Pledge Week! Pledge Now!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Flakey thoughts on Atlanta snow traffic nightmare


Many of my fellow frost-bitten northerners reacted with gleeful scorn upon reading the headline “South paralyzed by 2 inches of snow.”

They mocked them. Called them sissies. Belittled their soft reaction to a weather condition that’s the meteorological equivalent of YouTube kitten videos.

Not me. Mine is not a spiteful nature.

My thoughts were more historical.

I thought, “Gee, how come it took us four whole years to whip their Rebel butts in the Civil War?” You’d think a people paralyzed by two inches of snow would flee crying from a battlefield if you stood up and yelled, “Boo!”

Many of us have played golf in worse weather.

This is true: one February I golfed on a day so chilly I was actually able to hit a shot off a frozen lake.

The day was cold, but the match was heated. My opponent hit a nice drive straight down the fairway of a dogleg left par 5 with a frozen pond at the bend. I realized I could gain as much as a 50-yard advantage if I skipped my tee shot off the ice.

But I was unable to hit the drive as expertly as I’d hoped and the ball came to rest about 10-yards from shore. This was still fine. The rules of golf say a ball in a water hazard requires a two-stroke penalty.

But the rules say nothing about a ball resting on top of a water hazard. So I took my trusty 5 iron and gingerly ventured out onto the ice.

I gave it a mighty swing and sent the ball sailing toward the hole. I chipped on and made a putt for a spectacular birdie that won the hole.

The match, however, I lost as I limped around the remaining four holes in agony as my soaked pants froze solid.

See, the commotion of my jerky swing caused the thin ice to break and I fell in clear up to my hips.

Still, it makes a great story and the bragging rights only diminish when I tell the whole truth about what really happened, something I’ll never do again.

What most surprises me is how survivors of the Atlanta gridlock seem to elevate their ordeal to historic levels. It’s not like this was the 1847 Donner Party stuck in 30-foot snow drifts in the Sierra Nevadas near Truckee, California. Of the 87 emigrants, only 48 survived with many of them resorting to eating the flesh of their fallen comrades.

Rescuers described searing scenes of revolting degradation.

Rough stuff. Now, let’s compare what happened to the Donners to what happened in the city nicknamed the The Big Peach.

One commuter, Jessica Troy, said it took her 16 hours to drive 12 miles. “We literally would go 5 feet and sit for two hours. It was dire.”

Why any able-bodies commuter would endure that with so many big city amenities nearby is mystifying. She must really like listening to the radio.

Here’s what I’d have done had I been there:

For starters, I’d have taken a good long nap. I never have enough nap time and 16 hours in a vehicle without the kids would be heavenly.

Then I’d put the car in gear and move 5 feet.

If my laptop was charged, I’d have probably started blogging about the traffic.  I’m sure I’d try and keep the tone playful and light. It’s just a little weather so there’s no point being bitchy.

Then I’d put the car back in gear and move 5 feet.

I’d get out and introduce myself to my traffic neighbors. I’d see if they were doing okay and ask if there was anything I could do for them. See, I’d want to be making friends in case we were, like the Donners, stuck there for another six weeks and someone started to get hungry for some man meat.

Then I’d put the car in gear and move 5 feet.

I’m sure at some point, I’d probably get bored and hungry and decide it was time hoof it to the nearest McDonald’s and grab a bite to eat.

If there was a hotel nearby, I’d snag a room and settle in to watch The History Channel. I think we gain perspective when we examine the hardships of those who’ve struggled before us.


Related . . .



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Chilled Super Bowls need Tommy Bahama Rule


If I were a man of means, I might consider spending about $10,000 to attend Super Bowl XLVIII being hosted by New York and played in New Jersey. That’s how much I figure it would cost to make this four-day event a comfortable splurge.

But I am not a man of means.

I am instead a mean man determined to spend the next five days at home hoping this ill-conceived Super Bowl is a logistical fiasco. I want traffic jams, hours-long security waits and the kind of cold, slushy weather that makes fans from grim Seattle wish they were home sipping some exotic five-bean blend.

New York is one of my top three favorite cities. Although I’ve never been there, from what I hear, East Rutherford, N.J., wouldn’t crack the top 300.

