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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Death to boring dinner deaths!

I put a moratorium on boring dinner deaths the other night after yet another old neighbor lady passed away in her sleep.

It’s not that I’m opposed to morbid death talk at dinner. On the contrary, I’ve always considered myself a death connoisseur. I enjoy lively talks about death and dying.

As a young newspaper reporter, I was daily immersed in the grisly ends of strangers. I’ve seen with my own eyes the mangled bodies of gunshot victims, sidewalk suicide splatters, and hapless casualties of no-win confrontations with runaway trucks.

Their scarred corpses haunt my dreams. I wonder about the searing pain, the fateful recognition that death was imminent. And I invariably put myself in their doomed shoes, hands raised in futile defense the instant before the pin hits the shell.

It’s not death I mind, it’s boredom.

And our daughter, Josie, 7, shares those impulses. So when Val said the other night about the neighbor lady dying in her sleep, Josie was naturally curious. How’d she die? What happened?

“She was old,” Val said. “She died in her sleep. Very peaceful.”

It was maybe the eighth old lady who’d died in her sleep this year. If you’re looking for a tidy, peaceful death, become an old lady in my neighborhood and just bide your time.

I could sense Josie was disappointed. I set my fork down and wiped my mouth with my napkin. “Look, I’m tired of all these old ladies dying in their sleep,” I said to Val. “The next time some old lady passes away, you make damn sure you have a good story to tell us. It’s not going to make her any less dead if she was eaten by a bear or struck by lightning. And we’ll all enjoy our dinners a little bit more.”

So recently we’ve had wonderful dinner conversations about Mrs. Miller who was struck by a meteor when she was gardening; Mrs. Peterson, who died heroically trying to save her kidnapped husband from Colombian rebels, and poor old Mrs. Benson who was killed trying to retrieve her wedding ring from the cranky wood chipper in the back yard.

I have absolutely no fear of death as long as it doesn’t have to hurt.

I probably spend a lot of time thinking about dying because I spend so much time thinking about living. I really enjoy my life and know it’s so finite. We’re all born the same way, but death’s a real crap shoot. Even mean, rich people can die grisly, untimely deaths and we all feel a little bit better about ourselves when something like that happens.

It’s one of the most fair things about this confoundingly unfair life.

Ideally, I’d like to live to be about 90, stumble drunk out of a friendly tavern and get hit by a bus. I want the bus to be traveling so fast that bystanders will swear they saw my soul shoot out of my body bound straight for heaven. And that my soul wasn’t wearing any pants.

But I’m guessing it’s most likely to happen in a movie theater where I’ll be gunned down by some rude, yapping kids who don’t like being shushed by an old man who feels it’s his duty to police the audience so every one can hear the witty dialogue animating what I guess will be Shrek 19.

No matter what happens, I’ve started a family tradition that when I do go, it’ll be something that’ll entertain my darling daughters.

Val: “Kids, I’ve got bad news. Your father was killed today. He was struck by a meteor while fighting Colombian rebels with a wood chipper. His body fell off the mountain he was climbing and landed in shark-infested waters just as the nearby volcanic island erupted . . .”

Sure, some of that might hurt, but it ought to give me bragging rights when I run into all those old neighbor ladies who, yawn, died in their sleep.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Stickin' it to flag pin patriots: a really rockin' anthem

It was the seventh inning of a perfectly wonderful day at PNC Park to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates play the San Diego Padres when it was again time to show the world what a great American I am.

Yes, it was time to sing our second anthem of the day, “God Bless America.” As is historic custom, me and more than 17,500 other strangers had already done our part to mumble through “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Now, and ever since 9/11, Major League Baseball has instructed every ballpark in America to hold an amplified performance of “God Bless America” after the away team bats in the seventh inning of every MLB Sunday game.

Of course, it’s all an effort to appease the flag pin patriots who are more comfortable showing off magnetic “Support the Troops” bumper stickers than seriously debating just how much we’ve all failed them over the past seven years.

Me, I might be the only guy in the entire stadium who actually sings both anthems with the same clarity and gusto that the rest of the ball fans reserve for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

That comes from my late father. He was a real patriot. He loved his country without reserve, but wasn’t a gaudy showoff about it. He’d belt out the national anthem so loudly and off-key that I was surprised Three Rivers Stadium officials didn’t offer him a job as one of those nerve-rattling beer vendors.

I’m always mystified that people don’t sing the national anthem. Many don’t even mumble it. They just sort of shift their weight from one foot to the other and awkwardly wait for the last line when we can all raise our $7 beers in patriotic salute to kickoffs and curveballs.

I think that’s because they don’t appreciate the song’s history. It’s a great story and was written in response to one of the first terrorist attacks in our nation’s history, the shelling of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry by British warships bent on extinguishing the 38-year-old American experiment.

Plus, I like to try and generate interest in the song by pointing out it’s the only national anthem in the world that ends with an unanswered question. Read carefully:

"Oh, say, does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

It’s a question history will eventually answer. But none of that seems to matter to the guys that sit around me at Pirate and Steeler games I frequently attend. I can’t get anyone fired up about any of the great patriotic songs and their origins that fascinate me.

