THE REAL DIRT

Every October I look forward to having my ugly weed-infested backyard lawn hidden beneath a blanket of brilliant autumn leaves and in the spring I hate to watch the last snowdrifts melt to reveal the tattered remains of what was once a respectable stretch of greenery.

Years ago that lawn would have reminded a golfer of a decent fairway. Now it’s more like the rough, and in some spots, resembles the bunker’s sand trap.

Professional lawncare companies were eager to take on the recovery job along with their large monthly fees, but when I complained later about my unimproved wasteland, they recommended I buy what would amount to a new backyard, or at least the top six inches thereof.

Wanting an unbiased opinion, I sent two soil samples to a government agency for analysis, labelling them “upper” and “lower” since I live on a hill. Two weeks later I received a curious reply: “Dear Mr. Newman: This soil evaluation center is very busy this time of year and we do not appreciate your prank. We sometimes recommend misdemeanor charges in extremely disruptive cases like this which result in the waste of analyses time and taxpayers’ money.

“However, your samples have aroused quite a bit of controversey among our staff members. If you will come clean promptly and reveal the actual sources of your two samples, we will not press charges.

“Apparently you are a well-traveled and, unfortunately, a mischevious person. Opinions here on the source of your so-called ‘Upper’ soil sample range from the Sahara to the Mojave Deserts. The Sahara proponents cite evidence of dromedary camel droppings whereas the Mojave group insist those are merely bighorn sheep deposits. One staffer swears there is an Australian Gibson Desert involvement because of unmistakeable Red kangeroo clues.

“Your ‘Lower’ soil sample has created the more difficult controversy with a time-consuming debate between the Everglades Group and the Okefenokee Swampers. I won’t detail the conflicting claims of fauna evidence but you must have been quite fearless to collect samples in one of these feeding grounds of alligators, water moccasins and panthers.

“So far there have been no injuries here, only heated debates, but I beg you to reveal the actual sources of your samples so we can return to our assigned mission. Sincerely, F.X. McHumus, Supervisor.”

I replied immediately with a copy of the lawn company’s depressing report and apologized for causing a misunderstanding. Unless a traveling circus caravan passed through my property one night, I wrote, I cannot explain the evidence of exotic animals and asked that they just drop my case.

I am now considering other options. I like the idea of a brilliant green Astroturf cover and I might pay the extra price for white end zone lines.

ON THE ROAD WITH BOB AND RAY

Back in the pre-superhighway days a New Jersey commute from Morris to Hudson County was a grueling experience. Most mornings I arrived at work feeling I’d already suffered through a day’s worth of angst.

Driving home in the evening would have been equally painful if it weren’t for my buddies, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding, who entertained me on my car radio with their zany skits and hilarious commercials for imaginary products. They were great angst-easers for homebound drivers back then with their large cast of whimsical characters, all played by the two master comics.

In the middle of one enormous westbound jam in Orange, we inched along as frustrated drivers honked and shouted profanely out of their windows. Conditions were worsening. Some cars were overheating or running out of gas.

All the while I was getting weird looks from angry drivers as I sat in my old Chevy laughing raucously as Bob and Ray enthusiastically read their fake commercial for the Monongahela Metal Foundry, “Makers of extra shiny steel ingots with the housewife in mind.” Then there was “The Croftweiler Industrial Cartel, makers of all sorts of stuff,” and “Einbeinder Flypaper, the brand you’ve gradually grown to trust over three generations.” (Younger readers will have to Google ‘flypaper’.)

I remember Bob and Ray’s airing of a ficticious children’s Christmas party in their studio. At one point during the inevitable loud chaos, Ray admitted to Bob that he had lost touch with reality. (So was I, driving under the influence of their humor.) In the midst of the turmoil, a boy (Bob) asked Ray, “Please, Sir, what’s the difference between a martini and a Gibson?”

