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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Surviving the survivalists

In a weekend with news about skyrocketing gas prices, food shortages and global catastrophe, the Associated Press decided to detail my worst nightmares by profiling doomsday prophets who believe the end is nigh.

“Convinced that the planet’s oil supply is dwindling and the world’s economies are heading for a crash,” writes Samantha Gross, “some people around the country are moving into homesteads, living off their land, conserving fuel and, in some cases, stocking up on guns they expect to use to defend themselves from desperate crowds of people who didn’t prepare.”

Uh, that would be me.

I’ve been unprepared and about 45 minutes late for everything my entire life. If chaos comes, I’ll be wandering the barren countryside with my family looking for friendlies that’ll be willing to let me into their compound so I can have a safe place to keep my iPod charged until order is restored.

Sure, the world’s going to hell, but at least I’ll be grooving when I get there.

Right now, I’m certain many of my rural neighbors are among the survivalists. They home school, grow their own foods and are dutiful in stocking up on bullets and beans.

I don’t know if any of them will consider letting me in or not. All I have to offer are some snazzy Tommy Bahama shirts, a sipping appreciation of fine bourbon and a knack for memorizing filthy limericks.

Guys like me, we’re good around a campfire.

But my fear is things will get so bad that the survivalists will look at us and think we’d be better over the campfire. I don’t want to live in a world where the strong and well-prepared have to eat indolent jokers like me.

Happily, the track record of doomsayers is pretty bad. Many of the same people who are now buying canned goods with no expiration dates were the same ones who missed a really great global party on December 31, 1999.

Sure, the world’s oil supply is likely to dry up, but romantics like me are convinced right now someone is working in his or her garage on an automobile that’ll dash on discarded soda bottles. And I’m optimistic that some innovative company is on the verge of announcing they’ve developed some cow chow that’ll turn bovine flatulence into ozone. That way every time a cow farts, an odorless bubble of ozone will float up into the atmosphere and -- voila! -- no more global warming!

At least, I hope that’s what’s going to happen.

Because I don’t want to live among the grim, well-prepared cannibals who’ll no doubt turn on me and each other once the last can of Dinty Moore beef stew’s been consumed. I don’t want to be eaten by my neighbors and I certainly don’t want to have dine on any of them.

I don’t even want to so much as nibble on any of their ears.

And, remember, that’s coming from a romantic.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Rabbi is in

The Sierra Club refers to me with the honorific “Judge Chris Rodell.” The noble lifesavers at Doctors Without Borders address me with collegial charity as “Dr. Rodell.” And it would take a miracle of Biblical proportions for me to respond with the generosity deserving of all the Democratic National Party affiliates who write beseeching “The Reverend Rodell” for a contribution.

If you took all the mailing lists for every left-leaning, tree-hugging, bound to help-the-helpless organizations in the world and rolled them into one, the sum distillation would be one of the most accomplished men in the world. And that would be me. After a lifetime of willful indolence, finally, a man Mom can be proud of.

See, being Mr. Chris Rodell hasn’t exactly worked out for me. No one treats me with anything more than the most perfunctory courtesies.

That’s why I hesitated in 2004 when a donation to the Democratic party required me to check a title. “Dr.” felt like a reach. “Mrs.” would have worked with the wussy unisex name my parents freighted me with at birth, but I wasn’t ready for the possible lifestyle change it might invite and I would have needed a whole new wardrobe.

So I stared at the heavenly option, “Rev.” Remember, 2004 was when Karl Rove and the Republicans frequently claimed they’d been anointed by the Almighty to divinely solve all the world’s problems. I decided to do my part to close the God gap. For my title, I checked “Rev.”

Right away, the new title led to more telephonic respect. One agent for the party called and said, “Reverend Rodell? I’m sooo sorry to bother you, but we really need the help of upstanding community men like you if we’re going to win in November. Can we count on your support and influence?”

