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Monday, December 29, 2008

Mine, all mine
















My efforts to raise a child free of selfishness are being met with catastrophic failure.


Although I’ve always doubted the authenticity of the anthropology, I remain charmed by the legends of Native American tribes that have something like 30 words for snow and none for words like mine.

I have about 15 distinct words for snow and after December 25 they all involve profanity.
Once Christmas has passed every snowman becomes abominable.

But it’s the lack of the word “mine,” legend or not, that appeals to me. I believe the more people use the word mine and its possessive derivatives, the greater their tendency to start troubles that lead to shooting wars.

“This oil is mine!”

“This water source is mine!”

“This gold mine is mine!”

So I’m trying to steer our 2 year old away from the world of greed and grab and into a world where sharing is instinctual and the use of the word “mine” only leads to confusion. I want her to be like those proud Native American tribesmen and women who shared their harvest, their talents and all the rich glories of Mother Earth, at least until my caucasian ancestors came here and said, “America is mine!”

I knew going in that this would be difficult for reasons that have nothing to do with our materialistic society.

It’s because of the contentious makeup of Lucinda. Not only is she a classic example of a child who does the exact opposite of everything you tell her to do, she’s already mastered the good cop/bad cop routine for even the most innocuous conversation.

I’ve looked lovingly into her capuchino-colored eyes and gushed, “You are so beautiful!” She instantly turned python and hissed, “No, YOU’RE beautiful!” Clearly, to her it was the most stinging insult she could conjure.

I was playfully singing the great Pete Townshend/Who rock anthem, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and the sober little contrarian deflated all the assertive vigor from the lyric by replying, “We WILL get fooled again.”

So my efforts to impart any residual wisdom are already facing an uphill battle. I try to tell her about sharing and she just looks at me the way cows look at passing trains. The concept doesn’t take.

It doesn’t help that her older sister’s room is a virtual fortress defended by armies of Barbies and war-worthy Webkinz. Josie’s gone as far as putting up signs on her door with instructions about who and under what circumstances anyone is allowed to enter her room. It’s a document precisely designed to restrict her sibling from entering.

It’s court-worthy writ and, I’m sure, will be held up as legally binding the instant Lucinda learns to read.

Worse, all my instructions about sharing crumble whenever the poor kid reaches for any of her sister’s toys and is invariably met with, “No! That’s mine!”

The Barbies? “Mine!”

The Webkinz? “Mine!”

The crayons? “Mine!”

So it’s no surprise that Lucinda’s starting to ape her sister whenever I reach for things like an apple, my car keys or domestic beer from the family frig.

“Mine! Mine! Mine!”

And, honestly, I’m not one to talk. Try as I might, I’m still a possessive failure who frets when one of the girls starts monkeying around with my computer, my iPod, any of snazzy shirts, my watch, my golf clubs, my DVDs, my HDTV or any of the other shiny things no self-respecting Indian brave would have had inside his humble prairie teepee.

They’re just learning by the sad example set by their father.

The girls are mine.

All mine.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I love Santa Claus, 45759!


This has been the best Christmas season for me in more than 30 years and for that I think I have Santa Claus to thank.

You see, I spent three days this summer getting to know Santa Claus. I’d seen Santa Claus before, but just for a quick reportorial glimpse. This year I had a good long look. I became friendly with Santa Claus and I discovered just how wonderful Santa Claus can be.

Of course, I’m not talking about the rotund individual with higher Q ratings than popes, president-elects or do-gooder American Idol champs.

I’m talking about the town, not the individual.

Santa Claus, Indiana, 47579.

The small town is just north of the Ohio River and just a couple miles from the Spencer County boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln.

I’ve known about Santa Claus since 1996 when I did a crackerjack on-site investigation of the town for National Enquirer.

I wrote about how the tiny town of just 1,800 or so merry souls goes crazy for Christmas every day of the year. Residents live on streets named Mistletoe Drive, Candy Cane Lane and Arctic Circle. It has the magnificent Holiday World amusement park themed to celebrate the seasons.

I learned how the Santa Claus post office goes from handling about 3,000 letters a day to more than 50,000 with more than 500,000 gaining the “Santa Claus, Ind.,” postmark throughout the season.

As there hadn’t been much press on the town up to then, the story became a minor national sensation with wire story follow-ups and various TV shows doing cheerful segments on the midwest Santa Claus.

I followed up with travel stories and a couple of pieces about the Christmas Lake Golf Course there (feature writers, take note: lots of great year-round stories in Santa Claus). But it wasn’t until this year that I finally accepted yearly invitations to return to learn more about Santa Claus.

I think we’re going to go back every year now.

It was that wonderful.

We stayed at Santa’s Lodge and immersed ourselves in Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari. It instantly became our favorite amusement park on the planet. Three of its rollercoasters have been rated by Amusement Today magazine as being in the world’s top 12 with The Voyager being no. 1. The water park was superb fun.

Think Santa Claus is just generous at Christmas? Think again.

At Holiday World, they give away for free all day all the soft drinks you can guzzle. No catch. If you’re so inclined, you can drink large Pepsi or Mountain Dew until your teeth rot right out of your gums.

In a day when we’re gouged $1.50 for bottles of tepid water and $4.50 for single servings of ballpark pop, the gesture staggered us. Park spokeswoman Paula Werne said other guests are just as thunderstruck by the policy. “After we started giving away free soda, the number of petty service-related complaints dropped to zero,” she said. “People are just thrilled they can enjoy a refreshing Pepsi product for free.”

It’s amazing. They do the same with SPF 30 sun screen. Unattended lotion and soda oasises are scattered liberally throughout the park.

As someone who’s been steadily trending toward curmudgeon bordering on crank ever since he turned 12, I didn’t think there’d be much that would lurch me back toward the ranks of the cuddly sentimentalists.

