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Monday, March 30, 2009

Step. Step. Twist, The Tiger Beat Goes On


My brother Eric correctly predicted exactly what was going to happen with Tiger Woods on the 72nd hole at Bay Hill on Sunday.

Not that he’d make the winning putt. That was too obvious. Tiger’s ahead of pace to become the greatest golfer of all time. He wins nearly one out of every three tournaments in which he enters.

“You watch,” he said. “He’s going to sink the putt, lose control and go step. Step. Twist.”

The greatest threat to Tiger’s relentless march to greatness isn’t current challengers or surging young golfers like Anthony Kim or Rory McIlroy. By most historical standards, Tiger should have 10 years of prime golfing longevity left in him where he’ll be untouchable.

The greatest threat to him is that he keeps winning so frequently and so exuberantly that he blows his knee out after sinking a winning putt. And -- Step. Step. Twist. -- it could happen. If it does, it’s going to be like watching a thoroughbred break an ankle coming down the homestretch at Churchill Downs with a 33-length lead on the rest of the feckless field.

Tiger’s the only golfer in history who ought to begin practicing what he does when he wins. He needs a new signature celebration, one that is stationary. He’s expending more reckless energy celebrating his victories than he ever does attaining them.

His exuberance is such that he rarely observes a ball as it routinely rolls into the hole. He’s fist pumped at Muirfield Village. He’s gunned it down with a finger pistol during his memorable win over Bob May at Valhalla, and he’s generally exhalted in ways that would have historic stoics like Ben Hogan shaking his head with scolding disdain.

But in the last couple of years his most euphoric dance step has become as predictable as the result. He’s textbook as the ball leaves the putter. Then as the putt rolls within five feet of the cup he goes into a dance step that could be called the Tiger Beat.

He begins to back away from the cup with a little shuffle (well-bred etiquette, too, as he doesn’t risk dancing on his opponent’s line). He takes another step, this one a more emphatic march to launch sequence. Then as the ball dives into the cup, he turns tornado and on that recently repaired left knee torques skyward with an awkward oomph that reminds us of why Stanford friends nicknamed him “Urkel.”

Unless there’s some future scandal involving illicit tapes and a nasty divorce, it’s the only time any of us will ever see Tiger when he’s absolutely out of control.

For the good of his career longevity, Tiger needs to practice what he’ll do the next time a winning putt leads to an on-course climax.

He needs to be more bored with winning. He’s done this 66 times as a professional. He doesn’t enter a tournament he doesn’t expect to win. Him getting excited about winning is like George Clooney getting excited about a first date.

He’s not a kid anymore. The guy knows exactly what’s going happen.

To be fair, those kinds of out-of-control moments never get boring or routine for the rest of us. But we’re only human.

He’s Tiger.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Old Mail Day in Hooterville


It was the greatest letter I’ve ever received and it was nearly lost forever because, with the exception of one shining superstar, my home is in Hooterville.

It was a personal letter from one of the most famous people on the planet. It said he looks forward to reading something I write every day and he just wanted to let me know how much he enjoys my work.

It was sent December 23, 2008, and it finally landed in my hands yesterday. It took 93 days to travel two miles.

Don’t blame the U.S. Post Office. Blame Hooterville.

Hooterville was the fictional site of the still uproarious TV Land staple, “Green Acres.” It was a town populated by dim wits who forever are causing vein-popping consternation for erstwhile attorney Oliver Wendell Douglas, the naive farmer who ditched lawyering in New York for the bucolic life among the country rubes.

It’s one of my favorite shows and one of my favorite episodes dealt with the fury Douglas, played by the inestimable Eddie Albert, felt on Old Mail Day down at Sam Drucker’s general store.

Old Mail Day was the festival when Hootervillians gathered to get the old mail that Sam had misplaced or found when he was cleaning behind the pickle barrel. Many once-important pieces of mail were distributed. I remember Fred Ziffel was stunned to read he’d been drafted to serve -- in World War I.

I thought about that episode when my good friend Dave said he had a letter for me. Dave owns the ground floor tavern and rents me for cheap one of the three second floor apartments above his business. It’s where I keep a shabby little office and am always handy if the bar runs short of thirsty customers.

He asked if I was missing any mail. I told him I don’t receive any mail here. All my mail goes to my home address.

“Well, you got one letter here that was dated December 23. Your idiot neighbor upstairs got it by mistake and never bothered to give it over.”

His harsh assessment of my neighbor John was correct. He’s an absolute idiot. He’d fit right in on “Green Acres.” Arnold Ziffel could wear an “I’m with Stupid” shirt around John and no one would dispute the pig.

Still, John and I are on good terms. If I restricted my friendships and conversations to only intelligent people it would be a very lonely existence and I’d have to stop even talking to myself. It was strange that he hadn’t just given it to me.

“He said he felt bad. He found it under a stack of old papers he was about to throw away. It’s a letter from Arnold Palmer.”

Well, you could have knocked me off my bar stool with a feather -- and I was just sipping my first beer so don’t factor inebriation into the equation. I was stunned.

I looked up across the bar and there on the television was Arnold Palmer himself. By the most surreal of coincidences, a 93-day-old letter from Palmer was delivered to me while we were watching Arnold Palmer being interviewed on television about the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament being played this week at Bay Hill Club in Orlando.

For 10 years I’ve been doing the Amazing But True Golf Facts page-a-day calendars. Every Christmas, I’d always take a few up to Palmer’s long-time assistant, the great Doc Giffin. I never dared try to talk to Palmer himself, even though Doc told me the boss was an enthusiastic reader of my little calendar pages.

I was doing a lot of golf writing in 2005 when Doc asked me to do a major website project working with Palmer web wizard Scott Curry. We were to go though decades of old newspaper clips detailing every newsworthy activity Palmer did on every day of his life. It’s cool. Check out the timeline at www.arnoldpalmer.com.

