Pledge Week! Pledge Now!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fox News goes too far; lies about Enquirer


I don’t know why I always feel compelled to leap to the defense of one of the world’s strongest news organizations when my own daughter thinks there are at least three third graders in her school who can kick my ass.

Maybe in a fair fight, they could. Poor kid. She’s too innocent to realize Daddy fights dirty.

I’d like to see a fair fight between what to me is one of the greatest news organizations on the planet and one that continues to amaze me with its reprehensible “journalism” that is revered by millions of news consumers who somehow still think it’s reputable.

I’m talking about a smackdown between Fox News and National Enquirer.

And guess which one of them are the good guys?

If you guessed Fox, I’ll give you another guess. If you’re a true Fox believer, then I’ll probably have to give you two more.

Now, this isn’t about their slanted and hysterical coverage of Democrats, RINOs or whether or not Barack Obama is really a Muslim tourist bent on becoming America’s first czar.

I’ll leave that narrative to Jon Stewart who brilliantly deconstructed the whole charade for Fox News dissembler Bill O’Reilly in an interview that was so heavily edited it needed YouTube resuscitation to save it from suffocating.

No this is about journalism, something I know a thing or two about. Despite all my self-deprecations, I have some bona fide credentials in that realm. I’ve worked for many of America’s top magazines and am currently teaching the subject to a bright collection of graduate students at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

It’s my job to illuminate for them the opportunities a career in journalism affords. I tell them about my work in big city newspapers and high profile bylines for the dozens of still-thriving magazines.

And I tell them that the very best of the bunch regarding fact-checking, reporting and the joy of pure storytelling is National Enquirer.

From 1992-2000, I did more than 1,000 swashbuckling human interest features for America’s most notorious paper. They get a kick out for my first person features like the time I gained 20-pounds eating like Elvis for a week, or about my days spent dressed as a homeless man with a “Will Work For Beer!” sign to see how people react to honest bums.

I tell them about the awards I won for my stories about how botox is changing the lives of dystonia patients and how victims of fundamentalist Mormon cults led by the now convicted Rev. Warren Jeffs said my stories for Enquirer were better than those by The New York Times.

I tell them how excited I was when I found a really great story like the one about the armless woman who drove, cooked, and worked as a secretary who typed 25 words a minute -- with her feet! I remember how crushed I was when an editor told me the story didn’t make the demanding cut. I couldn’t believe it and asked how come.

“Well, 25 words a minute, that’s not much.”

I refute all their agitated contentions about stories involving aliens, Batboy and babies born with wooden legs by assuring them those are headlines from rival tabloids.

I don’t mock them for their ignorance. There’s no reason they should be expected know any better.

Not so for Megyn Kelly, host of Fox’s afternoon “America Live.” Her show was on in the newsstand where I’d stopped for magazines before last night’s class. She was talking to media critic Bernard Goldberg about the Enquirer being eligible for the Pulitzer Prize for its investigative work detailing the sordid affair of John Edwards, a story the entirety of the mainstream media missed, including Fox.

As a de facto media critic myself, I’m used to mainstream media types being stunned at getting beat by Enquirer on national scandals involving -- pick one -- Tiger Woods (sex), Rush Limbaugh (drug addiction), Drew/Scott Peterson (murder) or O.J. Simpson (all of the above).

But what surprised me was Kelly’s palpable outrage -- it must be a job requirement to host at Fox -- that the Enquirer was being considered for the prestigious award. Then I became furious at her reasons why.

“I’ve read National Enquirer,” she said. “Here’s some of their recent headlines: ‘Loch Ness Monster Found!’ ‘NASA Confirms Alien Footprints on Moon!’ Now are those the types of articles worthy of a publication being considered for journalism’s highest honor?”

Well, she’s a liar. She hasn’t read National Enquirer. Those stories have never appeared in National Enquirer. Ever.

Saying that is like saying the Enquirer wrote that Elvis is alive. The largest selling Enquirer ever had a cunningly acquired picture of The King in his coffin. They’d never refute a banner issue that sold more than six million copies. They had for a while a million dollar bounty for anyone who could find an Enquirer story saying otherwise.

It makes me wonder what else Fox lies about with such smirking ease. I’d watch to find out, but fear doing so might lead to so much palpable outrage I’d qualify to host one of their misleading news programs and I’d eventually be forced to attend company soirees with loudmouths like O’Reilly and Glenn Beck.

