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Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Happy Sprawlidays survival guide



For the past five nights, I’ve had a recurring nightmare that every trick or treater coming to my house was either dressed as Kate Gosselin or was actually Kate Gosselin herself.

She moves in with me. She brings her eight kids. Jon starts showing up to go through my drawers looking for money he can claim is his.

Worst of all, instead of having to ride herd over just two children through the week-long Mardi Gras of tooth decay that is what Halloween has become, I now have her brood and they’re asking if I’m going to be their new daddy.

I wake up in cold sweat.

I wonder if tonight any of the Gosselin children will dress up as the Gosselin parents. And I wonder if Gosselin neighbors had the puckish audacity to trick or treat at the Gosselin home dressed as the Gosselins themselves.

I’d do it myself but I’ve been consumed with trying to keep pace with just the latest example of what I’ve been calling the Sprawlidays.

Halloween used to be just one night. Now it consumes a full week even for those of us who are resistant to its pressures.

It’s everywhere. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing some juvenile talk show host or news caster dressed up to salute yet another holiday we’re determined to wrench from the kids.

It’s oppressive. We’ve already had about six kiddie costume functions in the community, at school and at church (the last has me for the first time wishing I belonged to one of those uptight fundamentalist sects that disdains the celebration because it prudishly considers it “too pagan”).

I’m sure I’d be a whole lot less curmudgeonly about Halloween and the other hollerdays if we could condense the crap out of them.

That’s not going to happen.

But because I don’t want my daughters to know I’m a mean, hate-filled misanthrope until they start dating boys, I’m going to try and focus on the positive. Here’s a short list key dates that’ll help me get through this annual unwelcome spread of enforced good cheer when mostly everyday I’ll feel like telling the good-will-toward-men crowd to just buzz the hell off.

• Nov. 1 -- Happy April Fool’s Day in November! I invented this holiday and I’m already looking forward to the malicious fun I can spread on Sunday. If we can have Christmas in July -- we do and it’s superior -- there’s nothing that say we can’t have April Fool’s Day in November. Enjoy!

• Nov. 25 -- It’s the night before Thanksgiving and that can only mean one thing: “3rd Rock From The Sun’s” Thanksgiving episode. I have the DVD for every episode of this hilarious show. Every night before Thanksgiving we watch the episode about how the aliens learn about Thanksgiving. It’s pure genius.

• Nov. 26. -- This day starts with the traditional playing of Ray Davies’s 2006 song, “Thanksgiving Day.” It tries hard to be cynical, but gives in to the sentiment of the one holiday that doesn’t have something infuriating about it (if you can avoid all the in-laws).

• Dec. 9 -- It’s Val’s birthday. Yes, it’s inconvenient for me having it smack dab in the middle of the sprawlidays -- and I suspect her parents planned it that way to add diabolical havoc to my already frantic calendar. But we always enjoy a nice meal out and it’s fun to give her the special treatment of which she is so deserving. Plus she usually goes to spend one day with her dad and takes the kids, an event I’m excused from attending that was addressed in numerous negotiated peace treaties.

• Dec. 18 -- I turn off the computer for the week and turn my office above the bar into a community wrapping station. Anyone can come in and we can wrap gifts together, drink beer and swap complaints about the holidays. This is the third year I’ll give my friends this option. If this year just one of them accepts my hospitality, he’ll be the first.

• Dec. 19 -- My Mom’s birthday. See what I have to go through? But she, too, is deserving of special treatment. Happily, her idea of a special day is us dumping the kids on her while we go out to dinner and movie. A Christmas miracle.

• Jan. 2. -- The day when we can all look forward to a string of pressure-free holidays like President’s Day and Groundhog Day. My friend/bartender/office landlord Dave and I invented this one. We celebrate it by not acknowledging it even exists.

Until then, I’m going to scrape by each day relishing the daily barrage of news involving Jon & Kate. God help me, I still can’t get enough of it. I read every word.

Now, that’s scary.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bad men wear beards


I’ve discovered a second male puberty and I’m smack dab in the middle of it.

The first male puberty happens when boys are teenagers. They become awkward about their appearance and begin to grow funny hairs in places that surprise them.

The second male puberty happens when men like me, aged 46, become awkward about our appearance and begin to grow funny hairs in places that surprise us.

I’m not complaining. I had a good run. I gave ‘em all hell between my two puberties. Now I’m eager to just get on with it.

