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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Our most pleasant poison



My wife was furious. The kids wouldn’t take the poison. They cried. They screamed.
“Please! Please, Mommy, don’t make us do it!”
I’d had enough. I dragged them both into the bathroom and roughly put the poison in their mouths.
Then I took them to bed, knelt down and did a soulless auctioneer’s version of the “if I should die before I wake” prayer.
Finally, the house was at peace.
Just another night of trying to get the kids to brush their teeth with the only poison we put right in our mouths.
It’s true. It’s there on every single toothpaste dispenser.
“WARNINGS: Keep out of the reach of children under 6 years of age. If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center.”
Every tube of toothpaste contains enough poison fluoride to kill a deer. 
I thought I’d read or written newspapers stories about every single way a human being choose to end his or her life. There’s self-severed arteries, hanging, automotive involvement -- daily gore galore.
Yet, I’ve never once seen a story of authorities finding a sweet-smelling corpse that OD’d on Crest.
Wouldn’t be a bad way to go, you’d think.
I’ve been sentimental about toothpaste lately because I finally emptied my favorite 8-year-old toothpaste. Some fine whiskeys are considered premium after just seven years.
The toothpaste in my dispenser was 8. It had a heady aroma, a piquant aftertaste and what wine enthusiasts call “a good nose.”
It was a pharmaceutical sort of souvenir I purchased at a chain drug store down along the Riverwalk in San Antonio, a town you can really sink your teeth into.
I was about 12 before I realized the common toothbrush wasn’t made from precious metals. That’s because whenever I left home for the night, my mother would always say, “Don’t forget your toothbrush!”
She never said, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth!”
The emphasis was on having it on my person, as if it were some magic talisman that would ward off vampires and other boogiemen. That could have been true because I never did forget my toothbrush and was never troubled by otherworldly evils.
But one day I came to realize that a cheap toothbrush could be had for about $2 and most hotels gave them away for free if you said you forgot your own.
Same with toothpaste. 
I don’t know why I felt compelled to buy a plastic dispenser of Colgate toothpaste on the Riverwalk, but I’m going to do it again next time I go someplace splendid like San Antonio.
This was my travel toothpaste. I kept it in my suitcase and later at my Mom’s when I started spending more time there.
I’ve known this toothpaste four years longer than I’ve known my second daughter. She’s a good kid, but there’s something to be said about enduring familiarity.
And every time I’d brush my teeth I’d think about the fine time we had there in San Antonio in 2002. It’s a great town and Riverwalk may be the best city amenity of any town in America. And nearby The Alamo is a stirring shrine to heroism and an oddly inspiring name for a popular rental car company.
Why any business would want to associate itself with historic slaughter is a mystery. But Alamo seems to be doing well. Who knows? Maybe one day some entrepreneur is going to make a fortune franchising Pearl Harbor Dry Cleaners.
The Colgate really became special to me in October 2005. That’s when the toothpaste reached what it said was its expiration date.
I never pay the least bit of attention to expiration dates.
They are a corporate ploy to get us all to toss perfectly fine products and run out and buy more. Things like toothpaste aren’t like milk. They don’t go bad. If anything, the lethal capabilities of the poison are likely to diminish.
So for the past five years or so every time I used a pea-sized drop of toothpaste I’d feel like I was giving the finger to the greedy shills at Colgate-Palmolive HQ in New York.
It’s been empty, as empty as toothpaste can be, for a month now and it still perfumes the air with minty freshness with just a little squeeze.
So all hail toothpaste!
In a world riddled with so much toxic violence, it’s nice to know there’s at least one poison so pleasant that every day it does something dazzling to brighten all our smiles.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Prank phone calls, now and then





The girls roared with laughter as their devilish pranks confused the sweet old woman on the receiving end of the call.
They were reveling in their first prank phone calls, a malicious pastime that delights one party while it mostly infuriates the other.
Me, I stood back overcome by a misty wave of nostalgia for the distant glory days of the prank phone call. 
I’m not a ashamed to admit it, I was a master.
I used to entertain for hours my friends with the wit, daring and redundant drive of my drunken midnight phone calls to sleepy friends, impatient businesses and anyone foolish enough to have listed telephone numbers.
Alas, it’s a day that’ll never return.
This was clear because the only person our daughters could get away with pranking was my white-haired mother and the only pranks they could conceive were ones involving current pop stars or famous men and women who sound nothing like girls ages 9 and 4.
And they kept using terms of familiarity the alleged callers never would.
“Hello, Nana! This is President Obama!”
That was the 4 year old, who sounds nothing remotely like President Obama.
Of course, my mother reacted with delight to the names she recognized -- Elvis, Oprah and Jesus Christ (and what an auspicious trinity of callers!) -- but was mostly confused when my 9 year old called back four or five times within four or five minutes purporting to be Kevin Jonas, Zac Efron, Hannah Montana, Ryan Seacrest and Selena Gomez.
I didn’t want to ruin their fun by telling them about the good old days. That was before caller ID.
If it sounds like I’m disparaging that technological advance I don’t mean to.
I think caller ID, or as I call it “the in-law detector,” is one of man’s greatest inventions.
Thanks to caller ID, I can avoid awkward conversations with fathers-in-law, sisters-in-law and any friends-in-law who I’m sure likewise loath making microscopic small talk with me, too.
But with every advance, there is a retreat. Caller ID has made it impossible to go anonymously crashing into the lives of distant strangers for mischievous fun.
Used to do it all the time.
“Hello! This is David Letterman Where have I reached?”
The real David Letterman used to start hundreds of random phone conversations with those very words. And people were delighted to talk to the famous late night talk host.
They were equally delighted to talk to someone merely pretending to be David Letterman, as I did on numerous occasions.
Some would hang up after a few minutes. Some would talk so long that me and my audience would get bored. We’d expose the prank and begin insulting the intelligence of the target.
Then one of two things would happen. One, the person would get quiet and sad sounding. Then I’d turn into Dr. Phil before anyone knew Dr. Phil. I’d dig to the root of what was really bothering them.
It was amazing how many people would open up to a total stranger about their inner most problems, even when the stranger had already been exposed as a giddy fraud.
It was fascinating. As these were uniformly Ohio University college students we were calling, the problem usually involved the opposite sex. I would tell them, “Hey, cheer up. This is Athens, Ohio. You’re bound to get laid in a week or two!”
Even better was when, and this happened frequently, we’d land someone with anger management issues.
I remember explosions of fury at our daring interruptions. It’s when I first began to learn just how stupid some people are. Typical was this shouted response:
“Come over here! Come to my house! I’ll kill you! I’ll rip your @%&$-ing head off!”
Any person with a self-preservational bent like myself would never respond to such a hostile invitation. It would be suicide.
So instead, cocooned in our anonymity, I’d say, “I’ll be there in 20 minutes. I’ll be wearing a Domino’s pizza uniform and I’m going to kick  . . . your  . . . ass!”
I'd hang up and my friends and I would wrestle with the morality of dialing Domino’s and having a pizza delivered to that address, but none of us could live with the result of sending a hapless delivery man to face certain annihilation.
So we just put a big star by the guy’s number so we’d remember to call back, much later, much drunker.
Had that happened today, thanks to caller ID,  that same man would track me down and I’d be just another sad statistic in this age of rage.
The girls’ calls had me thinking a lot about those nights. I remember the glee animating my one friend when he talked about a then-distant day when the camera phone would revolutionize prank phone calls.
“Imagine in the future when people with camera phones will be able to call other people with camera phones. They’ll answer and all they’ll see on their phone is a giant butt!”
Do that now and your ass will wind up being ridiculed on Facebook pages around the world.
If it already isn’t. Social networking is rife with stories of stumbling innocents betrayed by a bystander with a camera phone.
Alas, we’ve eliminated the middle man. 
Most of our most vicious pranks are now the ones we play on ourselves.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Bucs need Barry Bonds