By all means. I dashed off a check for $50 and the 2006 congressional elections wound up being an electoral landslide, coincidentally, perhaps. Soon, my name began to sift through the other left-leaning mailing lists. I could sense in their tones that the callers' postures improved when they dialed a holy man like myself.

I liked it.

Of course, there was the inevitable misstep. During the recent Pennsylvania primary, I was besieged by calls from party activists. I lost my patience and reverted back to my Mr. Rodell temper.

“Look,” I told one caller, “I’m gettin’ sick of all these (and I’m paraphrasing here) gol-danged calls. Leave me alone.”

The solicitor let the silence sink in for two beats before saying, “Rev. Rodell?”

“Uh, yes?”

“You should be nicer. People expect more from someone like you.”

He was right. People look up to those involved in pastoral professions, and as I’m finding out, even to ones who pretend to be. If I’m going to be Rev. Rodell, there are certain standards I need to uphold.

So I vowed to make myself a better person, at least in terms of titles. Besides “Judge,” “Dr.,” “Father,” and “Esq,” I was pleased to feel an ecumenical surge of pride when UNICEF bestowed upon me, for $100, the title of “Rabbi.”

I doubt the unfortunates in Myanmar or China will care whether or not Rabbi Rodell is concerned about their plight, but it might open some eyes if, say, he extends a financial olive branch to help aid Palestinian orphans.

Either way, it’s likely I’ll one day leave a remarkable obituary for my survivors to admire. And maybe one day I’ll live up to the reputation of the guy all those money-seeking callers believe me to be.

It’s something you might want to consider next time someone seeks a contribution from you.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. You can take it or leave it.

After all, despite what you might infer from my credentials, I’m really not a preachy kind of guy.

Internet Siberia

I’ve been enduring a self-imposed exile in internet Siberia since March. That means I spend most of my working hours in an office with no e-mail, no Google, no Drudge and no Jump The Shark. I can’t read headlines, check the baseball box scores, or see if the weather’ll be suitable to golf the following day.

If I want to check out some porn, I have to don a disguise and head down to the newsstand and pay for it just like they used to in the horse-and-buggy days.

It wasn’t always like this. When I moved into this office, I’d found one of two apartment neighbors in the second floor above this little Latrobe, Pennsylvania, tavern was beaming a strong Wifi signal. It was coming from behind the door with the pulsing rap music and lingering scents that might start a narcotic dog to barking.

I knocked on his door and made the following proposal: The two of us can either continue enriching Verizon to the total tune of $60 a month, or you could give me your password and I’ll pay you $15 a month to freeload off your WiFi. Here’s a check for the first six months.”

He said, “Cool!” I said, “Thanks!” and within 90 seconds a nearly impenetrable wall of marijuana smoke began filling the hall.

And for the next 12 months everyone but Verizon stockholders rejoiced.

Then he sent me a note saying he’d lost his job with a local landscaping crew. Who knew even they were drug testing? But he was gone and he was taking his Wifi with him.

Verizon said they could hook me up for, ouch, $50 a month. That was steep for a guy who’s been in a persistent earnings lull since what seems like the past 15 years. Plus, I’ve been despisin’ Verizon ever since my first traipse through the voice mail hell that is the starting point for their technical assistance or billing complaint.

So I’m sort of in Internet Siberia. I have it at home and I can go cherry pick it from any a couple of local restaurants or at our cozy local library. But as far as days in office go, I’m working without a net, or without the ‘net.

The lesson so far is, if I’m ever the boss of anyone but myself, the first thing I’m getting rid of is their internet connection.

I’m a much better employee without the distracting cornucopia of trivia that comes pouring out of my computer.

I guess the obvious next step is to paint my little window black.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Office

When my wife asked what I wanted for Christmas, I told her I wanted this really neat poster I saw for Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Radio.

“A poster? What are you, in eighth grade?” she asked.

“Nope, but my office is,” I replied.

I spent 15 years working in a dank, windowless basement office in our old home in Youngstown, Pennsylvania. I used to wear a holstered super-soaker squirt gun to fire at the dog and the cat anytime they got into a hissy fight when I was on the phone trying to conduct proper business. It was invariably the highlight of those soul-killing days.