Parts of my still lingering hairs are gray and parts are the brown of my youth. Mix ‘em up and I guess my hair is a color you could call bark.

I’d like to see the question settled.

See, I’ve always striven to be defiantly uncaring about my appearance, but my raging vanity keeps getting in the way.

This happened when, as is my custom, I changed my blog/Facebook picture the same day I changed the oil in my car.

As I’ve explained, this makes perfect sense. By tying the picture change to regular car maintenance -- every 5,000 miles -- it keeps my mug current and reduces the glamor shot stress we all endure selecting a picture once every two years or so.

This oil change occurred when I was ramping up for a winter beard. I had a beard last winter in preparation for my driver’s license picture, a bit of quadrennial performance art I indulge in to try and make myself appear more challenging to weary police officers who’ll be engaged in arresting me over the next four years.

I enjoyed last year’s beard because we’d had a harsh winter. Having a thick, unkempt beard was like walking around with a hoagie strapped to my face. It kept me warm in the wind.

So I thought I’d grow one again this year. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three weeks.

But the reaction to it in my new picture unsettled me. Facebook reviews were universally harsh. One guy pointed out that the the right is whiter than the left -- and he wasn’t making a political observation.

Alas, I’m concluding I’m just not a beard guy. Beard guys are mostly evil -- you know, like Santa Claus.

I was at a bowling alley yesterday -- and that right there is near the top of the list of sentences I thought I’d never write. But my wife had volunteered as the responsible adult needed to chaperone the kiddies at the local lanes.

But because she is a responsible adult, she has other responsible adult things to do. She needed a suitable replacement. When she couldn’t find one, she reluctantly turned to me.

Me going meant I’d miss Happy Hour talk about the great Steeler victory over the Brett Favre-led Minnesota Vikings. But I had my beginner’s beard going and that knocks about 75 IQ points off any man.

I tried but couldn’t think of an intelligent way to argue it was more important that I go to the bar and talk football than it was to keep a sprawl of 8-year-olds from dropping 15-pound spheres of multi-colored polyurethane on each other’s toes.

See, beard guys are stupid -- you know, like Abraham Lincoln.

I decided I wasn’t a beard guy when I looked around at the sampling of other fathers who showed up a full 90 minutes after I did to retrieve their offspring.

One by one, I stared at the mostly bearded faces. What I saw convinced me I’d never be a beard guy.

Because beard guys, at least the ones in my mostly redneck corner of the world -- and this may sound a bit critical -- are all slack-jawed morons.

They dress in camo, kill what they eat and believe President Obama’s a Muslim tourist.

And I'm just not that kind of guy.

I’m above all that. I’m an enlightened and thoughtful gent.

I’m not one of those ignorant hick beard guys that goes around wearing hate on their faces.

You know, like Jesus Christ.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Make me sick


I’m writing this in the big box book store where I plan on rushing up and putting a big sloppy kiss on the first stranger I see with nasty flu symptoms.

I’m going to swab their throat with my tongue and hope to inhale a virus that might lay me low for about seven good days.

I’m aching to be sick.

I don’t want N1H1, flesh-nibbling virus or, heaven forbid, anything venereal in nature.

I just want something that’ll force me to lay in bed for a week incapable of operating any machinery more complex than the remote. I want a Bubble Boy-like existence where my family, their faces worn with concern, bring me nothing but hot chicken soup and and the latest DVD requests and then scoot.

And I want my Mommy.

There is so much talk of disease and illness in the news today and it just makes me sick to know that none of it will probably wind up making me sick.

I never get sick and I think my good health is killing me.

Because of the silly way I earn my living, I never do what anyone would consider real work. No set hours. No real obligations.

The ironic trade-off is, because I never work, I’m never off.

My mind is always racing to think up a new book project -- one that might, gee, actually sell. So when other people are home hours after punching out, I’m sitting in my basement tapping out query letters or polishing manuscripts.

I don’t know what it’s like to enjoy uninterrupted down time.

Plus, I’m a father of two young girls and the husband of one slightly older one. The trio has a whole host of pesky expectations of me that keep me from ever getting any satisfying couch time (and I should have seen that coming when I got mixed up with that gang).

Getting good and sick would change that.

They say God never gives us more than we can handle. If that’s the case, then He must think me a sissy.

I never get sick. Well, I mean I never get infected.