It’s time, for the good of the game, to bring baseball’s most disgraced player back to baseball’s most disgraced franchise.
Yes, it’s time to bring Barry Bonds back to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Bonds, who turned 46 on July 24, is under federal indictment for charges stemming from his enthusiastic embrace of performance enhancing drugs. He without fanfare retired after the 2007 season just 65 hits shy of one of baseball’s most hallowed landmarks, the 3,000 hit club. Only 27 men in history have achieved the milestone.
The Pirates, his old team from 1986-92, should offer him a one-year contract with the goal of him becoming the third Pirate to get 3,000 hits. The pursuit would be one of the most comical and compelling spectacles sport has ever witnessed.
The often vacant stands at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park would overflow with fans eager to alternately cheer and heckle the surly, tired old slugger. Pirate fans, me included, still haven’t forgiven him for his many villainies.
He was a joyless mope, he couldn’t hit in the clutch and -- worst of all -- he failed to throw out a gimpy legged Sid Bream in the most heartbreaking playoff loss in Pittsburgh history.
A golden era of baseball was passing, a grim new one dawning. Rampant greed and performance enhancing drugs were about to ravage the game as never before.
For the Pirates, the long, steep decline started with the departure of Bonds’s buddy, Bobby Bonilla. The erratic right fielder left Pittsburgh for the hated New York Mets. The Pirates had offered him $25 million for five years (today four players make in excess of that per year).
Bonilla demurred saying he “needed to take care of his family,” a contention that led flabbergasted Bucco manager Jim Leyland to blurt out, “His family? For $25 million, he could take care of Guam!”
It was the early 1990s. Gasoline was $1.09 per gallon, phones were still tethered to walls and the only Cyrus tormenting American pop culture was Billy Ray and his Achy Breaky Heart.
In fact, Mylie Cyrus, born November 23, 1992, has never drawn breath while the once venerable Pirates, winners of five World Championships, were winners. No team in professional sports has ever gone as long without a winning season.
The news probably wouldn’t trouble the singer whose song, “Party in the USA” brought my daughter, 9, to her feet yesterday as we watched the feckless home team lose to the San Diego Padres 6-3.
Tell folks you’re taking a 9-year-old girl to watch the Pirates and many, my wife and mother included, will look at you like you like you left a dainty poodle in the car at noon with the windows rolled up.
They think it’s inhumane.
Nonsense. I adore baseball. I knew, win or lose, my daughter would enjoy the festivities -- and that’s without even getting her drunk on $7.25 warm Bud Lights.
Skeptics say baseball’s boring. I believe the world could do with a little more mandatory boredom. 
Baseball invites fans to be as focused or as distracted as they like. I’ve been to games where I was so focused I actually kept a score sheet detailing the result of every pitch. And I’ve been to games where I was so distracted by related activities that I’ve dozed through the final innings, the long ride home and didn’t learn the outcome until past noon the next day.
Of course, there’s nothing like being in a city when the baseball team’s compelling. Every pitch counts. It unites even the most beleaguered of cities.
That’s what would happen overnight in Pittsburgh if the Pirates signed Bonds, even if it was to pinch hit his way to 3,000.
It would be the talk of the sporting world. And it would be mutually beneficial to both Bonds and the Pirates.
Bonds, as the most hated man in baseball, would have a chance to redeem his dismal reputation. Perhaps he’s eager for another shot at those 65 tantalizing hits to 3,000.
The Pirate would sell tens of thousands of tickets, and I’m sure Bonds would agree to play for the league minimum.
It’s not like he has to take care of Guam or something.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My 25 most played songs


It was about a year ago when my computer blew up. I didn’t lose anything, but it wiped out the play count from my iTunes library. This is not insignificant.

I try to play every one of my 7,857 songs at least once a year. The play count function helps me realize if I’m overlooking something worthy.

Before last year’s computer malfunction, I had five years worth of tallied play counts and had played every single song at least three times with three cracking 100 plays.

Now with just one year of regular play, the list seems unsettled. There are more of the newer ones than the old standbys.

So this is not a “best of” list, rather it is a list compiled by iTunes of the 25 songs I’ve played the most in the past 12 months.

It’ll be interesting to see just how much the list changes in two or five years, supposing the dang computer makes it that long.

Check it out:

25. Star Star, Rolling Stones, Goat’s Head Soup, 1973 -- I think this is one of the three greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever recorded. The other two are “Sunspot Baby” by Bob Seger, and “I Saw Her Standing There” by The Beatles, but that’s a whole other argument. This one's just total filth and raunch and I find that very appealing.

24. Sometimes We Cry, Van Morrison, The Healing Game, 1997 -- This elegiac masterpiece is one reason why "The Healing Game" is one of Van's best.

23. Rocks Off, The Rolling Stones, Exile On Main Street, 1972 -- I played this album a lot this year during the hoopla over its re-release. The feeling I get every time I hear it is exactly the same as when I first lowered the needle into the groove of this, the first cut, from rock’s best album

22. The Devil You Know, Todd Snider, 2006 -- Download this, print out the lyrics (they’re rapid fire enough to warrant it) and turn it up to 11. The initial guitar blast jolt will knock you on your ass. Recover and sit back and laugh at raucous storytelling at its profane best. The East Nashville setting is one I know well from my Music City days.

