Writer, Humorist,
Stunt Double



Guidance Counseling for Parents by John Shields | November 9 , 2008

The author is a former teacher and high school baseball coach and a father of three – which is to say, penniless.

Look Out, Fiddle Fern! by John Shields | January 23, 2008

A few months ago, I let my subscription to Harper’s lapse, but, shortly after, I had second thoughts and renewed it.

Encore, Sam and Bertha Venation by John Shields | February 20, 2008

It’s been a fun week, personally, on the language front. Good and bad. Let’s start with the bad.

Day Minding at a Glance by John Shields | December 12, 2007

I call it a calendar, but technically speaking it’s an “appointment book.” Either way, it’s indispensable – I’m not a Personal Digital Assistant kind of guy – and I’m due for my 2008 one.

A.K.A. Why Bother? by John Shields | November 20, 2007

It takes a special kind of homemaker to distinguish the truly purposeless from the merely tedious.



Guidance Counseling for Parents                                 


The author is a former teacher and high school baseball coach and a father of three – which is to say, penniless. But because he is also a master calligrapher and licensed bail bondsman, he regularly receives child-rearing inquiries from parents of students, student-athletes, and athlete-quote-students-unquote. Here is a sampling, culled from the hundreds he reads daily:

Dear Coach Shields:

With the baseball playoffs on TV each night, should I allow my son to stay up late to see the game or should I send him to bed at his normal 8:30 time? He is nine years old.


Conflicted in Philly 

Dear Conflicted:

Nothing is as important as an education, and if your son is staying up until 1 a.m. to watch a baseball game, he’ll be a zombie in school the next day and maybe even the day after. But so what? Most kids are zombies in school, even the ones who are in bed by 8:30. Not only should your son be allowed to stay up until the final out, but I’d strongly encourage you to let him to watch the post-game show as well.


Dear Coach:

My 17-year-old high school senior is a baseball junkie. First he watches the game, then the Comcast post-game show, then Sports Center on ESPN, and then he watches the post-game show on Comcast again before hitting Sports Center one more time. I’ve heard that teenagers need at least nine hours of sleep a night. How can I get him back on a schedule? With the World Series coming up, I’m afraid for his health.


Jamie Moyer

Dear Jamie:

First of all, he is on a schedule. Just not the one you’d like. And, yes, you’re right; he does need at least nine hours of sleep a day. More, even. But he can pick up at least three of them in school, especially if he’s on block scheduling. And since he’s a senior, he’s already checked out of school emotionally. My advice for the World Series: let him bet on the over/under to hone his basic math skills.


Dear Sensei:

Last week, our daughter, who’s 18, was stopped by the police and charged with the possession of stolen calligraphy brushes. In the holding room at the police station, she used a concealed brush she’d been wearing as a hairpin to draw an elaborate haiku on the wall. When the arresting officers entered and saw that it was only a 15-syllable haiku and not the classic 17-syllable art form that was popular in the 7th century Tenmu Dynasty, she was charged with a felony. We don’t have enough money to post bail now that our General Motors stock has tanked. It’s driving us crazy. When we heard this was right up your alley, we decide to write. What can we do?


Loco parentes 

Dear Locos:

It’s always troublesome when a son or daughter has a brush with the law (heh,heh). Call me about the bail. I can give you a very favorable rate. Meanwhile, tell your daughter to resist the urge to sign anything.


Dear Adjunct Professor Shields:

My son cut school last Friday to go to the Phillies parade with his friends, and now his coach won’t allow him to play in this week’s big football game. The coach had told the team they had to be in school that day, and what the consequences would be if they went to the parade instead. My son’s a starting linebacker, and there are going to be college coaches at the game. I think the coach should find some other way of holding my son accountable for breaking the rules. Couldn’t he just not play him next week instead, when the scouts won’t be there? What do you think?



Dear TS:

That’s a tough one. The chance that your son will impress a college scout vs. his willful disobedience of a team rule. I’d say do what many other disgruntled parents do these days when something as silly as the concept of “team” gets in the way: try to get the coach fired, preferably before this week’s game.  


Next week, Coach explains the difference between the SAT and the ACT to parents who always thought that “sat” was an act. 


©2008 John Shields


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Look Out, Fiddle Fern!

A few months ago, I let my subscription to Harper’s lapse, but, shortly after, I had second thoughts and renewed it. I guess it took awhile for the paperwork to catch up, because nothing came in the mail from them until last week, and then I received three issues at once.

