Thursday, July 30, 2009

A naked solution to swimsuit controversy


Unless I’m misreading the situation, and I don’t think I am, the future of competitive swimming could involve full nudity. And that gives me a kind of water willies that might be at odds with what just went through your mind.

I’m fascinated by the Michael Phelps swimming controversy involving the buoyancy-enhancing, friction reducing polyurethane swimsuit worn by dastardly German swimmer Paul Biedermann.

Golf, tennis and NASCAR, certainly, have struggled with souped up equipment issues for years. But it never dawned on me that swim apparel could be considered performance enhancing. Sure, a stylish one could maybe help you connect on the beach but after doffing the duds it would require standard pharmaceuticals to do any actual enhancing.

How wrong I was. I guess we can all rest assured that technological savants are at work to shave .0001 off a competitive swimmer’s time rather than devoting their genius to building, say, vehicles that are safer, more fuel efficient or -- and wouldn’t this be cool? -- edible.

Swimmer Beidermann tried to deflect the controversy by saying, “I hope there will be a time again when I can beat Michael Phelps without the suit.”

It sounds to me like he’s suggesting racing in the nude.

That would solve many problems while simultaneously launching a host of others.

I enjoy pure competition as much as the next guy, but if swimmers begin hunching over the starting blocks without even their Speedos on, I’m frantically clicking to find a channel with fully clothed bowlers.

Devoted students of this blog -- and thanks so much to all three of you! -- know I’m a near unwavering advocate of more nudity to improve nearly every social situation. Just last week, it was I that suggested nudity could save the space program from being forever marooned on Planet Boredom.

But naked competitive swimming is where I draw the line.

I understand that’s a confounding position because we can all agree that being naked in water is generally among the most joyful human experiences. It’s one reason people sing in the shower.

It feels good. You’re all sudsy. It’s cleansing. What could be better?

Veteran skinny dippers like me know the answer to that. It was back in high school when my friends and I would coax a group of innocent lovelies to sneak into neighborhood pools with us in the hopes it would lead to mutual corruption.

It never happened the way we dreamed but I enjoyed more illicit nudity on those moonlit summer nights than all those years later when the cable company mistakenly included The Playboy Channel in our basic package.

Those were my wonder years and from them blossomed a lifelong affinity with naked, or “nekkid” swimming.

The late, great Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard once said that the difference between being naked and being nekkid is the state of being without clothes and being without clothes and being up to something.

The logical conclusion of what swimmer Beidermann is proposing is naked, not “nekkid” swimming and that leaves me cold.

Despite our black president, our states embracing gay marriage and whiffs of pot legalization in California, we’re still essentially a puritanical nation that instinctively puts fig leaves on works of art rather than embracing our Eden’s essence.

Naked swimming would never fly.

Still, something must be done to mitigate the vexing swimsuit controversy.

I propose we remove the human element from the pool and simply drop the new high-tech suits into the water when the starting gun sounds.

Then we can cheer the empty super-charged suits as they fly down the lanes shucked free of their human cobs.

“USA! USA!”

It’ll seem a lot less impersonal when Ol’ Glory goes flying down the lane without an actual swimmer inside.

Monday, July 27, 2009

'twas a Merry Christmas in July


Christmas in July was over before you know it and now I can’t wait until next July 25.

I’m usually Scrooge-like when it comes to all holidays that don’t involve drinking and joking, and I don’t feel the need to crowd the calendar with any more days of structured jolliness. If I feel like being a mean, nasty SOB on holy days like Easter or Christmas, by God, I want to do it.

But as I come to grips with the knowledge that I’ll likely die as I’ve lived -- flat broke -- I’ve understood I need to make some compensations so my daughters will leaven their memories about their lazy, unproductive father with the appreciation that the old man was good for giggling.

So as we entered the dog days of summer, our vacation behind us, school still a ways off, I knew I needed to do something until August 7 and National Lighthouse Day.

I seized on July 25, Christmas in July. It was a natural because Christmas in December is the very best holiday for kids like ours, ages 8 and 3. And because, as we can all agree, Christmas needs some tyrannical improvements.

It’s too commercial. It’s excessively shrill. You feel pressure to do repulsive things like hug in-laws.

But Christmas in July is a fresh canvass. A visionary like me could cast it any way he wants.

And now I’m hopeful Christmas in July will usurp Christmas in December.

First of all, there is no stress to Christmas in July. In fact, I decided to honor the holiday just two shopping days before the actual event. That’s plenty of time because I decided everyone would get just one gift. I was able to shop for and wrap all four gifts in two hours (got myself a DVD of John Wayne’s, “Red River”).

Second, no Santa and no Jesus. They’re both real sweethearts, but every December they engage in an unseemly tug-of-war that makes the holiday difficult for sensitive sorts like me. So for Christmas in July, to hell with the both of them.

Third, decorations are minimized. There will be no neighborhood competitions about who can create the most light and noise pollution with mega-watt, ‘round-the-clock renditions of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” Christmas in July is a stealth holiday. In fact, my wife didn’t even know it was happening until she walked down stairs to our cozy basement and saw a fire in the fireplace (it was 84-degrees outside) and the rented version of “A Christmas Story” on TV.

