Friday, August 10, 2018

Taking the kids on the train to NYC

(717 words)

We’re four hours into an eight-hour train ride to New York City and I’m once again reminded of the late John Clouse, for years The Guinness World Record holder for World’s Most Traveled Man.

He’d been to something like 364 of the world’s 365 countries, islands and territories.

For me, he was the World’s Most Entertaining Story Source. 

Anytime an editor would summon me with an assignment about something exotic, I knew to call John, a six-times married-and-divorced WWII Battle of Bulge veteran and the most beguiling storyteller I’ve ever known.

I think of John — he died about 12 years ago — anytime I board a train, something I used to do twice a year, and something he told me he reveled in.

“I’ve ridden everything with legs or wheels,” he said, “and nothing beats the train.”

That declaration may surprise you Type A sorts who are aware of Amtrak’s sometimes casual notion of punctual scheduling.

It’s not as bad as it used to be, but the passenger trains were once notoriously late, often for hours at a time.

I remember doing my typical train gush to a friend and he said he once took the train from Latrobe to Chicago when an inexplicable breakdown occurred.

“I spent three hours,” he said, “staring at the same cow’s ass.”

I still defend rail riding even though I was once the incredulous victim of a still-hard-to-believe eight-hour foul-up.

It was in the late ’90s, pre-cell phone days. I waited eight hours on the Latrobe platform for a train to take me to Manhattan. 

Do you know how much time you spend staring west down miles of track hoping you’ll spy the beaming headlight of an east-bound train?

About 7 hours and 57 minutes.

Every couple hours I’d dash away to a payphone to check on progress. And every time, the Amtrak rep said, “It could be a while or it could be 15 minutes. Better hold tight.”

When the 8:20 a.m. locomotive finally dawdled in at 3:30 p.m., I was furious and got on the train expecting a riot. But there was none. All were serene.

I asked a fellow passenger about the absence of uproar.

“Oh, everyone is angry when they board,” he said, “but then they find out the good news: They’re givin’ away free chicken up front!”

Woo! Hoo!

I learned two things that day: there will never be such a thing as “train rage” and that the only thing better than buying a bucket of the Colonel’s secret recipe is getting to eat it for free as you watch the Pennsylvania countryside roll on by.

“I’ve ridden everything with wheels or legs and nothing beats the train.”
Oh, how I miss being able to call that man. We never met and one of my life’s regrets is I never ventured out to Evansville to join him for one of his legendary Happy Hours.

I can’t mention him without telling my favorite John Clouse story.

Playboy magazine in 2001 was doing a series of “What’s it like to …” stories and wanted to know if I knew anyone who’d ever dined on testicles. Why they thought I’d be the perfect writer to sink my teeth into this topic is a matter about which I’d rather not speculate.

I called John right away and asked if he’d ever eaten testicles. He confirmed my wisdom in calling him by answering, “What kind?”

Anything unusual?

“Well, I once dined on some elephant balls. It was in a restaurant in Berlin that was serving ‘Elephant Soup Burundi.’ And, no, they didn’t come in a really big bowl.”

It’s a great train story and that’s what I love most about riding the train. Every train ride is a conversation incubator.

We talk to strangers, to staffers, seatmates and we lavish talk on our loved ones.

I’m so pleased my daughters are enjoying the sublime novelty of a great American train ride and just hope the sometimes quirky mechanics of the train don’t bestow on them the unwelcome opportunity to study for a couple of hours the same cow’s ass.

Because right now we’re having a ball.

And, no, not the kind that comes in a really big bowl.

Related …

Monday, August 6, 2018

Am I a celebrity? Uh, nope ...

(646 words)

The question is being asked with enough frequency I figure it’s time I address the issue.

Am I a celebrity?

I am not.

A celebrity is someone of enduring appeal, someone of ample means and name recognition, a unifying element capable of dominating pop culture. A celebrity is, oh, say, for example, hmmm, Arnold Palmer? He died worth about $800 million and has a popular drink named after him.

