Comedy, Humor, Satire

The Simulator


Parenting teenagers definitely comes with some challenges. Not the least of these is teaching them how to drive. At a party we hosted over the holidays last year, the father of one of my daughter’s teenage friends made the comment that learning to drive was pretty easy. You just got behind the wheel of the car and used your common sense. Times have obviously changed from the days when I learned how to drive.

When I was in high school, Driver’s Training was a mandatory part of the curriculum. Adults in this era were understandably nervous about allowing immature, highly distractible young people behind the wheel of a two ton killing machine. Most of our fathers had been in World War II or the Korean War and had no desire to relive the terrors of active combat in their own driveways. So before we were ever allowed to get behind the wheel of a real vehicle, we were first required to endure twelve days of training in “The Simulator.”

Each semester, a long trailer was delivered to the high school parking lot under cover of darkness. Inside the trailer were two long rows of video consoles, complete with gas pedals, brake pedals, steering wheels and large screens. The Simulator was obviously an early prototype for Grand Theft Auto and Twisted Metal. Even though the upperclassmen had tried to poison our minds, telling us that The Simulator was a horrendous experience, we were beside ourselves with excitement. We would get to kill things with pretend cars and we would get a grade for it!

Mr. Dobchuk was our Simulator instructor. He was a thin, nervous man who spoke in a rapid high-pitched voice that none of us could understand. In retrospect, I now realize that Mr. Dobchuk was in an ongoing state of blind panic. I’m sure he realized that we would all be going out on the road shortly after we were finished with The Simulator and was terrified to the very core of his being. It would be a few more years before Xanax hit the market, so for the time being Mr. Dobchuk was on his own.

Our first lesson featured a movie that was designed to teach us the fundamentals of preparing your car for the treacherous journey out of the driveway. The hero of our story was a man we called Mr. Perfect.

Mr. Perfect was a businessman. He lived in a businessman’s house on a quiet suburban street. As the scene opened, Mr. Perfect skipped down his front steps towards his car, blissfully unaware of the horrors that awaited him during his commute to the office. Mr. Perfect circled his car, carefully inspecting each door to ensure it was properly closed. He then tested his trunk by gently tugging on the latch. All systems go. Mr. Perfect entered his car and confidently started the engine. But wait! The engine! Was it still there? Mr. Perfect jumped back out of his car and popped the hood to double check.

I heard a couple of boys a few rows back say, “This movie would be a lot better if we could smoke some pot.” They started tugging on the windows of the trailer to see if they could get them open.

Mr. Dobchuk was seated in the first row. He didn’t seem to be paying any attention to either the movie or his students. In fact, he was slumped sideways in the console chair, both arms wrapped around his head.

The action was heating up on screen. Mr. Perfect had turned his attention to his glove compartment and was repeatedly opening and closing the little door to double check that the light came on.

“It’s important to make sure everything works in your car before you go out on the road,” chittered Mr. Dobchuk into his armpit. Or at least that’s what we thought he said.

Mr. Perfect switched his headlights on and off rapidly and tested his turn signals. The film had been running for fifteen minutes at this point and Mr. Perfect still hadn’t made it out of the driveway.

“This guy’s never gonna make it to work,” screamed the boys in the back. They had succeeded in opening the window of the trailer and were waving their hands in the air to disperse the clouds of pungent smoke.

Suddenly, Mr. Perfect pounded on the horn of his car and shifted into reverse. A few kids screamed. From this point forward, the perspective of the film shifted to the back of Mr. Perfect’s head. Although there were no other cars to be seen, Mr. Perfect launched into a series of frantic hand gestures before pulling out onto the street.

“Here we go,” wailed Mr. Dobchuk mournfully.

Mr. Perfect has been driving for about two blocks when the hood of his car suddenly flew up. An unflappable man, Mr. Perfect simply hunched over in his seat so that he could see the road in the gap between the hood and the engine. Suddenly, Mr. Perfect’s car hit an ice slick and went into a wild spin.