But the 2008 Christmas season has been a joy. I haven’t had one episode of snarling rage over crass commercialism, traffic or rampant greed. I'm at peace with my fellow man.

Maybe it’s my own darling family. Josie’s 8 and has been angelic throughout the holidays, my ever-tolerant and lovely wife’s been wonderful and -- speaking of Christmas miracles -- little Lucinda, 2, is beginning to embrace the first stumbling specifics of potty training. Dirty diapers may soon be a memory.

Hallelujah.

But, honest, I think Santa Claus had something to do with it. It was such a wonderful visit. The people were so kind and friendly and watching so many happy families left a joyful impression that lingers still.

We’re planning on going back. This year’s the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth so a visit to Spencer County offers a great historic two-fer, Honest Abe and St. Nick.

Thanks for reading the blog. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas. If you or your loved ones are having trouble finding the holiday spirit in your hearts, you might want to try looking in southern Indiana.

That’s where you’ll find Santa Claus.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dashed Hope Fund


I'm destined to become a fine and portly fellow if the dignity behind my Dashed Hope Fund idea is ever recognized.

Beginning January 1, it’ll be my policy to invoke the D.H.F. anytime someone calls to say they want to use one of my stories. It’ll be triggered after they flatter the story, assure me it’s going to run and that they're going to pay me a generous sum.

That’s when I ask them to pay the fully refundable $70 D.H.F. “The fee,” I’ll explain, “is enough to allow me to take my wife out to a swell little Italian restaurant where we’ll stuff ourselves with pasta, hearty Talonica bread and a nice bottle of cabernet. I’ll tell her the good news about the story. The fee also includes a 20 percent tip for the underpaid/overworked waitress who’d rather be home with her kids than out bringing us heavy plates of excessive calories. I’ll refund the fee in its entirety once you pay me the money you’ve promised.”

It’s seems perfectly fair to me. There’s just too many times when editors enthuse about using one of my stories and then dash my hopes, not to mention my solvency, by backing out for reasons usually left deliberately vague.

I've written more extensively about the D.H.F., most recently on Nov. 3 posts, and will link to it once I figure out how to link without revealing the e-valanche of cumbersome coding.

To be honest, the following story might not even qualify. An editor at Sports Illustrated said he "thought" they’d use it in December. He made no promises. He’s used my work before and I’m optimistic he will again.

Still, my hopes are once more dashed, and that poor, hardworking waitress is going to be out another $15 tip she could have used to buy Christmas presents for her kids.

Dashed hopes are no fun.

Here’s the story. It’s about the little page-a-day golf calendars I’ve been writing for the past 10 years. Check it out:


Did you know that Jim Thorpe’s massive mitts can palm eight golf balls each? That actor Will Smith is such an avid golfer he built a $250,000 green and range complex in the back yard of his Beverly Hills home? Or that a standard golf hole measures 4.25 inches in diameter and is capable of holding a quartet of aces all on the same hole? (It hasn’t happened yet).

I know these and more than 3,500 other mostly useless golf facts that are practically squirting unbidden out of my trivia-stuffed noggin.

That’s because this’ll mark the 10th year I’ve been commissioned to do the popular “Amazing But True Golf Facts” page-a-day calendars you see scattered on desks of golfers all across America. So, just as I have since 2000, I’ve spent the past three weeks scouring a year’s worth of golf magazines, notes, newspapers and websites that hint at provocative anecdotes.

I’m not looking for fairly common items like Ben Hogan used to caddie for Byron Nelson, that Mark O’Meara loves flyfishing or other stuff you’ll find in the PGA Tour media guides. No, that won’t do.

I’m seeking the truly arcane, the perfectly obscure, the nittiest of the gritty. And pity yourself if you happen to be golfing with me when I’m on the hunt and the trivially true I try to suppress comes bubbling to the surface.

Tell me the 519-yard par 5 plays longer than it looks and I’ll say, “In fact, the longest golf hole in the world is a 964-yard par 7 at the Satsuki course in Sano, Japan, but Chocolay Downs in Michigan is planning 1,007 yard par 6.”

Complain you’re having a bad day and I’ll gratuitously say, “A truly bad day is April 14. That’s the day Abraham Lincoln was shot, the Titanic was sunk and Greg Norman squandered a six-stroke back nine lead to blow the 1996 Masters. So historically speaking, this is not that bad of a day. You’re just a lousy golfer.”

Tell me to shut up and I’ll ask if you’re invoking obscure rule 33-7 that allows for disqualification for etiquette breaches that include nonstop yappery.

I pride myself on trying to make each day, especially holidays, relevant for the readers. For instance, for Halloween I noted that Boo Weekley’s real name is Thomas, and during the shopping season that logo balls from Christmas Lake G.C. in Santa Claus, Indiana, make great stocking stuffers.

And most readers might be surprised at the ethics of calendar. Franchise creator Allan Zullo, who oversees the project, and I take pride in never repeating items. We want to fastidiously ensure no reader who bought and saved a 2003 calendar will play “Gotcha!’ because we repeated in 2009 that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il claims to have shot a 38-under par 34 at Pyongyang (we duly note that Dear Leader's not finicky about obeying international nuclear treaties so some scorecard chicanery might not be out of the question).

I know, as few people do, that Richard Nixon said that getting an ace in 1961 was the biggest thrill of his life, that Bill Clinton said golfing with Arnold Palmer was among his, and that Dan Quayle, a 7-handicapper, has said he wouldn’t be opposed to a Constitutional amendment preventing cell phones on the golf course.

Incidentally, when I recently interviewed Palmer, I was stunned to see one of my golf calendars centered on his desk where most people keep a computer terminal. I told him I was flattered.

He reached into a desk draw, pulled out a thick stack and said, “Not only do I read it, but I keep a bunch of them for reference.”

