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Monday, November 30, 2009

The 12th Post: A blog on bloggin'


This is the 12th post of the 11th month of the second year I’ve been blogging. That makes this the statistically proper 225th post for an average of about 12.5 per month.

It’s significant in that it hints at solid commitment, like I’ve vowed to take on a job and stick to it. That’s something I stopped doing for purposes of actual income way back in 1992.

I try and write three times a week. I’ve never done fewer than 10 per month and once did 15.

Committing to writing a blog is like having a goofy imaginary friend with multiple dependency issues. You can’t abandon it for too long or it might die from lack of attention. But like having a needy friend, you spend a lot of time wondering if the damn thing’s holding you back from more productive pursuits and wondering if, geez, would anyone really care if the SOB just died?

I started blogging in May 2008 when there was no resounding outcry for my work. I started with zero readers, but did it to satisfy the myriad voices in my head, which is increasingly beginning to seem to me like that lawless border region where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.

Like the Afganistan/Pakistan border, my head is populated by a diverse and often war-like collection of tribes that seem to sensible Western minds like they’re contributing nothing of value to the modern world.

I know some writers who say they hear voices in their heads that drive them to write, to create, to opine. The voices in my head say things like, “Psst, ‘The Price is Right’ Showcase begins in 10 minutes,” “Would you like today’s Happy Hour session to conclude at 6 or 9 p.m?” and the always-helpful grooming tip, “Time to trim the nostril hairs!”

The clear trend in all writing is to reduce coherent thought to microscopic declarations. Twitter is booming in popularity by capping each utterance at 140 characters.

I continue to languish in obscurity by writing many posts that exceed 1,400 words.

I make no apologizes. I come from a newspaper background where I was shackled to precise page one spacial penitentiaries. I remember working on deadline about a major cocaine bust for the old Nashville Banner.

I dashed off 10 concise column inches that told the tale with snappy dispatch. The frantic editor screamed he needed four more inches of story or else there’d be a gaping hole of white space on the front page.

I told him that was impossible. I’d exhausted every fact and anecdote about the arrest.

“Then, goddammit,” he barked, “gimme four inches on the history of cocaine!”

So, now electronically liberated, I refuse to bend to the Twitter tyranny. I’ll write for as long as I feel like.

Sometimes, just for the playful spite of it, I’ll even write the same sentence twice.

Sometimes, just for the playful spite of it, I’ll even write the same sentence twice.

I know I could do things that might increase the efficiency of the blog. I could employ a tracker to chart how many people are actually checking in and what interests them.

But if I found out most of my readers liked it when I wrote about sports, I’d have to deaden my brain with arcane stats and team trends.

Or if I found out most of readers cared about politics and considered me a Beltway-worthy pundit, then I’d be compelled to throw myself in front of a speeding bus.

Lately, I’ve been surprised to hear from a happy surge of readers who lead me to believe my constituency is composed entirely of people hooked on recreational hug drugs like Ecstacy. I’d never advocate such illicit consumption unless the drugs’ sole side effects was excessive gushing about me.

I understand it’s important to be concise, but every time I have what I think is a 350-word post, something inspires me to double down.

Like now. I thought I could get this out in 400 words and here I am pushing 800 yet again.

I don’t care. We’re all at liberty to write for as long as we care to or at least until the little voice in our heads tells us, “Pssst, ‘The Price is Right’ Showcase begins in 10 minutes.”

Until that happens, I’ll stop when I damn well feel like it or when it seems to make the most sense.

Like now.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How old will you be in heaven?


Do you ever wonder what age you’ll be in heaven? I do.

I hope I live a good long life, but not if it means I get to heaven and am stuck being something like 89 decrepit years old for eternity.

The speculation is presumptuous for me, I admit, but I like to think I’ll make the cut. I’m kind to children and old people, never hog the passing lane for extended periods or send annoying ALL CAP E-MAILS. Sure, that’s setting the heaven bar pretty low, but by today’s standard’s it amounts to near saintly behavior.

I wonder about the demographics of heaven.

Right now, the life expectancy is nearing 80. But that’s only a recent trend. Just 200 or so years ago it was not uncommon for someone to expire at around 40 and for his friends to say, “I’ll misseth Miles, but he didst live a goodly long life. Now, let’s thou and I go burn a witch.”

Today, most of the people crowding the obituary pages are elderly and pissed off about it. I’ve never known a single senior to sit around and gush about the joys of excessive age.

And what about the sad unfortunates who die in infancy? Do they go to heaven as toddlers, forever in need of parental care? That’s seems terribly unfair, especially in light of them having their earthly lives snuffed out so young.

You’d think in heaven they’d at least be allowed to grow up a little, enjoy the liberty of obtaining a driver’s license and then, naturally, enjoy carnal activities in the back seat.

What about the thousands of souls who die daily of reckless or drunken misadventure? The headlines are full of accounts of hillbillies who blow up themselves or their redneck buddies constructing things like backyard rocket ships to deaden the boredom of their lives.

If they’re not given an opportunity to grow older and wiser then heaven might be full to busting with earthly idiots. That doesn’t sound like heaven. It sounds like an endless tape loop of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

Maybe in heaven we can put our ages on in the morning the way we do our clothes. You can wake up and decide that morning you want to be 21, ripped and sure you know everything.

Or maybe occupational considerations prevented you from spending too much time with the kids when they were young. You could say, “Today, I’ll be 38 with nothing to do but play with the kids.”

For many people, me included, that is exactly heaven.

But you’d get tired of that for eternity. And what if the kids don’t feel like being 6 and 4 that day? There could be conflict.

I’m lucky in that I can’t recall a time in my life when I wasn’t really having fun. The indifference of the girls in my awkward years (for me, that lasted from 15 to about 33) was compensated by lively buddies who liked to joke and laugh.

There’d be days I’d love to be young and zooming down Earlswood Avenue on my banana seat bike, bent baseball cards like castanets on the spokes. But there’d be lots of nights I’d like to stay in with Val, a bottle of wine and “Survivor” host Jeff Probst sitting there telling us cool behind the scenes stuff from our favorite show.

I’m finding much to enjoy about what I’m optimistically calling my middle age years. It’s not unreasonable to assume I’ll make it another 46 years to 92. There’s golf, family time and I hope heaven allows for more uninterrupted reading time in the hammock than I have here.

Yes, I believe there’s much to look forward to in the years before the inevitable decline.

Of course, I could have it all wrong. Heaven might not be like that at all. I’ve talked to informed clergy who maintain that heaven is nothing but all the blessed believers praising and worshipping the Lord for all eternity.

Only the heretics would dispute that He is worthy of such enduring adulation, but the description puts to mind Mark Twain who was told heaven’s a place where no one smokes, drinks, eats, reads, or does anything but express joyful contentment.

Twain’s response: “You know my current way of life. Can you suggest any additions, in the way of crime, that will reasonably ensure my going to some other place?”

