Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Howdy Neighbors

Mrs. Chatterbox and I live in a townhouse where we’re connected to neighbors on both sides. We’ve never had any trouble: the builder did a great job soundproofing our unit so we haven’t been subjected to loud noise. I never met our neighbors even though we’ve lived here four years. A month ago a POD was left at the curb next door, one of those metal containers you fill with your furniture. Our neighbors were moving, and I’d never bothered to knock on their door to introduce myself.

I have a fantasy about neighbors that comes from living happily in one place for most of my childhood. I remember mothers chatting while hanging wash on backyard clotheslines, borrowing cups of sugar or a few eggs, helping each other with jumper cables when car batteries died. And there were those great TV shows from the Fifties. I remember laughing while watching Lucy and Ethel squabble while fathoming the depths of friendship and neighborliness. I always assumed that neighbors, like sunny days, were an integral part of life. But, for me, this has not been the case. As an adult, I’ve been unlucky with neighbors.

I remember a time shortly after moving to Oregon when a little girl knocked on our door to tell me she was locked out. I happened to be home alone—an illustrator working out of my house—and I was the only adult available. I let her use our phone to call her mother at work, and when she hung up she informed me that her mom told her to stay with me until she came home from work. Aside from the imposition, this mother didn’t know me and had no idea whether or not I was a convicted child molester. (By the way, I’m not.) I expected the mother to drive home immediately to collect her child and thank me, but four hours later I was still playing jacks with this kid (winning by the way). Finally, her older sister arrived five hours later to fetch her home. I had no idea where she’d been all this time. In five years I never met the girls’ parents.

I’ve yet to have an altercation with a neighbor, although I came close when we moved into an older home and were promptly told by our new neighbors, who’d probably been living next door since the attack on Pearl Harbor, that if we knew what was good for us we wouldn’t spray chemicals in our backyard that might harm the precious birds they overfed. As an animal lover I didn’t resent this too much, until I saw these two septuagenarians aiming pellet rifles out of their windows to shoot squirrels too ignorant to realize the food left out wasn’t for them. When I spoke out against this, I was told the pellets didn’t hurt the squirrels and they offered to prove it if I’d move into range, which I refused to do.

Another time we moved next door to a widowed school teacher who was so jazzed about her grandson Jamie that she could work him into any conversation within three seconds. It happened like this:

“Are you enjoying Martin Luther King Day, Mrs. Jenson?”

One second…two—

“Yes. But it won’t be long before Jamie has a holiday named after him!”

Another time at a different location we held a family gathering after Mrs. C’s mother passed away. A neighbor we’d smiled at for years entered our home for the first time and helped herself to the catered food, even though she’d never invited us to her place or even spoken to us. She drove an expensive car and was nicely dressed so I don’t think she couldn’t afford to feed herself. She left without saying a word to us.

I know what you’re thinking: You and Mrs. C. must be doing something to alienate

your neighbors. If so I can’t imagine what it is. We don’t fly a swastika in front of our

house and we don’t have radical bumper stickers plastered on our cars—except for the

fish with evolutionary legs and DARWIN written on it. We tend our yards within reason and don’t live with a vicious attack dog.

But I remain an optimist and refuse to give up on the notion that one day someone will move next door and become my best friend. I think I’ll button up my red Mr. Rogers sweater and walk over to introduce myself to the nice couple unloading the POD next door. It’s a fine day, so join me for a walk through the neighborhood. Sing along with me; I know you want to: Won’t you be my neighbor?

Have you had any interesting experiences with neighbors?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Goosie and Bonkers

When CJ was five, I took him with me to pick up some dry cleaning. He asked if we could check out the pet store next door. He enjoyed having his little fingers licked by puppies and kittens when he stuck his fingers into their cages, but the goldfish captured his attention most. There was a big tank with ten goldfish for a buck. CJ begged for two fish. Since they were cheap, and flushable, I said yes. By the time we left the store, I’d spent nearly thirty dollars for a bowl and gravel, fish food and the coolest little castle CJ had ever seen. CJ held the plastic bag containing the two fish and tried his best to keep the water from jiggling as we drove home.

