Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ice Bucket ambivalence

I think our next ice bucket challenge should be to take all that water and transport it to drought-stricken California.

I don’t know whether I should feel either lucky or just unpopular that nobody’s challenged me to dump a bucket of ice water on my head to help promote ALS awareness.

I think lucky.

I don’t like being goaded into doing anything, especially something that might involve nipple stiffening.

It’s not that doing publicity stunts on video is beneath me. It’s just that I prefer publicity stunts to promote awareness of things like “Use All The Crayons!

The origins and results of the Ice Bucket Challenge are truly wonderful.

I saw a tear-jerker piece about it on SportsCenter. The report said it started with 29-year-old Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player who was diagnosed several years ago with what is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

What’s uncommon is that Frates seems to have also shared many of Lou Gehrig’s Virtues, as well. And let’s talk about those for a moment.

Did you know he was the first player in baseball history to have his number (4) retired? And he was nicknamed “The Iron Horse” for playing in 2,130 consecutive games, a record that stood for 56 years until it was surpassed by the great Cal Ripken.

And he was beloved, a true gentleman during an era when that really meant something.

The last we saw of him was his retirement on April 30, 1939. I played the YouTube video of his iconic “Luckiest Man on the face of the Earth” speech for my 13-year-old who was wondering why no one had asked me to be part of the ice bucket fun.

I wanted her to know that there’s some real heart behind all the fun.

Gehrig was dead two years after his diagnosis, two years after his retirement from being the All-Star starting first baseman for the World Series champion New York Yankees.

He was 37.

Frates, who is also beloved, will be lucky to make it that long. The savage muscular disorder has robbed him of the ability to speak, eat or move without assistance.

What struck me about the report was Frates saying when he learned he had the disease, he saw that basically nothing had changed about its treatment since the days of Gehrig.

The ice bucket challenge could help change that. Donations haven’t just spiked. 

They’ve exploded.

ALS Association says it raised $1.7 million during this two-week fundraising cycle last year.

This year the amount is more than $13 million.


So I’m hesitant to jump on the backlash bandwagon, while announcing I’ll politely decline any challenge to participate in this or in any of the copycat stunts surely brewing in the offices of other worthy charities.

And that’s what worries me.

Because this is just the beginning. 

Every philanthropic organization in the country is right now scheming some fresh way to get you and I do something silly and embarrassing and post it on Facebook.

It’s going to be like we’ve time-traveled back to a time when we can expect Ralph Malph to insist we meet them down at Arnold’s because he and the “Happy Days” gang want to see how many people they can pack in Potsie’s VW to raise money for Tourette’s. 

I’ll be pressured to get a mohawk for fibromyalgia or don a Speedo for SCARF Syndrome. Maybe someone’s going to ask me to stuff a squirrel down my pants to fight jock itch.

Of course, maybe I’m just being a typical downer, someone too cynical to realize all the joy and good these stunts are bringing to a world desperate for levity.

If that is the case then I apologize for throwing cold water on something that’s all about throwing cold water.

Maybe I’m just one of those guys who doesn’t need to do the ice bucket challenge to prove he’s all wet.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Many world problems; at least chips are great!

I think we can all agree that the world in general really sucks right now. There’s divisiveness, racial hatred, injustice, rampant want and war galore.

It’s very sad.

So let’s take a moment to rejoice that there’s at least something positive happening every day to further mankind. Or at least fatten him up.

All hail the potato chip!

There’s never been a better time to be alive for those who enjoy potato chips. American eat 1.2 billion pounds of chips every year.

I think I ate about 15 percent of the total just this weekend.

Recent flavors I’ve enjoyed include sea salt & cracked pepper, Italian herbs & Asiago Cheese, red hot, ranch, jalapeƱo & horse radish, and Old Bay.

The diversity is incredible.

It’s a pity we can’t be as appreciative of the diversity of races and religious beliefs of people as we are about the chips we consume.

The funny thing is until about a year ago I’d never even been chip guy. I’d always been pretzel man, Bachman Pretzel Man, to be specific.

