Friday, October 12, 2018

Leading leaders in search of food, my swagger

It was the most poorly planned quasi-military exercise since Bay of Pigs. We were on a mission to find the food at the Greensburg-area banquet hall destined to be forever known as The Place that Used to be Known as the Bishop Connare Center. 

To give you some idea how preposterous it was, I was the leader.

Some context: I was brought in to speak to about 50 esteemed members and spouses of the Military Officers Association of America.

So the room was full of nothing but decorated combat veterans. Bona fide leaders.

And me.

And through some abeyance to absurd protocol, the retired Lt. Colonel said, “It’s time to eat. Chris, as our guest speaker, will you lead us?”

I had the good sense not to make a lame joke — that’s what this blog is for! — and marched from the main table to the buffet line where five steam tray pans hinted at the feast to come. I grabbed a plate and — voila! — removed the lid off the first steam tray pan.


Same with the second, and the third.

I’d been punked.

The hostess explained we’d be eating the salad course before the hot food. I signaled retreat. My first attempt at leading real men ended in lettuce and ranch dressing. That I’d been asked to find food and produced only hot air did not bode well for my talk.

Plus, I was nervous my swagger might be AWOL. A certain swagger is essential when you’re an unheralded nobody asking strangers to sit and listen to you talk about something they may or may not need to hear.

What if my swagger was gone for good?

You may recall, my epic September 25 failure — I completely froze — was still fresh in my mind, but not as much as you might think.

I’d chosen to view the whole episode as pure aberration. See, I’m a believer in the necessity of failure in growth. I realize my perceived mistakes, catalogued them and then wholly forgave myself. 

Would I have rather it’d never happened, especially then?

Certainly, but I believe I’ve grown from it. In the aftermath, I had talks in the Greensburg and Jeannette libraries, albeit before smaller audiences, and they both went great. In fact, my friends in Jeannette are planning on bringing a van load of patrons to the Tin Lizzy to hear my stories from my years of swashbuckling reporting.

I’m beginning to realize what gold I have in them.

It was apparent last night. These proud officers and their spouses all reacted the way I dream everyone in every audience always will. They roared with laughter at the jokes and teared up when I talked about the hard times in every life (they’d requested I focus my talk on my “Crayons!” book). And when it was over they lined up to buy books and shower me with praise.

It was very heady. It always is.

The embarrassing failure from last month is buried.

The lieutenant colonel, the leader of these fine leaders, came up afterwards and put his arm around me. “You were great,” he said. “I’ve already had about five men come up and say we need to find more guys like you.”

I smiled, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Sir, there is no one else like me.”

I couldn’t find the food, but I'd found something more nourishing.

I'd found my swagger.

• Note: I’ll be at Second Chapter Books for Fort Ligonier Days for all three days. Stop by!

Monday, October 8, 2018

My doctor wants to be my friend

I was a bit startled when during a routine exam the doctor said he considers me a friend and began confiding details of a failed marriage.

I confess I was relieved he at the time didn’t have anything jammed up my ass.

And I didn’t have anything jammed up his!

I like it when anyone says they consider me a friend. I always make a mental note to keep my new friend in mind next time I need to bum some dough.

But in this intimate professional setting, it was a bit disconcerting. 

Understand, he’s a great guy. I chose him to be my doctor after observing his gentle manner and ready laugh when he cared for my late mother. And, believe me, anyone who didn’t laugh when he or she was in the examining room with my mother and her dementia is someone I wouldn’t want for my doctor.

He’s a true country doctor. So country I’m convinced I could pay him in chickens and he’d give me eggs for change.

He’s caring, funny, intelligent, generous, a good listener — all the things you want in a good friend.

And, man, the guy can get me the drugs.

But do I want to hear, “How ‘bout them Steelers!” from the same guy who moments later will be saying, “Turn your head and cough.”

The majority of the scolds in the prissy medical community say he’s making an ethical boo boo.

