Pledge Week! Pledge Now!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Let's just bury Salinger, not praise him


During his life, Garbo-like author J.D. Salinger wished to be left alone and I was more than happy to oblige him. I tried to stop thinking about him in high school shortly after they made me read “Catcher in the Rye.”

The perennial favorite of homicidal malcontents and high school English teachers everywhere, the book did nothing for me.

I like books that feature protagonists with whom I feel like I could sit down and enjoy an afternoon of convivial drinking and perhaps a fragrant cigar or two. Guys like Capt. Augustus McCrae and Jake Spoon from “Lonesome Dove” or John Joseph Yossarian from “Catch-22.”

When I say I’ve spent many hours with guys like Holden Caulfield you might think I was once a licensed psychiatrist. Not true.

It’s just that, thanks to Salinger, disaffected Caulfields are everywhere.

Ian Fleming gave us a dynamic indelible character with a license to kill.

Salinger’s greatest contribution was an irritating character with a license to mope.

Certainly, there are many worthy reasons to go through life in a constant bitch. Living ain’t for sissies.

But there was no reason for Salinger to be like that and that’s my beef with the author who went through life as our national literary blister. His spent his post-Rye days shooing away interviewers, prospective publishers and hounding lawyers to sue anyone who dared reference his work.

You can write a book about a moody and depressing anti-hero, but when it succeeds beyond your wildest dreams you had better dare not become one.

One of my favorite interviews of all time was with hack crime writer Mickey Spillane, with whom I had the pleasure of engaging in a minor correspondence after I did a story about him that revealed a surprising side to the guy who created cold-blooded dick Mike Hammer.

And shame on you if you snickered at my usage of the word “dick.” In Spillane’s day it was a perfectly respectable reference to a man who practiced the detective trade. It wasn’t until later that it became a pejorative reference to the male sex organ and a subject for another day.

I found out that Spillane was a door-knocking Jehovah’s Witness. It’s true. From his home in lovely Pawley’s Island, S.C., the thrice-married brother would go door-to-door and preach the gospel of a religion that one of these days I just might give a try.

I loved the thought that this world famous author, a star from a series of hilarious Miller Lite beer commercials in the 1970s, would show up and politely ask strangers if they had a moment or two to discuss their eternal salvation.

Was it odd, I asked him, that he’d made a fortune selling more than 225 million books based on a ruthless character who killed without remorse while in private life he preached a loving and kind religion.

“Not at all,” Spillane told me. “Too many writers mistake a trade for an art. I tell stories. Sure, they are stories about sex, murder and deception, but there’s lots of stories like that in the Holy Bible, too.”

Like Hemingway, Twain and Steinbeck, our greatest American authors, Spillane engaged life with gusto. When he died in 2006, not a single story referred to him as “reclusive,” the adjective most used to describe Salinger.

Well, now his reclusiveness is complete.

I think our greatest writers inspire us to live. Not write. When I read Twain, I don’t feel like sitting all by myself and making up stories. I feel like going out and laughing with family and friends. I feel like enjoying the gift of life.

Salinger inspired lots of people, too. He inspired people to believe that giving into the grim burdens we all experience was a mantle to wear with petulant pride.

The papers are full of stories today about how Salinger soured and wrecked relationships throughout his life and will be buried in the next day or so in a grave that will long go unmoistened by tears of those that knew him best.

Many stories will mention that when John David Chapman killed John Lennon in 1981 he was asked, man, why did you do it?

“Catcher in the Rye,” was all he said.

So if he’s one of your literary heroes, I hope you enjoyed him for the artistry of his work and not because you relate to his miserable characters or because of the author’s misanthropic example.

You can enjoy the book, but the guy was just a cold-blooded dick.

And I mean that one in the most modern usage.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Twitticisms

I suppose I was destined to embrace Twitter because I’ve always spoken fortune cookie. Check it out:

“Pray for riches and you’ll get nothing. Pray for wisdom and you’ll need nothing.”

I came up with that line a few months ago and immediately recognized it as a dandy little couplet. But what the hell am I ever going to do with it?

I don’t even buy it. Only fools would prefer a lot of wisdom to a lot of money.

The guys at the BMW dealerships don’t give Beamers for brains. It takes bucks.

That’s all the wisdom I need.

So until Twitter reared its dainty little feathered head, I didn’t have a place to use the gem that made any sense. So now I’m jumping into twitter with all eight fingers and one thumb.

Most recent Twitter post: “During all my typing commotion, my left thumb never even hits the space bar. When it comes to typing, my left thumb never lifts a finger.”

See, there you go. It’s a good line, but could I build an entire blog post around it? I don’t think so. So now I can use it and perhaps it’ll brain barnacle on someone who checks it out.

I don’t know whether 8days2Amish will become a farm team for www.EightDaysToAmish.com or vice versa. I think more than likely it’ll become a sort of greatest hits version of the blog.

It’ll be a place where I can take some of my best little nuggets and put them all in one big basket. I hope you’ll check it and encourage friends to do the same.

To save you the trouble of that, here’s the first 28 Tweets I’ve posted in the first week I’ve spent engaged in an endeavor I once ridiculed as being the province of vapid simpletons too weak-minded to engage in extended coherent thought.

Really, I may have been too harsh.

After all, if I limited my conversations to only intelligent people, I’d have to quit talking to even myself.

