Wall Street Journal’s Mark Maremont calls Limerick “Beyond the Pale”

Not everyone enjoys my limericks.

Some people object when the opinion I express in my compressed verse is offensive to them. And they certainly have every right to do so.

Such is the case with Mark Maremont, a senior editor with the Wall Street Journal. He has emailed me on several occasions to say he’s enjoyed my limericks. But today, on receipt of my latest creation, his reaction was much different.

First, here’s the limerick in question:

At Facebook they have engineers

to shape all our views and our fears. 

Algorithms they use

to distort all the news;

Herr Goebbels would give them three cheers.

And now, unedited and verbatim, here is Mr. Maremont’s email response to me:

Tim — 

I appreciate the usual humor, but comparing Facebook with the Nazis seems beyond the pale.
Could you take me off your email list?
Naturally, I will not be sharing my poetic muse with him any more.
At first I was distressed to think that something as inconsequential as a limerick could disturb anyone so much. But, after mature consideration, I’m rather thrilled to think my verse has had so much impact — even if it’s negative impact. I find Moremont’s reaction a pleasant vindication of my work.
I’ve also posted limericks on North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, and the Prophet Muhammad — so I’m wondering if some assassins are even now working their murderous way to my Senior Citizen apartment building to bump me off.
Just think, I might go down in history as:



The Smoky Holidays. A Boyhood Mini-Memoir.


One of the first things I remember about Christmas vacation as a schoolboy living in Southeast Minneapolis was the lingering sore throat and hacking cough that came from second hand smoke.

Everyone smoked back in the late Fifties and early Sixties.  My dad. My mom. My uncles and aunts. The neighbors. My older brother. If we’d had a dog, it would have probably lit up a Winston as well.

At school, of course, even though the teachers puffed away inside their sacrosanct lounge, at least the classrooms were free of tobacco fumes – instead we had the heady perfume of mimeograph fluid and chalk dust.  But once the winter vacation started I was cooped up at home, in a house full of smokers.

The adults gave each other gaily wrapped cartons of cigarettes for presents.  In fact, the tobacco companies printed special cartons that sported mistletoe and candy cane designs, as well as old Santa himself jovially gazing out in approval.  And my stocking inevitably contained packs of candy cigarettes, with brand names such as Marlboro and Kent boldly emblazoned right on them; they were sticks of pure sugar, with a red-dyed tip, that I kept dangling between my lips like Humphry Bogart.

Naturally all the windows and storm windows were shut and sealed tight against the bitter cold in our home.  There was nowhere for tobacco smoke to go except into our clothes, hair and lungs.  When the aunts and uncles and cousins came over for spritz cookies and mugs of coffee I could see the layers of tobacco smoke languidly drifting through the living room and dining room like atmospheric fog in a Universal studios horror film.

When it got too bad my mother would light a bayberry candle.  This was universally believed to ‘eat’ the smoke up. To this day I associate the scent of bayberry with nicotine.

By Christmas Eve my throat was as raw as hamburger.  I coughed and hawked up spittle like an old man.

My parent’s diagnosis was bronchitis, so after opening presents Christmas Day I was put to bed with Vicks Vaporub slathered over my chest, and an electric steam humidifier hissing 24/7 in my room; it fogged up the windows completely, so all I could see was an opaque landscape that hinted at bare elm branches and blurry shapes mysteriously gliding along the sidewalks.

When no one was around I’d open both the window and the storm window in my room to gasp some fresh air – until I heard my mother coming up the stairs with my Campbell’s chicken noodle soup; then I’d slam them both shut and lay back, hoping she would also bring me some of the brandied plum pudding we got from relatives in England each year.

Willy nilly, I was sent back to school as soon as it started again, and my ‘bronchitis’ would clear up immediately.

Finally, in 1964, the Surgeon General came out with his report on smoking.  My mother and all the aunts gave it up immediately.  My dad and his brothers were harder to convince.  But now smoking was banished from the house.  My dad had to go out on the front porch, even if it were blizzarding, if he wanted to have a Salem.