I’d been gushing to my students so much about Enquirer that I did something last week I hadn’t done in nearly 10 years. I started looking for story ideas that might again earn me an assignment from a magazine I revere above all others.

It’s my goal to have a byline in the issue trumpeting the news that the National Enquirer is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

Now if I can just find an armless woman who can type 90 words a minute with her feet.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mom & the friendly hooker


My mother spends about 10 hours a week working at a local temp agency. It’s her job to screen applicants and make snap judgements about their character.

It’s not an easy for a 76-year-old grandmother to have to be thrust into the work force and I wish she didn’t have to. I wish I could throw money at her to stay home and watch our kids, but I don’t have the scratch. Like the down-and-out who stop to see her seeking work, times are tough for me, too.

I give her what I can when I can and hope things improve.

She insists she enjoys getting out of the house and meeting interesting people, but some of her duties challenge her sweet innocence. She likes to believe that everyone she meets shares her values of candor and virtue.

She’s shocked to learn the world is full of desperate scoundrels. Another life lesson was imparted last week when a smartly dressed young woman marched in and gave her a bright, confident hello.

“Oh, she seemed like such a go-getter,” she said, shaking her head in recollection. “I gave her the application, looked over her answers and wrote down that she seemed like a very nice and hard-working young lady, a real opportunist.”

Mom was surprised to later learn that she was wrong on at least one count. They did a routine background check and found the woman was untruthful.

“Turns out she’d been arrested three times for prostitution.”

I’d argue that Mom deserves a raise because her assessment was right on the money.

Being a “hard” worker must fall into some aspect of every prostitute’s job description or they won’t be prostituting long enough to get busted three times. In fact, I think the woman’s only mistake was concealing her arrest record.

Think of the job skills this woman possesses.

She’s demonstrated great one-on-one people skills working in a competitive environment. She was responsible for finding and satisfying her own customers.

And I think she’d be appealing to today’s heartless corporate entities who are interested in a docile and uncomplaining workforce. She’s unlikely to ever complain about getting screwed.

Really, if we were at all honest about it, she’d probably be a better hire than most of the other applicants seeking to bounce back from being laid off from manufacturing or retail jobs.

She’s certainly motivated and her apparent willingness to turn her life around is exemplary.

When you think about it, Mom would be crazy to refer me, her own son, for any job over the friendly hooker.

What do I have to offer? My primary skill as a writer is that I tell distracting stories. Who needs a guy like that around the office?

Prostitutes get right down to business. No talk, no bull. They’re all about action.

If Mom and I were serious about earning real money, we’d concentrate on hiring a bunch of hookers to do things like clean houses or run a smart little coffee shop.

Mom told me the story as I was strapping the 3 year old into the car seat after a daylong frolic with Nana. I was heading home and she was heading out to meet friends for dinner.

I reached into my wallet and told Mom, hey, here take this. It’s on me.

She said, no, she just got paid. Things were fine, she said. Maybe some other time.

So I put the money back in my wallet, sheepishly relieved she’d said no.

Still just so she’d go back inside not thinking her son’s a total failure, I said, “Mom, you know you just turned down $1,000?”

She rushed back and said, “I’ll take it!”

We both laughed. She knew I was joking. Still, I was surprised at her eager about-face on my offer.

I guess there’s a little opportunistic go-getter in even the nicest people.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

All snowmen are abominable


Oh, the weather outside is frightful and I can’t keep the Christmas ditties from sleigh riding ‘round and ‘round inside my head.

At Christmas we all sang “Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” How come “Make it Stop! Make it Stop! Make it Stop!” doesn’t work half as well?

We’ve already had our White Christmas, our White New Year’s, and our White Groundhog’s Day.

For heaven’s sake, we even had a White Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And how did Al Sharpton miss the chance to protest that racial switcherroo?

I’ve heard the Eskimos have 25 different words to describe snow. I have at least that many and all of mine start with a word that sounds like “firetruck.”

The man who said no two snowflakes look exactly alike never shoveled my driveway. Let me tell you, every single firetruckin’ snowflake looks exactly alike.

I’ve spent two to three hours each day for the past two weeks walking in a winter wonderland. We’re about to set a record for total snowfall in February and we still have 12 days left in the shortest month.

I asked a fellow sufferer how we’re supposed to celebrate breaking such a record. He looked at me with what combat veterans describe as the 1,000 mile stare and said, “You just keep shoveling.”


Really, there are times when I pause, lean on my shovel and pray my heart slows to a gallop. I look around through great gusts of frozen breath. Nearly three feet of snow is a marvelous sight to behold.