Hmmm . . . I think I’ll post that one!



-- A sleeping child in your arms is better than any drug. Problem is kids wake up. That's why there are real drugs.


-- Teenage girls who starve themselves to appear more like Hollywood anorexics ought to be called “slimitators.”


-- A single splash of water killed the Wicked Witch of the West. Logical conclusion: Not only was she evil, she also reeked.

-- We're all doomed to die, but if just one of us gets to live forever, I hope it's Keith Richards.

-- Dog's been dead 3 years. Sometimes I swear I can still smell his farts. It's either Casey's ghost or those were some powerful farts.

-- Someday I'm going to challenge the intellects of the airport security guys by trying to get through metal detectors wearing a suit of armor.

-- I ask more pointed and concerned questions of computer tech people than I did of our baby docs. Why? One earns money, the other spends it.

-- Being a writer is like being in a rubber raft way out at sea. Having tech problems is like being in that raft and hearing an urgent hiss.

-- If chickens ever start laying Cadbury eggs I'm becoming a chicken farmer.

-- Karma? Did two nice deeds for strangers today and came home to an IRS penalty letter. Then my computer jammed. Karma's crap.

-- People who refuse straws do not suck.

-- It's a cruel irony that things that could most benefit from alcoholic diversion -church, work, parenting - require at least some sobriety.

-- I have about the same interest in learning speed reading as I do in learning speed sex.

-- I hope heaven for Haitians is better for them than it is for guys like me. They sure deserve it.

-- I used to say bloggin was the writing equal of running a lemonade stand. Then I realized kids had the good sense to charge a quarter for lemonade.

-- The same people who say global warming is a hoax are the ones marveling at the snow & saying we haven't had a winter like this in 30 years.

-- Why are there locks on the lobster tank where I shop? If I'm a shoplifter, a live lobster is the last thing I'm stuffing down my pants.

-- Does anyone ever keep gloves in their glove box? I wonder if the dashboards on the space shuttles have glove boxes.

-- I love my family, but sometimes I need bar time with the boys the way worms need dirt. Happy Hour, here I come!

-- My 9-year-old daughter treats me like Moe treats Curly.

-- For the good of the show, American Idol should replace Simon Cowell with Dick Cheney. He'd be hilarious.

-- An hour spent listening to good country music is like an hour spent reading the
Bible while someone nearby plays a really good fiddle

-- Stephen King is the literary equivalent of an earth-devouring monster. Right now he’s killing my time. Yep, I'm reading "Under the Dome."

-- How do people from Wyoming, our most geographically square state, ever manage to think outside the box?

-- Times are tough, but I’ll burn the furniture for fuel before I give up my XM satellite radio.

-- Mick Jagger lecturing Ron Wood on polite behavior would be like me lecturing people on the need to be more industrious.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tech problems inflict Biblical torments

I always tell prospective authors that being a freelance writer is like being adrift in a rubber raft far out at sea. And that being a freelance writer with technical problems is like being in that rubber raft and hearing an urgent hiss.

My rickety little raft began to hiss on Wednesday and I’ve been sinking ever since.

It occurred to me while on one of the numerous multi-hour tech talks to Apple that I ask more concerned and pointed questions about how these self-proclaimed “geniuses” were going fix my computer than I did to the docs who were going to deliver our children.

It makes sense, really. One earns money. The other spends it.

Of course, it hasn’t been earning me much lately. But I still look at my $1,700 MacBook Pro like it is a magic genie. If I rub it just the right way it’ll make my fondest dreams come true.

Inside its cool chrome exterior are four non-fiction book proposals, a completed novel and the stark rejections from -- who knows? – maybe 1,000 agents and publishers who think I suck.

It’s no stretch to say that my relationship to my computer is like my marriage. I love it wholeheartedly and try and nurture it. If it’s sick, I fret about its well-being and have trouble sleeping.

I wonder what will happen to me if we part ways and I have to start all over.

This is being written on my wife’s shiny and pretty Toshiba and it feels like I’m committing an infidelity. I’m doing the same things with it that I do with my own computer, but it feels different to my fingers. It gives me strange warnings and nags me in ways I’m not used to being nagged. I touch some things expecting one reaction and I get another unsettling one.

My own computer has already suffered the technological equivalent of castration. I with a stroke of my own hand wiped out its hard drive. This, I was told, would fix the problems and allow me to re-install with a backup hard drive that I faithfully apply.

I’d only lose about two days of work and, I swear, I’ve convinced myself that during those two days I’d composed some of the greatest thoughts ever conjured. Those words are now gone.

So is my faith in backups. One genius darkly hinted that the problem could actually stem from the backup.

Now I’m contemplating getting an entire harem of illicit backups. My trust’s been shattered.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but as all the fixes were failing me I thought of turning to the omnipotent deity to whom we all look to for hope and fulfillment.

And I’m not talking about Steve Jobs.

Nope, I’m talking about the guy who Biblically bystands when another of his faithful sons, Job v.1.0 (no relation) endures a torment that had nothing to do with corrupt hard drives and invalid node structures.

In the book of Job, the Lord’s most faithful servant is bedeviled by Satan -- and bedevilment doesn’t get any more pure than that.

And the Lord lets it all happen as Job wonders wounded why.

During a dark time yesterday, I felt a kinship with Job. I wondered if prayer might help.