And I was never troubled with holiday ‘bronchitis’ again.




The Golden Age of Comedy

What do you think of when you hear Chopin’s haunting Etude Op. 10, #3?

Leaves falling on a dreary Autumn day? Past loves and regrets? The impossibility of breaking through the solitude of existence?

When I hear that refrain I think of the Keystone Kops.

For that lovely bit of Chopin was appropriated in 1957 for the film “The Golden Age of Comedy”.  A compilation of film clips from the silent movie masters of comedy like Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chase, and the peregrinating Keystone Kops. 

I saw that movie at a revival in 1961 at the old Varsity Theater in Dinkytown, next to the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. As it played, I heard for the first time in my life the true belly laugh — a gasping, wheezing near-death experience where a man drools and snorts in a paroxysm of mirth. There were moments during that screening when the audience’s laughter reached nearly obscene heights of bacchanal.

It was a career epiphany for me. I wanted to obtain the same kind of comic influence those herky jerky figures on the screen possessed, that could make a crowd dissolve into helpless delight.

As an eight-year old I had no idea how to achieve such distinction, but I was determined to find out. So I was in every school play; the part didn’t matter, for I would wind up tripping over my own shoes and taking spectacular pratfalls that had my teachers terrified I would break my neck. I read the wonderful and abundant clown biographies of the day — Mr. Laurel & Mr. Hardy, by John McCabe; W.C. Fields; His Follies and Fortunes, by Robert Lewis Taylor; Keaton, by Rudi Blesch; Father Goose, by Gene Fowler; and Notes on a Cowardly Lion, by John Lahr.  I haunted the local Film Societies, sitting in the dark and learning from the nimble Old Masters of slapstick.

I even wrote an entire Marx Brothers play, in longhand. And had the effrontery to mail it to Douglas Campbell, the Artistic Director of the renowned Guthrie Theater. He actually responded several weeks later, with a brief note thanking me for my submission and suggesting I have someone type it up so he could actually read it.

To me all this was a deadly serious pursuit. As the years slid past my adolescent passion to make people laugh turned into an obsession.

Walking home from school in the middle of a deep Minnesota winter, I would pry up sheets of ice from sidewalk puddles, then smash them over my head and stagger about like Curly Howard or Chaplin after being hit with a mallet. I carried banana peels with me, the better to impress the girls with my balletic slides and tumbles. (It didn’t work.)

The world would never hold any satisfaction for me, unless I could stick my tongue out at it as a paid professional.

What kept my parents from sending me off to a laughing academy was the fortuitous opening of the Ringling Brothers Clown College. The school actively sought amateur clowns of every stripe. As soon as I was out of high school I was on my way to Venice, Florida, to enter the school’s unhallowed halls.

And all because I had once seen Charlie Murray hit Louise Fazenda with a two-by-four at the Varsity Theater.

Golden age of comedy

After talking to Peter Pitofsky on the phone.

Talking to The Peter on the phone is such a wrench;

the guy is quite a fruitcake and yet also is a mensch.

To keep him on a topic or stay focused is a chore

beyond the scope of science or the old magicians lore.

His kindness is abundant, and his sound effects unique;

he gives the kiss of peace while he is drooling on your cheek.

O Lord, you made The Peter to be such a perfect clown;

please keep him here among us till the Earth winds fully down! 

peter pitofsky

The Blind Children: A Circus Story.

When I returned from my LDS mission in Thailand I was stony broke. I called old man Feld at Ringling Brothers, and he gave me a job back in clown alley. I was hoping he’d reinstate me as an advance clown, but no — I was to be one of the faceless funny faces.

On top of that, there were now dancers in clown alley, for the love of Mike! They spent patient hours of their free time showing me the new, intricate steps that the clowns had to perform during Opening, Spec, and Manage. I repaid their kindness with cold stares and a nose completely up in the stratosphere.