Pre-fatherhood, I used to go to Manhattan a couple of times a year. I’d enjoy the Lower East Side in spring, Rockefeller Center in summer and Central Park in fall.

Never once did I go to New York so I could see East Rutherford on Groundhog’s Day. 

Purists say football was meant to be played outdoors in nasty weather.

Football, yes.

Super Bowls, no.

I’m not one to advocate more rules for the over-officiated NFL, but there ought to be a Tommy Bahama Rule: No city can host a Super Bowl in a place where wearing a Tommy Bahama party shirt outdoors would result in goose pimples.

I know what fun it can be to go to an expensive Super Bowl.

Let me clarify: I know what fun it can be to be in a bunch of cheap French Quarter dive bars about a mile from where they’re playing an expensive Super Bowl.

It was Super Bowl XXXI in MCMXCVII. It was the year Green Bay beat New England XXXV to XXI.

Oh, and that’s another thing I despise about the NFL: this silly insistence on using incomprehensible Roman numerals for Super Bowls in a way that must have even  people in Rome saying WTF?

But it was 1997. Me and my buddies were so sure the Steelers were going to advance to the Super Bowl we bought tickets to New Orleans sure we’d have a great time.

It didn’t work out that way, but it didn’t matter.

It was still one of the best buddy weeks I’ve ever had and it featured one of the most magnificent buzzes of my life -- and I’m still one of those guys that achieves a good primal buzz about four times a week.

We had so much fun.

Part of the fun was that it was miserable in Pittsburgh and we weren’t there.

In New Orleans the temperatures were about 75. I was with two great buddies. We were having a ball.

I was wearing Tommy Bahama!

I think the buzz was so spectacular because all three of us had awakened sure we were going to die. Our heads were pounding, our stomachs queasy and we ached all over like we’d been run over by a Second Line funeral parade.

I guess something must have been going around.

But with alcoholic assistance and some Central Grocer muffaletta we persevered like men. Stupid, drunken men, sure, but men, indeed.

And with every drink our merry little trio began feeling better and better. 

I remember carrying a portable Hurricane into a little cigar shop down near Jackson Square, a place once known for public beheadings, to buy some stogies.

The smoke settled my soul.

I’ll never forget the feeling I had about four hours before that kick-off. I was with my friends. We were whooping it up. We were in New Orleans.

I’d survived a near-fatal hangover!

And none of us was burdened by the knowledge that any of the other guys was stupid enough to want to pay $500 for a ticket to the game (the prices have since quadrupled).

We spent the whole second half in the venerable Preservation Jazz Hall and didn’t even know who won until we saw the exuberant Packer fans streaming past outside.

Guaranteed, no one in the New York metro-area this weekend will have a day as splendid as mine was XIII years ago.

Such a pity.

Do you agree? Am I nuts? Is this winter Super Bowl a good idea?

I am eager to hear your thoughts.

Call me!

My number is DCCXXIV-CMLXI-MMDLVIII.


Related . . .



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Happy 50th Birthday to these words (with profanity)!


I’m convinced the day my wife fully grasps I pay $295 every year for a virtual dictionary she’s going to smash me over the head with a $17 real one.

But I can’t help myself. My subscription to the world’s oldest and biggest dictionary is my most fond extravagance.

I justify it because, hey, it is a tax deduction, I have a still-active book proposal about how words become words and because words are a writer’s tools as surely as hammer is a carpenter’s.

It’s just that only an idiot carpenter would pay $295 for a new hammer every year.

But this is no ordinary dictionary. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary, the most venerable dictionary in the history of the spoken word. A typical 3-pound desk dictionary contains about 155,000 words. The OED includes definitions for more than 600,000 words.

More than that, it includes their precise histories and examples of them used in sentences written by guys like Shakespeare and Mark Twain.

And in what is a favorite feature of mine, it includes the word’s birthday.

It’s true. Every word you use has a birthday, a day when it officially became a word recognized by the OED.

It’s a fascinating feature. You can go in year-by-year and see when a word became a word.

So every year or so I try to go back and see which words were born that year 50 years previously. I choose 50 years because they resonate with most people alive today.