Then I thought that there was, for sure, some dying father trapped in the rubble down in Haiti saying prayers that needed hearing more than mine. I’d feel small if my prayer took priority.

So I’ll soldier on through my moral mess on my own. Today I’ll endure another marathon of ear-squashing tech advice, dashed hopes and, perhaps, a resolution that’ll allow me to come home to my computer.

And when it’s over, I’ll return to my little rubber raft and the currents will sweep me far, far out to sea.

Maybe someday my tech torments will end and I'll board a ship with a smart crew that'll free me from concerns that have nothing to do with the act of writing.

But that won’t happen until I can look myself in the mirror and make a career sea change.

I'll have to quit freelancing. I'll have to take this Job and shove it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Heaven for Haitians


I hope for the sake of fairness heaven is better for Haitians than it is for guys like me. And by “guys like me” I mean those of us who happen by chance to reside in places free of strife, famine, poverty or redundant natural disaster.

Poor, godforsaken Haiti’s batting 1,000 with that diabolical quartet.

Why some parts of the world are so cursed with enduring misery while others are so blessed with healthy abundance is a confounding mystery.

When guys like me have a bad day, it usually involves one our favorite professional sports teams losing a game and in which we had nothing but contrived emotional stakes.

Guys like me have a bad day when work’s not going well, traffic is a mess, and the forecast -- brrrr! -- calls for unseasonably cold temperatures.

A good day for guys like me usually involves a frolic with the family and maybe a round of free golf with friends at a club so posh that showing up to work there would probably strike many Haitians as heavenly.

Guaranteed, many Haitians would sell his or her soul to trade their $10 a week jobs for one day toting golf bags for $50 tips at one of our posh country clubs.

That would, I imagine, be heaven to them. Honest, if they ever have time to dream in Haiti, a safe menial job at lush places like Oakmont Country Club would seem like heaven.

We’re all seeing what a bad day for guys in Haiti is like.

It’s hell.

That’s why I hope, out of fairness, that Haiti heaven is better than the heaven for guys like me. They were so historically screwed just by being born that they’re due a real eternal break.

Many of us have been moved to tears by the poignant stories of people who left places like this to help people in places like that.

Just yesterday, altruistic angels named Jamie and Al McMutrie, sisters from Pittsburgh who’d been running a Haitian orphanage, made national news by shepherding 54 young Haitians to our hometown. Once settled here many of them will now grow up and some of them will become guys like me.

They’ll become Steeler fans. They’ll enjoy riding our scenic little inclines with loved ones they haven’t even met yet. They’ll make friends and duck out of work early to giggle at the Happy Hour.

I’m confident this will happen because, really, there are guys like me all over the place. We’re not out to rule the world. We just don’t want to get run over by it. We like to laugh and joke, sit in the shade when it’s hot and near the fire when it’s cold.

I marvel at the faith that inspires people to leave comfortable lives here and go to Haiti to devote their lives to caring for people for whom life is a daily struggle.

And God bless the people who are lining up to take these sad orphans into their homes and give them a chance to grow up to be guys like me.

I’d offer to do it but guys like me figure we already do our share. I gave $50 to UNICEF last week and went to bed convinced that I’d done my part and that there was nothing more I could do to help anyone.

When you think about it, it’s a wonder guys like me have the audacity to even speculate if a heaven he may never deserve to see will be superior to anyone else’s.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

This blog a Pittsburgh 'best of.' No kidding.


Pittsburgh Magazine's new website flatters www.EightDaysToAmish.com by naming it one of the five best blogs of The ‘Burgh (*).

As honors go, I’m ranking it just behind the “World’s Greatest Dad” beer mug proclamation my daughters bestowed last Father’s Day.

See, both were given by demanding authorities.

In the same year that I got the best dad beer mug from my girls, 9 and 3, they’d also called me at various times, the “World’s Meanest Dad,” “World’s Dorkiest Dad” and “World’s Stinkiest Dad” (and that last one really hurt).

Either they couldn’t find beer mugs heralding those designations or I truly am the “World’s Greatest Dad.” Why would a $5 beer mug lie?

As for being one of the best blogs in The ‘Burgh, well, I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s a significant promotion for an aimless blog with no evident mission, no budget and certainly no income. Even more remarkable is that it’s produced by a man so devoid of ambition he’s held only three salaried jobs in his entire adult life and one of them was at the Pizza Hut.

To be named best of anything in Pittsburgh is, to me, a significant achievement. I think it’s the best city in the world and can cite survey after esteemed survey to back the boast.

What’s even more surprising is that my blog has absolutely nothing to do with Pittsburgh.

This is key and why I justify saying it’s one of the five (*) best blogs when the magazine lists 14 others.

Here’s the list from www.pittsburghmagazine.com:

Pittsburgh Bloggers - News of the area's blogging community, including a directory of blogs.
Bike Pittsburgh
Burgh Baby
Burghilicious
Carbolic Smoke Ball
Carnegie Library
Chris Rodell
I Heart Pittsburgh
Mondesi's House - Pittsburgh Sports
Only in Pittsburgh
Pennsylvania Haunts & History
Pittsblog
Pittsburgh Arts: Digging Pitt
Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
That's Church

My breakdown immediately dismisses any blog that includes some variation of Pittsburgh in its title. It strikes me as just a tad too butt-kissy. Like if I capriciously changed the name of mine to “Eight Days To Pittsburgh” (a bit south of Guadalajara) just to score hometown points.