For instance, “God Bless America” was written in 1938 by Irving Berlin, a professional songwriter who found inspiration primarily the same way clock-punching assembly line workers do: It was a job that paid the bills. He wrote “White Christmas” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and died an unloved recluse who’d spent his final years pestering his business manager by phone 10 times a day about the state of his finances.

The motives behind “America the Beautiful” from 1893 are less suspect. It was written by poet Katherine Lee Bates after she visited the 14,110-foot summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado. Bates was an ardent feminist who created a sensational scandal in her day by enjoying a deep 25-year “romantic friendship” with another female professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The author of one of America’s most patriotic songs was an unabashed member of a constituency some of today’s flag pin patriots in Congress still shun 90 years after her death.

But no one cares when I bring any of this up. That’s why for the last six years I have argued that we need a new national anthem. One that perfectly captured that national mood under George W. Bush, one that was easy to sing, and one that really rocks.

Of course, the new national anthem should be, “We Will Rock You!” by the English band, Queen.

Can you imagine the competitive jolt our athletes would get if they were to play “We Will Rock You!” as they entered the Beijing arena the night of the Olympic opening ceremonies? Can you imagine the adrenaline rush it would give our brave warriors overseas as they prepared to go to battle?

Can you imagine how much fun I’ll have telling conservative flag pin patriots that this muscular, kick-ass song was made famous by an Indian-born English homosexual who died of AIDS in 1991?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Park rangers bust the wrong guys

We’d finished setting up our tent about two hours previous, the kids were zonked, and I was settling into a robust cigar and my sixth beer. It was a perfectly peaceful night of family camping at scenic Ohiopyle State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Then three cars full of early 20-somethings pulled up and I was immediately disappointed to realize it was going to remain perfectly peaceful.

Out of the cars piled a mixed bag of fresh-faced kids, boys and girls, who looked like they’d showed up for a wholesome weekend of co-ed whitewater rafting. The handsome boys were strong and tan, the pretty girls were supple and exuding charm. I could tell instantly they were going to be considerate, friendly and, as a whole, would have absolutely nothing in common with the guy I was when I was their age.

It all looked so alien to me. When I was their age, I never did anything with groups of my peers, I was rarely sober and I never did buddy-buddy stuff with girls my age. Heck, I rarely got to do the only thing I really liked to do with girls my age.

I spent vast swaths of my 20s in dark taverns and bright ballparks with colorful guys who liked to drink as much as I, and that was a lot. The best part of those years was when me and another guy worked in small town newspaper bureau with just the two of us. The office was right next door to a friendly tavern and if the doors in both buildings were open, we could hear the Bat Phone ring from our barstools.

It was a classic guy bar with a cranky and filthy-mouthed 70-year-old bartender who’d come by and knock on the window every day at 1 p.m. to let us know our beers were ready. It was all great, dissolute fun.

Back then, my life was so guy-centered that it wasn’t until I was 33 that I said my first complete sentence to a female. And with mighty consequences, those words were, “So, ya wanna get married?”

I was sitting at the campfire next to the woman who’d answered, “Yeah, what the hell,” to that question. I told her about how when I was that age I never could have imagined mingling for purely social reasons -- no ulterior motives -- with women. Or being in the woods. Sober. And how the 20-something Chris would have nothing to say to the 40-something Chris he was destined to become.

We watched in fascination as one-by-one they came up, said hello, and assured us they wouldn’t be any trouble.

And they weren’t. They were drinking beers, but without the adolescent drive toward raucous results. They were just good honest kids. And it was about cost them.

A park ranger came up with his flashlight and told them it was illegal to drink beers in a state park. Who knew? They were all adults. They weren’t causing trouble. It’s yet another sign that the purity police have gotten out of hand.

Then he walks over to our camp. “Evenin’ sir,” he says, real respectful (our beers were discretely tucked beneath our seats). “These kids giving you any trouble?”

No, they’re real polite. Good kids.

“You let us know if things get out of hand.”

That would likely have been self-incriminating, but I assured him I would.

Four or five beers later, our campfire sputtered down and Val and I packed it in. I was up early the next morning to the sounds of neighboring tents being dismantled.

I asked why the unexpected vamoose.

“The police officer snuck back up and busted me with a beer. He fined me $125 for open container and said we’d all have to be gone by 8 a.m. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do out here if we can’t enjoy a couple of beers by the campfire.”

I suggested several convenient narcotics and pharmaceuticals. They all laughed like I was kidding.

I pulled aside one of the guys who’d been nervy enough to have another beer. I asked him, hey, did you ever think of making a run for it?

“What? And let them take the fall for me? It was my mistake. I had to take responsibility.”

That’s another difference. I would have run like hell.

And I mean from my family.

There’s still some things the 40-something Chris has in common with the 20-something Chris.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Cell phone cancer scare? Don't sweat it

I’m not concerned that cell phones might cause cancer because I believe in three years cell phones will be able to cure cancer.