They were my old man’s favorite and growing up we always had a big bag up above the refrigerator. I loved them, too. I remember sitting munching on them with a big icy glass of Coke, Dad in his recliner with a Budweiser in his hand and a barrel sized-container of his salt-encrusted favorite in his lap.

Then shortly after the 2004 death of my Dad, Bachman’s seemed to disappear. It’s almost as if Bachman sales dropped so dramatically after his death the company was forced to slash production.

And wouldn’t that be ironic: over-consumption of an unhealthy snack contributes to the death of its No. 1 customer whose death contributes to an unhealthy decline in company fortunes.

Must be a salty circle of life analogy in there somewhere.

But I became depressed. Over the death of the old man, yeah, sure, but where were my Bachman’s?

I couldn’t find them anywhere so I started seeing other snacks. I tried all the other pretzels, but I could never find any that matched Bachman.

And I began to drift to chips.

It’s been an epiphany.

Cape Cod makes some great chips. Very crisp and flavorful. And I’m still a sucker for Pringles even though it annoys me when I want original Pringles I now need to visually sift through more than two dozen ridiculous chip flavors that have included pumpkin and peppermint white chocolate.


What do they think they’re making? Lifesavers?

Since 1967, they’ve never been able to improve on Pringle-flavored Pringles.

I guess my favorite right now would have to be Gibble’s Red Hot, which goes perfect with a little artery-clogging tub of French Onion dip. 

Like so many great snacks, Gibbles are made right here in Pennsylvania, with most of them being made near York, the self-billed “Factory Tour Capital of America,” and the place where so many chips, pretzels and Funions are produced.

Yes, if the great midwest is the nation’s Bread Basket, then Pennsylvania is its Waist Basket.

I’ve for years in vain pitched a story about SNAXPO, the annual international gala of product trends of the $6 billion-a-year snack food industry. At the conference, thousands of dedicated men and women get together (this year in Orlando March 28-31) to discuss ways to get an already over-fed America to demand more bagged crap.

It’s amazing. All many of us do all day long is snack, snack, snack. Yet, the SNAXPO keynote speakers will no doubt exhort their audience that they must do better.

It’s fascinating because I think we’ve already reached snack nirvana so these people must be zealots.

Certainly, they read the news and see what sad shape the world is in, not to mention the shapes of their top consumers. Yet, they devote their entire professional existence to making things like potato chips so good we find them and nothing else irresistible.

Or maybe I’m looking at it backward. Maybe we should emulate the single-minded snack food industry.

Maybe we all need to do whatever we can to make the world a better place by all doing what we do best in the hopes we can one day vanquish all the vexing troubles that today seem so monolithic.

I guess the lesson here is it’s up to all of us to just keep chippin’ away.

Related . . .

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Encore! "Don't hate me 'cuz I'm beautiful"

I, for the life of me, can't figure out why this one isn't in my Top 10 most read. It pops up from somewhere around the world at least once a day. I don't know if people google "Ines Sainz" or that memorable line, "Don't hate me 'cause I'm beautiful." Even though it's not a stats page Top 10, it's probably one of mine. 

I never hated women because they were beautiful. I used to try to sleep with them because they were beautiful.