I get sick, but it’s always on purpose.

I have a theory that every man, woman and child on earth is proportioned the same amount of pain and you can’t do anything to duck it.

So some people are cursed with weak immune systems. And let’s be clear: I’m talking about garden variety illnesses here; not the catastrophic injuries always befalling innocents.

That’s just blatantly unfair and if God ever grants a press conference, I’m going to pin Him down on that one. Why I’m so healthy while some young mothers are stricken with exotic diseases that orphan babies is a cruel abomination.

I’m talking here about people who catch every cold, every flu and miss weeks of work every year for dainty health reasons.

Those are the people I envy -- and certainly not because they have actual jobs, an occupational situation I’ve for 17 years avoided like the plague.

I never catch anything that would leave me blissfully bedridden. Still, I understand the need to get my portion of pain so I make sure at least every couple of months or so I over-imbibe.

I get good and ripped, thus insuring the near-death experience known as the hangover ruins my weekend.

That balances the books on my otherwise healthy existence. But the problem with a good hangover is it generates no sympathy from my wife. She believes being hungover is no excuse for laying in bed all day watching John Wayne movies when I feel totally incapable of doing simple household chores like brushing my teeth.

The hangovers are tough on me, sure, but if I didn’t have them then I’d probably have to achieve my pain portion by whacking my thumb with a hammer. And, say what you want about hangovers, but they’re at least fun when you’re out earning them with the boys.

So I’m looking to get good and sick.

Ah, I spy an approaching carrier! Runny nose, watery eyes, a faint sheen of Blistex on the full, pouty lips to appear presentable when any doctor would certainly order sensible bed rest.

Little do they know their respiratory system is about to be attacked by the scruffy looking guy stationed behind the laptop at table 15.

I admit I’m feeling a little sheepish about what I’m about to do. He looks like a nice guy.

I just hope he’s a good kisser.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Have a cow, man; just don't choose the sex


A recent report shows that any parent eager to pre-determine the sex of their offspring ought to pause and consider the cow.

Yes, in what is surely an indicator of what’s to come for mankind, dairy farmers have for the past three years been given the opportunity to select the sex of their cattle. They got to tinker with the divine selection ordained by God and Mother Nature that had previously set the balance at roughly 50-50.

Here’s basically how the new draft went: girl, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl, girl, boy, girl, girl . . .

Of course, dairy farmers interested in producing more milk would want to breed more milk producers. What they didn’t foresee was that the result would be, duh, too much milk.

Understand, they didn’t make their selection based on charity. Their calculation wasn’t designed to end starvation by making more nutritious milk. They don’t think like that.

No, they thought the way oil men think when they do their drilling. They thought profit. Nothing wrong with that.

But this time they thought wrong.

“It’s real simple,” said Hartford, California, farmer Tony De Groot, told The NY Times, “we’ve got too many cattle on hand and too many heifers on hand and the (milk) just keeps on coming and coming.”

Thus the retail price of milk is down 24 percent in one year.

I suppose to assist the always beleaguered farmer we could all start washing our vehicles with milk, but I’m satisfied I already do plenty for the farmer.

I eat three meals a day. Sometimes I even over-eat. Plus, I pay taxes that go to farmers who accept the money with the stipulation that they do something other than farm. I understand the basic economic function behind that maneuver, but I’ve never grasped people being paid not to make food in a world where so many other people really need food.

It would make much more cultural sense, for instance, if someone came along and paid me not to write. That I could understand. Really, on many days I look back at these musings and am surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

Maybe my indifference for the plight of the farmer stems from my early days as a young news reporter. Every summer, it was my job to write the annual unhappy farmer story.

If it had rained more than usual, I’d call my local farmer and he’d say: “Too much rain. Lousy summer for farmin’.”

The next year, I’d call back after a long stretch of sunshine and that very same farmer would say, “Not enough rain. Lousy summer for farmin’.”

I knew even then that challenging a farmer’s hallowed wisdom was like being mean to Cub Scouts. It just isn’t done.

But I had to restrain myself from asking why he didn’t think of becoming an accountant, a shoe salesman or engaging in some other pursuit involving room temperature indoor work far from bucolic pastures perfumed with manure.

So today the National Milk Producers Federation is paying farmers to send herds to slaughter. Since January the program has culled more than 230,000 cows nationwide.