That will be the first useful application for a device over which I’ve had an uneasy relationship since its noisy introduction about ten years ago.

I used to maintain that the only words that should ever be spoken in public into a cell phone are, “No! No! No! Make the incision behind the left ear! The left ear!”

Now, I’m as guilty as the next guy. I make so few meaningful calls on my cell phone that I often wonder if I even need it at all. It’s still too complicated and clunky to carry around for so much pointless yapping.

But extrapolating that thought leads me down a dangerous path. Because I say so few meaningful things in general that if I get rid of the cell phone for that reason then the logical conclusion is I just ought to shut up all together, and despite the rising chorus of “Amens!” I’m not going to just shut up.

So I continue to use my cell phone mostly for ordering pizzas, arranging tee times and killing time with old buddies by repeating things like our favorite Homer Simpson lines back and forth to one another when we should be working.

And all the while the cell phone keeps becoming more and more remarkable.

I remember about 10 years ago Maxim asked me to do a story about “The Next Big Things.” The roster included Segway scooters, hydro-oceanic energy harvesting modules, and self-healing plastics that will eliminate catastrophic damage on things like airplane wings.

And it included a nifty little MIT-produced prototype they were calling the “Handy 21.”

Here’s what I wrote: “In just 10 years, the geniuses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are convinced the only e-device you’ll ever need will be the Handy 21, a voice-driven, wireless wonder that will be your cell phone, camcorder, radio, TV and Internet gateway all rolled into one. It’s being called a ‘communication chameleon’ for its Capt. James T. Kirk tricorder-like efficiency.”

But the geniuses at Maxim ditched the Handy 21 because they said it was too far-fetched. Of course, those are the same geniuses that thought they’d all have jobs at Maxim through 2010 before we all learned in unison that they hire fresh geniuses to run Maxim every six months or so.

But lo and behold, such technology is now ubiquitous. Soon they say we’ll be able to point our cell phones at foreign language signs and newspapers and, will wonders never cease, they’ll translate them.

Seems a small price to pay for all those malignant growths behind our left ears.

Coincidentally, I’ve found what in my darkest thoughts is probably a malignant growth. It’s either that or there’s a little man inside my head who’s trying to get out and is starting by poking a tiny finger through the inside of my left eyebrow.

But I’m not worried. If it does turn out to be cancer, I’m sure that in a few years I’ll just need to adjust my monthly plan to allow for cancer cures along with unlimited text messages and connectivity.

I’ll just hold the phone up to my right ear until I hear it scold me, “No! No! No! I need to make the incision behind the left ear! The left ear!”

Then, fully cancer free, I’ll use the remarkable little cell phone to do what it does best. And within 30 minutes -- voila! -- I’ll be enjoying a big greasy pepperoni and anchovy pizza and a cold six pack of Yuengling.

And trying to figure out what buttons I need to push to get the cell phone to perform liposuction on my gigantic butt.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Industry-saving idea: edible newspapers!

I’ve tried in vain for the past two years to singlehandedly save an industry I love. But the newspaper industry, that unforgiving and often cruel mistress, continues to turn its back on me more times than did all the high school cheerleaders when prom time rolled around.

It ridicules me. Calls me stupid. It pretends it didn’t get my phone calls. For all I know, it’s running around with a guy from the football team who drives his own car.

See, the solution to an industry plagued with job losses, vanishing readers and generations who don’t even know it exists is a simple meat ‘n’ potatoes issue.

Newspapers need to become edible.

I have seen the future and it is covered in ketchup.

Many of our most urgent problems could be solved if more everyday manufactured items could be consumed after they’ve been used instead of being trucked to a landfill.

Think how much waste would be eliminated if, say, after you’ve eaten a bag of potato chips you could chew up the bag and digest it. Make it mint flavored and heart-healthy and the busy bodies at the American Medical Association would probably recommend it for kids.

Same with those ubiquitous plastic bottles. Why can’t they make those out of some pretzel-like substance that would be safe to consume without spilling as the liquid got lower?

And, sure, go ahead and make the vending machines out of jerky that’ll only become edible after it’s deemed obsolete.

But let’s start with newspapers. While vending machines constructed from jerky may take some time, we could start printing edible newspapers with the very next editions. That technology’s been available since November 3, 2003, when a baked goods savant named Douglas Stewart was issued U.S. patent #6,652,897.

The patent, with the full backing of the U.S. government -- and that means W.! -- said it was safe to consume certain papers and colored inks.

Hogwash, you say? Well, you’ve probably already eaten your share of ink and paper and it may have had your Aunt Minnie’s picture on it.

Yes, Stewart’s the genius who devised a way to print pictures and lacquer them atop birthday cakes. Stewart’s inspiration was that the paper he made was firm enough to be printed on in a standard printer, yet dissolves quickly when brought in contact with moist frosting. It’s perfectly safe. And on a cake, just plain cool.

There’s no better or more practical application than having the same technology devoted to newspapers, a dirty, tree-devouring business if there ever was one.

Think of the mountains of waste that would be eliminated. Think how it would help busy executives if the could read a page of the Wall Street Journal and gobble it down like a fresh salad.