And lastly, there will be no silly arguments about what you can and can’t say. One of the best parts of Christmas in July was going to the local florist shop and asking for a Christmas in July arrangement. They’d never made one so we took a lovely vase full of fragrant summer sunshine (make up your own rules as you go along). The flowers served as the de facto Christmas tree and, believe me, it was a lot easier getting it into the house.

But the girls in the flower shop seemed perfectly charmed when my daughters and I explained the holiday and bid them Merry Christmas in July. One was so tickled, she said she was going to stop by and sing Christmas in July carols. I said she was welcome to do so but Christmas in July meant we didn’t have to answer the door and pretend we were happy with her off-key intrusion.

Wishing people a joyful “Merry Christmas!” in July was the best part of Christmas in July.

They seemed uplifted. For a moment, they could forget about their troubles and remember that once, well, six months ago, there was a time when the mundane greetings of our daily lives were exchanged by something more euphoric.

And because it was so unexpected half-a-year away, it wasn’t freighted with the baggage of all that Christmas in December entails. It didn’t have the pressures, the expenses and traditional obligations.

It was July. It was Christmas. And it was Merry.

I hope next year you circle July 25 on the calendar and remember to give you and your loved ones a little unseasonal treat.

Me, I’ll remain vigilant in looking for ways to bring spiritual improvement to every holiday.

And, remember, only 97 shopping days until April Fool’s Day in November!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Me, Mandela and doin' time


It was only a $15 parking ticket. It had been issued to me on July 3 outside the local public library for parking on the wrong side of the road. Many would have just paid it.

Not me. It didn’t seem fair. There was no sign. It was a holiday weekend on a road between a church and a small town library where my wife had asked me to pick up some books for the kids.

The only way my mission could have been more wholesome was if I’d paused to donate a spare kidney to some sick orphan.

So I took it to the local police chief. We’d never met, but have mutual friends. He looked at the ticket, looked at me, smiled and said, “Let’s let this go with a warning, okay?”

Okay!

I don’t know why I felt so good, but I had to fight the urge to jump up and click my heels together. It continued a run of friendly run-ins with badge-bearing folks from whom I used to instinctively run.

I’ve also become friendly with a Pennsylvania State Trooper whom I’d met at a golf function. We hit it off and and I invited him down to my local tavern where he proceeded to make as loud an ass out of himself as those of us who don’t carry loaded weapons for a living.

We all had a swell time. At the end of the night, he threw an arm around me and shoved his business card in my shirt pocket. I didn’t examine it until the next day. On the back, he’d written: “Chris is a personal friend/golf buddy. Any professional courtesy appreciated.”

I had to practically rub the Twilight Zone out of my booze-reddened eyes. It was a get out of jail free card!

And it’s just such a sad pity that I can’t think of a single circumstance where I’ll ever get to use it.

I don’t know how it happened, but all the menace of my youth has gradually leaked away. What remains couldn’t make a decent puddle.

Somehow I’ve become good and it seems like such a waste.

Where were these powerful friendships during my hell-raising youth? Where were they when I could have really used them?

Like the night I killed my wife.

It was 1987. All the old gang from college was in town and that meant lots of drinking. Inevitably, things got out of hand and one of my buddies, a Cincinnati lad, got busted for drunk and disorderly behavior.

The haze of history, not to mention multiple Ouzo shooters, fogs the details. I think it was an ill-advised game of toss involving empty beer bottles and a nervous valet, but I clearly remember a big steroid stallion of a cop rudely shoving him in the back of the cruiser.

As I was the semi-sober host, I felt honor-bound to take charge. I asked the officer when I could collect the miscreant.

“He’s with us,” was all he said.

“I understand that sir, but when, pray tell, can I come retrieve him?”

We went through a variation of this two more times before he growled, ‘Say one more word and you’re goin’ with him!”

You can beat me senseless and throw my shattered body in a dark dungeon until time runs out. But no one will ever incarcerate my inner smart ass.

I said, “Well . . .”

The very next instant began a lifelong appreciation for the sturdy construction of a well-built American vehicle. He grabbed the back of my head and slammed my chin into the cruiser’s hood.

I’m convinced if had been one of those mid-80’s foreign cars, the force would have collapsed the vehicle and the three of us would have had to perp walk a mile to the two-cell station.

Cell one was occupied by a surly-looking punk. He never even glanced up as they threw the two of us into the cell next door.

I confess I wasn’t unhappy about being there. I didn’t want to go through life without having to endure some imprisonment, if for no other reason than I could feel a kind of kinship with Nelson Mandela.

After about an hour of cellmate giggling -- and it was just giggling -- my buddy broke the ice with unseen Prisoner No. 000001.

He said he was in for a bar brawl, drunk and disorderly. “You guys?” he asked.

“Same thing, D&D,” said my buddy, a fast learner already hip to jailhouse lingo.

“You?” he asked me.

“I killed my wife.”

“You what!”

“Yep. Killed her dead.”

