Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The best Christmas gift ever

Four years ago tomorrow: 
Russell in the Christmas scarf 
he wore home from the shelter.

I couldn't imagine that any Christmas gift could possibly be better than the Lionel train set Santa brought when I was five. I was wrong.

The best Christmas gift I ever got arrived December 21, 2019 -- four years ago tomorrow -- when we adopted our Jack Russell terrier, Russell, from the shelter in which he had been dumped. 

According to the input form filled out by his previous owner, Russell was born in March, 2016. He was being surrendered because he “barks constantly” and didn’t get along with the Labrador puppy that had recently joined the household. The owner noted that Russell had been given to him or her by a neighbor who couldn’t deal with his high energy, that he is terrified of thunderstorms and fireworks, and that he loves riding in the car.

That asshole’s owner’s trash is our treasure. 

On our first date nearly 50 years ago, Judy and I discovered we have a mutual love for dogs. I wouldn’t have gone on a second date if she had said she didn’t like them, and I don’t think she would have if I had. Since then, we have always had two, sometimes three, dogs at a time. Most have been dachshunds, a neurotic wiener-shaped Germanic breed which, for some strange reason, we find endearing. 

Dachshunds  — at least the six we’ve had — are one-person dogs. That person, in our household, has never been me. All have been madly devoted to Judy. Our current doxie, Rupert — we call him Dupe —won’t even allow me to touch him; he runs to his mama to save him from the mean man. He only has eyes for her and I can’t help but love him for having the sense to know which of us is the better person though, I must admit, his ridiculous reaction sometimes hurts my feelings. 

We lost our last two doxies within a year of each other. Bonnie,16, died in 2017. As  always whenever we lose a dog, our hearts were broken but, as we always did, within a couple of months we went out and adopted another, Dupe. But Billy Ray’s death in 2018, a month shy of his 15th birthday, shattered our hearts into millions of shards. Though he was easily the dumbest, most stubborn and untrainable of all our dogs, Billy had a personality as big as Montana and left a void we thought could never be filled. We decided that, for the first time, ours was going to be a one-dog household. 

That changed early the morning of December 21, 2019, when I found Russell on, a Purina-funded website that features thousands of pets available for adoption from animal shelters and rescue organizations nationwide. I entered “Dachshund” into the search bar. Russell's picture appeared, and he was described as a “Dachshund/Jack Russell mix.”  He was at a shelter seventy miles away and was going to be available for adoption at 9 a.m. 

I woke up Judy, showed her the listing and, within minutes, we and Dupe were barreling north on I-75. We arrived just as the shelter was opening. Three other wanna-be adopters showed up to see him moments later, but we had first dibs.

We weren’t allowed to bring Dupe into the building so Judy stayed outside with him while I waited in a room to meet Russell who, when he entered, circled me repeatedly, like Indians surrounding a wagon train. When I picked him up, he gave me a kiss. I said “Sold” to the attendant and went outside to be with Dupe who, as usual, stayed as far away from me as possible, while Judy went in to meet him. Within minutes we were filling out the adoption paperwork as others who had come to see him asked if we were 100 percent sure of our decision. One couple begged us to reconsider and let them have him. 

As we headed to the parking lot with our new family member who had been sent off by the staff wearing a festive Christmas scarf, Judy announced, “His name is Russell.” Perfect.

That was a Saturday. On Monday, I took him to our veterinarian to be checked over. “He’s no more dachshund than you are,” the vet said. “He’s 100 percent Jack Russell.” We have since learned he’s a shorty Jack Russell, a version about two-thirds the size of a standard JRT.

Russell was housebroken from day one. And he made himself at home immediately, exploring every inch of the house to stake out the one spot he could call his own — our new white sofa. The first night, we made a bed for him beside ours. He looked at us as if we were out of our minds. He leapt up on our poster bed  — something no dachshund has ever been able to do — burrowed under the covers, and has slept between us every night since. Some nights he snuggles against Judy, other nights against me. Once he’s down, he doesn’t move until morning until we begin to stir. 