He named them Goosie and Bonkers, for reasons known only to him. They lived for a while on top of our TV. One day Mrs. Chatterbox and I were going over bills in the kitchen, a situation not made any easier by my unnecessary purchase of two little freeloaders in a goldfish bowl, when CJ came up to me and said, “Daddy, could you not talk so loud ‘cause Goosie and Bonkers are sleeping.”

Uh-oh! I went to check and Goosie and Bonkers were belly up in the water. They were asleep alright, eternal sleep! I didn’t have the emotional energy to explain “death” to CJ, so when Mrs. C. was reading to him I flushed the two dead fish and went back to the pet store to purchase another Goosie and Bonkers.

A few days later CJ again asked me to keep my voice down because his goldfish were taking another nap. I checked; once again Goosie and Bonkers had flat-lined. I performed another flushing ceremony and headed for the pet store where I chose a heartier and more expensive set of replacements. As I drove home, I noticed that the new guys didn’t look much like the old Goosie and Bonkers. I hoped CJ wouldn’t notice.

He didn’t, but a few days later these fish joined the others. I should have explained to CJ that things are dead when they take certain kinds of naps, but I chickened out and headed back to the pet store. This time I took no chances and bought the most expensive goldfish available, fish so hearty that they were declared environmental pests in certain parts of Asia. They bore no resemblance to the original Goosie and Bonkers.

These poor creatures suffered the same fate as the others. I could no longer postpone the inevitable; it was time to tell CJ the truth, or get a bank loan to buy more fish. CJ came into the family room and spotted the empty bowl. “Daddy, where are Goosie and Bonkers?”

Mrs. C. busied herself in the kitchen, but she was listening to every word. I proceeded carefully, not wanting to shatter our little boy’s bubble of innocence. “Come here, CJ; Daddy wants to talk to you.”

He approached and I scooped him up and put him on my knee. “I need to tell you something.”

“Yes, Daddy?”

My throat suddenly went dry.

I could see the tears in Sue’s eyes---she was such a softy! We’d been married long enough for me to be able to read her mind; she was cautioning me to tread carefully.

“I need to tell you something about Goosie and Bonkers.”

“Yes, Daddy?” He looked just like a blue-eyed Hummel.

“You noticed that they’re not in their bowl?”

“Uh-huh. Where are they?”

The moment of truth had come. It was time to be honest with him. “Here’s the thing,

CJ, there’s a good reason Goosie and Bonkers aren’t in their bowl…”

“Yes, Daddy?”

I cleared my throat. “Well, here’s the thing…they’re not in their bowl because they…”

“They what, Daddy?” He blinked his soft lashes at me. “What did Goosie and

Bonkers do?”

Damn, I couldn’t do it! I blurted out, “They ran away!”

I felt guilty lying to him, but I breathed a sigh of relief when he said, “I guess they wanted to go home.”

Did you ever lie to a child? Confession, they say, is good for the soul.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Versatile Blogger Award

It never occurred to me when I started Chubby Chatterbox seven months ago that fellow bloggers would be kind enough to single out my efforts for recognition. I was humbled and honored last Thursday when Jenny Woolf drew attention to Chubby Chatterbox on her marvelous blog, An English Travel Writer*. Thanks Jenny.

I’m supposed to list seven things about myself and then nominate a few of the blogs I enjoy. Most of these tidbits about me are included in my memoir, The Kid in the Kaleidoscope: A Chubby Chatterbox Grows Up in the Fifties, Sixties and Beyond…

Here goes:

#1. I was raised in a very strict family and I was the only one with a sense of humor. Growing up I could say just about anything I wanted and nobody took me seriously or knew what I was talking about.

#2. I’m a big history buff and I love anything having to do with Ancient Rome. One of

my oldest possessions is The Horizon Book of Ancient Rome given to me on my twelfth Christmas.

#3. I’ve been on just about every diet there is over the years and I once fasted for an entire week. A conservative estimate of weight I’ve lost in my lifetime would add up to approximately five hundred pounds. No, I’ve never come close to weighing that much; I tip the scale at closer to two hundred pounds. But if you walk up to me with a bathroom scale you’ll be impressed by how fast I can run.