It was like writing stories from the set of “Das Boot,” the claustrophobic submarine movie that managed to make a bunch of Nazi U-boaters seem as friendly as a gang from the local bowling league. You actually feel sorry for them when the killing waters began pouring in.

But if water ever began pouring into that old basement, no one would have heard my dying screams. It was very lonely and depressing. I’d pray for any happy distraction.

Those prayers were often answered when one of my many unemployed friends would call and see if I wanted to go golfing or to a Pirate game. They called often because I always said yes and usually sprang for the fun.

Then in 2000 our first daughter, The Outlaw Josie Rodell, was born, and soon a whole new set of Barbie doll-bearing distractions started coming down to brighten up the basement. She was more fun than even my unemployed friends and way less expensive, something I’m assured will change when prom seasons start getting marked on our calendars.

I was such a reliable buddy for her that one day when her friend said, “My daddy helps sick people. What’s your daddy do?” She matter-of-factly responded, “He plays with me.”

I thought, man, that’s not going to look good on the next loan application.

But in 2007 we moved about a mile a way up the mountain to a great new house in the woods. It’s perfect in nearly every way except it doesn’t have a dedicated office space. So my wife suggested I get a cheap apartment in Latrobe.

I put the word out and immediately my two favorite bar owners engaged in a reverse bidding war to have me as a reliable tenant near their taps. The bidding began at $250 a month and immediately ceased when the counter proposal dropped to free.

Of course, I couldn’t do that. He’s providing a service and I knew the bar where I spend most of my time would benefit if I pumped more money into the place (it has so much that I argue I should be eligible for employee-of-the-month consideration).

So I shrewdly negotiated back up to $150 a month for a two-room, second floor apartment that overlooks the parking lot across from the Latrobe Steel plant.

No TV, a cool Bose stereo, a golf chipping area and a trash can nailed into the wall at 4-feet for paper wad basketball, it’s really more of a clubhouse than an office. It’s the perfect escape for someone who spends the rest of his day in a house with three girls. My motto is: “My door is always open, and my toilet seat lid is always up.”

Now, instead of having a 4 year old showing up to distract me with Barbies, I’m distracted by middle aged men with beer bellies.

No body in the bar believes I actually work and I sacrifice countless work hours in the bar trying in vain to convince them I do.

The Blog-Launching Power Lunch

So there we sat. Two LA guys involved in a high-powered meeting. Jay’s from Los Angeles by way of Chicago. Over the past 10 years, he’s worked his way from being a feisty nobody to producing top movies with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. During the lunch he made maybe a nearly a dozen phone calls and dashed off just as many text messages.

The man moves, he shakes. He told me he’s been working 18 hour days throughout 2008.

Me, I’m an LA guy, too. LA-trobe, Pennsylvania, that is. I quickly calculated in my head that I’d worked maybe 18 hours total in 2008. It was mid-March.

We’d met on a Southern California golf course, have common interests and he was kind enough to meet for lunch during a visit to Pittsburgh to discuss the unpublished, rejection-magnet of a novel I’ve written

But the waitress may have surmised the sum total of my involvement in the meeting was to watch him make deals, exude charm and confidence while I just silently sat there dribbling bisque down my tie. I wondered if being around someone as supremely idle as me was making him uncomfortable.

I even thought of conducting a pretend phone conversation with some make-believe big shot. But I worried that tactic might backfire. There was a slim chance that the phone would actually ring during my playacting and my wife, for instance, would make me repeat aloud to her the groceries I’d been ordered to retrieve: “Oh, all right . . . broccoli . . . milk . . . toilet paper . . .”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not LAzy. I like to work, that is if anyone calls what I do -- essentially talking and typing -- work. It’s just that I prefer to either play with my daughters or lean against a bar and babble with my buddies than talk and type. I’ve come to understand that I’m a sort of a work repellent. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, no matter how many calls I make or how many trees I shake, I can’t conjure up a wage-earning assignment.