Maybe it was still the drunk part of his D&D, but I was surprised to learn he was such a sensitive sort. He was floored and came alive with interest. He asked what made me do it.

“Caught her in bed with a black guy,” I said.

“Oh, man!”

“Well, she’s black, too,” I explained.

He asked what I did.

“Shot her right in the ass,” I said.

“You sure you killed her?”

“I think so. It’s all so confused. All I remember is her rubbing her ass and hollerin' at me.”

I’ve heard stories of men who endure long incarceration. They say they remember the forlorness, the estrangement.

Me, I’ll always remember my buddy trying to stifle all his belly laughs as I spun one of my greatest stories ever, one rich with sordid detail about my criminal life as an outlaw youth.

When they let the two of us go at dawn, we walked past our cell neighbor. He didn’t even look up, too fearful to even fathom an evil so malevolent, so near.

I wonder if even one of Mandela’s nights over 27 years of bitter imprisonment was as much fun as my 12 hours.

I doubt it.

He probably ran with the wrong crowd.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Change your headshot every 5,000 miles


I changed without fanfare my headshot to this blog for the third time this year. I knew it was time to switch because I’ve decided to alter it every time I refresh the oil in my vehicle or about every 5,000 or so miles.

If I were an interstate truck driver, the procedure could become tedious. But these days I have little occasion to stray far from home. My commute to my office/bar where I work/guzzle is 3.2 miles. Once they fix the damn bridge that commute will be shortened to 2.1 miles and the periods between new photo sessions will be even fewer.

See, I went about eight years without ever once changing my mugshot. I used the same one whenever some magazine said they needed it for their contributor’s page. It was a picture of me with a smile I’d characterize as wry.

When they added the little editor’s note exaggerating my accomplishments, I’d always consider the pairing on the page ham on wry. Those things are always designed to trick readers into believing they were really, really lucky to read something by a guy like me.

But that only happened maybe a couple times a year, not enough to bore either me or any reader alert enough to know I’d roused myself from my usual professional stupor to create something print-worthy.

Then I began to blog.

I’d see that face, that same face with that same wry smile, three or four times a week. The guy started looking like a stranger to me. Plus, I began to resent him for all he was that I was not.

He was youthful with no gray hairs. He looked more carefree, like he didn’t have two kids. Plus, and this drove me nuts, I could tell by looking that the 2001 me had at least twice as much in his 401-K plan as the 2009 me does.

I decided to kill him off.

For my most recent picture, I’d had a beard, scraggly hair and wore a thick gray pullover hoodie. This was okay for winter, but it started looking increasingly silly as spring warmed to summer.

One day I got so sick of it I got in the car and drove 328 miles just so I’d need to get the oil changed.

For now, I’m liking this one, especially the shirt. The smile’s nice, too. The dimples shadow nicely and the closed lip grin conceals the ragged skyline of chipped ivories.

One thing I’ve noticed is that as time continues to rake my face with its cruel claws, I keep backing further and further from the camera. A really honest warts ‘n’ all mugshot should be taken about two feet from the subject in a well-lit place.

But that might lead people comparing me to troll-like singer Phil Collins. He released about four collections in the 1980s with album covers showing pictures of his pumpkin-like noggin inches from the camera.

You’d see gaping pores, stray nose hairs, age spots. It was one of the most repulsive events in music -- and that was before you’d drop the needle on songs like “Su-Su-Sudio.”

There are lots of great headshots of lovely bloggers at places like www.RedRoom.com. One of my favorites shows author Matt Benyon Rees wearing a spy overcoat, a grim expression and brandishing a gun. Very cool.

He writes crime stories so the prop is appropriate.

What’s a guy like me, a self-professed humorist, supposed to do? Wear a fright wig and a big red clown’s nose?

Some people have such lovely headshots I can understand their reluctance to tinker.

Still, I believe it’s important to keep our pictures current to avoid any Dorian Gray revelations. I know it wouldn’t do for someone like me to show up -- cross your fingers -- on Oprah looking vastly different from how I look on blog pages and book jackets.

I want people to be happy for me and eager to hear what I have to say.

I don’t want them confused by my appearance and asking questions like: “Say, when did Phil Collins start writing books?”

Monday, July 20, 2009

Today's space program needs nudity


I really thought by now we’d have at least the galactic equivalent of a 7/11 on the moon. We could go there for stale hot dog buns, overpriced milk and things like batteries and toothpaste.

Those would be all the things you might forget if you were packing for a moon vacation.

It may sound farfetched, but for the past 15 years or so I’ve talked to experts who assured me the future for moon vacations was on schedule for right about now. Back then I was told by 2010 a select few would be staying in inflatable lunar hotels, playing micro-gravity basketball with 40-foot hoops and sipping Tang & Tequilla Sunrises as the earth set on the Sea of Tranquility.

That’s why the 40th anniversary of the moon landing is triggering mixed emotions. It’s a landmark historical event, but seems like a nagging reminder of a wasted opportunity, sort of like 59-year-old Tom Watson whiffing on an 8-foot putt to, egads, win the British Open.