Newspaper consumers would become consumers of newspapers.

With edible newspapers, the food editor would enjoy a much more elevated position in the newsroom. Instead of being the butt of jokes from hard news guys, the food editor would be the one who’d daily decide what it meant for a family newspaper to be truly tasteful.

“All right, there’s a big doubleheader at the ballpark today so flavor the sports pages with hot dogs and mustard. The front page story about salmonella should taste like salsa because readers aren’t going to be getting any of that for a while. And we’re running a blowhard opinion piece from Stan, the business editor, about how he correctly predicted the current troubles when everyone said he was nuts. Have that taste like crow.”

It’s as simple as that.

The newspaper industry, mired in the deepest slump since Guttenberg invented the printing press, can take it or leave it.

They can call me a kook. I don’t mind. I’ve offered a perfectly sensible solution to save their jobs. If they choose to ignore it, well, let them eat cake.

If I'm wrong, I'll eat my words. And if I'm right, everyone else will.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Plane truths from a real road warrior

The guy gave me friendly grin as he squeezed past to get into seat 12-A, Northwest Airlines flight 2732. He settled into the window seat, buckled in and turned to size me up.

My guess is that he saw a compadre, a fellow road warrior. Like himself, he saw another frequent flyer, a battle-scarred survivor of all the hellish conditions the woe-begotten airline industry can thrust upon a 21th century trans-continental traveler.

We thus began the familiar road warrior waltz. Where you headed? Where you staying? Gonna be there long?

His name was Phil and he was headed to SoCal for business but, as always, planned to tap the expense account to hit all the posh area golf courses. He was on the road for about 20 days of every month, all over the world, but primarily out west from his Pittsburgh-area base. He’d been at it for the last eight years.

“It’s a real grind,” Phil said. “People say they envy me for getting to travel so much to so many exciting places, but they don’t understand what it means to have to travel commercial these days. It’s delayed and cancelled flights, lost baggage, rude desk clerks and now they charge you for wanting even a sip of soda. I don’t know how much worse it can get.”

Seatmate etiquette in this regard is very important. You don’t want to come off as a chronic whiner or a some kind of show-off who finds it irresistible to bury your seatmate with tale after tale of air travel horrors.

Phil played it right down the middle. He asked me about my flight experiences. I told him about the time I got stuck over night in Dulles and had to sleep on the hard floor, the time one airline held me hostage on the tarmac for five hours until storms over Cleveland cleared. And I told him about all the times they lost my golf bag and inconvenienced me by having to use awkward rentals.

The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes. Then we exchanged friendly nods, a conversational ceasefire signaling it was time we could drift into our own little worlds until the drink cart came rattling up. Phil dove into his laptop. I closed my eyes and drifted off to dreamland.

But dreamland wasn’t far off. In my dreams, I was in the same seat high above the Great Plains, but Phil had become Jacob, a 19th century blacksmith who 160 years ago crossed the country by wagon train with his family in hopes of a better life in the land of milk and honey.

I tried to make friendly small talk. I told him I was heading to a swanky resort for a weekend of -- yippee! -- free golf, free booze, and the kind of revelry I dreamed about when I first gleaned the perks of being an ethically-challenged travel writer.

Jacob said, “My family got the westering fever in 1848 when the land dried up and the cows began to die. We took what we had and joined a wagon train with my cousin Sven, his family, and four other families.”

You don’t say. Boy, I’m sure glad we got a direct flight to LAX. Why, I remember one time I had to connect in Dallas and Albuquerque before finally landing. I spent about eight hours in the air that day. I was so exhausted I had to miss the evening cocktail party and was grouchy the whole next morning.

“We left by mule train from Springfield, Illinois, on May 10, 1846. We had hoped to make it to California before the snows made the mountains impassable. I’d heard tell of one wagon train that had made it clear across the country in seven months. We were hopeful that it would take nine months at the most.”

How ‘bout that. Hey, at least you probably didn’t have to worry about losing your luggage. I can’t tell you the number of times the airlines have lost mine. One time it took them a whole week to find my suitcase. By the time they were ready to return it, I was already headed home!

“We lost the Robinson family crossing the Platte river. Rains had swollen the river and our guide had made a bad decision. The Robinsons went first. The river was too swift and we couldn’t save them without dying ourselves.”

Now, that's a shame. One time I had to fly with a plane full of drunken insurance salesman bound for a Vegas convention. Talk about obnoxious.

"Comanches killed and scalped Ned Coyne when he was off scouting for water. They had us surrounded before the Cavalry came and ran them off. Thought we'd all die there."

You don't say. Boy, I’m getting thirsty. I wish that drink cart would get here.

“We went 33 days without drinking water crossing the Great Basin west of Salt Lake. Our tongues were thick from thirst. The animals and the old were the first to go. But we perservered. It was either push on or perish."

Hey, I remember not too long ago when they actually used to serve meals aboard flights. No kidding. Meals! And not just first class. Even us peons back in coach could get a bite to eat!