What do I love most about Russell?  Everything. I love his short white coat with the caramel-colored polka dots. I love watching him snooze, curled up on the sofa atop  the microfiber pillow I bought for him at Big Lots. I love the way he dances for his breakfast and supper. I love how he rolls over and lets me scratch his belly as he purrs like a cat. I love the way he cocks his head when asked a question, as if pondering his answer, which is always “yes." Russell, do you want to go for a walk? Hooray, let’s go! Russell, do you want to go in the car? Absolutely! Russell, are you ready for dinner? Sure! Russell, would you like a treat? Of course!

Most of all, I love how happy he is and how he spreads his happiness around. Despite having been given away at least twice —the last time by someone who was his everything who loaded him into the car he loved to ride in, then drove him to a shelter —Russell is always happy. He loves people and, inexplicably considering his history of being betrayed by them, trusts them. A human who had been treated the way Russell was would never be able to trust again. A dog can. Yet one more reason I prefer dogs to people.

Every morning Russell and I take a two-mile walk to the tennis center. Everyone along the route knows him and he greets them, his bobbed tail wagging a mile a minute. Many squat down to pet him and he aways gives them kisses. I can’t tell you how many people say, “He’s so happy that just seeing him makes me happy, too.” Russell puts his admirers in good moods. They can’t help but pass some of that happiness on to others. He has nothing material to give them but what he does have is love and joy, the best gifts anyone can give.

I have been crazy about each of the dogs we’ve had over the last 48 years but my love for Russell is something special, one of the most profound joys of my life. He reminds me every day how grateful I am I got up early the morning of December 21, 2019, and, for some reason, logged on to I wasn’t looking for a dog. We weren’t in the market for one, but something led me to that web site. Nobody will ever convince me we weren’t meant for each other. God just mistakenly sent him to two other homes before he wound up in ours.

People who know Russell’s story say he’s lucky to have been adopted by people like us.

But we’re the lucky ones, and we know it.

From Russell’s home to yours, Merry Christmas and may lots of love and joy be yours over the coming year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Rolling Stone Keith Richards' frugal (and gorgeous) wife

I generally write one blog post a month and here I am, writing my second in 24 hours. 

I read this morning that Rolling Stone Keith Richards, 80, and his wife, Patti Hansen, 67, are celebrating their 40th anniversary.

There’s little about Richards you don’t already know, but here’s a story I’ve always wanted to tell about Hansen.

We were living in Manhattan in the late 1970s, the heyday of designer jeans, when she, as they say, “burst upon the scene” as a model for Calvin Klein. Her image was everywhere  — in tv commercials, and plastered on subway walls, on the sides of buses, at bus stop shelters, and on Times Square billboards. As a native New Yorker and one of the world’s best-known models, she got lots of free PR in her hometown. Having grown up in working class Staten Island, Hansen had a strong accent identifiable to any New Yorker as unique to the city’s smallest and most remote borough, and she never tried to disguise it. Even then I sensed she was down to earth, unlike the other models who hung out at Studio 54 who came across as plastic, pretentious and vapid. Not to mention Hansen was (and she still is) gorgeous.

She and Richards married in 1983, as her modeling fame (and the designer jeans craze) was waning. They moved to Weston, Connecticut, half a mile from my house in neighboring Wilton, and raised two kids, who attended the public schools. They still live there.

One day in the 1990s, I was browsing in a liquor store in Georgetown, an unincorporated area where the borders of four towns, including Wilton and Weston, come together. As I was looking around, I overheard a discussion between a clerk and a blonde with a Staten Island accent who, when I looked closer, was Hansen. She told him she was having a party and was looking for a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. 

He went to the shelf and got one. She asked the price, and when he told her, she replied, politely, she didn’t want to pay that much and asked if he had another Irish cream-based brand that cost less. He did — Carolans -- and the price difference, if I remember correctly, was something like $3. She bought a bottle of Carolans, thanked the clerk for his help, and left.

The clerk and I looked at each other and laughed. There she was, the wife of one of rock music’s biggest stars worth millions, quibbling over $3. Like the good Staten Island girl she was, she couldn’t bring herself to pay that much more, so she bought a cheaper knock-off brand.