But so is about anything on my 52-inch hi-def TV. If I could choose, I’d take the TV.

We live half way up a mountain in what is familiar to local weather viewers as the Laurel Highlands. It’s about an hour east of Pittsburgh. It’s the place weatherman always say is “getting really hammered with twice that amount” after they say Pittsburgh’s getting a school-closing eight inches of snow.

I hear that and conclude weather school curriculum must be too severe to allow for decent parties.

Because I spend a lot of time thinking about getting really hammered and this ain’t it. I’d love to break the tedium of constant shoveling with one of those lost weekends I vaguely remember from my days at Ohio University where the weekends used to run from Thursdays to Mondays.

But that’s not going to happen. The forecast calls for more snows and sobriety.

Schools have been closed for seven of the past nine days. The kids are sick of me and the ways I try and cheat to win at things like Jenga.

I look in the mirror and staring back I see Jack Torrance from “The Shining.” He’s been sober since the snows began to fall. His cabin fever is acute. He keeps writing the same disturbing drivel over and over and over.

The literary parallels alone are frightening.

If Scatman Carothers shows up at my door, he’d better watch out.

I told the 55-pound daughter that she could jump up and down on my aching back. She began to do so with glee and continued right up until Mommy told her that she wasn’t inflicting pain, she was relieving it.

That’s the instant she stopped.

My instinct was to drag myself off the floor and drive straight to the bar for sudsy camaraderie. But it seemed foolish to risk winding up in a ditch just to break the monotony with some beers and buddies.

So I just stayed in and challenged the girls to beat me at Jenga.

Besides, baby, it’s cold outside.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Olympics need al-Qaeda team


I’m thinking about the Olympics and believe only guys named Bob should be allowed to compete in the bobsled.

That’s just one of the ways I can think of to improve the winter games I so adore.

Of course, in the wake of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s tragic death, most of my suggestions fall squarely in the realm of bad taste.

I’ve long argued that any events that involve speed and gravity should conclude with competitors having to launch at risk of life and limb over things like rows of buses or ponds filled with snapping alligators. Better: buses filled with alligators.

Like most viewers, I hate to see anybody ever get hurt, but can’t turn away if someone’s about to. (Note: one conspiracy-minded friend darkly suggests the accident was engineered to attract NASCAR fans).

I was aghast when I saw some newspapers print frame-by-frame shots of Kumaritashvili’s horrific demise. Then mortified when NBC aired the actual footage of the gruesome death.

And a guy like me way out here in the Plutonian orbits of the blogosphere has the prim sensibilities to fret about being tasteless?

My most radical improvement suggestion has nothing to do with conclusions that might lead to the death of one or two innocent athletes. Instead, it could result in the death of millions.

But resuming the Cold War would certainly make the games more interesting.

These Olympics lack a black hat like the Soviets used to be. Now, those were some worthy foes. They fielded armies of athletes who were raised like steroid-fueled veal to do nothing but win gold medals.

They were bearded behemoths who appeared nasty enough to eat things like bark for breakfast. And those were just the woman’s figure skaters.

That’s why the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey team remains a moment that transcends sports.

We beat their professionals, the very best of the Evil Empire, with our kids and they were, indeed, kids. They all looked like they were going to step off the gold medal platform and come straight home and start shoveling all our sidewalks.

The best and most historic games have always had a villain. Think back to the Berlin games of 1936 when Jesse Owens showed Adolph Hitler and the rest of the master race that a proud black man was the master racer.

I watched the parade of nations on Friday and found no one to hate. Sure, there were small squads of athletes from Iran and North Korea, people representing two despicable regimes.

But rooting against any of them is like rooting against in-laws. I don’t want anything bad to happen to any of my in-laws. I just wish they would stay half-way around the globe in Third World countries that forbid international travel and communications.

I feel mostly pity for those athletes. Their lives and those of their families are most likely a misery. Who knows? If they perform poorly, they may face grim repercussions.

When you think of it like that, how can you not root for one of them over any of our shaggy snowboarders? When I cheer for guys like that, it’s usually in the hope they won’t screw up my order in the drive-thru lane.

And too often rooting for surly guys like Bode Miller is like rooting for the New York Yankees.

That’s how bad it’s gotten. Many of our athletes are so pampered and spoiled that I’m indifferent to if they win or not.

Hip-hop snowboarder won’t be crestfallen if they lose in the half-pipe. They’ll just return to California and start hitting a different type of pipe.