“Wait a minute,” said a girl with very thick glasses as she squinted at the screen. “Wasn’t it summer just a minute ago when he was in his driveway?”

“Never mind that!” shrieked Mr. Dobchuk. “This is THE SIMULATOR! Pay attention!”

Mr. Perfect expertly cut the wheel in the direction of the skid and slid off the side of the road, the right wheels of his car dipping into a ditch. Although we could not see his face, it was obvious from the steely outline of the back of his head that Mr. Perfect would not succumb to panic. He continued to drive calmly, with the hood of his car blocking the windshield, until he was able to maneuver his vehicle out of the ditch. By this point, Mr. Perfect had reached the crest of a steep hill when his brakes suddenly failed. Through a masterful combination of hand gestures and tugs on his vehicle’s emergency brake, Mr. Perfect succeeded in slowing his car down and coasted down the hill.

“Freakin’ awesome, dude!” yelled the boys in the back of the trailer. “He’s like Han Solo in the Millenium freakin’ Falcon.”

“Shut up and watch the movie,” screamed Mr. Dobchuk. “I’ll drop your grade if you don’t be quiet.”

“Mr. Dobchuk, they’re smoking marijuana back there,” said the girl with the thick glasses.

“I don’t want to hear about it. Now pay attention.”

As Mr. Perfect neared the bottom of the hill, a Mack truck suddenly appeared behind his car, lost control and started honking furiously. Ducking his head out of the driver’s side window and gesturing furiously, Mr. Perfect pulled his car into the opposite lane of traffic as the truck barreled past him on the right, then pulled back into the proper lane. After a few more blocks, he spotted a convenience store on the side of the road. Thrusting his left arm out of the window of his car, Mr. Perfect pointed at the convenience store and turned into the parking lot, jumped out and calmly closed the hood and trotted inside. Several seconds later, he emerged, smiling and holding a banana. Fade to black.

Mr. Dobchuk untangled his arms and legs and stood at the front of The Simulator. He was trembling slightly. “Now kids,” he said, “I hope you understood everything you saw today. Driving is serious business. Anything can happen. You have to be prepared to react at a moment’s notice.”

“This is wicked bud,” said one of the boys in the back to the other. “I hope Mr. Dobchuk gives us popcorn the next time we see a movie. Can we eat popcorn when we’re driving, Mr. Dobchuk?”

“No you cannot eat popcorn when you’re driving! If that man in the movie was eating popcorn, he would have been dead. Did you hear me? Dead!” Mr. Dobchuk punched wildly at the air to emphasize his point.

The girl with the thick glasses started waving her hand in the air. “Can we watch the movie again, Mr. Dobchuk? I’m not sure I could see everything.”

Mr. Dobchuk choked slightly. “The screen was eighteen inches away from your face. Do you think you need your eyes checked?”

“I’ve had these glasses since sixth grade. I can see just fine.” Twelve days later, my life would be forever changed as a passenger in a Driver’s Training car driven by this girl.

Common sense indeed.


Comedy, Humor, Satire



Many people consider their pets to be like their own children. They’re part of the family. Most of the dogs I have owned throughout my life have been very fine animals. They’ve truly been best friends, companions, and protectors.  No matter what else was going on, I could always count on their unconditional love.  Then there was Sparky.

Sparky was a Jack Russell terrier. I rescued him from a woman I worked with who was moving out of state and could not take him along with her. It was either a new home or the dog pound for this guy. As we were talking about her upcoming move, Sparky trotted into the room. His owner patted him on the head and told me, “He eats pretty much anything you give him. Other than the ear mites, he’s fine, and I have these ear drops you can use on him. He’s just a perfect little dog. ”

She lied.

I took Sparky home in the plastic dog crate that came as part of his accessory package. He seemed a little anxious, but I figured that was probably normal. Silver, our German Shepherd, followed him around the back yard for a few laps, then rolled him down the slope with her nose. So far, so good.

