Sunday, December 21, 2014

A heartwarming tale of Christmas Woe ... A holiday tradition

This is the story of one of the worst nights of my life. I like to share it with you over the holidays because, gee, a lot of people enjoy hearing about how someone else’s misery. I guess it’s just human nature. I’m happy to play my role in brightening your holiday by darkening mine.

I was in the concluding hours of one of those low-grade bad days. Stuck in traffic, work unproductive, loved ones ridiculed my haircut.

So my mood was grim as I sat down in the auditorium to watch the 5th grade Christmas assembly.

But as fate would have it, my day was destined to improve. I sat down next to a guy whose day was worse than mine. Malfunctioning car needed towed, crabby customers at work and then to top it all off he came home to learn the stupid dog got skunked.

I wish no ill on my fellow man, but if it has to happen I hope it happens on a day when they wind up sitting next to me. I left that assembly with all my Christmas cheer restored.

Nothing warms the downtrodden like hearing some other hapless mope is enduring a worse cosmic screwing.

Today is the 10th anniversary of what was until the 2004 death of my father the worst day of my life.

Thus, it is the most popular story I’ve ever told. It is among my friends becoming a Christmas tradition for them to gather ‘round and ask me over and over “Please! Please, tell the car story! Please!”

It’s like the scene from “The Waltons” where all the kids goad Grandpa into telling the story of the time he wrestled presents from Santa.

A friend of mine persuaded me to share it here, even though the telling of it will take almost twice as long as usual. I rarely take requests, but I recognize the value of vicarious woe. Plus it is the season of giving . . .

It was a dark a stormy night. Honest. It was snowing like crazy. I was happily ensconced in my bar enjoying boozy fellowship.

It had been, for me, a flush year, enough so that I’d splurged on some fancy new duds, including a $375 Ibiza sports coat. It was worth more than all the combined garments worn by the 20 or so patrons, worth more even than several of the duct-taped jalopies in the bar parking lot.

And this I pointed out multiple times to everyone there as I asked if they wanted to touch it.

Paul was there. He’s always there. He refused several offers to touch me and my jacket and seemed put off that I’d shown up in anything besides my standard flannel over a 1983 Molly Hatchet concert T-shirt.

If he wasn’t liking the fancy new me, well, tough. I told him he’d better get used to it.

Our wives showed up to drive us to the party. It was in a friend’s new house about 20 minutes away. We’d never been there. It was dark and snowing like crazy with about two-inches on the already damp ground.

This is the part of the story everyone forgets: I wasn’t driving. Val was. Paul and his wife were trailing us.

When I told Val to turn left she was confused by the snow-camouflaged landscape. I don’t blame her for all that happened next while stipulating if I’d have been driving none of it would have ever happened at all.

Instead of turning on the Westview Court, she turned the 2000 Chevy Cavalier into an adjacent steep and unplowed driveway. Paul and Patti did not. They turned down the road and stopped after recognizing our error.

And we got stuck. Bad. She’d overshot the darkened driveway and wound up in the yard below the vacant house.

Paul and I would need to try and push the car back onto the driveway and up the slope.

Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t think to take sartorial precautions. The ground was wet beneath the snow as we gave the car a mighty shove.

And I don’t know why what happened when Val gunned the accelerator only happened on the side I was pushing and not Paul’s.

It was like somebody had dipped a big paint brush and did one of those wrist flings that sprayed a two-inch-wide racing stripe of muddy grit from my knees, across my new jacket, clear up to my ears.

I remember looking up at Paul and seeing an expression of pure joy. It was like he was a kid on Christmas morning who’d just spied a big red wagon behind the tree.

Now, distraught, I’d need to go home and change. I told the three of them to go on without me. I’d meet them there later.

It was the first of three colossal mistakes. First, they’d get to the party without me. Everyone would ask where I was. They’d be free to embellish the story as they saw fit.

Second, there was no way I was going to get the car back up onto the road.

