Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dialing up nostalgia for my old phone number

I hid in the basement and punched in the 10 numbers. I didn’t want my wife to know what I was doing. It felt like something illicit.
She might not understand.
My jealous smart phone might not either.
I wasn’t surreptitiously checking up on an old girlfriend. It felt more intimate.
I was dialing the phone number I grew up with.
I wanted to see who the number belonged to now, if they cared for it and if they ever wanted to know who’d had the number before it was theirs.
I wanted to know the number wasn’t being treated like it was just another number.
You never forget your first.
I have had a spousal relationship with my current phone number for about 10 years now. We’re committed. I have no interest in straying. I don’t check out other numbers when I think my number isn’t looking. 
It’s the phone number I’ll have the rest of my life.
It used to be when we’d move we’d get a whole new number. I remember having about six or seven phone numbers before I was 25.
No more.
Our marriages might end, but our relations with our phone numbers never will.
To them we are wedded. 
In fact, it’s likely the 10 digits some bored AT&T sales clerk at Westmoreland Mall issued my daughter about two years ago when she picked up her first cell phone will be hers the rest of her life.
They are an essential part of who she is.
I used to have committed to recall memory the phone numbers of two dozen close friends, about six or seven taverns and pizza joints, and all the top editors at National Enquirer HQ.
Today, the phone numbers of our most precious loved ones are plugged into speed dial and instantly forgotten.
I do not know the number of my own darling daughter.
If my phone dies and my wife’s not there, the only way I can hope to reach Josie is if I lean out the window and holler.
It never used to be that way.
When I was growing up the phone number of a friend with a cool car and a fake ID or a desirable girl were precious commodities.
I remember the sweet rush I’d get whenever a girl would hand me a slip of paper with those handwritten seven dashed numbers strung together.
We didn’t need area codes back then. If you weren’t 412, you might as well have been living on Pluto.
That little slip of paper was like a map to buried treasure. If she put a little smiley face on it it just about ensured I’d within the next week at least be getting a kiss.
But first I needed to find the time and the nerve to be alone with the phone.
That was no cinch. Remember, our phone-shaped phones used to be stationary. Privacy was a real crapshoot.
I couldn’t use the main dining room phone. Too public.
I needed to tuck myself away in my parents bedroom and close the door.
Even that offered no sanctuary for outside the door I knew either my brother or Mom or Dad might be lurking, waiting to tease.
So I’d dial the number — it was rotary so back then the action was a true dial — and I’d lower my voice.
I remember being nervous and my breathing becoming irregular.
The combination of my hushed, urgent voice and panting breath made me sound nothing like the exuberant guy the girls had known from class. In fact, many of the prudish ones in those pre-Caller ID days assumed they were getting crank called by the local pervert.
They were mistaken.
Back then, I was a local pervert, but not the local pervert.
But there were times when I was free to talk and we’d talk for hours.
Growing up, those wonder year calls were special.
The news of family births and deaths were delivered through that number. I got the news of my first real job at that number.
It remained pivotal to my life 20 years after I no longer took calls there.
I’d call the folks and tell them how the grandkids were doing. 
Those were the numbers I’d dial when I wanted to talk sports with Dad or chat with Mom about how lovely the leaves were that day or just how she was doing.
I still about once a year drive by the old house just to feel the rush of sweet nostalgia.
Why not see how the number was doing?
412 561-0410
It was ringing. It rang six times. Ten. A dozen.
No answer. No cheerful voice asking me to leave a message at the beep.
It seems like my old phone number is homeless, adrift.
I feel a strange urge to rescue it, to bring my old home number home.
It’s an odd emotion, I admit. Not many care the way I so clearly do.
I’d call it a hang up, but when it comes to old phone number nostalgia, hanging up is something I just can’t do.