This is from an essay: “The short answer is that friendships and any type of relationship beyond strictly professional boundaries are not condoned. It can cloud the judgment of the treating physician and is generally frowned upon for a variety of reasons.”

It goes on to say friendship may cloud the doctor’s professional judgement. They say this like it’s a bad thing.


Having the doctor for a friend could save me money, maybe even save my life.

Let’s say I’m Patient A, a locally renown author whose books the country doctor buys and enjoys. I don’t complain or moan when the the blood tests say my Bun/Creatinine Ratio is out of whack. Hell, I don’t even ask him to explain what a Bun/Creatinine Ratio even means as long as it doesn’t have anything to do with the liveliness of my erections, still the whole reason me and all his other male patients come to see him in the first place.

Now, let’s consider hypothetical Patient B. She’s an overweight, chain-smoking hypochondriac who thinks if she doesn’t live forever it’ll be all his fault. She talks her obnoxious politics during the exam (Patient A would never dream of doing so) and to top it all off, she’s a medical malpractice attorney.

So, of course, he’d be acquitted if, given those facts, he admitted to concluding the exam by smothering Patient B with a antiseptic pillow.

It’s a broken analogy, but I welcome the friendship of my doctor with the same exuberance I would if he were one of my crack team of bartenders.

If they like me — and why the hell wouldn’t they? — they may serve me sooner than other thirsty customers, give me stronger pours and inebriate other unsuspecting patrons to the point they’ll purchase my books — just $15 at Tin Lizzy! — while they’re too gooned up to know any better.


I want my bartender to be my friend. Same goes for my mechanic, my barber, my tailor, my butcher and the usher who shows me to my seat when I go to the ball games.

A little smile, some cheerful conversation, a little human recognition that the world isn’t as mean or as indifferent as it seems.

Why wouldn’t I welcome the same from my doctor?

One aims to save my life. The others make it worth living.

That’s what friends are for.

Related …

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

I'm drinking too much & it's all your fault!

First of all, this is NOT about Judge Kavanaugh or his drinking. The only experiences we share are that he admits he got drunk on beer and blacked out and so did I.

The difference is he meant in high school.

 I mean most every Wednesday through Friday since high school.

Many prudent drinkers downplay how much alcohol they’ve consumed.

Me, I tend to romanticize it. A friendly saloon has been my native habitat since my old man took me into Frankie Gustine’s Bar in Oakland back in the ‘70s. Dad moonlighted there as a bartender. I remember walking through those swinging doors and falling in love with the atmosphere, the boisterous characters and the promise I was in a place alive with randy opportunity.

“Dad,” I said, “I’d like change for the jukebox, an ashtray for my smokes and a double Jack Daniels on the rocks — no straw. Buy that pretty little redhead by the window a Sloe Gin Fizz and tell her it’s on me. And don’t wait up for me, old man. I plan on going home with her.”

I was in the 4th grade.

I think that kind of behavior is what people expect out of writers, especially writers whose offices just happen to be located in historic buildings with three distinct and winning bars on three different floors. 

People seem to be disappointed if writers don’t tipple — and I wouldn’t want to disappoint them. 

Blame Papa.

Ernest Hemingway was a larger-than-life and now stereotypical writer/drunk. When people learn my office is above the Tin Lizzy, they often say, “Oh, so, you’re just like Hemingway!”

“That’s right,” I say, “we’re practically indistinguishable. The main difference is he’s the one with all the money, all the prestige, all the success, all the acclaim and all the six-toed cats.”

The 40- to 50-so-called polydactyl cats are the in-bred descendants of white cat named Snow White who was a gift from a wandering sea captain. They’re a highlight of any visit to the Hemingway House in Key West.

Given all those signs of tangible success, I wonder if Hemingway ever wondered if he drank too much.

Lately, I do. I sometimes ask myself if I drink too much. I usually say no. I do this out loud and using two different voices like I'm on stage.

Is such playacting a sign I drink too much?