Alas, I feel diminished by not rooting for a fellow countryman. It shouldn’t be that way.

Best of all would be if, in the spirit of the games, al-Qaeda came out from hiding and fielded a competitive team.

Americans could unite in our hatred for their fundamentalist athletes. We could cheer “USA! USA!” until we’re all hoarse. We could gloat when they lost and bitch if they won.

And when it was all over, we could in the spirit of the games extend the hand of friendship as they boarded buses bound for home.

Buses filled with alligators.

Tweet of the week: "I dreamed aviator/golf legend Arnold Palmer said he would teach me how to fly a plane. I said I'd rather he teach me how to putt. In my dream, Palmer began to weep."

Friday, February 12, 2010

Matrimonial sarcasm for Valentine's Day


My domestic wife speaks with a foreign accent detectable only to married men. It’s not German. Not French, nor Spanish.

The accent is sarcastic.

So I understood immediately she wasn’t being complimentary when she said, “Man, that’s some outfit you have on there.”

She was expressing a matrimonial concern that my disheveled appearance might offend the sensibilities of the people I encounter as I go about my daily routine.

I work all alone, use the drive-thru ATM and the self-scanner checkout at the grocery store. Other than family, my days are near devoid of human contact save for the lone appointment on the daily social calendar: Happy Hour with the boys. That’s it. Just me and about a dozen other dudes who -- and I don’t wish to seem judgmental -- are even uglier, balder, rattier and more ape-like in appearance than me.

And who cares? We like each other for who we are. The guys are always expressing how much they care about my well-being by asking things like, “You ever gonna pay me back that $20 you owe me?”

Yeah, right.

So my wife’s subtle shot at my appearance stings.

I remember back when our union was new and we’d be destined for a night of fine dining or a swank party.

I’d be dressed in my most dashing tailored suit, nice shoes shined to a high polish, bright accessories, a $60 silk tie dangling from my neck like a sartorial exclamation point.

She’d look at me, sigh with adoration and say those exact same words: “Man, that’s some outfit you have on there.” I could practically see the cartoon hearts floating out of her eyes.

I suppose I should describe the outfit that caused today’s sarcastic reaction.

The tattered gray cargo pants are dappled in the princess pink she and the girls chose for me to paint the walls of the second bathroom I now use only during intestinal emergencies.

I have a black Wild Turkey t-shirt beneath a green and olive pullover sweater that’s covered in a partially buttoned drab green, flannel-lined wind buster coat/shirt. For footwear, I’m wearing camouflage boots that keep me from slipping on the driveway I’ve shoveled 12 times in the last five days.

On top, and I just noticed this, I’m wearing a Wild Turkey hat that, dig it, matches my t-shirt. What a stylish coincidence! If I could time travel four hours into the future, I’d complete the promotional ensemble by sipping a nerve-soothing glass of the fine hooch.

But the outfit she was so pleased to disparage sends an important message during this, the most bitter winter of my 46 years. It says, “I don’t care what anyone thinks about how I look, I want to be warm . . . and drink Wild Turkey!”

The first part of the message is key.

My sole motivation is to be defiantly warm. If the Queen issued me an invitation to high tea I’d breach etiquette by insisting she provide long novelty straws so I could sip the Earl Gray through the fuzzy opening in my big puffy parka.

Because a winter like this makes me feel a kinship with the sailors serving in nuclear subs patrolling beneath Arctic Circle ice packs.

Venturing outside isn’t an option. The tedium is relentless. Morale is low. We’re all suffering from a cabin fever so acute that little things like the way we dress can become points of conflict.

One sassy sailor may insult an otherwise handsome sailor and hurt his tender feelings so much he may want to crawl into a bottle of Wild Turkey until the mission ends and it starts looking like golf weather again.

Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Valentine’s Day is Sunday. Maybe I’ll give her a thrill and dress up as the dashing young man who used to make her swoon all those years ago.

I’ll tell her that it’s worth it for me to dress up every single day, weather be damned, even if the only people who see me are the ones who matter most.

I’ll just have to convince her I’m not talking about her and our daughters. Not the boys in the bar.

See, I’m fluent in matrimonial sarcasm, too.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My good deed & karmic consequences


Okay, first let me tell you about my good, altruistic deed and then I’ll tell you the reasons why you shouldn’t follow suit.

And usage of “suit” is apt.

That’s what I was there at the dry cleaners to pick up. It was a seasonal sort of summer suit, so I’d been leisurely about picking it up at the local dry cleaners. To clarify: the suit isn't leisure; I am.