So removing blogs with “Pittsburgh” named derivatives bumps me clear up to number three. The listing appears alphabetical, but that could be coincidence.

But insinuating mine is among the top three seems more pretentious by two notches than saying I’m number five and I don’t want to appear greedy.

Experts say a successful blog ought to identify its target readership in the title. My www.EightDaysToAmish.com defies that convention as it seems to court the percentage of Amish men and women who access the internet to find stories about things like getting high in hammocks.

My chosen blog title is so confounding the Pittsburgh Magazine editors decided against even using it. They list only my actual name. I like it. Seems to add panache among the other worthy honorees.

Point of etiquette: I sent congratulatory e-mails to most of the others listed and proposed a link swap but didn’t hear back from a single one of them.

See, Pittsburghers can be a tough crowd.

Maybe they collectively feared I’d engage them in windy sermons about why they, too, should be eight days to Amish.

I ought to try that one day. I can be pretty persuasive and the world might be better off with a few more e-Amish.

Who knows? Maybe with a snappier name, I might be “best of” in western Pennsylvania places like Uniontown, Cranberry and -- who knows? -- maybe even Altoona.

So to the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine, I say thank you. Thank you for including my blog on your “best of” blog roll and for listing things in a way that allows me to shamelessly declare mine is a top five.

And, by the way, thanks to my parents for not naming me something like Zeke.

Just one question: When can I expect to get my beer mug?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dick Cheney should replace Simon Cowell


The only thing that can save the declining “American Idol” franchise is replacing the departing Simon Cowell with the only man more reliably mean and nasty than the bellicose Brit.

That, of course, would be Dick Cheney.

Cowell leaving is a death blow to a show that began circling the drain last season when it detonated its nifty chemistry by adding the bizarre and dippy Kara DioGuardi.

The result was the reality TV-equivalent of New Coke. Something we all enjoyed was replaced by something nobody liked nor sought.

And it’s been all down hill from there. Paula Abdul split, thus depriving America of her balloon-headed commentary. Her eventual replacement is Ellen DeGeneres, but her seat’s been filled by the grim and lizard-like Victoria “Posh” Beckham and Mary K. Blige who looked so uncomfortable I suspect she must have lost a bet.

Worst of all Cowell, without the foil of Abdul’s gushy babble, seems adrift. He seems restrained. He seems like he’s pulling his punches. Gadzooks, he seems well-mannered.

And if he’s bored, I’m bored. His breathtaking honesty makes him among the most compelling figures on television. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks about what he says or, certainly, how he dresses. I know guys who gut deer in shirts fancier than ones he wears on prime time.

He’s planning on moving to a new show that won’t restrict the ages of its amateur contestants so now our exposure to the pool of appalling talent in America will be deepened exponentially.

That should make for good TV, too, so I’ll probably check it out.

Really, I think he’s missing his calling judging creaky voiced warblers with bad teeth and delusions of grandeur.

I think Cowell should be on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine prim Ken Starr coming before the Cowell court to argue against some lurid aspect of gay marriage or legal marijuana.

The resulting pay per view proceeds could overnight wipe out the national dept.

But Cowell seems unlikely to leave Hollywood for D.C.

The opposite is true for the Cheney. The former recluse is popping up in front of the cameras so much you wonder when he's going to go union and apply for his SAG card.

He’s predicted so much imminent doom in the past 12 months I’m surprised people still even bother to peruse the seed catalogues.

It’s as shameless as it is shrewd because the odds certainly favor lone wolf terrorists bent on bloodying our national nose. Jack Bauer always wins in the end but not without a grim body count that escalates sometime after about the eighth hour of “24.”

So Cheney is a natural to step in for Cowell. Who wouldn’t tune in to hear him tell some “Freebird”-mangling hillbilly, “You can’t sing. You’re ugly and the viewers at home can’t tell, but you smell like Detroit during a summer garbage strike.

“I’d advise you to go back to welding bent tailpipes, but I’ll be happy to shove you out the window if you’re just going to stand there and pout. It’s up to you friend. I don’t care one way or the other.”

It may seem like a long shot, but who ever would have thought the dour puritan Tom Delay would one day don Chippendale tights to cha-cha-cha on “Dancing With The Stars?” And I’d self-lobotomize with jumper cables and my car battery if I was certain it would erase the Twilight Zone of that surreal memory from my frontal lobe.

All we need to perfect the slapstick chemistry is another bubble-headed foil for Cheney to criticize.

Let’s see. It has to be someone he can order around like Moe does Curly, someone he can ridicule whenever the perspective judge says or does something so stupid we’re all dumbfounded this person is in a position of authority as supreme as “American Idol.”

I wonder if W. is busy.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The King-sized Monster in Maine


We vacationed there as kids and it was where my wife and I enjoyed our last child-free frolic.

But I’ll never return to Maine. A three-headed monster lives there and his realm is populated by drug addicts, adulterers, cutthroats and a host of garden variety geeks and idiots.

And those are the good guys.

I already feel like I’ve met every single person who resides in Maine -- and I’m only on page 519.

Yes, God help me, I’m reading Stephen King’s “Under the Dome.”

King, 62, has sold more than 350 million copies of books under his own name and those issued under the crafty pseudonyms Richard Bachman and John Swithen.