#4. I was hired to teach painting at a prestigious art college when board members

confused me with someone else whose name I shared. I tried for eight years, without success, to convince them I wasn’t “that other guy.”

#5. I’m married to my high school sweetheart and we’ve been together for forty years. She’s my best friend and soul mate.

#6. I once had a nasty altercation with actor Don Ameche, but my most memorable encounter with a celebrity came when I accidentally ran down Jerry Brown, governor of California, with my car.

#7. I once found forty thousand dollars worth of artwork, including a Picasso, that had accidentally been thrown into a dumpster.

Here are a few blogs I’d like to nominate for this award, in no particular order. Be sure to add the green button to your blog and, if you’re so inclined, reveal seven things about yourself, and then nominate blogs you enjoy.


Flight Plan

Grumpy Bulldog’s Blog

La Tejana

Don’t Feed the Pixies

Unbagging the Cats

Tom Cochran/ Light breezes

Not that I deserve them, but I hope to have an opportunity to share more awards with other blogging friends.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Taft's Tub

Some stories are stuck in the public’s consciousness and can’t be dislodged by logic or evidence to the contrary, such as the story of how Catherine the Great died. It has been rumored for centuries that she perished in an equestrian accident, a polite way of saying that this regal nymphomaniac died while trying to copulate with a stallion suspended above her bed from a crane. According to legend, the chain broke and crushed the czarina to death. While this is fun to envision, it never happened. Catherine died in a much more boring manner, in her own bed after suffering a stroke—alone.

But I’m not here to talk about Catherine the Great; as a fat man I’m here to defend someone who isn’t able to defend himself, the twenty-seventh President of the United States—William Howard Taft. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of how fat he was, so fat that he broke the White House bathtub while struggling to get out of it.

Let’s set the record straight: William Howard Taft did not break a bathtub; he got stuck in one, and it took four men to get him out. They used a gallon of butter and the tub did not break. Unfortunately for Taft, reporters were present when the tub was dismantled and accidentally dropped while being taken out of the White House. They were responsible for creating the lie that Taft had broken it. Now you know the truth. Taft may have been our most portly president, but he was considered a great dancer, a good tennis player and an average golfer.

Click (Here) for one of the first stories I posted at Chubby Chatterbox, Revenge of the Claw Foot Tub. I didn’t have any followers back then and my story received zero comments.

PS: Sorry I couldn’t find a fanciful illustration of Catherine’s death. Taft’s tub will have

to do.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever laid eyes on me that Mrs. Chatterbox is a “foodie.” She’s an avid fan of cooking shows like Top Chef, Chopped, and Iron Chef. I have little reason to complain. For forty years she has prepared meals for me, and she has labored heroically to bring new dishes and cuisines to our dinner table.

My only complaint is that she usually prepares too much food. I’m an enthusiastic eater but I’m not a mess hall. She has a tendency to overfeed things. This is why I refuse to adopt a greyhound from the animal shelter. I can just hear a veterinarian saying to me, “You know, Mr. Chatterbox, these dogs aren’t supposed to weigh two hundred pounds!”

The latest trend sweeping the world of TV chefs, and many of the finer restaurants near you, is the “deconstructed” dish. In the past few weeks I’ve sat on the couch beside Mrs. C. and watched chefs create deconstructed lasagna, deconstructed burritos and deconstructed strawberry shortcake. Frankly, when I go to a restaurant I want the chef to actually make something for me. I don’t want it in pieces with instructions from my waiter on how to assemble it. This isn’t what I’m paying for.

A waiter recently gave me a lecture on how to enjoy a deconstructed martini. Enough is enough! Martinis shouldn’t come with directions. There are times when instructions can be useful, like when you’re chained to a ticking time bomb and need help deciding which wires need to be cut, but slamming a martini should be self explanatory.

Who thought up this crazy idea? I don’t think it’s catching on in any other professions. Can you imagine someone contacting an architect and saying, “Yeah, I’d like you to deconstruct a house for me.” Certainly not in medicine: “Yes, doctor, I’d like you to deconstruct my hernia operation.”