Ray scolded the boy. “Sonny, why are you asking that kind of question at a children’s Christmas party?” But the boy insisted. “Okay,” Ray gave in, “A martini has an olive and a Gibson has an onion. Now go find Santa, for goodness sake! ” The boy thanked him and shouted to his friends at the party, “Hey guys, I just checked, these are martinis we’re drinking !”

Bob and Ray were experts at spoofing popular radio and TV shows and ads back then. There was “Lawrence Fechtenberger, Interstellar Officer Candidate” and “Mr. Science” sponsored by the “Philanthropic Council to Make Things Nicer.” Mr. Science’s lab demos always ended in unexpected loud explosions.”

Florida real estate sales were big then as Bob and Ray promoted the imaginary lots at “Sun-Drenched Acres” which were “almost ready for new residents, lacking only running water, telephone lines and means of access.” Prospective buyers were promised the opportunity to shoot alligators from their back porches and, after seasonal rainfalls, convenient fishing from their attics.”

One evening, after I’d arrived home, my wife asked, ” Why did you spend ten minutes in the driveway after you pulled in?”

“I had to hear the end of award-seeking reporter Wally Ballou’s very first remote traffic report,” I said.

“Do Bob and Ray have a helicopter now?”

“No, they can’t afford one. Wally is reporting from a hot air balloon. His coverage area varies with the prevailing winds. Today, he reported a very bad tie up in downtown Beemerville.”

“Where is Beemerville?”

“Wally’s not sure, exactly.”


In the middle of an enormous westbound jam in Orange, N.J.

GATEKEEPERS

We have to get past a lot of gatekeepers these days. Most are necessary, but they do make our lives more complicated. We once enjoyed easy access to places that are now off limits to anyone not meeting strict entrance requirements.

I used to go out on the Newark Airport tarmac to wave goodbye to a friend boarding an Eastern Airlines twin prop plane. Now I wave goodbye as he waits in line to be Xrayed, metal-detected and unshod. If he’s packed a penknife he’ll have some explaining to do.

When I was a kid, the entrance requirement at amusement parks, circuses and movie houses was the presentation of a purchased ticket, but there were exceptions for those of us able to climb fences, crawl under tent flaps and outmaneuver ushers.

Once, not having the required 35 cents for a James Cagney prison break movie, I entered the theater through a faulty emergency exit door. As I slinked along the inner wall in the dark desperately looking for a seat to slip into, I noticed James Cagney, up on the screen, was slinking along an outer Sing Sing wall, desperately avoiding sweeping searchlights and machine gun bullets. I’m sure it was just my kid’s imagination, but I thought then that Cagney was looking down at me and whispering, “Good luck kid”. We both made it. He escaped a bum rap and the electric chair and I saved 35 cents.

Little kids are still given some latitude for sneaking past gatekeepers, but when we grow up we shy away from these adventures. An adult, caught in the act, would be publically humiliated and his chances for a political career would be ruined, or maybe not if he pleads guilty to a “mistake” instead of trespassing.

Now and then my old spark gets rekindled. One day long ago at the Tavern on the Green in Manhattan, my wife and I were corralled behind a velvet rope with a herd of hungry tourists waiting for the noon opening when a waiter trotted up to the nearby maitre de and reported, “Pierre, the dining room is almost ready.”

A minute later, I caught his eye and said, “Hello Pierre, another busy day for you old friend,” He looked at me quizzicaly, trying to place my face and wondering if I was someone important. (I wasn’t and I’m not.)

“Oh, hello,” he said. “So good to see you again. (This was my first visit to the Tavern.) Let me show you to a table.” He lowered the velvet rope for me and my wife and escorted us into the dining room while the rest of the herd muttered resentfully in the corral. As we departed with Pierre I heard one woman whisper, “I think I saw those two on the Letterman Show this week.”