21. Cheer Down, George Harrison, Best of Dark Horse, 1989 -- As you’ll see from this list, I’m drawn to many of the parts of great machines, the solo work of people who made their marks in much bigger bands. This is a playful Harrison song from when he was becoming involved with his second truly super group, The Traveling Wilburys. This was written and produced with Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty.

20. This Hard Land, Bruce Springsteen, Greatest Hits, 1995 -- Last October I wrote about how I spent four days doing nothing but listening to Springsteen, the good and awful, in chronological order over four days straight. It was really fun and he’s compelling enough to warrant the exercise. This song is the joyful essence of the Boss, thus it is the essence of America.

19. Bigger Wheel, Stephen Bruton, From The Five, 2005 -- My wife and I have been enormous fans of the obscure solo stuff from this Texas session player for years. Kris Kristofferson called Bruton his soulmate. Besides, K.K., he’s written and recorded with Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Carly Simon and a host of others. But his solo stuff is outstanding. He’s finally getting his due as co-producer with T Bone Burnett on the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack. Alas, this under-heralded great succumbed last year to cancer. His music however will live on in our hearts forever. His “Right On Time” from 1995 was in the mix at our wedding party (and that ought to tell you plenty about what kind of party it was). This one kicks more ass than a team of angry mule drivers.

18. Thunder On the Mountain, Bob Dylan, Modern Times, 2006 -- Should be on everyone’s most played list if for no other reason than Dylan somehow manages to rhyme “orphanages” with “sons of bitches.” My wife, no Dylan fan she, still nods in mirthful appreciation every time she hears that one.

17. Monday Morning Church, Alan Jackson, What I Do, 2004 -- As I mentioned yesterday, an hour spent listening to really good country music is like an hour spent reading the Bible while the Rev. Billy Graham plays the fiddle nearby. This song about the death of a man’s beloved wife and his subsequent loss of faith will rip your heart out. I stopped listening to it when the kids are in the car. I don’t want them to see Daddy cry.

16. Vacancy Sign, Quinn Fallon & Los Gravediggers, If Heartbreaks Were Highways, 2009 -- I’d be a big fan even if Quinn weren’t a good buddy from 20 years ago. His most-played list would make for a great party, too.

15. Loose, Ray Wylie Hubbard, A: Enlightenment B: Endarkenment (Hint: There is no C), 2010

Even her mama said she was always trouble
Promise a man everything, give him half then charge him double


14. Choctaw Bingo, James McMurtry, Saint Mary Of The Woods, 2002 -- If it’s true every father wants their child to do better and be better than themselves, then this Texan’s Daddy got his wish. No small feat considering the old man is Larry McMurtry, Pulitizer Prize winning author of “Lonesome Dove.” His stories, cadence and deadpan delivery make every song riveting.

13. There Ya Go, Alan Jackson, What I Do, 2004 -- This has an artificially high ranking because it’s one I do play lots in the car hoping the message will sink into the girls’ noggins. It’s about overcoming life’s disappointments with grace and the understanding we can all help each other through this stumbling dance called life.

12. Saint James Infirmary, Van Morrison, What's Wrong With This Picture? 2003 -- A traditional folk song given the full robust blues blowout by a master. The dizzy horn crescendo makes musical madness sound like something worth succumbing to.

11. 5.15 A.M., Mark Knopfler, Shangri-La, 2004 -- I guess if there’s one song on this list I’d urge you to download, this is it. It’s mesmerizing and tells a story I’m still unable to puzzle out, which makes it even more compelling. The world is the poorer when even many tasteful people are asked about Mark Knopfler they reply, “You mean the guy from Dire Straits?” With every new textured album, he makes Dire Straits -- as great as they were -- a bit of an afterthought. 


10. Celtic New Year, Van Morrison, Magic Time, 2005 -- A joyful dance through the clover. I’ve never traveled to Ireland, but thanks to this song and many bottles of wine I’ve been there many, many times. Play this album for anyone who mistakenly believes “Brown Eyed Girl” is still Van’s best.

9. Where are you Tonight, Bob Dylan, Street Legal, 1978 -- So many Dylan songs get overlooked amidst the prolific clutter and magnificence. This is one of my favorites. It’s great rollicking fun.

8. Thanksgiving Day, Ray Davies, Other People's Lives, 2006 -- Not just the best Thanksgiving song ever, it’s one of the best holiday songs ever. It has soul, poignancy, and ragged horns and background vocals sentimental enough to coax tears. For four years now, I wake the family with this for Thanksgiving Day. What’s surprising is how much I enjoy it year round.

7. Just Us Kids, James McMurtry, Just Us Kids, 2006 -- In 5 minutes, 12 seconds, McMurtry chronicles the 40 years we spend going from getting high in high school parking lots to coming to terms with the dashed dreams that come from living hard, sad lives not meant for sissies.


6. She's Gone, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Abandoned Luncheonette, 1987 -- Took me 20 years to realize it, but this is one of the most perfectly crafted pieces of soulful pop ever recorded. Play it loud again and again and again.

5. Slit Skirts, Pete Townshend, All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, 1982 -- This might be my all time most played song. It still gets me every time the same way I heard it in Paul Romig’s Penn State dorm in 1982. Heck, it may have become my most played song that afternoon.

4. Workingman's Blues #2, Bob Dylan, Modern Times, 2006 -- So weary, so majestic. The song cascades and tumbles along for six exquisite minutes. The downtrodden lyrics pair perfectly with Dylan’s ragged rumble to somehow result in something oddly euphoric.

3. After the Fall, Ray Davies, Other People's Lives, 2006 -- In a land littered with great rock stars, Ray Davies and the Kinks have never gotten their due. I love the palpable rage, the despair and the forlorn struggle he details in this one. And I love the defiant assertion that it can all be overcome.

2. Get Lucky, Mark Knopfler, Get Lucky, 2009 -- It surprises even me that this gentle little lullaby of life ranks so high. I just play it all the time. It’s sort of a penny whistle children’s song about a simple man who never grew up. I find it inspirational.

1. One More Time, Ray Davies, Working Man's CafĂ©, 2008 -- So distinctly English, yet so universal, this one always feels like freedom. It’s a great singalong, too. For such a caustic and cynical person, he sings a with a lot of heart and with such a sweet voice. I can’t imagine a day when my top 25 most played doesn’t have at least something from Ray Davies and the Kinks.


So, there you go. Thanks for checking in and having a peek at some of the music that means the most to me.

I was sober while I listened to the songs and wrote this all up -- but that doesn’t mean you have to be.

Have a drink, put on some of your favorite tunes and enjoy the weekend.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cool/uncool music judged by ... me!


Our oldest daughter is getting to an age when peer pressure starts to sink its insidious claws into 9-year-old psyches.

I urge her at every turn to resist it. She should never follow the crowd. She should be independent.