I have very little money, perhaps because I usually have a popular drink right in my hand.

Clearly, Arnold Palmer’s a celebrity and I’m not.

So what am I?

I’m a tourist attraction!

People stop by to see me, grab some refreshments, take some pictures and then depart feeling vaguely hungover and wondering what the hell just happened.

Me, I’m enjoying the heck out of it.

It all started with the four retired lesbians — and I should clarify: I know they are retired and I simply anecdotally inferred they were lesbians.

I don’t know if you can even retire from a thing like that. 

But they were just lovely. One of them knocked on my door in the afternoon and said, “Oh, we’re so sorry to disturb you. My friends and I are big Arnie Palmer fans and all bought your book when we heard you speak in Oakmont and wanted to come out and see all the places you wrote about. And we were hoping you weren’t too busy for us to buy you a beer.”

I’ve never been able to find a way to skillfully convey how I’m never busy and that anyone on the planet at any time of the day or night is welcome to barge into my office and cheerfully tell me they want to buy me a beer.

In my entire life I’ve only been truly busy twice and both times involved my obligatory presence during the births of our daughters — and I’m pretty sure Val and the crackerjack OBGYN team could have soldiered on without me if a sudsy stranger popped in and said he wanted to buy books and beers.

I’m thinking of tacking a “DO NOT DISTURB!” sign for my office door and using duck tape to block out the first two words so visitors will see the sign and feel obliged to DISTURB! me. 

Strangers wanting to meet me at the Tin Lizzy and buy me a drink is a phenomenon that’s becoming surprisingly common.

On Friday it was my new friend Ben (not his real name). We met at Flappers on the second floor. He texted me he’d be the one wearing jeans and a red golf shirt.

I texted back I’d be the one who looks like an inebriated writer and spelled it “ineebriated.”

Ben’s an interesting man. He’s retired U.S. Air Force who spent most of his career servicing Air Force One and other high security planes in top secret hangars at Joint Base Andrews near the nation’s capital. He went from there straight to a position with Raytheon.

I asked how he and his colleagues spent their hush-hush days with this top defense contractor.

“We all sit around reading your blog,” he said. “It’s hilarious.”

If you think it’s hilarious now, Ben, just wait till you see the post I write after I persuade you to use your top secret security clearance to sneak me onto Air Force One so I can surreptitiously put Saran Wrap over all the toilet bowls.

I dream of the day when some covert operative conceives an undercover sneak to get all the people who love the blog to pay for the blog.

Ben bought 10 signed Palmer books so he’s off the hook. 

But, please, if you’re in the neighborhood feel free to stop up and buy some books or just shoot the breeze.

It’s nice being busy, but it’s more fun spending your days being just a wee bit disturbed. 

Related …

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Time to change town name from Youngstown to Palmerville

Because it would lure ample tourist dollars to a needy destination, I’m proposing we rename Youngstown, Pa., … 


Youngstown, pop. 314, was founded in 1800 by the Young family of pioneers back in 1800.

Like nobody would have found it in the next week or so. Heck, I can’t be sure but I think the local Taco Bell opened in 1804.

And what kind of pioneers come to within a day’s ride of Pittsburgh and say, “Okay, whoa, that’s far enough.”

These dainty souls were the sort who when they heard Horace Greeley say, “Go west, young man,” must have thought he was talking about Irwin, today a Pennsylvania Turnpike interchange thriving enough to support not one but two Sheetz convenience marts.

(Note: Sheetz convenience stores sell practically everything but sheets and asking the clerk for sheets is funny maybe once, but leaves them acting genuinely pissed after five days.)

And because the Young family stuck us with Youngstown we’re forever being confused with Youngstown, Ohio, a Rust Belt city so downtrodden Bruce Springsteen wrote a morose song about it in 1995 and in 23 years nothing’s happened that would warrant a lyrical brightening.