Had I picked the suit up a month previous when it was ready, the instigating transaction may never have occurred. But it did.

Here’s what happened:

I walked into the local dry cleaner ready for friendly service. The ladies there are sweet as Delta tea and just as sunny.

But the friendly service wasn’t what caught my eye. What did was something I prefer to avoid during my daily routine.

It was the black and gray uniform of the Pennsylvania State Police. It was hanging there in prominence smack dab in front of the five rows of -- who knows? -- perhaps a thousand items of bagged and dry-cleaned cloths.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but my first instinct when seeing that vacant suit was, “Run!”

Can’t help it. It’s in-bred. I have friends who are state policemen and enjoy golfing with them. But the uniform itself usually means a day-ruining event.

That’s why I was surprised by the impulse I felt seizing me.

“How much is the bill for that officer’s uniform?”

The old lady looked perplexed. She turned and looked through bi-focals at the pink receipt. It was $14.73.

“Let me have that one, too,” I said. “I’d like to pay for it.”

Like the rest of America, I’m deep into tough times. Income’s near zero. If I donate right now, it’s going to go to the Salvation Army, not the guy who’s going to bust me with a $97 citation for going 42 in a 35 mph zone.

But here in western Pennsylvania there’d been a heartbreaking rash of officer shootings. Four were killed in past six months. Two of them never had a chance.

So I paid for the officer’s dry cleaning and the sweet dry cleaning lady was overwhelmed. “Well, how kind of you!” she gushed. “What’s your name and phone number? I want to pass this along. I’m sure the officer will want to thank you.”

I declined. “Just tell him thanks for all he does for us."

And I practically danced out of the shop. I felt great. I’d done an impulsive good deed for a worthy stranger and didn’t taint it by seeking credit.

So why am I tainting it now? As a warning because of what’s been happening to me ever since.

See, I walked out of that dry cleaning shop not only feeling good, but also, yes, convinced something good was now likely to happen to me.

We all like to believe in karma. We who consider ourselves good like to believe that our good deeds will eventually resonate and be rewarded. Sooner the better.

I felt so good that I thought I’d try generate some web campaign to get dry cleaning customers to anonymously pay for bills for uniformed police and armed forces. Certainly, among the hundreds of clothes being dry cleaned at any given moment, there are some uniforms worn by brave citizens who put their lives on the line for us.

It’s such a simple gesture and is a great way to say thanks.

Now, here’s what happened in the hour after my good, anonymous deed:

• Got an IRS bill for $437 in penalties for a tax dispute that was resolved in the tax bureau’s favor.

• My six-month old computer malfunctioned. I drove 90 minutes to Pittsburgh three times in the following seven days to get warranty service. Lost about two days of data and felt rash-inducing anxieties all week.

• Heard little sawing noises in the attic above the bed. Went up to investigate and found puddles of water on the plastic insulation. The snow-covered roof’s leaking and needs replacing. Our baffled bug and critter guy couldn’t discern what’s making the noises. The disconcerting sawing noises continue unabated and I lay there sleepless each night awaiting a nest of mice to break through the ceiling and fall on my face.

• The snows that have since topped a total of 52-inches began to fall and continue to do so. I’m beginning to feel like Jack Torrance in “The Shining.”

• Learned the kid needs braces.

So given how cockeyed karma’s reacted to my good deed, will I ever voluntarily pay for another officer’s dry cleaning?

Absolutely.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Super Bowl recap


The Super Bowl has come and gone and I’m still feeling melancholy I didn’t have a team to hate since the Dallas Cowboys were eliminated. If the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t in it, I need someone to hate or else I’m just adrift.

The Cowboys provide for me a near perfect hatred. I hate their history, their ridiculous stadium, their owner and their no. 1 fan, George W. Bush. If they ever show Dick Cheney and Ryan Seacrest yukking it up with Jerry Jones in the owner’s box, I’ll go delirious with hatred.

Next year’s Super Bowl is scheduled to be played in the new Dallas Stadium. I hope the Steelers play the Cowboys there and that Steeler fans outnumber hometown Cowboy fans by a ratio of 4-to-1. And that the Steelers win 77-0.

What’s to hate about the great New Orleans Saints? Nothing. I’m thrilled for them, their fans and the once godforsaken city I love so much. That party is going to blend right into Mardi Gras and last a month. I haven’t felt so like dropping everything and jetting to a party that didn’t involve me since the Berlin Wall came down.