The esteem I had always had for her rose even higher that day. She hadn’t let fame or money go to her head. 


If she and Richards are throwing a party to mark their anniversary. I hope she will give herself permission, just this once, to splurge on the good stuff, because 40 years is something worth celebrating.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Today's question: "Are your genitals the ones you were born with?"

Saturday night, my wife and I were watching the finale of "Happy Valley". It's one of the best series on TV. If you haven't watched this brilliant English crime drama, I highly recommend it. Just be sure to turn on the closed captioning because the Yorkshire accents spoken by the characters are as unintelligible to Americans as Scottish. Or Swahili. But I digress.

Suddenly, I felt a throbbing pain in my left shoulder. 

As everyone -- especially folks my age -- should, I've committed to memory the symptoms of a heart attack. A sudden pain in the chest and/or arms and/or shoulder is one of them. There were no other symptoms but the pain was intense, growing and scary. One minute I was fine. The next I was doubled over. A half-hour later, after Advil failed to relieve even an iota of the pain, I went to the ER.  

Five years ago, following a colonoscopy, I wrote a post pointing out how ridiculous it is that medical workers are required to ask every surgical patient the same two questions. Every person I encountered that day (except my wife) asked me my name and birthdate. Apparently they thought either A) I was an idiot or B) I might be an imposter, posing as a patient who was scheduled to undergo the procedure that day so I gagged him and left him tied him up in a closet and showed up claiming to be him because I love having colonoscopies and all the attention I get.

I was informed it was a rule. They had to ask those questions of every patient.

Saturday night, everyone at the ER -- the receptionist, the guy who walked me to the exam room, the nurse, attending physician, and radiology technician -- asked those same stupid questions. 

And as I was lying on a gurney with my shirt off, waiting for an EKG, the attending nurse asked another question. It's one I’ve never been asked and I bet you haven’t either: “Are your genitals the ones you were born with?”

I was gobsmacked. For starters, the question ended with a preposition. She should have known better. Secondly, my genitals were covered by my jeans and I can’t imagine I was giving off vibes that would have given her any reason to doubt I was an ordinary 72-year-old male with his original genitals; I had washed off my mascara and taken off my favorite leopard-print bra from Victoria's Secret before I left for the ER. Last but not least, I hadn’t come to the ER because I was having a problem with that part of my anatomy so what difference did it make if, in fact, mine weren't original? Asking a potential heart attack patient about his genitalia is as silly as asking a patient with a broken leg about his tonsils.

“Why are you asking me this?”

She replied it’s a new rule, a question the hospital requires workers to ask every patient. Not wanting to delay the treatment I was sure I needed to survive, I answered “Yes” and, in retrospect, I’m almost sure I was right about that, but, to be honest, I don’t remember anything from the day I was born. A nurse at the hospital could have pulled a fast one and switched mine with some other newborn’s.  

I have since thought of all sorts of smart-ass answers I could have provided.

“No, the ones I was born with were much smaller.”

“Last time I looked they were.”

"No, I cut my originals off with a chainsaw while on an acid trip and the ones I have now are plastic."

“I’m not sure. You're the medical professional. Why don't you take a look and you tell me?"

After a thorough examination which, I couldn't help but note, excluded my genitals which may or may not be original, the doctor gave me a muscle relaxer and pain pill and ordered blood tests, X-rays and a CAT scan.

When the results came back, I was greatly relieved to learn it wasn't a heart attack. It was a shoulder spasm. The doc said ligaments had suddenly seized up and tightened around the muscles in my shoulder, like a noose around the neck of a criminal being hanged. The likely cause, he said, was arthritis, a condition I didn’t know I had. He asked if I had ever injured my shoulder or collarbone and said that, if so, that might be the cause of the arthritis. While i don’t remember the incident, my mother always told me that, back when my genitals were covered by a diaper, I broke my collarbone falling out of my high chair. Mystery solved. 

The doctor prescribed a week of steroids along with gentle stretching exercises and, three hours after I walked in sure I was about to die, I went home. 

