Monday, June 30, 2008

When rasslin' was fake and boobs were real

My daughter and I were walking down the sidewalk the other day when an eccentric approached. He had a blue hair, lip studs and exotic full-torso tats sprawling out from under his cut-off black tee shirt. You could practically see the stink lines shooting off him.

Josie, 7, reflexively coiled a little closer and said, “Look out. Here comes a weirdo.”

I came to a complete stop and knelt down while simultaneously mounting my parental pedestal.

“Listen, just because he looks different doesn’t mean he’s a weirdo,” I said in a firm whisper. “We don’t judge people by how they look. We judge them by what’s in here.”

I bullseyed my finger right at her heart.

She looked confused. “You mean boobs? We judge people by their boobs?”

Sigh. Another sad misfire in my attempts at skillful fathering.

Alas, I do judge people by their boobs. But it’s not like it was when I was in junior high school and comely Ms. Gilliam, the voluptuous phys. ed. teacher, launched us eighth grade boys into puberty by demonstrating basic trampoline technique.

She had a natural beauty that still shimmers in my memory. I can close my eyes and see her bouncing, bouncing, bouncing on that trampoline. Her long, feathered brunette hair flying like a maestro’s arms conducting a magnificent symphony. Her firm athletic legs like springs as they deftly kept elevating ever upward.

“It’s easy, see?” she said. “Let your weight do the work and the rest of the motions’ll just come natural. It’s fun!”

I still think about her and those innocent times and I wonder what me and the boys would do if she showed up on some trampoline time machine, still perfectly proportioned, still beckoning with a dewey sexuality and an invitation to join her for a playful jump.

I know what I’d do.

I’d turn to the guy next to me and ask, “You think those are fake?”

I’m growing nostalgic for the days when guys like me used to spend a lot of idle time wondering if professional wrestling was fake.

Now, if a truly beautiful woman walks into my local bar the first thing we do is speculate about the authenticity of her womanly features (the second thing we speculate about is why on earth would she come to a place like this to drink with guys like us).

I wish I was less superficial. I wish I could accept that some women feel, perhaps because of societal notions imposed by men, the need to enhance their breasts. I wish it didn’t bother me that someday probably in, oh, about a year or so, I’ll have to tell my precious daughter that she’s beautiful just the way she is and, no, she shouldn’t bother asking Santa if he can bring her some bigger boobs.

I think about all this as the man my daughter instinctually labels a “weirdo” approaches. I want to try again to tell her that character is what matters and that looks are unimportant

Instead, I pick her up in my arms and dash across the street to avoid the guy.

Weirdo or not, he’s at the very least a real boob for dressing like that in a small western Pennsylvania town with little tolerance for non-conformists.

And Ms. Gilliam aside, I’ve always in my heart been more of an ass man.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Disarming Idea: One Bullet Per Person

Thursday’s Supreme Court decision to enshine handgun ownership is causing predictable reactions, neither of which is doing anything to make America safer.

Here’s a sensible idea that will:

Every one over the age of 18 gets to carry a loaded gun, holstered or concealed, any where they want, any time they want. That means every place people gather -- offices, airplanes, sporting events -- plenty will be packing.

But you get just one bullet. One bullet per person.

Use it or lose it and, in addition to any existing criminal charges, you need to go before a judge and explain what happened to your bullet before he or she decides whether or not you get another one.

Guns don’t kill people. People don’t kill people.

The bullets are the killers and the astronomical number of them invariably leads to deadly recklessness.

One Minnesota firm, Alliant Techsystems, boasts on its web site ( that it makes up to 600 million bullets each and every year all by itself.
The most hateful, paranoid person on the planet would be hard pressed to enumerate 600 million people in history who really deserve to be shot.

An attorney once told me there are three types of homicides: unnecessary, justifiable, and praiseworthy. If everyone was entitled to just one bullet, many of those serving hard time at tax-payer expense for unnecessary homicides would today be productive citizens.

The jails are full of otherwise good men and women who in moments of drunken or drug-fueled rage emptied guns at victims who didn’t deserve lethal ventilation.

But if a drunk or crack fiend had just one bullet, most of them would miss their targets and they’d be subject to the laws of the land.