That’s probably upsetting to the people in the beef industry who see their prices artificially depressed. It goes without saying how upsetting it must be to the doomed cows themselves.

Once again I’m morally chagrined that the occasional steak is toothsome enough to make me resist the vegetarian option.

That brings us to today when soon the same sex-selection techniques will be offered to ovulating moms-to-be.

To go into the unintended consequences here would be so monumental that it might inspire a movement to pay me to stop writing and I’m unprepared for that sort of government-imposed leisure (I remain, however, open to offers).

In short, if parents select boys over girls, it’ll be good for football, but bad for peace.

If it’s the reverse and girls dominate, it’s bound to to be bad for traffic and good for people who produce programming for the Lifetime Channel.

The lesson can be summed up in the tagline of an old commercial from the 1970s that promoted artificial Chiffon butter over the real thing:

It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.

And that’s no bull.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Announcing a Springsteen marathon


The most interesting musical act in the country right now is, once again, Bruce Springsteen. Unfortunately, the second most interesting act are those merry madcaps from the FreeCreditReport.com commercials.

They dress up in medieval garb, play pirates in seafood restaurants, rock it out on rollercoasters -- and do it all while based in the cellar of the plucky lead singer’s girlfriend’s house.

I just love those guys.

And I love Bruce. He’s in the midst of a record setting tour that’ll play to in excess of two million people. That’s a lot of discretionary spending in tough times.

I saw him in Pittsburgh last spring and wrote a blog that I hope The Almighty is a lot like The Boss.

The post caught the attention of some guys who were doing a book about the 30th anniversary of Springsteen’s release “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” They asked me to contribute a few paragraphs about what the album meant to me.

The result was included in the book, “The Light In Darkness,” available for $40. As with many cool things I’m asked to do, I didn’t get a dime for it and certainly didn’t mind. It took me about 10 minutes and, really, I didn’t have anything better to do.

Springsteen is, to me and many of my friends, an endlessly fascinating topic. Even when he stinks, and he frequently does, he’s still riveting.

And he’s still trying. He never mails it in. His songs mean something. So much of his music parallels our American journey.

On this tour, he’s begun playing some of his seminal albums in their entireties. He’s played “Born to Run,” “Darkness” and “Born in The U.S.A.” in various venues, including at the final shows where he and band mates closed Giants Stadium in advance of the wrecking ball (he wrote a song, “Wrecking Ball,” just for the occasion). The album sequences only account for about 1/3 of the three-hour shows so it’s not just an artistic indulgence for those who long to hear other favorites.

It generated much discussion among fans about the album we’d most like to hear.

As I wanted to make an informed decision, I decided I was going to play every Springsteen song in my iTunes library in the order in which they were released. That’s 317 songs over 23.4 hours.

It occurred to me that Springsteen might be the only artist worthy of such devoted listening.

I love the Stones, but there’s no real arc to their music. They began kicking ass in 1962 and are still kicking ass nearly 50 years later. Amazing. But to play their songs in order over a week or so would be like reading a book and already knowing how it ends. Not to demean my favorite band, but there’s no depth there. You know what you’re getting.

Van Morrison? He’s peerless, but he’s not telling me the story of my life or that of my country.

I’ve long argued that Tom Petty is the superior songwriter to Springsteen and I mean it. Petty’s released just one bad song (“A Wasted Life,” on 1982’s Long after Dark). Springsteen had one really bad decade. But Petty lacks Springsteen's topical gravitas.

You could do it with Dylan, but it would take too long and, as much as I love Dylan, I sense there would be long spans of tedium that might turn me off to Dylan for a long time. And I don’t want that to happen.

So I’m doing it with Bruce. In about a week or so -- consider yourself warned -- I’ll be coming back with a detailed critique of every Bruce album, all 30 of them, and what it was like to listen to them all in order over one week. All the exuberant highs and head-scratching lows.

I’m doing it because Bruce is in the middle of a remarkable tour that is appealing to the masses on a historic scale. I’m doing it because for nearly four decades, he’s been one of our most compelling artists, one who’s already left an indelible legacy of great, vital rock ‘n’ roll that will long endure.

I’m doing it because, really, I don’t have anything better to do.

And I doing it because I already did it with the gang from FreeCreditReport.com and found that to be about seven of the most enjoyable listening minutes I’ve ever spent.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A near perfect hatred in time for baseball playoffs


Baseball playoff season is the only time every year when I wish I was one of those foaming-at-the-mouth knuckle draggers who call sports talk shows to vent.

