Friday, September 22, 2017

Some productive writers finish one book a year; I finished two on Monday

People have from time-to-time asked what’s the longest I’ve ever gone without blogging.

That would be from 1963 through 2008.

Second longest? August 18 through Monday.

So what was I doing during those sabbaticals?

Well, during the first, I was truly living my life. I buried my father and became one. I started a promising career and abruptly abandoned it five slim years later and got married on September 20, 1996. Happy Anniversary, babe! Love you!

Oh, and I spent a lot of days riding my bike.

What about the most recent disappearance? Was I goofing off?

No, sirree. In fact, I was actually working so hard it felt like I was actually working. First of all was the Arnold Palmer book. I signed the contract on July 31 and the very next day I was in the OR to remove part of my thyroid and a potato-sized lump in my throat that — whew — turned out to be benign.

The contract said I had six weeks to write a 60,000-word book. It was due September 17. I commenced working on it the day I was released from the hospital.

This is evidence of both pluck and stupidity because the operation left my voice a low menacing growl. So when I’d ask some sweet old lady to share her childhood memories of the boy Palmer I’d sound like Dirty Harry about to beat a confession out of some hapless minority.

But I persevered and wound up interviewing more than 200 sources including marquee toppers Jim Nantz and Tom Ridge. And, yes, I made my Monday deadline. 

People are very excited about this book. They think it could make my career. If it does, I know exactly what I’m going to do next. I’m going to find another universally beloved small town American icon, move into their neighborhood and spend the next 25 years quietly ingratiating myself.

But right smack in the middle of this occupational tumult landed another huge opportunity right in my lap. What triggered the surprise good news?

I wrote a one-page thank you note. It was addressed to the staff and tenants at National Church Residences on Lincoln Avenue. It’s where my Mom spent her last year before her July 7th death.

This is the point where some of you might thoughtfully intoning, “Rest In Peace.”

Well, she’d been resting peacefully her whole last year. She had wonderful neighbors and people looking after her. I know I mentioned my gratitude in the letter, written on my cheerfully understated “Use All The Crayons!” letterhead.

The recipients showed the letter to their local managers who showed it to their district managers who showed it to their regional managers. One of them called me three weeks ago. She said she and her team had bought 20 books on-line, loved ‘em, and were wondering if I was available to keynote to 210 of their associates at their regional conference next Thursday in Columbus

I told her I could. She asked my fee. I blurted out what I thought was a preposterous initial offer. She didn’t even counter said, “Great!” and wrote the full check on the spot.

There was only one problem: I only had 27 books left. For a crowd of 210, I usually sell at least 60. At $20 a book that’s a lot of scratch to leave on the table.

I had no choice: It was time to compile and publish the “deluxe” version of  “Use All The Crayons!” It has 1,001 colorful living tips. And instead of 33 essays, deluxe has 57. I figure it’s 80 percent new; it includes the very best from the original and the 800 best from the 3,000 I’ve compiled over the last four years.

And by the oddest of coincidences, in order for me to have enough copies to take to Columbus, I needed to have it all done, proofed and formatted by, yep, September 17.

So, in essence, I published two books in one day; deluxe crayons will be available when I return from Ohio; the Palmer book is due to splash in May.

Robyn John of Apollo Design did another outstanding cover and I can’t say enough about the editing/formatting job done by employee-of-the-year frontrunner Bethany Jones. And many thanks to my old friend Jamie of R.R. Donnelley in Pittsburgh.

I take a bow here, too, because I really busted my rear putting these two together simultaneously under demanding deadline pressure.

The deluxe “Crayons!” is my first exclusive. It won’t be available online; it will give me a tremendous advantage negotiating speaking fees and group sales. For you, my friends, signed copies are just $15.

By the way, these are my last two books. Ever.

If the last six weeks have taught me anything it’s that the big money is — not in writing book — but in writing one page thank you notes.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mourning the death of world's most cheerful man

I’ve lately been waking up angry Dick Guenther taught me to drive when I was 16.

I wish Dick Guenther hadn’t taught me to drive until I was 50.

I was thinking this as I was listening to loved ones memorialize this truly great man on Saturday at Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park near his Castle Shannon home.

See, I was just so stupid when I was 16. Stubborn, selfish, sass-prone — and those are just the character flaws that begin with the letter “s.”

Val asked me why my own old man didn’t teach me that rite of passage. I don’t know. Maybe Dad didn’t have the patience, thought we’d clash or maybe he didn’t want the obligation to cut into his bar time.