For years, it was my habit to approach beautiful women in dark bars and ask them straight-faced and in my most sincere voice, “Was it as difficult for you growing up beautiful . . . as it was for me?”
It was this question that led me to conclude that beautiful women share one other appealing characteristic: They love to laugh. Hard.
I’m maybe the last sensitive guy on earth who understands that, yes, it is difficult for a woman to be born beautiful.
Certainly, beautiful women have their god-given advantages.
They can sleep with any shallow man they choose. They can coast through life on their dazzling smiles. Doors closed to the homely swing wide open for them.
Wait a second. Which side am I arguing?
Oh, right.
It ain’t easy being beautiful.
I mention all this because of the furor over the way members of the New York Jets treated bombshell Mexican reporter Ines Sainz in the locker room. Apparently, some of the Jets whistled and made adolescent comments when she was interviewing QB Mark Sanchez.
It was so bad Jets owner Woody Johnson personally sought out the comely Sainz to apologize for his team’s inappropriate behavior -- and, yes, the bones in my fingers are practically splintering to keep from typing a lame joke about a man named Woody Johnson thrusting himself into a discussion about sexual harassment.
Woody Johnson! It’s the greatest unintentional porn name since Andy Roddick.
This set off a predictable round of hand-wringing about whether Sainz’s fantastic looks, tight outfits and playful questions provoke such a reaction in a room full of naked, smelly men who can’t catch poorly thrown passes or skillfully block men like Ray Lewis.
First of all, let’s consider Sainz. I saw her picture and immediately made a snap judgement based purely on her looks. It was: Not my type.
She looks like someone Tiger Woods would date, which means she looks like a hooker or someone who’s undergone extensive plastic surgery to make people think she’s a hooker.
Then I heard her being interviewed on one of the morning shows and did an about face. She seemed comfortable with her beauty and didn’t take herself too seriously.
I appreciate that in a woman. I’m married to a lovely woman who is shy about her beauty. It’s very sweet but like a lot of pretty women the fair Valerie lacks confidence in her looks.
I wish she could see herself as I’ve always seen her. She’d be blown away.
Me, I don’t suffer from such trifling modesty.
Believe me, you don’t want to spend a day mirror shopping with a guy like me.
It’s clear Sainz is the kind of woman who can handle herself in any social situation and that puts the 300-pound meatheads who play professional football at a disadvantage.
I tried to think what I’d do if I was naked, in that locker room and had a status and physique that might be attractive to a woman who in 1997 was Miss Universe.
Here’s what I came up with: Nothing.
I’ve been in locker rooms as player, coach and reporter for huge chunks of my life. It’s not a sexy atmosphere.
If Sainz was in any of them, sure, I’d note to myself her beauty, but I wouldn’t act on it. I wouldn’t clown around and make junior high jokes about her. It’s just not the place for such hi jinx.
Heck, that’s what blogs like this are for.
That some Jets players acted the way they did diminishes them more than even their sloppy Monday night loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
You mean professional football players in New York City needs to making leering comments at busty reporters to get their jollies?
What? Have all the groupies simultaneously danced back to their stripper poles?
I just don’t get it.
Maybe I’m just stupid. That’s yet another pejorative ascribed to women who labor under the burdens of being born beautiful.
People just automatically assume beautiful people are balloon-headed dunces.

Happens to me all the time.

Friday, August 15, 2014

My summer job: Latrobe tour guide

 “Help! My daughters cast a spell that turned me smaller than an Arnold Palmer golf ball and there’s a grasshopper coming to eat me!”

I wish I could have shared that line with you earlier this week, but I’ve been busy playing tour guide.

That’s what happens when you live in Latrobe when the Pittsburgh Steelers are in town for training camp.

The picture was taken behind the front desk of the Marriott SpringHill Suites hotel, a place I’ve spent so much time the staff is starting to ask me when it’s my turn to bring donuts.

It happens every summer. Out-of-town buddies plan a Latrobe pilgrimage to see the Steelers, play golf and meet Arnold Palmer.

They expect me to arrange all this.

I try my best.

The Steeler camp, man, that’s a cinch. They let anybody in.

It gets tricky when they want me to arrange golf at Latrobe Country Club and introduce them to Arnold Palmer. They think we’re so buddy-buddy I can invite myself over to Palmer’s house for drinks after a freebie round of golf.

They are mistaken.

If I were that close to Palmer I’d devote my entire existence to conniving a way to get him to alter his will so I’d get a healthy cut of it for my greedy little self.

But sometimes that’s the way it works out. Just this week I had a friend from Florida visit. We’d met a couple years ago on a Mississippi golf trip. We hit it off and made plans to stay in touch.

He’s Andy Reinstetter and has what most consider a dream job. He travels the globe golfing for free. 

His AndyGolfTravelDiary blog does well enough that he can usually secure free golf from top clubs and lodging from sympathetic hotel GMs.

He once had a traditional corporate job and one day woke up and said, “Screw this, I’d rather golf.”

He doesn’t earn much loot, but he’s one of the most cheerful and self-fulfilled gentlemen I’ve ever met. And he’s the biggest golf nut I know.