That's already pegged as the item for Jan. 1, 2010.

Amazing, but true.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Yuletide taints and Christmas creeps


It’s not because I’m basking in the bosom of toy-addled family love that December 26 is one of my favorite days of the year. No, I’m at peace because the day means it’ll be about 335 days before my ears are tortured by another Christmas song.

Well, to be accurate, it’ll probably be another 240 days or just after Labor Day before I hear another one.

The Christmas song creep gets worse and worse every year. By creep, I mean how Christmas songs show up earlier and earlier and not Elvis Presley. Yes, the King is de facto king of modern Christmas songs having recorded hundreds of standards, duets and originals, including one, “It Won't Seem Like Christmas (Without You)” that lists the songwriting credits as “Elvis Presley, Balthazar,” the by God name of one of the Three Wisemen.

The man had connections.

It’s been at least 15 years since we topped out with just the right amount of Christmas songs. After 1992 we haven’t needed another one. Still every year artists try in vain to add to the timeless mix.

A safe way to rank the credibility of bands (and actors for that matter -- sorry Vince Vaughn) is on how few Christmas songs or performances with which they’ve been associated.

I love classic country music, but this sensible posture practically rules out the entire genre for credibility consideration. No one panders more to their fan base with tired Christmas ditties than country music stars.

Toby Keith, hardly a timeless classic along the lines of George Strait or Alan Jackson, has already released two full Christmas albums. And you have to believe the tough guy poser had to be persuaded to enthusiastically sing “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!” lest it over take his anthems about boots in the asses of dark-skinned folks around the world.

Keith’s arch-nemesis, the Dixie Chicks, however have never released a single Christmas song. Keith has outsold the Chicks by many millions, but give the gals marks when it comes to credibility.

Even the great Steve Earle suffers from a slight Yuletide taint. He recorded “Christmas in Washington,” a moving lament about political decay in the capital. It’s a great song, still it’s a Christmas song and we have all we need.

It gets a little murkier for me when you get to the great rock bands. Even accomplished artists like Tom Petty, U2, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen couldn’t resist the cheap temptation to make a seasonal grab, even though the Petty song, “Christmas All Over Again” still gets my pulse racing when it comes on the radio.

Recorded in 1992, it’s maybe the last new Christmas song we’ve ever needed.

For years I used this Christmas song argument to bolster my insistence that the Rolling Stones were the greatest band in history. But then I discovered a rare Keith Richards solo cover of Chuck Berry’s great Christmas song, “Run Run Rudolph.”

Granted, it was done in 1971, Keith’s only one-fifth or so of the band, and he probably doesn’t even remember 1971, much less recording the song, but the taint persists.

The Beatles? Forget it. Both John and Paul have recorded preachy and silly Christmas songs respectively and, for heaven’s sake, every song Ringo’s ever recorded could be considered a Christmas song.

The Christmas stipulation significantly strengthens my contention that George Harrison was the greatest Beatle. It’s unlikely Harrison’s ever recorded a Christmas song -- and I’m certainly not counting anything about Vishnu or other Hindu big shots he often praised.

I was sorely tempted to make an exception for The Kinks, one of my very favorite bands. But how could I when they have a great popular song, “Father Christmas.” The Ray Davies lyrics are perfectly subversive. Check ‘em out:

When I was small I believed in Santa Claus
Though I knew it was my dad
And I would hang up my stocking at Christmas
Open my presents and I’d be glad

But the last time I played Father Christmas
I stood outside a department store
A gang of kids came over and mugged me
And knocked my reindeer to the floor

They said:
Father Christmas, give us some money
Don’t mess around with those silly toys.
We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over
We want your bread so don’t make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys


I’ll stand those words up against “Silent Night” as the sublime essence of 21st century Christmas any day.
Still, I have to be fair. It’s a Christmas song so that rules out The Kinks.

That leaves us with Bob Dylan.

Born Robert Zimmerman to devout Jews, he’s never penned a single Christmas ditty, even though he went though a born-again Christian phase in the late 1970s when he may have been tempted to sonically celebrate the holy season.

One of our most proud and prolific songwriters, a man who’s written more than 600 songs, has never once penned a song about Rudolph, Santa, mangers, or cuddly snowmen. It’s a staggering achievement.

To me, at least.

I’m sure there’s some may consider that a blotch or even an affront. They may say it’s a religious insult coming from a man born Jewish.

I disagree.

I can name one other pretty famous Jew who never did much of anything during his life to celebrate Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Shooing away sole-less insults


It’s taken nearly six years, but events in Iraq have finally proven the beloved Baghdad Bob prophetic.

If you recall, Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, aka Baghdad Bob, was the over-the-top Iraqi spokesman who told so many grandiloquent lies that he became the breakout star of the early war all those years ago.

A still-functioning website, www.WeLoveTheIraqiInformationMinister.com, became a must-read for those interested in following his boastful declarations that war would be swift, his side would prevail, and history would vindicate the wily leaders.

Sure, those were exactly the same sort of things bullet-headed Bush spokesman Ari Fleisher said, but, oh, Baghdad Bob said them with such stirring panache and baroque grandeur.

Here’s a sampler.

• "I can say, and I am responsible for what I am saying, that the infidels have started to commit suicide under the walls of Baghdad. We will encourage them to commit more suicides quickly.

• "We have destroyed 2 tanks, fighter planes, 2 helicopters and their shovels.”

• "Even those who live on another planet, if there are such people, would have condemned this action before it started."

Then there was this: “We will welcome them with bullets and shoes.”

I heard this in 2003 and thought the war could be won by eager squads of Kevlar-chested and barefoot women leading the invasion. Women, my wife included, often seem to have a reverence for a really good shoe that elevates even heel-less footwear above the men they date or marry.