But I worry about getting to heaven in a me that’s either incomplete or past its expiration date.

My late grandfather lived to be 97. He often said in his sad, last months, “Growing old ain’t for sissies.”

I loved that old man, but he was wrong.

Living ain’t for sissies. This world’s a mess.

We can only hope heaven’s all it’s cracked up to be and that we won’t have to worry about hurt, loneliness or things like male pattern baldness.

I’m going to stop now and go try and do something soulful that’ll help ensure I get to find out for myself.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Grinnin' at mammogram confusion


I smiled this week at the intense reaction to the scientific study that said too frequent mammograms cause unnecessary stress and can be safely reduced.

It was a beautiful smile, too. The mostly straight ivories look like rows of surfboards left to bleach in the summer sun.

It’s a contagious sort of smile. I’ve found people nearly always smile back when I smile at them.

In fact, the only people who as a rule don’t smile back are dentists.

And that’s because my smile is pearly proof that seeing a dentist the recommended once every six months is a colossal waste of time and money.

Trust me. I’ve been to see a dentist exactly once in the past 24 years. Just once.

Like most kids, I was the child of parents who were skillfully brainwashed to believe we all needed to see a dentist once every six months.

And I must compliment the dental lobby for convincing a parade of generations that this directive came in stone from Moses. It’s just accepted wisdom.

Pity the poor podiatrist. No one ever thinks to go see him or her even once a year when you could argue that many of the nagging back infirmities that plague our elderly stem from persistent feet problem.

I did my regular dental thing until one happy 1994 night in Athens, Ohio. Me and the boys were closing up the old Nickelodeon bar on Union Street where a bunch of us were paid to inebriate our fellow Ohio University students.

Once we closed and cleaned up the joint, we’d hike up the Def Leppard and blow off steam with hootch and horseplay.

I don’t recall the insanity of the motivation, but I remember jumping up on big Bill’s back. I must have thought if I surprised the gentle giant I could gain a split second wrestling triumph over him that I’d extrapolate into a lifetime of boast about the night I slammed big Bill Morrissey down to the Nickelodeon dance floor.

My advantage lasted a nano-second. The next instant I remember was feeling a not unpleasant sensation of flight. Bill’d sent me sailing. The whole world slowed down. I’m convinced with sufficient feathering the propulsion could have sent me soaring clear past the jukebox.

Then -- damn that gravity -- I landed on my lip. I remember seeing my maxillary lateral incisor spinning out of my mouth and sashaying about 10 feet across the dance floor. It was the most soulful motion any part of me’d ever achieved on that dance floor.

The next day I went to the local dentist who gave me the sort of oral devastation Dustin Hoffman’s character underwent at the hands of a sadistic Nazi dentist (and can there be a more malevolent job description?) in the great 1976 thriller, “Marathon Man.”

It was root canal. If a woman had ever treated me as poorly as that dentist did, I’d to this day still be casting about for romance with gentle farm animals.

I vowed that very day I would never go see another dentist. To compensate, however, I’d become a fanatic about self-care. I stopped eating sweets. I began concluding every meal with a vigorous water gargle before departing the table and heading to a nearby toothbrush. And -- this is key -- I floss after anything goes in my mouth and that includes the ears and other soft nibbly parts of my dear wife.

And that’s just what I did. Around about 1994, my mother’s alarm over my dental non-conformity could no longer be ignored. To appease her, I agreed to a check-up.

After about 15 minutes of poking and prodding, the dentist said, “Your teeth are perfect. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

I’ve never met an unhappy dentist. Most look forward to retiring at about 55. Truly, they are a joyful lot and I think I alone know why.

It’s because most Americans march herd-like into their offices every six months. Once there, the dentists poke, proud, scrape, drill and nick at the integrity of even healthy teeth. Repeat this every six months and a healthy mouth will eventually need constant dentist-enriching attention.

In fact, the people I know who go to the dentist most faithfully are the ones who most need to go to the dentist.

We are a nagging nation of hypochondriacs. We believe there is a pill or potion to cure every infirmity.

If you’re convinced that yearly mammograms and those semi-annual dental visits and on and on and on will prolong your life, then go right ahead.

Me, I’ll just sit back and smile at all the commotion.

You may wonder whatever happened to that old tooth. I have no idea. I guess it just got mopped up with the rest of the mud and the blood and the beer on that long ago evening of now forgotten revelry.

Doesn’t matter. The lesson the loss taught me proved more valuable than anything the Tooth Fairy could ever bestow.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Obama's bow wow


President Barack Obama is returning from an overseas diplomatic mission in which he’s now being criticized for being too diplomatic.

Yes, it’s true.

His courtly bow before Japanese Emperor Akihito was deemed demeaning by that Miss Manners of international relations, Dick Cheney.

Cheney said it “showed weakness” for a U.S. president to observe such formality with one of our closest allies, overlooking the fact that Cheney’s old hero, Richard Nixon did a similar shoe stare in 1971 before Emperor Hirohito, a man who personally ordered the dastardly Pearl Harbor attack.

I’m a fan of the formal bow and do it whenever I can. I prefer it for sanitary reasons to the hand shake or, gadzooks, the buss on the cheek, social intimacies with which we’re all about to be bombarded during the holiday season.

It would be so cool if at some upcoming Christmas party instead of greeting everyone with a weak, “Hey, man,” handshake, I instead with a graceful flourish broke into a sweeping bow that charmed all the ladies and made the men simmer with resentment.

Of course, if I were to do that properly, I’d require polished knee boots, a sword scabbard and a hat adorned with a big spread of peacock feathers. The sum result would guarantee I’d be ostracized and forced to sit in the corner for the duration of the party all by myself watching football rather than making microscopic small talk with tipsy sorts of strangers.

I know. I don’t see a downside either.

The Cheney rebuke was surprising in particular because Cheney was mum during one of the oddest diplomatic dosey-does any of us had ever seen. That happened in 2004 when George W. Bush and King Fahd held hands like nervous virgins on prom night during a garden stroll across Bush’s Crawford ranch.

The hetero hombre in me was unsettled and wanted to break out in nervous laughter, but the romantic in me couldn’t help but notice, yeah, they made a really sweet couple.

People less sophisticated than I disparaged it as “gay.” That again puts me at odds with the general public.

I encourage male-to-male handholding in times of spiritual tumult, like when the Pittsburgh Steelers have a long third down and goal. For years, I alone have stood up in the bar during pivotal game moments and exhorted, “Alright, there’s lots riding on this play. Let’s all hold hands and channel positive thoughts out to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Who’s with me!”

No one’s ever picked up that communal baton, but I think I’m making progress. Fewer and fewer bullies are outright suggesting they pause the action and take me out in the parking lot to beat the living crap out of me.

All this nitpicking over simple gestures overlooks what for me is the best ice breaker. Yes, I’m from the pull-my-finger school of diplomacy.