So there’s the sound reasons for dropping Youngstown, a handle with zero zip or zing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love it here — and so did the man I propose we honor with a splashy name change, a man who could have been pampered in palaces around the planet, but chose to live and die on the same Youngstown Street where he was born.

I’m, of course, talking about Arnold Palmer.

Can you imagine the global publicity if we announced we were changing the name from Youngstown to Palmerville? Golf Channel would cover it live. Tourists would pour in by the busloads.

It’s happening already. About every week or so, I’m summoned to the bar to meet someone who’d heard me speak or had bought the book and wanted to pilgrimage to the Tin Lizzy and visit some of the other Palmer landmarks.

I was flattered just last week when four lovely women in their 60s came knocking on my office door at 2:30 p.m.

“We heard you talk at the Mt. Lebanon Library and bought your book,” one said. “We decided to make a day trip. We visited the Palmer Nature Reserve, the airport, the hotel, the country club and we were hoping to finish the day by having a beer with you right here at The Tin Lizzy. I hope it’s not too early for you to have a beer.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d already downed three at lunch. 

We had a wonderful time. They said they’d be back. 

I say by then it’ll be time we welcome them back to Palmerville!

This sounds facetious, but I’m serious. How serious?

I’m pestering former Pennsylvania Gov. and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to get involved. Arnold Palmer has no greater booster than Ridge. Here’s some of what Ridge told me for my book that leads me to believe he’ll be supportive: 

“There’s no question there’s an enormous appetite to perpetuate his legacy,” Ridge says. “People are always going to want to see the town where Arnold Palmer grew up, see his workshop, his office, his memorabilia and play the course where he grew up.”
Arnold Palmer put Youngstown on the map.

It’s time we return the favor.

Related …

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

And Latrobe's best hugger is? Notes from my hug-filled week

That so many women are popping up out of nowhere to give me long soulful hugs makes me glad I last week didn’t reveal I have leprosy.

If I’ve learned anything from the past week since I declared I have Parkinson’s Disease it’s that it feels good to tell people you’re not well. They tell you they’re going to pray for you, offer rides and household assistance and just hug the heck out of you.

They’ve hugged me in the bar, on the sidewalk, in the grocery store, the post office — all over the place.

I’m grateful because the human hug can be very therapeutic. Studies show a daily hug can boost immunity, lower stress, increase self-esteem and reduce depression.

All hail the hug!

It can do all that and it can do something even more magical.

The hug can make you horny!

Most human intimacy begins with a simple hug, the most notable exception being the transactional intimacy with your common hooker usually proceeded by the mood-killing question, “So, how much?”

Or so I’m told.

The stormy passions that led to the conception of most of our children begin with loving hugs.

I tried to put all this far, far out of my mind when I was in the plumbing fixtures aisle at the True Value hardware when I was hit with a hug so surprising I nearly dropped my new plunger.

And, oh, what a hug it was.

It was enveloping. It was supple. It was warm. It was enduring.

It was Burt.

I never knew Burt could excel at hugging like that. Belching, yes. Deer-gutting, sure. Hugging, no.

How wrong I was. I’m not using his real name because I don’t want to embarrass him. But for my money Burt’s the best hugger in town. This bear-like man wrapped me up in his arms and literally lifted me off the ground as he whispered soul-stirring encouragement.

I’ve been pleased by the number of my male friends who’ve stepped up for quick manly hugs. Hugs are literally touching. And to have male friends old and new express such encouraging affection really moves me.

See, I live in a part of the nation where many heterosexual men still feel awkward putting their arms around another man in a place where other men might see it.

Places like the hardware store. Get busted hugging there and, guaranteed, you’ll hear three “Brokeback Mountain” jokes before the manly uncoupling.

Maybe it was what he said that made the hug seem so extra special. Because what he said to me is what in these challenging times we all need to hear.

“You’re going to be all right. Stay positive. Don’t give up. We’re all praying for you. If you need anything — anything at all — just let me know. We’ll take care of you.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Feel free to imagine great, big Burt saying those heartfelt words to you with his arms wrapped around your quivering torso.