Judge: “Why did you shoot your bullet at Mr. Smith?”

Mr. Wesson: “Well, it sounds silly, but I didn’t like the way he was looking at me.”

Judge: “Is that any reason to shoot a man?”

Mr. Wesson: “Nah, but I was really drunk.”

Judge: “Well, it’s a good thing you missed. I’d advise you to stay home with your kids instead of engaging in barroom staring contests. Understood?”

Mr. Wesson: “Yes, your honor.”

Anti-gun people are loath to admit it, but everyone’s manners become more refined in the presence of a loaded gun. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to quote Al Capone, who was known to say: “You can get more accomplished with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.”

The crossfire of pro- and anti-gun groups has become the rhetorical equivalent of trench warfare. The mindsets are so ingrained that any attempt to breach the deadlock with fresh thought is automatically shot down -- even by people who are organizationally opposed to shooting anything.

“Our theory is that even one bullet can kill someone,” said Nancy Hwa of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence.

True, but doesn’t it stand to reason that fewer people would be shot if everyone had just one bullet?

“Well, yes, but . . .” she began reciting familiar arguments before realizing she’d descended into what she called “wonk babble.”

“Sorry, but it’s hard to think about new ideas.”


Out of fairness, I had to call the National Rifle Association, the scary, dour people with the bumper stickers that are always alluding to their “cold, dead fingers,” and treasonously hinting that so-and-so is their president, when the person mentioned is someone the majority of Americans didn’t even vote for.

And I’m not talking about George W. Bush.

NRA spokeswoman Kelly Whitley’s reaction caught me off guard.

She burst out laughing. And she continued to laugh. It was such a joyful laugh that I felt a rush of affection for this unseen, distant stranger. It has me hoping nobody has to pry anything from her cold, dead fingers for many, many happy, productive decades.

I called back the next day and she was still laughing. She still hasn’t gotten back to me, but I imagine her sitting there still laughing maniacally as her superiors check their HMOs for psychiatric coverage.

One bullet per person might be a silly idea, but there just aren’t any new ideas coming from either side, certainly none that at least one person in the pro-gun lobby finds so ironically disarming.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Interviewing Arnold Palmer

For the two years I was on his payroll, I was convinced the first time Arnold Palmer was ever going to mention my name was when he looked up in alarm and said, “We have to fire this Chris Rodell!”

My project with ended in October. I’m no longer on the payroll, but when I went into his Latrobe office yesterday to interview him for a magazine article, he greeted me warmly with, “Hello, Chris. Good to see you!”

To me, it’s an absolutely surreal development.

From 2005-2007, it was my job to write all the gushy stories about Palmer for his website. I was the one who wrote about his charitable contributions, his aviation milestones, his historic victories, his chummy relations with Ike, Queen Elizabeth, Ronald Reagan and every other president that’s ever swung a golf club.

I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. I was the guy who brewed it.

The consumers were the multitude of those aging vets who marched in the campaigns under the banner of Arnie’s Army. To me, that vast, good-hearted sum could be distilled down into the soul of one fine man. My late father.

Paul Rodell served his country as a U.S. Navy chaplain’s assistant. It is almost impossible to conjure a less perilous title -- Army pillow tester? -- for a World War II veteran. That’s why his stories as a foot soldier in Arnie’s Army struck his sons as more stirring than did his days dusting Bibles on behalf of God and Uncle Sam.

Dad got sunburned at Oakmont in ‘62. Stiff new golf shoes blistered his feet on a long march following Palmer at Firestone in ‘75. He caught hell from mom for spilling beer reaching for a Kleenex to mop up sentimental tears as Palmer crossed the Swilcan Burn for the last time in ‘95.

I was raised with a reverence for the man for whom, out of genetic respect, I’ve always referred to as Mr. Palmer.

That reverence was intact during the first fledgling interviews I’d conducted with Palmer. I saw him through my father’s lens and treated my every utterance the way grandmother treats the china. I didn’t dare go off-script, be provocative or ask questions cooked with smart-alec irreverence.