Related … 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Sharing your toothbrush with a loved one

It’s another confounding aspect of human behavior that couples in long, stable and loving relations recoil in disgust at the idea of their partner using the other’s toothbrush.
I don’t get it.
Many of these people have combined to conceive children and — let me tell you, you innocents — there’s a lot more than spit being swapped in that raucous procedure.
Yet, it’s my understanding some couples are absolutely repulsed at the idea of their significant other running, say, her toothbrush over his ivories.
It’s not like they’re using it to tidy up ears or armpits. Now, that’d be gross.
I know there’ve been times when Val’s stumbled in drunk from a long night of bourbon and cigars and mistakenly grabbed the wrong toothbrush.
Didn’t phase me a bit. I was just glad she was home safe.
And, yeah, I might have those roles reversed.
Parts of the last 37 years are a bit foggy.
Either way, I know it’s no big deal.
I do know if she realized she’d accidentally used my toothbrush and ran screaming to the garage to gargle with turpentine, it would hurt my feelings.
I mention this now because I saw a Centers for Disease Control report that sharing a toothbrush can be dangerous.
I take this with a grain of salt.
In fact, I take everything with a grain of salt. Actually, more like a tablespoon of salt. I salt the hell out of everything.
Even things like cereal.
I’d perish without salt.
It doesn’t bother me I may be putting toothbrush-born pathogens in my mouth because I believe the toothpaste poisons I thrice-daily put in my mouth will kill the pathogens before, I hope, they kill me.
It’s true. Each tube of toothpaste contains enough poisons to kill a small deer.
It says so right on the labels. Here’s the boilerplate:
“Keep out of reach of children: If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or call a Poison Control Center right away.”
So we’re already daily putting lots of deadly poison in our mouths — and that’s before any of us even hit the Taco Bell drive-thrus. 
I’m a fanatic about brushing and flossing and do both with fierce regularity.
I’m one of those guys who believes he is his own best dentist. I’m avid about reading oral care news and adapt to the current recommendations.
Just last year there were a spate of experts saying it’s more important to brush first and then floss. Then came the inevitable backlash that said the reverse — floss then brush — was the ideal.
Given the conflicting expert advice, I chose a Solomonic solution.
I brush first and floss next on even numbered days and do the reverse on the odd.
Other than chipped and busted choppers from closing bar shenanigans, I haven’t had a dental problem in more than 30 years. No cavities. No gum troubles. Nothing.
Of course, my family will contend the reason for that is because I refuse to see a dentist.
They are correct.
I won’t see a dentist until I have a symptom.
See, I contend the more people are misled about the necessity of visiting the dentist every six months, the more the dentists concoct reasons for patients to see the dentist.
It’s a genius business model, the kind a guy who blogs for free can envy but never emulate.
And I’m going to keep doing it just the way I’ve been because it’s working for me.
I won’t freak out if every once in a while I use my wife’s toothbrush or she uses mine.
I hope that clears things up.
Don’t let an occasional unsanitary swap of the toothbrush devolve into an unhealthy neurosis.
And don’t look to me for any dissertations about the mental health issues of wearing a spouse’s frilly undergarments when you mistakenly believe she won’t be home ’til dinner.
I have Val convinced that was just a phase.

Related . . .

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Re-Run Sunday: Why trusting strangers can always count on me to give 'em wrong directions

It’s a beautiful day for a Sunday drive. Why not get lost? Is that your goal? Then just ask me for directions.
I was going to re-post about “Walking Dead” (AMC season 6 premier tonight, 9 p.m.), but I saw I’d recently re-posted that one already. So here’s one about the lost art of getting lost. 
My favorite line: “We somehow wind up missing so much whenever we always end up going exactly where we think we need to go.”
And be sure to stop by tomorrow when I plan on writing about the intimacies of two people in love sharing one toothbrush.

(707 words)
I think people are always asking me for directions because I walk with a confident stride and have a friendly face. When I’m out for a stroll, I look like the kind of guy who really knows where he’s going.

It’s yet another triumph of appearance over competence because I have no idea where even familiar places are.

But that never stops me from pretending I do. 

Happened again just the other day. A confused elderly woman pulled up beside me as I was out for my morning constitutional. She said, “I am so lost. Can you please tell me how to get to Beechview Avenue?”

“I’ll be happy to!” I said. “Make a left at the second light, turn right at the gas station and just keep going. You’ll run right into Beechview. You can’t miss it!”

You could just see the relief wash over her face. A friendly stranger had cheerfully appeared out of nowhere and vanquished all her concerns. Her thanks were effusive.

