Confession: I took my kids to the mall adult novelty store

Taking five kids out in public without my wife required me to turn into a drill sergeant, at times
Taking five kids out in public without my wife unfortunately turned me into a drill sergeant, at times

Our five kids were little all at once.

With twins the third- and fourth-born, only about six years separated the oldest from the youngest. So, taking them into public places demanded discipline.
I sometimes felt like a drill sergeant, barking to them to keep moving, pay attention, stay put … OK, at ease.

But, I had little choice, especially when my wife wasn’t along with us, especially in a busy place with lots of distractions and lots of people.
The mall was one of those places.

I have to admit disdain for the American rite of mall walking. Give me a playground, the woods, even a quasi-dangerous creek or waterfall and I could keep all five kids and the dog happy — and usually safe. But the mall befuddled me. First of all, we usually were not there to buy something the kids wanted. So, we were behind the eight ball right off the bat.

We usually went to make some emergency purchase such as a new microwave; to meet mom; to buy something for mom without her knowing; or to scout out some new gadget or toy that one of the kids with a birthday on the horizon really, really — really — wanted. Of course, as you might expect, that was quite thrilling for the other four.

To do the mall promenade for the sake of looking seemed unwise: a waste of time and such a tease. We were a family of seven making do on a newspaper reporter’s salary. Why parade these kids around in front of ads and toys designed to instill greed? Why invite frustration?

All this is part of the reason I sought and found a place of reprieve in every mall we ever frequented, in every town we lived. It was lucky but there turned out to be a store where I knew I could take the kids that had something they didn’t beg to buy but still cool enough to distract — even delight.

You know this kind of store. Here’s the modern-day ad for the one we visited way back then (Spencer’s Gifts):

“From fart machines to lava lamps, blacklights, beer pong and bachelorette party stuff, Spencer’s has funny stuff, cool stuff and a whole lot more.”
Of course, there is also far more risque “stuff,” too, especially nowadays.
Back when, stores like this had a bit more restraint; the “adult” stuff was not advertised as blatantly and kept — at least for the most part — on shelves in the back, or near the back.
Problem was, the Isemans needed to go to the “adult” section for this little mall diversion to be effective. That’s where they kept Aunt Maureen.
Yes, Aunt Maureen. My baby sister.

There she lounged, prostrate, wine glass in hand. There she lie, in the back aisle of every gag-gift store in America, on the cover of “The Loving Game.”

A nice clean cover showing the game is still for sale online.
This game featuring my baby sister as a model years ago is still for sale online.

“Is that her?” the kids would ask. “Who’s that guy with her?”
“Why is it called ‘The Loving Game?’ ” asked an older kid with reading skills.
“What’s Penthouse mean?” was often the followup question.
I didn’t say this diversion was without challenges.

As the drill sergeant, I had to move slowly enough to give each kid a chance to actually look closely and realize (or remember from last visit) that, yes, this was indeed Aunt Maureen’s face. I also had to move them quickly enough to avoid the row of stuff for sale that, even back then, took every conceivable play on words involving slang for male and female genitalia and made all those puns into gifts — often with cartoon drawings that could easily catch a kid’s eye.
“The Loving Game” actually had a relatively tame cover. Just a couple hanging out in front of a roaring fire, with glasses of wine and the board of the actual Loving Game splayed on the carpet alongside my baby sister, in her negligee.
She stares into the eyes of her slim, handsome partner who looms above her, shirtless.
“Is that her pajamas?” one of the kids would invariably ask. And from another: “What are they doing?”
What they were pretending to be doing could not be easily explained to little kids. So I usually answered by talking about the job of modeling. Once they realized it was play acting, and that Aunt Maureen got paid to let companies use her photos to sell stuff, they usually stopped asking questions.
Like I said, we didn’t have a lot of money, so the kids understood needing it.

We drew some odd stares from clerks. After visiting the same Spencer’s too many times, the kids would parade back in unison to the adult aisle pleading to find “Aunt Maureen. Aunt Maureen.” But, hey, that was part of the reason I liked this little oasis in the mall.
Maureen didn’t actually earn much during the mid-80’s shoot, she told me recently. Only about $200 for four hours work.
“I remember it was in Bear Mountain, N.Y. at a ski lodge,” she said. She had answered a “models call” designed to produce work for a couple possible uses but she did not recall any language about a sex game, or a mention of “Penthouse.”
“I did not know what they would be used for – or if I did I know they never used the word ‘Penthouse.’ We also did some standard ‘ski lodge’ shots in sweaters and etcetera.” She was anxious for work in a very competitive field, she said, adding, “I’m sure I signed a release saying they could do whatever with it, a standard agency release.”
She also didn’t really know where her photos might end up. She discovered about a year after the shoot that she was on the cover of the game.
How’d she find out? Walking through a Spencer’s Gifts in Pittsburgh, Pa.
I teased her for years about the photo shoot. I hung the box top for “The Loving Game” in our various garages over the years. The kids, as they got older, would point out Aunt Maureen to their friends and tell elaborate fibs about her line of work, sometimes pretending it was the “oldest profession.” We’d show the neighbors the game cover for shock value. And, when Maureen, nicknamed “Mo,” would visit for a party or celebration, I would wait for a prime opportunity and point across the room and shout:
“Yes, that’s Aunt Mo everyone. She’s the one on the sex game in the garage.”

The cover, with "Penthouse" clearly visible, after hanging in my garages for years.
The cover, with “Penthouse” clearly visible, after hanging in my garages for years.