And it is a momentous life of rarely equaled exuberance. Set aside the 93 professional golfing victories, the legions of adoring fans and all the indelible and enduring charity work, and it’s one of the most amazing lives in American history.

An expert pilot, he’s set around-the-world aviation records, is best buddies with several presidents and golfed with all but two of them since Ike. Bill Clinton says one of the great perks of the office is getting to play golf with Arnold Palmer. Kirk Douglas said in 1970 that no one -- not Sinatra, John Wayne or Ronald Reagan -- has more charisma than Palmer.

Even though I began interviewing him on a regular basis, I was still convinced the first time he was ever going to utter my name was when he’d say, “We have to fire this Chris Rodell!”

Now here I was holding a letter from the man himself. I opened it and read it aloud to my friends at the bar:

Dear Chris,

Many thanks for the new 2009 calendar. You do know how much I enjoy reading the amazing golf facts each day. Even when the day is done, I tear off the page and keep it for future reference. My very best holiday wishes to you and your family for a Happy Holiday.

Sincerely,

Arnold

I’m starting to think one of the most famous men in the world considers me a friend. And now I have evidence that I’m not a Hooterville kind of crazy.

Sometimes some of the best things in life are hiding just out of reach behind life’s proverbial pickle barrel.

I hope there’s some good news out there that you don’t know about that one day, maybe months from now, will make your day the way that letter made mine.

And best wishes to you and your family for a very Merry Christmas.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Should have been a sandbagger


The year 2008 proved a tremendous boost in my life-long ambition to die broke. I’ve always hoped that I'd spend whatever I'd earn in life and cash out on zero. Ideally, I’d like my last check to be to some fabulous resort and I’d like that check to bounce.

I’d hoped to squander a fortune, but it’s not looking like that’ll be the case.

If things keep going like that did in 2008, I should be able to hit that check-bouncing target by about June 20 so maybe it’s time to start thinking about booking an extravagant cruise, chain smoking and gorging on too much red meat.

I didn’t know last May when I christened my home blog, “www.EightDaysToAmish.com,” that within six months I’d be about three days to Amish and that the rest of the world would be dashing to get there with me.

I’ve never been so broke. I’m just wrapping up my taxes and it looks like 2008 was the worst year I’ve ever had as a wage-earning adult.

In fact, it’s looking like one of the worst years I’ve had since I was a wage-earning teenager. And it’s looking only slightly better than some of the years I had as a prepubescent wage-earning paper boy (for readers under 25, a paper boy was someone who delivered the historic artifacts known as newspapers, not a lad composed of the material people used to write upon before they’d did things ike Tweet).

I’m writing it off -- that’s what writers do -- as a transitional year. I’m trying to move away from getting paid next to nothing for writing magazine articles to getting paid next to nothing for writing books.

I’m spending all my time polishing my manuscript and trying to find an agent. At night I lay awake and wonder if I could be doing more to get published or if I should try and devote more time to earning money in more conventional ways like hoping one of my basketball pools hits.

I worry my professional life has been one big mistake.

I had a friendly exchange with my man down at the post office and walked away thinking, “Now, how come some fancy college guidance counselor never advised me to go to work for the post office? I’ll bet he never lies awake thinking, ‘I’m such an idiot. Why didn’t I try sell Rodell the duck stamps instead of the Liberty Bells?’”

He just does his job, collects a steady pay check and goes home and turns on the hockey game. To me, that’s starting to sound like a slice of couch potato heaven.

The day I finished the taxes I had to run into the woods with my chainsaw to cut some timber to clear my mind of the math and the misery. It’s true work with a tangible reward -- a warm home in winter. If I was independently wealthy, I’d probably just stack wood for old people.

I’d like to do something physical for a living that would help my neighbors.

That’s why I’m hoping we get some big flood threat near my home.

I want to be a sandbagger, a word that has two meanings. One is an expert golfer who wins large amounts of money by pretending he’s no good and fooling opponents into wagering large sums they lose when he confounds them with winning shots when the big dough’s on the line. He plies his nimble con at posh country clubs and on sunny fairways around the world among the playgrounds of the rich.

The more newsworthy definition involves more than 2,000 heroic volunteers bagging and stacking sand on the banks of the rising Red River near Fargo, North Dakota.

I read about English teacher Renae Czeczok who said she and 15 of her students drove a couple hours from Pillager, Minnesota, to get to the riverbank to help out. “It’s continuous hard labor,” she says. “But we want to help. We’re doing everything we can.”

Resident Sean Padden, 29, says, “This is one heckuva town. It’s a hardy community. People are banning together. It’ll take the entire community, but we’ll get through it.”

I’d love to be a part of that. I just imagine the hours of backbreaking labor as the waters rise, the real sense of mission, camaraderie and, let’s pray, the shared euphoria they’ll feel as they watch the waters begin to recede inches before they breech the bags

They’ll have been a part of something great. They’ll have have saved a town.

Yes, I wish I was one of the world’s best sandbaggers, an anonymous hero waging kindred battle against the forces of nature’s menace.

Or I’d settle for being the fancy suntanned golfing kind.

Either one’s got to beat what I’m doing these days.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The condom and the cross


I’m sensing the Pope would have been pleased if I’d have given up condoms for Lent. He was in Africa last week and spoke about the evils of condoms in ways that might confuse Satan into thinking they were talking about him.

He seems to think they’re wicked tools of evil, which is about the same thing my wife thought about associated parts of me after enduring the divine pains of childbirth.

Proponents of condom usage say they’re crucial in stopping the unholy spread of AIDS on a continent where two-thirds of all HIV-infected -- 22 million -- people live. Emaciated infected babies dying in orphanages break the hearts of men like South African Bishop Kevin Dowling who insist condoms should be used to prevent the deadly transmission to the innocents.