Although the shoulder still hurts, I am feeling much better, but now I am worried. I wish my mom or the doctor who delivered me were alive. If they were, one of them would have been able to provide a definitive answer to the question the nurse asked but neither are, so I guess I’ll never know for sure.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Happy Thanksgiving from Somewhere at Sea


“The night we met I knew I was going to marry Serena,” our ruddy-nosed tablemate said, looking lovingly at the tiny woman seated between us as she guzzled the fifth flute of champagne she had ordered in the 10 minutes since we had been shown to their table. “But I wasn’t looking forward to going home and telling that to my wife.’

My wife and I are on day five of a 12-day cruise from Lisbon to Florida.  Some of our friends think we’re crazy — they say they would lose their minds being confined to a ship that long — but on previous cruises, we’ve found we actually prefer the days “at sea” so here we are and so far, we’re having a swell time. Literally. The weather was perfect for the first four days but last night around dinnertime we entered choppy seas with swells of up to 15 feet, which are supposed to continue until tomorrow. Sunday morning we’ll dock in Bermuda for two days, then continue on to Ft. Lauderdale, arriving a week from today. 

The food is excellent, plentiful and available around the clock. I woke up hungry at 2 a.m. the first night out— I was still on Florida time — and considered taking advantage of the 24-hour room service but didn’t want to wake up my wife. 

There are, if we choose to avail ourselves of them, nonstop activities — multiple trivia games, “Name That Tune,” bridge, lectures, classes, bingo, mahjong, virtual golf, dance lessons and more. There is a nicely-equipped fitness center, a spa and a walking track around the top deck.

But the most entertaining part of this cruise, as is the case on every cruise we’ve taken — we aren’t sure if this is our seventh or eighth but it is most definitely the longest — is talking with our fellow passengers. 

To wit:

- The fashionably dressed seventy-ish woman from New Zealand who presides, from just after breakfast until at least 10 p.m. when the stage show ends, over the smoking section on deck nine near the pool where, every 15 minutes or so, an attendant, without asking, brings her a cold bottle of Stella. All the crew members seem to know her. Why she feels compelled to spend money on cruises when she could stay home and drink and smoke herself to death is beyond me, but she is an endless source of information about the crew and who’s doing what with whom. 

- The female half of a couple we met at Trivia who said she owes her life to Evita Peron. Her parents, who fled the Nazis, had settled in Peru where, in the late 1940s, the medical facilities were primitive. A Peruvian doctor told her pregnant mother he could either save her life but her baby would die, or vice versa, but no way he could save both. Our friend's grandmother, who had moved to Argentina, sent a letter to Evita, wife of the country’s president, begging her to arrange for her daughter to have the baby in an Argentine hospital where both would have better chances of survival. Evita took care of everything, and both the mother and baby  survived. Today, oddly enough, we attended a lecture on Broadway musicals of the 1970s and the presenter described “Evita” as the story of a despicable woman. Our new friend could have set him straight.

. Last night we were seated at a table for six with two other couples, including the aforementioned Robert and Serena. Before she became incoherent, Serena told me they spend four or five months a year cruising. They have earned diamond status in the cruise line’s loyalty program (excuse me, programme, they’re Canadian) which means they can book a regular cabin and, if one is available, get upgraded to a suite. Serena, we couldn’t help but note, clearly loves to drink, as does Robert but he holds his liquor better. Perhaps that’s why they are loyal to this particular cruise line — the drinks are included in the fare. They have been together for 47 years, same as us.

Robert said he was married with three children the night he met Serena. He went home and told his wife he was leaving her for his new love. The divorce was ugly and protracted. A few months after it was finalized, his ex-wife married his stepfather. And when Robert’s stepfather and ex-wife, now his step mother-in-law, had children of their own, those children became not only their half-siblings but half-uncles and -aunts of Robert’s children. 

“When my kids had to draw their family trees in school, it was really fucked up,” he said. 

Serena, as this story was unfolding, switched to Chardonnay and finally told the waiter to leave the bottle on the table which is against policy but, since he was having to refill her glass every two minutes, he didn’t object.  By the time dessert had arrived, she had ordered two glasses of port. When we saw them at the stage show after dinner, she had returned to champagne.