That’s I felt so bad I giggled hysterically throughout this whole emotional interlude. It wasn’t I felt awkward or weird.

I’m mature. I’m enlightened. I’m progressive.

But I’m also about a foot shorter than Burt and his beard kept tickling my bald spot.

• Thanks to all of you, my friends, who took time to express concern and encouragement over my diagnosis. If I didn’t respond, I apologize. It was as overwhelming as it was touching.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

So, okay, I have Parkinson's

How many of you, my friends, are confused by that headline confession? Parkinson’s? Parkinson’s what? Parkinson’s galoshes? Parkinson’s kite? Parkinson’s fruit salad?

No. I have Parkinson’s Disease. So do more than 1 million men mostly and women in America. The average age onset is 60.

I am 55.

I first began noticing the unsettling symptoms in October 2015 when the left side of my body seemed to begin shutting down. My left arm would hang like dead meat at my side. A slight limp began to develop as my left foot disobediently dragged. 

Always a crackerjack typist, crisp keyboard strokes became tentative and at times impossible. The fingers on my left hand refused to obey cranial commands that had until recently been split-second instinctive. 

Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. So on a miserable day in early February I was given the miserable task of having to drive to Pittsburgh’s UPMC Hospital to undergo a $10,000 DAP test that involved injecting me with nuclear isotopes that would circulate throughout my brain.

And on Valentine’s Day, just before lunch, all alone in my shabby little office, I found out in the most graceless way possible I was one of 60,000 Americans each year who learn we have this progressive neurological disorder that in its most severe cases can rob victims of even the most basic motor skills right down to the ability to blink one’s eye.

My grim informant had no time for blow-softening small talk: “Well, your test results came back and are consistent with Parkinson’s Disease. There is no cure.”

I went quiet so long she must have thought I’d either dropped the phone or dropped dead.

“You still there?”

I mumbled confirmation. What could I expect was going to happen?

“Can you still feed yourself?”

I told her I’d managed to down a donut that morning, but that some of the rainbow sprinkles fell on my lap. Will the inability to swallow strike by lunch? 

“Well, you should really talk to the doctor.”

I told her I couldn’t believe the doctor, whom I’ve come to like, would outsource such a sensitive phone call to someone so clearly insensitive.

Even though I’ve known I have it for five months, I’m still remarkably ignorant of what I’m up against. In fact, I hadn’t even typed the word Parkinson’s into a search engine until this morning when I needed to look up the above statistics.

Believing that I’m an individual and that the disease strikes individuals differently, I didn’t want to burden my psyche with blanket fears.

Note: it’s not Parkinson’s Condition, Parkinson’s Malady or Parkinson’s Inconvenience; It’s Parkinson’s Disease. So semantically at least this is some serious shit. Doctors have told me they have patients in their 70s who with treatment display no visible symptoms. They tell me my relative fitness and otherwise sunny disposition mean I’m a good candidate for a rosy eventuality.

But seared into my memory is a conversation with an old neighbor from the street where I was raised. We golf together once a year and a couple of years ago I introduced him to Arnold Palmer. It was the first time I think he looked at me and didn’t see a runny-nosed kid riding his Big Wheel.

I treasure his friendship. 

It was about four years ago he confided in me his sweet wife of 35 years had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. We talked about it for a compelling 30 minutes and to this day all I remember him saying are two words with dreadful conviction as he drilled me with his eyes.

“It’s horrible … horrible.”

She’s in dire straits — and, no, not the cool one where Mark Knopfler, one of my very favorite performers, sings and plays peerless guitar.

Coincidentally, it was Dire Straits who in 1982 released a song that contains the only mention of any Parkinson I’ve ever heard or known of. It’s on “Industrial Disease,” a catchy number about unregulated factory ailment and what it can do to a man. Pertinent lyrics:

“Dr. Parkinson declared: ‘I’m not surprised to find you here
You’ve got smoker’s cough from smoking, brewer’s droop from drinking beer

I don’t know how you’ve come to get those Bette Davis knees
But worst of all, young man, you’ve got Industrial Disease!’

