Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pennsylvania license plates among nation's worst

My 8-year-old daughter is like her old man in that she sees the world and recognizes it’s full of petty irritants.

That, to me, is just another petty irritant because it increases the likelihood that one day a guidance counselor will advise her the only thing she’s cut out to do is blog.

But unlike your typical blogger, she sees something that annoys her and she does something about it.

That’s how she began re-designing the Pennsylvania license plate.

She says it’s too boring. She’s correct.

Pennsylvania is a scenic and historical state that’s home to about five or six great native breweries. Famous Pennsylvania’s include Christina Aguilera, Ben Franklin DJ Jazzy Jeff, Sharon Stone and “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris.

And if that’s not an A-list roster for a historical party, I’m canceling my Entertainment Weekly subscription.

We’re Independence Hall, Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Kate Gosselin and Three Mile Island, the latter two being warning reminders that even the best places can be marred by human error capable of sickening innocents.

Yet, what is our license plate? It’s a bar of blue with “PENNSYLVANIA” in white letters above a white bar with blue license numbers atop a bar of yellow that in blue says, “visitPA.com

How awful. How mundane. And subliminally urging motorists to click on a cheesy promotional website when they should be paying attention to driving is downright reckless.

What’s most infuriating is you know that some lame Harrisburg marketing firm was paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to come up with it.

I could sketch a more compelling license plate on a beer napkin in less time than it takes to pour an actual beer.

How’s this? An image of Ben Franklin waving a Terrible Towel above the sudsy Franklin observation: “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy!”

As license plates go, mine practically polkas.

I think everyone would love it, especially our plate-making convicts. The only thing worse would be a plate-maker in New Hampshire and having to make license plates emblazoned with “LIVE FREE OR DIE!”
The situation confounds even us ardent fans of irony.

My favorite PA plate was the simple blue one emblazoned in gold letters with the cheery motto: “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania!”

But state mottos can be easily satirized. I think it got to crooked legislators when newspapers kept headlining stories of their corruption with “You’ve Got a Felon in Pennsylvania!”

I still have an uproarious ’92 clip from a West Virginia newspaper that had snarky staffers responding to then Gov. Gaston Caperton’s $880,000 contract to replace the outstanding “Wild, Wonderful” plate motto with the lame, “A Welcome Change.”

Here’s some favorites:

“West Virginia: Live Poor and Die!”

“West Virginia: Where All That Government Cheese Goes”

“West Virginia: The Edcuatoin State”

“The Ballcap and Tube Sock State”

“West Virginia: The Persistent Vegetative State”

“Thank God for Mississippi!”

“The Show-Me-A-Bribe State”

“Land of 10,000 Jakes”

“West Virginia: Charles Manson Lived Here”

My daughter’s version has no motto, but features an enormous shining sun, two half-man/half-bird creatures waving finger wings, and our family (including the stupid dog) in a car about to drive to our certain death right into a huge tree.

And Pennsylvania is spelled differently.

Note: I said it was spelled differently, not incorrectly. I don’t judge and wouldn’t want to say anything that might stunt her elementary school creativity.

She’s very proud of it.

She should be. It’s far superior to our current plates.

So I’m going to send her drawing to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, who polls say is fighting an uphill battle for his second term.

And I’m going to tell Corbett if he announces my daughter’s stick figure drawing is the new state plate, well, he’ll have my vote. Hers, too, if he can hold onto office through 2024.

It’ll be a big deal.

My daughter will have seen something incredibly lame that didn’t work and taken positive steps to whip it into shape.

I just hope she never looks at me and realizes just how much her Daddy has in common with our Pennsylvania license plates.

Related . . .

Monday, October 20, 2014

Playing Oakmont (and Arnold Palmer says I'm the best)

(715 words)

I’m set to golf today at Oakmont C.C. in about four hours. The fact will no doubt stir resentment among my golfing friends.

Oakmont is one of the most prestigious golf clubs in the world. 

Well, let me rub it in a little more. I’ll tee off after I bid Arnold Palmer bon voyage on his way to Florida. One of my partners today is Doc Giffin. He’s been Palmer’s able assistant for the past 45 years, and Doc asked me to pick him up at Palmer’s Latrobe office where he wants to say goodbye.