In a few days Mrs. Chatterbox and I are going to a fancy new restaurant specializing in gourmet hamburgers. I like my burgers simple; a hint of pink in the middle, no fancy Italian bun, no chutney or curry sauce, just mustard, catsup and maybe a few grilled onions. And remember all you fancy “foodies” out there willing to tamper with perfection—Wimpy never had to reassemble his own hamburger in a restaurant, and neither should I.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Bomb Shelter Game

Back in 1967 when I was a junior in high school, Mr. Farrington, our social studies teacher, came up with an interesting idea that made us all stop thinking about our raging hormones to focus on something nearly as important—survival. The Soviet Union hadn’t crumbled yet and nuclear annihilation remained a distinct possibility, so engaging in a life and death struggle for survival, even if it was only a game, was far more interesting than the usual drivel we were exposed to in class. The game revolved around an imaginary bomb shelter. Pretend bombs were on their way from Russia and we got to decide which of our classmates got to live or die.

This was long before reality TV where pampered people get voted off an island. We all took the game seriously, but this wasn’t supposed to be a popularity contest; we each randomly selected an occupation and part of our grade (yes, we were graded on this) depended on just how well we defended the importance of our occupation in the new society we would be creating.

Some of the occupations randomly selected were doctors, electricians, carpenters, engineers, nurses and other vocations easy to defend. I mean really; how difficult would it be to convince your fellow classmates that a doctor would be useful once the doors of the bomb shelter swung open? And it would be nice to have people around who could build and repair things. The poor kid stuck with being a lawyer was screwed but the girl who was a botanist gained admittance after convincing everyone that she could teach survivors how to grow edible food and determine which ones had been poisoned by radiation.

I was stuck with an occupation difficult to defend—artist. Unlike other students who got to select randomly, Mr. Farrington chose this profession for me for, what I assume, were two reasons: one, I was the star of our high school’s Art Department; two, I was a well-known chatterbox and he must have figured I could pull off defending such a questionable occupation. At the time I didn’t think this fair, but learning that life isn’t fair is an important part of any education.

The game neared conclusion with only two students remaining to compete for the last place in the shelter. I had to contend with Jill Stanton. I went first. I rose from my desk and stood before the class to deliver a presentation on why I should be selected for survival.

I was brilliant as I defended the importance of art, building a rhythmic speech that resonated with passion and ended with, “When the bomb shelter doors open we will set about creating a new world to replace the old, but why bother? Just to survive? We need a reason to survive, something larger than ourselves, something to address our descendants to let them know what we thought and felt during this difficult time. Art is our connection to the divine, a manifestation of our indomitable spirit. Our brave new world will be a cold and heartless place without art! So select me!”

I sat down to thunderous applause. Mr. Farrington’s grin suggested that I’d pulled it off. But one hurdle remained—Jill Stanton.

She stood up and pulled at the snug sweater I’d never seen her wear before. I’d never noticed that she had breasts. And nice ones, not that I’d seen any yet. She took her time sashaying to the front of the class, where she delivered a speech of only seven words.

Without bothering to give her name or explain what her profession was, she said, “I’m young. I’m hot. And I’m fertile.” With that she slowly walked back to her seat.

It was my misfortune that there were double the number of boys in my class than girls. When the imaginary bombs came I was stuck outside the bomb shelter screaming, “Let me in...”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Peculiar Picture #6

Regular visitors to Chubby Chatterbox know that I was once a professional illustrator before shifting my attention to writing. I have a drawer full of peculiar pictures that have never been published, such as this one.

Over the years this illustration has prompted a lot of smiles, but to my knowledge it’s never been published. It was born in a corner of my brain that I don’t always have access to, which is another way of saying it seemed like a good idea when I was painting it but now I don’t have a clue what it means.

Can anyone out there offer an explanation for what’s going on in this picture?

To check out one of my illustrations that actually sold, click (here).

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Cement Boat

An excerpt from my memoir The Kid in the Kaleidoscope.

When I was a kid my dad often took me and my older brother David to the Cement Boat. Originally designed as a cargo transport in 1918, the Cement Boat missed action in World War I. She was made with a material not recognized for its floating capacity—cement—and how she managed to float is still beyond me. During the Great Depression she was run aground at Seacliff Beach near Santa Cruz and a pier constructed so people could fish from her.