“See down there in those mountains? That’s where we decided to eat Sven’s ass. We’d gone three weeks without food.”

Oh, my goodness! The trip got so bad you had to actually eat one of Sven's mules to survive? What was the poor donkey’s name?

“No, it wasn’t Sven’s donkey. It was his ass. Sven died in the mountains and we cut strips off his ass and roasted the flesh in the little fire.”

That’s too bad. You know they charged me for a bag? Can you believe it?

“That’s where we ate Sven’s leg . . .”

Wanna bet they send our bags to the wrong carousel?

“That’s where we ate Sven’s arm . . .”

I woke up when the descending landing gear gave the plane a gentle jolt. Phil smiled and pointed at his watch. The plane was going to be about 15 minutes late. We both shook our heads, two world-weary travelers condemned to a lifetime of such inconveniences.

That was the flight that had me vowing to cut back on my in-flight naps. I don’t want to have another dream about a guy like Jacob.

The guy did nothing but complain.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Chris Rodell, Art Historian

The world’s top artists are gathering in Detroit to celebrate charismatic patron Albert Scaglione and 40 years of his Park West Gallery. Scaglione and the gallery are the art titans who run the enormously lucrative cruise ship art auctions that have spread fine art to the masses.

Attending the gala are Peter Max, Thomas Kinkade, Hua Chen and Peter Nixon. There are top impressionists, naturalists and a host of exhalted surrealists with their odd, otherworldly takes on reality.

But nothing -- nothing -- is more surreal or otherworldly than that fact that I’m here, too. In fact, they’re according me with every bit of the celebratory dignity as these world-renown artists. My name is on the “Special Guests” page, right beside the artists and is listed along side art world royalty like Roy Disney Jr., Toby Bluth, and the lovely Caroline Ashleigh, host of the PBS hit “Antique Roadshow.”

And it’s not like a small-print, phone book-type listing. Nope, there’s just 25 names on the whole page. And mine’s one of them.

It all started about two weeks ago when one of the organizers called to ask if I was busy this week and could I take on a project that would last about three months. He explained to me about the event, how I’d need to fly to Detroit for four days to write about Park West and interview the artists and then help two other writers compile an elegant coffee table book about Scaglione and his illustrious artists.

I get a great-sounding offer like this about once every six months or so and they usually fall through. Much to my wife’s dumbfounded shock (mine, too), this one didn’t.

She expressed her support by repeatedly saying things like, “There’s got to be some mistake. Why would they possibly want you? Could there be another Chris Rodell out there -- one that's qualified?” And last night as I was packing, “Didn’t anyone do some kind of background check on you?”

Apparently not.

So I’ll be spending today interviewing the world’s top artists, learning about their technique, their inspirations, their muse. And in the next year or so, if anybody bothers to do some kind of background check on me, they’ll see that I’m a published art writer with an author credit from one of the world’s leading art galleries.

“Chris Rodell: Art Historian.”

That ought to look good next to the “Town Saved by Giant Ball of Twine!!!” stories I used to do for National Enquirer.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Life-altering music for the needy and the stupid

One of the great things about being invited to be an adjunct professor at a local university, as I’ve been, is that it instantly invests you with an undeserved aura of authority.

Point Park University in Pittsburgh has twice done this with me. It’s asked me to teach creative non-fiction to their journalism grad students. In this role I’m expected to prepare them for the future of earning a living submitting stories for print. Clearly, the students don’t listen to the thrust of my talk or else they’d be, as I often advise, dashing out the door to sign up for pre-law.

But it’s the weekly opportunity for crackpot declarations and petty despotism that give me the most pleasure.

For instance, earlier this spring the local paper ran a story about a world-renown record collector and illustrated it with a picture of him holding a rare copy of the 1971 Rolling Stones album, Sticky Fingers. The cutline said the record was worth $10,000.

I brandished the paper before the class, read the cutline and said, “Can anyone here point out the libelous inaccuracy that got past the reporter, the editor and a squad of foul coffee-breathed copy editors?”

As usual, 8 students looked like they were about to fall asleep on their doodles, 8 stared out the window and the menacing twosome in the back row looked liked they were intensifying their plot to kill me.

When no one spoke, I dramatically leaned forward on the lectern, pounded it with my fist for emphasis and said, “Every single Rolling Stones album ever made is worth $10,000!”

I then launched into a lengthy pontification about The Stones, their importance and even squeezed in some of my favorite Stones trivia such as: The Stones are the only band to ever include listening instructions on an album. It’s true. On the seminal rock classic “Let it Bleed,” in big block letters at the bottom are the words, “THIS RECORD SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD.”

Amen.

I’m one of those obnoxious music snobs who’s convinced himself no one has better or more refined taste in music than I. My iTunes library has 7,427 items I could play nonstop for 20.4 days.

When I began converting my massive CD collection to iTunes about three years ago, I weeded out all the crap. Now, I rigorously check my play counts to make sure nothing’s falling through the cracks. In two years, I’ve played every one of the songs -- not counting the occasional Christmas ditty -- at least three times.