So it’s all very disappointing to an optimist who has been impatient for the future since way back in the past.
It all began for me in the mid ‘90s when I spied a tiny blurb in The Wall Street Journal that said there would be moon vacations by the year 2020 (and let me be the first to predict 2020 will be a good year for visionaries).

I knew the fuddy duddies at the WSJ were prone to erring on the sound side of prudence. At the time I was doing lots of stories for National Enquirer and instinctively erred on the side of gross recklessness. So I cut the projected number in half and launched a niche career as a half-baked futurist.

I did dozens stories for dozens of publications about what the future of moon vacations would look like. I found Japanese companies working on giant inflatable hotels. I found Swedish companies that were planning golf courses that would charge gray fees instead of green fees.

I found a man, Dennis Hope, who can justifiably claim he’s the king of the universe. In 1969, he seized on an obscure United Nations loophole that says “no country or nation can own outer space.” Because he’s an individual and neither country nor nation, Hope brilliantly laid claim to the moon and six planets and commenced to selling the real estate. He’s already sold more than 25,000 lunar acres at $27.15 a piece.

He’s going to be a whole chapter if I ever get around to my book about making millions by selling stuff that’s not yours.

And, of course, I found many people who were consumed with prospects of space sex. I don’t want to spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that bondage in the future will lose its deviant chic because experts say space sex will be impossible without straps, velcro and enough traction chains to get a cheap rent-a-car over the Rockies in a blizzard.

I found a private sector brimming with enthusiasm and Barnum-like initiatives that would re-ignite enthusiasm for a program that has somehow squeezed the euphoria out of what is man’s last, greatest adventure.

I believe the space program is at a standstill because we’ve turned the entire enterprise over to one of the most boring alliances ever conceived.

That would engineers restrained by accountants.

These are the people who for years have given us space experiments involving the mating habits of insects, frogs and worms when it seems all people really care about is the mating habits of astronauts.

Just imagine that pay-per-view.

In fact, the best human interest story involving the space program in recent years involved astro-naughty Capt. Lisa Nowak, kidnapping charges and a sordid love triangle. It was a fascinating peek behind the curtain at the lives of the star-chasing stoics.

And that all took place on earth.

We need some enterprising reality TV producer to develop a “Big Brother”-type show for outer space. And it should be R-rated.

We can’t ignore that adult entertainment was the driving force that keyed the development of the internet. A little space nudity -- lunar moons! -- could go a long way in humanizing the space program, a worthy endeavor that is ironically hitting bottom for its lack of cheekiness.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Help the economy: Pray for more Hersheys











The pointy-headed poobahs who say we’ll need numbers in the trillions to fix the economy are mistaken. The answer isn’t more dollars.

What we really need are more Hersheys. I figure about 1,000 of them ought to do it.

If that thought inspires a craving, go ahead and start gobbling candy bars. Each purchase helps less fortunates in heart-warming ways few chocolate lovers will ever understand.

But what we really need are more Hersheys like Milton S.

Most of us say earnest prayers at one time or another that our lottery tickets hit, the rich uncle kicks and leaves us the loot or that Speilberg calls with movie offers about our long-ignored novels.

We justify our prayers for material wealth because we’re sure we’d be generous with the money. We’ll buy mom a new house, donate to worthy charities and tip the waitress $20 just to keep the coffee hot.

Here’s a secret: if you want your prayers to hold more sway in heaven, just prayer you can be more like Milton Hershey. Heaven knows we need more men like Hershey, still to this day, 64 years after his death, the answer to many prayers.

We just spent the night in his namesake town and I came home again refreshed with the inspiration that once there was a CEO to be revered not reviled.

Hershey built an unconventional empire through sound practices that are taught in business schools throughout the land. But what he really represents is a humanitarian inspiration that, it seems to me, has for too long been ignored in those same schools.

Hershey, you see, is a great destination for families who want to enjoy the 102-year-old Hersheypark, spiffy new waterpark attractions, the zoo, the museums and the art centers.

But Hershey is, in essence, very similar to grubby little coal patch ghost towns scattered throughout Appalachia in that it is at its heart a company town. But what a company. What a town.

As author Michael D’Antonio notes in his 2006 biography of Hershey, he poured profits from the company straight back into the town he built on 40,000 acres from scratch in 1903. He built championship golf courses, a posh theater, a shining department store at the corner of Cocoa and Chocolate Avenues, utilities, sumptuous gardens, a trolley system, a hospital, all first class.

“It all worked,” D’Antonio writes, “because Hershey had created a remarkably strong local economy. The basis for this strength, and the key difference between this place and other company towns was home ownership. Instead of renting to his workers, Hershey arranged for them to purchase houses and become investors in their community. Homeowners were more certain to maintain their properties and far more likely to stay put in their jobs and their towns.”

They gave him Kisses (about 1,300 per minute). He gave them everything else. He built a town that would nurture, not only great sweets, but great people.

It’s a fascinating story for reasons that go beyond staggering philanthropy. He and his beloved wife, Catherine, had booked passage on the Titanic in 1912, but business kept them from boarding the ill-fated voyage.