Third, I eventually told them everything that happened, inadvertently unloosing a legend.

The lay of the land made it look like I was 20 yards from a secondary road leading to an isolated house. In those pre-cell phone days, I thought I could drift the car backwards about 200 feet, find a friendly face and call for a tow.

I made it about 2/3 of the way there when the car drifted into a shag of bushes.

Emerging from the car was the moment I lost it because I immediately became ensnarled in jagger bushes. Dozens of needle-sharp barbs began snagging my pricey new jacket and tearing tiny cuts in my mud-splattered face.

It was the first time I’d ever engaged in fisticuffs with vegetation.

It wasn’t until I got free that I heard the barking dogs. I ignored the “Beware of Dog” signs on the fence and crept up to a beaten door with NRA and “No Solicitors” stickers in the windows.

I’m not ashamed to admit it, I was scared to death. The dogs sounded like starved Rottweilers and the cinder block structure looked isolated enough to make a dandy meth lab.

And here I was peeking through the window with a face streaked with blood and mud. I felt knocking might risk gun fire without warning.

So I crept back to the car, crawled in the passenger side and decided to take my chances drifting backwards. The car began sliding and I immediately lost all control.

I can’t say I thought I was going to die, but I did think my night was going to end with trauma surgeons scissoring off my fancy sports coat to assess the damage to my vital organs.

Because in mid-flight, the passing scenery proved I was wrong about my surroundings. This wasn’t a secondary road at all. I was picking up speed drifting backward through a string of about a dozen backyards about 1/4 of a mile long.

That I didn’t hit a fence, a tree, a swing set, a tool shed, a swimming pool or other immovable object was to me the greatest Christmas miracle since the Savior’s birth.

The last 20 yards were down a steep embankment that dropped me spinning onto a residential street where I was fortunate no cars were coming.

I remember thinking, man, it’s too bad none of my friends didn’t see that ‘cause that would have looked pretty cool.

My heart-pounding, I shoved the car in gear and drove home murmuring ceaseless prayers of gratitude I’d survived and that the day would not get any worse by having me get partially consumed by a flesh-eating bacteria I’d picked up outside the meth chef’s house.

It’s been 10 years since I spun out of that hilly hell.

And in those 10 years, the story of one of the worst nights of my life, a night of unrelenting pain, fear and humiliation, has brought nothing but joy and laughter to the hearts of friends who revel in the misfortunes of others. I’m sure I’ll hear it all again tonight as we return to that same neighborhood for that annual party.

Know what I have to say to that?

Merry Christmas!

And be careful making that sharp left onto Westview.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Pond is for sale! Anyone wanna buy a bar?

Still stumped for that perfect gift for that very special someone? How about a family tavern with three apartments, dozens of devoted inebriates and 60 years of small town memories?

There. That ought to really stuff your stocking.

Alas, The Pond is for sale.

A steadfast Latrobe landmark since 1954 can be yours for right around $350,000.

So it’s conceivable that this blog is being composed today above what in six months could be a shiny new Jiffy Lube.

And wouldn’t that be a pity?

Times change, but The Pond never did. That in some ways may have been its downfall. In an age when many taverns advertise free wifi, The Pond still doesn’t take credit or debit cards.

Want to show the kids what a pay phone looks like? Bring ‘em here.

Of course, parents have for years been bringing their kids here because that’s what their parents did with them when they were growing up. Arnold Palmer’s told Dave he raised his daughters on Pond pizza.

I’m doing the same with mine. I’m sure years from now they’ll remember Friday nights we’d eat pizza in the dining room and then walk the mile to the stadium to watch the high school football games.

Ain’t that America?

So, yeah, right now I feel a bit like a little boy feels when his folks tell him they’re getting a divorce.

Am I going to have to move? Will I ever see my friends again?

Writing to me is sitting all alone in small room and spending hour after hour screaming for attention. Couple the isolation with redundant failure and it can drive you nuts.