Like father, like son!

Or maybe he wanted his impressionable young son to spend one-on-one time with one of the most kind, cheerful, generous and loving men any of us have known. Dick and his surviving wife Bernice were two of my parents’ dearest friends.

Guenther, 92, was a retired postal carrier whose route included Willow Avenue in Shannon. Tony’s Barber Shop was on Willow. It’s where Dad used to take Eric and I for buzzcuts when we were kids.

Our visits, it seemed, always coincided with Dick’s daily delivery. More than four decades later, I remember the details still. 

He spring through the door like his blood was carbonated. He’d razz Tony, Tony’d razz back. They’d belittle Pirate pitching from the previous night’s game. Some local politics would be disparaged and, boom, like that he’d be gone. You could hear him resuming his chipper whistling before the door even closed behind him. The whole conversational tornado lasted fewer than 40 seconds.

In its windy wake were smiles. I believe we can truly take soulful nourishment just by observing a happy person living their happy lives.

Guenther was the reason I became so confused when the term “going postal” began to signify workplace violence.

How could anybody who wore the same uniform as Dick Guenther ever have a bad day?

It’s my understanding Guenther’d had only one bad day his entire life. He was visiting France when some strangers tried to kill him.

They were Germans. It was about a month after D-Day. Had I been there, I’d have said, “Whoa! You can’t kill Dick Guenther! This war is the reason the world needs men like him. And he has so much left to do. He’s going to raise three wonderful children and dote on more generations of grandchildren.

“Now, put down those weapons and let’s talk this all out. Who needs a glass of lemonade?”

I hadn’t seen his son, Danny, in nearly forty years. We had a good hug. He said he couldn’t remember ever hearing his Dad complain about anything in his entire life.

I told him I’d found four things to complain about just crossing the church parking lot.

I’m not kidding when I say I regret he taught me to drive when I was 16. Being a bone-headed young fool, I’m sure I asked this truly great man questions about the finer points of parallel parking, proper braking distance and what to do when the lights on the stupid school bus blink red.

Had I been older, more seasoned, more aware, I’d have asked him the really important questions about just how he did it all.

How in this world of hurt and hate did he remain so cheerful? How did he make the daily joy and well-being of others his life’s priority over his own? Did he ever have any idea how inspirational he was being just by being so happy?

Dick Guenther teaching a snotty 16 year old kid how to drive just seems like a blatant squandering of a magnificent natural resource.

He’s a man who could have taught the whole world how to fly.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

When pull-my-finger is health care

I’ve for years been asking people to pull my finger strictly for comedic purposes. For those of us of juvenile bents, it’s always uproarious.

The key is to time a really loud, monstrous fart to the finger tug, leading the innocent finger puller to conclude there’s an obvious cause and effect. It’s something my wife and daughters find utterly hilarious.

At least they once did.

But I never realized until Buck’s return the pull-my-finger request could fulfill therapeutic purposes.

Buck has since 1980 owned the Tin Lizzy and has thus been my office landlord since 2015.

He stops up here on the third floor at least once a day for philosophical banter and to, I guess, fulfill a daily need to say something disparaging about my shirt, my hair or what he perceives as my neglectful care for my office plant.

So when he told me he’d be gone for a month, I knew I’d miss him. He left in July for a month in Wyoming, a state where the fish outnumber humans by about 5,000-to-1.

I didn’t realize just how much I’d miss him until the doctor said my thyroid might be cancerous and needed to come out. They asked if I had any questions. I did.

Can this wait, I asked, until Buck gets back?

“Who,” he asked, “is Buck?”

He owns the Tin Lizzy.

“You mean you’d delay potentially life-saving surgery to get the medical opinion of some guy who owns a bar?”

“In fact,” I said, “it’s three bars — and they’re all really great bars.”

I wound up going with the professional’s advice. Not because I was more impressed with all his fancy pants degrees from la-de-dah medical schools but because I knew Buck was fishing and he might not return until Wyoming ran out of trout.

He’d read about the surgery on Facebook and being considerate asked how it went. I told him everything was fine, but I might never be able to sing like I used to.

“Then,” he declared, “the operation was a success.”

It was then I noticed the splint on the pinkie of his casting hand.

And let us in these divisive times take a moment to celebrate the pinkie, the unifying feature that no matter what our skin color — ebony, yellow, olive or white — is known to even Latin-spewing physicians as “the pinkie.”