There are many reasons for us to be grateful for that historical footnote. In 1918, Hershey -- he and Catherine were unable to have children of their own -- secretly endowed the Hershey Industrial School (renamed in 1951 the Milton Hershey School) with the entire fortune of his company stock. The school will celebrate its 100th birthday this August. It has provided education and direction for tens of thousands of underprivileged children.

While other capitalists pulled back and conserved during the Great Depression, Hershey sensed duty and opportunity. He created 600 jobs to in 1933 build the fabulous Hotel Hershey, still one of the finest grand hotels in America. The hotel just completed a grand expansion that added 10 luxury cottages, the new Harvest Restaurant and a recreation/pool center that includes an all-season outdoor skating rink. During these bleak times, the $67 million project coincidentally created, yep, 600 jobs.

Hershey died at the age of 88 in 1945 at his namesake hospital and is buried next to his beloved Catherine (she died in 1915 at the age of 43) in the Hershey Cemetery. He died, in effect, penniless, having transferred the entirety of his $60 million wealth to the Hershey School. The school is today endowed at $6 billion.

The school’s endowment’s perpetuity is ensured by Hershey’s insistence, years earlier, that pennies from every single Hershey bar be directed to help keep the school and its mission thriving.

So next time you think about praying for yourself, your neighbors or the needs of this ailing country, try not to pray for base monetary solutions.

We could all use another Hershey or two these days.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A little ditty 'bout Dylan & Mellencamp


I went to see Bob Dylan last night and left a fan of John Mellencamp. The two, along with Willie Nelson and the Wiyos played to a sold-out crowd at a minor league ball park in Washington, Pennsylvania.

It’s a night I’ll long remember because Valerie and I got to bask in the genius of three legends (well, maybe two true legends) and because I got to confront a face of pure evil.

First, the show.

I predicted my wife would enjoy Mellencamp the most, Nelson second and Dylan the least. I’d never seen Mellencamp or Nelson. It was the 23rd time I’d see Dylan.

I wish my football pool predictions could be as bullseye. It happened just the way I said it would.

But Mellencamp, to me, was a revelation. I’m familiar with all his catchy hits, have about three of his albums and am aware of his shrill, lefty political rants, all of which I whole-heartedly endorse.

I’ve always considered him a credible and authentic artist if for no other reason he finds a way to work accordions and fiddles into great rock.

He opened with “Little Pink Houses,” a song we’ve all heard about 1,000 times. But he and his outstanding band played it with a ballsy blues riff. The thumping bass sent shivers up my bowels, a sensation that might sound unpleasant but is actually quite agreeable.

In fact, if I could somehow spend a part of each day with the bowel shivers, I’d probably do it. But it would likely lead to complaints from the neighbors and the need for me to stock things like adult diapers so I’ll have to find other ways to get my jollies.

Mellencamp and the band played with an adolescent exuberance that was a joy to behold.

The sound was perfect, a condition that only heightened my eagerness to see Dylan. I want my wife and the world, really, to share my appreciation for Dylan.

But Dylan keeps getting in the way.

She enjoys his studio work and like me, absolutely loves his beguiling “Theme Time Radio Hour” on XM Sirius radio.

But every time I drag her to see him live, I can see that she just doesn’t get it. I’m sure my face has the same confused look every time our 8-year-old insists I watch part of iCarly because, really, it’s just so darned funny.

I thought he was great and the band that played most of the songs in a swing tempo kicked ass. But a casual fan has a right to expect one of the world’s greatest songwriters to play some of the world’s greatest songs in a form that is recognizable.

Dylan’s defiant about this and would never, as Val suggested, let someone like, say, David Archuletta, perform the vocals.

I believe it’s a privilege to be within 50 miles of him, but my wife said she’ll never stand to see him again.

So next time I’ll see him by myself. That’ll be a pity because then there will be no one to brag to the next time I win a face off against someone so malignant that he leaves nothing but human misery in his awful wake.

It was Bob Nutting, lowly owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Thanks to cheapskate Nutting, the once-proud Pirates are on track for their 17th consecutive losing season, a record in professional sports.

I recognized him as he walked in through the turnstiles. My blazing contempt was instantaneous.

“Bob,” I said, “what the hell are you doing?”

“I’m doing great,” he said smiling, offering his hand. “How are you?”

I let the hand of this rich and powerful man just hang there, a huge insult, especially coming from a rich-man’s reflexive suck up like me.

“I didn’t ask how the hell you’re doing,” I said. “I asked what the hell are you doing. You keep trading away all our best players.”

He was taken aback and went on the defensive.

“Now, we got some good young prospects for those guys . . .”

“You’ve been saying that for 10 years. As soon as a ballplayer gets good, you trade him away for less expensive prospects. We’re sick of it.”

He’d greeted me expecting friendly banter and was surprised by vitriol. The Pirates weren’t winning but I was. He began to retreat.

“Well, I’m glad you at least still care,” he said. “We’re confident . . .”

“I stopped caring when you traded Nate McLouth.”