Sure, this works great with uncles and children. But no one’s ever tried extending the finger to our allies on an international level -- and for the sake of clarity I don’t mean George W. Bush and that finger.

Just imagine if instead of bowing, President Obama slyly asked, “Emperor, I invite you to partake in a beloved custom from my country. Go ahead -- wink, wink -- Pull my finger.”

This works because he’ll either laugh hysterically at the result, thus guaranteeing a requisite level of humanity we seek in an ally, or else he’ll be mortally outraged.

I’d be ready for the reaction. If laughter ensued, I’d embrace my ally and anticipate a long and fruitful relationship.

If anger or embarrassment was the result, why I’d have no choice but to immediately sever ties.

And for that you need some really, really big scissors handy.

When I say cut ties, I mean cut ties.

Yes, there’s no international situation that couldn’t benefit from an injection of a little Three Stooges mentality.

Nyuck, nyuck.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mom struggles with new remote


My mother stared at the new cable remote the way the ancients must have stared at a solar eclipse.

For a minute, I thought she was going to run into her bedroom and slam the door.

But the powerful demands of another glowing pagan god, the 42-inch Toshiba flat screen, exerted an even greater pull and my Mom is convinced she’ll perish without Diane Sawyer in the morning.

Thus, we began the ritual warfare where the impatient offspring must teach a techno-phobic elderly parent how to work a harmless battery-powered device that 5 year olds work the way Billy the Kid did Colt .45s.

Really, I think I could get through the process if only I were allowed to shout profanity. I’d be fine if at my breaking point I could just dash out on the porch and deploy echoed f-bombs from the fifth floor balcony of the Pittsburgh high rise where my 76-year-old mother nests.

But, I swear, I can’t swear because if I did she’d think I was swearing at her not the situation and that would break my heart. Plus, even if she did understand my rage was aimed elsewhere, she’d say, "Now, you know I don’t like it when you use that kind of language,” and I’d turn into a little boy again and feel that peculiar sort of shame that 46-year-old potty mouths like me really should be over.

Like most sons, I love my dear white-haired mother. But that kind of love is fraught with challenges in a world that keeps zooming past at warp speed.

See, she didn’t need a new 54-button Comcast remote. But the recent switch to digital required Comcast send her a new receptor box. I drove the hour from my home and installed it.

I was happy to. I take the kids, we get to enjoy time with grandma and I get to feel like a good son who responds to simple tasks with cheerful efficiency.

I gave her a brief tutorial that touched on only the most basic functions of the new remote.

Two days later, she called and said she’d pushed a wrong button and had been without the big TV since we left. She could still use the small boxy TV in the bedroom, but in today’s day and age I could get charged with parental neglect if word of that sort of cruelty ever got out.

So back I went that night. I used the TV remote to key the set to channel 3 (then hid that troublemaking TV remote). I handed her the new whiz-bang cable remote and resumed my simple instructions. It seemed to take and the two of us sat down to watch the fine 1998 movie, “Waking Ned Devine.” She loved it, although she scolded that she “could have done without all that profanity.”

Profanity? I wondered. I must not have been paying attention.

We hugged, I said goodbye and drove back home.

I called again the next day. It wasn’t working again. She didn’t want me to make that drive yet again but I thought of the poor dear forced to watch Good Morning America on a screen that makes the U.S. weather map look like a postage stamp. I said I’d be right there.

This time I took scissors, paper and tape. I cleverly, I thought, made an ingenious remote mask that concealed all the button clutter. Banished were “GUIDE,” “PIP,” “MUTE,” “ON DEMAND,” "AUX" and a host of other button functions she’ll never need.

I told her to leave the television on all the time and to never alter the channel or the volume. In a world with more than 700 channel options, I was convinced she could get by with just one.

It didn’t matter. Somehow, someway, she SNAFU’d it all over again (and she’d cringe if she knew the derivation of that witty military acronym).

I called Comcast and asked if they had a three button remote -- on/off, volume and channel. Really, that’s all she needs.

“This is a very common complaint with the elderly,” he said.

If it’s so common, why can’t Comcast do something about it?

“Well, the demand is for more functions and that’s not going to change.”

Oh, yes, it will. There is a rising appetite for simplicity as brilliantly exemplified in an excellent Wired magazine article “The Good Enough Revolution: When Simple & Cheap is Just Fine.”

A backlash is brewing. My mother, a woman with whom I entrust the care of my beloved children in a 2-ton motor vehicle moving at 60 mph, should not be made to feel like an idiot by her inability to turn on a television and watch basic cable.

And I shouldn’t have to drive once again to her home to remove the offending box and turn back the cable clock to two weeks ago when she knew how to work a simple remote, which I must do tonight.

“I’m so sorry for putting you through all this,” she said.

I said I was sure I’d put her through lots worse all those years ago.

A widow for five years now, she worries about being a burden to her children and the loss of her independence.

I pray to God that He’ll ease the tensions bedeviling her and other seniors struggling with unnecessary tech troubles.

And I pray the pagan tech gods in places like Silicon Valley will find creative and simple solutions to these sorts of problems long before my own kids are stuck dealing with me.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Day in Court


I selected my best duds, tidied up an ugly tangle of stray nose hairs and took steps to ensure I wouldn’t be too hungover for the big day. That left only one item on the big to-do list: watch a taped “Green Acres” marathon.

You can take Perry Mason or Arnie Becker. For me the most persuasive television attorney of all time was Oliver Wendell Douglas. He was the erstwhile New York lawyer who left the Big Apple to farm among the rubes on the TV Land classic “Green Acres.”

I was always thrilled to watch him debate Sam Drucker, Hank Kimball or Mr. Haney because his arguments were tactically brilliant and always accompanied by patriotic background music.

I needed his legal inspiration because I had a Pittsburgh court date last week and the case against me seemed straight out of Hooterville.

Regular readers of this blog (Mom and three guys named Ronnie) will recall my arrest in August for trying to sell $300 of my own pre-season Steeler tickets to an undercover cop for $200. Eric Heyl of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review made me a minor celebrity by devoting his Sunday column to ridiculing the arrest.

Really, it’s all anybody talked to me about for the past two months. In the bar, the grocery store, the post office, all anybody wanted to know was if it was true and if I was going to fight it.

“Fight it?” I’d say. “I’m not gonna just fight it. I’m gonna bring the entire sum of my sizzling intellect to exposing the injustice.

“I’m spending my every waking moment conducting imaginary mock trials that always conclude with the judge weeping over my cause and gaveling over $10,000 in restitution.

“I’m doing it because I believe in truth, justice, the American way and that one enlightened man can make a real difference in a world bereft of reason.”

Plus, I had absolutely nothing better to do.

I packed a thick briefcase of evidentiary arguments and a sassy attitude and marched them through the metal detectors at the throbbing courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.

There were about 30 of us in the courtroom. There were prostitutes, drunks, degenerate gamblers, scum of the earth and me. I surveyed the motley mix and thought, hmmm, I’ll bet if I could persuade the bailiff to serve booze from behind the bench we’d have one helluva party.