“Being cool isn’t cool,” I advise.

Of course, this is an outrageous whopper. Being cool might be the most important element on anyone’s spiritual resume.

It’s always been essential to my existence. I put being cool above being right, being successful and certainly above earning tawdry wages.

So far, it’s all going according to plan. I’m never right, I never succeed and I don’t earn any money.

As the Fonz would say, “Ehhh!!!”

After years of educational brainwashing, Josie is starting to experiment in an area where cool detectors are their most reliable.

I’m talking about the realm of music. More than even eclectic literature, one gaze over anyone’s music collection will instantly demolish or cement the collector’s cool.

Josie’s lately enthralled with the music on Radio Disney. She seeks my approval for songs she think might resonate with a 47-year-old man.

“I hate to be cruel,” I say with vicious cruelty, “but no one should be permitted to make any music until their bodies are mature enough to have at least one body part that requires shaving.”

She gets defensive and says, surely, I listened to something similar when I was a kid. It’s music by kids for kids.

I wish I could hold my fire, but asserting my cool is more important to me than being a responsible parent.

“Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

She runs sobbing from the room and I’m left alone to bask in the glow of my own cool.

Check it out:

The first album I purchased with my own paper route money was Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the still-influential 1973 masterpiece I bought when I was 10. It still stands up even if the comically rotund Sir Elton barely does anymore.

The first concert I ever attended was in 1979. The headliner was the eternally cool Tom Petty. Even better (and more cool) was the opener was the great Joe Ely.

Anyone with a functioning car radio know’s what happened to Petty. He is one of America’s greatest rockers and maybe the coolest.

Ely is more obscure and that makes him even more cool. Besides opening for Petty, he’s opened for The Clash, The Kinks, The Stones and Bruce Springsteen, with whom he remains good buddies. Springsteen’s sung backup vocals for Ely several times, including on the searing “All Just to Get to You” from 1994’s classic, “Letter to Laredo.”

I’ve seen Ely more than a dozen times since and met him on several occasions.

I always tell him the story about how I saw him open for Petty: “I was in ninth grade! You were great! You were so cool! I had your picture on my wall! I’m your biggest fan!”

He always reacts the same way. He stares slack-jawed at me through his dark shades, nods once and walks away, which I learned years ago is the way cool people like him acknowledge other cool people like me.

So my cool bona fides are secure. My collection is filled with Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Srpingsteen, James McMurtry, Dixie Chicks, Todd Snider and Bob Dylan (every time I mention Dylan, a little bell goes off in Bob Levin’s head out in Berkeley, California. Hi Bob!).

I’ve written about cool music so many times I don’t need to go through it all again, at least not until tomorrow.

So today I’m going to take the risky -- but cool! -- step of telling you about what’s not in my 7,857-song collection. There are some notable omissions, some I defend others I cannot.

• ZZ Top -- I feature them on my www.EightDaysToAmish.com homepage. They are truly cool. I can’t explain why I don’t have at least one ZZ Top song. But I do know this much: ZZ Top in Russian is pronounced “Zed Zed Top.”

• Hanks I, II, III -- These guys combined have made hundreds of classic songs. Yet I only possess a few Hank Williams songs: “Born to Boogie” “There’s a Tear in my Beer” and, of course, “Family Tradition.” I really should get engaged with Hank III. His stuff’s great.

• AC/DC -- Never felt a burning need to embrace these great rockers. If I do, I can usually find them on XM satellite radio, to which I subscribe. Times are tough, but I’ll burn furniture for fuel before I cancel my satellite radio.

• The Eagles -- Love the peaceful, easy feeling I get from their songs. Great band. Great solo stuff, too. I love when “Lyin’ Eyes” “Sad Cafe” or “New Kid in Town” comes on the radio and they do so with enough regularity that I don’t need to clutter up my iPod with them.

• Steely Dan -- Just a few songs from these enigmatic geniuses: “My Old School,” “FM,” and “Hey Nineteen.” I keep them on a wonderful 166-song playlist of assorted singles and one-hit wonders.

• Pink Floyd -- I’m a grown man. If I want to feel comfortably numb there are recreational ways I can so without these tedious pseudo-rockers.

• Grateful Dead -- As with the Allmans and Phish, I’m not a jam band guy. Never have been. Never will. But I do like “Hell in a Bucket” and “Touch of Gray.”

• Rod Stewart -- He’s the voice behind so many great songs solo and with The Faces, but I can’t forgive him for the cheap money grab he’s made with this American Songbook nonsense. I deleted more than three dozen of his songs for his dastardly rock ‘n’ roll betrayal. I hope someday Keith Richards sees him in a pub and just beats the living crap out of him -- and wouldn’t that be a great pay-per-view!

• The Doors -- Most overrated band in rock ‘n’ roll history. The Doors I always love to slam.

• Led Zeppelin -- I have the Stones. I don’t need these guys.

• Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings/Merle Haggard -- These men are giants and an hour spent listening to really great country music is like an hour spent reading the Bible while Billy Graham stands nearby and plays the fiddle. But Alan Jackson and George Strait and my go-to guys when I’m up for traditional country, as I often am. Plus, I have lots of Johnny Cash.

• Townes Van Zandt -- The ultimate troubadour to all of my troubadour heroes. His adoring acolytes include Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Todd Snider, Ely and Lucinda Williams. Yet, I just can’t get into him. Maybe I know his soulful raggedness ends tragically with an alcoholic death at the age of 52, 44 years to the day after the death of Hank Williams. Lately I’ve been enthralled with Ray Wylie Hubbard who seems like a modern update who’s kept all his demons at bay. Hubbard’s “Conversation with the Devil” is a classic.

• Jimi Hendrix -- I keep thinking I ought to immerse myself in this genius, but I just can’t pull the trigger.

• Yes -- Uh, no.

My daughters would do well if their future playlists were loaded with music from the giants I’ve mentioned yet have for years ignored.

That is if they care about cool, something I counsel really shouldn’t matter.

Alas, for their old man, it’s too late. I got cool that just won’t quit.

Tomorrow I’ll list my 25 top played songs from my iTunes library. I’m doing it for purely altruistic reasons.

That way you can be cool, too!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When summer sucks


I guess for me the tipping point came as the checker-sized spider began its descent into my beer mug. That’s when I thought, “Gee, I’m looking forward to winter.”

It’s been five months since I was last up to my butt cheeks in snow and five months hence from when I could again be in that same bitter situation.

Happens all the time. I get fed up with what I once craved and begin yearning for what I used to loath.

The realization makes me want to secure weights to my torso and dive off a boat in the center of a very deep lake.

Here in western Pennsylvania we are blessed with four robust seasons -- and I love something about each of them.