What’s to hate about the Indianapolis Colts? They are a little bland for my tastes, but bland competence is so uncommon in professional sports it should be hailed as a virtue. Plus, I love the great Peyton Manning. He’s a class act, a devoted family man and a real professional dedicated to winning with grace and style.

And I was saying those exact same things about Tiger Woods right up until November 27.

Other thoughts:

• Watching the Leno/Letterman commercial had me feeling like two old friends of mine have finally made up after a ridiculous grudge. That whole thing was so unnecessarily bitter and tawdry, especially when all the principals are earning and will continue to earn fortunes. For the record, my preference list goes like this: Leno, Craig Ferguson, Letterman, Conan and Jimmy Kimmel.

• Budweiser’s ads were hilarious. I marveled at the tens of millions of dollars it must have cost to produce and air the spots. Still, if Budweiser never aired another commercial, I doubt it would lose a single beer drinker. Budweiser’s a national habit. I’ve been drinking beer since, oh, about the fourth grade. I’ve been subjected to probably a $1 billion in ads aimed at getting me to drink Bud. It’s never worked. I drink local second, fancy import third, and what whomever’s buying first.


• In five years when the latest American Idol is performing the halftime extravaganza, we’re going to look back on this as the golden era of halftime shows. Paul McCartney, The Stones, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and, yes, The Who. It’s not that The Who was bad. It’s that they’re not right for the venue. Their best songs top out at eight or nine minutes and don’t lend themselves to snappy little renditions. Their uneven performance wasn’t a sign that they suck, it’s a sign that the networks have run out of acceptable options. Look for Jimmy Buffett next year.

• This was the second year in a row when there wasn’t a single funny monkey commercial. I am again crushed. I swear, I’d run out and buy truckloads of feminine hygiene products if a really funny monkey subliminally suggested I ought to.

• Every time they show smiling and voluptuous cheerleaders, I cheer the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have these silly silicone distractions at our home games. Professional football’s all about ugly. How else can you explain guys like Bill Cowher getting so much face time?

• It could be argued that the commercial-vanquishing DVR is perhaps the second greatest invention of all-time behind Caller ID, or as I call it, “The In-Law Detector.” Still, if commercials were as lively as they are during the Super Bowl, I’d ditch the feature. It’s insane, but the commercials are as big as the game.

• Without ever bothering to look it up, my wife and I have wondered for years if Abe Vigoda was dead or alive. Thanks to computer animatronics and despite his ad with Betty White, I’m still not sure. And I loved The Simpsons/Coke ad.

• I still enjoy a really good college marching band, but one of the best half-time shows I’ve ever seen at a professional football game was a 10-foot baby race. I watched in horror as they rolled out the mat at mid-field and brought six infants and lined them up in their designated lanes opposite their coaxing mommies. What looked absolutely ridiculous became oddly compelling and I admit I felt small when I heard myself yelling at No. 4, “Get your diapered little ass in gear you little son of a bitch!” I don’t remember who won the game that day, but I remember the kid came in second.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

An exercise in ironic education


I was explaining to my class the difference between coincidence and the over- and mis-used word, “irony.”

“It is coincidence, not irony, when you meet an old friend on the street outside the building where you both went to school,” I lectured. “Irony is when a vegetarian is eaten by wolves.”

I gave an insufferable professorial smirk and prepared myself to bow to the applause I was sure would follow. It was the fourth week I’ve taught a three-hour creative non-fiction writing class to graduate students at Point Park University in downtown Pittsburgh.

But there was no applause. No appreciative nods.

Later on the drive home I figured out why.

Because from January through May, this group of polite young adults had signed on to bear witness to one of the world’s most colossal ironies -- me teaching anybody how to succeed in writing.

This is the third time Point Park has flattered me by offering me this adjunct position and I think I figured out why. I am to journalism students what a human cadaver is to medical students.

Prospective journalists can examine me, my flaws and failings, and try and forensically determine what killed my career.

Was it god-given laziness? Massive stupidity? The jigsaw puzzle of career scars leaves ample opportunity for dissection.

Really, I probably make a better professor of writing than I do a practioner of writing. And it’s a lot more fun to get paid for talking about failed assignments than it is to not get paid for failing assignments.

I’ve noticed that the students come alive with interest when I tell them stories about how I’ve cratered once-thriving magazines with my questionable ethics, sloppy fact-checking, or reckless and exorbitant expense account sprees.