Judge Charles McLaughlin brought a welcome wise-cracking bent to the proceedings. When he ordered one underage drinker to do community service for a non-profit organization, he added, “And I’m not talking about Chrysler or General Motors.”

The cases were dispatched with judicial vigor. Drunks were fined $200 for napping in hedges. Youthful party hosts were fined and scolded for disturbing the peace. A nasty neighbor dispute over a fence was resolved with Solomonic wisdom.

I made judgements of my own based on stereotypical appearances. I was sure the judge was going to throw the book at one surly looking youth, his hair a sprawl of dreadlocks. His slouchy pants and unkempt appearance were, I felt, an insult to the decorum of the court.

The arresting officer said the defendant refused to turn down his car stereo. I’d seen his type, rolling down the streets with the hip hop blasting, the base shaking the fillings free of my teeth. Get him! I thought.

The judge looked down on the bench and said with a tone of irritation, “Now, why wouldn’t you do as the officer asked?”

Through gritted teeth he said, “Man, I was having a bad day and I needed to blow off some steam. This guy was hassling me for no reason.”

The judge asked what caused his bad day. The defendant said he worked with disadvantaged youths at a notorious local center and he was frustrated he wasn’t getting through.

The judge took his glasses off and said, “I’ll bet you do have some bad days there. That’s a difficult job. I’m going to let this go with a warning. Try and obey the officer next time he asks you to do something.”

Next, the judge called out, “Rodell?”

As I pulled open my briefcase, the arresting officer approached. The last time I’d seen this imposing bald gentleman he’d been undercover and was ignoring my salient explanations about why he shouldn’t be arresting me.

“Hey, you didn’t know about this law, did you?” he said in a whisper.

Well, no, and I want to --

“You won’t do this again, will you?”

I have no intention of --

“Judge McLaughlin is going to ask you those same questions. Answer with one word and this will go away. Now, don’t go and screw yourself by talking too much.”

I raised my right hand and swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It happened just like he said it would.

As the judge asked his questions, my options narrowed to meekly complying or to going all Billy Blaze on ‘em.

Blaze was the memorable Michael Keaton character from the great 1982 Ron Howard movie, “Night Shift.” Blaze and mousy clerk Chuck Lumley (played by Henry Winkler) are busted for running a brothel out of a Manhattan morgue.

Blaze infuriates Lumley by refusing a generous plea bargain so he can speechify and press his advantage. It’s hilarious.

My instinct was to go full Blaze.

Alas, my fiscal situation demands meek compliance.

“Yes, your honor.”

And with that it all went away. I didn’t get to issue the brilliant arguments I was prepared to ride all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Later at the parking garage pay machine, I ran into the dreadlocked dude and congratulated him on beating his rap, aware of the irony that his rap stemmed from the volume of his rap.

He smiled and said, “Hey, thanks, man. You, too!”

It was a great moment in race relations. I hope he had a good day because I believe any time he has a good day it will invariably lead to better days for the rest of us, too.

With that, we went our separate ways, me to my bucolic life filled with “Green Acres” reruns and him to occupational heartbreak and constant harassment at the hands of The Man.

What did I learn from all this?

Our court system, flawed though it may be, bestows illuminating and heartwarming sparks of humanity amidst welcome little splashes of true justice.

I enjoyed it so much I’m thinking of committing a petty crime every six months or so just so I can keep going back.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sammy Sosa's turning white


When I heard that former Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa was getting lighter I expressed enthusiastic support.

Good for him, I thought. We could all afford to lose a few pounds. I was disappointed when Sosa got caught illegally corking his bat and cheating with steroids so to hear him crusading about the importance of fitness was refreshing. It sounded like Sammy was becoming cool again.

Then I was confounded to realize I’d misunderstood. Sosa’s not losing weight.

He’s gaining white.

For some reason or another, natural or artificial, the once ebony-colored Dominican is becoming the color of weakly flavored chocolate milk.

This is a case of historically bad timing because for years black has been the new white.

Despite slipping poll numbers, it’s easy to argue that the coolest guy in America is a proud black man, Barack Obama. Heck, even the world’s most lilly-white sport, golf, is dominated by a charismatic black man, Tiger Woods. It’s a great time to be a race-transcending black celebrity. Just look at the appeal of Denzel Washington, Oprah, Will Smith, Charles Barkley and on and on and on.

In a true cultural phenomenon that’s been going on for years, sissy white suburban kids go to great lengths to act black. They listen to hip-hop, pose like gangsters, dress with slouchy pants and generally behave in ways that lead true urban blacks to want to reflexively beat the crap out of them for the fraudulent mimicry.

And despite the evident health risks, young palefaced females continue to climb into the tanning booths to endure unhealthy doses of toxic rays that’ll transform their unacceptably light skins to darker hues.

And who can blame them? Being born white has artistic burdens all its own.

White’s white, but there is a whole rainbow of dark colors that go along with being born black, from cinnamon hints of the luscious Halle Barry to a light autumn wheat tones of Alicia Keys.

It’s not like that with white people. Complexion-wise, we’re a uniformly vanilla race of Kate Gosselins. Here in Pittsburgh where the sun will be turned off for the next five months, we’re entering a period where all us Caucasian natives will begin to resemble the color of fish bellies.

The one advantage white skin has over black skin -- and for now let’s set aside the pesky issue of still lingering and virulent redneck prejudice -- is that we make a great canvass.

And maybe that’s what’s motivating Sosa. Maybe he wants light skin to better illuminate a tattoo or two.

I’m always fascinated by watching hi-def action from any professional sport that shows the tattoos of the athletes. In fact, it’s the only reason I’ll watch even a minute of the mind-numbing tedium of professional basketball.

Few athletes celebrate skin art better than those in the NBA. And it’s true of both blacks and whites, although you can hardly tell it with the African-American ball players.

Whites like Chris “Birdman” Andersen of the Denver Nuggets are as vibrant as a family pack of Crayola Crayons. His fair Scandinavian skin is decorated with golden crowns framed by turquoise backgrounds, and crimson-feathers that extend from armpit to elbow and give the appearance of wings in flight when his arms are extended in defense.

But trying to decipher the tattoos on the black athletes is like trying to read in caves by candlelight. I pause the action. I cock my head to the side. I squint at the set. I try in vain to figure out what the black on black image is trying to convey.

And, again, the liberal in me rises up and wonders why our black brothers and sisters are forced to endure tattoo shading that looks like Kansas before Dorothy and Toto landed in Oz.

Where’s the vibrancy? When it comes to tattoos, the people we used to call colored now have none.

It doesn’t seem fair. If I were a dermatologist, I’d be devoting my entire career to finding a way to give African-Americans the same vivid tattoo opportunities as Caucasians.

Of course, the whole debate ignores the fact that tattoos, really, just aren’t that cool anymore.