But I resent the extremes mingled amidst the splendid moderation, clear skies and low humidity.

There are, I think, on average about nine whole days of that.

I’ve tried to weigh the conditions and determine which extreme makes me more miserable.

Right now, my misery meters are all flashing red, as are unprotected patches of my farmer’s tan.

On top of the recent heat wave, we’ve been two weeks now without air conditioning. That’s not as bad as it sounds.

We live up in the woods where it’s shady and cool. Even with a functioning air conditioner, we’d only be running it from about 4 to 7 p.m. to keep the day’s heat at bay and ready the house for comfortable slumber.

The worst part is that it’s noticeably cooler by about 3-degrees outside where a light breeze might ruffle the leaves. It be mostly pleasant if not for all the bees, spiders and mosquitos.

“Watch out! Everything that moves out here will either bite ya, stab ya or stick ya!”

That’s what Rooster Cogburn warned in “True Grit.”

It was true of the Wild West and it was true Saturday evening when my wife and I opened a bottle of wine to sip on the porch after our itchy little kids had gone to sleep.

It should have been the perfect antidote to all my agitation.

Instead, it only made things worse.

Bugs sturdy enough to penetrate the humidity commenced their assault. Nearby, mentally deficient neighbors began lighting cheap firecrackers. There would be no relaxing, no romance.

This is the primal edge winter has over summer. Cold induces snuggling. Heat impedes it.

Winter affords us a caveman comfort with plenty of soulful solace.

We huddle around the hearth, sip hot chocolate and settle in for a long day of family TV. Photoshop Lassie in the corner and the tableau would be heartwarming enough to sell war bonds.

In fact, winter’s main problem is an excess of cabin fever solace.

I think of this on the porch as I watch my family behave as if it has joined one of those self-flagellation sects.

Val’s rhythmically slapping random parts of herself. The oldest daughter seems intent on impressing us with her coordination by using her right hand to slap insects lighting on her belly while her left hand scratches her right shoulder.

The youngest, God help her, is running in circles trying to scratch an unreachable back itch. She reminds me Curley, everyone’s favorite Stooge, running circles on the floor.

I don’t notice the spider until is is about two inches from my nose and making a cross-insect bee line for my beer. I’m hypnotized by the exotic bug and outraged that it might take my beer without seeking permission.

Josie sees it and screams.

The shout shakes me free of my stupor. I bring my hands together like mighty invisible crash cymbals. Bug guts fly and the still twitching octoped lands in my Yuengling.

With a stony calm I hope she’ll recall when she thinks about doing things that upset me like go on a date, I ask Josie to dispose of the beer and fetch me a fresh one.

The girls wisely keep their distance the rest of the stifling night.

And that’s my tipping point. I’ve had it with summer.

And I reserve the right to reverse this complaint in five months when the snows are up to my ass and the family solace is practically streaming out my wazoo.

Friday, July 16, 2010

BP = evil/ Old Spice = good


I don’t for a minute believe BP when it says it’s capped the well. I think they have a stage set with a Top Hat rig in a pool about 20-feet deep they’re using to simulate competence.

Look carefully enough at the tape and in the dim background you can glimpse BP men walking around on their way to meetings where they plan wars, famine and the futures of men like LeBron James.

Who knows what kind of menace you’ll see if you look deeply enough into BP?

This is a company of such grandiose evil you have to believe Darth Cheney’s somehow involved.

Now comes the news that BP was behind the release of murderous terrorist Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi -- and I hate him even more now that I had to type and spell check such a long and awful name.

It’s outrageous.

I understand a certain ruthlessness is required to run a global conglomerate that earns obscene profits that number in the billions.

You need to deceive governments, your customers, your stockholders and daily do unethical things that would cause terminally poor men like me to lose sleep at night.

But this deal with Libya goes beyond the pale. What business in the name of profit leans on a government, in this case Scotland, to free a man responsible for the terrorist deaths of 270 innocents?

And what government says, yep, sure, you can go free and live out your years in the comfort of your loved ones where you’re considered a hero for your deadly villainies.

In America, this would be an impeachable offense.

I don’t cast my votes in Scotland and am in one of those all-too-common situations where I want to lash out at a target too nimble to hit.

I don’t drink Scotch, preferring all-American bourbon, so I can’t hit them there.

The boycott BP movement isn’t satisfying either. That’s taking it out on the little guy who runs a mini-mart that just happens to be linked to what is right now is the world’s most damaged brand.

I doubt any mom ‘n’ pop started their franchise by saying, “Pa, what the good people in this neighborhood really need is a place to buy good ol’ BP gas. It’s the best gas. It’s good for their cars and the BP rep gave me his word the company will never do anything to disgrace our affiliation.”

The guy’s probably like me. He couldn’t care less if he sells BP gas, Exxon or some other petroleum product.

Gas isn’t like underarm deodorant, a product that requires some brand loyalty. Like my dad, I’ve always been an Old Spice man, a patronage that’s currently being rewarded by its association with the funniest ads ever seen on TV.

(“Swan dive! Into the best night of your life!”)

I buy gas based on need. When the gauge starts to edge toward “E,” I pull over to the nearest filling station. I don’t feel like I’m being disloyal to Sheetz if I stop at the Get Go. I don’t think the car’s going to run angry if I fill up with Exxon instead of Chevron.

I couldn’t care less.

So there’s nothing a guy like me can do to punish BP for its treachery.

All I can do is hope that one day, and I pray it happens soon, we find a cheap and clean alternative to oil that is at the root of so many environmental and foreign policy problems bedeviling this godforsaken world.

And I don’t want something incremental. I want it to be an overnight sort of sensation.

I’d love to see President Obama break into programming with a stunning announcement that tomorrow at noon every car in America will be fitted for free with glove box converters that will allow vehicles to run in perpetuity on just one slim dispenser of Old Spice High Endurance Deodorant Stick.

Know what I’ll do?

I’ll buy everyone at the bar a shot of good ol’ Kentucky bourbon and together as one we will swan dive into the best night of our lives.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My good deed


It was more a wish than a prayer, more an expression of dissatisfaction that I was unable to have more of an impact on humanity.

I thought, gee, I wish I was in position to do more good deeds.

That’s the kind of thinking I do on my daily strolls around the neighborhood.

I’m not talking about saving cats from trees or diving in front of a bullet intended for an unworthy target. I don’t have an urge to don a cape and save the world.

That sounds like a lot of work to a guy so lazy he’d rather earn community scorn by letting the hedge grow to such unsightly lengths that the neighbor will just cut it himself rather than wait for me to do it.

But I thought it would be nice to help some little old lady across the street so she’ll know the world isn’t as scary as the headlines all hint.