FRIENDS OF THE FAMILY

Two out of three American households include at least one adopted dog or cat. There are plenty to go around, 77 million dogs and 58 million cats according to the latest survey. And that’s not to mention gerbils, ferrets, hamsters and various other mammals plus birds, fish and reptiles. I believe though, if we begin to rank our pets according to popularity, we’ll find we have reigning cats and dogs.

Why do we take in these unemployed, non-paying, high maintenance boarders? It could be an altruistic urge for some to help another needy earthling, but there are also benefits for the hosts. Stroking a pet can lower the blood pressure of the stroker as well as the strokee and taking a dog for his daily walks can burn fatty calories and tone up muscles, a completely beneficial result provided, of course, that yours is not an overactive dog and there are no squirrel pursuits involving sprints and fence-climbing.

Some henpecked husbands keep pets so they won’t be the lowest form of animal life in their home. That doesn’t work with cats who will never admit to being lower on the animal kingdom scale than a mere human.

Another possible motive for having a pet is the opportunity for communication that’s free of controversy and rebuttal, not the kind of humiliating debates that Ziggy of the comics always loses to members of his menagerie.

You can tell your worries to a dachsund or your multi-gendered beagle/bull/whatever and, if you happen to be scratching his or her belly at the time, you’ll get complete attention and sympathy, without a contradictory bark or growl as you recite your plans for rescuing the country from ruin or guaranteeing the World Series chances of the Mets or Yanks. It all sounds plausible and workable for Fido or Tabby. Just keep scratching.

I once had a large aquarium next to my desk. I fed the fish daily without fail and we got along fine. Eventually I realized whenever I typed my newspaper column, six or seven fish swam over to watch and seemed to be reading my copy. If I recited a line out loud, I imagined they were reacting and I began rating their approval based on their bubble output. Finally, I had to resettle the fish and get rid of the aquarium. I was on my way to becoming either unbalanced or the Seahorse Whisperer.

BUDGET-BUSTING BLOWOUTS

Which party now causes the most angst in this country? Is it the Democratic or Republican Party? What about the Communist Party? No, it’s the kid’s birthday party.

What used to be a simple funfest in a livingroom or backyard has become an expensive production requiring professional managers and the rental of bowling alleys, waterslide parks and , who knows, maybe even Yankee Stadium when the team is on the road.

Clowns, magicians, jugglers and balloon twisters are the typical jolly staff members. Liveguards and medics are on hand for the more athletic extravaganzas. The simplest 10-kid celebration with only a few tame games, cupcakes, temporary tattoos and a time limit can cost Dad a a week’s pay. And what about that time limit? Do the party boy and his guests get tossed out into the parking lot when the Chief Clown shouts “Time!” into his bejeweled bullhorn?

In the old days, Mom just baked a cake and provided enough candy and ice cream for the average young guest to get an upset stomach.

I remember one party in my youth when we played the old favorite “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”. One at a time we were given a paper tail with a thumbtack, blindfolded, spun around, and sent off to attach the tail to a donkey picture on the wall. The closest hit to the donkey’s rump brought on a prize, maybe a shiny kazoo or a kewpie doll. The losers got to laugh at the widespread array of donkey tails tacked to the walls and furniture. I remember four-year old Henry had to be rescued that day when he almost had a tail tacked to his rompers.

Later, Dad was the DJ, running the Victrola for the “Musical Chairs” game where eight kids marched to a Bing Crosby song around seven chairs. When Dad lifted the needle, they rushed to be seated leaving one marcher stranded or maybe sitting on someone’s lap. If it was a girl on a boy’s lap, it was even more fun.

When it got down to two marchers and one chair, it could get rough, especially with two boys. There was, after all, a neato kazoo at stake.

I was “it” for the “Blind Man’s Bluff” game. Blindfolded and spun around again, but without a tail or thumbtack, I had to roam the room, shout “Freeze!” to stop everyone in their tracks, grab an arm and, hopefully, I.D. the captive who would be the next Blind Bluffer if I was right.