All hail the pinkie! May you lead the way to a truly colorblind society!

Turns out my friend suffered a rare fishing injury. He’d slipped on some rocks and landed with all his weight on the dainty appendage. He’s still wincing from the pain.

“I thought I’d dislocated it and tried to pull it so it’d settle back in.”

That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do with a dislocated joint or digit. Give it a brisk yank and snap it back into the proper socket. Happens all the time on football fields. I remember once seeing Steeler great Jack Lambert awkwardly tackle an opposing ball carrier, shudder in pain and then approach the Steeler sideline.

The announcer said, “Oh, man, he just had a teammate pull his dislocated finger back into place and he’s returning to the huddle. There’s tough and then there’s Jack Lambert tough.”

And that there is the only time you’ll ever see championship football compared to trout fishing and Buck to Jack Lambert.

Still in terrific pain, he said he continued walking to meet his pals and encountering friendly on-stream strangers.

“I kept asking them to pull my finger,” he said. “A few of them looked at me like I was nuts, but pulled it anyway. I was already in a lot of pain and figured it couldn’t hurt any worse.”

He did find one really big guy who said he’d be happy to pull Buck’s finger and gave it a hell of a tug. It only increased the pain.

Turns out Buck’s self-diagnosis was all wrong. His pinkie wasn’t dislocated after all. It was badly fractured. Emergency room docs inserted scores of tiny pinkie pins.We can only speculate how much additional trauma all that unnecessary finger pulling caused.

He’s still in a lot of pain and is for purely medicinal reasons seeking an increase in his daily martini allotment.

Me, I’m belatedly relieved Buck wasn’t around to consult on my thyroid surgery.

Now anytime I hear mention of Wyoming, I’m likely to think it’s a state full of friendly men who are more than happy to pull a stranger’s finger.

And I’ll wonder how Wyoming women might react if a needy stranger came up complaining of a dislocated penis.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Update: What if I suddenly become high energy?

The first thing I did upon awakening after last week’s partial thyroid extraction  was text our 16-year-old daughter a good/bad news equation.

“The good news is I’m going to be fine. The bad news is I was going to give you my car.”

This was funny because my jalopy is in tragic condition, way worse than even me. It has 181,750 miles on it, has electrical short issues and is beginning to rely on multiple duct tape applications to hold it all together.

I don’t know anything about cars, but I sense it could probably use a new thyroid.

But I can’t afford needed improvements so until my liberal congressional friends come up with an automotive equivalent to Obamacare we’re both screwed.

So how am I feeling?

Pretty good, considering eight days ago they’d sliced a 3-inch gash in my throat.

I had a very pleasant time in the Latrobe hospital.

I like to point out that hospital is from the root word hospitality. I’ve said for the sake of accuracy, hospitals should be called docitals or discomfitals, but the Latrobe hospital was very hospitable.

I slept great.

I always try and get eight hours of sleep. It took spending a night in the hospital for me to realize the best way to get eight hours of sleep is to devote a full 24-hours to the process; three hours here, two hours there … 

I learned the key to perfect peace and relaxation rests in upholding a vow to never leave the bed. It helps, too, if you have a squad of caring strangers who’ll bring you ice cream and ask you how you’re feeling.

It was all so splendid I began game planning how long I’d need to remain before one of the nurses favored me with a hospital sponge bath, the lazy man’s Xanadu.

I calculated I would have needed to stay another 12 hours. I’d have done it, too, but 12 hours would have put me smack in the middle of Burt’s night shift. 

I liked Burt. We bonded over Bucco baseball. But when I close my eyes and dream of getting my first hospital sponge bath the face I see isn’t Burt’s.

To me, the most interesting aspect of this whole affair is what happens next.

See, besides removing the potato-sized lump in my throat and half my thyroid, the purpose of this treatment is to boost my thyroid production with synthetic doses (synthroid) of the stuff.

The doctor said I have low thyroid, i.e. low energy.


I’ve never once felt low energy.

Sure, I’m reluctant to do things like mow the lawn or other common household chores, but the rationale behind those dodges are philosophical, not physical.

I believe the whole idea behind “the pursuit of happiness” is flawed. Find a comfy enough chair and happiness'll find you.

So what if I suddenly become high energy? What if I become enamored of manual labor, forever landscaping our now-disheveled yard like a green-thumbed maniac?

Maybe I could expend some of my new surplus energy on learning how to repair crappy cars.