My first formal interview with him was a mutual sleepwalk through redundant questions about his rivalry with Jack Nicklaus. Yawn. Ensuing interviews followed suit with me playing the role of worshipful scribe and Palmer dutifully answering questions he’d answered a million times before while rarely looking up from a daily stack of autograph requests. My father’s golden adorations haunted the room.

That all began to change the day I went to interview him about a mulligan. His dog Mulligan, to be precise. I started with, “So what’s an old rules stickler like you doing with a dog named Mulligan?”

Engaged, he set down his pen and said, “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a mulligan during a friendly round. It’s a first tee custom here at Latrobe.”

(With Palmer’s sanctifying stamp, it instantly became my first tee custom anywhere around the globe. If anyone objects, I cite Palmer and it’s like I’m invoking Moses among bearded foursomes of rabbinical scholars.)

He lamented that Mulligan was a lousy on-course dog who chased the balls and slobbered them all up. “Probably because at least once a day, I take him out back and hit a tennis ball with my sand wedge off the tee behind my office. He’d chase balls all day. Man, that dog can really fly.”

I was seized by the kind of impetuosity they warn you against in disciplined journalism schools.

“Oh, yeah? I’d like to see that.”

His eyes took on a devilish gleam. “C’mon!”

Two questions into it, the interview was over. We became two kids who’d cut class. We jawed about politics, the war and baseball. He uttered a reflexive profanity about the lowly hometeam when I said I saw he’d gone to a recent Pirate game.

He told me he remembers his first ace with more romantic clarity than his first kiss.

I asked him if he had any suggestions about how I could get a good score the day I was slated to play Oakmont. “I’d suggest you play a different course.”

Now, when I see him I ask him the questions many more accomplished writers would deem too impudent to pose to Palmer. We chat about golf on the moon, our favorite local restaurants and what it’ll mean to America since it’s assured our next president will be, gadzooks, a non-golfer.

By God, we banter.

Many journalists say it’s unwise to ever meet your heroes because you’ll see huge chunks of gold come crashing off them as the all-too-human flaws emerge.

There’s not a day that goes by now that I don’t wish my old man was still around, not to brag about how I get to rub elbows with the legend he idolizes.

Nah, I’d like to introduce him to my friend Arnold. I think he’d really like the guy.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Go Green! Run all the reds

I saw red the first time my local gas station posted unleaded at $4 per gallon. I vowed it would be the last time I ever saw red again -- at least when it came to traffic lights.

Now, I’m colorblind. I no longer see reds or yellows.

Yep, I’ve gone totally green. And when I say gone, I mean really gone. Look for me at the stop signs and all you'll see are my fading tail lights.

On July 4, I intend to launch a movement that’s truly about movement. For the good of the environment and to reduce our demeaning dependence on foreign oil, I’m calling on all Americans to stop stopping at red lights.

There’s a fascinating study making the rounds about how U.P.S. saves millions by routing its vehicles to make more right turns.

This is from a recent Elaine Jarvik story from the Deseret Morning News: “The world wastes a lot of time and fuel waiting to turn left -- which is why UPS is going the extra mile to make sure its drivers mostly turn right.

“The package-delivery company has long encouraged its drivers to avoid left-hand turns whenever possible, because turning left in busy intersections is more dangerous, takes more time and uses more gas. Now the company has developed a ‘package flow’ software program that maps out routes to avoid backtracking and left-hand turns.

"UPS, which last year drove 2 billion miles to move 14.8 million packages and documents from one place to another, says all those right turns will save millions of dollars a year. In Washington, D.C., the new route planning technology trimmed 464,000 miles, saved more than 51,000 gallons in fuel, and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 506 metric tons over an 18-month period, according to spokesman Dan McMackin at UPS headquarters in Atlanta.”

Of course, if they save that much gas by keeping the vehicular Big Browns going right, it makes sense that simply keeping them going would save them even more.

I’ve always been keen on running red lights for intellectual reasons. This makes me sort of soulmates with Cajun man.

I’ve read that nothing infuriates a Cajun more than having to sit at a red light. Why, Cajun man asks, does a stupid machine have the right to tell him when he can and cannot go?

Cajun man doesn’t want to wreck his vehicle. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. But Cajun man (and I realize this is devolving into an old Adam Sandler skit here) knows better than a traffic light if it’s okay for him to go or not.