Little Henry wasn’t an available target. He’d had enough and was hiding under the sofa, poor kid. By the time he was ten, Henry was an expert Pin the Tail on the Donkey player and a virtuoso on the kazoo.

DREAM CENTRAL

Almost all 7 billion of us earthlings dream from time to time. I think it’s actually all of us, but some are too shy to talk about their dreams or perhaps they feel unnecesssarily guilty about them.

Some dreams are so embarrassing we hesitate to discuss them even with our closest friends. And, after all, listening to the long narrative of a weird dream or nightmare can be crushingly boring anyway. However, if we’re attentive and think about the recited details, we might begin to understand the complex workings of the dream world. I’ve started doing that now and I’m getting a strange notion about what’s going on.

There might be a Dream Control Center someplace, a mysterious phantasy headquarters, producing these episodes and even assigning casts. That dream you had last night might not have been your own private show. It might have been an Interhead production of Dream Central.

About the casting. We’re not usually alone during these phantasies. Sometimes we have a co-star or two and often the scenes are full of extras. For instance, there’s the student crowd you have to push through when you’re running to your old high school home room, expecting you’ll fail the biology final if you can’t get to the text book for a quick review. Do some of those kids look just as worried as you? Could at least one of them be having the same dream and also be turning and tossing on his or her bed hundreds of miles away?

You could use Facebook to test this theory. If you dream some night you’re with a group of strangers helplessly lost in downtown Manhattan (One of my regular dream plots), mention that in a Facebook post and describe a few of your fellow wanderers and see who responds. Don’t get upset if it’s a psychiatrist.

On a more personal level, you might dream of a friend that you encountered carousing with a pretty girl on Dream Street in Greenwich Village while singing a vulgar song. You could mention this to him in a diplomatic way the next day and, if he doesn’t laugh it off, but gets very angry, you’ll have a definite clue and the bloody nose will be worth it.

THE YUK FACTOR

A chemical company claims it has created the world’s worst tasting concoction. Their non-toxic mixture, they say, is guaranteed to discourage horses from chewing on their wooden stalls.

While their vile brew may be effective in keeping Dobbin from devouring his living room, that’s a very audacious boast about it having the most uninviting flavor on the planet.

First of all, how many stables have they rendered inedible and how many horses have they interviewed? Also, some scientific outfit must have, by now, invented a way to measure the degree of untastiness of food products and medicines. We all have our own personally nominated candidates for this shameful championship, the one we believe has achieved the highest Yuk Factor.

Mine would be Milk of Magnesia which I first gagged on at the age of five when there were no mint or cherry flavored versions. I got it neat, undiluted and without a chaser. I didn’t feel that unwell at the time, but my mother decided I needed medication. “This will make you feel better,” she said. “It’s Milk of Magnesia.”

I was a great fan of milk back then so I fell for it and opened wide as the big spoon approached. “Aaaagh!” If this is milk, I thought, it must have come from a very sick cow or maybe even a dead one, and who would name a cow Magnesia anyway? I noticed that the ugly blue bottle had a warning: “Keep out of reach of children” and I understood the logic. The first chance I got I tossed it into the trash can.

Mom used the get-it-over-quick dosing method. Today there are more scientific approaches. One website explains most of our taste buds are in the front and sides of our tongues, so foul-tasting medicines should be introduced toward the rear of the tongue, but forward of the gagging line. Holding the subject’s nose helps since 80 percent of our “taste” is actually smell. Also, clamping the nose encourages the victim to keep his mouth open if he wants to continue breathing.

“There’s no accounting for taste” is an accurate statement. There are people who are nauseated by a single sip of sour milk who, on the other hand, are entusiastic eaters of bleu cheese, sour pickles, sour cream and saurkraut. Then there’s the “If it tastes bad it must be good for us” school of thought also known as the “Broccoli Principle” I don’t agree. Any food that makes us queasy or unhappy cannot be beneficial.