My teasing was actually very overblown. The ‘Penthouse’ on the game’s cover misleads, that is if you know anything about the men’s magazine by that name. The game’s cover also has the more accurate slogan “A romantic experience for two.” The game is much more lovey-dovey than X-rated. Here’s how it is described in a current ad on Amazon:
“This is not an erotic or dirty game per say but is instead designed to promote communication by making the couple answer intimate questions about each other and themselves or promote caressing, kissing or otherwise non-sexual intimate contact.”
Still, the phrase “sex game” is fair game in teasing a little sister, eh?
It helped that about the time she ended up on the game’s cover, she also modeled underwear. Yup. Underwear.

model pix for dave

She described that work as dressing up in newly designed lingerie for shows in various cities a few weeks a year, to show off the new lines to buyers.
It was called “showroom modeling” back then, she says, calling it “pretty much the lowest level of modeling. Sometimes, cigar-munching, panty salesmen lurked licentiously nearby.
Some of Maureen’s other recollections:
“We wore ittle satin robes over our lingerie (also pantyhose tucked under the panties, etcetera, and little beige high heels (pumps). When we did a showing we would walk into the office with our robes and then open them and pretty much just stand there and turn around and smile for the buyers ( who were mostly women).
“The salesmen were all men though ( and most of the bra designers too – go figure!) Sometimes the salesman would ask our opinion of the new bras. … I remember one particularly short and obnoxious salesman who always said ‘Mo – you put the D in Decollate’ when I wore a push-up bra.”

As you might imagine, the lingerie gig offered some fodder for me to do some gentle, well, ribbing, as in a gentle poking in Mo’s ribs — made all the more easy when those ribs are exposed.
Of course, to be fair, Maureen deserves the last laugh. She got paid lots more per hour than me during her artistic career, which has also enabled her to earn cash for what she loves, dancing. That career took her to ballet stages, operas, dance halls and a giant cruise ship. She has performed on film, for TV, in revues and in cabaret.
She still teaches ballet and belly dancing and takes great pride in what her kids learn and perform.

Maureens headshot for modeling and acting.
Maureen’s head shot in her earlier career for modeling and acting.
She still dancing, even if sometimes alone, like at this recent wedding.
She still loves dancing, even if sometimes alone, like at this recent wedding.

All that said, I have tried over the years to claim the last laugh.
Not too long ago at work — I do not recall how this coversation started — I was trying to prove to some coworkers that my sister actually appears on a sex game. So, I googled “The Loving Game.”

But, wha? Huh? Lo and lament! A different woman appeared on my phone. And a different man!
The cover had been reshot, with the couple in a much more, well, intimate, pose. Fewer clothes, too.
I immediately thought — and plotted the best way to rub this in with Maureen — that her cover had grown too old! She was out of date! She was too tame! She wasn’t sexy enough for a sex game anymore!
She had been voted off that very intimate island known as The Loving Game!

Oh now. My baby sister has been voted off the sex game!
Oh now. My baby sister has been voted off the sex game!

The tease didn’t work very well. She just shrugged it off. I think she changed the subject by asking me about one of my several ailments and surgeries of the last decade. She might have asked, nicely but effectively, “Can you still walk?”
One thing in my favor is that I still have that old game cover. I bet with some help from someone who knows how to alter photographs, I can do something clever.
Maybe replace the negligee with a mustard-splattered old lady smock. Ditch the wine and put an Ensure protein drink in her hand. The dude will have to go. Maybe replace him with a mean-looking orderly from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I will need a clever title, though. Maybe “The Aging Game?”
No. Wait. I got a better idea.
I’ll just add some wrinkles to her face, put her and the guy in a couple Depends adult diapers and bring my baby sister back to the the board game biz and lingerie-selling biz in one fell swoop.
Strip-poker with a twist for the senior crowd. You win the round and tell players whether they need to add clothes or Depends products — careful with those Velcro tabs! — or take ’em off.
I’ve already got the fake TV ad campaign conjured.

I’ll get my oldest daughter to let us add some wrinkles and makeup, hold the altered game cover up for the camera, stare at it lovingly and speak in the a sultry voice mimicking Aunt Maureen:
You remember me? You remember fun? Bored with yoga and pilates? Got friends who can still frolic?
This is for you. The Late-life Loving Game.

It’s specifically designed for older, active people to offer maximum fun — with maximum protection and guaranteed, 100 percent maximum absorbency.

C’mon. You’re not dead yet. Buy the game. What’s life without a couple risks?

Don’t worry. We got you covered. Just keep in mind our sponsor’s slogan:

Ready for whatever comes next?


No, my kids don’t have prison ink. Those tattoos are like a family crest.


I hated leaving them. There they lay, discarded, dismantled on the floor of the garage. Once so highly regarded, they had come to this unceremonious end.
It seemed like only yesterday that they had gotten so much attention. Bolted high near the ceiling, they dared anyone walking by to give it a go, to hang, swing, climb.
But, with our former Iseman home in Northeast Pennsylvania now for sale, I could not figure out a way to salvage our homemade monkey bars.
The kids, now adults, lived too far away and knew of no one still in Wilkes-Barre who wanted them. I thought of donating them but they were heavy — 16 feet long, 2 by 6 boards as the sides, punctuated by 2 foot lengths of 1-inch galvanized pipe rungs. I also had no great expectation they would be accepted at a modern-day playground.
“Too dangerous … no one uses homemade playground equipment anymore … man, we could get sued if we let kids play on those … you sure they won’t break?”
Across the country, many traditional playgrounds have become sissified. We’ve babied the equipment down to the point that kids find more excitement in a single round of Candy Crush Soda Saga.
Quick. Right now. If you have kids or grandkids you care about, google the word
“brachiation.” Then, google Glenn Doman and his institute in Philadelphia that has had great success helping brain-injured kids and also is sought after to advise more fortunate parents with children who are well. He teaches how to help kids learn and grow.
Then, for inspiration, click on this video.