And I get to tag along.

I’m on a bit of an Arnold Palmer roll right now.

And by “Arnold Palmer roll,” I don’t mean the man behind the hip Arnold Palmer tea has added a trendy new sandwich to his culinary endeavors.

I interviewed Palmer Friday for about the 75th time in the past 10 years. I started off, as I always do, with a real toughie.

“Mr. Palmer: on Monday you’re departing Latrobe for Orlando where you’ll spend the next six months while we here in Western Pennsylvania endure the wind, the snow and ice. My question is: Will you please take me with you?”

He roared with laughter.

Then he said no.

The whole interview couldn’t have gone better. It was the highlight of my day. Heck, it might have been the highlight of his, too.

I know this because at the conclusion he told me I’m the best interviewer he’s ever had. He said, “You are the best. It’s always a real treat to sit and talk with you. You’re funny and you ask great questions. I always really enjoy these interviews.”

You’re probably thinking, well, one of the reasons Arnold Palmer is so popular with the media is because he says that to everyone.

That may be true, but if it is I found out he’s said it to me more than anyone else.

Bob Drum is a legendary Pittsburgh sports writer who chronicled and assisted in Palmer’s rise to legend. I asked Palmer how far I had to go until I reached Drummer status.

“You’re right there,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s interviewed more than you. And that’s saying something.”

Coming from him, it was incredibly flattering.

And I had it all recorded!

Or so I thought. 

I floated out of the room thinking I could take this precious audio and make a great YouTube clip of one of the most interviewed and popular men in the world saying I was the best.

Heck, Trump posts it on his website if Palmer deigns to pose for a picture with him.

So I get to my office and, I admit, foremost on my mind wasn’t transcribing the interview for which I was being paid. No, it was how I was best going to use the Palmer praise to make myself look monumental.

It was all I had on my mind.

And that’s probably the reason I somehow deleted the whole thing. 

Gone. All of it. From a fool-proof iPhone!

I wasn’t really worried about the interview. Everything he says is burned into my brain and the Q&A format makes it easy to duplicate (Doc later told me it read like a transcript).

But what was I to do about the part where Palmer said how great I was?

To ask Doc if I could come back and have him say it all again would be unseemly.

I did it anyway.

And to really up the unseemly ante I asked if this time I could film him doing it while holding a copy of my book. I was intent on an offhand compliment into a full-out infomercial.

I tell you, when it comes to shameless self-promotion, I got crass coming out my, er, ears.

But Doc said no. The timing couldn’t be worse.

So my hopes to enrich my life through something Arnold Palmer said were in vain.

It’s okay. 

There are other compensations. See, knowing Arnold Palmer means you can always get great golf tips from Arnold Palmer.

That’s what happened when I told him I was playing Oakmont. I asked if he had any suggestions about how I could get a really good score today.

And, indeed, he had a great tip.

He suggested I play someplace else.

Related  . . .

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday encore! Lottery losers should decide winners

No reason whatsoever for re-running this April '12 entry. No surge of readers drawing it to my attenion. No related topical instigations. I just was going through the roster — blog no. 1,300 will appear in early November! — and recalled thinking this one was a good idea. Hope you like it. Thanks, as always, for taking the time to stop by. Please share with friends anytime you feel the blog is deserving.

For purely comedic reasons, I’m hoping Mitt Romney wins the presidency and announces at his inaugural address, “Oh, by the way, remember that unclaimed $656 million jackpot from back in March? I won! Ann found the ticket in the glove compartment of one of her Caddies. Just thought you might like to know.”

The bi-partisan impeachment proceedings would conclude before C-Span had time to remove the lens caps from all their cameras.

Second to winning it ourselves, the most important aspect of our national lottery mania is complaining when the actual winner turns out to be an undeserving jerk, goon or garden variety moron.

We feel cheated, as if there’s been some colossal cosmic mistake. How could karma have gotten it all so wrong?

That’s what we’re all feeling with this crazy escapade involving Mirlande Wilson, the Maryland nut job who claims to have the winning ticket -- and says it’s not from the stack she agreed to buy for her now-incensed McDonald’s co-workers. If she’s intent on spending the rest of her life being an object of public scorn and hatred, her plan is succeeding brilliantly.