And just when things appear on the verge of their most desperate, voila, in comes some work. So instead of fretting about idle time, I tend to revel in it.

Plus, I can't imagine it's part of God's plan for me to be poor. I’m impoverished by a sunny optimism that misleads me into thinking something better’s always about to dawn.

Through 15 years of freelancing writing, it’s yet to happen. Maybe it will tomorrow.

Or the day after that.

But between phone calls, Jay told me I really ought to start a blog. He is very persuasive. He swore good things would happen. He convinced me and instantly circumstances began proving him right.

Good things did start to happen. Right away. At least for him they did.

I bought his lunch.

The Freelancer

I recently marked the 15th anniversary of the day I quit stable, full-time employment to devote my time to freelance writing. It was the kind of milestone that caused people to remark, “Wow. That’s a long time to be writing.” And when you think of it in those stark terms, it is.

In fact, 15 years of freelance writing is anything but a lot of writing. Like most writers, I spent much of that time actually doing things that avoid writing. I thought it deserved a cumulative breakdown:

• I spent about five of those years fast asleep. That number would be higher if I included the 18 months I lay in bed wide awake wondering if some deadbeat publisher was going to pay me the $5,000 he’d promised; if I was ever going to work again; and if it was too late to get a job at some crayon factory or a place where they didn’t lay awake at night wondering if their career’s been one big mistake.

• An entire misguided year can be written off to time spent learning the intricacies of criminal law from Judge Lance Ito. I used to keep a TV in my office on the grounds that every news-gathering organization in the world had one and how could I gather news without CNN? The flip side of that is whenever someone like O.J. Simpson is arrested for killing his wife, I wind up making a garage-sized sum of popcorn and just sitting there watching the show. For what it’s worth, I think he did it.

• Spent about three months trying to coin a word whose sweeping usage will earn a place in the dictionary. Example: Glibberish -- pointless party chatter between two people who’d rather be talking to anyone else.

• I spent about six months watching J.R. Ewing and “Dallas” reruns on the Soap Network. Add another two months spent on the phone talking like schoolgirls about each episode with two other underemployed buddies who, like me, used to build their days around time at South Fork.

• Put down three solid months to reading rejection letters from esteemed editors. There are some editors at major magazines and newspapers who’ve devoted entire weeks of their lives to reminding me over and over that my ideas stink. I also spent about four months waiting at the mailbox or obsessively checking e-mails to learn those discouraging assessments.

• Spent at least three years playing with my daughters and the dog. I’ve heard no one’s ever said on their deathbed, gee, I wish I’d have spent more time working. I’m engaged in a life-long test of that theory and just pray that my deathbed isn’t a shabby piece of cardboard under some bridge.

• Not many writers would brag about it, but I spent about two years doing offbeat features for National Enquirer. I’ve been lucky to have my name published in some magazines that the buying public considers prestigious. But I’ve never had as much fun working as when I was doing more than 1,000 swashbuckling features for America’s most notorious newspaper.

• I spent about six months laughing on sunny golf courses and another six months laughing in darkened taverns. My wife, who calculates time differently than I, would peg those numbers at four years each.

• At least one calendar year’s been spent reading things on the internet that have nothing to do with improving my professional situation, but have become brain barnicles that are impossible to scrub off. For instance, the eyes we’re born with remain the same size throughout our lives, but our ears and noses grow a little bit every day. I’ve probably spent a couple weeks staring in the mirror to see if I could detect any movement in those prominent features.

• I’ve probably spent about six months lamenting that it’s taken me about 15 years to accomplish what other, more focused writers have done in about three.

• I cooked and consumed delicious seafood for lunch for about four months; took long soul-soothing walks for another six months.

• Negated all that accumulated serenity by spending almost six months waiting on hold for Verizon or other tech people to bail me out of infuriating stalls.

• All told, I figure I spent about seven months with my fingers poised on a keyboard actually engaged in the process of freelance writing.

• Took me about 45 minutes to write this.