Cajun man isn’t blind and Cajun man isn’t stupid.

Neither am I.

It makes no sense for me to sit at a red light when, if I give a sober look left and a sober look right, I can see no one’s coming.

I’m not advocating anarchy here. Until Detroit electrifies the world by announcing the manufacture of invisible cars, it’s simple common sense.

If we’re allowed to go right on red when sparse traffic warrants, why on earth can’t we go straight in the same situation? Or left?

Of course, I know better than the traffic light. So do you. I’m not talking about being reckless. Not at all. I don’t want to wreck my car, hurt anyone or risk jail by fleeing an accident I’ve caused by trying to keep my tank full.

I just am confident I know better than the robotic light.

So I’m declaring the Fourth of July my own sort of Independence Day.

I do hereby declare that I will henceforth shed the tyranny of the traffic light. I will go when I can do so safely, without risking bending the fenders of my fellow man. I will do so confident that I am reducing America’s fuel consumption, saving precious natural resources and that what the state police consider an act of lawlessness, is in fact an act of patriotic rebellion worthy of our tea-dumping founding fathers.

As of July 4th, traffic lights are no longer the law of the land.

They’re merely suggestions.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Word quest

I’m consumed with trying to coin a word whose usage will become so widespread that one day it’ll earn a place in the Webster’s Dictionary. Here are some of my efforts that, so far, have failed to catch any lexicographical fire. And “lexicographical” is an existing word.

You can look it up.

Here are some you can't.

Glibberish -- pointless party chatter between two people who’d rather be be talking to anyone else.

Teastosterone -- the surplus hormones that get men so consumed with ambitious lust that women find them universally repulsive.

Error-plane -- Typical commercial flight that leaves late, is overbooked, and loses luggage after landing at the wrong airport.

Crapple -- A flavorless apple.

Birthquakes -- labor pains.

Motorvator -- top notch mechanic.

Vagetarian -- An avid lesbian.

Comatoes -- condition of one's foot falling asleep; Latin, parasthesia.

Slimitators -- Impressionable young girls intent on looking like Hollywood anorexics.

Stork-Raving Mad -- post-partum depression.

Shamorous -- A person, male or female, whose ugly nature is concealed under makeup or plastic surgery.

Decrapitate -- An editorial elimination of all the bullshit from a piece of writing.

Santaclaustrophobia -- The fear of sitting in a department store Santa's lap.

Feel free to use these at will. They make great Happy Hour glibberish.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Agents want me, want me not

I’m one of those writers who spends a little time trying to find an agent for his unpublished novel and an extravagant amount of time daydreaming about how much more successful he’d be if he had one.

The acknowledged disparity explains a lot.

It’s been about seven years since I finished my novel that at the time I called “Boomer Rang.” I think back then when I tortured my poor, pregnant wife into reading it it was something like 12,500 pages long.

Yep, that’s pages.

And she thought giving birth was tough. Yeah, not only was it long, but it really sucked. Still, I clung to its merits because the first agent I ever sent the book's proposal to called immediately to say, “It’s a great idea and we’d love to see the rest. Right away!”

I remember setting down the phone and thinking, “Hmmm . . . Should the Cadillac be black or red?”

Then came gushes of rejections in Biblical torrents. I saved about every one of them and today have a footstool sized stack of them sitting in my office providing grim inspiration.

But with every rejection came a little wisdom. The book had to get better. I’d spend hours honing it, polishing and cutting, cutting and cutting.

I’d set it aside for sometimes as much as year at a time. Discouraged, sure, but constant in my belief that it was good and would someday find an enthusiastic audience.

Found a small publisher for it in 2003, but then an agent came along and assured me she could find me a bigger publisher. Bigger publishers proved her wrong and then she vanished from my life, and it was back to square one.

The satirical book, now called “The Last Baby Boomer,” is about the life and death of, duh, the last baby boomer. Because his impending death will symbolically tombstone a generation known for selfish excess, the 117-year-old senior agrees to be part of a lottery ghoul pool. Contestants pay $25 to be in a museum suite with him for 15 minutes. If they are present when he expires, they win the multimillion dollar jackpot. One problem: the old SOB won't die.

