Archives for category: Oddments

One evening, not long after I graduated from college, my father and I paid a social call on a new acquaintance of his, a  tall, talkative man probably in his sixties. At the end of the visit, I shook our host’s hand. To my surprise, he began lecturing me on the virtues of an assertive handshake.  He knew I’d just started a career as a newspaper reporter, and he thought I needed a good firm grip to make the right impression on people. We stood there and practiced for a few moments.

After that unexpected schooling, I resolved to do better. For a while, I proffered an aggressively strong handshake to one and all. It was not always returned in kind, and I sensed that some people would have preferred the passive grip I’d disavowed. Eventually, after trying out handshakes of varying lengths and pressures, I settled on a fairly brief, medium-light clasp that no one would mistake for performance art. I’m not sure my long-ago handshake tutor would have liked it, but at least it hasn’t provoked any further lectures.

What is the best type of handshake? What is the creepiest? Here are my thoughts and ratings on a scale of one to five shakes:

The Crunch. You’ve met Crunchers. They have hearty smiles and alarmingly good eye contact. The Cruncher says,”Nice to meet you!” and you say (to yourself), “Ow!” Not a great start for friendship or business, but Crunchers are trying so hard to make a favorable impression that I cut them some handshake slack.

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The Lady Shake. You don’t have to be a lady to do the lady shake. All you have to do is offer the tips of your fingers to the other person as if you were feeding a cricket to a python. Is it the height of politesse?  Having reach that height at first meeting, is there anywhere to go but down?

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The Shake-and-Kiss. I first encountered the Shake-and-Kiss in New England. Let’s say I’m at a party, and I run into the husband of a friend from work. In the midst of the hello-again handshake, this very proper fellow kisses me on the cheek. In contrast to a joyously unwieldy hug and kiss, the Shake-and-Kiss is a marvel of platonic precision: the kiss lands where it should without schmooshing one’s hair or violating an ear. Better still, after a properly executed Shake-and-Kiss, both parties can head straight for the chips and dip: one good combo deserves another.

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The Long Shake. Have you ever shaken hands with someone who won’t let go? Sometimes your hand gets repeatedly pumped, sometimes just gently but unyieldingly held. If the person’s left hand gets involved, make no mistake: you’re in a hostage situation. When you get trapped like that, you want to scream, “Give me my hand back, now!” And yet if you were to scream and yank your hand away, that would mean abandoning all attempts at the Friendly Clasp ….


The Friendly Clasp. Not crunchy, not noodley. Neither sweaty-hot nor Morticia Addams-cold. Not too pumpy and not wax-museum still. As incisive and assured as Michelle Obama, the Friendly Clasp gets job offers and lunch dates. It never malingers. A model of dignity and good humor, it is an upstanding citizen in the nation of body language. Give it up for the Friendly Clasp!

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The U.S. unemployment rate hovers at five percent, which is great news. But for those still looking for work, the forward-thinking governor of North Carolina has come to the rescue with a promising new career track. The job posting beckons to anyone with discerning vision, an ability to make snap judgments, and a sense of irony so delicate and refined that Franz Kafka would smile with tender recognition. On your marks, five-percenters!

Seeking collegial self-starters who enjoy judging people for exciting new opportunity at state-owned rest facilities across North Carolina.

Job Posting Title: Bathroom Facility Control Gender Monitor

Hours: 8-1o hours/day, or until you keel over from the horror of it all.

Required Skills: You must be comfortable in a professional working environment in which ambient smells and sounds may become overpowering at times. You must be capable of speaking with authority over the roar of a minimum of five commodes firing simultaneously, and you must enjoy staring inappropriately at every person who crosses your path. You must be able to walk away from patrons who mockingly address you as “Bathroom Bill” or “Bathroom Billie.”

Further, you must be willing to lunge up from your wobbly, splintery chair, stick out a hand sheathed in a sanitary plastic glove, and say with a veneer of aggression covering your fear, “Step back, big guy! Got a birth certificate for me?” Alternatively, while a vein bulges menacingly from your forehead, you may be required to say: “Hold on, sister! It’s me and the law standing between you and that stall.”

Level of Experience: Preference given to applicants with previous experience in multi-toileted environments.

Proof of Citizenship: You must be from here, not there. People from there should go back there and not ever come back here.

Benefits: Generous bathroom break policy; chance to protect America; opportunity to levitate, if capable of levitating, and glimpse a single pulsating star through the broken window at rear of facility.