Fall baseball is so much more fun when you can manufacture some soulful hatred for the competitors.

But this year I just don’t have the hate. And without hatred, why would I care who wins or loses? On the surface, there is no team upon whom I wish the soul crushing misery of defeat.

First you have the defending world champion Philadelphia Phillies. They have a great, cagey manager in Charlie Manuel and I love the city. It is the birthplace of democracy, is home to some of the nation’s best restaurants and my all-time hero, Ben Franklin, is a heavenly Philly fan.

They’re playing the Los Angeles Dodgers. I have no strong affection for the city, but hating Los Angeles would be like hating The Wiggles. Sure they have Manny Ramirez, but my true hatred for him is offset by Joe Torre, one of the classiest men in sports.

The American League features the compelling Los Angeles Angels. They have a very appealing team of players led by Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero, plus they’re playing for the ghost of beloved pitcher Nick Adenhart who was killed by a drunk driver in April. That they’re so lunk-headed that they, irony be damned, doused his old jersey with beer and champagne in a recent celebration only makes them more loveable.

Then there is the New York Yankees. Like many sons, I was raised to hate the big money Yankees. My late father, a man consumed with hatred when it came to sports, used to say rooting for the Yankees would be like rooting for General Motors. Of course, he said that before we taxpayers became to General Motors what the Steinbrenner family are to the Yankees, so that aspect of the issue has become almost moot.

But these 2009 Yankees aren’t like the Yankees of old. They’re not even like the 2008 Yankees. They don’t have the nasty swagger of the discredited Roger Clemens-led teams of recent years and they have as their captain the great Derek Jeter, my favorite athlete who doesn’t wear Pittsburgh colors.

So can I find some creative hatred to help me have a rooting interest?

Of course, I can.

Now, pay attention: I am rooting for the New York Yankees to win the World Series because I hate scarecrow rocker Chris Robinson.

He’s the co-leader of the Rolling Stones tribute-band the Black Crowes. More importantly, he’s the ex-husband of actress Kate Hudson.

Those of you who aren’t baseball fans might wonder what Robinson and Hudson have to do with any of this.

Well, I’ve been hating Robinson and his band of fellow posers since they first arrived on the scene in 1989. They dressed in stoner paisley, wore ratty bell bottoms and looked like they’d stepped straight from a 1972 time machine.

Riff-for-riff, it was obvious they were ripping off vintage Stones in dress, sound and ‘tude. Mick Jagger was asked what he thought about it and said a very Mick-like, “Their look and sound reminds me of a time in my life of which I have no recollection.”

I could live with all that. Really, if you’re going to mimic any band you could do a lot worse than the Stones. Like, say, The Black Crowes, for instance.

But what really tore it with me was when I heard Artie Lange on Howard Stern talk about his exchange with the rocker.

Lange said he complimented Robinson on his new wife, Kate Hudson, about her beauty.

And let me make this clear: She’s beautiful to Lange, not me. I’d go out of my way to compliment the husbands of voluptuous lovelies like Kate Winslett or Elizabeth Banks.

But zipper thin anorexia is in these days so to each his own.

Here’s what Robinson told Lange: “Well, enjoy the view from the cheap seats, dude, ‘cause that’s as close as anyone like you is ever going to get to her.”

How rude. He treated her like a possession. And it was clear that, unlike me, the guitar player was no connoisseur of Hollywood marriage customs.

I knew then that the marriage was doomed. Predictably, it came to a crashing end in 2006.

Which brings us back to the New York Yankees of today. In what must have been a bitter insult to Robinson, Hudson began dating Yankee star Alex Rodriguez this spring.

Whether it is a coincidence or not, Rodriguez has been on a tear ever since and, besides hitting records, he is smashing perceptions that he’s a pouty choker. I’ve liked A-Rod since he was a phenom for the Seattle Mariners. He seemed like a good kid awash in brilliant baseball talent.

He’s admitted to dabbling in steroids -- yawn -- briefly dated Madonna -- yikes! -- but compared to Robinson, he seems like a good guy.

All told, Robinson is the first person in history to make me side with a jock over a burned out rocker. But the guy just seems like such a poser jerk. And it must just kill him that his ex-wife, in a stinging rebuke to everything he stands for, is madly in love with a guy who plays ball for a living.