Because I’d never heard of a Beechview Avenue, I decided to send her down a long country road. It can be very unsettling being lost in an unfamiliar town. I thought on this beautiful fall day it would be far better for her if she could at least be lost someplace more scenic.

I remember the time a middle aged couple with Ohio plates asked me to help them find the Latrobe post office.

I told them they’d just driven right past it.

“People ask that all the time,” I said, eager to put them at ease. “It’s very poorly marked. Go back the way you came and park outside the store with the Dainty Pastry sign out front. The post office is in there.”

In fact, the post office is about a quarter-mile down the same road in a big grey building with an official-looking “U.S. Post Office” sign out front. But they don’t sell no donuts in there.

Dainty Pastry does and they’re delicious. They have this glazed pretzel-shaped donut I get about once a week or so. And the friendly Dainty Pastry staff will brighten anyone’s day.

The Ohio couple looked to me like people more in need of donuts than stamps.

Who doesn’t?

I think my eagerness to direct people to places they think they don’t want to go stems back to a childhood vacation when the old man was taking us to the Big Apple.

I remember him getting hopelessly lost somewhere near Newark. We could see Manhattan, but had no idea how get there. Desperate for progress, he pulled into a gas station where we were met by a kid who, I swear, grew up to play Paulie Walnuts in “The Sopranos.”

“Can you help us, please?” Dad asked. “We’re trying to get to midtown and I have no idea which bridge we’re supposed to take.”

“Why, sure, I can. Where youse folks from?”

“Pittsburgh,” my Dad said.

In hindsight, I don’t whether that was the right or wrong answer. Maybe the wise guy had a former girlfriend from Pittsburgh who’d treated him cruelly. Or maybe he loved Jack Lambert from the old Steelers and felt Pittsburghers enjoyed overcoming logistical challenges.

Either way, he spun a glorious tapestry of mis-direction that had us speeding north up the Jersey turnpike, crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, heading west through the Lincoln Tunnel and back again.

I may be mistaken, but I recall Dad parking the old Ford Fairmont near the base of the Statue of Liberty so Mom could use the restroom — and Liberty Island is inaccessible to vehicular traffic.

Even through the recollected static of my frustrated father’s profane outbursts, it’s a wonderful memory.
Of course, today no one needs ever get lost again. We just punch the coordinates in the phone and follow the little green arrows.

That’s good, sure, but we’re losing the serendipity of unplanned discovery. 

We somehow wind up missing so much whenever we always end up going exactly where we think we need to go.

I can foresee a day not far off when telling someone to get lost is no longer an insult.

It’ll be travel advice for people interested in enjoying an offbeat vacation.

Related . . .