We would get up long before the crack of dawn to drive through the Santa Cruz Mountains to the coast. Along the way I’d chatter nonstop and earn the nickname that would stick to me for the rest of my life.

“Dad, are we going to catch anything at the Cee-ment Boat today?”

“I hope so.”

“Do you think there are any reeeaally big fish out there?”


“If I catch a marlin, can we have it stuffed like that one Mr. Simons caught in Mexico?”

“There aren’t any marlins here. We’re too close to shore and marlins like warmer water.”

“Okay, but if I do catch one, can I have it stuffed?”

“Yes, if you catch a marlin, you can have it stuffed.”

“David, did you hear that? Dad says if I catch a marlin, I can have it stuffed!”

I was ten years old and my older brother looked at me like I was bacteria. He said, “You’re an idiot.”

He was probably right. Even though the closest marlins were thousands of miles away in Mexico, it might have been easier to catch one if I’d kept my line baited and in the water. For me to catch a marlin, it would have to swim from Baja California, jump onto the Cement Boat and impale itself on my baitless hook. Still, anything was possible.

I didn’t have the patience required for fishing and when I got bored I’d count the planks in the pier. The beach snack bar was a short distance from the Cement Boat and I’m told I helped put the owner’s children through college.

We usually headed home as the sun began to set, our faces sunburned and our hands stinking from bait. Nothing major was ever caught at the Cement Boat, except once in 1962. We’d brought the new fishing gear we’d received for Christmas a few months earlier. Even Dad had gotten a new fishing pole and a shiny chrome reel.

The day dawned without a hint that anything unusual was going to happen. We spent an uneventful morning cursing the fishless sea. After lunch, Dad decided his new reel wasn’t winding as smoothly as it should. He laid a clean cloth on the weathered deck of the Cement Boat and proceeded to methodically perform an autopsy on his reel. Before long it was in pieces, Dad carefully oiling each part.

My brother spotted it first, a darkening in the sky near the horizon. It couldn’t be clouds—there weren’t any clouds in the sky that day—and it was moving too swiftly. Birds. Thousands of them, maybe millions. And there was something more, just beneath the surface of the water. And headed directly for the Cement Boat.

A leather-faced old fisherman shouted, “It’s a school of anchovies; the gulls are following ’em.”

I hated anchovies, especially on pizza. Now we were catching them by the bucketful. The birds weren’t the only ones following the anchovies. Something else was chasing them. Suddenly the pier began to shake as a school of white sea bass squeezed tightly together as they passed beneath the pier. Fishermen who didn’t have their hands on their poles saw their gear spring into the air and arc into the ocean when the bass struck. Nearly everyone caught an amazing number of twenty-pounders that day, including me, although I needed help hauling them up. Only one fisherman didn’t catch a sea bass that day, because his reel was in pieces—Dad.

Several weeks later, we returned to the Cement Boat. Dad wanted to redeem himself. This time, instead of taking his reel apart, he just added a little oil here and there. It was another crisp morning on the California coast. Not many people were on the pier yet, just a few old Italian and Portuguese fishermen. David got things going that morning by hooking a boney rockfish. I lost interest when I noticed it wasn’t a marlin. Nothing else was caught that day. By late afternoon clouds began building, and the water was getting choppy. Dad continued to bait his hook, even though it was time to go. This was his last chance to catch something.

He checked his weights and added a few more. He squirted a bit more oil on his reel. He positioned himself for one last cast. He arched his back and, like Mighty Casey, took his swing. Dad was in the middle of his perfect cast when it happened. His hands were slippery with oil. The new rod and reel, now perfectly lubricated, catapulted from his hands and sailed through space out over the ocean. With hardly a splash, Dad’s Christmas present disappeared beneath the waves.

Dad just stood there looking out to sea. People were pointing and laughing. An old Eye-talian fisherman approached with a toothless smile and a mile of line connected to a large gaffing hook. Together he and my Dad took turns swinging the big rusty claw out toward the spot where Dad’s rod and reel sank. Miraculously, they snagged Dad’s gear from the sea bottom. Dad offered to pay the old-timer for his efforts, but the man declined.