So having a bar full of happy inebriates just 33 steps away is a real godsend for someone who likes to laugh and joke.

I’ve never found a better place for that and I’ve been drinking in bars since, gee, about the fifth grade.

The regulars here include attorneys, football coaches, farmers, office equipment sales people, teachers, postal carriers — you name it. On weekends the place is still packed with so many friendly familiars there’s a kind of soulful magic I know some people say they feel during worship.

What went wrong?

Actually nothing at all. It’s still a great bar.

Dave’s run it for 24 of its 60 years. That’s a long time in a business that chews up personnel and leaves many in need of 12-step rehab.

Dave’s always resisted raising prices in a place renown for affordability. Plus, he’s over-staffed. But he’s been reluctant to let anyone go because, hey, they’re his friends, too, and he doesn’t want to be the guy to put them out of work.

That brings me to the kind of statement that would lead to cruel “Brokeback Mountain” jokes from guys here who’d never dream of watching “Brokeback Mountain.” Here goes:

I love Dave Carfang.

Love his Dad, too.

They built a true pub — a public house —  the kind of place where you can always get a great meal, some cheerful companionship and feel right at home, even the guys who come here to escape what they feel in their actual homes.

We’re still a few weeks away from the wild rumor stage so now it’s just conjecture.

Will a new owner tear the old building down? Will he or she keep the staff? Will the place be turned into a hipster coffee shop?

I have my own selfish interests at play. Namely: For God’s sake, how far will my next office be from the nearest bar stool?

And what will become of our friend Dave? What will he do?

I fear my friend is feeling like a failure, and he doesn’t understand how much we all think of him and all the life-long friendships that have formed just because of him and his homey little corner tavern.

My dream of what happens next is in black and white.

Just as Dave’s about to close for the last time, the front door bursts open and in walks a man with news of a Christmas miracle. More come. They’re all happy. They’re all smiling. And they’re all carrying fistfuls of cash and dropping them in a big hamper on the bar.

The bar is saved and Dave realizes that no man is a failure who has friends. 

That would be fantastic.

After all, it is a wonderful bar.

Related hijinks (or 9 stories why I’ll miss The Pond)  . . .

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A long story on waiting for the next available operator (& a short recollection of the time I had phone sex)

If I’m ever single again I hope to begin a relationship with the next available operator.

Is there any more desirable person on the planet?

I spent about nearly an hour puttering around Sunday while waiting for the next available operator.

I was renewing my health care the day before the deadline. I know that affordable health care for guys like me infuriates about 50 percent of the population and many people are hoping this ends with me getting into a bitter shouting match with a Obamacare functionary over the delay.

Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not how the story ends.

I don’t mind a long wait on the phone if it means providing my family with health care. I mean what’s 50 minutes before kickoff? That’s just less time I have to listen to the pre-game blabbermouths. 

And spending nearly an hour on hold sure beats having have had to get up and go to work for the past 22 years.

So I scanned the newspaper, tidied up the garage and chopped a bunch of firewood. I had a truckload delivered last week. It’s split, but not micro-split the way I like it. I contend I need half logs quartered so they’ll be easier for my dainty daughters to carry in case one of them ever takes the initiative and build the nightly fire.

This has never happened even once, but I enjoy the he-man exercise I get out of chopping wood so the custom will persist.

You can get a lot done when you have nothing else to do.

That’s exactly what time on hold is. They said it would take 20 minutes, but those mechanized predictions are often wildly inaccurate.

I had a choice to either sit there and listen to the same insipid music over and over or mobilize. I chose to mobilize.

Of course, you can never be too far from the phone so you can’t really tune out the music. I wondered about about the men and women who compose and play it.

I imagine at one time in their youth they struck a swaggering pose in the mirror while singing into the hair brush, sure when they grew up they’d be the next Mick Jagger or maybe Stevie Nicks. And now they’re the house band playing the despised hold music.

I don’t disparage. Anyone think I grew up dreaming one day I’d become a blogger?