With that, he turned and fled. I hope I ruined his night. I hope he spent the night thinking, “You know, maybe that slob in the beer line is right. Maybe I should start signing guys to long term contracts and build up a core so fans will enjoy the game. Maybe . . .”

Me, I spent the rest of the night reveling in my little victory. But whenever Dylan became unintelligible, I found myself thinking of a hundred other witty points I should have made. I wondered if I could have been more clear, more articulate.

Oh, well. It was Dylan show, a night when even barely intelligible mumblings draw cheers.

Set lists: Bob Dylan

Watching the River Flow
It Ain't Me, Babe
The Levee's Gonna Break
Po' Boy
Rollin' and Tumblin'
Forgetful Heart
It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)
If You Ever Go to Houston
Highway 61 Revisited
Nettie Moore
Summer Days
Encore:
Like a Rolling Stone
Jolene
All Along the Watchtower

John Mellencamp:

Pink Houses
Paper in Fire
Deep Blue Heart
Check it Out
Don't Need This Body
Take Some Time to Dream
Small Town
Rain on the Scarecrow
Troubled Land
If I Die Sudden
Crumblin' Down
The Authority Song

Pittsburgh Pirates at the All-Star break, 38 wins, 50 losses

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I have no black friends


We just spent three days in Washington, D.C., a city I enjoy visiting because of all the big white monuments and regular sized black people.

There’s precious little of either of them here in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. You have to go to the fancy graveyard to see big white monuments and Pittsburgh to see black people.

There’s a poverty of racial diversity where I live and I believe I’m the poorer for it. The only black perspectives I get are the ones filtered by the mostly white executives at places like CNN.

We here in central Westmoreland County are almost uniformly white. Sure, some friendly Hispanics run our tasty Mexican restaurants. Some Asians immigrated here to satisfy our need for dishes like General Tso’s chicken.

But I need to road trip if I ever want to say howdy to an African-American.

I know it’ll doom my Supreme Court prospects, but I always take affirmative action any time I meet black people.

For years, I’ve felt it fell to me to be the white ambassador to the entire African-American race. I’m nicer to black people than I am to white people, and that includes, as I’m sure they’ll angrily attest, my pale-faced loved ones.

I make friendly eye contact. I extend small courtesies. I hope, in my own small way, I can help change any lingering perceptions that we are hopelessly divided by petty reasons of race.

This, of course, is utter foolishness. Any person, black or white, would have to be an idiot to say, “Gee, that white stranger who just introduced himself as Chris and held the door for me seemed like a nice dude. I think I’ll overlook the past 350 years of brutal suppression, slavery and overt racism perpetrated by his fellow Caucasians and go home and download some Barry Manilow tunes!”

Still, it’s the best I can do. I believe other people feel like I do and it’s making a difference.

That’s why I enjoy going to places like Washington and New York. It reminds me that, despite ample evidence of existing racism, things might be improving, even if they don’t seem to be where I live.

I know many of my neighbors would be suspicious if a black family moved in next to them. Not me. I would eagerly cultivate their friendship with an ardor that would have them fending off frequent invitations to dinner, back porch drinks and offers to have me mow their lawn and weed their garden.

Back when I lived in Nashville I could honestly say some of my best friends were black. Now, 20 years later, I can honestly say some of my best friends are rednecks.

They’re appalling racists. But, as I’ve said before, if I were to confine my friendships and conversation to exclusively enlightened people, it would be a very lonely existence and I’d have to stop talking to even myself.

Given all this, of course, I was thrilled by the election of Barack Obama, who I, by lack of any neighborhood alternatives, consider to be my best African-American friend, albeit in a distant FaceBook sort of way.

The others are named Mike Tomlin, Santonio Holmes, DeShea Townsend, James Harrison and Casey Hampton.

Of course, many of even my redneck friends like those guys, too, but only because they are Super Bowl champion heroes of the great Pittsburgh Steelers. Sure, they’re black, but, man, they’re also Black ‘n’ Gold!

If they were just guys from down the street, they’d be suspicious of them based solely on the color of their skin. That’s wrong and I hope one day that kind of ignorance is vanquished.

If it is, it’ll be in small part because of guys like me, the best friend the African-American race has ever had.

It's just too bad not a single one of them has the slightest inkling of the fact.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Musical dictatorship rules the road


Of all the virulently infectious songs by Abba that grate on me, “Lay All Your Love On Me” is the gratest. Once it gets in my ears, nothing short of a full frontal lobotomy will dislodge it.

There’s so much bad music roaming free in the world that it’s hard not to go through life in a defensive crouch. You hear it in the grocery stores, in the banks, on commercials. It’s nearly impossible to escape.

And now it’s even worming its way into a place that used to be my supreme musical sanctuary, my car.

I’ve never been a car guy, per se. The only things I’ve ever known about motor vehicles is how to drive them and how to wash them -- and I don’t wash ‘em.

To me, the car is simply a costly contraption poorly designed to transport me and a really cool sound system around the countryside. Either alone or with my tunefully tasteful wife, nothing beat a long drive with my iPod, its 7,746 song library and miles of highway out in front.