It’s my kids when they were young, playing on several kinds of homemade equipment hung from our basement ceiling. The monkey bars went up first, then I added an old metal swing … then a bar to move across the ceiling … then a couple old mattresses to cushion the falls … then an old Formica countertop became a slide …
On their own, the kids developed a game with somewhat sophisticated rules called “Can’t Touch the Ground” that had them brachiating across the room for hours like orangutans set free in the fruit aisle of a Whole Foods.
The monkey bars became so ingrained in our lives that:
We would plan little basement circus demonstrations when friends visited; I developed several fairly sophisticated competitive contests for the kids that involved me sitting on a couch (yes, sometimes with a 40-ounce Miller High Life by my side) throwing Nerfy things at their feet while they dodged and traversed the bars at the same time; we moved the monkey bars with us to three different houses; every one of us has been “inked” with a monkey bars logo that we came up with in Las Vegas once we decided the Isemans needed a “family tattoo.”
I guess it’s the closest thing we have to a family crest. And I’m as proud of it as Donald Trump would be if he could persuade all his wives to ink “Make America Great Again” somewhere that hasn’t had plastic surgery.


Sometimes it can be difficult to see these monkey bars.
Sometimes it can be difficult to see Adam’s monkey bars.

The kids fell into a daily monkey bar routine. Actually, it was more like three times a day when it was cold or rainy outside. This not only kept them exercised and sleeping well, it helped keep my wife and I sane. More importantly, we believe it helped the kids get smarter.
Doman, an expert on child development, believes brachiation gets the lungs working, the blood moving and the brain developing. I’ve found no expert disagreeing with him and lots of info from playground experts saying he’s right.
“Brachiation ladders have been built and used for treatment of children with cerebral palsy, autism, and brain injuries as suggested by the teachings of Glenn Doman who has studied child brain development,” says an advocacy line from the website Playground Professionals.
Doman, according to the site, “also suggests their use with children as young as 2 to expand their physical development, which stimulates brain development and their learning capabilities.”
A 2007 study called “Overhead Equipment Use: The Developmental Benefits and Use Patterns of Overhead Equipment on Playgrounds” videotaped and studied more than a thousand instances of “overhead appartus use” by kids of various ages. The study also looked deeper into concerns about elbow injury and concluded:
“The growing volume of research on benefits of brachiation demonstrates its value for overall health, fitness, and physical development. Specific skills developed include endurance, strength, flexibility, general coordination, eye-hand coordination, visual perception of distance, balanced locomotor patterns, confidence, and ability to use increasingly challenging equipment.”
One of the cooler things these researchers did in the study was to document how older, stronger kids came to vary their games and routines, progressing in complexity, which kept the overhead equipment interesting.
“Many children who frequently used the equipment during chase games and competitive swinging events developed extraordinary skills of movement, coordination, and grace. The linkage of overhead apparatus, allowing organized games of chase and tag to flow from device to device contributed to both function and frequency of use.”
I marveled at this years ago from my perch in our basement (and, no, it wasn’t only after several of those humongous Miller beers), so this following paragraph in the study really hit home with me:
“In general, children progressed through fundamental beginning stages to practice stages, refining stages, and finally to mastery stages, each marked by ever more complex patterns of movement, greater refinement in skills, and apparent improved strength, flexibility, coordination, and confidence.”
More than three decades ago, one of my older sisters, pregnant and anxious to give her baby a good start in life when she lived in New York City, went to one of Doman’s training classes for parents in nearby Philadelphia.
At the time, I did maintenance and whatever odd jobs I could find in NYC. The next thing I knew, I was being paid to build a wooden ladder for a baby, courtesy of my sister. The brachiator had to be able to hang horizontally as you would expect from monkey bars but also to drop, vertically, and be anchored at about 2 feet of the floor, within reach of a baby or toddler.
As the kid grew, the equipment was designed to be raised in stages. I think the max height put it only about 6 feet off the ground.
Seemed kinda bizarre, the thought of parents on the floor watching the kiddo grasp the rungs with delight while the baby half-toddled and half-swung from rung to rung. I felt a little like a scam artist. But, hey, my sister was very convincing, enough so that I quickly built a second brachiator for my soon-to-be born nephew.
At the time, I didn’t think much about Doman’s ideas — though my sister embraced them heartily, at one point using flash cards to try to teach math to her child before he could crawl — but I started thinking anew about the man’s theories and prestige years later, about the time my wife and I began to marvel at how well our kids were doing in school.
Lotsa perfect report cards, I can publicly brag now. Back then, I would not have boasted about this, mostly because I feared the A’s would stop coming. But that didn’t happen. Not through all of high school. Certainly in college they faced some speed bumps, but none of the five ran into complexities they could not handle.

Carla graduating from Fordham.
Carla graduating from Fordham.
Scott graduating from Syracuse.
Scott graduating from Syracuse.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying they ended up geniuses or prodigies, but they did well. At these universities for bachelor degrees no less: Columbia, Penn, Syracuse, NYU and Fordham. You might note that two of those are Ivy League schools.
Three of the kids obtained more than bachelor’s degrees. Two have doctorates and one has a master’s. And they all started at a public high school.
OK. OK. I know. Enough parental preening.
What do the kids say? I asked them if they thought monkey bars helped them become more intelligent.