So now I have someone to hate. It took a while. Had to jump through a few hoops, but I’m hoping the Yanks win because it’ll infuriate Robinson.

I will say this for Robinson.

At least he probably didn’t have to go through as many contortions as I did to find someone to hate in this year’s baseball playoffs.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

When a little girl's no longer gifted


As a kid, I was never considered a “gifted” student, one of those luminaries designated for lavish attention by individual teachers. I was instead shuffled between a series of increasingly indifferent educators.

I was a re-gifted student.

That was fine with me. More supervision would have prevented me from achieving all the disruptive hijinks that made those repressive years bearable to me and all the giggly dudes who went on to careers involving hauling trash and losing multiple digits in places like sawmills.

Worse, had I been considered gifted, I might have been led into some academic pursuits in which I might have excelled. Ambition would likely have ensued.

In even the best case scenario those eventualities might lead me to a much different life station.

I might have, gadzooks, a job.

But what’s good for me isn’t necessarily good for young impressionables.

That’s why I was so thrilled last year when your oldest daughter, Josie, 9, was tabbed for gifted status. This made sense to me.

I’m convinced women are genetically pre-disposed to greater intelligence than men and that the world would be better off if women ran the whole shebang. It would all work out perfectly, but for one fatal biological flaw: most women still fall in love with men, thus ensuring a mutual and irrevocable insanity.

I never bragged about it or got one of those obnoxious bumper stickers saying my 2nd grader’s gifted, but I felt a surge of pride knowing she was on the fast track.

And that’s why I was devastated when I learned this year she’d not made the cut.

The disappointment caught me by surprise. I raged for an answer.

Was she watching too much TV? Goofing off in class? Was her mother being neglectful in helping with her tedious homework while I spent the days golfing and the nights carousing?

(I didn’t mention that last one aloud. I may not be gifted, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid)

I worry that she’s inherited the lack of drive that I assume’s always holding me back (if true, that’s going to be the only thing she ever inherits from me).

She demurred earlier this year when I asked if she wanted to be involved in any extra-curricular activities. When I asked why not, she said brightly, “I’m happy coming home and just being Josie.”

Many students her age are being raised in ultra-competitive environments. It’s not like that here where we live.

We live in a mostly rural county where at least 1/3 of the entire student body is on a first name basis with at least one cow. Now would be a great time to for her to fatten up her scholastic confidence and construct a nice sassy GPA to brandish at all those Ivy League school admission boards.

See, I may be free of crass ambitions for myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t harbor them for our daughters. As it doesn’t look likely I’ll be succeeding on any level, I believe it is essential that the girls do.

I need the pair to grind away their nights at their homework. I need them to volunteer for extra assignments. I need them to set lofty occupational goals early and show relentless drive to reach them years before their classmates.

After all, it wouldn’t do for them to wind up like their old man. What kind of father would want his daughters to wake up every morning with an idiot’s lame-brained contentment with such a simple little life?

If they wind up like that, I guarantee they won’t be gifted.

Nope.

End up like that and they’ll be blessed.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A sober pondering about exclamation !!!s


The exclamation point, punctuation’s whoopee cushion, is putting on a tuxedo! It’s appearing in all the classiest places!

And I don’t think I like it one bit!!!

The exclamation point and I have never been really what you’d call chums. I try and inject humor into everything I write. Hell, I try and inject humor into everything I do.

That’s why even life’s most mundane routines, things like attending church and having sex, are more fun with me!

See, there you go. I offered a lame little joke that might be mildly amusing without the -- “Wink! Wink! Nudge! Nudge!” -- of the exclamation point. Instead, an otherwise harmless line becomes as tedious as being stuck in the middle seat next to the obnoxious joker who caps every punchline with a giggly, “Get it! Get it!”

But in another cultural battle I sense I’m bound to lose, I see more and more exclamation points scattered like indelicate little erections throughout the future of my carefully crafted sentences.

Blame Serena Williams.

See, while serious writers like me were shackled to our desks listening to tyrannical English teachers rhapsodize about things like semi-colons, she was off learning the tennis stroke that would earn fame and multiple millions of dollars.

The poor thing.

She never learned that the exclamation point was the -- pick one: Henny Youngman, Pauly Shore, Russell Brand -- of punctuation. It had no place in serious writing. It was promiscuous. It was gaudy. It lacked requisite subtlety.