But no, Baghdad Bob wasn’t promising stylish bargains. In fact, he was issuing one of the worst insults an Arab person could conjure. It was like that devastating put-down artist Vinnie Barbarino telling Mr. Kotter “Up your nose with a rubber hose.”

I’m persistently mystified by the whole shoe-as-insult thing. I remember when U.S. soldiers tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein many of his persecuted countrymen went up and began beating the inanimate object with their scruffy sandals. It seemed the oddest sort of retribution from people so long oppressed. Classrooms full of imaginative American fourth graders withheld from their morning potty breaks could have been more creative.

And I haven’t checked, but I’ll bet some well-heeled (and you knew that was coming) American is probably right now paying to have his or her backs whacked with sandals in some pricey spa or raunchy bondage club.

So when journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, stood up and hurled his footwear at the comically ducking Bush I kind of felt pity that it was the best he could do. Certainly, as someone who as a young newspaper reporter seized press conference opportunities to infuriate presidents and other powerful figures, I could have offered some suggestions for better and more cunning ways to insult Bush.

And the best is perfectly non-violent.

I’d just wait until he called on me and asked, “Mr. President, if a train leaves Baghdad going 120 mph and another train leaves Tikrit going 80 mph . . .”

Then spice up the puzzler with facts like wind speed, train weight and camel-crossing delays and, guaranteed, Bush would have been at the podium nodding in befuddlement like a chicken in the rain.

I’d outwit him. I’d prove to the entire world that I was smarter than the man I detested for what he’d done to my beloved homeland. I would unmask him as an idiot.

Then the world would revel in my genius and Bush would be forever rendered -- because of me -- a dunce of historic proportions.

And if that didn’t work, I’d reach into my briefcase and launch a foul fusillade of disgusting goo balloons straight for the podium.

We Americans understand that the insult arena offers little wiggle room for dainty subtleties.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Do bongs! Not "smart" drugs"


As someone who went to school when many of his friends were taking drugs to get really stupid, I was stunned to read that students today are taking drugs to get really smart.

As the Associated Press recently reported, students around the country are taking prescription stimulants like Ritalin to help them study and that the demand for such drugs is bound to increase.

I’ve always been ambivalent about both medicinal and recreational drugs. I believe people of all ages are scammed into taking too many drugs for medicinal reasons and too few people are taking them for purely recreational ones.

Yes, I know recreational drugs have wreaked sad havoc on many lives, but I also know many sober individuals could benefit from frequent doses of strong hallucinogens (think Dick Cheney).

It reminds me of what noted pharmacological philosopher Willie Nelson once said when asked what effect legalizing marijuana might have on the crime rate. “It could be very beneficial,” he said. “I know marijuana’s kept me from killing a bunch of people.”

I was student soldier in Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” war on drugs. It was always awkward whenever someone tried to hand me a joint. Not because I’d rudely refuse, but because I was drinking double fisted throughout the entirety of the 1980s.

I was one of those students who never had trouble holding my liquor, but there were many, many nights when I had had trouble simply setting it down.

Plus, I was mostly a failure at the recreational drugs being offered me, ones that involved lighters, bongs, and over-inflation of my lungs. I’d always fumble the fire, bump the bong or otherwise struggle with the mechanics.

Worse, I’d cough, wheeze, and my red eyes would pathetically tear. I’d look so innocent my hookah-hogging friends would laugh hysterically. Of course, these were the same friends that would laugh hysterically at shows like ALF and H.R. Puffinstuff.

Times have changed. Anti-drug zealots jailed the gentle and iconic pipe-selling pot comic Tommy Chong (and has there ever been a better job description?), they made even medical marijuana a crime and began drug testing at jobs that have nothing to do with public safety.

For me, that last one was a turning point because I labor under no such tyrannical job restrictions. I’m one of those lucky individuals who is truly his own boss, and if I was at all responsible in that supervisory role I’d have fired myself years ago -- not for drugs -- but for gross and habitual indolence.

Now, I believe those of us who work in places that don’t drug test have a social responsibility to test drugs on behalf of those who can not.

So one of these days I’m seriously planning on getting more involved with recreational drugs. It just seems like it might be a good issue for a guy like me to mount.

I can experiment and write informed and typically typo-laden essays about the results. I can show up late to lobby legislators that money spent in the endless war on drugs could be better spent in the endless war on terrorism. I can become a happy advocate in persuading scores of uptight people that a little toke or two might lessen the tension contorting their lives.

Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I’m setting a bad example. Tell me there are hidden dangers to which I’m ignorant.

Call me stupid.

I hear they’ve even got drugs for that now, too.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Impeach Obama


All right, all right. I know I’ve spent the past six months urging friends and frequently blogging that he’s going to be the greatest thing since sliced bread (whole wheat, to be perfectly PC: pigmentally correct).

I know I’ve said his historic election will change the world. And, yes, I know he’s not even president yet.

But, really, we need to impeach Barack Obama anyway.

We need to impeach him because he’s said that his first official act to get the economy moving will, in fact, be an impediment to real progress: mine and yours.

It’s the dreaded infrastructure improvement project. You know what that means: “Left Lane Closed 1,500-feet.” “Merge Right.” “Construction Ahead. Delays Likely.”

Here in Pennsylvania, Gov. Ed Rendell said 319 highway and bridge projects worth $1.03 billion could be underway within 180 days of the announcement. Guaranteed, nearly every one of them will be instigated between me and where I want to go.

It also means savvy investors right now are starting to load up on companies that produce those orange traffic cones that’ll soon be lined up from here to the horizon like so many highway luminary.

If it came down to choosing between crumbling infrastructure and traffic delays, I’ll take the declining highways over the increased blood pressure.