How big? During the day when I toured him around Latrobe he wore knickers and carried a hickory shafted golf club everywhere we went.

Needless to say, I didn’t take him to The Pond.

We spent Wednesday night at the Marriott and met Jimmy Robinson, a former NFL wide receiver who showed us the knuckle-busting Super Bowl ring he won coaching the ’11 Green Bay Packers.

He was so friendly I barely begrudged him for beating the Steelers that year to win the ring.

We couldn’t golf the next day because the club was hosting a political fundraiser U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, but I was able to get Andy a full tour of the Palmer offices, the warehouse and clubhouse.

And, yes, he got to meet Arnold Palmer.

And U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy!

I was personally thrilled to meet Murphy because how often do any of us get to in person berate a House Republican? He was all by himself on the putting green (the other golfers had already started their rounds).

And I did, indeed, give him hell.

He started right in with the friendly chat and cut him off and said, “What are you, a moderately conservative Republican, doing to earn the support of someone like me, a moderately liberal voter, who thinks Tea Party conservatives are the biggest obstacle to sensible governing?”

He told me he’s concentrating on issues important to our district and that he, a practicing psychologist, is on the forefront of improving America’s mental health.

I told him that’s what I do, too!

I told him about my book. We exchanged cards. I’m going to send him a copy of “Use All The Crayons!” and a request that he put me in touch with mental health groups that need lively speakers.

I told him helping me would be a practical two-fer: He’d be improving America’s mental health while simultaneously boosting the humble fortunes of one of his district’s most beleaguered taxpayers.

Andy was taking the notes the whole time. He does a lot of that. That and taking pictures. He’s going to do a segment about me and his visit to Latrobe.

I’m very flattered.

He left Wednesday, about six hours before the arrival of my nephew and his girlfriend. Their three-day tour concludes Saturday.

That should be it until next summer when it’ll start up all over again.

I’m, for now, glad it’s about to end. I didn’t earn any money the last two weeks spending so much time pretending I’m a Latrobe tour guide.

I’m eager to get back to again not earning any money pretending I’m a Latrobe writer.

Related . . .

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Suicide is painless? R.I.P. Robin Williams

I’m not the guy who brings it up, but I am the guy who always has a ready answer anytime someone asks me how I’d do myself in. It’s an idea I stole from a once-cheerful Pittsburgh restauranteur whose business went under and was never heard from again.

He said: “I’d book myself on a long, luxurious Caribbean cruise and when we’re about 10 miles from home port I’d get really drunk and jump off the end of the boat.”

I remember nodding respectfully. I thought it was a great idea if you’re depressed or terminally ill, especially the former. If you’re depressed the trip might pull you out of it. Or you might fall in love or at least hook up with somebody kinky enough to make life interesting again.

But I didn’t decide to adopt the idea for myself until he told me the kicker:

“And I’d pay for the whole thing with a credit card.”

Bravo. Just brilliant. If he’d figured out a way to give his life insurance company a really good screwing it’d be, to me, the E=mc2 of self-destructive notions.

I find the suicidal option abhorrent, while being wholly forgiving to most anyone who’s reached a despair so deep is seems irrevocable.

Life is difficult. We all endure heartache, failure and loss that can wipe out even the sunniest of souls.

After all, it’s not like we’re all fabulously wealthy Hollywood celebrities beloved around the world, people who’d never have any reason to do themselves in.
Bad example.

I guess my favorite Robin Williams movie was “Dead Poet’s Society.” 

I wonder if it was his, too. It was so euphoric and life-affirming, just like the way we all want to remember Robin.

I loved best his rapid-fire stand-up routines — they were some of the funniest ever.

But I was always a little disconcerted seeing him being interviewed. He was either manically funny or so whisper quiet it made me uncomfortable. His behaviors seemed to teeter-totter without rational balance.

I wonder if he felt like he always had to be on or that being on was all he ever wanted to be.

He left us with so many questions, ones that will for many forever obscure all the laughter.

“Suicide is Painless” is the song that’s been going through my head. The lyrics will be familiar to anyone who remembers M*A*S*H, the very funny 1970 Robert Altman movie.