From Carla, now an optometrist in California: “Physical activity while the brain is developing is definitely beneficial to the learning process (i.e. made us smarter.)” She said “lots of reading” was a big factor, as was the absence of “excessive video games.”
From Adam, now an electrical engineer in Seattle: “Having the best parents ever made us smarter. … Reading a bunch, physical exercise and a safe place to play definitely helped.”
Luke, an enterpreneur, inventor and adviser to start-ups in California: “Physical activity yes, monkey bars specifically no idea.”
Mia, a former high school teacher who now teaches social media strategies for a burgeoning company based in Austin, Texas: “The monkey bars helped with goal-setting for me, like going across (was) actually doing them, instead of just playing on them.”
And, from Scott, a chiropractor in NYC, who decided to offer nice comments about his parents and not really address the question, specifically:
“Our parents made us smart. Not steel bars and wood. … I think proper parenting and guidance helped form our bright minds.”
Which brings up a great point. Am I saying these monkey bars were the linchpin of learning?
Would our kids have done as well in school without mom toting them to libraries all the time? Without mom reading to them? Without mom staying home to take care of them during their most formative years? Without mom and I strictly monitoring TV time?
Without some great teachers and well-run gifted programs? Without supportive aunts and uncles and grandparents?
Without each other to lean on? Without friends?
With the distractions of cable TV or addictive video games? (Whew! Luckily, we could not afford them.)
No, to all the above.
But, I am still encouraging you to do that googling I suggested earlier. And, consider this. The ladder in the ceiling created memories, good ones, for our kids.
From Adam, the “baby,” who before age 4 was able to traverse back and forth along that 16 feet of ladder almost three dozen times without touching his feet:
“The best thing I recall about the monkey bars was shattering the record for most times going back and forth on them (92?) and then promptly getting kicked off of them before I could attempt a second try,” Adam recalls.
“Everyone else had to try and fail to beat it.”
From Mia, who once was asked by a teacher about holding her pencil in an unusual way due to hands roughened by brachiating:
“The best thing I recall is doing it 30 times back and forth without stopping. I felt so accomplished and strong because of the monkey bars! It was also something that adults could not do, so as a kid that was awesome.”
“The worst thing I recall was calluses on your hands that I got from the metal bars rubbing against them over and over. They hurt only a little bit. … They weren’t embarrassing except for that time when my teachers looked at them in computer class quizzically, as if you were making us do some sort of weird labor.”
Luke as the oldest had a special challenge of interacting physically with younger siblings who were not as strong as him. Keeping games fair and interesting across such an age range was not easy. The kids sometimes resorted to an arbitration-type of interaction we used to call “Little Lawyers.”
Luke recalls: “Like a limited Lord of the Flies, we had to learn to resolve disputes among ourselves. Escalation was momma screaming or maybe even limiting our supply of pepperoni rolls. Although, really bad disputes were sort of fun: We had a chance to play ‘Little Lawyers.’
Asked about the worst thing he recalled, he said: “Sitting in a cubicle has never really been a legitimate option after growing up with these. In fact, I’m surprised we put up with as much useless sitting in classrooms as we did.”
And, from Scott:
“Best thing was obviously epic games of Can’t Touch the Ground Freeze Tag. There wasn’t anything bad about them. Except relocating them between the different houses. Finding room for them on the different U-Hauls etc.”
Like I said earlier, these things were difficult to move.
So, they sit still in Wilkes-Barre. Email me or comment on this missive if you want to try rescue them.
If not, I’ll get over it. There’s actually no great loss. I am confident my kids could design and build a better set pretty easily.
Did I tell you Adam’s an engineer? Did I note that Luke welds and has turned shipping containers into homes? Did I explain that none of the kids shy away from physical labor?
Did I mention that I think they’re all pretty damn smart?


Love — and vomit — is in the air

My rummy valentine.
My rummy valentine.

I joined a group for writers.

Seemed like a good idea if I’m trying to write more than news these days. The “Guild” sent an email saying it’s almost Valentine’s Day so here’s a contest.

Complete this thought with a simile or metaphor: “Love is …”

My entry:

Love is vomit.

Your spouse’s vomit — that is, and caring enough to make sure it gets where it is supposed to go and not freaking out when it doesn’t.

The other night, on a long-overdue date with my wife, I volunteered to drive and not imbibe. My wife usually fills that role and for many years has been very kind and unselfish in allowing me to have a few beers, blab too much and entrust the trip home to her.
This was different, though. She had more than her typical two beers. And she paid for it.
Realizing the situation. Assessing her condition. Taking side streets. Knowing just when to pull over.
 Aha! Realizing she can use the plastic garbage bag hanging from the glove compartment. Staying calm when that bag quickly balloons. Any holes? Whew!
Ensuring she’s comfortable at home on the couch, even in a sitting-up position, even with the little garbage can under her chin. Asking gently if we could please, pretty please try to go to bed now?
She thanked me effusively the next day.
Acting haughty, I told her she was going to have to take care of the now-freezing plastic bags near the front door where I had tossed them (you know, the smell) but she was really dragging. And, it had snowed. So I handled them, too.
After a good mouthwash, she rewarded me with a nice kiss, a hug, a squeeze.
Hey, I actually got off easy.
 She took care of me one time when, painted green for a Halloween costume, I not only got sick on myself, but fell asleep naked in the tub. She didn’t freak out. And she took care of, well, the mess.
Yes, it’s love.

Why it hurt to have pretty sisters

My sister Carla when she moved to NYC to act and do theater.
My sister Carla when she moved to NYC to act and do theater.
My sister Mary made it on to a cover in France while modeling.
My sister Mary made it on to a cover in France while modeling.

I don’t think the clerk at Tubbys corner grocery really hated me. He just didn’t realize the extent of his power.

When I walked in and handed him the note, listing what my mom sent me to buy, he saw an opportunity to solidify his reputation as a cool guy at the soda counter and nothing else. Caution. Pity. Mercy. All went out the window.

He wanted only to impress his peers who sat for hours at Tubbys’ counter, reading comic books, eating chips, drinking Coke and ridiculing anyone who happened to walk in.

Ahhh, the chance to win stand-up comedy points. Forget the 10-year-old boy you would scar for life.

The clerk knew easy prey when he saw it. He noted how I quickly handed him the note and moved to the milk cooler to pretend to be studying expiration dates. He knew I did not totally understand what was on the note or why my mom had told me to just hand it to him rather than read it aloud.