Lo and behold, not a half mile into my walk the opportunity to do a true good deed nearly fell in my lap.

It wasn’t a little old lady. It was a big middle-aged one.

My description will sound contrived but I swear it is factual.

She was what Dr. Hannibal Lechter described as “roomy.” That was his euphemism for a woman of large proportions. She had stringy hair, was sweating profusely and, as I was about to discover, she had no front teeth.

It may be unkind, but my first impression was that from behind she resembled a pack mule, an observation based on her appearance and her apparent mission. She was carrying six plastic bags strained full with groceries -- three bags in each hand -- and a surf-board sized raft of generic toilet paper.

She and I were both walking in the same direction on this humid, 85-degree day. I was gaining on her fast. She set down one armload of bags to adjust and catch her breath.

Now, understand, I didn’t specify in my wish that the recipient of my good deed resemble a movie star.

That didn’t enter my thoughts. So if this was a test, I passed with flying colors.

“You look like you could use a hand,” I said.

She smiled, a little embarrassed, that toothless smile scary enough to make an orange jack-o-lantern green with envy.

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” she said.

Nonsense, said I. I’m out for a walk. Please let me assist.

It didn’t take too much convincing for Donna to agree. I told her I was happy to help. With sweat drops rolling down both of our noses, we proceeded.

She had about a mile to go, she said. No, she didn’t own a car. She walked about once every two weeks to the grocery store and lugged it all back to her Main Street home.

She was very pleasant and grateful, but I was struck by how much awkward silence is involved in a mile-long walk with a perfect stranger.

She’d certainly seen enough TV to know that lots of no good trouble can come from walking home with a stranger. And, me, I’ve read enough Penthouse Forum letters to know that interesting things can happen when meeting a stranger.

She may have wondered if I was a psychopath (I’m not, at least, not yet). She may have wondered if I was going to ask for money or sex. I wondered if she was going to offer me sex.

It wasn’t easy work and may have been worth a little sex. The bags were heavy.

“You’re making me carry the heavy ones, aren’t you?” I joked.

If she was nervous about me, she gave no hint of it. She smiled pleasantly almost the whole way. I think she was really grateful I came along when I did.

I was glad, too. I wonder if Donna would have gotten into my car if I’d have pulled over to offer her a ride.

Probably not. I doubt I would.

During one of our block-long silences I started hoping my friends and people from church would drive by and recognize me.

The sight of me walking and carrying the groceries of a strange, large woman armed with enough toilet paper to weather a nuclear winter would have made for a great scandal, one I’d have been happy to encourage.

We did look like a couple, I’m sure. She was smiling because someone had stopped by to ease her burden on a miserable day.

I was smiling because my spontaneous urge to do a good deed had been fulfilled. It gave me a soulful sort of happiness to have by chance been in a position to help someone who really needed it.

I got to her door, set the groceries down, said I was glad to have been able to help and enjoyed meeting her.

She smiled a big, toothless grin and spared us both any additional awkwardness by just saying thanks rather than inviting me in for a topless massage.

I felt so good on the long walk home I decided that tomorrow I’m going start my walk by wishing my activity would include the discovery of a million dollars.

I’ll let you know if that works out as good as this did.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Now ear this!


I peered deep into our 9-year-old’s right ear the way germ-detecting scientists peer into microscopes.

I was looking for Michael Phelps.

“I don’t see any swimmers in here,” I said.

Nine is an age when “Dad” becomes a two-syllable word.

“Da-ad! Swimmer’s ear doesn’t mean there’s a swimmer in my ear,” she said. “It’s an infection.”


That’s what the doctors say, but I’m suspicious of the entire medical profession.

In evil collusion with the dastardly pharmaceutical industry, they invent diseases and spend millions on saturation advertising to convince us we suffer from every day symptoms like sleeplessness and agitation, which to me are symptoms of things like parenting and being gainfully employed.

Next thing you know we’re eating pills the way we should be eating vegetables and we’re worried about side effects like suicidal depression, colored urine and three-hour erections.

We’re all being doctored to death.

And I’m even more suspicious of the human ear, God’s worst design.

I revel in the grandeur of a beautiful sunset, the forrest in autumn and the sight of a child running with outstretched arms toward a kneeling loved one.

There is so much splendor to savor in this world.

But what happened when God designed the human ear? It looks like it was done by interns eager to dash off to the Happy Hour.

We vainly lavish plastic surgeons with millions to shave fractions of an inch off our noses, we get our lips plumped and the drooping skin on our necks and foreheads tucked back behind our temples.

But no one ever does a thing about the ugliest part of human being north of the disgusting foot.

They hang prominently from our heads like the shutters of old haunted houses. They look like a Google Earth map of the LA freeway system.

They make no sense. They are a confusing tangle of gutters.

Really, the only thing the design is good for is keeping glasses from sliding off our heads and letting us identify society’s biggest jerks by giving them a place to stick their Bluetooths.

Sure, they make great handles if you’re interested in assaulting a bald man, but that only benefits the belligerent.

Sturdy pegs could handle all those simple tasks, although that design might pose additional discomfort for mothers during childbirth and no one who’s ever witnessed that ordeal would favor that solution.

One of my favorite bits of trivia includes another ear flaw. While the rest of the aging us is giving into gravity and getting more diminutive, the ear is always on the march.

It’s true. The eyes with which we’re born remain the same size from birth to death, but the ear and the nose (and I’ve got issues with them, too), never stop growing.

Ever see the ears of a really old person? You see less sizable kites at hang gliding conventions.

We should have ear lids like eye lids. If we want to jump in the water or some punk kid is playing the Lady Gaga too loudly, we just shut our ears the way we shut our eyes when we see Lady Gaga on TV.

And that would seem like a solution to the swimmer’s ear that’s plaguing our darling Josie.

You never hear of a dolphin suffering from swimmer’s ear and the only time they stick their heads out of the water is to nod for the trick reward anchovies at places like Sea World.

Val said the nurse at the Virginia Beach doc in the box told her there’d been 15 other kids with swimmer’s ear there already by that afternoon.

Each of their parents had to shell out $150 for a minuscule quantity of ear drops that is less than what will come vaulting out my nose when the summer allergies soon start me to sneezing.

When Val told me the drops were $150, I couldn’t believe my ears.

But I think the same thing anytime I see them in the mirror.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The TV has become the penis


Readers who enjoy vicarious woe are in for a splendid couple of weeks because a wave of woe is crashing upon me.

First off, car trouble. The very day I sent in the final payment on my 2007 Saturn Vue, I had to spend $783.57 to fix something that sounded vaguely pancreatic to me.