So I can relate.

Did you know my mother was once the next available operator? Probably not. Why would you?

In fact, she said she enjoyed the duty. Back then phone operators would have actual conversations with people from all over. It was her first job, I think, straight out of high school.

She often tells the story about how her employer, Bell Telephone, would send her and a bunch of other young girls from their Dubois office up to remote Potter County in north central Pennsylvania to man the long distance lines every deer season when sportsmen came to fill the woods.

She claims she maintained her virtue throughout the duty, but I know enough to at least shiver at the thought of her and her fellow innocents being evening sport for all those horny hunters.

Of course, that was long before she met my father who we learned years after his death had sired a secret family we never knew about.

He was an altogether different kind of operator (see “Papa” link below).

I guess the most famous operator I can recall is Sarah from Mayberry. We never saw her, but she was what we in Pittsburgh describe as “real nebbie.” She knew everybody’s business. She used to anger Barney by advising him on who he should be dating.

That’s the way it used to be with operators. The phone operator played a huge role in our daily communications. Automation has vanquished that once-vital role to near nothingness.

When was the last time you talked to a real operator? No one needs directory assistance, long distance and I can’t imagine anyone still engages in phone sex anymore.

Phone sex was a big deal for a while. I never did the phone sex thing, but once had an Ohio girl talk long distance dirty to me.

It was very odd because her kid was right there and I think she was cooking him dinner. She’d whisper something filthy to me and then I’d overhear her ask Billy if he’d done his homework and to hand her a spatula.

I thought about all the great songs that have been written about the next available operator.

There was Jim Croce’s “Operator” — and how about that? — my second Jim Croce reference in one week! He tells the operator about his girlfriend shacking up with his best old ex-friend Ray, “a guy she said she knew well and sometimes hated.”


I love ELO’s “Telephone Line,” and Chuck Berry has a good long yap with his operator about his darling Marie in “Memphis.” Marie’s 6 and her mom won’t let her see Daddy anymore.

I’d say Marie’s mom’s a bitch, too, but I know Chuck Berry can be a caustic individual so in this case I’ll not pass judgement.

Waiting for the next available operator wouldn’t be so bad if they played all the great songs written about the next available operator.

Then just as I brought the ax down into another knotty slice of oak I heard the little electric interruption that let me know my wait was over.

I was being put in touch with the next available operator!

Her name was Linda!

I began making small talk pleasantries and telling her I was out of breath because I’d been chopping wood.

Know what she said?

Me neither.

I’d been waiting for the next available operator for so long, the damn phone battery died.

Someone should write a song about that.

Related . . .

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

15 jiffy riffs on gas prices, Sony hacks & other stuff

• If gas prices had risen as much as gas prices have fallen gas prices would right now be about $5.50 a gallon. And everyone with car keys would be either posting or debunking dark Facebook conspiracy theories contending it was all Barack’s fault.

• I was always under the impression that gas prices rose or fell based on the stability of the Middle East. So as prices continue to descend I can only conclude the Middle East today is a bastion of stability and mutual respect between once-warring peoples. Peace on Earth and cheap gas! Hallelujah!

• Gas prices are falling so rapidly we’re starting to see stories that say it’s actually a bad thing. This is reflected in the Dow, which had a huge drop last week. I don’t care. I suspect falling gas prices are a bad thing only to people who ride in limos and never have to pump, much less pay, for their own gas. So screw ‘em.

• Odd, but welcome increases in blog traffic the last couple months. Something like 50 strangers from foreign countries will parachute in and read dozens of years-old posts for hours at a time before coming to their senses and returning to standard porn sites. The gold medal winner in this realm is Ukraine with Belgium coming in a close second.