The tune became the theme for the landmark show of the same name, a show which was always compelling either for its comic brilliance or later for so much  bizarre self-indulgence.

The show was about saving lives, which is, I guess, they didn’t want to use the lyrics to a song that’s all about ending them.

I didn’t know it until just now, but the lyrics were written by Altman’s 14-year-old son Mike and earned the kid $1 million, or about $993,000 more than the dad was paid to direct the movie.

Here’s a sample lyric: 

The game of life is hard to play
I’m gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I’ll one day lay
So this is all I have to say . . .

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please
… And you can do the same thing, if you please

It’s difficult for those of us who’ve never experienced it to understand a despair so bottomless it could lead to suicide, especially when it causes to so much collateral damage.

It’s just incomprehensible when someone so many counted on to lift us up seems to let us down.

His suffering is over.

The suffering his suicide leaves behind is just beginning.

Yeah, suicide is painless.

Just not for the survivors.

Related . . .

Monday, August 11, 2014

Brownie points : Confessions of a bad son

It never bodes well when it’s after 11 p.m. and caller ID shows it’s my 81-year-old Mom. Not because it’s something urgent and we’re an hour away.

No, usually because it’s something exasperating and I’m impatient.

She “desperately” needs chicken tenders, coffee filters or watermelon. Pepper jack cheese is a perennial need. She’s always desperate for pepper jack cheese.

I don’t know what she does with it all. Maybe she spends nights in her apartment playing pepper jack cheese Jenga. 

Dad died in ’04 and Mom began her decline in about ’11. My second cousin — she’s 24 — lives with her but has an active social life so it’s not like she’s there to play nurse or run to the store when Mom forgets which closet contains the raft of Quilted Northern (she’s very brand specific).

Lately, it’s Duncan Hines brownie mix. She never has enough of it. I take her three or four packs on the weekly shopping trips. 

It’s becoming one of my triggers. She says “Duncan Hines brownie mix” and a vein in my neck begins to throb. By God, I know she needs Duncan Hines brownie mix, she’s never low on Duncan Hines brownie mix, yet every times she calls with her shopping list she says she needs Duncan Hines brownie mix. She usually has it written down two or three times on the same short list.

She really needs that Duncan Hines brownie mix.

I know children of aging parents who deal with far worse. They live with them, feed them, change them, bathe them and complain much less than I do when all I have to do is answer the damn phone when I’m trying to see what happens yet again when Kramer feeds Rusty too much Beef-a-Reeno.

(Spoiler alert: The horse becomes flatulent)

I answered the phone relieved Mom had no way of seeing my insolent eye roll.
Yes, Mom, what is it this time?

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re there. My faucet’s leaking.”

I told her there was nothing I could do about it. How bad was it?

“It won’t shut off.”

So she’d already tried what would be my lone suggestion. After “try turning it off,” my over-the-phone plumbing expertise is pretty much exhausted.

I tried not to sound too awfully condescending when I said, “I hope you’re not going to ask me to get dressed and drive all the way into Pittsburgh at midnight for something about which there’s nothing I can do.”

And let’s see you try not to sound too awfully condescending when saying something so awfully condescending. It’s not easy.

I told her she’d need to get building maintenance there as soon as they’re available.

“Oh, I did that. He’s right here.”

Oh. I see. Yes. Well, good. Put him on.

It was Ray. The building maintenance guys where she lives are just great. They’re there when needed — and they’d better be ‘cause that’s their job — but what I like about them is they’re so kind, like Mr. Rogers with wrenches.

They’re unfailingly nice with my Mom. They joke with her. They listen to her long-winded stories. They act like they care.

They act like the son I wish I could be.

I think part of my problem is dread of the future. Not that Mom will get sick and die.

My fear is she won’t.

Longevity runs in the family. Her father died at 97 and was healthy right up to the end.

I saw she’d made a note to herself — and the notes she leaves to herself are like Super Bowl confetti. This one said: “Remember! ’60 Minutes’ story on staying healthy through your 90s. Sunday night!”

I threw the note away.

I asked the other day, as I always do, how she’s feeling.