(The top three most played as of July 11 are: Ray Davies, “After the Fall,” 94 times; Bob Dylan, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” 92 times; Van Morrison, “Celtic New Year,” 91 times -- and I defy anyone to listen to any of these gems once and not feel compelled to repeat them until the batteries fizzle.)

But because I never listen to CDs anymore and, unlike old LPs, have no sentimental attachments to the tiny shinys, it was time to haul the bunch of them to the local flea market and set up shop.

My wife came along for base mercenary reasons. I was there to make sure this music gets in the hands of people who need it most. Business was brisk.

A kid of about 16 came up and asked if I had any Doors.

“The Doors,” I scolded, “are the most overrated band in the history of music. Here’s the most underrated one.” I handed him a stack of Kinks CDs.

A middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt approached and asked if I had any Jimmy Buffett.

“I did about 20 years ago when he was still worth listening to," I said "If you like Buffett, take this Todd Snider CD, ‘Songs from the Daily Planet.’ He’s better and you won’t risk looking like some part-time pirate once a year.”

Val and I had a great chat with two guys who looked like they were two hours overdue for their first Sunday beers (it was 10:30 a.m.). They bought some James McMurtry, some Drive-By Truckers and showed impeccable taste by snapping up Steve Earle’s “Transcendental Blues.” I was so overjoyed at meeting kindred spirits I handed them Robert Earl Keen’s “Gringo Honeymoon” and “Letters to Laredo” by the peerless Joe Ely.

I know I’ll someday run into these guys again in either a roadside honky-tonk or, perhaps, a Lubbock, Texas, drunk tank and we’ll have a great time till our wives show up with bail money.

I do so little in this life to help my fellow man that I felt a true surge of humanity when ever I could give someone something like Van Morrison’s “The Healing Game” or “Shangri-La” by Mark Knopfler.

I know that mousy young girl’s life is going to change because I was the one that told her to go home and listen to “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams, and that maybe that kid who walked away with “So Very Far” by the X-Rated Cowboys will ditch his crabby girlfriend, his deadend job and strike out to hit it rich in Vegas.

All told we made $329. Sure I had hopes it would be more, but reality checked in when a guy offered me a buck for “Let it Bleed” by the Rolling Stones.

I said, “Mister, that CD and every other Rolling Stones CD is worth $10,000.”

He looked at me like I was a lunatic and said, “I’ll give you $2.”

Sold!

I’m pretty sure I could have persuaded him to pay my price, but it was looking like it might rain.

And, honestly, it didn't matter much to me. Ghandi died broke, too.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

"That's my steak, Valence."

I popped my copy of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” into the DVD today to maintain my fluency in the classic western. There are about five movies every guy needs to be fluent in or else it’s absolutely impossible for him to function as a real guy.

They are “Animal House,” “Cool Hand Luke,” "Slap Shot," “The Naked Gun,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.”

Guys need to know all the dialogue and be able to instantly recite it right back to another real guy any time one us blurts out some classic line.

With “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” every real guy, for instance, needs to know to affect a John Wayne pose and say through gritted teeth, “I said you Liberty. You pick it up,” after I say “That’s my steak, Valence.”

For any non-guy readers who’ve wandered onto this blog and for the maybe two women who read it for, I guess, purely anthropological reasons, the 1962 movie’s about a terrible outlaw (Lee Marvin as Liberty Valence) who terrorizes the town of Shinbone and is brought to lethal justice by a good man with a law book (Jimmy Stewart) and a good man with a gun (John Wayne).

A perfect and timely analogy is Osama bin Laden in the villainous role and in the role of the heroic good guys is, well, uh, let’s see . . . hmmm.

We’re nearing the seventh anniversary of our hunt for one of the world’s most wanted men. We’re engaged in two expensive wars that seem endless. And here on the homefront, we stand united.

Not about war politics. No. I’m talking about security lines at the airports.

For all the usual reasons, I’ve been a rabid George Bush hater for about five years now. But what angers me most is the guy who likes to cast himself in the John Wayne cowboy role is how he’s absolutely sapped our national swagger. It’s because of him we’ve gone through the last seven years in a crouch.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” is a defining clarion call from FDR. He said that, interestingly enough, not in response to the threat of global tyranny from Japan and Hitler, but in a 1932 response to the economic tumult of the Great Depression.

In fact, it’s interesting to read what he said just before and after that oratorical diamond. Here it is:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

Bush serenely believes history will vindicate the decisions many of us believe were recklessly stupid, (and that's about everything he's done since turning away from bin Laden and Afghanistan). I doubt it, but who knows?

But of this, I’m certain: when historians remember his presidency, the words used to punctuate his legacy will be along the lines of, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

We have let a malicious band of terrorists shut down Shinbone.

I’m sick and tired of being afraid. I’m tired of stifling my smartass wisecracks for fear that the grouchy TSA lady will deem me subversive enough for hassling. I’m tried of hearing tales of new mothers being asked to guzzle their breast milk. I’m tired of an ineffectual leader who’s let one man make us all feel so puny.