At lunch today we ran into to the other couple who had been at our table. They told us that after the stage show, Serena had tumbled down the grand staircase between the fifth floor and lobby, and had to be taken to the infirmary on the third floor where, amazingly, it was discovered she hadn’t broken any bones. All she had were a few bumps, bruises and scratches.

At that point Serena and Robert hurried past and waved at us with their free hands. His other hand was holding a glass of red wine, hers held a tall glass with a wedge of pineapple and a tropical umbrella on top.  We laughed and joked that perhaps they were going to the Friends of Bill W meeting — cruise lines always list a “Bill W” meeting on the daily schedule rather than call it what it actually is, an “AA”meeting    but we somehow doubted it. 

When we saw Robert and Serena later at Trivia they said they had been at a Blind Wine Tasting event which was a lot of fun and it’s too bad we hadn’t joined them.

A week to go. More people to meet. More stories. We’re having fun, and looking forward to our first Thanksgiving dinner at sea tonight, followed by a performance by an Irish magician. At his first show three nights ago, he picked me out of the audience to be his on-stage assistant and the butt of his jokes, but I didn’t mind.

This time we’ll know better than to sit on the front row.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The story behind the story of "The Boy Who Said Baa"

My wife Judy’s children’s book, “The Boy Who Said Baa:A Christmas Story” was announced in early October. We hadn’t told friends and family members it was in the works because we wanted it to be a surprise. The response has been terrific, and Judy and her book have received some wonderful publicity and reviews. Many of you have asked why and how it was written, and how it came together. If you are interested, here’s the story behind the story. 

As Christmas 1988 approached, Judy and I were worried. 

Our first son, Ben, who was five, had been speaking in full sentences by the time he was 12 months old. 

But our second son, Stuart, at 30 months, had a vocabulary of only a few words. One was “Baa,” the word he, like so many babies learning to talk, had originally used when he wanted his bottle and was now using to describe almost everything. It didn’t help that his older brother was extremely verbose and, whenever Stuart tried to talk, Ben told us whatever he thought it was that Stuart wanted to say.

Our pediatrician referred us to a speech therapist who assured us that Stuart was perfectly healthy and normal except for his delayed speech. She said that, with therapy, he would most likely be fine. That was a relief but we remained worried.

Stuart’s inability to articulate what he wanted to say was frustrating for him and us. The result was frequent meltdowns that left him in tears and us on the edge.

A few weeks before Christmas, Ben appeared in a Nativity play in which a fellow shepherd hilariously tripped on his flowing robe and fell flat on his face. The next morning, Stuart was in full meltdown mode as I left for work. Judy says I wearily joked, “There once was a boy who could only say ‘Baa.’”  I don’t recall saying that — but do remember I was always grateful to escape the chaos and felt both guilty and relieved leaving her to deal with it.

Judy sat down at the kitchen table and wrote, in rhyming verse, a story that began, “There once was a boy who could only say ‘Baa’ “ about a speech-delayed little boy with a one-word vocabulary who saves a Nativity play gone awry. She showed it to me when I got home —- I loved it — and stuck it in a drawer. Over the years I reminded her that she really should try and get it published, but she had higher priorities, including raising two boys and running a household while juggling freelance writing assignments. 

Fast forward to early 2023 when the media started reporting that speech therapists are seeing a huge spike in the number of language-delayed children that need treatment. The reason for the increase? COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, kids who should have been learning verbal skills by interacting with other children and adults, were instead sequestered at home, unable to communicate with anyone other than their immediate family members, causing many of them to be slow to speak.

Sensing the timing was right, Judy dug out her story and we began shopping for a literary agent specializing in the children’s picture book genre (ages 3 to 8). We were discouraged to learn that most agents stated in their profiles that they 1) were looking for books about social issues, 2) wouldn’t represent books about religion (even though “Baa" isn’t Christian per se, much of the action takes place during a — horrors! —  Christmas pageant) and 3) wouldn’t even consider books written in rhyming verse. That was particularly baffling since Dr Seuss’ rhyming books, nearly 80 years after his first was published, are still at the top of the children’s best-seller list, and we knew, from having two sons and two grandchildren, that little kids love silly rhymes. After a few months of emails from agents saying her manuscript was beautifully written but not what they were looking for, we decided to publish the book ourselves, and created our own imprint, Old Wagon Books, named for the street we lived on when Stuart was a toddler.