I close all my proposal letters with the nugget that the now 201-page novel is “a coming of old, old, age story. Because we all have to die, but only one of us gets to die last.”

Clever, huh.

I began this year by making a real push to get it published. And good news started flowing in. Nearly a dozen agents responded to my query letters favorably with half of those requesting to see the full manuscript.

But each one eventually said, sorry. It’s great. There’s an agent out there that can’t wait to get a hold of this. Just not right for me.

One said, “I’d wish you best of luck, but I know you’re not going to need luck with a story this strong and well-told.”

Each fresh rejection provided its own form of exquisite heartbreak.

All but one.

They said they wanted to represent me and the book and sent me a contract. They didn’t say the loved the book or me. That we were about to embark on a fun journey together. No praise. No plans.

Just a contract.

My literary daydreams often involve powerful New York agents who’ll invite me to pricey three-hour lunches to tell me how great I am.

This was a Houston-based group. And, strangely, their website says most of their clients are hip hop artists.

There’s no picture of me here, yet, but I swear that’s not me. I’m not hip and I can barely hop.

So I sat on the contract and polished the book some more and hoped someone else would respond to one of the other queries that were still floating around out there.

None did.

So two months later I sent back the signed contract with a note saying, “Hey, I can’t wait to hear from someone who’ll tell me how we’re going to sell this thing.” Instead, they sent back a note saying, “Sorry, but we didn’t hear back from you promptly enough. We’ve moved on. Good luck.”

Now I’m left to laugh at the numbskulled way I’ve approached another step in avoiding any success that may be due to me.

I figure I could write a really funny book about a blissful idiot who skates through life with little talent, no drive and a perpetually unbalanced checkbook, but figure no one would buy that either.

Too sci-fi to sell, I’m sure they’d say.

I only wish it were true.

Monday, June 16, 2008

R.I.P. Tim Russert/F.O. Unctuous media mourners

Just finished watching the Tim Russert (1950-2008) “Meet the Press” tribute to the late, beloved moderator. I liked Russert and was raised not to speak ill of the dead. That means you’ll find nothing here but praise for Russert and his equally dead Buffalo Bills (2007 record, 7-9; overall since 1960, 355-388).

But his untimely passing and the Beltway reaction to it gives us a good opportunity to examine the ritual of journalistic deaths.

It was all on display this morning on the set of “Meet/Depress.” As host Tom Brokaw began to get weepy, my wife asked incredulously: “Aren’t they going a little overboard here? I mean the guy was great and everybody liked him, but it wasn’t like he was Walter Cronkite.”

Or even Harvey Korman.

She was miffed that the recent passing of Korman, the side-splitting straight man for Carol Burnett and the comic actor who played Hedley Lamarr in “Blazing Saddles,” didn’t receive as much attention as Russert.

I was surprised she was surprised.

I spent about five years in the newspaper business and have been an avid reader throughout my life. I’m convinced the only reason anyone stays in the business is that they’re assured a really snazzy obit.

I’ll never forget the day when the death of Pope John Paul II coincided with the death of a “curmudgeonly” long-time copy editor at one of the Pittsburgh papers.

Now, history will forever recall that JPII was one of the most celebrated and significant figures in the history of the Catholic Church, if not the entire world.

The curmudgeonly thrice-married copy editor -- and “curmudgeonly” is journalistic shorthand for “nasty coffee-breathed bastard” -- had spent a lifetime chasing errant commas, split infinitives and infuriating better informed writers by changing their carefully crafted leads until they had a near-libelous impact.

Yet many readers of the Pittsburgh paper that day could be excused if they’d read the front page and allowed, “What a lamentable day. The world’s lost two men of true greatness. Oh, how will we carry on without these two titans?”

Media people figure an elegant obituary is the best reward for a lifetime of low pay, terrible hours, public scorn and job security so tenuous that they’re all afraid to read the business pages of their own papers.

What’s happening with Russert -- watch Matt Lauer treat Russert’s son Luke like the Luke that knew Jesus on Monday’s "Today" Show -- is similar, but with that peculiar Beltway twist.