Friday, October 9, 2015

Greatest American speeches & why mine's better

My darling little 9th grader flattered me by asking me to name which great American speech she should analyze for a class assignment.
I was very pleased.
I register near zero on the provider scale, but she knows she can count on me for intellectual heft. She always sees me reading thick history books, hears me at dinner weighing in on current events and understands the importance of when I talk to her about pivotal moments from our nation’s past.
I revel in the past because I know it enriches the present and presages the future.
She said everyone in class is leaning towards either Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or the equally monumental MLK “I Have a Dream.”
Both worthy choices, I said, but both are the kind that would cause a fatigued teacher to begin wishing he could master the art of sleeping with his eyes open.
Been there, done that.
What you want, I said, is something that hasn’t been done to death. Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural — “With malice toward none” — is great for analysis. He delivered it as the Civil War was concluding and chose gracious benevolence over vindictiveness. Plus, in the audience were John Wilkes Booth and five other men who were conspiring to kill him in just five weeks.
MLK’s Selma speech still resonates as a clarion call for dignity and fairness.
Off the top of my head, I mentioned Ronald Reagan’s healing speech that followed the Space Shuttle disaster, FDR’s stirring “Infamy” speech, and George W. Bush’s inspired summons from atop the Twin Towers rubble.
In the end, she opted for President Obama’s great “Amazing Grace” speech following the Charleston church massacre (my contemporary take linked below).
For analytic purposes, it’s fertile ground. 
It’s our first black president giving a healing speech about racial violence in the cradle of the Confederacy. It involves the risky use of song.
But for me, the most interesting aspect of the speech is the silence.
The speech includes nearly 30 seconds where the speaker is speechless. In those seconds, he says “Amazing Grace,” twice, quietly, his eyes downcast. Then he is still and silent for an interminable 14 seconds before haltingly breaking into the world’s most famous and most sung song.
It’s utterly euphoric.
Of course, humility prevented me from advising my daughter about analyzing what to me is now the greatest speech ever delivered.
It was her daddy at State College.
I appreciate how many of you, my friends, are truly rooting for me to succeed.
At something.
Especially, my darling wife, who right now is hoping I’ll succeed at things like raking leaves.
Wednesday I was the keynote concluding speaker for the Pennsylvania Librarians Association. It was a 4-day affair at the Penn Stater Hotel & Conference Center in State College. There were 250 people there who were mostly tired of talkers and hoping for a lively lift.
Understand, this was just a month after a crucial failure to deliver before Virginia meeting planners in Richmond. I now know that was an aberration I can blame on logistics.
See, I’m still fairly new at this yapping gig. I still have what I call a set list of podium notes I rely on to key my talk, which I’m told comes across as so smooth its seems extemporaneous.
But it threw me in Richmond because there was no mic stand. Given the circumstances, I thought I should try and be Mick Jagger and just forego notes and prowl the stage.
It was a mistake. I foundered.
With this important engagement looming, I dwelt on the failure all month, even as I had two success, one of which included the same situation — no mic stand — that threw me in Richmond.
Maybe, I figured, I needed to really bomb once to understand the stakes, to keep me humble.
Although, if anyone who's read my blog will attest, I’m the most self-deprecating fool on the whole planet.
I really honed my speech in advance, and as I was warmly introduced by a man who is now a buddy and had loved the book, I had some butterflies, sure, but was feeling a confidence just shy of cocky.
I can’t tell you how well it went.
I think it’s because the focus is on the two attributes people everywhere are craving.
Humor and humanity.
I asked the organizer if there was anything I could change to make it better.
“Nothing. Don’t change a word. It’s the perfect keynote address and it’s something everyone should hear.”
She had tears in her eyes as she told me this.
I could sense it was going really well, but I had no idea how well I’d connected until the end.
The whooping ovation lasted more than 30 seconds.
I remember feeling a little startled and thinking, man, this must be what it feels like when you think launching a cult might be feasible.
I should be able to prove it, too. I hope. The camcorder was misplaced and is being mailed, and there’s no guarantee my friend managed to operate it properly. There never is.
It doesn’t matter.
I already have a bunch of great YouTubes and now have a host of prestigious and enthusiastic recommendations. I have two more high profile talks in the next month.
Best of all, I’m now supremely confident in my message and my ability to deliver it with compelling flair.
I now know I can find true success in a lucrative field full of exciting opportunities.
And I’m gonna seize every one of them.
I have a dream.

Related . . .

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A day for real mourning; RIP Angelo Cammarata