True story: Details magazine in 1999 closed four days after I’d submitted a $5,450 reimbursement bill for a five-day frolic I enjoyed while on assignment to cover a mundane TV programming convention in New Orleans. I got paid, but the magazine didn’t recover to publish another issue until 2002.

But students stare out the window like Gitmo detainees whenever I tell a story about a rare career accomplishment from long, long ago when I used to have them.

Worse, is the reaction I inevitably get when I read them some of my own work as I inevitably do.

I just can’t help myself. They are truly a captive audience. Again, the Gitmo detainee analogy is apt. I’m like the righteous Army chaplain who preaches to fanatical Muslims about the everlasting importance of being good Christians.

It’s worse for my students than it is even for my poor wife and children. Family face no repercussions when they leave the room or shove their fingers in their ears when I launch into another rambling story.

Getting up and leaving isn’t an option for my students. I could fail them for that. I do wonder if by week six some of the weaker students might crack and agree to submit to waterboarding if it’ll get me to shut the hell up.

I might enjoy that quid pro quo, too. Besides being a bore, I also have a mean streak that makes Dick Cheney seem mirthful.

Again, ironies abound. Just last night I spent about two hours talking about the importance of, get this, being concise!

Yes, I went on and on and on about why they need to be brief. I read them long passages from Hemingway and lectured ad nauseam that the only way to get ahead in writing is to write less.

To stress the point, I even assigned them dainty little 150-word essays in praise of something brief with no sentences longer 15 words each.

In hindsight, I suppose it would have been funny if I’d have told them to make the brief essays no less than 2,500 words.

Then there's this: The lengthy lesson about the importance of being brief was given by a man prone to wearing boxers.

How ironic.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhog Day edition


My mother is a graduate of Punxsutawney High School, class of ‘50, so I’ve always felt a special kinship to this stress-free, offbeat holiday. Every year on February 2 my Mom makes Groundhog cookies. I want to stress: There’s no critter in groundhog cookies.

• Why the 1993 Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day” isn’t considered one of the best American movies ever is a reflection of critical snobbery. It is hilarious, romantic, inventive and when Murray’s Phil Connor character decides to save the decrepit homeless man he’d been ignoring the previous several hundred days or so, it shows something many other more critically acclaimed movies never show: it shows heart. His soulful pivot from selfishness to selflessness is as timeless a tale as anything conjured by Charles Dickens.

• In 2010, overseas wars will continue to rage, famine and natural disaster will reap a bitter toll on luckless unfortunates and many, like me, will struggle to earn a living. But if news reports prove correct and Pittsburgh Penguin owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle manage to pry the Pittsburgh Pirate franchise from the miserly hands of current owner Bob Nutting, I will consider this a year as joyful as the ones that saw the births of my children.

• Pittsburgh Magazine continues its flattering mentions of www.EightDaysToAmish.com by in its print edition saying it’s one of the best of the ‘burgh blogs. As I always say, I can’t eat such praise, but it does nourish.

• Equally pleasing was a lavish mention in the Thailand-based The Caffeinated Globe. My new friend January Asia, whom I mentioned in my New Year’s Day e-dress, turned over to me a large part of her post Whoopie Pie and Eight Days To Amish. In it, she allows me to explain about the origins of Whoopie Pie or gobs (otherwise stolid Amish farmers would see them in their lunch boxes and say, “Whoopie!”), about my travels to the Lancaster County village Intercourse, Pa., and how the place got its name. It was all in good fun. Plus, I like it anytime I get to mention Intercourse because I get to recall the bumper sticker I saw there that said: “Virginia May Be For Lovers, But Pennsylvania has Intercourse.”

• My hatred for Bob Nutting and his infernal role in 17 consecutive years of losing Pirate baseball is unrivaled in sports history. I ran into him this past summer at a Bob Dylan concert. When I said his name and asked what he was doing, he approached me in the beer line hoping, I guess, for an amigo moment. He stuck his hand out and said, “I’m doing fine. How are you?” I told him I didn’t ask how he was doing. I asked what he was doing. Then I lit into him for three minutes about his cheap mismanagement of the once-proud team I love. He sheepishly began backing away and stammered that, well, he was at least glad I still cared. I snarled back, “I stopped caring the day you traded Nate McLouth!”

• If it comes across as disparagement, it is unintended, but “Groundhog Day” is to Groundhog Day movies what “It’s a Wonderful Life” is to Christmas flicks.

• I hope I ruined an otherwise fine Dylan show (John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson performed, too) for Nutting. He’s certainly ruined many, many nights for me. I wonder if in moments of doubt he wonders, “Gee, maybe that wobbly drunk from the beer line at the Dylan show was right. Maybe I should spend more on player development and sign young talent to long-term deals. Hmmm . . . .”