Come to think of it, neither is Sammy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

John Muhammad and a Real Killer Bar


When news of the execution of D.C. sniper John Muhammad, people every where recalled a three-week reign of terror as diabolical as anything bin Laden could conceive.

Not me.

My first thought was of a warm, friendly tavern in the far northwest corner of the country. It was the Waterfront Seafood & Bar in Bellingham, Washington. It’s a place where everybody knows your name and the odds of one of them killing you for sport far exceed the national average.

I went there in 2003 after reading that the Waterfront was a real killer bar.

Its regulars over the years included three notorious serial killers: Ted Bundy, Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi and sniper Muhammad.

And here’s the hook: They were all good guys. They didn’t cause trouble. They played well with others and remembered to tip their bartenders and waitresses.

So what’s the Waterfront’s idea of a bad customer?

“That would be anybody who steals, breaks something, starts a fight or dies during my shift," said then-bartender Cheri Rookstool.

As I noted in a story that ran in Esquire, there was no evidence, forensic or otherwise, that there were any bad customers there the night I was there.

That made them all suspect in the eyes of another bartender, Wally Oyen, who told me, “Bianchi was the nicest guy in the world. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when Muhammad went nuts. Bianchi taught me that you just never know.”

Of course, no one was surprised when regular James A. Kinney was convicted in 1998 of beheading a woman. “Now, that guy was just an ass,” Oyen said.

How three notorious killers wound up regulars at the same friendly bar is a mystery.

The best explanation came from bar regular John Riley. He said the bar’s location is key. It’s situated at the lowest point in a hilly town that's as far as anyone can run in America without leaving the country. “Restless troublemakers roll into town and then gravity brings them down to the Waterfront," says Riley, who likes to boast he's the only man on earth who's been friendly with both Muhammad and Richard Saunders (son of Harrisburg, Pa.!/Carnegie Mellon University grad!), the squirrely actor who played farm reporter Less Nessman on "WKRP in Cincinnati," at least one of whom is among history's worst monsters.

I remember reading posted signs advising proper conduct on everything from loitering (not allowed) to five detailed steps for check cashing (No. 2: "Locals only!"). There was nothing gently hinting that thou shalt not kill anyone who doesn't really have it coming.

That's a pity because strangers invariably wind up immersed in gory discussions of how former Waterfront patrons, now incarcerated in penitentiaries or hell, have combined to dispatch a minimum of 51 innocent souls.

I’d spent a couple of hours there and sipped a few beers before saying my goodbyes. I haven’t been back.

It’s the only bar in the world where even soda-sipping designated drivers are sure to leave with real killer hangovers.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reject me, please


I’m nostalgic for the days when I used to gauge my how hard I was working by the frequency of my rejection letters. I knew I wasn’t working hard enough unless I was getting at least one rejection a day.

This made sense because if the rejections were coming with regularity it meant that my stuff was being considered elsewhere and would by the law of averages produce a positive result.

These days I rarely count on getting either the rejection or the positive result. It’s a Twilight Zone existence where I spend my days yelling down a long canyon and hearing no echoes.

After a fun and fruitful decade as a freelance magazine writer, I’m using the godforsaken downturn in that field to sharpen and pitch four book proposals (an upmarket satirical novel, a downmarket non-fiction humor book, a memoir and a fantasy tale about how the world would be better a place if Dick Cheney was a kindly superhero).

The general reaction has me thinking maybe it’s time to come up with a fifth book proposal.

I spend about half my time sending out fastidious query letters to agents and publishers and the other half wondering why no one bothers to respond.

The obvious answer is, of course, I’m a unqualified hack and that my ideas suck.

But there is evidence to the contrary. I’ve worked with some of the snazziest magazines in the country -- and I’m talking about ones that still exist and actually lived up to their commitment to pay me. My ideas have earned flattering interest from top ranked industry people who tell me my offbeat stuff’s great, but just not quite right for them.

“Just keep pitching,” they say, “You’re bound to find the right person. Good luck!”

So pitch I do.

I pitch the way the sweaty guys in the locomotive coal pits did when they wanted the train to make it up a really steep grade.

I just keep on shoveling.

But despite the evident energy, the wheels on my locomotive just keep spinning. There is no progress. No advancement.

I get a real surge of satisfaction after I’ve spent a couple of hours pouring through the top dealmakers at Publishers Marketplace until I’ve found 10 worthy targets and tailored my lively query letters to their specific interests.

How can it miss?

I never do it like this, but I wake up those mornings feeling like I ought to shave and put on a really nice shirt. I’m sure two or three of the recipients will respond with hosannas about my proposals, ask to see more or -- hallelujah -- offer me a contract on the spot.

But no one responds. Never. They don’t say yes. They don’t say no. I don’t know whether they got them and are considering them, if they rejected them outright or if they didn’t get them and are sitting there banging their heads on their desks and beseeching, “Why on earth won’t somebody send me a proposal about Dick Cheney in cape!”

It’s worse than even prom time in high school when at least I knew by the hysterical laughter that I’d earned yet another rejection.

Then there are one’s like this that came last month from a top editor: “Thanks for sending this! I’m going to read it tonight and get back to you tomorrow.”

I still haven’t heard back. Has she been abducted? Should I call? Send flowers? Form a search party? If she has been abducted and I succeed in saving her from lost time space ship experimentation you’d think she might look favorably on my proposal -- or at least respond to my query with a crisp, “No thanks.”

I guess maybe I was raised differently. If someone asks me a question, I answer. I respond to all my e-mails, even ones from students or fellow freelancers who are struggling and seeking veteran advice.

I tell them what I can but always include the Bob Dylan line from the 1997 song “High Water” to add necessary perspective: “Don’t reach out for me, can’t ya see I’m drowning, too?”

Pity my poor wife. She sees no result and certainly no income. In weaker moments, she counsels that maybe it’s time for me to find what she calls “crap jobs,” as if my professional existence could possibly become any crappier.

Bless her heart, she just doesn’t have a clue. There are no crap jobs and it’s too late for me to pack a lunch pail and head to plumber school. I’m in it up to my neck.

The only thing left for me to do is to continue to fail at a more spectacular level. I can’t quit. I have to believe I have good ideas and one of them is soon bound to bear fruit.

And on that happy day there will be a grand party. There will be extravagant booze, cigars, succulent seafood and dances of mutual joy until the sun comes up and the band slams the trunks on their battered instruments and heads for home.

It’ll be one of the world’s greatest parties.

And, by God, you’re all invited.

Just be sure to R.S.V.P.

It’s only proper.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Perfect matches for imperfect people


In the future, newborns will be implanted with forehead bar codes that can be scanned with iPhone apps to eventually reveal things like name, astrological sign, political disposition, cereal preference and current level of sexual arousal.

And, dammit, guys like me will still struggle to get laid.

I’m so far removed from the horny dating scene that I should be restricted from ever commenting upon it. Yet the topic is irresistible to veteran social observers like me.