I agree. If I was in charge of public health in Africa I’d be loudly advising everyone to put condoms on everything.

And three condoms on some things.

But the pope says nope.

“You can’t resolve (the AIDS crisis) with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem” by promoting promiscuity, Pope Benedict says.

Back when I had a carnal interest in promoting promiscuity, I used to think the same thing. But my experience -- and I’m one-up on the pope in maybe this one regard -- taught me otherwise. As a young man consumed by ambitious lust, having a condom always seemed to ensure I’d never have a reason to use it.

It was like some diabolical gypsy curse.

I’d carry one in the same wallet that contained my driver’s license with its generous organ donor card. But I was young, awkward around the ladies and none of them ever expressed any interest in accepting any of my organs.

Then the instant I stopped carrying the long-since expired prophylactic around, women of low reputation seemed to find me irresistible. They’d come up to me in dim, smoky bars and with bloodshot eyes hint at illicit fun just outside in the parking lot.

Of course, this was when AIDS was just beginning to roar across America’s social landscape. We were learning that free love sometimes carried a steep price.

To dare unprotected intimacy with any of these women would at the very least lead to weeks of worry about exotic social diseases and would certainly damage my carefully constructed reputation. But, let’s be honest, being linked to me wouldn’t exactly launch them into society page prominence at the next season’s debutante balls.

With so much at stake, what did I do?

Why, I’d order us each another snort of Jagermeister, slam ‘em down, and dance her out to the parking lot where we’d steam up the windows of her pickup truck until the cops came tapping on the windows.

Did it every chance I could. If refined lovelies didn’t want me, then I’d be wantin’ anything wanton that would be wantin’ me back.

That’s just the way we are. We’re not made of wax. We’re lonely flesh and blood animals who’ll scheme and dream of any chance opportunity for cuddles and pokes. This life’s not for sissies. Rich, poor, black or white, we’re all looking for love.

Even the Catholic hierarchy in Africa seems to understand this -- and some of them are reveling in it. Priestly affairs are rampant across the continent, says Velesiwe Mkwanazi, a co-founder of Women Ordination South Africa, who says she knows of two priests with children. And Zimbabwean Archbishop Pius Ncube stepped down in 2007 after he was photographed naked in a bedroom with a woman.

Now, I’m not Catholic. But my wife Valerie is a Lutheran church organist who helps edit a Catholic newspaper. Her ecumenical duality gives me rhetorical cover to discuss our Lutheran organs and all things Catholic from condoms to commas.

It’s heartbreaking to think of the millions of people who will die because the church’s stubborn insistence on keeping its moral head in the sand while its faithful have their heads frolicking in other places.

It’s a sticky situation. Without some sensible interventions, things in Africa are bound to get really hard.

I can’t think of a more perfect set of circumstances for a condom to come riding to the rescue.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Daddy home alone


The girls cried two years ago when they pulled out the driveway for five days away with Mommy and their aunt. “We’re gonna miss you, Daddy!” the older one wailed as the car rumbled on down the street.

As soon as the car was out of sight, I remember doing a euphoric little jig. It’ll forever confound me how the three people I love more than any others can make me so ecstatically happy by leaving me all alone.

The scene will be repeated tomorrow at 8 a.m. For the first night in more than two years I’ll have the house to myself. No wife. No kids. No cares.

That means I have fewer than 18 hours to invent from scratch a machine that can stop time. The girls will be gone about 36 hours. If I could I’d stretch that period to, say, a week, I’d do it. That would give me time to do all the nothing I’ll not be able to squeeze into tomorrow and Sunday.

And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. I’m not going rake the yard, put up the screens or dust any of the house hold items that’ll be gathering dust through a weekend of peaceful inactivity.

If they’d present a trophy for what guys like me do on rare weekends like this, the golden figure would be seated in a recliner with a remote in one hand, a beer in the other, and a bowl of pretzels cradled in his paunchy lap.

There are many good family men who want to spend their every waking moment with their families. Any separation freights them with a sadness they wear like a cloak.

I’m not one of them.

My family reminds me of an old country song, “How Am I Ever Going to Miss You if You Never Go Away.”

Part of the problem is I’m just not brave enough to be lazy. Val works very hard to keep the house and the kids looking great. So if she walks in a room and I’m -- heaven forbid -- just sitting there, I feel guilty. In fact, I often pop up out of my seat so the motion will confuse her into thinking I’m just finishing or about to embark on some tedious household chore.

If I had more time, I’d like to have all the boys over for cigars and beers. This is another thing I never get to do. We have a really great guy house with a big back porch that overlooks the woods and a babbling mountain creek. The woods are a great place for beer drinkers to stumble about and decorate the rocks once our bodies are done with the beers, and that’s perennially fun guy thing to do.

But having the boys over would cut into my sitting time. I plan on being the first couch potato so sedentary that he lapses into a persistent vegetative state.

I plan on watching one John Wayne movie (probably “Red River”), one Rolling Stones concert DVD, a replay of the Steelers Super Bowl victory, the hilarious guy movies “Animal House” and “Hot Fuzz,” and about 16 hours of NCAA tournament basketball.

I’ve made some delicious seafood soup, plan on having at least one pizza and plan on grilling a juicy steak.

The whole time I’ll feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world.

And on Sunday evening, I’ll once again be confounded as to how a guy who can be so blissfully happy when he’s left all alone can be surprised by a jolt of euphoria at the sound of his three girls storming back into the house.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tar and feather their asses


It’s been fascinating to watch the country that recoiled at Abu Ghraib embrace with gusto the concept of inflicting bodily harm on the A.I.G. bonus babies.