The whole atmosphere of clown alley had grown seedier in the 3 years I was gone. A pall of cigarette smoke hung over the place as if someone were filming a 1940’s film noir. Beer cans clattered to the floor and were kicked through the blue curtains out into the public hallways. The boss clown was busy chasing showgirls, even though he was married. And the old stalwarts like Prince Paul and Mark Anthony were decaying before my eyes; growing into slippered pantaloons, only interested in counting their money and their days until retirement.

Several weeks after reenlisting in this dissolute buffoonery brigade I decided to save my pennies and seek further light and knowledge by going to Paris to study with Marcel Marceau. I applied to his pantomime school and was accepted; now I needed to come up with the 25-hundred dollar tuition.

I applied myself to the arts of miserliness and cadging.

I attended every press party, in makeup, to fill my ample pockets, ala Harpo Marx, with any loose comestibles. I ate only chili at the pie car — 95 cents a bowl, and so swimming in rendered bovine tallow that I began to develop an udder.

I forsook Stein’s Clown White for the detestable Nye’s Liquid Clown White to save a dollar or two each week. It streaked horribly, leaving me looking like The Mummy’s Revenge by the end of the day.

I refused outright to purchase a clown wig, and styled my own mousy brown hair, with minimal success, to stand up straight like Stan Laurel’s.

My costumes came straight from Goodwill — baggy golf pants and pregnant women’s blouses. Luckily, while I was in Thailand I had a Parsi tailor in Bangkok make me a huge orange overcoat with yellow piping and giant green buttons. It now covered a multitude of shabby sins.

I would not contribute to the coffee fund. Or to the beer fund. I never went halves on a pizza delivery, but hung about the periphery of the feasters, ready to swoop in like a vulture and devour the discarded crusts. I did not go to the movies or hang out in bars with my fellow joeys.

And I’m afraid my plans for imminent departure, along with my disdain for their riotous and prodigal ways, were all too clear to my colleagues. I was about as popular as a dirty diaper in a bowl of punch.

Halfway through the season I attained my coveted goal — the 25-hundred was securely deposited in the bank.

I confided to my old pal Tim Holst, who was ringmaster that season, that I was going to jump ship as soon as my confirmation letter arrived from Paris. A travel agency in New York was handling my sojourn — a tramp steamer left from the Jersey side every Wednesday, and I could book passage to La Havre for a measly two-hundred bucks. Holst wished me good luck, saying “You don’t belong in this hellhole anymore.”

But before my letter arrived, the terrible Charlie Baumann came into clown alley just before a matinee, peering gloomily around at us. He was the Performance Director, a Teutonic tyrant who hated clowns. He was also the tiger trainer, and carried around a whip like it was a crozier.

His glare settled on me. I fell back, cowering, before his far-from-benevolent gaze.

“You!” he said thickly, in his Katzenjammer accent. “You kommen vit me!”

He gestured imperiously for me to follow him as he strode out of clown alley, much like the Kaiser in World War One must have ordered his troops to the front.

I meekly obeyed. Once outside the alley he turned on me, and I don’t mind telling you I flinched like an owl blinking in the sunlight. But he merely said “Dere iss ein boonch uff kits in da front section. You are excuzzed from da show to sit mit dem und narrate da show for dem. Dey are blind. Verstehst du? Blind.” He dragged me through the auditorium entrance to point them out to me. Then left.

Being in makeup, I usually feel invulnerable in front of a crowd. But not that day. Not at first. I sidled slowly over to the kids; about 2 dozen of them, all chattering excitedly and making strange gestures with their hands. I sat down on an elephant tub in front of their seats, cleared my throat, and shouted “Hi kids!” They immediately went silent, their hands falling to their sides as if tied to lead weights. I tried again, softer.

“Hi kids. I’m Dusty the Clown.”

“Hi Dusty!” they chorused back enthusiastically.