I understand as much about vehicular mechanics as I do human organs like the pancreas. I have no idea what my pancreas does, if I need it or how to fix it when it stops functioning.

So when the mechanic starts talking about degraded idler arms and mevotech drag links, I start nodding like a chicken in the rain and just get out the checkbook, once again wishing Dad had steered me into a garage instead of a golf course when I was growing up.

Then during the hottest week of the year our air conditioner broke. My HVAC guy said it would take $650 to fix it, but he had a better idea.

“You could get a new heat pump that’ll improve the efficiency of the whole system. I can get you a really nice one for $5,900.”

So now I have to hope for extreme winters and summers so we can realize rapid savings on our electric bills. A pleasant mild day when the furnace/AC unit idles will mean the expense is going to waste. I’ll only be happy when it’s Nome cold or Hell hot.

Then -- and this is the only misfortune that caused me to shed tears -- our 3-year-old 50-inch HDTV popped and went black while my wife was home alone watching. The repairman said it would cost $1,235 to repair the $1,500 behemoth, a foolish calculation when new ones could be had for less.

To me, it was like the day I heard John Lennon died.

I couldn’t believe it. I felt anger, denial, remorse. I wanted to lash out at the person I blamed.

That was my wife. She’s always hated the TV for the very reason I’ve always adored it. She thought it was too big.

Can you believe it? A TV that was too big? I try to avoid cliche profanity, but WTF?

Her hatred stems from my cunning subterfuge the day we bought it in 2007. We agreed on a nifty 42-inch set. Then the second she was out the door (conflicting schedules meant we’d taken two cars) I said to the salesman, “Okay, now I want you to give me eight more inches.”

It’s become impossible for a man to talk about TVs without it sounding sexual. That’s because televisions have usurped the penis as the way for men to prove their masculinity.

We boast about our inches. We talk about how it throbs with 2M 1080i pixel resolution and 100,000:1 lagoon contrast.

A big TV has become the true measure of a man.

It’s true. Right up until the moment he unveiled his breathtaking 56-inch HD monster, we all made fun of our one buddy behind his back for being such a nerdy poindexter (shout out to Ron Shannon, Latrobe, Pa.!)

So it’s not a metaphoric stretch to say the TV’s blindside destruction felt to me like a real kick in the nuts.

Call it Val’s revenge. When she insisted the new TV be no greater than 42-inches, my emasculation was complete.

I argued in vain that I was going to advance all the furniture three feet to compensate for the TV’s shortcomings.

So you see, it’s been a season of unrelenting dreariness for me.

Then on Thursday, finally, some really great news that makes up for all the despair.

My wife and kids left me.

Hallelujah!

Not for good, that would devastate me. I’m pretty sure.

I’m home alone while she’s taken the kids to spend four days with her sister and her five kids.

Talk about a two-fer for me!

I’m truly overjoyed by their absence and again left to wonder how the three people I love more than any others can make me so happy by leaving me all by myself.

So it’s beer for breakfast and donuts for dinner and I’m taking the new TV to Daddy Boot Camp.

I’m going to watch all the violent and profane things I can’t enjoy when the girls are around. That means “Hot Fuzz,” “Shaun of the Dead,” “Midnight Run,” “The Big Lebowski,” and the four-disc best of from the HBO classic, “The Larry Sanders Show.”

And I think I’ll give the nudist thing a try. Yeah, it’s a pleasant day. I’ll shuck the duds and watch TV in the buff.

Of course, I’m sure I’m in for some poignancy amidst my revelry.

I’ll be longing for those eight inches that aren’t ever coming back.

And, to be clear, I’m talking about the old TV, the only measure that matters.

x x x

Tweet of the Week @8days2amish: "There is no punishment too severe for the llama farmer who names any of his livestock Dolly."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Daughter, 4, thinks dad works too much


Conflicting reports from my observant daughters mean I’m either the hardest working man in America or the laziest.

Either way, the gig doesn’t pay squat.

I’ve based much of my identity on a sunny summer afternoon from 2006 when our oldest daughter, then 5, presented me with a Hallmark moment I’ll never forget.

She and her little trio of chums were busily cluttering the kitchen table with colorful scraps of construction paper. Nearby, I was cluttering the counter top with discarded bread crusts that would have rendered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches inedible to the quartet of 5 year olds.

It’s a conversation all children get around to and I was standing right there when the redheaded neighbor girl brought it up.

“What’s your daddy do? Mine helps sick people,” she said with estimable pride.

They went right around in a little circle.

“Mine fixes cars.”

“He builds homes.”

Then, in a matter-of-fact voice, my beloved Josie drove a stake through my self-image as a freelance writer who tried to appear professional. What does her daddy do?

“He plays with me.”

My first thought was, man, that’s not going to look good on the loan applications.

No one’s ever said on their death bed that they wished they’d have put in more hours down at the tire store or spent more time keeping the hedge trimmed.

Nope, it’s always, “Wish I’d have spent more time with the kids.”

I knew then that was one poignant lament I’d never need to utter.

Then our current 4 year old turned my world upside down after I told her I wouldn’t be there at the pool to toss her up in the air because I had to work.

She burst into tears and wailed, “Daddy, you always have to work!”

If on Monday at precisely 12:53 p.m. you were confused by a jarring sound that startled all the neighborhood dogs into howling, it wasn’t a sonic boom.

It was the collective jaws of my wife, my mother, my in-laws, my extended family, my banker, the IRS, all my friends and the wobbly multitudes who’ve ever shared more than one beer with me simultaneously crashing to the ground.

The kid’s wrong, honest. Even when I’m doing what I consider work, it’s really more make-believe work that I hope will one day lead to real work and, hallelujah, a really elusive paycheck.

My wife asks me if I’ve had a good day. I tell her I won’t know for six months.

During some recent e-mail banter, a buddy of mine responded to one of my barbs by sniping, “Why don’t you just go back to pretending you have a job?”

Just last week, my Mom had some friends over. “They asked me what you’ve been doing the last few years. I thought about it and said I didn’t really know. Just what do you do?”

Wish I could tell you, Mom.

I can’t apply for unemployment because I’ve never been employed. I’ve only had three real jobs in my entire adult life and one of them’s been at the Pizza Hut.

I guess I’m in some kind of occupational puberty. My “work” time is spent doing strange things that are disconcerting to grown ups, but I hope will one day grow into something productive.

It is, I admit, an awkward phase.

I’m getting gangbuster feedback from top publishers and agents on my novel and on another couple of non-fiction projects -- and these are real people with real jobs. I swear.

But telling people that just sounds like more evidence that I’m spending too much time in Fantasyland with my make-believe friends.

My real life buddies are always after me to golf more and to splurge on a golf trip with them to Myrtle Beach.