Insurance giant employees that scooped up more than $200 billion in taxpayer bailout money are being inundated with death threats, and you can bet some of the 73 who snagged $1 million or more are devoting at least part of their time writing some extravagant policies in the event something unexpected upends their own actuarial table.

Sen. Charles Grassley said the shamelessness of the A.I.G. crew made him nostalgic for days when honor required that people who performed poorly at their jobs carved smiley faces into their sternums with their Samurai swords.

It’s a good thing for Capitol Hill janitors that Grassley doesn’t hold himself and his congressional colleagues to such a finicky standard.

Of course, many of our more creative fellow citizens think an honorable suicide would be too tidy a fate. The country is united in outrage. A bloodlust sweeps the land. Some think the perpetrators should be drawn and quartered and the severed limbs and torsos dumped into vats of acid.

Somewhere Dick Cheney is enjoying the warm and fuzzy feelings that people like me and you get when we watch things like “E.T.”

Me, I’m more of a squeamish sort. To me, the situation calls for a punishment that was popular when our Founding Fathers were first weighing in on issues of constitutional justice.

I’d like to see them tarred and feathered. Heck, I’d like to see anyone tarred and feathered.

I could never be a part of an angry lynch mob. Neither could most of the people I know. That kind of violence is unacceptable.

I often enjoy the noon meal at the bar beneath my office. Lined up along side me are a bunch of fair-minded individuals who come to dine and chat about sports, politics and the complex strategies it takes to succeed on “The Price is Right.”

They’re salt of the earth Americans. They’re furious about the bonuses but I don’t think they would ever be part of a killing posse so angry that they’d let it disrupt the important business being conducted by Drew Carey and his bevy of beauties.

They don’t have it in them to be an angry lynch mob. But an angry lunch mob? That’s another story.

Say, for instance, if someone came storming into the bar and said, “Hey, we’ve got Burt from the bank cornered down at the convenience mart! Anyone want to come help tar and feather him?”

I know at least a dozen guys who’d say, “Me! Me! Me! Save my seat . . . and somebody TiVo the Showcase!”

It sounds like great fun. I think it would be a dandy punishment that involves both pain and shame. Plus we’d all enjoy a day-brightening moment any time we’d get to see a rascal like Burt at the grocery store months later with chicken feathers still decorating his big bald spot.

I think tarring and feathering would be a sensible judicial middle ground between murder and letting the scoundrels get off scot free with the taxpayer loot.

And it would be a far better fate than that meted out upon those who displeased the great Kublai Khan, the 13th century Mongol ruler of China whose exploits were first detailed by the intrepid Marco Polo.

Khan’s preferred method of execution was to pack the mouths of miscreants with excrement until they suffocated, a send off that spoils all the fun of the whole condemned man’s last meal tradition.

I don’t know the source of the excrement, but if it was self-produced then the Chinese can take credit for inventing ultimate recycling right along side things like gunpowder, pasta and the first movable press.

Again, I’m a squeamish soul. I don’t think any violence of this unholy sort should be practiced against Wall Street titans or those who defend their excesses.

I'm just saying so much crap has been flying out of the mouths of Wall Street big shots for so long that seeing some of it moving in the other direction for once might be kind of refreshing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lasering in on good news


Tom Friedman is my favorite pundit because he always writes something so illuminating it leaves me feeling elevated or something so stupid it makes me feel I’m superior to his evident genius.

For instance, a couple of months ago, Friedman wrote that the economic crisis in which we are mired is so foreboding that we should stop dining out.

I immediately thought, “What an idiot! Stop eating out? What about all the creative and fun people who run restaurants? Shouldn’t we now, more than ever, support these wonderful places of convivial fun so they’ll be open when we want to celebrate the good times that are bound to come back?”

What did he expect us to do? Rush out to Sam’s Club en masse and stock up on barrels full of macaroni ‘n’ cheese, rice ‘n’ beans and corn flakes and graze on that unappetizing mess while all our favorite restaurants go belly up?

I reacted to his plea for sensible restraint by taking my wife and kids out for five consecutive nights of expensive splurges at all our favorite locally-owned restaurants. I left 20 percent tips for even the mean and homely waitresses. I paid for it all with a fan of nearly maxed out credit cards. To this day, the ungodly sum rides as I squeak by on $10 monthly minimum payments on a sum that cooks along accruing 18 percent interest.

I remember thinking, “That ought to show Tom Friedman and his stupid arguments about fiscal responsibility!”

Then there are the days like today when I wake up and read Friedman’s fine column
The Next Really Cool Thing.

In it he talks about the National Ignition Facility near San Francisco. The government stimulus-infused plant consists of 192 giant lasers. Friedman doesn’t say how big a giant laser is or if Godzilla could wear one in a holster, but we’re to assume they’re powerful devices.

What happens is these lasers pour their concentrated energies into a target chamber housing a tiny gold can with a peppercorn-sized particle of frozen hydrogen. Once one of those pellets is heated and compressed by the lasers, it reaches temperatures over 800 million degrees Fahrenheit or, according to NIF director Edward Moses, a temperature “far greater than exists at the center of the sun.”

Here’s one way in which Friedman and I differ in a journalistic sense: He accepts as fact that this guy Moses claims to know how hot it is at the center of the sun. I guess I’m old school in that regard. I would have pinned Moses down on that last point.

“Have you, Mr. Moses, or any of your scholarly friends ever actually been to the center of the sun with a nuclear themometer and, if so, did you need something along the order of SPF 99 Trillion to survive the visit?”

(The other ways in which we differ is Friedman has a vast and influential readership, a deep-pocket expense account and an honest-to-goodness employer, but let’s try not to lose our focus here. Remember, this is a story about lasers.)

The process causes the pellets to give off a burst of energy that can be harnessed to produce massive amounts of steam to drive a turbine and create electricity for your home, a process not dissimilar from what a coal plant does. “Only this energy,” Friedman writes, “would be free, globally available, safe and secure and could be integrated seamlessly into our current electric grid,” he writes.