After that, it was a cinch.

As the show progressed I described the costumes and animals to them, giving them the inside info on the performers they’d never get from a program.

“Here comes Anna Bornholm, our famous Princess of the Spanish Web — that’s not green lipstick she’s wearing — she eats so many pistachios that she doesn’t NEED lipstick!”

“And there goes Stancho Sandor, our world-famous Bulgarian acrobat. He can hold ten men on his burly shoulders. He’s in love with a lady pig farmer he met back in Iowa, and he has me write all his love letters for him!”

“Watch out, kids! Those crazy clowns are coming out again. This time they’ve got ladders and buckets of white paint. Get ready to duck! That little guy is Prince Paul — he’s only four and a half feet tall, but he can throw the most paint of anyone in clown alley. That’s because he practices throwing pop bottles at the rats that come sniffing around our trunks.”

By the end of the show I had nothing but a hoarse croak left for a voice.

I used it to thank the children for coming, and to ask if there was anything else I could tell them about the show.

One little girl spoke up quickly.

“We want to feel your face” she shouted. The rest of the children echoed her request, so I climbed over the railing and let them come up and lay their fingers gently on my face.

And a strange thing happened.

“Oh” said one child, “this part is white.”

Another one giggled and said “He’s got blue eyebrows!”

“His nose is all red!” said a boy, who not only couldn’t see but was in a wheelchair.

“Why are you crying, Dusty?” one girl asked.

“Oh, I ain’t crying” I told her. “That’s just sweat — being funny all the time is hard work!”

After they had all felt my face, and commented on the different colors it contained, their teacher got them ready to go back on the bus. I managed to take her aside for a second to ask how they could tell what color my makeup was.

“I don’t know” she said simply. “But they always know the colors of the things they love the most.”

A few days later my letter came from Paris. I put it in my clown trunk and didn’t get around to replying for quite a while. Seems like every time I got ready to reply, another group of Special kids came to the show and Baumann always picked me talk to them.

Dusty the Clown (TT) portrait

A Day in the Life of Ivan Torkovich.

I never have bad days anymore. I’ve reached that stage of life (informally known as ‘dotage’) when each day is of great interest to me, even when they begin with insomnia.

Today my insomnia kicked in at 3 a.m., so I decided not to fight it. Instead, I got up and mixed together a luxurious Thai curry in my slow cooker. I had fresh veggies and coconut milk, but no fresh meat — so I dumped in the remains of a bag of beef jerky.

Then I did some breathing exercises that led to a zesty fit of coughing. A glass of tap water and a Jolly Rancher took care of my surly esophagus, and I was ready to embrace the day.

I ran a toothbrush through my teeth and flossed my hair and was out the door for my morning constitutional before the sun could begin glaring over the tree tops.  I had my trusty backpack with me, stocked with TUCKS pads and a large paper plate.

No need to explain the TUCKS, I hope; the paper plate was for my breakfast at Macey’s Supermarket on State Street. I used my EBT card to get eggs and several rods of string cheese. I broke the eggs over the paper plate, peeled the string cheese over the eggs, and popped the whole shebang in the microwave that Macey’s thoughtfully provides next to their deli.

Two minutes produced succulent cooked eggs and toasted cheese, which I dug into with a jalapeno bagel to mop up the stragglers. The deli staff persists in giving me cold stares, but hey, I’m a customer — so back off, Brigham.

On the way back home I gave some serious thought to going out to look for work. But then it came to me in a flash — I should rewrite Hamlet as a set of limericks.  It would be my magnum opus!

As soon as I got back to my cozy little basement apartment I put my feet in a tub of cold water and began composing my epic. I worked steadily until 1:30 p.m., when I reckoned the curry would be ready. I poured jasmine rice in the rice cooker, set the timer, and began reviewing some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Ah, such lewd bombast in the name of love! It made me almost wish I had a libido again. Almost.