• My wife accused me of lying on Facebook Sunday evening. This is a serious charge. I remember in our ’96 wedding vows saying,  “… for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, and being forever steadfast in social media virtuosity …” Here’s what I posted: “Daughters/wife asked where I spent afternoon after they threw me out on Steeler game day while they made Christmas cookies and enjoyed a girlie day. I refused to divulge and instead quoted Delbert McClinton: ‘You make a man into a monkey, that monkey's gonna monkey around.’” In fact, they did not throw me out. They just made it difficult for me to find a comfortable space to watch the game in peace. So I self-exiled. And only one daughter asked where I went. I’d do it again because I love that Delbert line and the chances I get to use it for legitimate purposes are rare. And, of course, I went to the bar and wound up drinking with Dave, who goes in Sundays to do paperwork. We had such a splendid time I may now self-exile every kickoff.

• I wouldn’t want anyone reading my personal e-mails, but I revel in reading the personal e-mails of Hollywood big shots. Nothing builds up my anticipation and then demolishes it the way Hollywood does. I contend the last five years have been a nadir, a true low-point in film quality. Just about every major release disappoints. So the reaction to the Sony hacking scandal is as funny as any comedy the studio’s released since the 1997 Jack Nicholson film, “As Good As it Gets.”

• Howard Stern, of all people, is among the worst over-reactors. In an act of guest butt-kissing with Seth Rogan, Stern equated the hack to an act of terrorism and says President Obama should call on the American people to ignore all the released e-mails as an act of patriotism. I think he’s worried someone is going to release an e-mail that says Howard Stern was replaced by a corporate shill robot Howard Stern.

• I’d like to see a hacked e-mail release that details theories about whether Stern stopped being funny when: a.) Arte Lange left the show; b.) when Stern married his Barbie Doll; or, c.) when he aimed for mainstream popularity on a reality entertainment show that had him making nice with one-time arch-enemy Kathy Lee Gifford. I have friends who still love Stern, but I can’t see him being as entertaining as he was now that all his subversiveness is gone.

• As much as Hollywood sucks, Val and I and the kids still love going to see movies and I’ll share whenever we find one worthy. This week it’s “The Birdman.” I loved it. It’s Michael Keaton’s greatest role since “Night Shift.” Val said she thought I laughed at parts that weren’t supposed to be funny. I told her it’s all supposed to be funny. And it is.

• “The Interview,” the Seth Rogan/James Franco movie that’s likely causing all the hacker stir is looking like a stinker. Critic previews ranking it at 45 percent. For comparison, “The Birdman” scoring 93 percent favorable reviews; “Gone Girl” (haven’t seen it, but Val did and liked it), 88 percent; and “Big Hero 6,” a kiddie flick we all loved, 89 percent.

• My to-see list of Hollywood releases includes “American Sniper,” (75 percent), and maybe — maybe — “Unbroken,” about indelible American Louis Zamperini and his horrific World War II POW ordeals. The Laura Hillenbrand book was terrific, but I’m reluctant to do anything to elevate the already stratospheric self-esteem of director Angelina Jolie. She’s one of those rare beautiful women who’s become so insufferable I can barely stand to look at her. Remember, she was an insane ’90’s wild child running around wearing vials of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck before she decided it was career advantageous to become Mother Teresa. 

• Because it lasted from 1337 to 1453 I propose we rename the 100 Years War, the Most Inaccurately Named War. Kudos to my friend Joe Potts who said if that’s the case then World War I, the “War to End All Wars,” ought to for obvious reasons be re-named “The Most Inaccurately Nicknamed War.”

• Various leaked e-mails by top producers describe Jolie as a “minimally talented spoiled brat” with a “rampaging ego.” Sounds about right. I love this in particular because you just know how much of her ass the e-mail authors kissed over the years to get cozy with her. Above is the picture of producer Amy Pascal attempting to apologize to Jolie. It's priceless.

• I know I’m getting old when I tell people I miss the days when SNL was truly funny and they think I’m talking about Will Farrell and Chris Kattan, not Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey.