What is the ideal way to sign an email to someone you’re not madly in love with? This is a question I have often pondered with little resolution. Here are my thoughts on email exit lines:

“Best,” Officious and ubiquitous. Best what? You, the email writer, are the best? I’m guilty of having used it–a long, long time ago–but honestly, “Best” is the worst.

“Best wishes,” My default. It is numbingly vacuous, but at least it answers the question of “best what?”

“Cheers,” This seems friendly and suggests a glass being lifted, yet I’m not a fan. I have long suspected that “Cheers” really means “Scram!”

“Ciao,” Cute and fun, and some people can pull this off–the same people who look good in polkadots and are always up for a game of Twister.

“Regards,” I’m warming to this one, which my CPA uses. It’s like an impartial nod of the head with eye contact. Not a whiff of false bonhomie.

“Sincerely,” This is a holdover from the days of actual letters. OK but a little fusty and quaint for email. Still, much better than “best.”

“xo,” I don’t mind receiving this one, but I rarely write it. I ask myself, “Given the chance, would I hug and kiss this person?” No? Then back to “Best wishes” it is.

“Yours,” I like this and have sometimes imagined affecting a jaunty “Yrs.” However, I worry that “Yours” makes promises it can’t keep. “Yours to the end of time”? Or are we really talking “Yours until a cutie-pie named Ciao comes along”?

“Yours truly,” This is another holdover from bygone days, the birther behind “Yours.” It belongs at the thrift shop among lid-less blenders and VCR tapes. I confess to having used it, but I have also inspected those blenders and read the titles of those tapes.

“Your friend,” I have an old friend who signs off with this one, and I have begun replying in kind. It’s the gentle and courteous closing that generations of schoolchildren were taught to use when writing letters to pen pals of their own age. It’s not right for every email, but it sure is nice when it’s true.





I have been to Heaven, and now I’m back. Most people talk about what they found there and all the sweet relatives they ran into while taking their first morning’s jog. But have you ever wondered what you won’t find in Heaven? If so, the following revelations may be of interest:

There’s no email in Heaven. Or texting. No one seems to miss either one. A tech-savvy angel told me, “If you get a chance, tell your friends to log off before they expire.” Also, be advised that “Hit Send” means something different in Heaven than it does down here.

No one in Heaven has Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Acid Reflux. Talk about blessings!

You can’t get Snickers bars in Heaven. But you can special-order Cheetos. I saw a bunch of angels with telltale orange fingers. They were really happy, and not in a “hey, let’s go play our harps” kind of way.

No one in Heaven has heard of Donald Trump. The question drew blank looks. Then I started asking about various other celebrities and political figures. One angel claimed to know Ronald Reagan, but then it turned out he was thinking of the airport.

There are no Casual Fridays in Heaven. This came as a relief, since who, really, has the right jeans for this? However, the philosopher-angels observe “Causal Wednesdays.” I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what this means, but it sounded dire. If and when I go back, I may try to hang with the Cheeto angels instead.

No one in Heaven uses acronyms. In my eleven seconds there (or years, depending on how you count), there was nary a mention of BO or TMI or TMJ or LMAO or YOLO. Suffice it to say, there’s time to spell things out.

Finally, there is no ear wax in Heaven. This turns out to be a real point of pride. Angels have the cleanest ears in and beyond the universe.

Just as I was leaving, I yelled out, “Do you have nose hairs?” But before I could divine an answer, I was back home, staring up at an enigmatically clear blue sky above the trampoline. I heard a “ding!” as a text came in, and then an EMT was running toward me, her outstretched hand proffering just the sustenance one needs upon returning from Heaven.

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(1) Self-Flushing Toilets These aggressive contraptions act like they have minds of their own. And that is not a comforting thought.

(2) Dreams About Teeth Of all the archetypal dreams I’ve had, the one about teeth falling out is surely the worst. A handful of teeth–arghh!

(3) Extraneous Noise When I run for President, my slogan will be: “A Quieter America.” Goodbye, leaf blowers, jet skis, wind chimes, espresso machines, and air conditioners that drown out the sound of crickets.

(4) Paisley Tissue Boxes The sage of Farm Colony, Roberta Culbertson, and I have discussed the increasing hideousness of tissue box design. Forget the goofy designs–just give us a solid color. Anything would be better than the ones decorated with amoebas, aka paisley.

(5) Oddly Flavored Crackers No self-respecting parrot would want a cracker that tastes like key lime pie or whatever. Same goes for me. The cracker companies should have stopped experimenting after they discovered sea salt.

(6) Evil Socks Socks that slide into one’s shoes, socks that attract lint, and socks that stain one’s toes on a rainy day–let’s just say they have an agenda and it’s not a good one.