Back in the house, I discovered that Sparky did indeed eat anything you gave him. He devoured the plate of food that I put in front of him, then proceeded to roughly push Silver aside and devoured her food as well. I thought he looked a little underfed, but figured that going forward it was best to feed the dogs in separate rooms.

After dinner, Sparky retreated for a nice nap. Within minutes, unearthly shrieks began to emerge from the living room. I walked in and saw Sparky biting at his paw, pausing every few seconds to tilt his head at the ceiling and wail like a banshee.

I picked up the phone and called his previous owner. “Is there anything else wrong with Sparky that you might have forgotten to tell me about?” I said.

There was a long silence on her end. It was a welcome counterpoint to the earsplitting wails  on my end of the line.

“Did the vet say anything about his paw when you took him in?” I asked her.

Another long silence. “I never took him to the vet. I just bought the ear drops at the pet store.”

“But he’s wearing a rabies tag,” I said.

“That belonged to a dead dog that the guy who owned him before me put on him. I don’t know if he’s ever been to the vet.” Then she hung up on me.

My vet told me that Sparky had a fungal infection in both ears and would need surgery for the extensive calluses on his paws that had built up from the constant chewing. He also needed his anal glands compressed. I made the mistake of staying in the room while she did this. After she finished and removed her rubber gloves, she told me that I could actually do this myself at home. I told her I would make another service appointment with her if the need arose.

I asked her why he was chewing on his paw and shrieking all the time. She told me that I needed Behavior Modification Therapy. Dogs did not have problems. The owners were the problem.

“But I’ve only had him for three days,” I said.

“If you’ve only had him for three days, then where did he get this rabies tag?” she asked me.

“From a dead dog,” I said.

She glared menacingly at me and proceeded to outline a behavior plan that required several hours a day of bonding and enrichment activities, along with lots of yard time, liberally peppered with beef chew treats. I assumed these were for Sparky, but I wasn’t 100% sure.

I set up the appointment for Sparky’s surgery and bought some ear plugs on the way home.

When I picked him up after the surgery, Sparky was wearing a large bandage on his foot and a cone around his head.

“He just won’t leave that paw alone,” said the office assistant. “He’s really obsessed with it. I don’t see how you can live with those sounds.”

Sometimes smiling can make your teeth hurt. I thanked her and took Sparky home.

Back in the house, Sparky began to repeatedly bang the cone on his head against the wall, accompanied by his signature ear piercing shrieks.

After several attempts to reach his previous owner, I realized that she was probably screening her calls.

Once the wound healed and the cone came off, Sparky went right back to his old tricks. I was working out of a home office and it really got tiresome trying to explain to people on the phone exactly what was going on in the background of my house. I was obviously not a successful candidate for Behavior Modification Therapy. Time to try a new vet.

Sparky’s new doctor told me that he had allergies. I needed to replace the plastic dog dish with a metal one and give him doggy antihistamines twice a day. I wondered if I would miss the beef chews very much. Old habits are hard to break.

The antihistamines did their job, and Sparky became much more manageable. We decided to let him sleep in the bedroom and set up a little doggy blanket for him on the floor. I woke up in the middle of the night that first night and found Sparky sitting bolt upright beside the bed, staring at me. After several weeks, it became obvious that he was logging full night shifts like this.

PHTO0032Surveillance footage of Sparky captured midway through his shift

During the day, it became his habit to lurk around the house, waiting for the front door to open. As soon as he heard the hinges start to creak, he would materialize out of nowhere and shoot past my legs, out the door, and disappear down the street. He had a particular fondness for charging out in the middle of severe thunderstorms.  It was actually quite stirring to watch him charge off into the distance, ploughing through the streams of rushing water while bolts of lightning cracked around him.  Somehow, everyone in the city seemed to know that he was my dog. Regardless of where he wandered, I was guaranteed that absolute strangers would be knocking on my door to return Sparky to me.