• Likely for holiday reasons, no one’s been returning my calls for about the last 10 days. That leaves me no choice but to lunch in the bar and blow the rest of the day off with a good long brain soaking. I’m not letting anyone push me around. I tell ya, you make a man into a monkey, that money’s gonna monkey around.

Related . . .

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday encore! We've had enough Christmas songs since '92

I can’t say I’m sick of Christmas music, but that’s just because I guess I’m immune to them. We play them all the time. They’re on in our house, in the car and they’re everywhere people go except — hallelujah — the sanctuary of where I go for inebriation. I wrote this in ’08 and it’s conclusion was demolished the very next year when Bob Dylan released an entire album of pointless Christmas ditties. Oh, well. Still, I thought this was worth trotting out today as a seasonal re-run.

Have a great day!

It’s not because I’m basking in the bosom of toy-addled family love that December 26 is one of my favorite days of the year. No, I’m at peace because the day means it’ll be about 335 days before my ears are tortured by another Christmas song.

Well, to be accurate, it’ll probably be another 240 days or just after Labor Day before I hear another one.

The Christmas song creep gets worse and worse every year. By creep, I mean how Christmas songs show up earlier and earlier and not Elvis Presley. Yes, the King is de facto king of modern Christmas songs having recorded hundreds of standards, duets and originals, including one, “It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You)” that lists the songwriting credits as “Elvis Presley, Balthazar,” the by God name of one of the Three Wisemen.

The man had connections.

It’s been at least 15 years since we topped out with just the right amount of Christmas songs. After 1992 we haven’t needed another one. Still every year artists try in vain to add to the timeless mix.

A safe way to rank the credibility of bands (and actors for that matter -- sorry Vince Vaughn) is on how few Christmas songs or performances with which they’ve been associated.

I love classic country music, but this sensible posture practically rules out the entire genre for credibility consideration. No one panders more to their fan base with tired Christmas ditties than country music stars.

Toby Keith, hardly a timeless classic along the lines of George Strait or Alan Jackson, has already released two full Christmas albums. And you have to believe the tough guy poser had to be persuaded to enthusiastically sing “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!” lest it over take his anthems about boots in the asses of dark-skinned folks around the world.

Keith’s arch-nemesis, the Dixie Chicks, however have never released a single Christmas song. Keith has outsold the Chicks by many millions, but give the gals marks when it comes to credibility.

Even the great Steve Earle suffers from a slight Yuletide taint. He recorded “Christmas in Washington,” a moving lament about political decay in the capital. It’s a great song, still it’s a Christmas song and we have all we need.

It gets a little murkier for me when you get to the great rock bands. Even accomplished artists like Tom Petty, U2, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen couldn’t resist the cheap temptation to make a seasonal grab, even though the Petty song, “Christmas All Over Again” still gets my pulse racing when it comes on the radio.

Recorded in 1992, it’s maybe the last new Christmas song we’ve ever needed.

For years I used this Christmas song argument to bolster my insistence that the Rolling Stones were the greatest band in history. But then I discovered a rare Keith Richards solo cover of Chuck Berry’s great Christmas song, “Run Run Rudolph.”

Granted, it was done in 1971, Keith’s only one-fifth or so of the band, and he probably doesn’t even remember 1971, much less recording the song, but the taint persists.

The Beatles? Forget it. Both John and Paul have recorded preachy and silly Christmas songs respectively and, for heaven’s sake, every song Ringo’s ever recorded could be considered a Christmas song.

The Christmas stipulation significantly strengthens my contention that George Harrison was the greatest Beatle. It’s unlikely Harrison’s ever recorded a Christmas song -- and I’m certainly not counting anything about Vishnu or other Hindu big shots he often praised.

I was sorely tempted to make an exception for The Kinks, one of my very favorite bands. But how could I when they have a great popular song, “Father Christmas.” The Ray Davies lyrics are perfectly subversive. Check ‘em out:

When I was small I believed in Santa Claus
Though I knew it was my dad
And I would hang up my stocking at Christmas
Open my presents and I’d be glad

But the last time I played Father Christmas
I stood outside a department store
A gang of kids came over and mugged me
And knocked my reindeer to the floor

They said:
Father Christmas, give us some money
Don’t mess around with those silly toys.
We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over
We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys

I’ll stand those words up against “Silent Night” as the sublime essence of 21st century Christmas any day.