Yesterday was a great day. I spoke before 250 members of the Pennsylvania Librarians Association and it couldn’t have gone better. It was a true home run. I’ve never enjoyed a longer and more raucous ovation.
Honest, some were in tears and all laughed. They loved me and my message. It was a big payday, too, with speaker’s fee and more than $600 in book sales.
But that’s a topic for another day.
Today is a day for mourning.
If you think I’m talking about the Pirates loss, man, you’re missing the big picture.
Angelo Cammarata is dead.
He was 101.
He was, oh, so much more.
He was one of the two most memorable and beloved — and lovable — men I’ve ever known.
Both are in the Guinness Book of World Records for vastly different reasons.
And someday I’m going to see if I belong in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the reporter who’s friendly with most people who are in the Guinness Book of World Records.
I’ve always sought out the company of interesting people and tried to learn how they chose to live.
That’s how I became friends with Ange and John Clouse.
Having been to all but two of the world’s countries, islands and territories, Clouse was the world’s most traveled man. A decorated combat veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, Clouse swore if he ever got out of the Ardennes intact he was going live an entirely original life.
He did just that.
He was maybe the most swashbuckling storyteller I’ve ever known. Absolutely hilarious. He was married and divorced six times. 
Cammarata was married to the same woman, the late Marietta, for more than 70 years and became world famous for rarely leaving the same building.
He is in the Guinness book for being the world’s longest serving bartender. He poured his first beer at his father’s old North Side tavern at midnight on April 7, 1933, the exact moment killjoy Prohibition in Pennsylvania was repealed.
I believe the Greatest Generation would have been worthy of being deemed the Greatest Generation if the only men in the Greatest Generation were Clouse and Cammarata.
It’s a pity Clouse never traveled to West View. These two men that seemed to have so little in common would have reveled in one another’s company.
I’ve never met two people with more genuine warmth and affection for their fellow man. It’s a joyful exuberance for the innate humanity that flickers within every human struggler.
Clouse discovered it by going all over the world. Cammarata by letting the world come to him.
I guess the best story I have about him is from 2006 when I was teaching narrative non-fiction at Point Park University and had Ange come in to be the final exam.
I was all about getting students to learn everything they could about a subject by asking incisive questions.
He was 97. I told him to simply answer their questions.
I introduced him by saying, “This is Angelo Cammarata. He is your final exam.”
The students went through about 15 minutes of increasingly frustrated questions — Where do you live? What do you do? — all the answers to which made this uncommon man seem increasingly common.
Then one exasperated student finally blurted out, “What makes you so special?”
That’s when he told them about being recognized by Guinness. 
He told them about the friendships he’s enjoyed, the family to whom he was devoted, the importance of persistence, and why he felt sad for people who choose to be pessimists.
He talked about how he’d made it a part of his daily routine to drive a cherished old friend to and from the bar because he knew how much Cammarata’s camaraderie meant to the old man — and to him.
He talked about all the customers he’d served, the spirits he’d lifted, the marriages he’d saved, the suicides he’d prevented.
How, he was asked, did he find the words for these humble heroics?
“Didn’t need to. Most people who are having trouble don’t need advice. They just need someone who’ll listen.”
He did this all with a gentle manner and smile so warm and engaging he made Fred Rogers look like a sourpuss.
Later, me and the whole class went back with him to the bar where this famous gent poured us all beers.
It was funny, I’d spent 12 weeks trying to teach them how to succeed as writers, but in two breezy hours he taught them all they’d ever need to know about how to succeed in their lives.
One of the perfunctory questions I often ask subjects is about the best years of their lives. Many respond with “college,” or “When the kids were young,” or some other slim sampling of our portion.
Ange forever endeared himself to me when I asked him that question and he thoughtfully said, “I think they were the years from between when I was 35 and 80. Those were just really great years.”
Talk about seeing the big picture.
So pardon me if I’m not all weepy about my beloved Pirates getting bumped from the playoffs.
On this day, I don’t feel like any sort of loser.
I'm one of life's real winners.
I was friends with Angelo Cammarata.

Related . . .