For instance, last year -- the very same year I turned 50 -- I learned that it wasn’t until 1963 that there was sufficient usage and inertia for the OED to recognize the word “dipshit.”

I choose to think of it as a flukey coincidence.

But I spent about an hour on the laptop the other night sleuthing what words were born in 1964, the year OED chose to recognize 369 new words. Many are arcane or specific to obscure disciplines. But here are 26 that still have cultural relevance, many of them more germane today than ever. It is to me a fascinating list.
Check ‘em out:

A-Team: Designating elite U.S. Special Forces and paving the way for pop culture superstardom for the inimitable Mr. T some 20 years later.

aw-shucks: Maybe the perfect expression of humble bashfulness. I’m surprised this one isn’t about 100 years old.

Beatlesque: “Characteristic or reminiscent of The Beatles.” These guys were such a cultural phenomenon they became an adjective about 18 months after their first hit single. The rapidity still stuns. I’m going to be sure to watch that Ed Sullivan 50th anniversary special on, I think, February 9.

binge drinking: I just wrote a blog post about how they keep re-defining binge drinking making it easier and easier to accomplish. I like how many new words were invented by parents to describe the excesses of their Baby Boom children.

braless: I like the thought of some demure old granny hearing the word “braless” in conversation and running off to the dictionary and being traumatized by the definition.

condo: Coming off the era of Levittown housing tracts, condos were a fresh and exciting housing option. Now, I visit my Mom in one.

dork: It’s not uncommon for my own kids to describe me as the “world’s dorkiest father.” If they are strict constructionists, they are calling me the “world’s dickiest father.” Dork is, in fact, a Midwestern synonym for penis. By the way, the OED lists 78 synonyms for penis and one day I’m going to write a blog that mentions every single one of them.

drunk-driving: Another cultural touchstone. I remember my grandfather saying how there never used to be drunk driving laws and if you were caught too tipsy behind the wheel, the police would just take your keys or drive you either home or to the town drunk tank. Then they came up with a legal term for it, got the lawyers involved and now it’s just an enormous racket from which no convivial person is safe.

GIGO: Garbage in garbage out. How come I’ve never heard this before? It’s very handy.

jive-ass: I read this one and immediately thought of the scene from “Airplane!” where Barbara Billingsley translates “jive” from two black passengers speaking in what used to be known as jive. In fact, the dictionary describes jive-ass as a person who loves fun or excitement. So I’m a jive-ass! I hope you are, too!

kvetch: I would have thought this Hebrew word was as old as Moses. I guess not. Maybe it was against his nature for Moses to kvetch.

monokini: Never heard of it? Me, neither. It’s a one-piece beach garment or swimming costume worn by women or girls; half a bikini. Let’s bring this useful one back.

motherfucker: Oh, boy. See, the OED includes all the great swear words, too. They were the very first words I looked up! Author Greg Olear wrote a really great book a couple of years ago called “Fathermucker.” Pure genius. Humans prove over and over again how creative we can be when it comes to expressing profane disdain for one another. So happy birthday, motherfucker! One more piece of mofo trivia: Grace Slick is direct a descendant of Mayflower Pilgrims and the first person to ever say motherfucker on live TV (the Dick Cavett show).

ninja: person trained in the feudal art of Japanese art of ninjutsu. Another one I mistakenly thought would have been ancient. If I was frivolous with my time, I’d delve into this one and a few others. Well, I mean more frivolous.

ooky: The only time I’ve ever heard this word meaning “unpleasant, repellent, slimy” used by adults is when it is sung in the theme from “The Addams Family.” And when did “The Addams Family" first appear on TV? 1964.

pat-down: Same meaning as it did last time you went through an airport. My first of maybe 200 travel stories I did for msnbc.com stemmed from my pitch about what people named Pat Downs think about pat-downs. It was a really fun story and I’m still Facebook friends with one very cheerful Arkansas woman named Pat Downs. I’ll link her story below.

picturephone: Today, they are ubiquitous, but the first picture phone was demonstrated as a see-as-you-talk call between the World’s Fair in New York and Anaheim, California. No mention if toddler Steve Jobs had anything to do with it.