He is the literary equivalent of an earth-devouring monster. Right now he’s killing my time.

I’d been looking forward to reading the 1,074 page book. I hadn’t read a King offering since “Needful Things” (1993) and thought this epic would be a nice break from the history and biography that so enriches my life.

Like most of the world, King’s left an indelible mark on me. For me it started with Pet Sematary, as horrific as anything ever conceived by Poe, Hitchcock or Sterling, the Holy Trinity of creative American horror. I remember relishing “Salem’s Lot” the night after my last college final was completed and I was free to read whatever I wanted.

I remember swapping “The Dead Zone,” “The Shining,” and “Misery” with my old man and sharing our exuberance of stories well told. My wife and I raced each other to book stores to get the monthly installments of the wonderful chap book series, “The Green Mile.” And we both loved his Bachman book, “Thinner.”

I guess I stopped reading King when he started writing books faster than I could read them. Some sources put his total at 73.

I can think of maybe five things in my life I’ve done more than 73 times. In fact, other than golf, reading good books, fun time with the kids, attending sporting events and lovey-dovey stuff with the missus, I have trouble thinking of things I want to do 73 times.

Lots of stuff -- voting, commuting to work -- just gets boring after 25 times.

And that’s what had happened with me and King.

He started losing me with “It,” an otherwise compelling tale that craps out when the villain is revealed to be -- spoiler alert -- a great big scary spider. Oooh! My 3-year-old on a sugar high could have come up with something more plausibly frightening.

Heck, my 3-year-old on a sugar high is more plausibly frightening.

So now I feel marooned halfway through a book that’s more dense than three stacked Bibles.

I need to find out if the people of Chester’s Mill ever emerge from the big dome, how it got there, who’s to blame and who’ll be slain without mercy or taste.

At this point, I hope they all do. King has made the entire population of Maine part of the cast.

And there’s something objectionable about every one of them. His books make the whole state seem like it’s filled with a bunch of reactionary jerks who, ayuh, confront each supernatural challenge with either dull-witted immobility or vigorous criminal mayhem.

I’ve lost count of the rapes, the murders, the assaults and criminal lawlessness taking place in the town -- and that’s just by the police officers.

The narrative is so plodding I’ve become distracted by casting which B-list actor should play the leads in the eventual miniseries (I say Ashton Kutcher as Col. Barbie and Dick Cheney as Big Jim Rennie).

I don’t think the dome book would have been published in its existing form by anyone but King. But no publisher or editor at this point can tell him he’s off track.

So he should take it from me. He needs a decade-long horror sabbatical so he can return with another series of timeless novellas like the four included in “Different Seasons,” his most satisfying read.

That 1982 collection yielded two of the best human interest movies any of us has ever seen: “Stand By Me” and the magnificent “Shawshank Redemption.”

Many people are often surprised but the outstanding 1994 Tim Robbins/Morgan Freeman prison flick is faithfully based on a Stephen King book.

He needs to get back to telling stories about people and daily struggles that make the supernatural seem so contrived.

Besides, what could be any scarier or more supernatural than what’s just taken place?

I just devoted about an hour to giving career advice to Stephen King.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Reid, race and Nat X


I’m always flabbergasted when a politician, a breed renown for fibbing, gets in trouble for telling the truth.

That’s what’s happening with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. Here’s what he’s quoted as saying about why he thought then-candidate Barack Obama could win the presidency:

He’s “light-skinned” and “does not use a Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.”

This has produced a typical beltway firestorm with Republicans crying double standard and Democrats, Obama included, saying Reid’s record and subsequent apology are sufficient. Move on.

Not me. I’m not budging. I want to hash this out.

Apparently, and I’m still not sure about this, but the offending terms are “light-skinned” and “Negro.”

His comment addresses a segment of the voting population with which I’m familiar. He’s talking about the ignorant redneck. He’s saying, with accuracy, that many voters would reject Obama if he looked or sounded like, say, Nat X.

That was the uproarious Chris Rock character from the early 1990s recurring Saturday Night Live sketch “The Dark Side with Nat X.” Nat satirized an angry cable talk show host who saw every issue through the dark prism of race.

He had a defiant afro and was, according to his intro, “a man so black he sweats tar.” He always greeted guests by saying, “Sit yo’ ass down!” in what Reid would call a “Negro dialect.”

In politics, near majorities of Americans will vote for boring white guys who make even Mr. Rogers look urban. I’m thinking Mitt Romney or Al Gore.

But I do not foresee a demographic shift so dramatic that a majority of people will vote for a man like Nat X to lead.

We like to pretend we live in enlightened times. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The media said race was the ugly undercurrent of the 2008 presidential race and in places like the trendy salons of Georgetown that may have been so.

But it wasn’t an undercurrent where I live. It was a rip tide. And the people who were opposed to Barack Hussein Obama didn’t use an archaic word like “Negro.”

No, they used the word that got Det. Mark Furman into so much trouble during the O.J. Simpson trial. And they didn’t whisper it. They said it with gusto.

Those raging political conversations always reminded me of the scenes from “Blazing Saddles” where the good people of Rock Ridge first spy the new sheriff (Cleavon Little), a man who looked more like Nat X than Barack O.

What’s their reaction? They reflexively want to kill him. Right away.

Here in my little Rock Ridge corner of western Pennsylvania many of them still feel that way about our president. Some of them even feel that way about Steeler coach Mike Tomlin. They’re infuriated that proud black men are in positions of authority over institutions they thought belonged exclusively to them and their kind.