He grabbed the cardboard box from a shelf in one of the less traveled aisles with tolietries , made sure he got everyone’s attention, held the box high above his head and shouted in my direction:
“What are the Isemans having with these for dinner tonight?  Tomato sauce?”

In retrospect, it wasn’t even very clever, though all the other teenagers in the store laughed hysterically once they looked carefully at the box. The lettering said Modess, if I recall correctly, though it could have been Kotex.

It didn’t matter once the boys at the counter realized I was buying sanitary napkins, you know, those things that girls put DOWN THERE! during that BAD TIME OF THE MONTH!

I stayed silent, blushing beet red of course, but hoping for a nice old lady to walk in to at least get them to lower the level of ridicule.

No dice. I had to take it. At least the evil, grinning, remorseless clerk put the box in a brown paper bag so I didn’t have to try to hide the pads in my shirt.

You see, the girls in the family, my older sisters, were too, well, indisposed to walk the two blocks to the allegedly friendly corner store to hand over the note. Or, maybe Mom figured the clerks would empathize with a boy charged with such a chore.
She was wrong.

It was tough growing up with no big brother, only older sisters. And I had three.

Of course, there were great benefits,  like learning to play games more deviously than boys, to tell stories with flair, to act out those same stories in little plays in the basement, sometimes with dress-ups. (Shh! Don’t tell the jerks at Tubbys.)
But those perks do not stand out in my memory as strongly as the drawbacks. It’s kinda like how smiles fade more quickly than black-and-blue marks.

Yes, having big sisters got me assaulted. Why? They were good-looking but they didn’t want to go out with any of the neighborhood boys.
Complicating matters, two of them — Carla and Mary — decided to flaunt their good looks and sexuality. And this was the ’60s, when women all over the country were burning bras and recognizing “These are Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Forget chauvinism and male control.

“So, your sisters too good to go out with me, huh?” one of the Tubbys goons decided to ask with his giant left hand already around my throat. I really didn’t understand this interrogation tactic, asking questions while also choking out any possible response. But hey, he wasn’t that bright.

Usually, the abuse was only verbal or fleetingly physical. It would often include detailed descriptions of all the things these boys would do with my sisters if they had the chance.

The end would come with a punch in the bicep or that infamous backhand, two-finger slap at the testicles, which happened so often when I was a kid that we had a name for it, “crocking.” As in, “He crocked me!” or “I just got crocked, leave me alone.”

Not sure if that was a colloquialism, confined to our Pittsburgh environs, or a more widely used term. One thing was for sure where I lived and roamed back then, no matter what you called it, every boy under age 16 had to be ready for that surprise groin slap.

It was widespread. As was the universal blocking move — jumping backward with your butt jutting out while chopping downward with one or both arms. Today, the defensive maneuver might be mistaken for a very stiff or bad attempt at twerking.
Back then, I wondered what some alien race would think, looking down on a typical street corner in the Steel City, rubbing their translucent chins, perplexed at why these adolescent male earthlings seemed so fascinated with smacking each other in the crotch.

Sometimes, when my sisters’ would-be suitors were smaller and did not already have me by the throat or were too fat to catch me, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

“Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“Ask her yourself. Why she won’t go out with you. Whasamatter, Casanova? Scared?”

Of course, that usually only brought more retaliation, even if was later when the fat guy had me cornered, but it still felt good to at least occasionally rub in what these tough-talkin’ guys knew to be true: They turned to Jello when my sisters actually walked by or happened to exchange a few words with them.

These guys knew they had no chance; they saw the older, groovier, cooler guys hanging with Carla and Mary. They saw the hair, their clothes, their style, how they had embraced the ’60s while our neighborhood still debated which of the Beatles were ruining the band by doing drugs.

In 1969, I had to prepare for a move from our neighborhood Catholic grade school to the public high school 2 miles away that Carla and Mary already attended. I would be in 9th grade.

C’mon Mom, pleeasssse! We know the school. Let us dress up David. C’mon, just one outfit, one set of new clothes.

Despite my pleasant memories of our basement dress-up fun, when I was much younger, I should have known this was a very bad idea.

The shirt they found for me, chocolate brown, had a special, fancy name, a “body shirt.” It might have even been ribbed. I know for sure that its collars were as big and pointy as the arrows on interstate “yield” signs. I think my sisters actually expected me to leave the shirt buttons open down past my nipples. The pants, tight bell-bottoms of course, were a checkered pattern, with squares the color of brown mustard and the dividing lines drawn in ketchup tones.

My sisters assured me they had seen girls talking about how cute I was.

All I saw were stares. All I heard was laughter and whispered questions about my gender.

On the positive side, I did not get beat up for my outfit. Maybe they actually thought I was a girl. Or, they were simply so shocked they forgot about the opportunity for physical assault until I was gone. Or, the boys at this school in this part of town really, really liked my sisters and thought they still had a chance.

Problem was, I still had to walk home past Tubbys.

Find the boy who looks like his sisters dressed him for the senior photo.
Find the curly haired boy who looks like his sisters dressed him for this senior photo.

Writer’s note: Editing changes made 3/29 based on writer’s guild advice.

If you care about how reporters cover crime, watch Netflix’s ‘Murderer’ — and be glad for it

IMG_1502The documentary series Making a Murderer got me reminiscing, and not in warm and fuzzy way.
I thought back to all my long days — and some long evenings — sitting in courtrooms as a journalist.