This made me happy. It meant I could glut myself on three months of “Findings” at one sitting.

For those of you unfamiliar with the “Findings” page, here’s how I described it in an earlier column:
The “Findings” page is a compilation of what its title says it is, findings, from various investigative fields. There is no commentary, no editorializing, just a matter-of-fact presentation with an understating effect that can be laugh-out-loud funny. The end result is a fascinating monthly briefing on what we’re learning about – and doing to – ourselves and our world.

There were so many good ones in the three issues that I felt it was time to share them with you again, as I did in that earlier piece. As then, I’ve added a little editorializing of my own. Only, this time, for variety, I put it in the form of a matching test. The findings are listed numerically; my comments, alphabetically. Match the comment with the finding it’s intended for.

  1. Neuroscientists identified an irrelevance filter in the brain’s basal ganglia.
  2. The British Defense Ministry unveiled an invisible tank.
  3. Giving birth to a son will shorten a woman’s lifespan by an average of 34 weeks.
  4. A survey found that 10 percent of Americans believe the Internet brings them closer to God, while 6 percent feel that it makes God more distant.
  5. Researchers found that students whose names begin with “A” or “B” tend to receive better grades than students whose names begin with “C” or “D.”
  6. An American study sequenced the genome of dandruff.
  7. Scientists announced that divorce and bagpipes are bad for the environment.
  8. In Australia, thousands of crocodiles were found to be suffering from chlamydia.
  9. A study calculated that 35 percent of American small-business owners are dyslexic.
  10. Peruvian villagers living near the site of a recent meteor crash contracted an imaginary illness.
  11. Plants can warn one another of danger.


  1. But Baby Bear says it makes God feel just right.
  2. Uh-oh, trouble in Shampoo Land.
  3. That psychologists there are calling “Lima Beans.”
  4. My barber contends it’s 53 percent.
  5. And raising a daughter will triple that figure.
  6. Is “unveiled” the word we’re going for here?
  7. They did not say what happens to students whose names begin with “F,” but we can infer it isn’t good.
  8. Thanks to cellular communication.
  9. I don’t see how that’s relevant.
  10. Here’s what I want to know: How did they find that out?
  11. There is conflicting opinion about accordions.

And then there are ones like this one, for which any comment would be superfluous but what the hell:

“Male African bat bugs were found to have developed vaginas that look different from those of their female counterparts, in order to reduce their chances of being sexually attacked by other males who pierce their abdomen with hypodermic penises and inject sperm into their bloodstreams; female bat bugs have retaliated by acquiring male vaginas.”

Wouldn’t it have been easier to just have an invisible tank?

Answers: 1-I, 2-F, 3-E, 4-A, 5-G, 6-B, 7-K, 8-J, 9-D, 10-C, 11-H


©2008 John Shields

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Encore, Sam and Bertha Venation

It’s been a fun week, personally, on the language front. Good and bad. Let’s start with the bad.

Regular readers will recall my friends at SM Editors, a.k.a. PROFESSional Editors & Writers. They of the butchered English who would, for a fee, improve yours. You’ll have a chuckle knowing that they continue to inhabit my email. It appears they’re trying to collect money owed them and are confusing their clients with their employees, both of which they apparently consider me to be and neither of which I am. Their message to me this time:

Probably we may not be able to locate you through this email due to any reason in which case the management will contact your department in the matter.

Good luck doing that.

Now, some of you may not see anything wrong with the syntax in that veiled threat. If you don’t, you are a prime candidate for SHIELDS EDITING SERVICES and may contact me for a quote at the email address below.

On the good side, a friend recently asked to borrow a book from me entitled Maybe He’s Dead. The book (long out of print but a few used copies on Amazon) is a compilation of reader responses to various humor competitions held in the ‘70s by New YorkMagazine. Each week, the magazine would announce the nature of the competition, e.g., “Punned Foreign Phrases” or “Near Misses,” and publish the best of the submissions.

Examples, respectively, from the above two categories: “Sodom and Begorrah – Racy Irish balladeers” and “The Phillies of Penzance.”

Another category conducive to high wit was “Fractured Names,” in which competitors were asked to create a fanciful name and an occupation to go with it. Like these:
SEMIMODO – The halfback of Notre Dame.
FATHER NOSEBEST – Clergyman detective.
EDGAR ALLAN POOH – Writer, author of Christopher Raven.