“Oh, I feel great! I always thank God for giving me such good health. No ambition, but good health.”

She tells me what a great son I am. She thanks me for all I do. She thinks I’m kind, patient and concerned — everything I know I’m not.

Ray tells me I need to buy a new faucet and bring it in to him tomorrow. He works nights, but said he’ll be happy to come to meet me when it’s good for me.
You sure, I ask, that won’t be too inconvenient?

“Not at all! We’d do anything for Rachel. She makes the world’s best brownies. She’s always dropping off a great big batch down at the maintenance office. Your Mom’s the best!”

I was too ashamed to ask if his calcium levels were unnaturally high from surplus pepper jack cheese.

Related . . .

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday encore: End world hunger! Be an airhead!

We’re all justifiably concerned about what we consume. Is this fruit organic? Are these vegetables free of taint? Is this Hot Pocket as nutritionally desolate as we suspect. Seems like everything we eat these days is bound to poison us or make our butts look too big. That’s why I was thrilled in the summer of ’11 to read about a radical new diet. It’s the choice of what are called “breathariians,” those who consume nothing but air. As diets go, this one’s a breath of fresh . . .

At least once a month I’m given a reminder as to why my annual expense on the Oxford English Dictionary membership is such a worthy splurge.

The word-of-the-day feature always surprises me with delightful new definitions that tickle my intellect, lead to story ideas or sometimes solve seemingly tricky  problems.

That makes Wednesday’s word a sort of three-fer.

I love the word, plan on pitching it as a story idea and, yeah, it offers a breathtaking way to end world hunger.

All that for just $295 a year.

The word is “breatharian.”

Definition: “A person who consumes or claims to require no nutrients other than those absorbed from the air and, in some cases, sunlight.”

First a quibble. The word, initially cited in 1979, is formed on the same basis as vegetarian (people who eat only vegetables) and thus suffers from some clumsy construction I’d like to tidy up.

Based on vegetarian, the word should be “airarian.”

And, yeah, let’s work at overcoming the pejorative connotations of the word and get to the point where we can just call them all airheads.

The practice has mystical roots with Catholics believing fasting saints needed not food nor water and more recently Hindus who believe any person can give up sustenance altogether and live off what they call “prana,” “living on light” or “living on air.”

I spend a lot of time worry about world hunger.

I’ve suggested both hunger and morbid obesity could be eliminated in one fell swoop if everyone agreed to eat just two square meals a day.

It was I who last year floated the theory that world hunger will be eliminated when scientists learn to clone and farm 70-ton sauropods, a dinosaur capable of feeding a typical family of four for about 120 years, providing the family has an industrial freezer the size of your typical Chuck E. Cheese.

The problem is all my solutions center around consumption. 

Now along comes a solution that literally out of thin air turns my ideas on their heads.

All that’s needed to sustain breatharians is air and sunshine, elements that are drive-thru ready every time you roll down your car window. 

I do wonder if meteorological conditions will factor into health.

Will people in dark and cloudy places like Seattle be preternaturally thin? Will folks in sun-drenched Yuma turn tubby from all the fresh air and sunshine?

(Trivial aside: Residents of Yuma refer to themselves as Yumans. So my bucket list now includes the goal of running in one of the town’s 5Ks so I can snag what’s bound to be a nifty "Yuman Race" t-shirt.)

Of course, I’m eager to learn more and am open-minded about going foodless.

I dream of a world of plenty where everyone feels strong and well-fed, a world where none of my shirts is stained with mustard and all the wars are fought with farts.

That’s why I’m thrilled Latrobe could this weekend be a beacon to global breatharians.

Yes, it’s the Westmoreland County Airshow! Gate tickets $10; children 10 and under free!

I’d have to think breatharians would be attracted to something billed as an “airshow,” even if they’ll wind up confused by the carnival food, stunt planes, wingwalkers and BigFoot, the original monster truck.

Still, I’m hopeful this weekend I’ll meet a breatharian who’ll be willing to share his mystical secrets with me.

I’ll take the guy out to dinner.

Heck, I’ll even treat.

That’s sure to be another plus.

Breatharians are bound to be cheap dates.