My next door neighbor was a music teacher. One day she knocked on my door and asked me to please keep Sparky indoors. He was frightening her students. Apparently he had decided to add some extra hours to his schedule and was passing his time sitting on her sidewalk and staring at her students as they walked into her house. They thought there might be something wrong with him. I definitely knew there was something wrong with him, but you don’t have to share all your secrets with the neighbors.

Over the years, the antihistamines seemed to kick Sparky’s appetite into overdrive. He would eat his own food, force his way into the kitchen and eat Silver’s food, then force his way into the basement to devour the cat’s food. On his jaunts around the neighborhood, he would raid the neighbors’ garbage cans and come home with pieces of raw chicken and other garbage hanging out of his mouth. One day he brought home a pair of deer antlers. He carried home a dead bat and ate it. I soon found myself to be the proud owner of a 35-pound Jack Russell Terrier. When he would nap, he would sprawl out on his back with his stomach bulging into the air and his front legs tucked together, back legs splayed obscenely. He would usually remain immobile in this position for hours. There were many times when I would nudge him with my toe to make sure he was still alive.

One summer, my younger daughter enrolled in a Kids in College science program at Penn State. As part of the lab work, they could bring in snips of their pets’ fur to be analyzed under a microscope. My daughter brought in fur samples from Silver, Sparky and our two cats. Under the microscope, the technicians were able to identify Silver’s fur as canine and the cats’ fur as feline. The instructor said to my daughter, “What is this other kind of animal you have? This doesn’t match anything we have in our database.”

As I said, I knew that there was something very wrong with him.

We were never sure exactly how old Sparky was, but he spent a great many years with us. He was definitely part of the family, even if he was the little brother that nobody really liked that much. I started telling my kids that he might possibly be immortal. After all, the Penn State lab couldn’t even determine what species of animal he was.

We decided that Sparky was a legacy dog and was destined to be passed down for many generations. As the eldest, my daughter Elizabeth would be the recipient of this priceless gift.  For some reason, she was less than pleased about this. As with everyone else, the staring shifts creeped her out and she really didn’t appreciate the way he smelled. No matter how many new blankets I placed beside the bed, within a few days they always reeked to high heaven. It might have been his anal glands, but the vet never mentioned anything and I wasn’t about to volunteer.

One night we went out for an after school event with my younger daughter, and when we came back home, Sparky was lying in his usual position underneath the dining room chair. I nudged him with my toe, but this time he didn’t move. The legacy was over. My older daughter was away in New York City. We decided not to break the news to her until she came home.

I was downstairs in my office when my younger daughter screamed, “Mom! You need to get up here right away.”

I ran up the stairs to find my older daughter curled up on the floor, her face buried in Sparky’s foul blanket, wailing, “Why? Why did he have to go?”

“Get your face out of that awful blanket,” I said.  Dreams die so hard in the young.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a decade since he’s been gone.  Rest in peace, little buddy.



Comedy, Humor, Satire

I Was a Typing School Dropout

When I reached my mid-teen years, I’m sure that my parents started to worry about what I was going to make of myself as an adult. My first loves have always been art and writing, and I spent the majority of my free time working on creative projects. When I was fifteen, they decided that it would be a good idea to send me to some night classes to learn Touch Typing. I told them that I didn’t want to learn typing and that I wasn’t going to be somebody’s secretary, but it didn’t seem to matter. I still had to go.

I lasted for one class.

The class was held in a long room filled with old metal desks. On each desk sat an IBM Selectric typewriter. We had an ancient manual typewriter at home with a long black ribbon and a carriage return that made this wonderful dinging noise every time you reached the end of the line of type. You had to pound the keys really hard to make the letters show up on the paper. It was perfect for relieving tension and I was just fine with the two index fingers I had been using on it for years. It was my father’s typewriter, and I’m pretty sure it had been in the family for several generations. It also seemed to weigh at least a hundred pounds, so hauling it off my father’s desk and into my bedroom was great for keeping me in shape. I was not interested in these electric machines with their little balls covered with letters. This was not my idea of typing.