It’s still happening around Pittsburgh where a year’s long improvement project has choked off access to the city’s Squirrel Hill tunnel, the eastern gateway to the Steel City I love to visit. All it’s done has subtracted about 20 hours of my productive and leisure time and substituted it with time spent explaining through clenched teeth to my daughter why some words I tell her to never say are okay for me to shout when traffic comes to a standstill.

The idea is that the $1.03 billion spent on these projects will make its way into the pockets of these burly construction workers who will turn around and spend the money to stimulate the economy.

But these guys aren’t dummies. They’ll simply do what they do every six years or so. They’ll use deliberately inferior products that’ll rapidly and unreasonably decay so they can be rehired in about 2015 to go through the whole tedious process all over again. It’s a rigged system.

It would be like me getting paid by cheating you, the reader, simply by repeating the same line twice.

It would be like me getting paid by cheating you, the reader, simply by repeating the same line twice.

So I propose we ditch the infrastructure improvements and just give a huge chunk of the dough straight to the construction workers. They’ll spend the loot on essentials like pretzels, domestic beer, scatch-off lottery tickets and shiny new Steeler gear in anticipation of another great playoff run. They’ll vacation in places like Florida, Myrtle Beach and other resort destinations that could use a jolt of fresh dollars. That way if we do eventually have to stare at their exposed backsides leaning idly over their shovels at least they’ll all have nice tans.

Then take a quarter of the funding and use it to develop a durable road surface that won’t break down, melts snow on contact, is self-illuminating, and deters deer and other gentle woodland creatures from wandering into the path of my already dented fenders. That way we could save billions on snow removal, lighting and future road and vehicle repairs.

Take whatever’s left and someone, please, figure out a way that freelance writers and bloggers like me can get rich on giving away this kind of genius for free.

Then I can devote my time to helping elect a candidate who knows a thing or two about real progress.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Crooked halos & angel tree urchins


I prefer buying Christmas presents for angel tree urchins to buying them for my own little angels, the bratty little ingrates.

With my kids, I actually witness how they react and how little they care for the gifts I buy for them. And when I say I, I mean the ones my wife goes to great pains to shop for, pay for and wrap post-midnight while I’m out watching hockey games with my friends.

They tear through the packages the way Biblical locusts go through once verdant fields of grain. They do not pause. They do not savor. They simply decimate.

I surmise it’s nothing like that with angel tree recipients. Sweet anonymity allows me to project who they are and how they’ll react to my meager gifts.

All I know about him is that he’s 8, wears slim pants, size 10 shirts and likes Sponge Bob and playing with Legos. With that skimpy profile, I’m now free to conjure the scruffy rest of him in my mind.

He’s perfectly poor. He’s the one kid Tiny Tim and the other Cratchit children make fun of when they want to feel better about their own sorry lot. They’re so poor Mom ladles in dirt with the gruel after weekly church service to make it more hearty and Sunday special. The kid always goes out of his way to tell Mom how good it tastes. He roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers and one day hopes his family will be able to afford a cheap transistor radio so he doesn’t have to stand out in the cold with his nose pressed against the glass of the local tavern to see who wins on the bar TV.

His pretty young mother works three jobs -- VA nurse, flag seamstress, and cupcake froster at the old folks home. She solos for the church choir and blushes at the classically trained choir director’s ardent urgings that she try out for American Idol next time Simon Cowell brings the crew to Pittsburgh. She’s just too shy, she demurs.

The father’s a good guy, too. He’s a freelance writer who’s been so beaten down by torrential rejection, editors who carelessly insert commas into his copy, and dodgy payments from deadbeat publishers that he just sits home drinking beer and watching “Dallas” reruns on the Soap Network.

So these are people for whom I can root.

I imagine them at Christmas around the little shrub they lovingly call a tree and handing the boy the gifts I that I hope will make a difference.

Here’s what happens: He opens the package with the little size 8 jeans in them. The family rejoices. Who knew Santa could be so stylish! (Mom and Dad slyly wink at each other). He puts the pants on and the very next day a little girl who’s never noticed him before checks out his more confident 8-year-old swagger. The pair become enduring sweethearts. She’s the granddaughter of a Big Three automaker CEO who’s just transferred all his holdings to her to hide from government snoops while he piously drops his salary to $1.

He tears the paper and pulls out the camo hoodie next. With its extra warmth, the boy now stays up two extra hours each night to study. Scholarships follow.

Then comes the best part. The deluxe box of Sponge Bob Legos! I saw this on the shelf and did a double take on his wish list. Listed one and two were Sponge Bob; Legos. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A two-fer! He begins working the pieces and making grand designs that soon catch the eye of a local architectural firm that specializes in eco-friendly skyscrapers.

He’s soon earning enough that Mom’s able to quit her trio of jobs and take voice lessons. She tries out for American Idol, finishes second, but crabby Cowell quits in outrage over the idiot vote and offers to shepherd her career.

They celebrate by getting Dad a 90-inch HDTV and the complete series box set of every “Dallas” episode featuring Larry Hagman commentary.

One day they all sit around and look back on the Christmas that started it all, the one where the anonymous stranger gave the thoughtful and blessed angel tree gifts. They say a heartfelt prayer asking God reward the soulful stranger.

Of course, nothing like that’s ever happened, even though I’ve been doing the angel tree thing for more than 15 years. I crassly confess I expect by now there’d be some karmic sort of compensation for my selflessness.

But nope.

Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe those angel tree urchins just don’t care about my thoughtful gifts. Maybe, like my own little angels, they just kind of sit there and look around with that “Is-this-all-there-is?” expression.

Maybe angel tree kids are no different or more appreciative than middle class kids.

Lousy little ingrates!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Two handsome devils, me and the stranger


The two looked like what we in high school used to call “burn outs,” dingy, cloudy-eyed inhabitants of my high school’s smoking area.