Later, after arriving home, Dad once again took his reel completely apart to clean away the salty brine. He said it had to be done, and it had to be done right; otherwise the whole thing would corrode and turn blue. He never talked about what happened, and I learned a valuable lesson that day: not everything needs to be chatted about.

Naturally, I never took time to clean my reel and it wasn’t long before it became corroded and unusable. I never really liked fishing, especially after I caught the legendary Supertrout one summer in the Santa Cruz mountains. Folks are still talking about it, but that’s a story for another day.

Do you like to fish? What's the biggest fish you ever caught?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Seeing Black

If you’re feeling queasy from all that pink and red on Valentine’s Day, this may be the antidote:

In 1976 Mrs. Chatterbox and I told ourselves that the old San Francisco apartment we’d just rented made up for being small with an abundance of character. It had old-world tile in the kitchen and bathroom, a vintage slot in the door for the delivery of milk bottles, and from the roof you could make out the top of the Golden Gate Bridge if it wasn’t foggy or rainy, which was most of the time.

When we first arrived in San Francisco, Mrs. C. quickly landed a job with a CPA firm, but my art degree made me about as hirable as a shepherd. I walked the streets day after day looking for work, without success. One day I returned home after a futile job search and took out my frustration on our cramped apartment and meager furnishings. An idea for dressing up the place popped into my head. Our Goodwill furniture would look more like an eclectic blend of shabby and chic if I painted the floors…black. I could take inspiration from nearby Chinatown and paint Chinese motifs on the walls. I grew excited by the thought of using my design ability and artistic skills to perk up the place. New furniture was out of the question but we could still have a “trendy” interior with Chinoiserie—mixing Chinese elements with Western ones.

The nice landlady informed us that there were hardwood floors beneath the radiator-stained rugs and we could pull them up if we wanted to. She said nothing about painting the floors black, but I was sure she wouldn’t mind; heck, she might even lower our rent when she saw how fabulous our apartment looked. She might even hire me to paint the other units in the building, and God knows I needed a job. In retrospect, I wish Mrs. C. had talked me out of it, but back then she deferred to me on all things artistic. She didn’t object. She’s much smarter now.

I went to the store and bought oil base enamel paint, black as tar. I piled our furniture in the only bedroom, pulled up the rugs in the living room and tossed them in the hallway near the elevator. Then I began slapping down the black paint. When I finished the living room, I was pretty proud of myself; the room now seemed to have shrunk to doll house size but it looked cool, sort of Chineeezie. Mrs. C. and I settled back and waited for the paint to dry.

We waited.

And waited.

Then we waited some more.

I might have bought the wrong type of paint, or maybe it was the cold damp air (we had to keep the windows open because the paint fumes were giving us headaches) but the paint refused to dry. Two weeks later the paint was still tacky. Our cat took to tiptoeing into the living room and rolling around on the sticky black goo. Her fur stuck to the paint and eventually it began to look as though we were growing a Chia Pet carpet.

One day the landlady knocked on our door, irritated that our old carpeting was blocking the elevator. When I opened the door she peered inside. Her eyes widened and she hit the roof, upset that we hadn’t asked for permission to paint the floors. She ordered us to remove the paint IMMEDIATELY. I started scraping with a kitchen spatula, but the paint, while still tacky, had adhered to the floor. I rented a circular electric sander but I was unfamiliar with the deafening machine and left it too long in one spot, resulting in what looked like crop circles on the oak floors. Our landlady didn’t comment on the circles, but she scowled at me whenever our paths crossed and I figured we’d overstayed our welcome. We moved out—and in with my parents since I couldn’t find a job.

My attempt to make our San Francisco apartment trendy was a disaster, and ever since then whenever I see the word chinoiserie I see black and think of a four letter word.

What's you biggest interior design mistake?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Peculiar Picture #5

A few years before I retired from illustration to focus on writing, my agent contacted me to ask how much more work I could produce. There’s a lot of down time being an illustrator so I told her I could probably churn out twice as many illustrations as I was currently producing—if she could sell them. She said, “Why don’t you change your style?”