Pop-Tart: A proprietary name for a flat, rectangular pastry with a sweet filling intended to be heated in a toaster. I’d have in college perished without the Pop-Tart. I like how that word has morphed into a pejorative description for young mostly female singers like Miley Cirus who are usually anything but flat.

pratfall: Geez, this word is only 50 years old? What word did they use to describe what Charlie Chaplin had been doing all those years ago?

sitcom: I’d love to coin a word like this. There are a lot of crappy sitcoms, sure, but good 30-minute sitcoms like “Taxi,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” have provided me with some of my life’s most carefree moments. So we’ll always have sitcoms. Amen.

Skank: Yes, there were no skanks prior to 1964. Today, many singles bars are full of dorks and skanks. Progress? I don’t know.

skateboard: You now, I never owned a skateboard? I don’t feel deprived. I liked my banana seat bike.

skinny dip: Why this, a word to describe one of humanity’s most joyful activities, wasn’t around until 1964 makes me feel sad for all the people who came before ’64. I’ll link a skinny dip story at the bottom, too. And I’m using the word bottom purely for descriptive purposes and not to be cheeky.

superpub: Guaranteed, the dude who coined this word ended up in a few short years coming up with the word disco. A good pub never needed an upgrade. Pubs are super enough. A superpub described a once-decent bar with a dance floor and  strobe lights. I’m glad I never hear anyone enthusiastically describe my favorite hangouts as superpubs.

TV land: Not the network, yet. This referred to the state of mind. I remember the first time we learned our cable was broadcasting TV Land was Christmas Eve, I swear, in about 1998. Val was fulfilling her duties as church organist for the late service. She came home around 10 p.m., snatched the remote from my hands and started flipping through and -- lo and behold -- found “Bewitched” playing behind the little TV Land logo. We watched nothing but that channel for the next four years.  I still remember that as the night of Val’s Christmas Miracle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her happier.

yuck: This word is just 50 years old? C’mon! Picky babies have been saying this since the shortly after the very first pea harvest.


Related . . .






Monday, January 27, 2014

Promote world peace: drive a really crappy car!


I ran into a really great guy a few weeks ago while on my way to lunch on Pittsburgh’s South Side.

Let me be more specific.

I ran into a really great guy’s car.

I try and maintain humility about most aspects of my life. Save one: I’m one bad mofo when it comes to parallel parking -- and I mean that purely in the Samuel L. Jackson way where bad is good.

I’m very cocky about my abilities to deftly pull my 15.08-foot 2007 Saturn Vue into roadside spots so slim timid Volkswagen Beetle drivers would pass them up for roomier opportunities.

I pull even with the forward car, cut the wheel, goose the gas, cut the wheel back in the other direction and slide that big old Saturn in the narrow vacancy with the kind of leftover space that would cramp butterfly wings.

And that’s what I did.

But on this day in this tight spot, I miscalculated. 

I bumped the front fender of the Toyota behind me. Not hard, mind you. I doubt a dashboard cup of coffee would have tipped and certainly not hard enough to do any damage.

But there was a witness. And the witness was the vehicle’s owner. He looked about 30 and fit, the kind of guy who didn’t drive Beetles but could bench press them.

“Hey! You just hit my car!”

I rolled down the passenger side window and apologized. “I’m so sorry. Is there any damage?”

He gave it a quick appraisal.

“No, it’s fine. It’s a piece of crap anyway.”

“Yeah, so’s mine.”

“Okay, we’re cool. You take it easy, man.”

“Thanks. You, too.”

As he pulled out and drove away, our eyes met and he gave a little wave which I returned.

But the look he gave me said so much. And here’s what I think it meant:

“This world is full of angry and vindictive assholes, but you and I aren’t among them. We just dealt with a potentially explosive situation -- the kind that often on city streets leads to gun fire -- with clear-headed reason. Conflicts would diminish if more big-picture guys like us were running the world. Farewell, my even-tempered and unmet friend!”

I was with my irascible friend John from New York. I told him to get out of the car. I was going to go after the guy whose car I just hit because I think he’d be a better friend.

But John didn’t budge and now I’ll forever regret not pursuing that refined gent in the crappy Camry.

Imagine how different our days would have gone had he pointed out some minor dent. Maybe I’d have asked him to prove it hadn’t already been there.