We went online looking for children’s book illustrators and found the perfect one — Rosie Brooks, a London-based artist who has illustrated three previous children’s books including one celebrating King Charles’ coronation. It took six weeks of back and forth — Zoom calls and numerous emails — but the art was finally perfect. There were only a few hiccups along the way. Rosie, for instance drew the boy in his bedroom with a sink on the wall. Sinks are common in English bedrooms but not in American, so we asked her to lose the sink and she cheerfully complied. Rosie was lovely to work with — upbeat and happy. Her first name suits her perfectly.

Simultaneously, we started looking for a children’s book designer to combine Judy’s words and Rosie’s pictures and found him across the pond, too — in Wales. Ryan Webb was as helpful, talented, and accommodating as Rosie. How could anyone who creates children’s books for a living be anything but nice to work with?

The end-result exceeded our expectations. “The Boy Who Said Baa: A Christmas Story” is a 36-page Dr. Seuss-y silly, sweet and inspirational picture book about a child who is relegated to the unimportant role of a sheep in a Nativity play because the only word he can say is  (drumroll) …  “Baa.” Everything goes awry during the play. The only performance that comes off perfectly is the boy’s, whose “Baa” saves the day and reverberates around the world, bringing joy to all who hear it and giving him, for the first time, a sense of pride and self-worth. The words sing, the artwork is adorable (I hate that word but it’s appropriate in this case) — colorful and hilarious, tinged with poignancy on the part of the speech-challenged boy, until his triumph at the end,

The hard cover version is published by IngramSpark, a Tennessee-based on-demand printer that prints and drop ships books as they are ordered, eliminating the need to produce and warehouse copies we might be stuck with if they don’t sell. The paperback and Kindle versions are produced by Amazon kdp (Kindle Direct Publishing). All three versions are available through and the hardcovers can be ordered from just about any bookseller worldwide. Someone in Australia ordered one and, thanks to digital technology which enabled the print-ready files to be sent from Wales to Florida to Tennessee to Australia, it was printed in, and shipped from, IngramSpark’s facility down under. 

Will “The Boy Who Said Baa” become a best-selling kids’ book? As much as we hope it will, it probably won’t. With only a few exceptions (e.g. “Fifty Shades of Grey” which Baa most emphatically doesn’t resemble in any way), self-published books rarely reach the best-seller list. Traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores refuse to stock them (especially if they are produced by Amazon which they hate because it has pretty much put them out of business), and the New York-centric publishers, controlled by five major companies, retain a stranglehold on the industry, accepting scripts only from agents, most of whom have probably never read a kids’ storybook to an actual child — otherwise they would know little kids love stories that rhyme. Have none of them ever heard of Mother Goose? She has sold even more rhyming picture books than Seuss. 

Achieving best-seller status in today’s book publishing world requires publicists to arrange for author appearances on talk shows, recommendations from Oprah, advertising, press events, and endorsements from social media influencers. The big publishers can afford those things, but we can’t. (Oprah, are you by chance reading this? Would you like a copy?) It also helps your children’s book become a best-seller if you’re a celebrity or related to one. Recent kid’s best-sellers include books by Hoda Kobh, Jimmy Fallon, Jenna and Barbara Bush, Matthew McConahay, Seth Meyers, Reese Witherspoon, Tim Tebow, Chelsea Clinton, and Meghan Markle. All are on display at my local Barnes & Noble. “Baa,” which is better-written and illustrated than any of them, isn’t and most likely never will be sold at B&N. Judy should have married a prince, been a president’s daughter or played football. 

And if you’re wondering about Stuart? By the time he was five, thanks to two years of twice-weekly speech therapy sessions, his speech was age-appropriate. He’s 37 now, has multiple degrees, and is a bank executive. He turned out even better than we could have imagined. 

So did the book his worried young mother wrote to reassure herself her little boy would be okay.