I was insulted; I liked the way I painted and had spent a lifetime mastering my craft. But I was lured by the prospect of more money and decided to try. Over the next few months I painted some of my worst pictures. Mrs. Chatterbox provided a solution. She said, “Don’t just change your style; change everything. Create another identity.”

At first I thought she was nuts, but the more I thought about it the better the idea

seemed. After all, actors do this all the time. So I decided to become someone else. But who? My agent said the market was ripe for non-white artists from countries other than the USA. So I chose my mother’s maiden name (Correia) and became an artist from Brazil (where I’m told there are many Portuguese people). In my fake profile I described myself as Esteban Correia, an artist from Sao Paulo who taught himself how to paint while working as a lifeguard on a nude beach.

Both artists are currently marketing their illustrations online, and some months Esteban’s work outsells mine. Esteban is edgier than I am and seems to have suffered in love more, judging by this peculiar illustration.

This picture is a good example of why neither of us ended up working for Hallmark. It looks like a Valentine’s Day Card from hell.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

French Lessons

Mrs. Chatterbox and I were recently discussing our trip to France last year. We had a great time and experienced none of the snootiness for which Paris (excluding the rest of France) is famous. This wasn’t so in ’76 when we were newlyweds and backpacking through Europe with a copy of Frommer’s Europe on Ten Dollars a Day. Back then we had several interesting experiences in Paris that involved ordering food in restaurants.

First, I need to confess that I speak no foreign languages. Because I’m a bit on the swarthy side I’m often taken for a homeboy in many countries bordering the Mediterranean (with the exception of France.) Locals who address me are usually surprised I don’t speak their language. Not so with Mrs. C. who took eight years of high school and college French.

So there we were back in ‘76, two young kids experiencing the world for the first time when we slipped into a Parisian bistro for some grub. As usual, Mrs. C. did the ordering while I looked on with a vapid smile. When she’d finished ordering, the waiter, who’d been sneering the whole time she’d been speaking, started yelling at her. I didn’t need to understand a word of French to know that this fellow was being disrespectful and rude. I was considering treating him to an American knuckle sandwich, but the smile on my wife’s face got bigger and bigger the nastier he became.

By the time the waiter turned on his heels and marched off, my wife was smiling like she had a wire coat hanger stuck in her mouth. I said, “That guy sounded awfully rude. What did he say?”

Beaming, she explained, “He said that it makes him sick when tourists come to Paris

to practice their high school French. He said, ‘You think we don’t know what you’re up to? We can tell you Dutch people a mile away.’”

I was confused. “Your French wasn’t good enough to convince him you were French, yet you’re happy about it?”

“Don’t you get it?” she explained. “My French was good enough to convince him I was European! He didn’t know I was an American.”

To this day Mrs. C. claims this as the best compliment her French ever received.

But there was another time when her French nearly caused a disaster; it was years later and her French had gotten rusty. I was craving lamb chops and Mrs. C. ordered them after we’d sat down in a small Parisian restaurant. When the food arrived I was shocked. She’d ordered lamb all right—lamb brain. It was grey with ropey veins and arteries dangling from it. Grey juice was oozing as it rolled about on the plate.

I stared at it for a moment, wondering if this spongy, gelatinous organ had fallen out of Igor’s bag on his way to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle. Mrs. C. was horrified and couldn’t think of anything to say.

The waiter was standing by with an amused look on his face. He approached our table and said in perfect English, “Perhaps Monsieur would prefer a hamburger?”

All I could do was nod, gratefully.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Mouth Of Truth

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and I’m reminded of a legend involving an attraction in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a church in Rome where Saint Valentine’s bones are supposedly kept. The most famous attraction in this church is not the saint; it is the legendary Boca della Veritas—The Mouth of Truth.

We aren’t exactly sure what the Boca della Veritas is, maybe part of a fountain or a massive manhole cover from Ancient Rome. We do know that since the Middle Ages this object has served a curious purpose—as a lie detector. Here’s how it works: place your hand in the oracle’s mouth and he’ll bite it off if you’re telling a lie. If you have a penchant for romantic movies you might remember this from the film Roman Holiday, where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn test the oracle with a few fibs.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that the oracle does not work. Perhaps it once did, and this is where the legend comes into play. Five hundred years ago the Boca della Veritas told the truth so accurately that no one dared to lie and place a hand in its mouth. As the story goes, a young couple was brought before the oracle. The young man was vicious and cruel. He’d been ordered by his father to marry this girl. The girl had been likewise ordered by her father to marry this vain and disagreeable young man.