Monday, October 5, 2015

Climbing over 200 dead bodies way up on Everest

I want it on record that I’m the first to propose Mt. Everest is made handicapped accessible. See, I’d like to go to the top of the world, but I don’t want to bother with the suffering of having to actually climb the thing.
Or maybe it needs a 29,035-foot escalator or freight elevator.
Or maybe a really souped-up hearse.
Did you know there are more than 200 petrified bodies on the upper slopes of Everest?
It’d cost about $10,000 per corpse to retrieve the bodies, deemed too pricey for such an undertaking (and, yes, using the word “undertaking” to describe the act of removing dead bodies from what is essentially the jet stream just gave me a tingle).
Retrieval would endanger the lives of the body haulers and likely compound the problem.
I guess I can see the point.
If it’s something you can’t recycle or convert to circle-of-life garden compost, why bother?
What’s odd to me is the bodies remain frozen in the exact same position they were in the moment they drew their last frosted breaths. So some of them are seated, some have their arms raised in cell phone salutes.
The body of historic English mountaineer George Mallory, the man who replied “Because it’s there,” when asked why wanted to climb Everest, has been “there” since 1924. His mummified remains were found in 1999. 
There’s a picture of one guy who laid down to a rest his head against a snow bank and gave the ghost. The snows eventually shifted and now his body, still bent in place, looks like it could use a pillow, not to mention a big Snuggie.
Some of them even have cheerful nicknames and serve as morbid landmarks for those whose fingers are too mangled from frostbite to deftly work smartphone GPS apps.
The most famous is called “Green Boots,” named thus because he’s the one wearing green boots.
I know, I know. Calling a body wearing green boots “Green Boots” doesn’t exactly rock the clever meter, but you try thinking up a snappy nickname when you’re in what is known as the Dead Zone and your oxygen-deprived mind is losing brain cells by the millions.
But “make a right at Green Boots” is now part of Everest nomenclature.
As you may surmise, I am in the grips of Everest fever.
Not in the sense I want to climb it, of course. That’s madness.
But it’s a madness I enjoy vicariously talking about all day.
Val and I just saw and strongly recommend “Everest,” the gripping and lavishly filmed story of the catastrophic ’96 expedition that claimed the lives of eight ill-fated climbers. 
It was compelling enough for me to rush home and pull from the shelf my copy of “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer, who was part of the expedition. It’s a terrific book about his experiences.
I think I so liked the movie and the book because it deals with intense human suffering that will never happen to me.
I’ll never understand the urge to get off the couch, tell the family, “See ya in four months — if I don’t fall off the mountain!” and trek off to Nepal where even if I achieve my selfish goals I’ll endure about six weeks of diarrhea, sleeplessness, dry heaves, hypoxia, frostbite and other extreme self-inflicted maladies. 
That’s what you get when you climb Everest — even when you succeed at climbing Everest.
And it’s non-stop.
In one of our more confounding ironies, there isn't ever any rest on a mountain named Everest.
Yet, people seem impressed when someone says they’ve climbed it, something more than 4,000 Earthlings have done since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay did first did it in 1953.
Estimates are that 240 have died in the attempt.
The thing is I could probably in about a week construct the background material — website, photoshopped pictures, faked passport — that would lead people to believe I once summited.
I can be a very convincing liar, especially if my three human lie detectors (wife/dauthers) aren’t there to refute with fact.
But I’d never dream of trying it in real life.
It sounds like absolute hell.
Plus, given my vanity, I know I’d be more concerned with leaving a fashionable legacy than proper Dead Zone wear.
“Make a right at Green Boots and head uphill. If you come to Tommy Bahama, it means you’ve made a wrong turn and you can kiss your butt goodbye.”

Related . . .

Friday, October 2, 2015


Don’t worry.
I’m not going to be writing about that today.
Don't believe it.
Well, sort of. 
Don’t watch TV for the next four days.
The funerals will all be over by then and the news will have marched on.
Don’t be afraid.
The odds of it ever happening to you or someone you love are still long.
Don’t think it couldn’t happen here.
The odds of that plummet exponentially with each fresh horror.
Don’t think it’s unnatural to feel numb.
We all do.
Don’t demonize those with whom you disagree.
It’ll only make finding a solution that much more elusive.
Don’t post anything anti-gun on Facebook.
It’ll only anger the people whose opinions you have no chance of changing.
Don’t post anything pro-gun on Facebook.
It’ll only anger the people whose opinions you have no chance of changing.
Don’t feel we’re under any national obligation to mourn.
It hasn’t helped before.
Don’t say this time things will be different.
They weren’t after Columbine, after Blacksburg, after Sandy Hook, after Aurora, after Charleston, etc. Why would things be any different this time?
Don’t think the answer is to get rid of every gun.
It’s not that simple.
Don’t think the answer is for everyone in America to have a gun.
It’s not that simple.
Don’t try and divine sensible motives for what happens over and over again and again. 
They will elude you.
Don’t think prayer will help.
What good’s it done before?
Don’t think it won’t.
What’s it hurt?
Don’t say talking about it is politicizing it.
Trying anything that might lurch us off this paralyzing deadlock should be a national priority.
Don’t feel sheepish about enjoying your weekend and laughing out loud.
Anytime you hear news of anyone dying suddenly, it ought to reinforce the necessity of devoting every moment of every day to always living suddenly.
Don’t let what happened make you sad.
It’s a useless emotion.
Don’t let what happened make you angry.
It won’t help.
Don’t let what happened make you mad.
In America today, we exceed our quota of bloody madness with frightening regularity.
Do try and have a nice day.
The rest of us could really use your inspiration.

Related . . .