What’s particularly galling to me is that Russert, a truly outstanding journalist, is being eulogized on a panel featuring disgraced plagiarists Mike Barnicle and Doris Kearns Goodwin. I don’t understand how verifiable plagiarism is not the career death sentence in places specifically organized to promote journalistic integrity.

Included in the panel was James Carville and Mary Matalin, the repulsive reptilian couple that makes millions of Americans, both Republican and Democrat, dive for the remote whenever they’re reminded that they’re a couple.

The only thing missing was Don Imus.

He’d have fit right in sitting around Russert’s empty chair telling us how great he was, what a family man he was, how every president, senator, and congressman in the cozy circles they all run in are better because of Russert. And, implied is the message that, don’t worry, we’re all still here to carry on for him and take care of you simple folks out there in the great flyover.

Come on. Enough’s enough.

I mean, it’s not like the guy was Harvey Korman.

Family vacation: Mile 1760, fini

I spent yesterday strolling through 95-degree heat, listening to Christmas carols, saying hello to Santa Claus and sipping all the free soda I could drink at a major amusement park that was giving away as much as I could pour down my throat.

I know what you’re thinking, “Sure I can believe in Christmas carols in June and I can still, even in these jaded days, believe in Santa. But, c’mon, what major amusement park is going to give away free soda.”

We just got back from two days at Holiday World in charming Santa Claus, Indiana. It took that long for the place to vault to the top of my list of favorite amusement parks in America. It has three coasters ranked among the top 12 in America. And it has one of the best water parks I’ve ever been to.

But, yeah, it’s the free soft drinks that really got me. Val said, “I’d be amazed if an amusement park was giving away free water. Usually they charge you $3 for bottled water or even a buck for a styrofoam cup.”

Not at Holiday World, a park that since 1946, has sought to wed the town’s name to our most joyous holidays. There are themed sections and attractions for Halloween, Thanksgiving and , of course, Christmas.

I’m hopeful they’ll one day act on my suggestion and open some attractions for my favorite holiday, April Fool’s Day.

Santa Claus marketing director Paula Werne (and doesn’t every job description sound better when it’s fronted with “Santa Claus?”) said this year the park decided it would, working with Pepsi, scatter free soft drink oasis huts around the ground.

No catch. You stroll in, grab a 16-ounce cup, fill it with ice, and then choose from a selection of more than a dozen Pepsi products. Drink it and fill up again and again until all the carbonation makes you too giddy to ride a roller coaster.

Nutrition conscious guests can satisfy themselves with ice water.

“When we told people in the industry that we were going to give away free soft drinks," she says, "they got in our faces and shouted at us, “How could you do that? Do you know how much money that’s going to cost you? And how it’s going to make us look?'”

Werne said the day the free soft drinks program was instituted, the number of petty complaints dropped to zero. People are just thrilled by the gesture.

It’s worked out so well for Holiday World, the Koch family owners began brainstorming about what else they could give away.

They settled on free sunscreen.

So we’re home now. I don’t feel like leaving Latrobe for the rest of the summer. We just concluded an 8-state, seven-day swing that covered 1,760 miles. We did it with a nearly 2-year-old and a 7-year-old.

And no DVD players.

We sang songs, played license plate games and I educated the kids on the great music of The Kinks, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and other rockers that wouldn’t wear Mickey Mouse ears in basements full of free cheese.

I don’t know what my kids’ll grow up to be. Who knows? Maybe by not letting them stare at plate-sized screens playing repeated showings of “Alvin & The Chipmunks” and “Madagascar” as the beautiful countryside rolls by will turn them into homicidal maniacs. Maybe they’ll end up in prison, forever resentful of my tasteful tyranny during long family vacations.

But I know this: Someday their cellmates’ll be grateful.

You’d hate to do time with somebody who’d rather groove to Miley Cyrus than Van Morrison.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Family vacation: Mile 1011

The kids made this a disappointingly music-free and sober visit to Nashville. Don’t get me wrong: I love family time. It’s just that I don’t have to leave my driveway to enjoy it. Heck, I don’t have leave my bed to enjoy it. The kids usually go to bed in their own rooms and I’m awakened every night with one or both of them kicking me in places no man likes being kicked.