The timer dinged and I began earnest preparations for my meal. Snowy white rice piled high on my plate. Some crunchy chow mein noodles around the edge, for mouth feel. A dash of Kikkoman. And a few sliced cucumbers for garnish. Then I poured a generous portion of my curry over the awaiting rice.

And noticed a small white packet in the midst of it.

And realized it was the desiccant from the bag of beef jerky. .

Which I think is poisonous.

I took no chances, but dumped the whole mess into the garbage.

Now what was I going to do?

Lunch was spoiled. The muse had left me. I decided to go see Jurassic World at the Cinemark.

The bus ride took 25 minutes. My movie ticket cost 7 dollars. And the show did not start for another 45 minutes.

Across the street from the movie hall (that’s what we called ’em back in North Dakota, Ole) was a 5 Guys Hamburgers. That would do for a late lunch, then. But I was in no mood for a hamburger, so got their BLT with fries as something less likely to settle into my stomach like cement.

The price for a BLT, fries and a fountain drink was eleven dollars. And the BLT was soggy bordering on liquid. The bacon was crumbled into nano bits; most of it escaped onto the floor. The fries, as always, were abundant, salty and greasy. So basically I paid eleven bucks for french fries. And they were out of fry sauce, too.

The movie was loud; the story held a surfeit of tropes; the dinosaurs were all method actors; and my seat gave me sciatica.

I got off the bus on my way home at Deseret Industries, to look over their used book selection before walking the one mile home. As I passed the toy section a clown marionette dressed all in red and white checks lured me over. The head was porcelain and finely painted. DI was asking 50 cents for it.

I took it up to the register, where I noticed that the back of the head was missing and the silk costume was heavily water stained. I told the clerk I didn’t want it, after all.

In my basement room, again soaking my feet in the same tub of water, I decided to finish my Hamlet verses.

But looking my work over, I got so depressed at their predictability and lack of nuance that I did the world a favor. I highlighted the whole thing and punched the Delete button.

Now I can go to bed (until 3 a.m. at least) with a clear conscience . . .



The Ferris Wheel

Who doesn’t like a Ferris wheel, a toy beyond compare —

that starts you at the bottom and then gives you heaven’s air?

Circling yet static, Ferris wheels are but a token

of our aspirations that repeat until they’re broken.

If I could ride a Ferris wheel the rest of my existence,

I’d style myself a pilot while I spoke of wind resistance.

from an article in the New York Times 




Onions: a circus memory of my partnership with Steve Smith.

When Steve Smith was offered the position of advance clown on the Blue Unit of Ringling Brothers in 1972 he immediately thought of me, his old colleague from Sigfrido Aguilar’s Estudio Busqueda de Pantamimo, in Patzcuaro, Mexico.

Like a true blue pal, he suggested that we work as a team doing the advance work, and old man Feld agreed.

When Smith called me from his hometown of Zanesville, Ohio, with the good news I was beyond broke — living with my parents and doing birthday parties at 12 dollars a pop.

We immediately made plans to meet up down in Venice, Florida, where Leon McBryde would give us some pointers on advance clowning.

Since we were to be a domestic couple, traveling and living in a decrepit motor home that the circus provided gratis, Smith and I divvied up the duties thusly:  He would drive, and I would cook.

Smith had but one caveat when it came to food. No onions. He hated onions.

I, on the other hand, doted on them.

I never worried about breakfast, because all Smith ever had was a half dozen Oreo cookies and a can of Coke. We always ate lunch out somewhere, since we were usually on the go making appearances at schools and TV stations.

That left dinner.

I had brought along a slow cooker, and, when Smith wasn’t looking, I began to sneak in some diced onions for beef stews, goulash, spaghetti sauce, or meatloaf.

He never suspected. Praised, in fact, my cooking.

When we parted ways at the end of the season — he to wed and I to go to Thailand as a missionary — we hugged briefly, and the deep and powerful emotions were so strong that I almost told him about the onions.