And, ironically, it wasn’t funny! It wasn’t funny with one exclamation point! And it certainly wasn’t funny with three!!!

That’s why after her profanity (and exclamation point) laced tirade at the U.S. Open, she felt compelled to Tweet her remorse.

Here’s how she began her apology: “Hey guys!!!”

That’s how to punctuate a party invitation, not an apology. Like other celebrity tweeters, she relies on the exclamation point to convey emotions which she is incapable of otherwise expressing.

Of course, serious journalists like those anal retentive sorts at the New York Times are by rigid custom forbidden from doctoring those sorts of sentiments. Same goes for other high profile news organizations. They repeat the tweets word for word, exclamation point for exclamation point.

I’ve been reading The Times for 25 years and I don’t remember ever seeing a single exclamation point in a news column, but -- Shazam!!! -- there were three of giddy goodies romping across the sports section like a Radio City Rockette chorus line.

My first thought was there had to be an morning long meeting about how to deal with the wanton exclamation points, and that at least three copy editors felt honor bound to commit ritualistic hari-kari when the points sashayed into print.

It’s funny, too, that I’m so opposed to exclamation points in print when I’m practically a walking exclamation point.

It’s true.

I never say, “Hey, let’s all skip church today.”

I always say, “Hey, let’s all skip church today!”

It’s never with a sober sense of mournful obligation that I say to the boys, “There’s a big game on tonight. Let’s use that as an excuse to meet at the bar and get drunk.”

Not at all. I say it like this: “There’s a big game on tonight! Let’s use that as an excuse to meet at the bar and get drunk!”

If you’ve ever seen me say that, and I’ll say it three times this week, there’s a storm of confetti flying around my head and the John Philip Sousa march “76 Trombones!” is soundtracking the pronouncement.

But as tweets become more and more common, we’re bound to see more and more exclamation points in print as people point out the level of euphoria they’re feeling that a: they are done with the laundry! b: That the minestrone was delicious!! Or that -- hallelujah -- c: “Dancing w/ Stars” is on in 30 minutes!!!

And the progression just noted is accurate. One exclamation point denotes joy! Two means elation!! Three means pure spiritual rapture!!!

It’s the grammatical equivalent of the discredited Cold War nuclear strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). We’re on track to deploy so many multiple exclamation points that it will soon be impossible to register even poignant emotion in print without putting punctuation’s party hat on every sentence.

And that makes me sad.

Really, really sad!!!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Forever in blue jeans


I knew I’d taken another leap toward insanity when I stared into the dresser drawer, the one dedicated to denim, saw six pairs of nearly identical blue jeans and thought: “Hmmm, maybe it's time to spring for another pair of blue jeans.”

And it’s true. I do need another pair.

I have my church blue jeans, my casual dress up blue jeans, my outdoor work blue jeans, and my trusty bar blue jeans (three pair).

It’s another reminder of the ways I don’t measure up to the old man.

Daddy never wore blue jeans.

He was an optician, a profession that doesn’t exactly stack up with lumberjacks and oil derrick leathernecks on the hombre scale.

But the man had style. He was always careful about his appearance and paid attention to how he looked. No matter the task, he always managed to wear spiffy clothing -- or at least half of him did. I’ll never forget the times I’d see him, shirtless, hunkering down in the garden out back, a posture that inevitably led to him unintentionally mooning the neighbors as he labored over the sprawl of zucchini.

I never got to ask him, he died in 2004, why he didn’t own jeans. But I suspect I know the answer: He thought they made him look poor.

I believe men from his august generation, the ones like my Dad who grew up poor, spent their lives trying to ensure they never looked it.

Sadly, my generation does the opposite.

I know many fine and dandy attorneys and bankers who dress as if they were as financially inconsequential as, well, underemployed freelance writers.

They never touch a lawn mower or a chain saw, yet they forever dress during their social time as if they were about to go dig a ditch.

Me, I enjoy outdoor work, but it’s ridiculous to own six pairs of blue jeans when all most of them do is protect my butt from an angry spring on poorly upholstered stool 7 down at the neighborhood tavern.

It’s an undeniable pity that as us men have gotten softer, our clothes have gotten tougher.

The toughest Americans ever, the continent conquerors who labored under Lewis & Clark, robed themselves, not in rugged blue jeans and steel-toed boots, but in animal skin and mocassins. They didn’t practice yoga, engage in team building exercises or require therapeutic counseling when a supply raft dashed against the rocks and sank all their jerky.