Winning tickets sold in Kansas and Illinois have so far gone unclaimed (Romney’s recently been in both states, by the way).

Experts say the winners are wisely waiting for the attention to die down before making a claim that’s certain to be anonymous.

I think that’s wrong. A desire for anonymity should be a disqualifying factor. You shouldn’t be able to use your fresh millions to insulate yourself against all of us losers who just forked it over to you.

In fact, this being a democracy and that states reap financial benefits from hosting the lotteries, I think lottery rules should be refined so everyone who plays has a say in how the winner spends his or her money.

Say if one $100 million winner is a common hillbilly. We should all get to vote if he gets to blow it all on hookers and fireworks of if he has enough of an intellectual spark that educational improvement is warranted. Either way, we should all get to watch.

In fact, I’d go even further. I think each lottery jackpot of more than $100 million should include a dozen winning tickets.

Anyone with a winner would have to step forward and agree to take part in a “Survivor” -like reality show where the jury is the American people. People who wish to remain anonymous can drop out and be given a parting gift, like maybe a toaster.

The remainders have to persuade America why they deserve the entire jackpot.

Then over the course of three months, once a week, we’d get to know these individuals and decide if they’re deserving of the money. We’d find out who was miserly and who was generous. We’d learn who was caring for a sick loved one and who abandoned his family for the cheap cocktail waitress.

Phoned-in or texted votes could cost $1 with proceeds going to pay down the national debt.

The result would be we’d get a winner who was generous, deserving and jolly enough to be bestowed with instant riches.

He’d be the kind of guy who cares about the environment, is sportsmanlike in victory and defeat and understands the importance of overtipping friendly breakfast waitresses. He’d be handsome, but not in a pretty boy way. He’d really need the money, but would be stable enough that he could be counted on to be neither miserly nor wasteful with a gaudy windfall.

He’d be articulate, witty and offer three to four times a week solutions to vexing global problems on his humble little blog.

Still looking for someone deserving -- besides yourself -- to root for the next big jackpot?

One more hint: I don’t mean Mitt.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Selling crayon books to Steelers/Bigfoot fans

I was treated to an honors tutorial in guerrilla book selling Sunday at Fort Ligonier Days.

Or was it gorilla book selling? I guess it all depends on your etymological sense of the supernatural Bigfoot.

See, bureaucratic considerations nearly caused me to tantrum bolt from the Sunday book signing. A Ligonier constabulary said the table my host at Second Chapter Books had positioned was improperly placed, even as it where it had been the previous two days and several years before that.

Moving it would have required moving me to a distant position with inferior visibility.

The unnecessary inconvenience is representative of just why the Fort Ligonier Days festival would be much more fun it were held in someplace far less uptight than Ligonier. Someplace like, say, Delmont, about 20 miles northwest of Fort Ligonier.

Happily, a sensible in-house solution was found. Two of the best and most successful self-published authors in western Pennsylvania, if not America, cordially agreed to let me share their table.

In a matter of moments I’d gone from Siberia to Broadway. I spent the day sitting at a long book signing table between Jim O’Brien and Stan Gordon.

Jim’s the author of 25 books on 22 Pittsburgh sports legends. About 25 years ago he set out to become de facto historian of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He’s in a way become like the sports heroes he chronicles, a Pittsburgh legend.

I know this because I heard about a dozen adoring fans come up to him yesterday and say, “Man, you are a Pittsburgh legend.” He is beloved.

My appreciation for his business acumen has skyrocketed since I began selling my own book. He makes eye contact with every passerby. He is courteous. He asks for everyone’s name and he remembers them all.

Stan Gordon on the other end of the table does all those things, too.

But instead of talking about topics involving Noll, Bradshaw and Lambert, Gordon’s expertise involves subjects named Roswell, Sasquatch and E.T.

Gordon is the foremost authority on all things supernatural. 

So out of my left ear I’m hearing Jimmy O’Brien saying Chuck Noll was a cerebral teacher with an appreciation for fine wine, while out of my right ear I’m hearing Stan saying he’s found what may have been Bigfoot poop near a creek just south of Kregar.