And consider that for a moment: at one time many of us attended high school in a not-too-distant age when enlightened school administrators actually had designated areas where teenagers so disposed could go out and smoke their butts off.

When you think about it, it was an age of great liberty, one the Founding Fathers would surely have approved of, even as the Founding Surgeon Generals gave their scolding disapproval.

But back to the burn outs. They were standing and, yes, smoking outside of a local tobacco shop while I was approaching during my afternoon stroll.

“Mr. Shellhammer?” one of them called out as I was about 20 paces away. “Is that you, Mr. Shellhammer?”

I turned around and saw no one. They thought I was Shellhammer, and for a still-lingering instant I was wishing I was.

Shellhammer’s a great name. Surely the guy had to be some kind of butt-kicking private eye -- Shellhammer P.I.! -- and for purposes of clarity, I’m talking about anatomical butts, not nicotine-laced ones.

“Aren’t you Mr. Shellhammer? The guy who teaches at Latrobe Elementary?” he asked.

“Nope, sorry, fellas. Wrong guy,” I said.

“Oh, sorry. You look just like him.”

Now I’m dying to find Shellhammer for a plethora of reasons, one of which is to thank him that our physical similarities allowed me to reach in my brain’s thesaurus and pull out the rarely used word plethora.

We are forever at the mercy of those whom we resemble.

If someone tells a beautiful woman she resembles the lovely Kate Winslet it’s an enduring compliment that’ll brighten her every day. Years from now, grandchildren on her knee, she’ll be flipping through old photos and telling the little sprouts that strangers used to tell her she was a ringer for the ravishing Winslet.

It won’t matter even a tiny bit when the bored kids say, “Who the hell’s Kate Winslet?”

But tell the same woman she looks like drug-ravaged crooner Amy Winehouse and she’ll dive for her iPhone to start researching face transplants.

Is Shellhammer handsome and dashing, the way I picture myself? What if he’s a pointy-headed nerd?

I think it would be a great Twilight-Zone sort of gift if for just one afternoon we could see ourselves the way others, particularly strangers, see us.

I guess I’ve always had a chip on my broad, muscular shoulders because everyone always said my older, taller brother looked just like Tom Selleck, Magnum P.I.! They always said I looked like I never got enough sleep.

Once I met an accountant whom I’d been told I resembled and I was floored by what I perceived was a gross insult. He was dumpy, had bad teeth and walrus-like jowls. Plus, for heaven’s sake, the man was an accountant. I didn’t know whether to punch him, myself, of the handful of people who’d said we were look-a-likes.

I gaze in the mirror -- and I do an unhealthy amount of that -- and see a rakish face with a dashing devil-may-care smile. I say outloud, “Why, if it isn’t Rhett Butler! The ladies in the parlor are breathlessly awaiting your arrival!” Then I turn serious, searing the mirror with a look the romance novelists call penetrating. “When people see this face,” I say, “they must immediately think of Gregory Peck in “Mockingbird” or “The Guns of Navarone.”

I do this almost daily for nearly 10 minutes until the exasperated mirror finally blurts out, “Would you get the hell out of the bathroom and for heaven’s sake try and earn a little money, you vain ass!”

So, of course, I’m nervous about someday meeting my Shellhammer doppelganger -- and what a fun combination that is to say! Go ahead, take a little reader break and try it three times outloud.

Fun, huh!

I told a good buddy of mine, one of my most steadfast blog readers (Hi, Ronnie!), about it. Well, he knows Shellhammer and sees the resemblance. Turns out my twin’s a retired art teacher at the local elementary school. He hunts, too.

That’s encouraging. With art, he has a sensitive side and I hear that’s a plus with the ladies in the parlor, but the hunter bit gives him a rugged outdoorsy edge. The guy’s probably good in a bar fight.

And he’s a teacher, too, and I have a great and enduring affection for anyone who devotes their lives to educating our youth, and that even goes for all those tyrannical dolts who tried to fill my head with so much math and crap (another fun word combo!) all those years ago.

Sounds like Shellhammer’s a great guy.

That’s good. It reduces the chances I might one day get dragged into the police station and shoved in front of some trembling crime victim whose addled brain will instantly cause her to shriek, “That’s him! That’s the Latrobe Flasher!”

On the contrary, if he ever does an anonymous good deed, I might get credit, which I’ll certainly hog.

But none of that matters to me. I could care less if Shellhammer’s a good guy or a demonic, pants-dropping fiend.

I just hope he’s gorgeous.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pedicures for all the manly fellas


I still sift through e-spam that promises to get intimate parts of me to grow in the hopes I’ll find one that’ll promise to get part of me to cease growing.

Actually, it’s 10 parts of me. The toe nails. The jagged little helmets on the 10 little piggies.

Millions of research dollars are spent trying to cure male pattern baldness and to turn small, dangly things into bigger dangly things. But nothing’s being done to ease one quality of life issue that affects every man, bald or hirsute, Super-sized or Happy Meal portion.

And this is an issue that concerns the ladies, too.

We could all benefit from research that leads to the cessation of toe nail growth. That would end the twice-monthly contortions it takes to chop them off before they become concealed weapons capable of shredding socks, sheets, sleeping pets and the Achilles tendons of the loved ones with whom we spoon.

This became clear to me yesterday after I got a note from a man who’d read my story about my first pedicure that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday (posted below).

If there’s any fairness in the world, then the name Carmen Vitanza will become associated with pedicures the way Orville Redenbacher’s is associated with popcorn. The man’s a proselytizing visionary.

Vitanza’s note convinces me men should visit the local nail salon as often as we do the barber. And until the researchers recognize the need to solve this pressing need, maybe that’s what we should consider. Take it from Vitanza (CAPS are his):

“For years I've had the problem trying to bend over and trim my toe nails the way they should be. I'm not fat but there is a little tummy in front of me that should be dissolved ... but at my age, 83, it's not easy.