Either way, I think lately the answer is yes. I am drinking too much.

And you’re to blame.

It’s true. For the first time ever, friendly strangers are eager to come to meet me and hear my stories. And none of them ever say, hey, let’s meet at the barber shop. 

No, they say let’s meet at the Tin Lizzy!

And they’re convivial folk. They want to have a drink and — God bless ‘em — they want to buy me one, too.

On top of all that there’s been an influx of well-wishers who are concerned about my health. Their altruistic intentions don’t make them any less thirsty.

I tell them I feel uncommonly melancholy from a dawning awareness that the number of quality days I have may be fewer than I once anticipated (I hate to break it to you, but the same may be true for you. You just never know).

And today, I’m loathe to walk away from any room where people are either laughing or saying nice things about me.

So, yes, I’m drinking more than I should for reasons I believe most people will appreciate.

In fact, despite my diagnosis, it’s a happy time, one of the best in my what I for a lack of a better word will call my “career.”

I have a little money, a little acclaim, a little prestige and — best of all — a whole lot of friends.

Now if I can only get my hands on a herd of six-toed cats I’ll be all set.

Related …

Friday, September 28, 2018

I had a really bad time at Laurel Valley this week

Take a moment to let that headline sink in. I believe it is without precedent. No one’s ever had a bad time at Laurel Valley, the posh Ligonier country club and home to one of America’s top 100 golf courses.

Let me be more specific. When I say I had a bad time at Laurel, the bad time lasted fewer than 7 minutes.

The rest of the time — nearly 20 hours — was absolutely splendid. I was wined, dined, flattered for my book and made a host of new friends.

It’s time I hope I never forget coupled with time I sorely wish I could.

See, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation secured my participation by purchasing 200 signed copies of my Palmer book to give as gifts to golfers who were paying thousands of dollars to enjoy the Laurel luxury. The opportunity included being featured speaker at both lunch and dinner.

I was really excited about my role. I took Josie with me Monday on the pretext of needing help delivering the books. She’d be turning 18 on Tuesday and I was hoping she’d get a peek at the place.

“Now, this might be a bust,” I warned. “We might not get past the front door.”

We were there four hours and she left with a Laurel Valley job application and pleas she’d return it ringing in her ears.

The kid has charisma. We’re so proud of her.

I later swapped her for her mother and we were treated to a fabulous Laurel dinner.

I was back early morning. Sprawled over two tables were all my books. Best part? I didn’t have to endure the crass indignity of trying to sell them. All I had to do was hand them to arriving golfers and engage in cheerful chat. And I got that down.

I had no reason to be nervous for my lunch talk, but nervous I was. Understand, they wanted me to talk for just 3- to 5-minutes. I can talk for 3- to 5-minutes  coherently in my sleep.

Everyone told me it was just fine.

But just fine isn’t good enough for me. Truly, I’m used to euphoric reactions. I vowed to myself and others my dinner address would be perfect.

And a flawed man gets into himself into trouble any time he strives for flawlessness.

I may have been intimidated by the affluence of the audience. But that makes no sense. I’ve never been intimidated by the busboys and there’ve been many years when I’ve been out-earned by busboys.

I’m loath to say so, but the recent Parkinson’s diagnosis has me more rattled than I’m eager to admit. A mind that was for so many years as carefree as clouds is now agitated by foul forecasts. Was that it?

Did I drink too much? Not enough? Was I overdue for a humbling?

Either way, the dinner talk was my worst ever. I stammered. I shook. I froze. I'd  have said, "Honest, this is the first time this has ever happened to me," but I was fearful it would sound like I was auditioning for an erectile dysfunction ad.

When I came to a sloppy conclusion, I said some quick goodbyes then made a cowardly retreat out the nearest door.

First thing the next morning, I composed an apologetic email to my two contact  organizers. “Today,” I wrote, “my feelings will ricochet between despondency and mortification, hopefully by tomorrow settling into mere embarrassment.”