He’s traveled the globe investigating UFO sitings and Bigfoot appearances and lecturing to open-minded throngs. Reporters call Stan to ask if UFO sitings can be confused for weather phenomenon, if crop circles might be a result of fungus and if Bigfoot could be an inter-dimensional being.

I was curious as to how an observer could tell the difference between a male and a female Sasquatch. “It’s very difficult,” he said. “Sitings of them are very fleeting and they are covered in hair.”

That’s life. Go to a book signing hoping to sell books about crayons and you learn that Sasquatch genitalia could use a little manscaping.

You may not believe any of his expertise, but millions of people do and the majority of them are not at all nuts. They are just normal people who’ve seen or experienced something that can’t be explained.

Of course, I was more interested in the nuts.

I asked him what he did whenever he met someone who was truly loony.

“I listen to their experience, relate it to something I’ve heard of and then I try and sell them a book.”

Nothing nuts about that.

It’s hard to tell who, O’Brien or Gordon, had the more enthusiastic following.

Of course, their crowds swamped mine and probably cost me sales, but what I learned from observing these pros will benefit me for years.

And they were just great guys. Smart retailers would be wise to hire either to teach their sales forces how to get shoppers to buy their products.

And they were honest.

Well, Jim was.

I heard Stan lie every time a potential customer asked if he’d ever actually seen a Bigfoot himself.

“I have not,” he’d say. “I’ve seen plenty of evidence of them, but I’ve never actually seen one. I hope one day I do.”

He was lying.

He sees one each and every time he walks through the front door.

He told me earlier he has a lhasa apso. It is named Yeti.

Related . . .

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Why I always give trusting strangers wrong directions

(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 . . .

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dr. Nancy and the Ebola River Blues

Did you know Ebola is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? It’s where the first outbreak of the deadly virus happened back in 1976.

I wonder if Dr. Nancy Syderman knows that. She probably does.

She’s acting like a real know-it-all.

She’s the NBC chief medical correspondent who after dramatic — and heavily promoed — spots for her network donned hazmat gear to battle the disease in the Liberian hot zone . The message was clear: This is very dangerous and NBC personnel are risking their lives to make sure you’re informed and safe enough to stay tuned for Matt and Savannah’s cooking segment coming up right after Al does the weather.

When one of her crew began showing symptoms (he’s recovering), NBC gravely announced Snyderman and her team were — just to be safe — undergoing a voluntary 21-day quarantine. The quarantine was due to last Oct. 22, by which time symptoms would have either emerged or not.

That’s why it was real news that Snyderman was spotted getting takeout soup from the Peasant Grill in Hopewell, N.J.

People were outraged. How dare she risk spreading a relentless epidemic? Does she think the rules she promotes on NBC don’t apply to her?

My thoughts were more culinary.

I thought, “For her to risk her career, her reputation and the potential loss of countless lives, that must be some damn good soup.”

I’m a soup aficionado and spend long hours in the kitchen this time of year making big vats of French onion, chicken noodle and a savory turkey gumbo to sustain me when the winter proves too bitter to wander outside.

See, I take my self-quarantining much more seriously than Dr. Nancy does.

She released a vague and self-serving “apology” that is only fanning the flames of disdain. She admitted “members of our group” may have violated the quarantine, but it’s okay, because “as a health professional I know that we have no symptoms and pose no risk to the public.”

The physician had healed herself.

Of course, many people want her fired and I’d be fine with that. How can we trust her next time she tells us posterior liposuction, while a less healthy option than exercise and a proper diet, are a safe and time-saving way attain a nice tight butt.

Given that we live in times of unremitting vitriol, termination from her cushy job isn’t enough for many fire breathers.

They want her to die of Ebola!

That’ll show her, they say. Yeah, I think that would do the trick.

Clearly and by her pseudo-apology she’s shown she’s incapable of metaphorically dying of embarrassment, which is the reaction traditionalists like me would prefer.

I have none of that hate in my heart. Ideally, I’d like to see her while in strict quarantine announce that she’d begun exhibiting symptoms, but they were miraculously cured by a quart of that Peasant Grill soup that’s now made its way onto my soup bucket list.

This to me is all symptomatic of how news — even news concerning the potential deaths of millions — is all just entertainment.

We’re in the midst of what experts say has the potential to surpass AIDS as the  worst public health crisis since polio and, instead of solutions, the priority is either snag ratings or assign blame.