I covered courts and cops as a beat in Ohio for about seven years, starting in 1988.
Watching the “Murderer” courthouse scenes brought me back to some uncomfortable moments: struggling to understand the lines of questioning, worrying about misstating something important on deadline, and — this is the big one — remembering the accused is NOT GUILTY.
There are lots of reasons the “Murderer” series should have been made. There are many great things about it, including the dedication of resources, risk and time commitment to make it.
The most important to me? The series should force journalists to again think hard about the presumption of innocence, especially those who have become hardened to the courthouse beat, especially those who might be punch-drunk watching years and years of defendant after defendant hauled off to prison, failing to beat even any single charge.These reporters need to hold tight to that presumption, as much so as jurors.
It’s not easy.
If you’ve watched the documentary series, you’ve seen the power of the prosecution and police to overwhelm with alleged evidence. They say they have it — often, shouting it from the podiums and courthouse steps — but do not have to actually show it at all, at least until trial. Often, at least from my experience, the defense attorneys are much less talkative and share less information about what could help their clients. When some of those attorneys are candid, especially the ones paid with public money to represent the poor, they’ll admit they are so snowed under with other cases they have no clue for quite some time about possible alibis or exculpatory evidence.
As anyone knows who has read about the avalanche of cases falling on public defenders, some do not meet with clients until they both show up in court. It’s not unheard of that first meeting to result in the defendant taking a plea bargain and admitting guilt. Wham! Bam! That one’s handled. Rack one up for the justice system.
I sat in court on many cases wondering if any defense would be presented at all. Or, the narrative became so difficult to follow that it was clear the defense had been hamstrung by some judge’s ruling limiting evidence or had gotten so discombobulated the defendant’s story got lost.
It’s easy as a reporter to take the lazy way out.

Presume guilt. Buddy up to the prosecutors. Giggle with cops at what seem like silly or insane arguments by the defense. Bang out the story about the bad guy (or gal) getting just desserts. Go to the bar. Maybe even have a drink with the lieutenant who was on the stand the day before.
What makes the “Murderer” so compelling is the knowledge that the system failed the defendant so disastrously in his previous case. Who can not presume innocence in Steven Avery’s new case when he spent 18 years wrongfully imprisoned? It makes everyone uneasy, worried about veracity of every thing stated, every bit of evidence presented, skeptical. Like they should be.
I’m certainly not an expert on this stuff.
But I have seen enough odd activity that I can add one more voice to the hue and cry for everyone — not just journalists — to watch police and prosecutors more carefully.
Just to be clear, as “Murderer” points out numerous times, it’s not that the lawmen and women are evil and sit around plotting how to convict the innocent.  We cannot forget what they do for a living. They roll with the despicable in our society. They see nasty people doing nasty, nasty things all the time. They see nasty, nasty people getting away with nasty things all the time.
When they get one of these people in court, and they know in their hearts he or she is a bad person, they don’t want that person walking free.
Would a cop shade the truth on the witness stand. I say yes.
Would a prosecutor delay getting evidence to the defense if it could help a defendant? Yes, again.
Would a judge tend to side with the prosecutors he sees (and trusts) every day rather than an out-of-town defense attorney? Give the police the benefit of the doubt? Be slow to believe a cop could lie? Yes and yes and yes.
Would a gaggle of reporters dismiss arguments before the attorneys even finish making them? Roll their eyes and check their watches as the defense tries to poke holes in police evidence? Scoff at the mere suggestion of police or prosecutorial misconduct?
I’ve seen all that. Tried to never fall into it. Certainly have seen it, though, often.
I had the great experience of working in court when cameras were often allowed. I wish they were in all courtrooms, all the time.
No, not for only the reasons you might think. I want the journalists to know they are in the camera’s eye.
Imagine how embarrassing it would be for a reporter to be caught on video laughing off a defense argument … asking a question showing he or she has no clue about what the defense worked painstakingly to prove the day before … parroting point by point only the prosecution side of the case.
Again, the “Murderer” has brought all this back to the table for discussion. I’m very glad for that.
If  you’re a journalist covering courts or care about how well that’s done, you should be, too.


Mad dad rap

merap (2)Stop your leerin’, jeerin’, no more sneerin’.

You’re in my house, boy. You should be fearin.’ My baby sees a smile but I see smirk, She sees boyfriend; I see jerk. I say ‘go away’ but you still lurk.
Don’t you ever have to work?
That’s me trying to rap. Yup, a Caucasian 60-year-old, a Baby Boomer, born about halfway between the Bruce Springsteen Boomers and what some creative ethnographer has labeled the Bob Dylan Boomers.
I blame it on a friend from years ago. He discovered hip-hop very early — at least for a white guy — and somehow found ways to get access to songs, lots of songs, before they became known outside rap circles.
He passed along music and I listened, a lot, sometimes trying to create rhymes in my head when the situation warranted. I didn’t realize it until now but stress has obviously been a trigger for this phenomenon. A couple weeks ago in the hospital, lyrics started streaming through my mind as I tried to distract myself during a very unpleasant medical moment.
This friend, though not black and not exactly young at the time, seemed always to know what would become a mainstream song. Still, despite his savvy, he always wore headphones. He’d sneak around playing songs. I’m sure he didn’t want to talk about how he had copies of the music but I also think he was embarrassed — worried about what white people thought of him.
That’s why he took to initiating coworkers and friends to rap. The more white people he got interested the less he would stand out — kinda like a heroin junkie get friends hooked.
Hey, that’s MY couch, boy, it’s not your toy. Don’t sink so easily in the seat next to me. This is not your luxury, suddenly your place to be. That is fantasy. Don’t press your luck with me.
I was the perfect recipient of my friend’s cassettes because, when he gave me music, like early LLCool J. way back in the mid-’80s, I didn’t care who heard me play it. The kids were very young and I never had the extra money to buy my own music. So, I just played what i had — loud — often while my wife had the kids out of the house so I could do some construction work.

The rap beat, relentless and full of funk, went well with my method of home repair — lots of banging. When it came time to demolish something, woohoo, up went the volume.