I hinted how I couldn’t feel worse. 

That’s why I was floored when the one wrote back, eh, no biggie.

“Please don’t worry yourself for one second on our account,” one replied. “We were honored to have you.”

The second was even more effusive: “You were delightful and charming, and I assure you that you're the only person who feels like your performance was subpar.”

It’s like they’d seen a different me.

Were they just being kind? Could be, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all about your vantage point.

I selfishly see myself from deep inside my own head, a POV that magnifies each triumph and defeat into monumental proportions. 

They responded to my apology from inside a building full of dangerously sick children and fervently praying parents.

My momentary embarrassment in an otherwise plush experience? Indeed, no biggie.

And sometimes when we seek something akin to forgiveness, we’re lucky when we stumble into perspective. 

Friday, September 21, 2018

The why & how of my brand new signature -- it's legible!

I heard what by now are familiar compliments from robust audiences this week in Mt. Pleasant and the South Hills of Pittsburgh. 

They said I was witty, eloquent, composed and other gushy compliments that would convince my family everyone who comes to hear me talk is either shit-faced or susceptible to mass hypnosis.

But of all the heady praise — and I’m on a bit of a roll here — one stands out as the kind I’ll likely replay over and over in my mind.

A man said I had beautiful signature.

“It is!” he said. “Beautiful. Just beautiful.”

I think by “beautiful” he meant “legible.” But it can be both. And it is because you can read it. Yes, after about 48 years of signing my name in cursive, I finally have a John Hancock worthy of John Hancock.

I’ve been signing a lot of “Arnold Palmer” books lately; 200 this week, in fact. That’s how many UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation bought in advance for me to bring to a gala fundraiser Tuesday at Laurel Valley Golf Club on Tuesday. I’ll be the featured speaker for both lunch and dinner. 

It’s a big deal.

That was going through my head last week as I cracked open the first box of 25 books. and began my traditional scrawl. 

My standard inscription in block print is: “This is NOT a golf book. This is a LIFE book!”

That’s true, too. And people seem to like that. I know many authors merely sign their names. So my note is above and beyond.

Then, gulp, I’d get to the actual signature. See for yourself. 

The R could be a P; the o masquerades as the circular part of the d; and then the d loop, the e and the two l’s form like a chorus line of showgirls too drunk to know when to quit kicking. (Note: For years I teased my daughters by telling them our names are spelled with three l’s: “The second l is silent, but the third is silent AND invisible.”)

It’s always embarrassed me when people ask me to sign their books.

I contend the stakes are higher for me because the book is about Palmer, who was famous for both his penmanship and the promiscuity of his autograph. He’d brag that his name was worthless on eBay because he’d signed so many. 

And it was immaculate. Surgeons suturing scars on supermodels were less careful than Palmer was with a pen.

Now, it’s ridiculous for me to hold myself to the Palmer standard. 

No one expects me to golf like he did.

But the poor penmanship made me look sloppy. So about four boxes in to the eight-box stack I decided enough’s enough. I decided it was time to alter my signature, to give it some manners, to make it appear presentable.

I took a stack of scrap paper and began to practice. I’d do about 15 at a time — just the surname. I think my Chris is decent.

It was very painstaking. For some reason, we’ve all been conditioned to think a good signature is a fast one. That might be the root of the problem.

Palmer, who may have signed more autographs than anyone in history, didn’t think it ought to be done quickly. I saw it. He took his time to make it appear perfect.

That’s what I began to do.

But if you want to improve yours, I’d encourage you to persevere until you develop what I think of as a “twitch.” That’s when your hand takes over and leaves your bossy-ass brain in the dust.

I only wish I’d have embarked on this character-enhancing project before I’d signed so many books, like the one I did for you, maybe?

So that’s all for today. I just wanted to share with you the news that you can change something as elemental as your very signature. It just takes a little will, a little patience and a little practice.

Thank you for reading and have a great weekend.

This is me, signing off and signing on.