This country is full to busting with people who hate someone because of how they look, who they love and who they worship. It’s like that all over the world.

Reid was making the political calculation that enough of these people would find Obama acceptable enough that he could be elected America’s first black president.

This differs from the Trent Lott dismissal in that Lott was saying, gimme that old time religion, America would have been better off if it had elected an avowed racist like Strom Thurmond president in 1948.

And so Reid spent the weekend calling black men and women who support an organization that still goes by the puzzling name National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to apologize for describing African Americans with the once acceptable word Negro.

The whole exercise makes me dizzy.

I’m sure we’ll some day get past this semantic sort of silliness to a day when we can speak the truth without fearing talking point reprisals.

A day when we can all call a spade a spade.

And, please, don’t read too much into that last phrase. It’s just a handy cliche from a confused man so white he sweats whole milk.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Snow Day Edition


In keeping league with my inner seventh grader, I decided to take the day off the instant I saw the local school district was closed because of excessive snow. So instead of writing a full and coherent post, I’ve decided to write a series of incoherent items until my fingers get tired of typing. Here goes:

• I’ve done a complete 180 on George Clooney. Used to hate him. Now he’s on the verge of becoming my favorite living actor who isn’t Clint Eastwood. I loved him in “Men Who Stare at Goats” and in “Up in the Air.” Still, that doesn’t mean he’ll ever rise to the level of John Wayne, Paul Newman or certainly Eastwood. We live among sissies.

• My wife hated “Men Who Stare at Goats” as much as I loved it. We’re usually in agreement on movies. She found it utterly stupid and pointless, which made me love it even more. I’m going to buy it the instant it comes out on DVD and make her watch it with me every year on my birthday.

• The Steelers were knocked out of the playoffs last Sunday and today we have about two feet of snow on the ground with no let up in sight. The men in the bar where I drink all look like Jack Nicholson did in “The Shining” right before he want insane. But to be fair, they look like that even when the Steelers win and the weather is mild.

• I drink in that bar so much I just pray ugly isn’t catchy.

• As part of our snow day activities, we all bundled up and went outside for a frolic. It was beautiful. Toward the end, the girls persuaded me to lay down on my back so they could bury me in snow like they do with sand on the beach. The 9-year-old threw two shovel fulls of snow on my face. The instant the snow struck my forehead, I felt the hell of 1,000 hangovers. They got mad when I shrieked in pain and ran screaming into the house.

• My three favorite Americans of all time are Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Bugs Bunny. But after reading Jon Krakauer’s outstanding new book, “Where Men Win Glory,” I need to amend the list. I’m adding the name Pat Tillman. The story of his life and death and the disgraceful way the Bush administration used him to promote a war he loathed and thought illegal is among the most moving stories ever told.

• I pray nothing really, really bad ever happens to me, but if it does I hope Krakauer’s around to write about it. His books (also including “Into Thin Air,” “Under the Banner of Heaven,” and “Into The Wild”) are four of the best books I’ve ever read.

• I wonder if a guy as accomplished as Krakauer ever gets depressed. He’s got international acclaim, appears on shows like “Meet the Press” and earns enormous advances from big shot publishers. I have none of those things, but I think it would depress me if I always wrote about human misery. I don’t know if I could do it.

• What am I talking about? Somebody just asked me to do a story about amusement parks and, I swear, I really had to think about it before I said yes. No wonder a stable bank account is as elusive to me as the rare albino snipe.

• Since the Steelers got knocked out of the playoffs, western Pennsylvania sports fans like me have been concerned about what diversions will get us through the winter. Many of my friends say it’ll be the Pittsburgh Penguins. They are wrong. I’m a huge Pens fan but last year revealed how meaningless the NHL regular season is to the big picture. The Pens stunk it up throughout the year but got hot at the end of the season and won the Stanley Cup. NHL playoffs are as compelling as any event in sports, but hockey doesn’t matter until mid-March.

• What’s going to get me through winter? “USA! USA! USA!” Just 35 days to the winter Olympics in Vancouver. Hi-def coverage has for me revolutionized the coverage of this stuff. It’s just spectacular.

• Times are tough, but I’ll burn the furniture for fuel before I give up my XM satellite radio.

• Add Twitter (http://twitter.com/8Days2Amish) to the list of things I swore I’d never do and belittled others without mercy for doing. At the top of the list of things I swore I’d never do and belittled others for doing are marriage and fatherhood.

• I said, “Be Kind, Rewind” to my daughter the other day and she looked at me like I was from Mars. My understanding of the trajectory of fathers/daughters is that’s the face I’ll see when she looks at me through at least the year 2019.

• My fingers are getting tired so that’s enough structured incoherence for this snow day. Tomorrow I’ll get up early and resume the search for the elusive albino snipe.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Conversion immersion: feet to meters/Buddhist to Christian


I thought of old Mr. Barnaby, my fifth grade teacher, this week when I was immersed in tricky conversions involving feet to meters, dollars to Euros, and Buddhists to Christians.

I remembered how he used to whip chalk board erasers at me and scream, “Quit wiping disgusting things in Kim’s hair and pay attention! Pretty soon the whole world will be using the metric system and it’s something you’ll need to know every single day the rest of your life! Now learn!”