My second-place nominee for the Yuk Factor Award is liver. Over the years I’ve given liver a dozen chances and was repulsed each time. A liver lover will say, “Oh, you probably didn’t have it prepared properly. It has to be gently sauteed.” But the results are always yukable. It continues to taste like an organ removed from a very sick cow named Magnesia.

LOSING IS FOR WINNERS

When the lockdown ends many of us will have to plan on losing the pounds gained during our involuntary confinement. Working diligently we can eventually go from being hippy to being happy. It’s a matter of simple arithmetic. We have to burn more calories than we consume.

Don’t be discouraged. It’s not that difficult. You’re using about 20 calories just reading this. However, if you happen to be eating a 280-calorie Snickers bar, your positive calorie balance and your physical bottom line will both be enlarged.

By keeping close track you can make sure the burn is greater than the swallow. I once read about a local diet club that traveled to California to attend an all-you-can-eat dessert festival. Before returning to New Jersey they climbed 14,000-foot Mount Shasta and just about broke even calorie-wise, but they had to deal with frostbite, a terrifying near-miss avalanche, minor injuries and exhaustion. They said it was well worth it and planned to attend the festival the following year with a hired Sherpa guide.

Your program doesn’t have to be that drastic. On a smaller scale you can reduce the damage of an eating splurge with sensible exercise. For instance, if you’re ingesting a Double Whopper with cheese (994 calories) while running at 8 mph, you will burn those intake calories during a one-hour jog. Cardiologist approval is recommended and it’s best to run on a circular path or you’ll end up eight miles from home and be wiped out..

If you’re overweight the calorie burn rate is higher for the same run. An extra 20 pounds can give you a 20 percent benefit, but it would be counter productive to increase your blubber. A more flexible plan would be to carry the added weight in a backpack. Then, after the first mile or two when you decide the bowling ball was a bad idea, you can unload it. Small dog owners can be even more flexible. If Fido gets restless in the backpack, the leashed dog can join in the run until he gets tired and needs to be carried again. Be warned: The Fido method can result in interruptions with tree and hydrant encounters and speed bursts during squirrel sightings.

Exercise machines work for some. A friend bought one that was called the Brawny Bicep Buildup Bench. He burned 500 extra calories the very first day, 250 lugging it home from the store and another 250 returning it after his wife caught him taking a nap on the bench.

Then there are those who take exercise seriously enough to invest big money in fitness club memberships. But did you ever notice in the parking lots of these clubs, most members park as close as possible to the entrance to avoid a long walk? Well, maybe some of them are carrying bowling balls or small dogs.

MODERN ART$

When I was very young I sometimes thought about becoming an artist in case my major dream of cowboyhood didn’t work out. But after my frightening, violent exit off a bouncing pony and my failing finger painting grades in kindergarten, I began to think of more reachable goals like plumber’s helper and crossing guard.

Years later I experienced a life-changing moment at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. I went at the suggestion of my wife who has a more liberal and forgiving view of modern artists than me. My growing suspicion that day as I toured the galleries was that somehow my failing finger paintings had been found at the town dump and were being used in tutorials for modern artists. Or could Miss Grumble, my kindergarten teacher, have anticipated this weird trend and stashed away the worst efforts of her students, hoping some day to cash in?

While grimacing at the expensively framed blotches, drips and random lines besmirching the walls of a large display room, a realistic metallic sculpture caught my eye, but there was no title or artist’s name indicated. I said to a gallery attendant, “This is the very best hanging in the room. Why isn’t there a title and who is the gifted sculptor?”

“Sir,” he replied, “that isn’t part of the exhibit. That’s a fire extinguisher. There’s one in every gallery room to protect these priceless art works.”

Priceless? I did some research later. One of Mark Rothko’s two-color paintings sold for $87 million. Jackson Pollock and Picasso paintings went for well over $100 million each and someone paid $300 million for an “abstract landscape” by Willem de Kooning. I realized then there was room in the art world for me. I took a few online lessons and started painting.