Honoring ancient tradition, friends and family brought the couple before the oracle to place their hands in the god’s mouth and proclaim that they had not so much as kissed anyone else. Her heart was broken because she’d been forced to give up her secret lover, a kind and generous man to whom she’d given her heart as well as her lips.

She was terrified to put her hand in the large stone mouth, terrified that it would be bitten off if she lied and terrified that she’d be ostracized and thrown out of her parents’ home if her secret became known. She didn’t know what to do. Just as her fingers reached the ancient orifice, a beggar in rags burst through the crowd, grabbed her and planted a passionate kiss on her mouth. It was her lover in disguise. The crowd, having no idea who he was, seized the crazy fellow and threw him out of the church.

The young woman smiled, placed her hand inside the Boca della Veritas’ mouth and told the truth. “I have been kissed passionately by a man who is not my husband.”

Her fiancĂ© was humiliated to have his future wife—his property—devalued in such a public fashion. He refused to marry her and stormed out of the church. Her friends and family took pity on her for being tarnished by a madman. Months later she convinced her father to permit her to marry the man she loved, the same man who’d kissed her in the church. The two lived a long and happy life.

Realizing it had been scammed, the Boca della Veritas got angry and decided to call it quits. This hasn’t prevented thousands of tourists over the centuries from flocking to the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin to place their sweaty hands inside the stone mouth.

Should you decide to join them be careful not to lie while doing so. At any moment the oracle might decide to get back into the lie detector business. People with nicknames like lefty and stumpy will have a lot of explaining to do.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I'm Not Proud Of It

On most days I turn on my computer to find that I’ve been invited to join a contest or have supposedly won one I never entered. Let me be clear: I never win contests* and seldom enter them. I’m a great finder of things, particularly in the homes of people on vacation.

My streak of bad luck at winning contests started with, surprisingly, a win. It happened in the fourth grade when my entire grade school was herded into the all-purpose room for the annual end-of-the-year assembly. In our midst was Captain Satellite, a local celebrity who showed cartoons and Three Stooges movies on local TV after school. For an hour he ran cartoons on a defective movie projector and told jokes.

Coincidentally, Ruthie Cardinas was seated next to me. Ruthie was my neighbor, but she was in the second grade and I didn’t want to be humiliated by socializing with her, at school anyway. Ruthie was too small to see over the person seated in front of her and she squirmed and whined throughout most of the assembly. I was sitting on the aisle and had a mostly unobstructed view, but shortly before the assembly ended I switched seats with her to shut her up.

Shortly after making the swap, Captain Satellite reached for the mike and made an announcement that silenced the chattering mob. He said, “Somebody in this auditorium is going home with a shiny Schwinn bicycle today.”

Scores of mouths dropped open.

“Taking home a new Schwinn today is…” He paused for dramatic effect, as dramatic

as a middle-aged man in a satellite costume can look, “…the boy or girl with a gold star taped to the underside of their chair.”

Kids reached down between their legs and fingered the underside of their chairs. To my surprise, and horror, Ruthie held up the gold star and began shouting, “I won! I won!”

The gold star had been taped beneath the chair I’d sat on throughout the assembly and had given up only minutes earlier.

“Like hell you won!” I said, grabbing the star from her hand and bumping her off her (my) seat. “I won!” I said as she lay sprawled in the aisle. “I only let you sit in my seat for a little while because you couldn’t see.”

I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone that the principal sided with Ruthie. She got to take home the Schwinn. She rode it past my driveway every day that summer while I pretended to blow her up with my laser vision.

Now you know why I don’t enter contests.

*In January my perfect fifty year losing streak came to an end when I won a contest sponsored by Heather Arundel at My Demon Spirits. Check out her wonderful blog (here). What's the best thing you ever won?