I learned all right. I learned a young boy can do a lot of critical thinking in hour after hour of solitary detention. And I clearly recall thinking, “Old man Barnaby’s off his rocker. Why would we drop a perfectly reasonable system of measurement for one that is just as hard to learn as the one we already understand?”

Now I can see Barnaby was right. I do use the metric system nearly every day. I use it every time I go to the grocery store and make the conscious observation that two-liter bottles of soda consume more square footage than the aisle that offers fresh fruit and vegetables.

That’s it. The lone dent the metric system has made in our vast system of measurements can be reduced to the familiar size of containers used to freight teeth -rotting soda from the stores to the mouths of our 200-pound 12-year-old boys and girls.

My wife never asks me to pick up a liter of milk, informs me that a meter of snow fell overnight or that going 95 kilometers per hour is too fast for the driving conditions. A golf course is still 7,000 yards long, it’s still about 146 miles from Pittsburgh to Cleveland and men still think 10 inches is a significant distance.

Why two-liter bottles stuck when nothing else did is a topic for another day. Right now I have work to do.

I was recently asked by the in-flight magazine for Singapore Airlines to do a story about the world’s must-visit amusement parks. The finishing touches have become a babel of tricky conversions. Somewhere Barnaby is probably chortling.

Well, sorry, but the fifth grade educator/seer failed to envsion that one day there would be the cerebral smorgasbord that is the internet.

I was able to convert all the numbers in about 90 minutes. Really, a more focused researcher could have done it in about four minutes, but the internet is also a smorgasbord of news, porn, funny cat videos and other distracting nonsense.

I wonder what Barnaby would say about Brit Hume’s suggestion that Tiger Woods convert from Buddhism to Christianity.

“He’s said to be a Buddhist. I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith,” Hume said. “So my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’”

He makes it sound as if it were as easy as finding a website that will with one click allow you to convert from feet to meters.

If Tiger does as Hume suggests, I think it will appear superficial and the last thing the world needs is another Born Again hypocrite.

I’d be more impressed if he announced he was switching from Nike to Callaway. That would seem, coming from him, a gesture of sincere commitment to true change.

I think it would be easier to go from Christianity to Buddhism, a religion of self-denial and universal brotherhood (I’m guessing Tiger’s somewhat of a lapsed Buddhist since he doesn’t seem to have the hang of that self-denial bit).

Buddhists certainly have the more cuddly deity and I respect that in any religion.

I admire men like Hume who believe change can be so simple. They are the same people who think homosexuality can be “cured.” Dig deep enough and I’ll bet men like that think you can “cure” people who were inconveniently born black.

I have stubborn trouble changing anything. I’ve always used Old Spice deodorant, prefer Macs to Windows, bourbon to Scotch, and heterosexual jollies to more offbeat versions. I’m a long, long way from changing any of those hidebound customs.

I’m talking thousands and thousands of miles.

You’ll have to find old man Barnaby if you want that converted to kilometers, but I think I’ve made my point.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Jagger knocks on Wood


Lost in the holiday tumult is a story that to me is more culturally significant than gift giving, Santa and all those vain prayers for peace on Earth and blahbiddy, blahbiddy, blah.

Mick Jagger is becoming Dr. Phil.

He’s moralizing, he’s advocating family values, he’s tsk-tsking excessive behavior with drunken groupies.

And to think this was the year I fretted that our 9 year old might ask me if Santa was real.

This is bigger than that.

The man who will forever embody “Sympathy for the Devil” has become a man of wealth and taste.

Please allow me to introduce the new Mick Jagger, the nag for perhaps the only Stone now worthy of the band’s debauched legacy, Ronnie Wood.

First a little background. Wood, 62, has been a Stone for 35 years and Mick, Keith Richards and drummer Charlie Watts still call him the new guy.

The original Stones got together in 1962 and immediately began cultivating a Satanic image so wanton that church leaders who thought the cherubic Beatles were depraved began spontaneously combusting in their pulpits.

There were drug overdoses, underage sex scandals, band-related suicide and mosh pit murder. And that’s just the offstage stuff.

Then there was all that indelible music. “Brown Sugar,” “Sister Morphine,” “Midnight Rambler,” seminal rock songs about drug overdoses, sex scandals, band-related suicide and most-pit murder.

See the point? They weren’t posers. They were living the life. And it was all set to a really snappy beat.

For my money, the greatest Stones song of all is so filthy it’s becoming lost to all but the most dedicated fans. That’s a song known as “Star Star,” a title that was sanitized so it could be included on 1973 album, “Goat’s Head Soup.”

As anyone who’s heard just the first 46 seconds knows, the real title features the spectacular profanity that still draws hundred thousand dollar fines whenever it blisters the ears of FCC puritans.

Sample lyric:

Yeah, I heard about your Polaroids!
Now, that’s what I call obscene!
Your tricks with fruit were kinda cute, I’ll bet it kept your (female body part) clean!


And at the center of it all was the greatest frontman in music history, Mick Jagger.

Every lead vocalist in every rock band ever since has had to decide to either mimic Jagger (impossible) or just stand there (bor-ing!). This is the case with even mega-successful rock bands like Aerosmith.

In fact, Jagger once stole a girlfriend from Tyler after raising this philosophical gem: “Why would you want to be with that fake Mick Jagger when you could have the real thing?”