This is the kind of thing that just thrills unabashed optimists like me. I’ve long argued we are captured amid some kind of awful lag where our brightest minds have access to these incredible computer technologies and choose to fritter them all away on creating games and fluff. I think it’s long past time our Einsteins stopped making iPods.

Friedman calls this laser technology a potential game changer, something unforeseen that can come in and in one fell swoop eliminate some of the global problems that seem so vexing and hazardous.

I hope on this one, he’s right.

If he is, I’m going to one day inform Friedman I was an early and ardent supporter of the technology and congratulate him for, on the NIF story, being brilliantly illuminating -- and using a word like “illuminating” to describe a .story about laser technology is a play on words a writer like Friedman ought to love.

Maybe he’ll hail me as an insightful colleague and accept my invitation to go out to dinner at one of our fine local restaurants. He can pay.

Remember, Mr. Big Shot’s the one with the expense account and I’m sure the restaurant will appreciate the business.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Lies about length and the manliest of men


We had Ed, a regular reader of my blog, and his wife over for dinner last night. That’s just what we do.

If you can prove you’re a regular reader of this blog, we’ll have you over for dinner. I’ve gone out and washed the cars and shoveled snow from the sidewalks of some steadfast readers who’ve mentioned they’d read something I’d written.

It’s about as fancy as my marketing efforts are ever going to get.

So if you’re reading this and are not doing anything tonight, feel free to stop by around 6 p.m. for some pasta. Val’s a fine cook.

Ed and Mary Ann were great company. They brought brownies, cheap beer and a bed. The bed may seem like a provocative dinner gift, but this one’s destined to become the dream nest of our youngest daughter when she moves out of her crib one day.

You don’t have to bring a bed, but we’ll welcome the brownies and beer.

When Ed handed me a Knight’s Head Lager -- $9 a case! -- I reached for a handy bottle opener.

“Oh, that’s a twist off,” he said.

Not to me it isn’t. I don’t twist off bottle tops. It can hurt dainty, ungloved hands like mine.

He kind of snickered like I was some sort of sissy. It was exactly the kind of reaction I’m always hoping I’ll get.

“You know, my friend,” I said, “a twist off beer bottle is a poor gauge of a man’s manliness.”

Then I went on to reel off my manliest bona fides. I lumberjack my own firewood. I’ve gone swimming with stingrays. I’ve been punished by laying down on beds of nails. I’ve gone solo skydiving -- twice! I’ve wrestled alligators.

No hype. It’s all documented. So, no, I don’t need to risk tearing any tender pink parts of myself on a beer bottle to prove I’m a man.

This is relevant because earlier that day I was listening to Colin Cowherd on Sirius XM satellite radio (that’s some manly stuff going on there too, you know). He was discussing a Sperling’s Best Places report that said Nashville is the manliest city in America. It based this result on the city’s high number of NASCAR enthusiasts, popularity of hunting and fishing, the lack of poofy furniture stores like Ikea and concentration of barbecue restaurants.

I lived in Nashville for a few years when I was but a boy so I can’t take credit for its manifest manliness, although I did do my part to help Bar-B-Cutie -- “Scoot yer Bootie to Bar-B-Cutie!” -- on Nolensville Road to prosper.

It was in Nashville where I did my skydiving, but I can’t claim to have done much other manly stuff, especially the stuff real manly men enjoy doing. I guess it just wasn’t my time.

I remember countless bitter failures to impress dozens and dozens of the Hee Haw Honeys. I’ll never forget their cruel laughter when I’d boldly insist I was a man where it really counted. And, remember, this is back when men who lied about length weren’t talking about their big screen TVs.

The Sperlings report got me to thinking about what manly means to me. I guess the top two would involve volunteering for military service, or marrying a woman that already has bratty kids of her own.

To me, those initiatives say so much about a man.

The latter shows he’s willing to leave an uncomplicated life and enter a challenging relationship with lots of familial baggage and wacky new in-laws just to help give children a father figure that might help shape their lives for the better. It shows a kind of selfless integrity men like me could never muster.

I already admire the man, but if, for instance, Colin Powell starts shacking up with the Octomom or Bristol Palin it would hands down make him the manliest man of all time.

I do the best I can. I try to be a good husband and father. I’m involved in raising the kids. I provide a fun, but firm hand for discipline and will continue to do so until the girls realize I tire easily and they can out run me whenever I’m angry.

But after Ed challenged me over the twist off, I realized I needed to do something drastic to prove once and for all to him just how much a man I really am.

So when the women weren’t looking, I took him into a darkened room and turned on my big 50-incher for him to envy.

And I am talking about the TV here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Them, the jury


Hooray for me! After months of desperation, something I’ve been dreaming and praying about finally happened on Tuesday. Yep, I got a job, important county work.

Jury duty!

Yesterday, a distinguished judge addressed me and about 120 fellow Westmoreland County citizens. He told us how we were there to provide the spiritual backbone to the best judicial system every devised by mankind. Fortunes and lives would rise and fall on the collective wisdom we were about to bestow.

Pay would be $9 a day.

Most people would rather fake their own death before accepting jury duty. Not me. I couldn’t wait. The night before I did a little home barbering, picked out on a nice shirt and coat and took steps to ensure I wouldn’t be too hungover to function for the important first day.

Of course, most people have jobs and obligations. They are engaged in productive lives. Me, I haven’t worked in about five months. To be honest, I haven’t done real work since I turned in my sauce-stained apron down at the old Pizza Hut.

I’m in a sort of transitional phase. I’m trying to move beyond writing magazine articles to becoming a full-fledged la-de-dah author. I’m trying to get my satirical novel published. So instead of spending all my time getting paid to write magazine articles, I’ve been spending my time writing painstaking queries to agents who respond with terse, soul-wounding rejection letters.