The class was taught by a very stern older lady who informed us that she had been an executive secretary for years before she retired and that Touch Typing was an essential life skill, almost as important as breathing. Furthermore, we were going to learn to type without looking at the keys.

What?  Not look at the keys? This was impossible!

She started off by showing us the correct hand position that would, theoretically at least, enable us to know where each letter was positioned. So this was why they called it Touch Typing, I thought in disgust. It was like braille for secretaries. After she had shown us the proper hand position, we were instructed to close our eyes and type the information she recited aloud to the class.

“Don’t worry about making mistakes,” she said. “This is all about speed. Accuracy will then follow.”

As she recited the words aloud, our teacher strolled up and down the line of desks with a ruler in her hand to gauge our progress. I was finding it unbearable to keep my eyes closed and kept sneaking glances at the keyboard. Suddenly, I felt her ruler smack down across my knuckles.

“Hey!” I said. “What the heck?”

“I saw you peeking,” sneered the rancid old artifact. “Keep those eyes shut.”

We got to the end of the exercise and I looked at the paper curling out of the top of the typewriter. It was total gibberish. There was not a single recognizable word on the entire page. The teacher looked at my paper, crumpled it up, and told me that I was doing it all wrong. I knew then that I was going to be the problem student in the class. Most of the other girls seemed to be pretty happy with their results. They were chattering away happily and comparing their pages. My page was sitting on top of a pile of coffee grounds in the waste basket at the front of the room, so that really wasn’t an option for me.

After reviewing the proper hand position again for the class, the teacher moved on to the second lesson. “You’ll be working for better accuracy this time,” she instructed the students as she walked down the line of desks. She stopped beside me. “You,” she said, “are going to do something different. She placed a piece of typing paper on top of my hands and sneered at me. “You can’t look now, can you?”

She started reciting the next lesson and moved on down the row. I quickly discovered, now that I could keep my eyes open, that I was able to arch my hands enough to see underneath the paper. This was so thrilling that I didn’t see the ruler coming down across my knuckles again and I was mildly surprised that it took a few seconds for the pain to register in my cerebral cortex. The piece of typing paper that had previously covered my hands went arcing across the room. All activity stopped and the other girls stared at me with a potent mixture of disgust and pity. I looked at the paper curled in the typewriter. Once again, there was not a single recognizable word on the page. A semi-trained circus animal pounding the keys at random would have had a better chance of producing snippets of business correspondence.

I looked up at the clock on the wall. We had been in there for an hour. Thankfully, this wretched experience was over for the night.  The teacher dismissed the class and I shuffled out of the room and down the stairs. My parents were waiting for me outside in the car.

“Well,” said my mother. “How did it go?”

“I’m never going back there again. I’ll kill myself if you try to make me learn how to type.”

My parents didn’t usually give in to this kind of dramatic speech, but there must have been a note of desperation in my voice that they couldn’t ignore. This would be my sole lesson in Touch Typing.

I was a Typing School dropout. Today I type on a computer keyboard. There are no dings at the end of each line and my laptop only weighs three pounds, so I probably need to find something else to build my upper body strength. I still look at the keys, but I can now use both the index and middle fingers on my right hand. I’m proud of my progress. I’m sure my old Typing School teacher is dead now. No human should have a lifespan that long. Especially not her.


Comedy, Humor, Satire

Advice to My 12-Year-Old Self

mosquito coil

The summer when I was twelve years old, I spent my time smoking mosquito coils, painting the neighbor’s car with roasted marshmallows, wearing the same wet bathing suit every day for eight to ten hours at a stretch until my butt broke out in a rash, and experimenting with garish makeup techniques that I hoped would make me look much older than I was to the boys hanging out at the swimming pool.