“I discovered pedicures about 4 years ago and I will tell every Male in the world that one of the best things you can do for your body is to get a PEDICURE!!!

“I'm a Florida snowbird ... in Drexel Hill,Pa summers and Lake Worth Florida winters. I've gone to a variety of nail saloons (just a funny) in both areas. One item seems to be common. Most of the beauticians are of Vietnamese origin and they are GOOD! They have a common system of really trimming, digging, smoothing, etc. ones toes....and not only that...they give your feet and calves a beautiful massage. Wonderful experience for anywhere from $17 to $25 on average.

“So Chris, if anyone wants to make fun of you for getting a pedicure tell them to contact me. My name is CARMEN VITANZA, AN ITALIAN MALE originally from Atlantic City, N.J.”

There was a day when any Italian male from Atlantic City would get the stuffing kicked out of him for taking such a stand on apparently soft, dainty feet. Who knows? Maybe that same result will happen even in a more enlightened future. But if Carmen and I get our way, at least the guys doing the kicking will have lovely little tootsies.


Here's the story, "Personal Journey: It Takes a Real Man to Get a Pedicure."

She brought the sundae out on a little tray. There were big scoops of strawberry, chocolate, vanilla and an oozy river of creamy caramel. How could I resist? I did what any red-blooded American male would do.

I dunked my big cracked, calloused and stinking feet right in the whole gooey mess and began wiggling my toes.

I was at the cloud-clinging Wintergarden Spa at the Wintergreen Resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a heavenly perch so elevated that you’re actually looking down upon hawks. My spa options included standard sports massage and manicure, but I decided to treat the most abused and maltreated part of my entire body.

I decided to treat the feet. I was there to get my first pedicure, something men rarely did and now are doing in growing numbers, according to Debra Locker of the International SPA Assocation. “Our statistics from 2006 found that 22 percent of men who go to spas do so to get their toes done,” she said.

If that’s true, they’re not doing any bragging about it. Anecdotally, I’ve talked to many men who enjoy spas, but none who’ve confessed to getting a pedicure. Perhaps, it’s because men are hard wired to believe, as I’ve been instructed by my wife that “feet should be smelled not seen.”

She may be prejudiced by near constant exposure to mine. They’re everything I try not to be.

I try and comport myself as a gentleman. I wear nice clothes, exercise and address people with refined manners. But if I am a gentleman, my feet are outlaw bikers. They’re scarred, mean-looking rascals. Tattoo-like bruises mar several stubbed toes and one ragged nail makes the left foot look as if it's walking around brandishing a drawn knife and looking for a fight. If you saw them by themselves strolling down the sidewalk without the rest of me to soften their appearance, you’d cross the street.

But despite their haggard appearance, I’ve always considered them to be a pair of sissies. They whimper barefoot on a freshly mown lawn and practically shriek out loud when subjected to things like hot beach sand or pool-side asphalt.

Lately, however, I’ve been immersing myself in foot literature. There was a great Adam Sternbergh article (http://nymag.com/health/features/46213/) in the April 28 edition of New York Magazine that reads: “You Walk Wrong: It took four million years of evolution to perfect the human foot, but we’re wrecking it with every step we take.”

The article says our mistreatment of our feet leads to back and joint pain that’s become unnecessarily endemic to growing old.

Maybe it's time to give more healthcare priority to the feet. That’s why I opted for the Wintergarden Spa’s $75 Sole Sundae pedicure, “designed for the ice cream lover in all of us. First soak in your favorite flavor of ice cream. Next enjoy a scrub in a refreshing sherbet flavor, followed by a choice of foot mask in chocolate, caramel or marshmallow. Top off this Sundae with Body Icing infused with Shea Butter and vitamins that will leave your appetite wanting more.’

The sundae treatment includes soothing elements that mimic ice cream in texture and scent.

“You can’t eat it, but it always makes me hungry,” said pretty blond pedicurist Ashley Newman as she began to massage my tootsies after they’d been soaking for 10 minutes in a warm pool of strawberry-scented water.

It didn’t take long for my feet to fall in love with Ashley. No one had ever treated them the way she did and for the first time I began to understand men for whom the foot is fetishized, and wishing I’d found a woman who felt that way. She rubbed, massaged them with manicured fingers and charmed them when she daintily turned away to cough, rather than risk offending a foot. It was very sweet.

And heavenly. I can’t get my wife to rub my back after I’ve spent an afternoon chopping firewood she’ll use to comfort herself on bitter winter days. There’s no way she’d consider rubbing the ugly feet as a means of giving me physical pleasure. Heck, getting her to rub anything to give me physical pleasure usually takes some gentle persuading, a lit candle and and a nice bottle of cabernet.

Not Ashley. She was into it.

“My friends are always asking me, ‘How can you rub some of those ugly feet?’ she said. “I tell them I can rub any foot that’s been soaked clean. But you have very nice feet. I can tell you take care of them.”

Beneath the dark chocolate scrub, I could tell the boys were blushing. They were unaccustomed to such flattery.

She also shared some fascinating feet facts. For instance, pregnant women are discouraged from getting vigorous foot massage or reflexology, the practice that believes all the bodily constitutions are legislated through precise nerves in our feet and hands.

“They say touching a pregnant woman’s ankle right . . . here . . .” -- ooh! ahhh! -- “can cause her to go right into labor.”

Nothing so dramatic happened when she touched me there, a reassuring sign for a man who was still a little self-conscious about the procedure.

For me, the foot massage was a heavenly revelation. It was better than any back massage I’d ever gotten. Sure, the back has its burdens, but when you think about it rationally, what part of the body undergoes more daily punishment than the feet?