That all began to change with children. Now, tomorrow we’re taking our daughters to Washington, D.C. (with an overnighter in Hershey) where the great totems of the nation will confuse our oldest daughter into thinking she lives democratically free.

Unfortuntately for her and her sister, the drive down and back will be for them a musical gulag and I will be the kommandant.

In fact, I’ll wager the two will learn more about political science from a 4-hour ride in my car than they ever will at places like the National Archives.

See the 8-year-old, Josie, harbors a quaint notion that our music selections should be purely democratic. She believes each of us should pick four songs from tiny jukebox and pass it on.

But that would lead to anarchy. I’d pick four outstanding and tasteful songs from, say, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Robert Earl Keen or Van Morrison.

Then my wife would pick four dandy ditties from guys like Todd Snider, Joe Ely, The Dixie Chicks and Delbert McClinton.

Then it would be Josie’s turn. She’d pick four from Mamma Mia (maybe one or two from, gadzooks, High School Musical) and tension would ensue.

The baby would shout out things like, “Free Fallin’!” “Hey Jude” and “Mamma Mia!” As you can judge by her wide-ranging choices, her soft young mind’s already being influenced by others. Politically, she’s like a Rush Limbaugh dittohead who so far is incapable of conjuring independent thought.

I might try and show diversity by offering a four-song set from Queen, Elton John, Robert Cray and Suzanne Vega. And she’d pick four more from the four pale Swedes.

I might try and show her how sham democracy can be used to repress rather than liberate. I could make my four selections, “East Broadway Run Down” by Sonny Rollins; “Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Creedence; “Telegraph Road” by Dire Straights; and “Highlands” by Bob Dylan. The four songs clock in at a total of 62 minutes and 16 seconds, a musical total nearly 30 minutes in excess of the 10 saccharine tunes that compose the entire vapid soundtrack for “High School Musical II."

Instead, I think I’ll just give her a lesson on the exalted benefits of living under a benign dictatorship. I alone will select all the songs.

So the girls will get the opportunity to bask in the music of the varied greats like Elvis, Ray Charles, Alan Jackson, Lucinda Williams, The Stones, the Traveling Wilburys and others from what I, the Supreme Ruler, believe constitutes the greatest collection of music assembled in one iPod.

If I were to let an 8-year-old decide what the rest of us are to be subject to then we’d be at the mercy of what is fleetingly popular, but inevitably unhealthy to the overall good.

That kind of thing could lead to us all marching to the tune of instant icons like Sarah Palin or Miley Cyrus.

And I can’t tell which would be worse.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Thirsting for bar conversation


Do you know that forlorn feeling that comes along when one good friend goes away? Now imagine what it’s like when two dozen of them vamoose all at once.

That’s what it’s like the week after July 4 here in Latrobe when The Pond for one week goes dry.

Understand, The Pond going dry has nothing to do with the consequences of global warming. In fact, the impact centers more on individual thirsting.

The Pond is a friendly local tavern that’s miles from the nearest discernible body of standing water. I’ve probably been told a dozen or so times about why a landlocked bar is called The Pond, but the story isn’t nearly as interesting as what goes on in the bar beneath where I work.

I moved my office into a vacant apartment above The Pond in 2007 when trying to concentrate in close proximity to two precocious girls at home proved impossible for a guy like me.

So now I try and concentrate in close proximity to about twenty mostly paunchy and mostly male beer guzzlers.

I still can’t concentrate and that’s a pretty disparate sampling.

I must just be a social person. It’s bad for constructive productivity, but it’s good for having fun.

The office overlooks the rear parking lot where I park my vehicle. On days when the girls come over for lunch, we often scramble to the window whenever we hear a car rattle the gravel.

Tucked safely out of view, we wait until the driver closes the door and deploys his or her -- click! click! -- remote door lock. That’s when I press the button for my car alarm.

This sometimes confuses the driver into thinking he or she has mistakenly hit the wrong button. In a panicky effort to silence my alarm, they’ll sometimes press their own setting off a startling cacophony that helps screen our concealed cackles from behind the drapes.

Of course, the best part about working just above a friendly a bar is that it’s just so handy in case of emergency.

I’ve re-defined “emergency” to include real or perceived writer’s block, the need for inspiration, the sight of more than three cars belonging to my buddies parked outside at the same time, the onset of Happy Hour, the hunger for a tasty pizza, and the understanding that if I don’t get down there for lunch at precisely 11:47 a.m., then I’ll be too late to make a hypothetical bid on the Showcase Showdown.

Mostly my emergencies stem from the lack of giggles that come from working all by yourself.

The Pond is the perfect antidote for that. It has a great mix of characters. There are lawyers, farmers, mill workers, newspaper men, electricians, engineers, teachers and a happy assortment of common small town drunks. There’s chalkboard trivia, good food and friendly bartenders.

From years of old school boozy experience, I understand it takes a special sort of alchemy to mix it all together and make it all work so everyone feels welcome.

This bar has been run for three generations of the Carfang family. Dave runs the place now. Here’s a joke he told me the other day.