Two of my favorite categories are “Near Misses” and “Sequels,” because they aren’t dependent on a tag line. They stand on the strength of their own absurdity and the reader’s recognition. For example, in “Near Misses”:

And among the best in “Sequels”:

Because much of the humor depends on a degree of cultural literacy, the book has timeless appeal. What’s more, you can use its categories anytime. Just noodling around in my head, I came up with a few contemporary “Fractured Names” myself:
ROGER CLEMENCY – Steroid pitcher with a buff request.
FEMALDEHYDE – Toxic substance found in post-Katrina New Orleans.
HILLARY FLINTIN’ – Democratic presidential candidate trying to steal Michigan delegates.
THE OTHER BOWLIN’ GIRL – Anne’s sister her rival. Betrayal and seduction on the Women’s PBA tour.

The friend who borrowed the book emailed a list of personal favorites to a bunch of us. As owner of this hard-to-find classic, I felt compelled to add a brief list of my own, some of which you read above. In doing so, I was reminded of another word game my friends and I played back in our single days, when time and laughs were more abundant.

A little background: The Trocadero in Philadelphia is now a concert venue but had its origins in burlesque, which, for any younger readers out there, was the pole dancing of its era. Another word for it: striptease.

In the waning days of that endearing art form, the owners brought in “strippers” who were essentially streetwalkers and gave them punny names like Cybil Rights and Luna Landing. The names had weak, accompanying tag lines.

My friends and I felt we were capable of much better, and we began proving it.
CARMEN MONOXIDE: She’ll take your breath away.
GWEN ADE: Her pineapples are weawwy explosive.
JULIE CAESAR: Come, see, be conquered.

And perhaps our most inspired:
She may be scantily clad, but she’s always NATALIE DRESSED.

So what’s stopping us from picking up where we left off? Between the Maybe He’s Dead categories and stripper names, we can entertain ourselves for months. And with the way jokes circulate online, who knows? We could be famous. New Hope, PA: Home of the World’s Best Stripper Names.

The heat from the first reborn creative sparks is already beginning to be felt. Just yesterday we came up with two, brand-new stripper names: Brenda Rules (You’re putty in her hands) and Oona Roll (the best place for your kielbasa).

So let’s get on it, New Hope. Send in your inspired sequels, near misses, punned foreign phrases, fractured names, and, of course, strippers to the email address below:


The winner will receive a copy of that near-classic of American literature, The Penultimate Mohican, signed by F. Stop Fitzgerald himself.


©2008 John Shields

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Day Minding at a Glance

I call it a calendar, but technically speaking it’s an “appointment book.” Either way, it’s indispensable – I’m not a Personal Digital Assistant kind of guy – and I’m due for my 2008 one.

A straightforward purchase, right? Just get the one I had last year and the year before. But it’s never that simple for me. I’m a frustrated engineer at heart, and, every year, I examine the design of appointment books as if buying one for the first time. Like Groundhog Day in Staples. Let me tell you, there are more appointment book options to choose from than there are appointment books. To wit:

  • Appointments to start at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m.?
  • Daily, weekly or monthly format?
  • Hours showing or just blank lines?
  • Times by the quarter hour?
  • A 12-month book or a 13-month book?
  • Address and phone number section?

Think about those last two. Who needs a 13-month appointment book? I’ll tell you who: terribly disorganized people who can’t get it together to go out and buy a new book before the current year ends. People like me.

When I finally buy the new book sometime around Super Bowl weekend, then I have to transfer into it all the January appointments that have piled up in the back of the old book, even though most of them have already been kept.

So let me modify that description to read “terribly disorganized yet paradoxically anal people.”

And the address/phone number section? Ever since address books relocated to computers and PDAs, who even uses that section anymore? It’s an informational ghost town, with alphabetical tabs. So why pay extra for it?

Because I’m stupid.

While we’re on the subject of appointment books, there are two disturbing trends I’m noticing: large-print versions and a shrinking of the space called “evening.” It’s bad enough that the evening space I’m currently allotted is the width of two strands of linguine. But now, in the large-print versions, they’ve shrunk it to half of that (that’s one strand, for you visual learners).

I don’t need a filament-sized evening section to tell me I have no life. The large print already does that. And even if by some genetic mutation or clerical error I had something eventful scheduled for the evening slot, it’d be too hard for me to read anyway, undermining the sole purpose of the large print.