Everywhere we look we see loneliness, divorce, heartbreak and longing. Much of the social networking designed to facilitate getting together instead foils the connection. A quick Google search indicates inclusion in a nerdy Star Trek Facebook group and a cold, texted break up message quickly follows.

That’s why I’m fearful of the folly that believes there’s any way to get two people together that doesn’t involve the introduction of lots and lots of liquor, which is how I wound up married with two children lo these many years.

I believe sobriety is a major obstacle to happiness and that judicious amounts of alcohol are a necessary lubricant to an any enduring marriage.

But, clearly, we are on the verge of a day when our cell phones will be able to pinpoint with GPS accuracy the exact location of Mr. and Mrs. Right.

And you know what that means. It means we’ll soon hear the lovelorn lament that’ll go something like this, “Yes, he was handsome, wants kids, has nice hair, is a Ron Paul libertarian, likes pina coladas and getting caught in the rain and, yes, he is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, but his eyes just aren’t the precise shade of robin egg shell blue I’m looking for in a mate. Maybe something better will come along.”

Yes, with every technological matchmaking, the infernal pickiness quotient rises ever higher.

This is frustrating to men like me who consider ourselves perfect as is, multiple mustard stained shirts and all. I’m lucky in that I found a woman who apparently isn’t even the least bit picky.

I mean there’s not many women out there who’d settle for a chronically underemployed worm farmer/writer whose idea of a splurge is a pizza with pepperoni and sausage. Clearly, I hit the matrimonial jackpot with Valerie.

But because I am perfect, I understand it’s not always about me.

Sometimes it’s about guys who are just like me.

The more that is known about guys like us, the less desirable we are to the opposite sex, not to mention countless prospective employers. In fact, it's true of all of us. The charm of distance and mystery of innocent discovery are vanishing fast.

So I’m advising single guys interested in long-term relationships to do like I did: go find a suitable mate, ply her with liquor and get down to matrimonial business before technological advances render you undesirable before you even open your mouths.

And, girls, you’d better start either purchasing some hearty stain remover or get used long stretches of lonely.

Soon, and you can count on it, the technology that’s supposed to bring us together will ensure none of us ever wants to get near one another.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

For Boss fans only: A Springsteen career retrospective


While many other writers are triumphantly engaged in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), in which they try to in 30 days write 50,000-word novels, I will write about what it’s like to listen to 318 consecutive Bruce Springsteen songs in chronological order over 23.5 hours.

I’m not like other writers.

And Springsteen, 60, is not like other artists.

He’s in the midst of an historic run of shows that will play to more than two million fans. What’s stirring a lot of fan interest is how he’s including entire albums in each concert. So fans in Philly one night may see a set that includes “Born to Run,” while fans the next night might hear “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

It got me to thinking which album of his I’d most like to hear. So last month I decided I was going to listen to every Springsteen song in order.

It was so much fun I might do it every six months.

He’s that interesting. Even when he sucks -- and suck he does -- it’s still a worthy effort.

So for hardcore Springsteen fans, and I know you’re out there, here’s a career critique from a fan who’s been there since near the beginning. Feel free to scan or skip.

And if this winds up being, gadzooks, in excess of 50,000 words (and it might), I’m going to slap a title on it, call it a novel and try submitting it to some beleaguered agent for publication.

Greetings from Asbury Park, 1972 -- His first words on his first album are gibberish: “Madman, bummers, drummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat . . .” But it has a catchiness that pays off with the euphoric touchstone line about Mama telling him never to look straight into the sights of the sun, “Whoa! But, mama, that’s where the fun is!” Even better is the defiance of “Growing Up” and the shocked menace of “Lost in the Flood.” It’s surprising what a nifty little roadmap to his career this 9-song, 37-minute album hints at. It has the highs -- some of these songs (“Growing Up,” “Blinded by the Light” and “For You”) are still concert staples. And there are the puzzling lows (“Mary Queen of Arkansas,” “The Angel”) that leave fans scratching their heads. I’d like to listen to this with the now 60-year-old Springsteen and hear what he thinks of what the 22-year-old kid did. I think he’d like it. He should.

The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973 -- He’s playing this in its entirely at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. I’d give a limb to be there. When fans talk about his greatest albums, this one’s rarely mentioned. It should be. It starts out with the now solidified E Street Band braying like stallions eager to bust out of the corral. From there it’s an almost Sgt. Pepper like performance of exuberance. It may be a sacrilege to legions of frat boy fans, but the least interesting song of the bunch might be concert staple “Rosalita.” And it’s a meaty bunch. The shortest song, the title cut is 4:31 with “New York City Serenade” clocking in at 9:36. It’s such a rich, jazzy joy. The best here are “Incident on 57th Street” and the aforementioned “NYC Serenade.”

Born to Run, 1975 -- I keep needing to be reminded that “Born to Run” precedes “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” As great as they are, there is nothing in either of the two previous albums to suggest that this glorious sort of crescendo would happen so quickly. It would be like the Rolling Stones releasing, “Between the Buttons” and “Out of Our Heads,” then -- Boom! -- “Sticky Fingers.” “Born to Run” is one of the greatest albums ever recorded. “Thunder Road” plays like an opera and even the lesser tracks (“Night,” “Meeting Across the River”) are gems. The masterpieces (“Backstreets,” “Jungleland”) are legendary. The title cut never feels old. It’s still as fresh and remarkable as the first time we heard it. They could have all quit after this. Bruce could have gone all bald and paunchy and none of it would have mattered. These eight songs ensured immortality. The album ends with the audacious crescendo of “Jungleland.” Springsteen knew he’d made a masterpiece and he punctuated it thusly.

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978 -- I was flattered to be asked to contribute a blurb to a “The Light in Darkness,” the fine new book commemorating the release of this album. Here’s what I wrote:
“Listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” for the first time in 1978 did more to accelerate my 15-year-old adolescence than any human biological factors. Like Bob Dylan once said about the first time he heard Elvis, this record “felt like busting out of jail.”

The songs had a tethered fury, a striving that made me want to run away to an adult world where I wasn’t even sure I could survive. But it was a promised land I knew anyone with a spark of spirit or adventure was destined to enter and have his character forged. There would be dangers, illicit pleasures, cowards and heroes and these songs made me want to test myself to see where I’d land.

How so many songs of grim despair can still sound like triumph is a puzzle I’ve yet to unravel.

The same songs that had me wishing as a boy I was older, today, more than 30 years later, make me feel forever young.”

My favorites? “Racing in the Streets” and “The Promised Land.”