Nine dollars a day would seem like a gaudy windfall.

Everyone jokes about jury duty, but it’s a truly ennobling experience. It gives me the same sort of patriotic jolt I get when I walk into a voting booth. Or at least it used to be called a voting booth. These days it’s more of an exposed sort of an electronic voting station that always makes me suspicious either my vote’s not going to count or some angry Republican bully’s going to sneak up from behind and bash me with his briefcase.

It was fun to watch the other prospective jurors walk in. There were so many friendly faces. I made snap judgments about all of them and uniformly came down with positive reactions. Seven hours of confined tedium later, some of those judgments would shift.

And the tedium began almost instantly. I was not among the group of 50 that was called to the courtroom for questioning. That was fine with me. I had my laptop, The New York Times and was eager to dive into Jere Longman’s outstanding book, “Among the Heroes,” about the randomly assembled group of strangers who on September 11 deliberately crashed the hijacked United Flight 93 into a Shanksville field just 40 minutes from my western Pennsylvania home.

The choice of Longman’s book was deliberate. The heroic story of Flight 93 restores my faith whenever I feel humanity is being disparaged. And in the jury room we, too, were a random group of strangers perhaps capable of greatness. We weren’t there to fight terrorists. Our battle was with boredom.

“You know they should have a bowling alley in here to keep people from going crazy,” one woman said.

A bearded man in bib overalls suggested a dart board. A guy in a Cosby sweater lamented that he didn’t bring along some Trivial Pursuit cards.

It was starting to sound like a fine tavern for sissy teetotalers.

I thought briefly about opening up my laptop and entertaining the folks by reading aloud some of of my recent blog posts. But I’m not that kind of extrovert and if I were one day I’d eventually realize it and be forced to throw myself in front of speeding bus.

I was really enjoying having nothing to do but read. It reminded of the Lord Babington Macaulay’s great quote: “I’d rather be a poor man confined to an attic with plenty of books than a king who didn’t love to read.”

Of course, anytime you’re immersed in that vast a sea of humanity you’re bound to run into a crappie or two, and I’m not talking about the freshwater sport fish.

This one wore a Steeler sweatshirt and kept up a running commentary about the soap opera that played on the TV in the front of the big room. He followed each lewd comment with a nervous staccato laugh that sounded like someone had spilled a bucket of empty beer cans down a long flight of stairs.

The guy wouldn’t shut up. Had he been on the ill-fated Flight 93, I wondered if the heroes would have turned on him before dealing with the terrorists. I would have argued that it should have been the priority.

Finally at 4 p.m. the jury commissioner came in, thanked us and said we wouldn’t be needed. We could all go home.

I was being fired!

I went up and pleaded with her to let me come back the next day.

“You’re serious? You really want to come back?”

Yes, I think this is something I could really be good at. I’m a good listener, I didn’t doze off once or try and kill that loud-mouthed jerk in the Steeler jersey.

“Your turn will come again, sir. We’ll let you know.”

Will it be later this month? I’m sure I’ll be available.

“It’ll be in 2013.”

Still, it had been a great day. I’d done my civic duty without incident. The government recognized my service and will pay me $9.

Minus the $6 it cost to park, that leaves me with a tidy $3 profit.

The urge to splurge is impossible to resist.

Tonight, I’m taking the girls out for gumballs!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Fake boobs to confound real ones


This is bound to be controversial, but here goes: for the good of our national interests, Hillary Clinton needs a boob job.

I’m not talking something that will enhance the Secretary of State’s already womanly figure. I’m talking about porn tits. Major league yabos. Ta tas ‘til Tuesday.

And, yes, she needs to do this for Uncle Sam, and to be perfectly clear, I’m referring to the symbol of our shared national interests here and not the lecherous uncle who used to make you fish through his pockets for bent Tootsie Rolls.

This diplomatic overture occurred to me after I skimmed a recent story about how Sarah Palin’s voluptuous looks may have actually worked against her during the 2008 election -- and let’s again take a moment to revel in the marvelous reality show of a race that was.

It wasn’t too long ago that every national election involved four uniformly boring white men. The introduction of an unknown babe like Palin was a sensation that just keeps on giving. It’s impossible for her to say something that doesn’t enliven each and every news cycle when she manages to pry herself away from the tedium of North Pole politics.

We can all be grateful that she, her whack job family and pill-popping in-laws are going to be electrifying the national news for at least the next 30 years (and those of us who lean liberal can be grateful she’s a solid conservative).

Whether her dynamite looks cost her votes is disputable. But no one can argue the impact she had on the global politics when she made a memorable show biz visit to the United Nations.

To me, it was the highlight of the whole election. Palin handlers ushered her through a day of drive-by meetings with leaders from hotspots around the world.

It may have been the first time in history a push-up bra was deployed to demonstrate gravitas.

Fox News immediately trumpeted the predictable reaction of these dour men from mostly authoritarian countries to being greeted by the jiggly Palin: “Foreign leaders enthusiastically endorse Palin. . .”

Typically, Fox only gave half the headline and left out ". . . for their harems!”

No reaction was more comical than that of Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, the still grieving widower of assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto. He used his face time with Palin to gush on camera, “You are so gorgeous! Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you.”

When an aide suggested the two shake hands, Zardari beamed boyish sunshine and said, “If he’s insisting, I might hug!”

He did regain enough focus to talk some strategy.

“And how does one keep looking that good when one is that busy?” he asked.

Yes, love was in the air.

It occurred to me that Zardari and men like him are still living in the ‘60s. The 1360s. They’ve never had a chance to enjoy lusty relations or bawdy ambitions with someone like the comely Sarah. It’s a pity and I think the unnatural repression is a reason that many fundamentalists around the world become so kill crazy. They’re stuck home alone on weekends with their religious studies while everyone else is out getting some.