(7) -ish Swedish is fine. Squeamish is fine. “A rare-ish opportunity” (to quote the current issue of Vanity Fair) is not fine.

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I feel bad for stink bugs. They are so little and pathetic. All they want is a place to crawl freely, some air to fly around in, a crumb to nibble. Yes, they are proliferating, and yes, they do stink when subjected to bodily harm. And yes, they are damaging crops. But as individuals, members of the Pentatomidae family just might deserve our compassion.

Like English professors angling to be chosen for a kickball team, they are wildly unpopular. There are people—perhaps you among them—who openly discuss ways to kill stink bugs. There is talk of stuffing them in the garbage, sucking them up in vacuum cleaners, and even cracking their sturdy little shells with a clothespin. But worst of all—and most popular, it seems—is the drowning of stink bugs in the toilet. I can hardly hear a flush anymore without cringing for the lives lost.

What do stink bugs themselves have to say about their plight? What are the dreams they hold close to their little thoraxes? A couple of summers ago, Roberta Culbertson told me she’d had a conversation with one. She grew evasive when I asked for details, but apparently there had been real sharing and no language barrier to speak of.

With Roberta’s experience in mind, and the plight of stink bugs weighing ever more heavily on me, I decided to seek one out for an interview. I started in the bathroom where there were several of them clinging to the slats of the venetian blinds. It was a sunny morning and they were sluggish until they saw my hand looming above them. My plan was to catch one, transport it to the kitchen, and offer it a bit of baked potato—you know, put it at ease, before getting all up in its antennae.

But no sooner had I grabbed one that I felt the familiar scrabbling inside my fist, the desperate kicking of tiny legs. This was not shaping up to be a relaxed exchange for either one of us. The bug was no doubt aware of the toilet bowl’s proximity, and how could it know I just wanted to talk?

I let it go and watched it fly in ever-widening circles before it returned to the blinds and no doubt said terrible things about me to its alarmed friends.

Downstairs, several were lounging on the kitchen windowsill, but they looked so sleepy I decided to leave them alone. I saw two on the edge of the trashcan but sensed an insurmountable class difference and decided not to bother. There were quite a few more on the front porch, but unfortunately, they were dead—victims of a large, moth-filled spider web woven between the rafters. Anyone familiar with Robert Frost’s “Design” will understand why I turned on my heel and went back inside.

In the living room I finally struck gold. There was a stink bug, its brown shield gleaming in the sun, sitting up on its back legs and meditatively inspecting the base of my Kalanchoe plant. I approached slowly and extended a finger. It looked at my finger and then up at me. I bent down to eye level.

Was it possible the creature was wearing spectacles? A reader! I could hardly believe my good fortune.

“Well, hello,” I said. “How’s it going?”

Silence. But I sensed a willingness to hear me out.

“Would you consent to an interview? I think it’s time your side of the story got told.”

A brief, affirmative ruffling of wings!

“I can’t pay you for this interview,” I continued breathlessly, “but there might be a bit of pinot grigio spilled on the kitchen table tonight, if you know what I mean.”

My new acquaintance hopped on a fleshy green leaf, then hopped down. This was as close to a nod of agreement as I could hope for.

Sensing that time was of the essence, I eased my phone out of my pocket and fumbled with the recorder app.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Mallory.” Her voice was so dear and soft I could barely hear it.

“Mallory, what do you think of—well, what do you think of the war being waged against you and your kind?”

She bowed her head. That was answer enough.

“Do you have any favorite poems?”

She slowly raised herself up and looked at me again. Her spectacles gave off a silvery twinkle. Then she spoke rapidly.

I nodded my head to show I was listening, though in fact I could hear very little.

After she was done, she walked around to the other side of the flowerpot and hid from me. I knew she was exhausted. I thanked her for her time and told her the wine bar would be open—hint, hint—around ten o’clock.

Later, when I played back the interview, all I could hear during her answers was my own breathing. And yes, I wept.

When I looked for her the next morning, the kitchen was deserted. In the living room, two unfamiliar stink bugs were sitting in the dirt surrounding the Kalanchoe. The air carried a sad stench.

Then, to my absolute horror, I heard a crackling under my shoe: I had walked right over Mallory’s body. I don’t believe I killed her—let’s just say there are cats of interest in this case. But I do take responsibility for the shattering of her spectacles.

The poems, you must be exploding by now, what were Mallory’s favorite poems!

There is but one title I caught for certain: The Departure” by Denise Levertov. Read it, reader, and think of Mallory as you pack your bags.

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