The River, 1980 -- Bruce and the band find their groove here and cling to it a bit to tightly. “Ramrod,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “You Can Look . . .,” “Crush on You”) all, despite their fury, are a bit redundant. They come across as caveman stomps and concert fillers that do little to move the ball up the field. The hit single, “Hungry Heart,” is joyful, and happy romp that features lyrics about the sin of a man who abandons his family, an odd pairing. He for the first time indulges a country bent on songs like “Wreck on the Highway” that he’ll thread throughout his career, much to the consternation of fans who want his music to cling to the Jersey beaches and highways. The best songs here are “Sherry Darling,” the title cut and the sublime and mesmerizing, “Point Blank.” This 20-song collection also marks the last time he engages audiences with a long form song, the 8:33 and somewhat forgettable “Drive All Night.” It is the last time he includes a real stretcher until the ill-conceived “Outlaw Pete” from earlier this year. This has always been one of my favorites, but it doesn’t hold up as well as I thought it would.

Nebraska, 1982 -- He misses in his effort to channel Woodie Guthrie, but winds up nailing Johnny Cash. Still, this isn’t the Bruce any of us pay to see. Conversely, the title song, “Johnny 99” and “Seeds” a B-side from the same sessions have really stood up in concert over the years. But the unwelcome coyote howl of “State Trooper” had us wishing for the old Bruce. We were about to get him in spades.

Born in the U.S.A., 1984 -- Even then, perhaps in reaction to the subdued reception of “Nebraska,” this seemed like it was Springsteen’s attempt to be gargantuan. Here he makes writing gigantic and enduring hit singles seem effortless. “Glory Days,” “I’m Going Down,” and the title song remain fan favorites. But I’d love to hear the decision-making process and band input about why they included “Dancing in the Dark,” to this day the worst Springsteen single ever released. The song’s an oddball on this album -- on any non 90’s album, really -- and a betrayal of any fan who caught the E Street fever with “Born to Run.” The colossus is “Born in the U.S.A.” It’s a great song dulled by now a bit by repetition. With a lesser artist, this often misunderstood song could have become his “Achy-Breaky Heart,” his defining song. Not Springsteen. But he proved here how commercial he could be. So, congratulations, you’re gargantuan. Let’s move on.

Live Box Set, 1986 -- This massive nearly four-hour three-disc set loses some coherence in that it spans 12 years and the venues run from clubs to stadiums. I love “Fire,” a Springsteen song made famous by, yikes, the Pointer Sisters. The oddly subdued “Thunder Road” kicks off the bunch that goes on to include all the usual suspects. “Growing Up” live shows why it is the ultimate Springsteen concert experience, and hearing the moving soliloquy preceding “The River” remains among the most moving experiences in rock listening. The collection is best as an archive, rather than a true concert experience. Best left in the time capsule for long stretches.

Tunnel of Love, 1987 -- His second curveball to fans in five years, but this one dazzles. It remains among the top two or three of Springsteen “solo” experiences. It has a snappy start with “Ain’t Got You” and leads into a string of country-tinged songs that tasteful Nashville artists are still covering. “Spare Parts” is a haunting rocker -- I’d take this over a couple dozen songs like “Ramrod.” “Brilliant Disguise” and the title song are great evocative numbers, but the gem here is “One Step Up.” A musical and lyrical waltz, it’s so beautiful it shimmers.

Human Touch/Lucky Town, 1992 -- I’ve argued that Tom Petty is a better song writer than Bruce Springsteen because Petty’s had one really bad song (“A Wasted Life” from 1982’s “Long After Dark”) while Springsteen’s had one really bad decade. It was the 1990s and this simultaneously released pair starts all the stinkin’. This is the best he could do after seven years on the sidelines? They’re terrible. What was he thinking? Were Clarence, Little Steven and the rest of the E Streeters busy? These two include 24 songs with 16 throw aways. The title songs are good, as are “Cross My Heart,” “I Wish I Were Blind” and the lovely “If I Should Fall Behind," but the rest is dreck.

In Concert MTV, 1993 -- A county fair bingo-playing chicken could have selected a better set list. After being away for so long, he’s really trying to shove the new stuff down our throats. It says something about the goodwill he’d earned that this period didn’t cause legions of fans to desert him for good. Best here is a surprise ass-kicking version of “Light of Day.” The rest sound like they were performed by a Bruce Springsteen tribute band at some highway Holiday Inn.

Greatest Hits, 1995 -- Normally, I’d be infuriated by a greatest hits album arriving amidst the creative desert through which he’d been leading us. But here he includes four unreleased, unheard songs, three of which instantly earned “greatest” status. They are “Murder Incorporated,” “Blood Brothers,” and the epic “This Hard Land,” a song I’d include among his best ever.

The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995 -- It would be really cool to be sitting in Springsteen’s basement and hear him play these songs for just you and maybe four of your friends. Instead, it was another major release that demanded fans shell out the bucks just to see what he was up to. It’s another sleep walk that lacks any mystique. There are no best songs. No standouts. No compelling tales behind the bleak music. No pulse. This is his worst.

Tracks, 1998 -- After the long hard slog of the ‘90s, this seems like a bit of a valedictory, a reminder of why he’s so indelible to our musical DNA. Early gems include “Thundercrack,” “Santa Ana,” and “Zero & Blind Terry.” How songs this stellar went unreleased for so long is a mystery. It includes some great B-sides like “Be True,” and “Wanna Be With You,” and the ragged beauty of “Hearts of Stone.” “The Wish” is so lovely it always makes me smile and feel like coming home. It becomes less and less interesting as it meanders into, yep, the 90s with keyboard-driven songs like “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart” and “Sad Eyes.” Still, a great way to enjoy this is put all four discs on random and have a party. It’s like walking into a friendly bar with a really great juke box.

18 Tracks/Chimes of Freedom, 1999 and 2000 -- Two lesser collections, mostly rehashes. Chimes includes a great live version of “Be True” and the Dylan song that rings with a righteousness the way the title hints it ought to.

The Rising, 2002 -- This was a disappointment to me when it came out because I believed it was destined to seem like the product of a time capsule that would not resonate within 10 years. Listening to it nearly 10 years later and I see I was wrong. It sounds like a great rock album. Released in response to 9/11, songs like “You’re Missing,” “Waiting on a Sunny Day” and “Into the Fire” still stir a raw visceral feeling in my gut. But if I were an 18-year-old kid just getting into The Boss and unaware of its poignant inspirations, I think I’d love this album. Tragedy is laced into the lyrics, but many of them could today seem to apply to a busted romance as much as a national tragedy. Plus, perhaps out of a sense of national obligation, this album marked the first time Springsteen’d reunited with The E Street Band in 18 confounding years. It was such a tough time for the country and having them back together making music was more comforting to me than all the tough “Dead or Alive” talk coming out of the White House.

The Essential Bruce Springsteen, 2003 -- That’s a pretty audacious title for someone with a backlog as deep as Springsteen. But it’s appropriate if for no other reason than one stunning song: “American Skin (41 Shots).” Originally included on a live album (one I didn’t purchase out of “live” fatigue), this raw song examines the true life/death story of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo who was gunned down by New York police in a tragic misunderstanding. The police were furious with Springsteen for his contention “that you can get killed just for living in your American skin.” The mother’s lament to her son that he understand the need to be polite, never run, and will keep his hands in sight is devastating. It’s hard to listen to this without a hanky handy. The haunting refrain “41 Shots” is repeated 41 times throughout the song.