It became apparent on the very first day that I was a fast learner of this genre’s techniques. In just one hour I was turning out dripping paintings very similar (and perhaps superior) to Jackson Pollock’s. Around that time my wife came down and spread a tarp on the floor of my “studio” opposite our furnace and across from the sump pump.

By noon I’d created two exact Rothko copies. One was just solid dark red. The other, a slightly complicated work, was half mushy orange and half mushy yellow. I had to keep in mind which color was at the top. Of course, if I made a mistake, I could rotate the canvas.

After lunch I began my version of a de Kooning painting, based on the salient features of several of his works. It was more difficult and took me almost an hour. I entitled it “Interior View of an Explosion at a Furniture Factory”. Shattered armoire remnants and splintered settee sections were the main ingredients.

My Picasso copies weren’t that difficult. Working on the portraits I just had to remember to paint both eyes on either the left or the right side of the nose depending on the emotional or intellectual message I was trying to convey.

I hope the Stone Age artists, creators of those wonderful, understandable 20,000-year old cave paintings, don’t see what’s going on today.

view of an on

MISS MOLLY? YES, I DO

Instead of watching TV reruns and reading boring novels during this Pandemic Lockdown, I wish I could spend a few delightful hours again interacting with Miss Molly, my late, lamented Shih-Tzu dog.

I like to think we were good friends. At least Molly tolerated me. We didn’t actually converse, but there was a communication of sorts and occasionally a miscommunication.

Sometimes Molly would sit staring at me for five unblinking minutes with no tail wagging and no responses to my questions. Dog specialists say staring is a dog’s attempt to make an emotional connection with its owner. Perhaps, but I noticed the stare was even more piercing when I was holding a baloney sandwich.

During one of these prolonged staring sessions, with no cold cuts involved, I’d say, “You have to go out, right, Molly?” I’d hold up her leash and she’d walk to the door. I assumed then I’d broken the canine code. She needed to go for a walk. But thinking back now, perhaps not. Maybe when Molly saw the leash, she thought, “Oh rats, I have to take the old guy out again.”

This is likely closer to the truth because Molly was always in charge of our walks, deciding when and where we made our turns and stops, which trees and hydrants to sniff for DNA samples, when to detour around large dogs and stop to touch noses with the smaller ones. Molly made all the navigational decisions as we cruised around the neighborhood.

As First Mate, I always told Captain Molly I would not tolerate a dry run. But she could be stubborn and pull rank. Molly was able to exhibit her mind over bladder ability and we often returned to port with a full ballast. And we eventually had to have our living room rug professionally cleaned.

But what do dogs, including Molly, think? Canine head shrinkers say dogs experience almost all of our human emotions – joy, fear, anger, disgust, excitement, contentment, distress and love, but not guilt, pride or shame. Lucky dogs. They just do their thing and they never look back.

Molly helped me interpret tail-wagging messages which are not necessarily friendly greetings. That furry antenna sends signals and warnings to other dogs who know the difference between “Howdy!” ( a slight short wag at medium height) and “Back off Buster!” (vertical, high speed wag.)

High pitched barking, according to Molly, is usually friendly, and low pitched is the opposite. A low, slow, continous bark, she demonstrated , is a danger signal. I distinctly heard that warning bark when a town council candidate rang our doorbell. His promised reforms sounded very encouraging, but I decided to yield to Molly’s message. I assume other town dogs sent out similar warnings, because that candidate and his running mates were soundly defeated, Who knows? Doggy treats might have won the election for them.

Molly barked infrequently, maybe once a month when we accidentally locked her out on the back porch. Mostly she grunted as Shih-Tzus are known to do. Sometimes it seems she was muttering actual words. When I scratched her belly I thought I heard, “Oh that’s good!” But I remember her mostly and lovingly as loyal and considerate, always close at hand and sometimes under foot. It’s her companionship I miss most. For instance, she made sure that I never ate alone. What a great dog!