I could start taking more civic-minded actions, fetching cats stuck up in high trees, helping widows cross dangerous streets, maybe becoming an industrious and relentlessly positive force for good in the community.

But, geez, I can’t stand those people. 

I like emphasizing the leisure aspects of life, indulging in time to read, enjoy movies and spending long hours reveling with family and friends.

If I lose any of that I’ll have lost so much more than a tiny chunk of my thyroid.

So if you see me behaving a tad too energetically, I invite you to crack me over the head with handy 2-by-4 or some other blunt instrument — and by blunt instrument I’m including things like tubas.

Your inhospitality will likely lead to a splendid stay in a hospitable place.

I wonder if Burt’ll still be on the night shift.

Related …

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Surgery today! Kissing my thyroid goodbye

It was with impeccably bad timing I decided June 6 to reduce my blog output from  four or five times a week to once every week or so. My life’s been nothing but interesting ever since.

• My darling Mom died.

• I signed a contract to do a book about Arnold Palmer and why this man who could have been pampered in palaces around the planet never left Latrobe.

• I wrote 25,000 words out of a projected 60,000 words on my next novel. It’s about overcoming the struggles of a long distance romance with a twist. By long distance, I mean she’s in heaven and he’s in hell. Their names are Evan and Elle.

• I finished a deluxe version of  “Use All The Crayons!” with 1,001 items — double the original — so I’ll be able to charge indecent prices to groups who are already overpaying me to speak to them.

• And in four hours doctors at Latrobe Hospital will be removing my thyroid and a potato-sized lump in my throat they suspect may be cancer.

Do I have your attention?

I have such an over-inflated sense of self-esteem I’m having trouble believing there’s anything at all bad in my body. It would make more sense if they said they were going to cut me open to remove something stupid.

It seems like such a blatant betrayal by a body I’ve always pampered. I let it sleep in, eat and drink whatever it pleases and God knows I’ve never made it work too hard.

When it comes to my body, I’ve always had its back.

And now it’s doing this to me?

This goes back to a routine March exam (link below) when the doctor found a node on my throat. Subsequent exams resulted in what one doc described as a tennis ball-sized lump. I describe it as potato-sized because I refuse to let the medical community dictate my colorful descriptions.

They said the problem was my thyroid. 

I remember hearing that and feeling so relieved. The genius of redundant design meant, surely, I had four or five thyroids in the on-deck circle.


There’s only one. It’s the butterfly-shaped gland below the Adam’s apple that regulates growth, metabolism, body temperature, etc. Removing it meant I’d need to embrace pharmaceutical solutions I’ve long disdained.

I have no symptoms. I feel fine.

I asked what would happen if I did nothing. The doctor said whatever’s in there could spread. He said there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance that it’s cancer and they won’t know until they remove and have a look at it.

Who knew cancer came with a handy label?

He asked if I had any questions. I asked if he was joking.

He said with mirthless eyes, “I never joke.”

I told him all I do is joke.

I didn’t say this next observation out loud, but it occurred to me that while what he does save lives what I do is make lives worth living.

He was looking at me like he wanted to cut my throat. He wasn’t angry. Cutting throats is just how throat surgeons pay the bills. It’s what they do.

The hard part was summoning the girls to the porch Sunday to tell them why I was going to spend the night in the hospital.

I told them it could be nothing or it could be cancer. I told them it could have already spread, it could be dire and that there’s even a chance something could go drastically wrong and I could expire right there on the operating table.

“Or,” I said, “I could get run over by a bus crossing the street on my way to the hospital.”

This last part seemed to cheer everyone up

I’m not ashamed to admit, I was close to falling to pieces when I told my three darlings this meant my life portion could be relatively brief.  We have a small family of four, but it’s a very sweet dynamic. So we’re kind of like the Beatles only with one less functioning thyroid.

I asked Josie later what she thought I was going to say when I called them to the porch.

“I thought you were going to say something funny.”

I will again. I promise.

The doctor said voice change is a possibility so reading The Gettysburg Address while sounding like Sylvester J. Pussycat would probably be funny.

Confronting one’s own mortality is never easy. Gives you a lump in the throat.

By noon today, that emotional lump’ll have a little more room to stretch out.

(Update: Half the thyroid was removed and tests on the lump proved to be free of cancer. I'm very relieved. I'm fine and prospects are bright. Of course, I haven't even had breakfast yet so it's all up for grabs. Thank you one and all for your good wishes. Your evident empathy graces the world.)

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