Standing there in the store aisle for 45 minutes, analyzing the merchandise and tantalizing the security cameras, I conclude that appointment books are designed only for the 9-to-5 types (okay, 7-to-5). There are no graveyard-shift appointment books. And none that accurately reflect life as lived by frazzled moms and dads with children who are too young to drive.

The latter’s appointment book would begin at 2 p.m., when the kids are almost finished school, and go until 11. The 6-to-10 p.m. slots would be patio-size. “Morning” would be pasta-dimensional.

Reviewing some of the other design considerations:

Even the useless address-and-phone-number section is more useful to me than a space for a 7 a.m. appointment is.

As for format, I prefer weekly. One company’s book is configured to view the days of the week in adjacent columns. This arrangement looks inviting at first, because it creates maximum evening space for my action-packed, post-sundown existence. But then I see what can happen as one day’s appointments stand side by side with the next’s:

“Eval. Johnny’s wisdom teeth Donna’s house”
“Replace whole house filter Need referral”
“King Tut Organ Awareness dash”

In the end, I settle on the same book I get every year. The one that lets me cling to the illusion of having a night life and reminds me that June 24th is St. Jean Baptiste Day in Quebec.


©2007 John Shields

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A.K.A. Why Bother?

It takes a special kind of homemaker to distinguish the truly purposeless from the merely tedious. That’s why I’m sure you’ll agree that the top entries in the first annual Least Essential Chore Contest have really hit the nail on the head, which, by the way, placed a respectable sixth in the Most Essential Chore Contest.

Contestants were asked to submit a totally pointless household task, accompanied by a brief, one-sentence comment justifying their entries.

Greg Groutgrime, a college senior and member of the Kappa Zeta Jones fraternity at the University of Pittsburgh, submitted “Refilling the Jet-Dry dispenser.” Greg wrote, “It was a toss-up between that and locating the Jet-Dry dispenser, and anyway, doesn’t the blue circle mean the battery’s okay?”

“Vacuuming the basement steps,” wrote Kyle Spreadsheetz, a 28-year-old slacker who still lives with his parents and plays his Nintendo Wii six hours a day in – where else? – the basement. “That’s what the door’s there for,” says Kyle.

“Scrubbing the mineral deposits off the shower head,” said filtration expert Maya Deltalady. According to Maya, “You can fix that problem by installing a water-softening tank or moving.”

Lynn Kenmore-Sauers, fulltime at-home mother of six and about at the end of her housekeeping rope, submitted “Folding the underwear” shortly before leaping, panty-less, from the west rim of the Grand Canyon on her first vacation in 20 years. Her supporting statement, “Tell them I’m …” was ruled sufficient to qualify her despite the fact that it was not a complete sentence.

“Writing your most frequently dialed numbers on that piece of paper in the wall phone,” said Yao Ming, the 7’6” All-Star center for the Houston Rockets. “I can’t read them that far away and they’re always at a right angle to your line of sight anyway, not to mention that cell phones store numbers automatically, rendering that little piece of paper  irrelevant,” said the man whose English three years ago was limited to “Pass it to me I dunk.”

“Aligning the print cartridge,” wrote Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. “We put that in the instructions as a joke.”

Former school teacher and silver spoon owner Laura Bush nominated “flipping the mattress,” and had this to say about it: “Now that they only put the puffy quilting on one side, it just wouldn’t look right – not that I’ve ever had to personally flip a mattress in my life.” The judges agreed that she’d been given accurate information about the puffy quilting.

 “Fertilizing” was submitted by a consortium of men calling itself the “Mowing Riders of Suburbia.” “Who needs work that makes more work?” asked the Riders. It was hard to argue with them.

Outside in the lobby, various malcontents whose entries were received past the deadline carried signs announcing their favorite least essential household task:
“Saving your medical receipts”
“Washing the washer tub”

But in the end, the judges chose “removing the extra slats from the mini-blinds” as the absolute Least Essential Chore of all. The second place trophy, awarded posthumously, went to “folding the underwear,” with “vacuuming the basement steps” edging out “aligning the print cartridge” for third.

The mini-blinds entry was sent in by a Miss Havisham, a recluse who claims she doesn’t even know how to open hers. Of the slat-removal job, she wrote, “You have to be a real oddball to spend your time doing that.”

And a few other things, Miss Havisham. A few other things.


©2007 John Shields

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Bucks County, PA
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