Mahatma Gandi’s feet became very tough from walking around without shoes.

His vegetarian diet left him with a very dainty sort of constitution.

He was a philosophical seer of future events.

He ignored common dental practices and that gave his breath an offensive air.

He was (say it fast) a super-calloused, fragile mystic, hexed by halitosis.

How many taverns feature that kind of humor? And how will I cope without that sort of thing for the next week or so?

I know what I’m going to do. I’m taking the family and we’re leaving town. We’re heading on a trip to Washington, D.C., to see the sights.

I want to be clear on this: I didn’t plan a family trip just because I wouldn’t have the company of my good bar buddies until July 13. This is purely a coincidence.

It won’t be deliberate until next year.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Cars need energy-saving sleep modes


I was sitting motionless in traffic for so long I began wondering if I could sneak in a refreshing nap. Studies show that a few quick winks can do wonders for increasing our productivity and longevity.

Yet, as I sat there and thought of ways to momentarily shut down for my own benefit, the tank in which I was being cushioned in air-conditioned splendor soldiered on and on, bless its mechanical heart.

The engine of my 2007 Saturn Vue was operating with nearly the same crisp efficiency as if it were powering the vehicle to 65 mph.

Our society is bedeviled by unnecessary motion. We fidget. We’re always on the go. We’re rarely idle.

But our running vehicles often are. It’s an hour drive from my home in Latrobe to downtown Pittsburgh where we go once a week for grannies and giggles. During that time, my trusty Saturn can be completely motionless for up to 25 minutes.

It’s like watching TV in the pre-DVR days when we were all held hostage to all those awful Geico commercials.

I let my mind graze on magazines, books, or newspapers I keep handy for long red lights and the portions of the trip when congestion brings all traffic to a complete halt. But for nearly half the trip, my car continues to consume fossil fuels and pollute the atmosphere when its sole duty is to keep me sheltered from storms or sun and play the groovy tunes that keep my soul sweet.

And I’m not alone. To my left and to my right, from the front to the back for as far as the eye can see are other cars are doing the same nasty and unnecessary business. It’s like being in a mall parking lot at Christmas where all the cars are left running while everyone goes inside and shops.

Why can’t our cars have a sleep mode? Imagine how many fewer barrels of oil we’d need to import if smart cars could power down when the owner instinctively recognized advancing was momentarily futile.

Detroit engineers who right now are feverishly working to find ways to make cars more efficient when they go from zero to 60 need to consider ways to make them vastly more efficient when they aren’t going anywhere.

Concerned motorists everywhere should band together to insist that smart changes are applied to every new car.

It’s a movement I’d lead myself, but I can’t generate that kind of energy.

I never did get that nap.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Rise of the Over-Educated Goody-Goodies


I was around a good campfire with some good friends recently listening to them talk about their good kids and all the good universities they were striving to attend.

It was a really good time.

Goodness, gracious, it’s going to be awfully difficult for future Nobel Prize committees to select from so many worthy candidates that are bound to emerge from today’s demanding universities.

And I’m not kidding. I was blown away to learn what today’s college applicants need to do to get into a public university.

I’ve been a titular adult, albeit one who still snickers when typing the word titular, for more than 25 years and I’m certain I’d be unable to muster the credentials to attend probably even a mid-level public university these days.

This is rich with irony because I, in fact, teach at a local university. It’s true. Every other year or so, the esteemed administrators at Point Park University deem me sufficiently experienced to teach their outstanding journalism students creative non-fiction.

So I’m paid to educate students at a fine school that wouldn’t admit me if I tried to enroll there as a paying student.

I was told students need at least a 3.0 to even get considered for places like Penn State University, and even at my alma mater, Ohio University (popular T-shirt: “OU, A Fountain of Knowledge Where I Go To Drink”). I’m still buddies with groups of three guys who couldn’t total 3.0 if you threw them all together in one big sack.

That’s not all. Admission offices are rigorous in checking if students have done a certain amount of altruistic community service.

I’ve known many people who’ve done hours and hours of community service, but it was always court-ordered and required to satisfy a basic element of parole.

All this puts what seems to me an unhealthy amount of pressure on today’s high school students. Parents need to relentlessly snipe at their teens to excel academically and be on-duty Eagle Scouts to boot. The margin for error is so microscopic that none of them had better not dare risk failing a drug test or waste an hour or two watching reruns of “The Simpsons.”

I don’t think it’s good for our youth to be that good.

I worry we’re raising a generation of that will devote more time to kindling unreachable ambitions than to the joyful activities that give life its zest.

And someday, inevitably, it’s going to blow up on them. We’ll wind up with a whole world of guys like this week’s exhibit A: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

Before he got caught with his own smarty pants down, he was a notorious Christian conservative scold on Bill Clinton’s follies. As a high school student, it’s a given he excelled academically, was active in his church and did the kind of exemplary volunteerism that had all the top schools competing for him to grace their august classrooms.

Live a life like his and you’re bound to run into episodes of hypocritical comeuppance that can only be described with a kharmic sort of oomph:

Good grief.