Almost. But not quite.

This is the first time in forty years that I have revealed this embarrassing item.  Smith had gone to bat for me with Irvin Feld and pulled me out of poverty and obscurity to work with him in the limelight. In return, I surreptitiously fed him the one item on earth he loathed — onions.

I imagine there is a special place in Hell for people like me.

Probably a sumptuous dining hall, where I am the guest of honor, and am feted day and night, throughout eternity, with nothing but lukewarm tap water and tuna noodle casserole — which I despise.

So light a squib for me sometime. I might get time off.


Advance Clowns

My Old Man & Emergency Food Storage.

You would not call my father a worry wart. The future did not exist for him, and present stress and anxiety had no hold on him.

Some might call this serenity and wisdom.

My mother called it lapping up the sauce.

Which was true. Dad was a bartender and never lacked for a companionable glass with his free-handed customers.

Still, he remained just this side of sobriety, and managed to carry out his fatherly duties at home — which consisted of napping on the couch, eating dinner, and watching Gun Smoke while cleaning his fingernails with a cheap pocketknife.

My mother was worry wart enough for the both of them.

“Oh, those Russians are going to get us with an H Bomb!” she’d wail, after listening to Walter Cronkite intone the evening news.

“Can you imagine what those Red Chinese hordes will do to us when they overrun the country?” she would speculate to no one in particular as dad belched contentedly and lit up another Salem.

Her efforts to have dad dig up a bomb shelter in the backyard proved futile.  Dad and tools got along like Senator Joe McCarthy and Joseph Stalin.

She was not reassured by the ancient shotgun he kept in their bedroom closet; a rusty trinket from his days growing up on a South Dakota dry farm, it was more like a blunderbuss that would explode in your face if you were foolish enough to load it with live ammunition.

But she struck a chord with him when it came to emergency food storage. When she pointed out that a sneak attack on the country might leave us without enough to eat, he swung into action.

He brought home a case of pork & beans from the Railroad Salvage store — where damaged canned goods were sold for mere pennies. As she looked over the dented cans, my mother shook her head and queried “How long do you think you’ll be able to stand this stuff?”

I was surprised to see him actually take her words under advisement. His normal reaction would be to tell her she didn’t know nothin’ from nothin’ and to shut up, which would then lead to a shouting match that would rattle the dried putty off the window panes.

“I’ll talk to Pickle Joe” he told her thoughtfully.

Being a pourer of suds in a tawdry gin mill, dad was familiar with a host of colorful characters. One of them was a derelict who went by the moniker of Pickle Joe. He made a meager livelihood by swiping garden produce from backyards in the summer and bottling it at his shack near the rail yards on Central Avenue. The consensus was that Pickle Joe was not overly concerned with hygiene.

That summer dad brought home bottles of various vegetables. Carrots. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Even a bottle of rhubarb stalks that appeared to be molting.

Mom stuck them in the basement, muttering dire predictions under her breath. But at least her husband was doing SOMETHING.

The bottles began exploding just after Halloween. First the rhubarb detonated; followed by the cukes and tomatoes. The carrots, apparently, contained a stable isotope and never erupted.

After mom got through cleaning up the vegetarian carnage she told dad in no uncertain terms NOT to bring home anything else from Pickle Joe. Ever.

He complied, and lapsed back into his Schlitz-fueled zen philosophy of letting tomorrow take care of itself.

At least we had that case of pork & beans, should Khrushchev ever make good on his threats.


My Old Man

My old man didn’t take time off to see his kids perform

in sports or plays or anything, in sunshine or in storm.

He didn’t give a cracker what his legacy would be;

life to him was nothing more than work and some TV.

He worked two jobs and paid the bills and kept us fed and clad;

I wouldn’t call him holy — and I wouldn’t call him bad.

He only heard a rhythm that was “eat and sleep and grub”.

As a father now myself, I must say “join the club!”  

fathers day