• Yes, I understand the "www" stands for “world-wide web” but I’m still tickled to realize that a number of people wake up in farflung Thailand and think, “I wonder what that guy who works above the little family tavern in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, thinks about the great Lemieux’s efforts to buy the Bucs from that jerk Nutting.” I wonder if I have more readers in Thailand than I do in Latrobe.

• Still, if you combined all the readers I have in Latrobe with all the readers I have in Thailand, you’d probably have about a meager total of 25, or about the same number of people as on a professional baseball roster.

• I’ll bet a team of my combined readers in Thailand and Latrobe could kick the asses of Nutting’s sorry Pirates. I’d like to see that humiliation.

• I’m enjoying contributing to Twitter more than I thought. I now have 50 posts so, please, check it out at http://twitter.com/8days2amish. I think my tweet of the week so far is: “Civilization will descend into chaos within two years after someone, and it's bound to happen, invents an iPhone lie detector app.”

• Look for me to tweet that line about Pennsylvanians having Intercourse several times in connection with Valentine’s Day.

• Groundhog Phil saw his shadow and that means six more weeks of winter. In commemoration of this great stress-free holiday, try and do something nice for yourself and nice for someone else. Then do it over and over and over, again and again and again.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Grammy thoughts: Recall all music since '86


I wonder if it would be helpful to our national psyche if taxpayers bailed out the music industry the way we bailed out Detroit.

Really, if one industry should be investigated and forced to issue massive recalls, it is the music industry. They should recall everything they’ve released since about 1986.

I watched about 30 minutes of the Grammys last night and am dumbfounded at the state of this once vital part of daily American life.

Of course, the Grammys have never been about enduring music. The five Grammys Beyonce won last night put her total at 16, three more than the combined totals of Bob Dylan (9), The Rolling Stones (2) Elvis (1) and The Who (zero).

I complain about this for purely altruistic reasons. See, I have my music. My iTunes library has nearly 8,000 songs. If they stopped making new music today I’d be fine.

In fact, I’d be grateful. There’s so much bad music in the world I go through life in a defensive crouch. It’s at the gas station. It’s in the grocery store.

And it’s in the local roller rink where I had to sit for two hours while my 9-year-old daughter attended a classmate’s birthday party. To pass the time, I brought along Timothy Egan’s fine book, “The Worst Hard Time” about the survivors of the catastrophic Dust Bowl.

Those poor souls persevered through drought, famine, despair and unimaginable Depression-era hardship.

It says something about popular music that I felt a kindred sort of spirit with them as I sat there in the frigid rink.

To be fair, most of the music was pretty good. But most of the music was more than 20 years old. There was Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down,” George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You,” Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and Billy Joel’s still tuneful ditty, “Still Rock ‘n’ Roll To Me.”

The rest of the songs could be traced to the two most pernicious influences on American music today: “American Idol” and Radio Disney, both of which were on display at the Grammys.

The reach of “American Idol” was evident when two of the five artists chosen to salute Michael Jackson were AI offspring Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson. While Smokey Robinson, Usher and Celine Dion made understated and dignified contributions, the AIers were so over-the-top I thought the camera was going to pan to a shot of Paula Abdul weeping with elation.

Worse was Radio Disney staple Taylor Swift, 20, who represents what Petty said is wrong with today’s country music: “It’s bad rock music with a fiddle.”

She’s an appealing girl, but when she opens her mouth to sing I reflexively head to the garage for a can of WD-40.


Repeated exposure to Radio Disney products has moved me to urge a drastic mandate that nobody should be allowed to make any music until they are mature enough to have at least shaved something.

Because we’re on the precipice of a vast musical gulf. On one side are the classic rockers who’ve done their part. They can’t live forever, although if anyone can, my money’s on Keith Richards.

And on the other side are the synthesized products being offered by AI and Radio Disney.

There’s nothing in between. Once the legends die, there is no one to take their place. It’ll just be a steady stream of the none-tonal tedium music industry executives impose on our culture.

We need a purifying moratorium on new music for 10 years. That will encourage the grass roots to grow. The time’s never been more ripe for a new Elvis to organically arise and electrify the world.

The ban does not apply to the classic bands -- The Stones, Petty, Dylan -- who are grandfathered in.

The exception is offered because of their illustrious musical contributions and because, hell, most of them are already grandfathers anyway.