Devils & Dust, 2005 -- Like the sublime “Tunnel of Love,” he again figures out how to do minimal with muscle. This is a lushly produced collection with all the bells ‘n’ whistles, not to mention the cellos, fiddles and trumpets. The title song’s great as is the lovely guitar/organ interplay on “Maria’s Bed.” But as “solo” projects go, this one’s just a warm up to the joy that was to come just 12 months later.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006 -- Just watching the video of “Jacob’s Ladder” made me want to drop everything I’ve been doing these past few decades and go out and learn how to play a tuba. I showed it to my young daughters and said, “This is why you want to play music in a band.” It is utterly joyful, as is the rest of this landmark album. Amazingly, this slapdash collection of bar tunes is among his very best. It’s the one to play at parties. It’s one of our greatest American musicians leading a band in some of our best American songs. Like the companion DVD done live in Dublin, he’s done something here that is completely separate and distinctly Springsteen. It’s so rich, so celtic, yet so utterly American.

Magic, 2007 -- This kicks off with a quartet of songs with a Jersey vibe that feels more like home than any Springsteen album since “The River.” After so many detours, this is a welcome band effort and reaffirmation of what drew us to Springsteen in the first place. On the surface, it all feels like good scrappy fun. The happy music, again, decoys lyrics that show how fearful he is for America that’s engaged in a misguided war being fought under a man for whom he cannot conceal his contempt. Mixed in with darkly critical songs like “Living in the Future” and “Your Own Worst Enemy,” are happy ditties like “I’ll Work for Your Love” and “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” -- and I just love the latter. It’s pure sunny magic.

Working On A Dream, 2009 -- If the 20-something Bruce Springsteen knew the 50-something Bruce Springsteen was going to write something as awful and hokey as “Outlaw Pete” in 2008, he’d have killed himself to spare his legacy the shame. At 8:01, it’s the longest song he’s released in 20 years and one of his worst. But what do I know? I enjoy the equally hokey, “Queen of the Supermarket.” The title song has a euphoric joy he clearly felt at the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. There’s a string of happy and optimistic songs led by “This Life,” “Kingdom of Days” and “Surprise, Surprise,” -- and wouldn’t it be fun to hear Gomer Pyle sing that one? The best news about this collection, his fourth in five years, proves he’s riding a creative crest that doesn’t look like it’ll be soon spent. This is his fourth album in five years and they’re all keepers.

Wrecking Ball, 2009 -- A surprise gem that has me hungering for Boss v. 2010. He’s singing about the demolition of Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, but it’s clear to me he’s also singing about himself.
“I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago

Through the mud and the beer and the blood and the cheers, I’ve seen champions come and go

So if you’ve got the guts, Mister, yeah, if you got the balls, if you think it’s your time then step to the line and bring on yer wrecking ball!

Bring on yer wrecking ball! Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you got and bring on yer wrecking ball!

America’s been through some difficult times. So has Bruce and his music. But with this song, America’s most articulate musical chronicler shows he’s not going down without a fight.

With him leading the way and back on track, neither will the rest of us.

So, there. That’s about 3,100 words to kick off my NaNoWriMo. Only 46,900 to go!

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Look, ma! No hands!" A pilot's story


I have yet to write United Airlines complaining about mistreatment during a recent free flight because I’m fearful they might respond with another free flight.

And I don’t think I could take that again.

The airline industry is today thrilled they can scapegoat Northwestern pilots Richard Cole and Thomas Cheney for using personal lap tops while they should have been devoting their full attention to the confounding sorcery required to keep 350-tons of tin aloft.

Their high profile carelessness allows airlines to boast they’re working hard to ensure pilots stick to business.

We’re already seeing declarations from airlines execs saying, in essence, “Fly with us! Our pilots turn off their personal entertainment devices the same time they tell you to turn off yours!”

And that, in our worst industry, is a now selling point. We’ve all spent the past year beating up on the beleaguered auto industry. But most of us like our vehicles and we love to drive.

Nobody likes the tedium of commercial flight, although I never dreamed that disdain would extend to the pilots themselves.

But I guess selling pilots who actually pilot is better than telling customers who’re already paying more than $275 to fly roundtrip from Newark to Atlanta, “Want to tote along an overnight bag? That’s gonna cost you.”

Same goes for snacks and pillows. Want ‘em? They’re gonna cost you.

Maybe I’m just sour from being marooned on the Greater Pitt tarmac for three infernal hours last month. Every 30 minutes or so, the pilot would come on and say , “It’ll be another 30 minutes or so.”

That’s a special sort of hell because we’ve all heard stories of those situations lasting for much longer. The toilets overflow, the kids cry and you collectively wonder if pack mule would be an easier way to get to Albuquerque where I was headed for a freebie travel story.

Upon landing, one of my fellow passengers bragged he pried a free night’s lodging, meal vouchers and a free flight out of the gate attendant.

I got squat. I told him I’d get home and write a letter demanding equal compensation. Six weeks later and I still can’t find the motivation to do so.

I’m worried they might agree to my demands and the awful cycle will resume.

The whole episode expands my I’d-rather-drive distance from about five hours to nearly 10. That means if I have to get to, say, Nashville, New York or Charlotte from Pittsburgh, I’d prefer to just hop in my car and drive.

There’s no oppressive security. I can take as many bags as I want. I can stop to eat when I feel like it. I have crystal clear coast-to-coast satellite radio reception.

Plus, the car has a trusty cruise control function for long stretches of interstate. Understand, just because it says cruise control it doesn’t mean I can pull out my laptop for a diverting game of Donkey Kong. I still need to focus.

That to me is the most surprising aspect about the Northwestern episode: how unnecessary actual pilots are to maintaining the folly of flight in today’s airplanes.

Whatever did happen in the cockpit that day, it’s clear the plane could have done just fine by itself while pilots Cheney and Cole were having a smoke break out on the wing.

It’s remarkable. Name me another occupation where the essential activity mindlessly rumbles on in the absence of the paid employee.

Mines need miners, high-tech prisons still need guards, and trash haulers have yet to conceive a way to get the garbage to just leap up into the stinking truck.

Even the humble act of blogging requires some engagement. For instance, if I were to just quit blogging right now, here’s of what you’d see:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But typists understand that even in that nimble simulation, I needed to engage in the act of tapping out period/space bar/period/space bar/period/space bar, so I was applying more concentration than the pilots entrusted with valued first class passengers and all the faceless rabble back in coach.

So, really, how long will it be before the airline industries seize on this new cost-saving feature that will have us yearning for the good old days when the humble basics were all part of the ticket.

“Want a pilot with that flight? That’s gonna cost you.”