is. Additionally, it points out how disturbingly intelligent the apps work to get you on the site and to stay on the site. It further went into how social media tailors information just for us and that it’s enormously manipulative. It was disturbing.

So disturbing that I had Burke pause it so I could get popcorn.

I related to every single point they made. Not since I fudged my answers to an Are you an Alcoholic? questionnaire in college have I been this freaked out. (NB: it didn’t matter. Are You an Alcoholic? 20 questions. If you answered 1 yes, you were an alcoholic. I didn’t help that the questionnaire made me feel a definite need to have a drink).

While I related to every aspect, there were two things that stood out to me.

First, whenever a task became the slightest bit difficult, the scrolling and capturing information of social media was right there waiting to offer me solace. This beats productivity and deep and critical thinking to death with a virtual shovel. In a two-virtual-birds-two-virtual-stones manner, it also creates a pattern of behavior – task gets hard, Momma Facebook is there to comfort.  

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On Blaming Mike Tyson and Pants

I should have stuck to sweats

My arms are little limp noodles at this moment. My elbows hurt, I mean the actual bone. One is never more keenly aware of their shoulders then when the simple act of opening a door sends searing pains along them. I have spent the last hour trying to pick my nose.

A couple of things led to my current state.

Saturday. I was sitting quite happily on my couch in a pair of sweats and a T shirt that I could use to safely parachute off my roof. Modern Family was on the Netflix. Saturday is Cheat Day, so for four hours my hand was engaged with sandwiches of differing meats, cheeses, and fillers. Namely, I was in heaven.

And then I had what could only have been a severe stroke, because I decided it was a great idea to get up from this paradise of carbs and comfy clothes and try on pants. Six pairs. I stacked the pants on the bed and I stood in front of the full-length mirror I was somehow convinced into including in our bedroom. If you want a word of advice, don’t have a full-length mirror in the room where you crawl out of bed in the morning with no pants on. It does nothing to offer one hope enough to get into the shower. A room, by the way, with another mirror and where we stand naked. (beginning to think there’s a conspiracy afoot).

I took off my sweats, sucked in my gut in lots of ways until it was acceptable, and took in a deep breath.

OK, here’s the thing. Like many of you, I gained a bit of weight that we can all blame on the pending end of days. I wasn’t allowed to walk anywhere, so my daily step count went from the high thousands to about 16. We didn’t eat too well during the worst period of self-isolation. Since things have let up in June, I have made sure that my day includes a long walk. We have improved our diet and we are back to one Cheat Day a week as opposed to six. Despite a lingering foot injury sidelined me from walking a few weeks ago, I kept up working out, and I have noticed miniature gains in terms of shrinkage. I still have a butt that one could land a toy helicopter on, but it’s OK, because I felt good. Yes, I was going to try on pants!

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The first mindfuck of the week was the word mindfuck. Of course, we know this term in a common use in English, but this was being used in a Czech article.

Téma: 10 filmových mindfucků, které možná neznáte

(theme: 10 mindfuck films you might not know)

Languages are absolutely filled with “loanwords,” which are words and phrases that we simply take from other languages and use as our own. We all (languages, that is) do it. So there’s no real penalty for appropriating language. We nabbed yoga from Sanskrit, klutz from Yiddish, and woodchuck from the Cree. It would take the rest of the year to list them all. We are linguistic thieves and it’s great.

Alongside content words, we have also snagged metaphors that we don’t change from the original. We use schadenfreude for pricks who like others’ misfortunate and je ne sais quoi to comment on someone who’s hot in a way that we can’t quite explain (ahem).

Some etymological sources put mindfuck in use back in the fifties and linked to brainwashing during the Korean War. But for most of us, the phrase gained meaning in the 2000s with the rise of the listicle and the new, surprising information about old things that can be conveyed. Now our minds are fucked by unusual history, film, and animal facts.

What makes the Czech use of mindfuck such a mindfuck is that mindfuck is a loan idiom. Sure, they have lots of loanwords as the internet, Facebook, globalization, western influence, and Quentin Tarantino  make “international” words far more in use here. Sorry, Paj, Komin (come in), are all seen now around Prague. Last month I walked past a restaurant which boasted Apel Paj and Snickers Paj spelled out in phonetic Czenglish. But mindfuck is the first idiom loanword I have really noticed. Perhaps in twenty years Czech will be a vastly different language.  

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Story Thief

Every storyteller is a complete, unabashed thief. They nab a character description here, a quip there, a lunatic aunt over there.

I steal all the time. I’ve nabbed lines, pets, locations. I don’t care. If they are better than something I’ve got, I grab it and implant the hell out of it. Why not? It’s all in the pursuit of a better story.

It’s been happening since I was a kid. I come from a family of storytellers and I have always considered myself lucky. In my family, we spent hours around the table telling stories and interrupting each other harshly. It was an education.

My mother has spent a lifetime putting herself into stories. She talks to random people in the mall or while finding the right sized shirt for an old man in a JC Penny. On one of our mall jaunts I found her in front of a dressing room.

“Hey, what—”

And that’s when a woman came out of the dressing room. “So, what do you think?”

“I like the pink one more,” said my mother.  

“Knew it, Mrs. G,” she said. “Thank you.” The girl twirled.  

“Good luck and have fun at the prom.”

“Thanks, Mrs. G.”

“Who is that?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Let’s go to TJ Maxx. I hate those shoes.”

It’s a minor point to say that her stories are usually devoid of plot. They will always be descriptions of either completely enhancing or ruining a total stranger’s day.

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