I don’t like your arrogance. Or the way you prance. Where the f’ you get those pants? Yer momma go to France? Yeah, you’re spoiled, you’ve never toiled. For my girl, you’re too old.
Do you even know how to dance?
My rap aficionado friend was part of my life so long ago I lost touch. Not sure if he ever came out of the closet with his secret obsession, or cashed in on it.
I wish I had embraced the music back then, taken advantage of my introduction when it came so fortuitously. I might have gotten better at crafting those lines. Who knows how far I could have gone? It it really inconceivable to think of an arthritic senior citizen on stage riffing “Outta-Oxy Blues?”
Instead, I’m stuck with discombobulated recollections of lyrics that years ago invaded my cranium, like that day one of my girls had her first teenage boyfriend over to the house with me as chaperone.
Of course, you don’t please me. You do not see what I see. This girl’s my progeny. She is an epiphany. She means the world to me. Want a new enemy?
She kept signalling me to get lost. At the least, I had to leave them alone in the TV room. It wasn’t easy; I didn’t trust him.
I tried to distract myself by heading down the basement to patch some ceiling holes left from a plumbing job.
But I could still hear them upstairs, especially the boy.
Giggling, laughing, oh so dashing. Son, you are a smooth one. I see a noone but she sees fun. Did I mention that I hate your mum?
I’m feeling manic, panic, burn near atomic. If this wasn’t real, it would be comic.
Forget this plaster. The ceilings a disaster. Trying to work faster but hands alabaster.
This is my house. Am I not the master?
Luckily, my wife didn’t stay away long that day. I was still in the cellar. She yelled down to ask me if I was calling her. She said she thought she heard me talking.
I just said no. Would you even try to explain?

She’s the check-engine light of my life …

— A potential country western hit by David Iseman

Driving down that highway, still 300 miles from home
Thinking of my baby, cuz I left her all alone
Worrying about my water pump, worried about how I look
Worried about that warning light and my engine starting to cook
I’ll check on it in Memphis, and give my baby a call
Tell her how much I love her, that she’s a living doll
She’s the check engine light of my life
Yes, she helps keep me steady and right
If i need me some fixin, she will find the tool
If my tank is empty, she helps me refuel
Best of all my baby knows when I’m overheating, how to stop me acting a fool
Dammit there’s the cops now, in my rearview mirror
It’s been years since the hoosegow but they still give me a scare
I check my speed and, damnit, that there’s that telltale glow,
Gotta check my engine but I still got miles and miles to go

Check engine tomorrow, check engine today, check engine right now or your baby will have to wait
The police pass me by as I pull off Highway 8
If I take half an hour, maybe I’ll get a break

Check engine tomorrow, check engine today, check engine right now or your baby will have to wait
(faster tempo) Limping home those last miles/ Remembering her big smiles/Wish this rig went 1000 miles an hour
Didn’t see the sheriff car/He had the radar/Damn, so close but now this will take a half an hour
But the deputy sees that orange glow/He likes my  Dale Junior logo/He winks and says the speed limit gets you home in an hour
She’s the check engine light of my life
Yes, she helps keep me steady and right
If I need me some fixin’, she will find the tool
If my tank is near empty, she helps me refuel
Best of all my baby knows when I’m overheating, how to stop me acting a fool
She’s still awake when I roll in/Man, she’s been cookin/She smells like cinammon/Add a little molasses and flour
(talking voice) And, she glows, man she glows. And she’s wearing orange!
Those are my very very fav-o-rite pjs!!!
And all she wants to ask about is ‘What you need honey? Didn’t get in no trouble now, didja? Here’s a nice cold Lone Star. I taped the race for you …’

Like i said, she’s … the check engine light of my life
Yes, she helps keep me steady and right
If I need me some fixin, she will find the tool
If my tank is near empty, she helps me refuel
Best of all my baby, knows when I’m overheating, how to stop me acting a fool
She’ll celebrate the highs, sure, and help us through the lows
My baby’s just the very best there is at figuring out our woes
Check engine tomorrow, check engine today, check engine right now.  You don’t want your baby to wait.


****copyright jan.12, 2016, created by David Iseman, copied to Terry Jungman, same date

David Bowie? He (nicely) messed with me once

Me, about the time NYC was my address and I met David Bowie.
Me, about the time NYC was my address and I met David Bowie.

I had a brush with Stardust years ago.

I met David Bowie, whose music and mad-rich life come to the world’s attention again today, due to his passing.

Living in New York in the late-1970s had its challenges. This was pre-Giuliani, pre-cleanup, pre-crackdown. Times Square had peep shows and you could spot folks tokin’ a joint out on the sidewalk without fear, even on the relatively tame upper West Side.

The thrills and rewards of the city, though, outweighed the rough stuff.

Seeing stars and celebrities always got my blood pumping, even though I would act nonchalantly. Like many other transplants to the Big Apple, I feigned sophistication.

It was on that upper West Side that I spotted David Bowie one afternoon. I think it was a Sunday, on Columbus Avenue at 70th Street.

Dressed in all black, shorter than I thought he would be, and thinner, too, he walked with a young man almost identical in size, as well as garb. They ducked into a restaurant very close to where I often did cleanup, maintenance, stuck mostly in the musty cellar.

My little sister loved David Bowie.

We grew up in Pittsburgh, a Rust Belt town, where steel mills were closing and jobs were scarce. Guys my age didn’t like Bowie or how he and others were remaking music, or remaking themselves.

My sister, though, had his posters and music. She was ahead of her time. But, those posters, of a grown man in full makeup with flaming orange hair — he looked like a female reject from the Archie comic strip — unsettled me. Shirt unbuttoned, red lips pouting, he was staring sensuously out from that poster at the guys, too, for cryin’ out loud.

I knew I had to get an autograph.