Wait.  Back up.  Smoking mosquito coils?  This is not a normal activity for an adolescent, either then or now.

Advice to my twelve year old self: Explain yourself immediately.

My friend Barbie and I weren’t actually smoking the mosquito coils for some exotic new high.  After all, we were twelve.  We were practically adults.  Nobody could tell us what to do.  We did it for pure vicious shock value.  Individually, we both came up with some pretty strange ideas.  We were bad enough apart.  Together, we were intolerable.

After a series of highly unpleasant skirmishes, I had determined that the neighbors that had moved in next door were my sworn enemies.  Revenge is serious business when you’re twelve, plus it was late in the summer and we were getting pretty bored.  I looked outside and saw Mother Neighbor and Father Neighbor lurking around in their driveway and decided to take action.  I’d found that it was very easy to drive these neighbors into a state of near hysteria, so Barbie and I started rummaging around my house to see if we could find something to get them agitated.  We came up with the brilliant idea that we could make them think we were smoking cigarettes right out in the back yard in broad daylight.  To execute this maneuver, we decided we were going to pretend to smoke one of the mosquito coils that my parents used on the front porch to keep the bugs away in the evening.  We ingeniously wrapped sections of the mosquito coil in school notebook paper and grabbed some matches.  Then we proceeded to the back yard, where we nonchalantly draped ourselves over the waist high retaining wall that separated the two properties and fired up our smokes.  At this point, the neighbors were about twenty feet away, trying to wash the hardened marshmallows off their car.

For anyone who has never personally smoked a mosquito coil, it’s good to know that once lit, they emit huge clouds of noxious grey smoke  that keep insects away for hours.  Barbie and I took a couple of tentative puffs, and in no time at all we were coughing and choking, but at least we didn’t have to worry too much about mosquito bites.

What scared the bugs away had the opposite effect on the neighbors.  They immediately stopped washing the car and scurried to the side of their garage that faced the retaining wall.  Applying the time-honored sniper technique of hiding in plain sight, they bobbed their heads around the garage wall, whispering loudly about the nasty juvenile smokers next door.  In no time at all, they were jumping up and down, pointing wildly at us and threatening to call the police.  Barbie and I played it cool though, carrying on what we assumed was a normal adult conversation between coughs and sniffles.  Then we strategically dropped down onto our hands and  knees and peered over the top of the wall.

Suddenly, I felt a big hand on my shoulder.  It was my father.  He looked from the two of us to the clouds of foul smoke drifting in the air.  We pointed toward the neighbor’s garage, giggling hysterically.  My father said, “Do you mind telling me just exactly what you think you’re doing?”

I stood up and turned to whisper in my father’s ear.  After all, it was his back yard.  “See,” I said.  “These are really only mosquito coils, but they think we’re smoking cigarettes.”  I started laughing hysterically until the smoke from the mosquito coil drifted up my nose.  It took quite a bit longer for the coughing to subside this time.   “They were washing their car.  And then they stopped to watch us!  See?  They’re standing right over there, peeking around the garage and jumping up and down.  They’re so stupid”

My father gave me a strange look.  I turned around.  The neighbors were gone.  So was the car.  My father started to pull me into the house.

“Wait,” I said.  “You’ve got to believe me.  They really were there.”  My dad kept going, guiding me onto the back porch and pushing me through the door.  “You can’t tell me what to do.  I’m twelve, you know.”  I hope none of the neighbors saw my dad make me go inside the house.  My reputation would be ruined.

Advice to my twelve year old self: You are going to eventually grow up and have children of your own.  In the event that your children are unfortunate enough to be just like you, please keep the following information about mosquito coils close at hand:

KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN. CAUTION: Harmful if absorbed through skin. Avoid contact with skin, eyes or clothing. Harmful if inhaled. Avoid breathing vapor or dust. Wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling and before eating, drinking, chewing gum, using tobacco, or using the toilet. Remove and wash contaminated clothing before reuse.