It sort of reminds me of the unfulfilled longings from my own adolescence, except my internal frustrations boiled to the surface in the form of, not homicidal mayhem, but sprawling fields of unsightly facial pimples.

Make no mistake: We are at war with fundamentalists who resent our way of life, our exuberant liberty and the fact that they can’t put women like Palin in a drab burqa and a stifling muzzle (in reflective moments, John McCain probably shares half that sentiment).

That’s why Hillary needs to get some massive new boobs, some low cut dresses and a bra that’ll shove those hooters right up under the noses of our fundamentalist enemies.

She needs to look them in the eye, dare them to maintain eye contact and say, “This is who we are. Like it or not, this is the future and there’s not a thing you can do about it. And maybe you should loosen up that turban and think about giving it a try, big boy.”

It would make Hillary an historic feminist icon around the Muslim world and might eventually lead to seismic changes in how Arab males treat women.

Now, if I could just find a powerful politician with enough international respect to articulate the wisdom behind this groundbreaking diplomatic initiative . . .

I wonder if Bill Clinton would think this is a good idea.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Mugging it up for new headshots


In the interests of facial integrity, I’m proposing everyone on the internet update their profile headshots every time they change the oil in their jalopies.

I say this because I just changed mine and feel liberated. I’d been hiding behind a 6-year-old headshot. That was one car, one kid, one administration, two Steeler Super Bowl victories and, oh, about 10,000 hairs lost to male pattern baldness ago.

Now that I’m blogging three or four times a week, I’m seeing my grinning mug more frequently and I’d begun to despise the youthful poser. I resented him because he looked so handsome, so innocent, and so smug that had he at least twice as much loot in his 2003 401-K plan that I have in mine.

I decided I had to kill him off.

A new beard, my first, would be the weapon. And the results have been gratifying. I’ve already had a round of compliments on the new headshot. First off, people like the beard. I do, too.

I loved how it gave me a wild, untamed feeling. I felt like a real man, an often alien sensation for a dainty dude who’s confessed to looking forward to his next pedicure.

This feeling carried me through the times whenever one of my little cuddlers would reach up and yank on the whiskers hard enough to cause tears to gush from my eyes and me to shriek to my wife, “Mommy! Mommy! She’s doing it again!”

The new headshot was taken in the lovely little canyon that is right in our backyard. There’s a roaring creek and a series of waterfalls that drop about 50 feet over 100 yards. And it’s all just steps from our back porch. It is magnificent. I feel utter peace and wholesomeness when I’m there amidst the solitude.

And I’d spend more time there if I didn’t cut into the time I spend in the dark little bar beneath my office where I spend countless hours yapping with fellow inebriates about sports, politics and how our lives would be different if we ever went to bars where single women went.

The new headshot has me wearing an Ohio University sweat shirt that practically dominates the picture. This was unintentional but wholly appropriate. For better or worse, that’s the place that made me exactly who I am; the school and Athens, Ohio, in general, and a lovely little wreck of a house at 115 Court Street in particular.

It was there on a sun-spangled autumn day after a buddy reunion that I stood and stared up at the little memory factory and thought with wonder, “This is where I became who I am.”

I recognized it as a gem of a line and shared it with my buddy from those days knowing he’d turn it into a song. He did and it’s a dandy that can be found at www.myspace.com/quinnfallon

Having Quinn tell me I inspired two of his songs is maybe the second most cool thing that’s ever happened to me. The first is knowing he considers me a friend.

So the beard had done it’s bit and it was time for it to go. But because I feel it’s our shared duty to break the dreary routine of our daily lives and give each other something different to talk about around the dinner table I decided to do something different: I kept the mustache on the left side and lost the beard, then reversed it for the right.

The look enlivened the Happy Hour.

“You sort of look like Two Face from the Batman movie but you’re stuck with a double ugly.”

Half-assed was a popular comment.

One girl asked if I’d recently gotten drunk and passed out, and somebody’d pranked me.

I thought about the past week and told her she was half right.

There was much talk about finishing the job. Some of the guys thought I should make half my hair short and leave the other half lively. One guy said true commitment would have required the shaving of an eyebrow.

As expected, no one in the family noticed for 25 minutes after I brought home the pizza. Twenty-five minutes!

And it was the 2 year old who detected a difference when she suspected theft and told mommy, “Somebody took Daddy’s mustache.”

I asked Val how she could go 25 interminable minutes without looking her husband in the face and noticing an appearance change more startling than even poorly executed plastic surgery.

“I, uh, um, was too busy checking out your fine ass.”

It was a splendid recovery.

I may grow the beard again next winter. It’s a great facial accessory, a balm to winter’s bitter bite, and I liked having it around to stroke whenever I wanted to appear scholarly.

But I’d be less than honest if I said missed it.

How could I?

It’s in a little plastic baggie I’m keeping taped to the wall across from my desk. I think I’ll stop now so I can go stroke and try and appear scholarly.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The "rock stars" of the financial media


For anyone who reads this blog in hopes of comedic diversion, this one could be a doozy. I’m about to opine on the economy.

This ought to be funny because through dint of my historically underpaid profession combined with my god-given laziness, I’ve rarely had ample funds. I’ve never earned much and have endured many years when my idea of a splurge was getting a pizza with pepperoni and sausage.

So maybe I should be the last guy to assess the economic recovery, but here goes: I believe it’s going to happen sooner and cause less widespread hardship than any of the experts are so gloomily predicting.

Why should anyone believe me?

Because for years I’ve been doing exactly what everyone agrees the entire country needs to be doing to return to fiscal solvency.

I’ve lived responsibly.