Still, I have to be fair. It’s a Christmas song so that rules out The Kinks.

That leaves us with Bob Dylan.

Born Robert Zimmerman to devout Jews, he’s never penned a single Christmas ditty, even though he went though a born-again Christian phase in the late 1970s when he may have been tempted to sonically celebrate the holy season.

One of our most proud and prolific songwriters, a man who’s written more than 600 songs, has never once penned a song about Rudolph, Santa, mangers, or cuddly snowmen. It’s a staggering achievement.

To me, at least.

I’m sure there’s some may consider that a blotch or even an affront. They may say it’s a religious insult coming from a man born Jewish.

I disagree.

I can name one other pretty famous Jew who never did much of anything during his life to celebrate Christmas.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A very Don Rickles Christmas

I believe in a vengeful God who whenever I say anything sarcastic to my 81-year-old mother adds another 6 months to her life.

I told my daughter, 14, this theory and she turned right into Nelson Muntz.

“Ha! Ha!”

“Keep laughing, funny girl,” I said, “but if I’m right when I’m her age she’ll be 174 and you’ll be taking care of both of us.”

Ha! Ha!
Just last week, I was telling a friend how unflappable I’d been through this holiday season.

“This year’s going to be different,” I prophesied. “I’m not going to let the pressures get to me.”

The optimistic mindset lasted four days.

I contend I am mostly nice throughout the whole year and it’s impossible for me to up my game just because everyone else does for four weeks. I fear layering any more nice on what’s already there might suffocate my inner smart ass and the death of my inner smart ass would be the death of me.

So at Christmas, my nice-guyness always looks like it’s falling behind just by standing still.

Pisses me off.

This is the time of year when many turn to Jesus Christ.

I find myself turning to Don Rickles.

Known lately for playing Mr. Potato Head in the “Toy Story” movies, Rickles, 88, is beloved for being surly. He’s been cited as a major influence by David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Kathy Griffin and Howard Stern, so in a way he’s influenced everyone who’s influencing everyone else. It’s considered a badge of honor to have been insulted by Rickles.

“Every night when I go out on stage,” he says, “there’s always one nagging fear that somewhere out there, there is one person in the audience I’m not going to offend.”

I was thinking of Rickles the other day when I got sarcastic and insulting with Mom. She’s suffering from persistent mild dementia.

I know of so many who have it so much worse. See, hers is the kind that, for now, inspires more exasperation than sympathy.

An example: She called me not too long ago near midnight and said she needed me to drive the hour to her Pittsburgh apartment right away.

What was her emergency?

She was out of wine and toilet paper.

My response: “If you have enough of one will you need any of the other?”

She lives with my second cousin who’s been there for nearly three years in a quasi-caretaker role.

But the girl’s life is crowded with the many happy distractions of youth and my mother is my responsibility. It’s up to me to deal with her concerns over healthcare, insurance or how we’re going to work it out when a neighbor takes her to the bank without anyone telling me leading to the inevitably boing, boing, boinging of multiple checks.

So the guy who has power of attorney over all his mother’s affairs is now mostly powerless to do anything to beneficially effect two lives: hers and his own.

She turns 82 next week. Her father lived to be 97 and the only time I’m competent in doing even basic math is when I calculate what age I’ll be if she makes it to, gulp, 2029.

And this week, what with all the school assemblies, the parties, the pop-ins, the shopping and other assorted pressures, it got to me.

I felt like lashing out at everyone I encountered.

I wonder how Rickles gets through the holiday season? How does he remain true to himself when so many thoughts are on the birth of the Christian savior?

Well, for one, it probably helps that the dude is Jewish.