I confess, too, that the encounter left me feeling playful enough that Ashley and I agreed to another act of intimacy that, try as I might, I couldn’t conceal from my wife and daughters. And then I strode out of there on refreshed feet, still a red-blooded American male confident in his stride and the future of his feet.

A red-blooded American male with five toenails alternately painted Disco Inferno Pink and five colored a boldly cerulean Blue Me Away.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Good news from a bad decade


It was earlier this summer when I was delivering some papers to the registrar at the Pittsburgh school where I do some occasional teaching. It had been a hectic day of heavy traffic and fruitless productivity.

The secretary informed me I had the wrong paper, the designated envelope was missing and I’d need to try it all over again during a second trip into town early the next day.

Out of harried frustration, I remember blurting out, “Geez, this just hasn’t been my decade.”

Has it been yours? Chances are, no, it hasn’t either.

I don’t by a longshot remember a less joyful decade during the more than 40 years since I was thoughtful enough to climb up off my Big Wheel and take an observant look around.

There’s been 9/11, the catastrophic break-up of the Space Shuttle Columbia, Abu Ghraib, Baghdad suicide bombers, Guantanamo, a train wreck economy and now Mumbai. It’s getting so that reading the newspapers, a once daily joy, has become something to be dreaded for those of us steadfast enough to still read the -- and here’s another bummer -- the rapidly disappearing daily newspaper.

But I’m not going to give into pessimistic impulses. No, I’m feeling strangely optimistic that we’ve hit bottom and me and you are going to begin embarking on an exciting rebound. So in advance of all those grim 2008 year-in-review stories with which we’re all about to be inundated, here’s some of the really great things that sparkle among the news rubble from the past eight years.


• Y2K turned out to be a really swell party. It’s easy to forget the chaos and hysteria many experts predicted for that pivotal day. Planes were going to fall from the sky. Banks were going to misplace our savings. Missiles would inadvertently launch. I didn’t buy it then and Val and I, childless at the time, enjoyed a wonderful citywide party in downtown Pittsburgh and got to laugh at all the doomsayers buried in their bunkers.

• Cool numeric dates are happening with a fun frequency. I just spent an afternoon with an old friend and his wife who eloped on 01-02-03 so they’d never forget their anniversary. Neither will I. I don’t think we’ve ever reached any consensus on whether we’re going to call this decade “The Aughts,” “The Zero’s,” or “The Ohs,” (may I suggest “The Oh S---ts!”), but I enjoy these quirky dates. Next up, 07-08-09.

• The Quecreek Mine Rescue answered many prayers. That happened about an hour from my home and I was summoned to do some reporting on it. I’ll never forget the surprise I felt when I noticed tears running down my cheeks when Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker announced all nine miners were alive. I interviewed one of the survivors and asked the routine question of what he thought about during the long hopeless hours. He said, “I thought if I ever get out of here alive I’m going to spend the next six months getting stoned immaculate.” Two weeks after being rescued, he was well on his way.

• The iPod came out in 2001. I love the fact that I can carry the entirety of my 7,500-song music library in my pocket. I plug it into my car or my home or office stereo (I don’t use earbuds, preferring to remain engaged to the world around me) and just thrill to its flexibility. Now I wish Apple would move on to more substantial innovations. Like Thomas Friedman says, “I want my iCar.”

• Warren Buffett announced he’s giving away his entire $40 billion fortune to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other charitable endeavors. Sure, it’s doubtful I’ll see even a measly dime of it, but it’s a great gesture, one that I hope more and more well-off philanthropically follow. I’ve read that our goal in life should be to die the instant our last check bounces. It’s maybe the one thing Buffett and I now have in common.

• The New England Patriots won big games and Super Bowls when their team and their fans were fresh and deserving and are losing them now that they’ve become either obnoxious, cheaters or both.

• My weasley U.S. Senator Rick Santorum lost and Barack Obama didn’t. I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the historical significance of the first black man being elected president. I only hope it portends good things for all of us.

• O.J. Simpson got convicted of doing something substantial and the authorities still don’t have a clue on the whereabouts of D.B. Cooper.

• Environmental awareness became a major topic at both kitchen tables and boardrooms around America. It doesn’t matter if it causes global warming or not. We can all do better.

• Tiger Woods continues to amaze, winning with grace and style.

• A list of petty lowbrow things that have improved: baseball parks, waterparks, satellite radio, free WiFi, rollercoasters, HDTV, and many quality TV shows (24, Lost, The Sopranos and, yes, Survivor) I still find entertaining.

• None of the reliable music giants have stumbled in the past eight years. There’s been some great music and performances from The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen. And underappreciated geniuses like Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler just keep getting better and better. Honorable mention to Steve Earle, The Dixie Chicks, Todd Snider and Quinn Fallon.

• Amtrak is thriving. I’m a train nut and take it to New York City from Latrobe at least once a year. The country is better off if more people try the trains because there’s no such thing as train rage. I remember in the really dark days when my train was about six hours late. I boarded expecting anarchy. Instead, all was festive. I asked my seatmate why no one was angry. He said, “Well, everyone’s upset when they get on, but then they find out they’re giving away free chicken up front. Free chicken!” I jumped up and got some. It was pretty tasty.

• No new U.S. terror attacks since 9/11. I remember waking up on 9/12 and wondering if the Empire State Building would still be standing. Was it the war in Iraq? The Patriot Act? Torture at Guantanamo? I’m loath to credit any of those overreactions and I don’t think there’s any simple explanation. But it’s been unabashedly good news that we’re all still too nervous to acknowledge.

• I can’t remember the specifics, but I seem to recall a beached whale or two being saved.

Finding good news isn’t easy. I wish my list had more euphoric events like the Quecreek Mine Rescue, but I blame the times more than my desultory research.

But I’ll welcome any additions to the good news from the bad decade.

And let’s hope for one and all the good news isn’t quite so scarce in the next decade.