At this point I’m thinking of starting a petition to out-source the job of catching bin Laden -- not to Afghans or Pakistanies whose allegiances may be tainted -- but to the new can-do men strutting around in the world: The armed coffee-farmers serving in the Colombian Army.

They pulled off one of the most daring rescues of all time, called Operation Jacques (huh? Jacques?). Without any bloodshed, they snatched back kidnapped senator Ingrid Betancourt and a team of American hostages from deep in the impenetrable jungles.

I’d bet that merry band wouldn’t have any trouble finding Osama bin Laden.

I wish somebody could.

In the meantime, I’m going to watch “Hot Fuzz.” I predict it’ll soon join the pantheon of classic guy movies and all us real guys are going to need to be well-versed in the dialogue. From the witty makers of “Shaun of the Dead,” it’s about one by-the-book cop and one bumbling incompetent who are out to rid a small English town of evil doers.

In this case, the incompetent bumbler actually helps bring the bad guys to justice.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Worked to death

The Japanese labor bureau reported Tuesday that one of Toyota’s top engineers worked himself to death under deadline pressure to come up with a productive hybrid model for the manufacturer’s Camry line.

The 45-year-old man -- his name’s being withheld -- was reported to be working up to 114 hours of overtime a month in the six months prior to his death.

With the exception that we’re both 45, it’s impossible for me to imagine two people more opposite than the deceased and I.

He held a prestigious position for one of the world’s most recognizable brands. My most consuming duty for the past month has been getting this journalistic equivalent of a lemonade stand up and running.

He had a steady job with a weekly paycheck that, I’m sure, included a comma in the number box. In my entire adult life, I’ve only had three steady jobs and one of them was at Pizza Hut.

His job offered him and his family health benefits, stability and the opportunity to justifiably seek a raise when sales increased. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve jumped out of my chair and shouted, “You got a deal!” when someone told me the job paid nothing, but would get me a free round of golf at a nice club.

He devoted his entire life to working so Toyota could report a bigger and faster profit. I’ve devoted my entire life to avoiding people like him.

He’s dead. I’m not.

I often wonder what would happen to a guy like him if he had him live my work life for just one week. I spend hour after hour in my little apartment above the tavern listening to music, improving my juggling skills, shooting paper wads at an elevated waste basket and trying to dream up something that’ll land me a working assignment.

How would that sit with someone like him? Would all the idleness unnerve him? Would he feel lost without a driving boss telling him what to do? Would the banging on the floor from the boys in the bar pestering him to come down and join them for a drink drive him crazy?

I wonder if guys like him think, while they’re grinding well past midnight on some minutia, that somewhere out there there are guys like me who’ve stitched together carefree lives without the hassle of having to endure endless toiling in the corporate ant farm.

Sure, there are times when it’s scary not knowing if or when you’ll get another paycheck, but there are so many people getting by with so much less than I. I’m sure many of those unfortunates would gladly swap with some harried executive if it meant a decent salary.

Not me. Not anymore. It would be impossible for me to survive in any corporate world where I’d have to work more than 40 hours a week.

That’s not surprising. Exposure to an idle life is addicting. What is surprising is that more executives don’t step off the treadmill to join guys like me in life’s sandbox.

Certainly they could afford to do it. They could teach. They could volunteer to help the elderly or the poor. They could open ice cream stands. They could learn how to fix bicycles and donate them to needy children. There are thousands of fulfilling and productive ways to make a stress-free living in a world that aches for a helping hand.

Yet they persist in endlessly toiling through joyless lives centered around achieving ever elusive goals that wind up rusted or broke.

Honestly, I wish I could help them. Maybe I could start a foundation that would educate busy white collar men and women into realizing how short and tenuous this fine life is. It would be worth it if I could save the life of one overworked executive from expiring in senseless pursuit of deepening some corporate coffers.

But that sounds like an awful lot of work for a guy like me.

And, besides, the boys have started pounding on the floor. Must mean it’s time for Happy Hour.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The "safe" V.P. pick for Obama

You’d think these would be times of spiritual tumult for our nation’s bitter racists. After all, a charismatic black man is leading in the polls and has at least a 50-50 chance of becoming our next president.

You’d be wrong.

It turns out the racists have a faith that is sustaining them through what others would perceive as challenging times for people who hate.

I learned this the other night when two bitter racists sat down next to me for a beer. They were in particularly foul moods because the company they work for is in the midst of labor strife and management's included black men among the replacement workers.

“I don’t care what happens, I ain’t never taking any orders from no (and I’ll paraphrase here) African-American!”

I laughed and said, “If the polls are right, we’ll all be taking orders from one of them come November.”

“That’s not going to happen” he said with serene self-assurance.

“What? You think McCain’s going to win? You think voters will prefer his experience? That he can convince voters that his solutions to the economy make more sense?”

“It’s none of that,” he said. “Someone’s going to kill that (paraphrase) African-American. No way he’s gonna ever be president.”

There it is. The unspoken undercurrent of this remarkable political season. Racists are sure that one of their like-minded brothers is going to off Obama.