I tell them I’m really close to something good happening and I’m convinced it could happen any day now.

They’ve heard me say that about once a week since 1992.

Really, I believe in my heart I’m onto something and all the voices inside my head are in full agreement with me (I love those guys).

The good news is that now I have at least one person, a 4 year old, who thinks her old man is the hardest working daddy in the whole wide world.

And now it’s my job to prove her wrong.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Put some clothes on, America!


I passed up an opportunity to frolic with the family at the local water park this weekend and it was all because of one stranger’s big toe.

The offender’s neighboring toes weren’t about to win any beauty contests. They looked like witch teeth.

But it was the big toe on his right foot that has me avoiding water parks the way “Jaws” had us all avoiding oceans.

The cracked, yellowish purple nail extended from the foot the way departure planks extend from pirate ships. It seemed to stab out in menace at unassuming passersby. I saw it nearly harpoon a pudgy toddler mesmerized by his fudgesickle

You’d think a toe that dangerous would be banned from water parks for fear it would rupture inflatable rafts by the hundreds.

I know nothing of podiatry, but even a layman could see this damaged toe needed amputating.

I’d recommend from just above the waist.

Yet the owner of this toe bounded about without shame or care that the toe was disgusting to refined gents like myself, if anyone who stands in line to slide down into a pool filled with the urine of 9 year olds can be considered refined.

Understand, I love human beings and I love being human, but our level of over-exposure is verging on toxic.

I recently spent two days at a wonderful midwestern water park and concluded the water park is man’s most delightful non-alcoholic diversion since the advent of the bicycle. On a hot day, it simply can’t be beat.

Yet, the recreation’s rise has coincided with a time when our wanton exhibitionism (reality TV, YouTube . . . self-absorbed blogging!) has never been higher while we as a race have never been been en masse more visually repellent.

First of all, we are well beyond what the art critics used to call Rubenesque. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions. I’m surprised the earth still manages to revolve in just 24 hours. It’s got to be working harder than ever.

If we keep supersizing at the rate we’re going, the earth is going to have a heart attack before even we do.

I remember 10 years ago doing a story about the disappearance of the great American freak show and hearing legendary side show impresario Ward Hall lament that side shows have disappeared because people can see freakish behavior -- extreme body art, piercings, etc. -- at any mall in America.

“Thirty years ago I had a 300-pound Howard Huge that people gawked at for his enormity,” he said, “now the guy selling kettle corn three stick joints down from me weighs 400 pounds.”

We’ve lost our collective modesty and think nothing of letting it all hang out.

Tattoos were something exotic when Ishmael encountered Queequeg in “Moby Dick.”

Now they are so ubiquitous I believe it’s time they be regulated -- not for sanitary reasons, but artistic ones.

Nobody should be allowed to tattoo anything until they’ve mastered drawing on paper the little smiling pony the mail order art schools used to require for entry.

The country is rife with quack doctors, shyster lawyers and hack journalists, but one weekend at the water park convinces me no occupation is as poorly staffed as the one relied upon to decorate our nation’s hillbillies, rednecks and urban posers with replica tattoos to ensure their individuality.

The time in my life when even very drunk women were eager to see any part of me without clothing are now in the rear view mirror. And it’s taking a bigger and bigger mirror to for me to view my rear.

But what I can see ain’t pretty. There are fatty deposits, moles, ragged old hockey scars and unsightly patches of hair that make my back look like it belongs to a mange-ravaged gorilla.

It’s not something you want to see in a Speedo.

Then again in these days when we’re all just three stick joints from a garishly tattooed Howard Huge, what is?

Friday, July 2, 2010

A dog gone celebration


This weekend we’ll be shooting off fireworks, waving sparklers and saying solemn prayers of thanks that we’ve survived so much deadly tumult.

Coincidentally, it is the Fourth of July.

The 234th birthday of the greatest nation in history is secondary to the reason we’re celebrating. This is bigger than that.

On Saturday, Stella goes home. She’s my second cousin’s 6-month old black lab. We’ve been dog sitting her since Monday.

Ken Burns ought to do a documentary.

America’s survived presidential assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, Kate Gosselin and the multitudes who get their hair cut to look like her.

We’ve survived Stella.

Precocious is a word a lot of people use to describe a puppy like this.

I use crime spree.

The keystones of character I treasure in all canine companions are sweetness and stupidity.

Stella is wild and disobedient. And she’s cunning. If dogs like Stella ever develop opposable thumbs and figure out how to open refrigerator doors, the human race is finished.

“She’s just young and needs attention,” my wife says.

No, I say, she’s incorrigible and needs tased.

I think I could break her, but my daughters restrain me from dispensing the profane discipline I’d so like to deliver.

I try and carry a dish of spaghetti to the dinner table and she jumps on me. I hiss a string of barely printable invective at the dog. The 9 year old bursts into tears.

“Daddy! Stop being mean to Stella!” she cries.

I told her she deserves meanness.

“But it makes me worry you’re going to be mean to me if I’m ever bad.”

I say nothing.

Of course, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. When our youngest gets too big to cuddle, I’m going to inform the girls I’m pioneering an innovative parenting technique I’m calling “Conditional Love.” I’m only going to love the daughter that’s nicest to me.

But for now I’m saddled by parenting convention so I can’t be as mean to the dog as I’d like to be. Thus hamstrung, she’s turned me into a BP executive in the face of a natural disaster I’m impotent to contain.

This is never more evident than when she eludes our incarcerations and breaks out into the wild.

Really, any grown man chasing a disobedient dog must feel like Tony Hayward did in the early days of the endless gulf spill

There’s nothing you can really do. You look feckless even trying and your biggest concern is trying to appear like you care when all you’d really like to do is go back inside and let someone else deal with all the messy chaos.

But Stella broke loose yesterday on my watch. I had to fetch her.

I was in the neighbor’s spacious yard for 15 minutes running in circles after her -- “Stella! Stella!” -- and shouting threats even a dog understands are empty.

I began to realize just how stupid I looked when I saw the neighbors bring out lawn chairs and a cooler full of beer.

They know, too, this show is far from over.

See the girls want a dog. So does my wife (sort of). But we want them to understand just how difficult it is to be responsible for an animal that’s really as big a burden as a new baby.

I don’t want another dog.

So in order to inoculate ourselves against that eventuality, the only solution is to expose the girls to a dog so bad that they’re bound to have second thoughts.

That means more Stella.

And more me chasing after the dog named after the girl that drove Marlon Brando’s character insane in “Streetcar Named Desire.”

“Stell-a! Hey, Stell-ahhh! Hey, Stell-ahhhhhhh!!!”