It’s the same kind of bedrock logic the people who make butter use to squash the people who make “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”

That all suddenly seems like a long time ago. Since 2003 Jagger, a man whose illegitimate offspring (seven children by four women) outnumber his known charitable contributions (zero), has been known as Sir Mick. Almost overnight, he’s become the epitome of posh society.

And that apparently means he doesn’t want to consort with guys like Wood. He seems so taken with the establishment it’s surprising he somehow still manages to consort with himself.

As for Wood, he left his wife of 23 years for 21-year-old Ekaterina Ivanova. Here’s her take on how they met last year in a west London club:

'I sat next to him with a cigarette and dropped some ash on his trousers. He said, "You've ashed on me trousers.’ I looked him up and down and said, ‘I don't give a f**k.’ He just went, ‘I love you.’ Basically I was rude, he was kind of sleazy and we kind of bounced off each other.”

Ah, shades of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Now come reports that Jagger is holding an intervention of sorts for the now a-drift Wood. He’s telling him that unless Wood straightens up he’s going to be bumped from the band.

He must mean business. We all know how hard it is to find unkempt alcoholics who can play guitar.

I keep trying to wrap my brain around Jagger lecturing Wood on polite behavior. It would be like me advising anyone to be more industrious.

Now’s the point when less motivated writers would reach for a cliche conclusion based on some popular Stones title like, “I guess Ronnie can’t always get what he wants.”

Not me. I’m going to stop here and will not resume until I’ve conjured a zippy punchline involving Jagger trying to recruit Tiger Woods to replace Ron Wood.

Until I do, please go out and try and do something industrious.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Read The Caffeinated Globe for a happy 2010!


The suggestion struck me as one of those backroom horsetrader deals used to secure the trillion dollar health care reform bill. I briefly wondered about the ethics of it all.

But since only potential blog readers, not taxpayer billions, were at stake and because I’ve never been even the slightest bit ethical I quickly agreed.

Here’s what happened: Earlier this week the 48th and 49th blog readers decided on their own volition to become “followers” of my home blog, www.EightDaysToAmish.com.

Followers are the currency of the blog realm. The logic is that agents and publishers will be interested in working with bloggers who have large followings on the sensible belief that they have a built-in audience to generate sales.

So everyone of us who engages in the pointless exercise of blogging does a little jig every time some friend or stranger posts their microscopic picture in the sidebar and testifies they keep up with what’s being written there.

Forty-nine is still a humble little number, but I find it flattering that it’s greater than one. Building something from scratch like a feisty little readership has been great fun and I’m jazzed by all the friendly feedback I get.

So when nos. 48 and 49 signed up, I did what I always do: I tracked down their e-mail addresses and sent them thanks for the giddy little lift they’d given me. I told them I’d try and keep the blog fresh and lively and asked them to recommend the blog to like-minded friends.

That’s when follower no. 48 replied with a suggestion.

She’s the evocatively named January Asia and is the co-proprietor with Steven Hui of the delicious food & beverage/travel/fun blog, The Caffeinated Globe. I encourage you to check it out. A recent post features an appetizing discourse on how to improve your breakfast eggs (I’m eager to try horse radish, ketchup and black pepper).

Here’s the quid pro quo January proposed:

“I will e-mail a message to 6 persons. In the message, I will introduce your site and your blog. And I will also include one specific post title & URL; that way the e-mail receivers will pay full attention to reading your blog.”

(Actually, she did much more than that. I’m feeling compelled to class up the joint because of her lavish recommendation).

She asked me to return the courtesy, which I’m happy to do. The site she and Steven have put together is based in Thailand and it’s great. I hope I can do even a little bit to bring it some worthy attention.

Today is the first day of a new decade. It’s drizzling a miserable mix of snow and rain. The western Pennsylvania forecast shows five days of snow and highs that do not exceed 24 degrees.

But something about this most binary 01.01.10 date feels like a metaphorical spring. We’ve turned the page on what by every measure was a really awful decade of war, despair and deprivation.

I’m basically starting over. Most of my savings is wiped out. I haven’t had a job or a steady paycheck in three years. I’m battered black and blue by rejection and raft after raft of dashed hopes.

In many regards, I’m like the country I love. Right now, we’re both a mess.

Yet, we persevere with cheerful hearts and hopeful eyes on the horizon.

I remain steadfast in my belief that better days are on the way.

You’ve probably vowed as part of some New Year’s resolution to do something to help your fellow man. Good for you.

There’s people that need it so much more than me. I’m not homeless (yet), I’m not depressed (much), and I’m utterly unworthy of any altruistic consideration (always).

But if you’re interested in helping brighten the day of one fellow man, here’s what you can do. It’s easy. Just put your little picture up and join my randy band of followers. Refer the blog to friends and ask them to do the same.

Some publisher might see it and become convinced one of my book projects is worth a contractual salute. You’ll all be A-list when the party invitations go forth.

Then visit the Caffeinated Globe and do the same. It’s a fun read and if one of your resolutions is to help people who help people, then you should be happy to help my new friend January.

Then for profane giggles go visit Shit My Dad Says. It’s the most consistently funny thing I’ve ever seen on the web.

Don’t feel compelled to sign up as a follower. The guy's already got, by last count, 1,011,713 of them. He’s also got a major book deal and a CBS pilot based on his blog in the works.

Know what that means to me?

Forty-nine down and only 1,011,664 to go!