It’s all starting to remind me of the plot behind the great 1974 Mel Brooks movie, “Blazing Saddles,” where unscrupulous politicians select a black man (Cleavon Little) to become sheriff, smugly certain that the good people of Rock Ridge will kill him before he ever gets the badge pinned to his chest.

The racist mindset’s the same.

That’s why it’s essential for Obama to pick a vice presidential candidate who’ll be more repugnant to racists than even himself.

This is along the lines of why no one in the Democratic party wants to impeach George Bush, who at the very least should be impeached for his persistent and infuriating mispronunciation of the word “nuclear.”

If we impeach him,” or so the thinking goes, “then we get Dick Cheney for president and he’d be worse.”

That makes ol’ Dick a kind of political prophylactic -- and try not to read any more into that line than there already is.

So for his own safety and for the good of the country, I’m urging Sen. Obama to pick someone even more loathsome to the people who hate him.

And that’s Whoopi Goldberg.

Think about it from the racist perspective: She’s black (check). She’s a woman (check). And she’s Jewish (check).

Give her an honorary degree from Harvard and she’ll have it all. Absolutely no one, racist or not, would prefer to see her in the White House over the clearly capable Barack Obama.

So let’s hear it for Obama/Goldberg in ‘08.

Whoopi!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A-Rod & Madonna? Say it ain't so!

I defended him when the vicious boo birds said he couldn’t hit in the clutch. I said he’d pull out of it when a dizzying bout of throwing yips led to near daily SportsCenter ridicule.

But it was revealed this week that one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived has done something so egregious that it had even me, an ardent defender and fan, standing up to shout at the TV, “Boo! You stink! You’re a bum! Boo! Booo! BOOOO!”

What happened?

Alex Rodriguez cheated on his wife with Madonna.

Now, unfaithfulness is such a rampant societal scourge that I’d never judge a man or woman for failing their marital vows. For instance, I’d never heckle a dusty accountant for offering his divorced secretary the kind of midnight extension that would go unrecognized by IRS computers. Between lonely, consenting adults, it’s a very human failing.

And professional baseball players? Forget about it. I think most of us would be surprised to find a ballplayer was even the least bit faithful. They make tons of money, are on the road for long stretches and are constantly tempted by baseball groupies who promise illicit delights.

What? You thought the perks were restricted to no waiting at airports?

My problem with Rodriguez is not that he’s breaking the Sixth Commandment.

It’s that, for heaven’s sake, he’s breaking it with Madonna!

What? Was Cher busy?

US Weekly is reporting the 32-year-old married Yankee has been making midnight visits to Madonna, 49, who is estranged from her dippy director husband, Guy Ritchie.

The magazine reports that Rodriguez has been sneaking in and out of her Manhattan apartment and that “all the doormen are talking.” In addition, the $28-million-a-year ballplayer attended Madonna’s April 30 NYC concert; she sat in his Yankee seats at a June 22 game (the first time she’s ever been photographed at any Yankee game); and -- get this -- her son Rocco, 7, was spotted wearing Yankee gear on June 25 while playing in Central Park.

A young New York city lad wearing a Yankee cap while playing in Central Park? What further proof could anyone need!

I confess there was a time in my life when I was intoxicated by Madonna’s erotic tug. It was 1982 and I saw her on TV and thought, “Wow. The way she moves, her beguiling mix of innocence and experience. Now, there’s a woman that could really make a man out of me . . .”

I recall that intense feeling lasted until MTV VJ Martha Quinn announced that the next video would feature Pat Benatar. Then I thought the same thing about her. And then about Olivia Newton-John. Then Chaka Khan.

Heck, I remember thinking it about the skinny, buck-toothed girl who took the trays away in the cafeteria.

I was a college freshman eager to meet any woman who could make a man out of me.

The only thing that’s changed about Madonna and me in those 25-plus years is that today I’m fairly confident that I, like A-Rod, could have a carnal go at her. If not now, then someday soon. I can be patient. I’m sure my time will come.

So, too, will yours (and I’m optimistic about that for both male and female readers).

But we’re not A-Rod! We’re not Yankees!

He should be doing much better. Heck, I recall seeing three women on the Fleetwood commuter train platform near where my buddy lives that would be more impressive couplings for someone like him.

And what about Ashley Dupree, former Governor Eliott Spitzer’s $4,000-an-hour call girl? She and Rodriguez would have made a wonderfully scandalous couple. And what a babe.

I’m no Yankee fan, but I admire certain aspects of their storied tradition.

Joe DiMaggio dated and married Marilyn Monroe at the height of her fame and beauty. And the only place the great Derek Jeter does better than the ballfield is the nightclub. He’s been linked to six of Maxim’s list of the 100 hottest women on the planet including Scarlett Johansson and the Jessicas Alba and Biel (Madonna didn’t make the list, by the way. Maybe she’s 101).

Then there’s the legendary George Herman Ruth, the greatest Yankee of them all. Ruth is known for combining great baseball with monumental carousing that included loving some of the most beautiful young women of the day.

So, clearly, A-Rod is no Babe.

And neither is Madonna.