I’ve paid off all my bills down to zero. I haven’t lived extravagantly. The four cars I’ve owned have all been paid off and driven a minimum of -- sorry Detroit -- five years. My wife and I paid off our first house in 12 years. My credit cards rarely carry a balance.

I did this in spite of tempting news reports that hinted I could be doing more with my money by embracing the schemes now being blamed for our current mess.

And that’s because I’ve never trusted the celebrated big shots of the financial media.

Financial reporters used to be uniformly dour and gloomy as the agate type on the stock pages, and that’s as it should be. I’ve never believed in any get-rich-quick schemes, preferring to get my financial advice from penny pinching wisemen like Benjamin Franklin.

Then around about 1995 irrational exuberance began sweeping the country. Bartenders started sharing stock tips. Desperate housewives without more cuddly pool boy options started forming investing clubs. Brash hosts on cable financial news shows started acting like carnival barkers.

People started calling them the “rock stars” of the financial world.

Let’s get this straight. To call anyone in any field that doesn’t involve drugs, groupies and ear-blistering electric guitars a rock star is a blazing insult to historic excessives like Keith Richards, Tommy Lee and Keith Moon.

You’re either a rock star or just some dork with a schtick.

Take Rick Santelli, for instance. He’s the big mouth from CNBC who made waves last week declaring it’s time to revolt against the Obama stimulus package. The rant elevated him from sub-cable purgatory to the major news networks and even earned him a tut-tutting from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Once again it left me wondering if that’s what it takes enjoy national notoriety but the only equivalent way for me to ape that sort of shrill idiocy is to start typing my posts in OBNOXIOUS ALL-CAPITAL LETTERS. But that hurts my eyes and I’m not about to start doing that.

Most of the financial experts I see commenting on TV today look like they’re in way over their heads. Without fat portfolios to substantiate their genius and videotaped warnings proving they saw it all coming, the blustery guys look feckless and their fresh young female counterparts look like girls who stayed too long at the frat party.

The best and only financial advice I’ve ever heeded came from my brother, the -- ta!da! -- financial advisor. He told me about 20 years ago: “Always pay yourself 10 percent of every paycheck first, and then pay off your bills.”

Simply put, that means if I get a check for $1,000 -- and this is a wild hypothetical because that hasn’t happened in months -- take $100 and put it in a savings account that generates compound interest. Then take the remaining money and pay off what you owe. If you have any leftover, use it to splurge on something like a pizza with pepperoni and sausage.

It’s that simple. The advice has given me a sound foundation upon which to weather difficult times, and I'm optimistic that's what's in store for America.

(By the way, the other great piece of advice I received and share without fail to dewey-eyed newlyweds is: Always argue naked.)

So there it is. I think before you know it, we’re all going to be fine. We’re going to have some difficult times, but it’ll be more cleansing than painful.

We just need to help each other whenever we can and focus on little things to get us through the day.

And if you struggle today to find something hopeful to help you carry on, I offer this: In the next day or so, I’m going to write about why after five years I decided to change my head shot for my various on-line endeavors.

I don’t know why, but for some reason I think that’s going to pull one or two of you through whatever tumult the next day or so is bound to bring. I hope something does.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Of death and dreams


Valerie woke up Saturday morning and told me she had a dream that our neighbor had died.

I didn’t bother to tell her that I’d dreamed, much as I have every night since I was 14, about having sex, getting rich or having sex with somebody rich.

Well, by noon that day, one of our dreams had come true. Care to guess which one?

Now heaven has a friendly handyman who’ll fix the broken lawnmowers, silence the squeaky doors and dispense the folk wisdom that help tenderfoots get through an unusually harsh winter -- and let’s save the debate about heavenly meteorology and lawns that need mown for another time.

Old Bill is dead.

We’d known him for just the two years since we moved up into the woods near him and we’re the poorer because we didn’t move next to him about 15 years ago.

The mystifying realms of death and dreams forever fascinate. Why they seem to so often intersect only deepens the mystery.

The specifics of her dream vanished with her waking, she said. Left were the remnants of a strong feeling that death had stopped by the neighborhood. The nonexistent activity in the always still house next door betrayed nothing.

Then it was like a local version of the Abbey Road album cover sprang to life and marched into Bill’s house. There was the ambulance driver, the police officer, the clergy and, finally, the undertaker who took the remains of our old friend away.

I had I guess what you’d call a premonition the night before my own father died.

His father Archibald Rodell, had died in a Pittsburgh veteran’s hospital in 1938 as a latent result of being gassed by the Kaiser's henchmen in World War I. He spent the last years of his life gazing longingly from the windows of a sterile tuberculosis ward and writing achingly beautiful poems about the 10-year-old boy waving up from the lawn on the other side of the glass and the games of catch they’d never get to play.

For some reason, I’d taken that book of poems home with me after a Sunday visit and read each and every one of them. Even though there was no physical clues that the next day would be Dad’s last, I cried and cried and cried.

Was his father preparing me, a grandson he’d never met, for the profound shock that I’d never see my father again? Was he trying to tell me that he and my 76-year-old father would be playing a long overdue game of catch? Why did I pick up that book of poems on that night after years of neglecting to pay it any mind?

It wasn’t a real long shot that Bill, 82, was on his way out. His last six months seemed to have been a slow torture. Val and the kids would take him cookies and gifts on the holidays and see him pitifully slumped on the sofa, too weak to answer the door, but considerate enough to give a friendly wave of acknowledgment.

He lived alone and his driveway became a constant parade of angelic family and caregivers to provide hospice to someone who’d decided to go out on his own terms.

It was only a matter of time.

It’s impossible for me to grasp the finality of death, the enormity of heaven, the wonder of meeting Jesus and if a guy who still dreams about having sex with rich people even warrants admission.

For me, heaven will be heavenly if I get there and the first two people I see are my Dad and his father waiting to greet me.

And that one of them hands me a mitt.