I was inexplicably nervous. I told myself I would just walk up like the tough guy I was, explain this was for my sister, hand over something to sign and all be out of there quicker than, well, a New York brush with stardom.

I couldn’t have explained why but I did a quick scan of my wardrobe: paint-and-plaster spattered pants as usual because of the maintenance work,  greasy Converse, some sort of nondescript T-shirt. I tried to see my hair in a car window but it was too dirty, the window that is.

My sister really loved David Bowie.

I grabbed a Sunday paper, figured I could get a pen from a waitress if he didn’t have one, ratcheted up my macho mentality and approached the table.

He and his friend didn’t look up at first. So, I became more flustered. I think I cleared my throat. He finally raised his eyes to mine, probably worried I was homeless and ready to vomit. He didn’t speak.

I didn’t have to ask if he was really him. The real Bowie had that permanently dilated eye and there it was staring unblinking at me. If i recall correctly, he had his chin resting on his hands, his buddy held the same demure pose.

I was confused because they didn’t speak. I said something like: “My sister really loves you. Could you … uh … I only have this newspaper … Maybe the waitress has … ” They just kept staring, as the buddy eased in closer to the rock star.

They made me squirm, until the star rescued me by asking “What’s her name?”

I thought he meant the waitress; I looked around for her.

“Your sister?” he asked, pen already in hand.

“Maureen. It’s Maureen. She really loves you.”

As he began to sign the newspaper, his buddy whispered something to him. Then, in conspiracy, they looked up and became mannequins, eyes on me, unmoving for what seemed like a full 60 seconds before Bowie asked quietly:

“What about you?”

I swear he was batting his eyelashes, which, by the way, really made that dilated pupil stand out in a striking, almost handsome fashion.

Huh? Wha …? I stammered. Oh boy, he was asking if … Don’t blow this. I looked behind me to check, ridiculously, for the Pittsburgh guys.

I finally blurted out: “Of course, yes.”

More giggles from the buddy, then they turned to their food. I was dismissed.

David Bowie had just messed with me like he did for years with the squares and homophobes of that time. And, as was his hallmark, he did it with style, and mischief, and fun.

I never told that to the Pittsburgh guys this whole story, but I think I’m safe now. Most of them are too frail or lame or worse (you cannot punch someone in the back of the head when you’re dead, right?) to give me much grief now.

At that moment when the rock star and friend had me stammering, I had to do something. Truth is, I faux-flirted back.

Maureen, that autograph cost me. You better still have it.



When death doesn’t bring tears

I’m in my sixth decade now but I still recall crying outside my parents’ bedroom as a child.
It was always mom who would awake.
She would envelop me with a hug and hear out my worries, basically the same worry every night: I was afraid she or dad or my brothers and sisters would die.
She would kid me about being a big boy, how I was tougher than tears, how we had real things to worry about, like cleaning up the yard or the cellar. But she would make room for me in the bed or put a cushion on the floor and reach down to pat me on the back or tousle my hair — until I found sleep.
Sometimes, if dad protested, mom and I would find somewhere else to go and talk.
It went something like this:
She said: “Honey, why are you worried about that? No one is sick. We’re not going to die.”
“Everyone dies, mom.”
“Yes, but we’re healthy and we should live for years and years. And, you might not understand this now, but when your father and I are old, you will have lots of other things to worry about – a job, a wife, your own kids. ”
Then, like a good Catholic mom, she would add something along this line: “You know, honey, if your father and I play our cards right, we’ll go to heaven. And you don’t have to worry for souls in heaven, right?”
I had heard that one before. As much as I tried to cipher it, I landed on skepticism.
“How can a mom and dad be happy in heaven if their kids aren’t up there with them? And how could the kids be happy still down here without their parents?”
(This could have been one of the first signs I would grow up to be a journalist. They say I asked a lot of questions that were not easy to answer.)
Mom put up with lots of strange questions, and more, from her kids and husband, her devoted spouse for six decades. We were a household of eight without much money but too many crazy neighbors and crazier relatives. Mom worked hard to try to keep us safe, fed and happy – all while trying very hard to not be boring — because dad had to spend many hours at his job.
We kids reciprocated, eventually. We also worked hard to keep her laughing and entertained, even after she began, more than a decade ago, to become confused and anxious and, at times, very sad. Her long illness included pain and anger and vacillation between attacks on my dad and demands for his attention.
The other day, on Dec. 9, she
I wasn’t there. It hasn’t sunk in. I have not cried.
I like to think that her counsel was wise so many years ago. As my life as a husband and dad and journalist became fuller, my fear for my parents dropped to a lower rung in my worry docket — that list that undulates, front-of-mind, like the TV storm alerts showing the towns where the tornado is headed next.
Mom lived until 86 doing a long disturbing dance of the mind that no one should have to try to understand. My siblings, to their credit, tried harder than me. My dad stuck by her as long as he physically could. He died March 10, 2013.
Living farthest away than all of them the last few years, I rationalized staying farthest away more than I tried to visit.
I was hospitalized with a strange throat ailment when mom died. I could not get to the quick service for her and haven’t yet gotten together with any of my siblings.
I need to find more photos, like the one attached to this writing.
I need to remind myself who she was – that feisty Maggie Iseman with the quick left jab and quicker wit.
I need to resurrect that 5-foot-2 Irishwoman who loved to write poetry but once slammed a neighbor kid who had held me at knifepoint atop the hood of a car … that high-school dropout who learned more words than most CEOs … that middle-aged mom who decided she would deal with increasing danger in our neighborhood by signing the whole family up for Judo defense classes then practicing our throws on mattresses in the front rooms of our corner house. (Hey, isn’t that the Judo lady and her kids. Let them pass.)
Tears will come then, I know. But not kid tears.
Forget the clichés. No one cries like a baby – except a baby.
Good parents like Maggie Iseman know that kids gotta be tougher than that.