What if he’d have been driving a sportier car?

Maybe we’d have gotten into a shoving match. Maybe he’d have wrestled me to the ground and begun using my ears as handles to repeatedly smash my bald spot against the Carson Street sidewalk.

John, I’m sure, would have filmed the beating and uploaded it to YouTube complete with invitations to leave snide remarks.

So I’ve spent a lot of time the last month or so considering the dynamics of the situation and here’s what I’ve concluded: The world would be better off if everyone drove a really crappy car.

My Saturn is 7 years old and is doggedly huffing its way toward 120,000 miles. 
My wife out of the blue remarked on it just yesterday.

“You know, that car of yours is really reliable,” she said. “It’s dependable, still rides comfortable and performs well in the snow.”

I confess to feeling a flash of jealousy. Married now 18 years, she never says anything like that about me -- and I like to think I perform well in all weather, too.

But her point is apt. 

I have many stresses in my life, as do you, I’m sure. But one of mine isn’t my vehicle. I don’t care if it gets dirty or dinged. I don’t obsessively peek out the window to ensure nobody’s parking too near.

It’s just one of my life’s little utilities, something which I count on but feel no undue affections.

It bestows feelings of peace, not pressure.

And it’s great to know if I ever run into another stranger on a city street we may hit it off in ways that have nothing to do with flying fists.



Related . . .



Friday, January 24, 2014

Olympic security measures call for "Sochi 911!"


Pessimistic sourpusses are trying to ruin the Olympic games for me before I even get to find out if the most famous band in Russia will perform in the opening ceremonies.

I’m talking, of course, about Pussy Riot.

Wouldn’t Russia having an Olympic ceremony without Pussy Riot be like England having one without The Beatles? 

Every host nation features music from their most prominent band and Pussy Riot is is one of just two Russian performing artists I can even name. The other is Tchaikovsky, but it’s my understanding he’s been on a previously booked engagement since 1893.

Yes, it seems all great Russian entertainers are all what you could call underground.

In 40 years of enjoying the Olympics, I’ve never known a more dreadful build-up to something normally so joyful.

You can’t watch the news without hearing about it. Black widow terrorists have penetrated Sochi’s vaunted ring of steel. These Islamic terrorists will stop at nothing to disrupt the games. Our olympians are so fearful they’re ordering their families stay home.

It’s upsetting to me because I love the Olympics and I love Russia.

I love the Olympics for the competition, the pageantry and the celebration of mostly amateur athletes excelling in offbeat events.

Why do I love Russia?

Because Russia loves me!

In one of the oddest revelations of my wildly inaccurate and mostly incomprehensible blog “stats” page, Russian readers far and away out number the rest of the world (after my American homies). If I were giving out medals for readership, the Russians would get the silver.

In fact, there are times when my Russian readers outnumber those of my countrymen and women -- and, yes, Uncle Sam, I consider it a snub.

Stats says my blog recently cracked the 100,000 hits mark with U.S. readers totaling today 102,533, since it began tracking services on 11.11.11

But check out Russia. They’ve practically invaded the blog with 27,831 readers.

France is the distant bronze-medalist with 10,103 (followed in relatively close order by Germany, U.K., Canada, Ukraine -- Ukraine, really? -- China, Netherlands and Australia).

It’s inexplicable.

I see the Russian numbers surge and the old Cold Warrior in me wonders if Vladimir Putin is messin’ with Sasquatch. Maybe he’s for years been trying to curry favor with obscure American bloggers in the cunning understanding we’d one day write positive things about an Olympic games being held in an ethnic Russian region known to favor curry.

Works with me.

They should have considered the results if they’d have sent me a cheerful mail-order bride. Who knows? Maybe my home blog today would be www.EightDaysToVladivostok.com?

I’m very excited about the Sochi Olympics and don’t want anything bad or lethal to happen to innocents -- and I’d say the same thing even if the Olympics were being held in Perth or other large swaths of the planet where people are too busy to bother reading my blog.

But it looks like excessive security measures will be the dominant theme of these winter games.

That’s unfortunate, but it also represents a programming opportunity network NBC executives seem to be overlooking. That would be  . . . “Sochi 911!”