I fear we’re heading down a long dark river banked between hucksterism and hysteria.

I believe my fears will be confirmed in 18 days when parents begin gleefully dressing their little trick or treaters in full hazmat gear for Halloween.

You’ll be able to differentiate the altruistic health care workers from the publicity hounds like Snyderman because she’ll be the one carrying a bowl of soup.

And remember, kid, be sure to pronounce it “E-bol-a soup.”

Related . . .

Monday, October 13, 2014

See Jennifer Lawrence naked! (just pay B4 ya peek)

It wasn’t because I feared I’d be accused of committing a sex crime that I didn’t peek at the naked pictures of a woman whose recent films have earned nearly $1 billion.

My reasons were more artistic.

I didn’t want to risk clicking on illegally leaked naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence and see someone had photoshopped pictures of a giant penis over parts of Lawrence.

I made that mistake once and, I swear, it was the last time I’ll ever click on links to sites promising sexy Betty White shots.

I like Lawrence and find her attractive. She’s always sharp, cool and funny in her interviews and I’ve enjoyed her film roles, especially “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle.”

Of course, those are filmed roles she wants us to pay to see.

She is devastated that personal nude pictures she had taken of herself have flooded the net. She said so in a Vanity Fair magazine article that featured what appears to be a naked picture of her on the cover.

She said anyone who looked at the leaked pictures is guilty of “perpetuating a sexual crime” and “should cower in shame.”

I think the actress is overreacting and forgetting the common sense rules of anyone with membership in the “Look-At-Me!” club.

The “Look-At-Me!” club is populated by people who on the way up do outlandish stunts so the Hollywood media will pay attention to them and they’ll become famous. Think Angelina Jolie.

Then when they get sufficiently famous they immediately align themselves with the “Stop-Looking-At-Me!” club and abhor the media that made them famous: Think Angelina Jolie.

Then as their popularity declines they renew their membership in the “Look-At-Me!” club and resume doing outlandish things in hopes fame will return. Think Demi Moore.

I don’t put Lawrence in that camp. She’s a genuine talent and, really, who among us would ever want naked pictures of ourselves splashed all over the web?

And that’s precisely why we don’t pose for them!

Her overreaction is turning an oops! moment into something that now has real legs, a molehills-into-mountains situation.

And, remember, I haven’t seen the pictures so that reference to legs, mountains and molehills is mere conjecture.

Coincidentally, this was going on during a weekend which I spent two days with a group of women who were eager to share with the whole world naked pictures of themselves.

They weren’t whores or pornographers. In fact, a bunch of them were grandmothers.

They are the Greensburg-area “Calendar Girls” and they’re raising money to fight a cancer one of their dear friends is battling. As in the plot of the 2003 movie of the same name, all but one of the calendar girls is older than 60 and all of them pose nude, albeit with tasteful concealments over what Austin Powers calls the “naughty bits.”

These vivacious women are uniformly proud of the result and this weekend sold a lot of calendars at Second Chapter Books where we were both signing this during Fort Ligonier Days festivities. 

“It’s $5 to look and $20 to keep,” was one of their puckish pitches to passing men.

So here we have 24-year-old Jennifer Lawrence upset that seductive nude photos of herself are being gazed upon by adoring men, even as she’ll want those same adoring men to buy tickets to movies she’ll make in the next few years in which she’ll likely appear seductively nude.

And then you have the Calendar Girls, a dozen mature women appearing exuberantly nude to raise money for a dear friend and others battling cancer.

“Some of the girls were nervous about posing,” said Traci, the project’s inspiration — and mention “Calendar Girl Traci” in your prayers tonight. “But after they saw how much fun we had and how beautiful it turned out all our friends want to be in the next one.”

These are confusing times. We are exposed to nudity in so many once-innocent venues and we don’t know how we’re supposed to react.

One beautiful woman says we’re sexual predators for looking at nude pictures of her, while another group of beautiful women want us to hang their nude pictures on our refrigerators where we’ll see them every time we feel a hankering for things like V8.

What are we to do?

I do not know.

All I really know is I’m emphatically relieved that no one’s ever told my 81-year-old mother what fun she’d have being a calendar girl.

Related . . .