And when in Nashville, we usually stay with my brother who’s militant about avoiding fun. He’s involved in investments and has made me money through the years. But he should go off duty when I come to visit. I want to golf with him, drink with him and spend many pointless hours in tiny bars listening to song writers sing about how much worse off they are then even freelance writers like me.

He’s the kind of guy who says that the world was better off when Garth Brooks was singing making music. I agree, but tend to give more credit to the fact that Bill Clinton was president and that things would have been better still if Clinton hadn’t had to play judicial hide-and-seek with guys like Ken Starr, Rush Limbaugh and all the other right-wing jackasses who influence guys like my brother.

But with Eric, we rarely go out. He was the reason I wound up in Nashville in the first place more than 20 years ago.

He had a job at the Olde Spaghetti Factory on 2nd Avenue in downtown Nashville after I graduated from Ohio University, where I’d tagged along with him, too. While visiting Eric, I was invited spur-of-the-moment for an interview with Joe Worley, the imposing managing editor at the Nashville Banner. As I thought the big city paper was out of my league, I simply showed up in shorts and a sports shirt and the carefree attitude of drug-hazed hippie. But Worley took it way more seriously than I, the applicant, did.

He read my funniest humor pieces without cracking a smile while I sat there for 10 minutes reading the august wall-mounted citations to Worley for his years of service in the Tennessee National Guard. He broke the awkward silence mumbling, “How long were you on the school paper?”

But to my Yankee ears, it sounded like, “Ow longer you ona skul paypa?”

“Beg pardon?” I said, an innocent question that instantly transformed into a drill instructor and me a raw recruit.


“One year, sir!”


“Yes, sir, sir! One year, sir!”


The vigorous exchange startled me into an unaccustomed burst of honesty.

“Yes, sir, drank beer, sir! Lots and lots of beer!”

He smiled and said, ‘Good boy! I did it for four.”

I got the job and started spending many nights eating free plates of spaghetti where my brother worked.

I got him the other night to tell the story about how he through a revered country music superstar out on his rear.

“Yeah, they came back and said some guy was playing his guitar in the bar. Well, this was a family restaurant and we didn’t have entertainment.”

He told him to pack up guitar, they called him a cab and Eric hauled the guy outside to the cab.

As he put him in the cab, the guy looked up said, “You’re gonna want to remember my name.”

“Okay, what is it?”

“I’m George Strait.”

“I’ll be sure to remember that, George. Have a nice night.”

And remember it he did.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Family vacation: Mile 421

We’d been driving an hour and we’d still yet to puzzle out how last night’s baby sitter racked up more than $200 in phone bills on the room phone during a three-hour stint watching the kids in our Wintergreen Resort condo.

Valerie had gone to check out while I was getting my toes done. She said she stared bug-eyed at the bill and calmly maintained that there had to be a mistake. Or many little mistakes.

Entrusting their beloved daughters to a complete stranger is a leap of faith many prudent parents would never make. So much could go wrong. It might be a bad fit. The sitter could be addicted to drugs, porn or homicidal boyfriends. Leaving your precious little ones with someone like that could have harmful consequences that could forever scar a family.

But Val and I had been invited on a swanky wine tour along the Blue Ridge Mountain’s most scenic spots so we figured what the hell?

Our sitter was clearly a caring person. It’s just that she might have cared more for talking to her boyfriend more than caring for our kids. I didn't care either way. They kids were unbruised. The place hadn’t been set on fire, nothing was stolen and Val and I had enjoyed a real swell time.

So many new parents are fraught with worry about the new responsibilities. I remember when my wife became overwhelmed, I’d remind her, “Look, nobody says we have to be good parents. It’s not like they’ll take away our driver’s license or something.”

But it was still stunning to see $200 in phone bills. I speculated maybe the sitter was pining for a heroic boyfriend marooned on a rescue mission in remote, quake-torn China.

Turns out the phone calls were made just over the mountain about 10 miles away. I hope she didn’t get in trouble. Hotels tend to get grabby whenever any unsuspecting innocent picks up a receiver.

We’re heading on the second leg of our trip to Nashville, a town where I moved in 1985 when I got my first job at the Nashville Banner. I left three years later because I was ambitious to find a better-paying position where my idea of a splurge would be something more princely than a pizza with pepperoni and sausage.