NBC should devote one of its many affiliate networks to nothing but iron-fisted Sochi security at work. This would be particularly enlightening here in America where we’re having this dainty debate about the NSA listening in to learn things like what kind of toppings we prefer on our pizzas

I suspect in “Sochi 911!” American security hardliners would enjoy the up-close-and-personal view of how Putin’s security forces are going about handling security threats.

Sgt. Boris: “We have information that a terrorist lives in this building. So we’re going to go in and kill the suspected terrorist. Then we’re going to take her phone to see who she’s been calling. Then we’re going to go to where those people live to kill them and take their phones.”

I’m sure Russian civil libertarians will be aghast at the tactics. They will denounce. They will inveigh. They may even resort to more vociferous means of protest.

But I suspect in cases of imminent terror most people will hope they err on the side of caution and just let the pussies riot.


Related . . .




Thursday, January 23, 2014

US needs a national "No One Gets Out of Bed Day!"

(696 words)
Getting out of bed on mornings like this makes me feel like a World War I soldier being ordered at gunpoint to vault out of the trench into No Man’s Land certain to face heroic annihilation.

It’s 2 degrees. I have another three inches of snow to shovel. The stupid dog’s stubbornly resistant to my efforts to teach him the benefits of indoor plumbing on days when the windchill is minus-14.

And I have to get out of bed.

Sleep is at its most precious when you become aware its end is imminent. That’s when you know it’s time to haul your sorry butt out of bed and begin engaging in the mundane tasks that constitute being a responsible human.

You shave, you shower and you switch on the news to hear the latest Olympic terror threat that’s turning Sochi into a Guantanamo without the soothing tropical breezes.

Sure, something good may or may not happen to you during the next 17 or so hours of wakefulness, but guaranteed something bad will happen. You’ll get stuck in traffic. The kids will sass you. You’ll spend every step outdoors fretting your next might cause you to slip and snap a wrist. 

Either way, you’re forced to leave one of the most wonderful and happy places on earth -- your very own bed -- for one of the most dangerous and forbidding -- the outside world at large.

When was the last time you stayed in bed just for the happy hell of it?

Being sick doesn’t count. That’s no fun. I’m talking about staying in your jammies and eating nothing but Pop Tarts, popcorn and pizza all day long. Maybe if ambition strikes some soup, too.

I’ll bet for me it’s been about 30 years.

It’d be one thing if I could look back on the last three decades and marvel at all I’ve accomplished, but regular readers of this blog know just how self-delusional that would be.

You can have your globe-trotting bucket list. More and more, my dream vacation is one where I don’t even brush my teeth until after “The Price Is Right!” host Drew Carey reminds me to get my pet spayed or neutered.

Maybe it’s time for America to consider having a “National No One Gets Out of Bed Day” and the first one’s tomorrow. Or maybe we should just rename Tuesdays and have it once a week.

People would be more rested, chipper and cheerful knowing we had something soulful to look forward to. Sure, some people in need of essential medical care would expire, but death on days like this beats getting out of bed.

I wonder if my feelings are particularly acute because Val and I share a waterbed.

I don’t know when fad waterbeds fell out of favor. Did some old hippie drown in one and I missed all the bad press?

I sometimes wonder if we’re the last couple on earth to enjoy a waterbed. The funny thing is we were both waterbed devotees when we met.

And we both drove Saturns, too!

Yes, it was in the stars.

Mine was one of my first purchases when I got a job and moved away to live on my own. I became enamored with them back in the days when every mall in America had a waterbed store.

They’re heavenly. Getting into a waterbed with someone cuddly you love is one of the most pleasant experiences in human existence.

So getting out of one under the same circumstances is one of the worst. And that’s how I begin every single day of my life.

Many people compare being in a waterbed to being what it was like being in the womb. It’s better for me, even, because my waterbed doesn’t get smoker’s cough like Mom did when she was nursing a three-pack a day habit while pregnant with me.

Just thinking about it is giving me one of those out-of-body experiences filled with rapturous reveries.

Too bad I again convinced myself I really ought to give a crap which means it’s just another day destined to be full of out-of-bed experiences.


Related . . .