I wonder if the victim maintains the ability to blink.

In fact, the disease was named for London physician James Parkinson who in 1817 begun groundbreaking research into what since AD 175 had been known as “shaking palsy.”

I don’t yet do much shaking. My left arm — I thank God it’s, so far, not my dominant right side — shakes when it’s cold, when I use it to lift plates into a cupboard or when it’s under stress. Sometimes when I’m nervous and giving a speech it begins to shake so I put my hand in my pocket to conceal the quiver. It’s not a good look, but I wouldn’t want the shaking to distract from what I’m trying to say.

I wonder if in five years I’ll read that last sentence and marvel at my quaint innocence.

“… horrible … horrible.”

Right now the limp is the worst. I walk like a man who looks like a man who with every desperate step appears to be trying to walk like a man.

It’s been an embarrassment for about the last year. People look and wonder, geez, what the hell’s wrong with that guy?

Maybe I should begin to gauge their cool by telling them it’s “Industrial Disease” and see who gets it.

I didn’t want to say anything sooner because I wanted to enjoy the successful release of the Palmer book — a true professional high — and because, being blessed with so many empathetic friends, I knew the news would bum you out.

Man, it’s bummin’ me out, too!

I keep trying to find a silver lining and the only one I can think of is that soon this inability to blink means I’ll be able to really give ‘em all hell in the staring contests.

Why me, I ask.

Did I have this coming? Did I ever make fun of someone with a disability? Is this karma circling back to kick my ass?

Then I remember I stopped believing in karma the day I woke up and incredulously realized Tom Petty is dead and Dick Cheney isn’t.

Could jokes like that be the reason?

I didn’t tell my little darlings, ages 17 and 12, until Sunday afternoon. It was not easy. I love them so much and dread the reality that one of the most difficult aspects of their lives may one day involve caring for me. 

I told them about the symptoms, the treatments and prognosis and said if they ever noticed me stumbling coming home from the bar late at night it wasn’t because Daddy was drunk. It was because Daddy has Parkinson’s.

Amazingly, they bought it.

Well, not Val.

Because of rampant infant mortality, the average life expectancy of a male born in America in 1850 was a measly 38.5 years. And that was before a single Civil War bullet was fired in hostility. 

I think many people view me as youthful or, well, maybe juvenile is a better word.

But, c’mon, 55 is pretty old. Some decrepitude is inevitable.  And for five decades I’ve had a really great body.

And I don’t mean that the way a swimsuit model does.

I had a strapping healthy body for all the meaty years when having a healthy body is a real boon for a young man eager to have raucous fun.

I think about my body and its first 50 years the way many of you feel about that old jalopy you had in college: high mileage, low maintenance. It never needed an oil change, was great in the snow and was nimble enough to parallel park between a Mercedes and a Cadillac with both owners obsessively watching. You’d need two hands to count the number of times you’d run it into the trees and it miraculously seemed like it’d bounced right off without a a scratch.

My body climbed mountains and skied down them. It was agile enough to on the very same night run from police and chase girls. It ate like Elvis, jumped out of planes, wrestled alligators and partied so hard and irresponsibly it birthed drinking legends that endure to this day among sober witnesses.

In many ways, it’s not surprising that a body that’s been through all that is breaking down at 55. What’s surprising is it ever made it past 38.5.

Why me?

Really, with the joyful and rambunctious life I’ve led, it’s fair to ask,  “Why not me?”

For me, the most confounding aspect of all this is professional, a surprise result for someone who since 1992 has wallowed in being utterly unprofessional. But this is not the way this story is supposed to end.

“… horrible … horrible”

I cannot abide an unhappy ending and I don’t intend for this to be one of them. I’m already being diligent about exercise and other recommended behaviors. It’s all a reminder how our  happy little lives can be taken away in the blink of an eye.

But not if we cease to blink!

See, I knew there’d be a silver lining in there somewhere.