But just listen to the bitching in any airport from men in designer jeans who become incensed that United Airlines is charging them an extra $50 to tote their golf sticks cross country to Palm Springs for five days of desert recreation.

And, here’s a secret: Blue jeans, even the posh ones, aren’t all the comfortable. They’re stiff. There’s no give. They bind in places no real man likes to be bound.

It’s a true triumph of marketing that Americans spend about $14 billion on blue jeans each year. If the pants are so durable, how come every year we keep needing to purchase more and more of them?

I suppose we have James Dean to blame for all this. It was him in the 1955 movie “Rebel Without a Cause” that started the transformation that led jeans from jeans being a perfectly utilitarian article of clothing to items of gaudy fashion that retail for hundreds of dollars.

There should be some sort of study about how the rise of the blue jean has coincided with the decline of the men who wear them.

I’d do it myself, but I need to rush out to the department store and buy a fourth pair of bar jeans before lunch.

The baseball playoffs start today and that means plenty of bar time. I don’t want risk having to set my soft ass down on stool 7 without the manly protection of a really tough garment that’s up to the task.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In praise of single parents


The task of folding female underwear always reminds of that incomprehensible game of 3-D chess Spock played on the rec deck of the star ship Enterprise.

I stare at it from different angles. I puzzle over it. I contemplate my next move.

Eventually I just sort of surrender, ball it up and toss it down into the hamper.

My wife went away for a four-day trip with friends to Bald Head Island, N.C. She’d never been away from me and the girls for that long and she needed a break.

To be fair, she should go away for about eight months to compensate for all her hard work, but then I’d surely expire from the duty and she’d have marginally more work to do upon her return.

I have no idea how single parents do it. I just did it for four slim days and it nearly killed me.

The disruption to my soft little routine was brutal. If she’s the jet engine that runs our home, then I’m the drink cart. I provide momentary refreshment to the journey while she sees that we all get where we’re going safely and on time.

My little life is very satisfying in that way. I love tickle time with the girls and I love alone time spent at my shabby little office above the corner tavern where I meet my friends for frequent inebriation.

Her being away causes the entire house of cards to collapse. I spent nearly every waking second with our daughters, Josie, 9, and Lucinda, 3.

It’s impossible to calculate the joy those little darlings give me. But being a single dad for four days -- oh, woe is me! -- throws the balance of life in a dreadful lurch.

It’s one of life’s cruelties that many of the situations that could most benefit from alcoholic diversion require at least a modicum of sobriety.

I’m talking about things like church, employment and parenting.

Val being away from her family for four days was one record. Me being away from the bar for that long was another.

I kept thinking I’d have time to sit and watch a ball game and drink a big glass of bourbon, but the girls didn’t cooperate.

They’d cry themselves to sleep because mommy wasn’t there to tuck them in.

The wailing went on for so long and was so godforsaken that I thought of making them both guzzle big glasses of bourbon, a parental action that would ensure my induction into the Bad Daddy Hall of Fame.

But once they went to bed, so did I. I didn’t get to drink my soul-refreshing bourbon, watch my ball games or enjoy the divinity of having the TV remote all to myself.

The sum result was I spent the whole week feeling like a failure. The kids feasted on junk, the house became a shambles and the long to-do list Val left me was the only thing more neglected than our children.

Still, it was great fun and great bonding. It firmly and forever more established my role as the family drink cart.

The girls know they can count on me for giggles. This became apparent after I’d labored over a huge basket of laundry. The little socks flew like mismatched snowflakes, no two were alike and then there was all that tiny female underwear.

Truly, it baffles me. I can’t discern if it’s inside out or if the tiny waist is really disguised as a leg socket. Some are so small they could be mistaken for flamboyant pirate eye patches.

But I felt driven to accomplish something so I persevered. I folded it all with painstaking care and stacked them all on the bed.
I left the room to charge myself up for trying to figure out which clothes went in which drawer.

I honestly had no clue and it was going to be like a treasure hunt with only half a map.

But the week was destined to be bereft of any accomplishment I could point to with fatherly virtuosity.

This became apparent when little Lulu toddled into the kitchen and told me she’d pushed all the clothes off the bed so we could have some tickle time.

I never did get that drink I needed, but I still got to enjoy many happy hours measured in precious tickle time.