Maybe I ought to think about giving that a try.

So I gripped the phone extra tight when Val handed it to me and said, “It’s your mother.” She never calls without the result being some pain in my ass.

Yes, Mom, what is it this time?

“I just called to thank you for your wonderful card,” she said. “I was having a bad day and it made me so happy. You’re such a good son!”

In fact, I’d forgotten I’d even sent one.

Maybe I was wrong about Rickles. Maybe the key isn’t being more sarcastic.

Maybe at Christmas I should try and act more like that other Jewish guy. 

I’m pretty sure my inner smart ass is feisty enough to survive a little more insulation, especially this time of year.

Related . . .

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Happy Birthday to my darling wife! Buy her something nice ... (because I still can't)

Today’s my wife’s birthday! It promises to be a great day in the Rodell house. 

She’s not 37.

She’s not 42.

She’s not 44.

What is she?

She’s even more beautiful than she was the day we met. I mean that. Marrying her was the best decision of my life. She’s wonderful.

I don’t write about her much because, well, she reads, and that could be problematic for anyone who attempts to write humor. Just imagine the trouble I’d get in if I wrote something she took the wrong way in this no-account blog, which is a four- or five-times-a-week reminder that I’ve failed as a conventional writer.

We’ve gone long stretches of our marriage without benefits or the means for a splurge. The lone compensation to being married to me is, I guess, I can often be relied upon for lavish free travel and I’m usually a lot of exciting fun.

That would be two things if I were married to a guy, but I suspect many females would prefer stability to the dubious “excitement” of being married to me.

Birthdays and holidays are when I feel my professional failings most acutely. It pains me I can’t buy the ones I love the things they’d like.

I think many people regard my I’m-a-poor-writer/Eight Days to Amish thing as some kind of schtick, a conceit I employ to gain the sympathy of readers who root for the underdog.

It is not.

Just ask Val. We’ve been either shacked up or married since 1992. I look back on many, many of those years and have no idea how we did it, how we stitched a joyful life together without either of us having full-time work or benefits.

What’s odd is how optimistic I remain that my writing — the book or the blog — will one day lead to something marvelous. I really believe that. I am just constantly buoyed by the reaction to both. Thank you, my friends.

If it happens, we ought to know in 2015.

Heck, we might know by Thursday evening.

I’ve been invited to attend a professional mingle among central Pennsylvania meeting planners who look to book entertaining speakers. I only need to get two or three in my corner and things could really take off. That’s all it would take to lead to a lucrative burst of bookings and sales.

According to the roster, there will be about 100 professional meeting planners there and, as far as I can see, just me.

I like my odds.

I’m hopeful that means on my wife’s next birthday I’ll be able to lavish her with the things she deserves.

She means so much to me and our kids and on her birthday she has a right to expect jewelry, new clothes, shiny gizmos or at the very least the humble knowledge that for at least one month prompt payment of the Comcast bill is assured.

Because if it doesn’t work out in 2015, there’s only one thing left for me to do.

It’d be time for me to learn the guitar.

I wish I could write her a love song for her birthday, something tuneful to convey just how much she means to me.

One of my favorites is the great Jim Croce song, “Had to Say I Love You In a Song.”

Every time I tried to tell you the words just came out wrong
So I had to say I love you . . . in a song

Steve Earle wrote the achingly beautiful “Valentine’s Day,” for one of his seven — seven! — wives. It’s about his backsliding ways and his chronic feelings of unworthiness. Boy, can I relate.

Billy Joel wrote “Always a Woman” and “Just The Way You Are” for his first ex-wife, and “Temptation” and “Uptown Girl” for Christy Brinkley before they split.

I think to his third ex-wife he just writes alimony checks.

Hmmm . . . Maybe committing my love to music isn’t such a good idea after all.

And my options narrow.

Happy Birthday, darling. Sorry for the embarrassment.

I just had to say I love you in a blog.

Related . . .