My brother still lives there in a house decorated with inspirational sayings that cynics like me always make vicious fun of.

But I won’t do that this time. That would be unnecessarily rude. In fact, I intend to offer some uplifting and inspirational sayings of my own, one’s like, “Let’s Go Pens!”

We’ll be spending our nights watching the Stanley Cup finals and hoping Pittsburgh can come back and beat Detroit.

The Future of Sex

I saw this story in my files from a few years ago. It's another orphan that never ran anywhere despite feverish and optimistic pitching.But includes some funny stuff, some of which I believe will prove me prophetic.

As I’m as yet unable to ascertain the prurience of the readership for this fledgling blog, I’m omitting the really dirty items. If I determine that the readers have minds as filthy as mine, I’ll post them all later.

2010 -- Jesus returns and informs stunned believers that the Ten Commandments contained an embarrassing typo. “It should read, ‘Thou shalt commit adultery.’”

2012 -- After years of pointlessly studying the mating habits of insects, frogs and worms, NASA finally gives the people what they want -- a chance to study the mating habits of orbiting astronauts. The resulting pay-per-view is so successful, NASA goes private. Space sex takes off like a rocket.

2014 -- F.D.A. orders emergency recall of penis enlargement pills after addicts cause a rash of automobile accidents when their multi-colored love clubs keep getting tangled up with the steering wheels.

2015 -- Tired of being ignored by men who are bored by two large, enhanced breasts, innovative women begin having their plastic surgeons install one, basketball-sized, nipple-peaked breast right in the middle of their chests. Sensitive men react enthusiastically and admit they always felt like they were neglecting one breast or the other. Brassiere industry executives express support.

2017 -- Bondage is no longer considered deviant chic because sex in space is impossible without straps, velcro and enough chains to get a cheap rent-a-car over the Rockies in a blizzard.

2018 -- First sex robots hit the market. All men married more than five years complain, “Been there, done that.”

2019 -- The cultural world mourns after daring performance artist who had a 10-inch erect penis transplanted onto his forehead dies after elevator door slams shut eight inches from his face.

2020 -- Malicious hackers develop computer virus capable of infecting unwitting users with exotic new venereal diseases. Old timers wistfully recall the days when opening an “ILOVEYOU” file meant the elimination of your hard drive, not your hard on.

2021 -- Suicidal lunar nudists simultaneously explode seconds after defiantly ignoring warnings that a Skins vs. Skins volleyball match will be fatal in space.

2022 -- Under pressure from stockholders, NASA renames all the constellations in the heavens after top grossing actors and actresses from the adult entertainment industry. So-called “porn stars” are a smashing success.

2024 -- Pee Wee Herman and Dennis Rodman are elected to the U.S. Congress vowing to restore traditional values to an America gone mad.

2026 -- New study finally acknowledges what men have been too afraid to admit: They’ve always hated dancing. Innovative women promptly have two large breasts installed beneath their shoulder blades. Dance hall owners report a surge of business so dramatic Eminem rushes “Soul Ballads for Lovers” into early release. Critics hail it as “heartbreakingly poignant.” Brassiere industry doubles work force.

2027 -- Psychologists report dramatic rise in space men suffering from performance anxiety when even perfectly satisfied women fail to moan, yodel or otherwise indicate passion. In space, no one can hear you scream.

2029 -- The first child conceived and raised in space grows to 9-foot-4 in near-zero gravity, returns to earth, and leads perennial NBA doormats L.A. Clippers to their first championship before she’s eligible to drive a lunar rover.

2031 -- Terrorists botch an attempt to topple the Washington Monument, named in honor of America’s beloved founding father, and succeed only in knobbing off the point at the top. Rather than repair it, nostalgic Americans vote to rename it the Clinton Monument in honor of a beloved fondling father.

2032 -- The proliferation of terrifying new sexually transmitted diseases causes Pope Judy II to issue an edict advising all sexually active Catholics to “put condoms on everything, and put three condoms on some things.”

2033 -- Super-intelligent extraterrestrials invade earth with the war-like intent of enslaving our women. They abruptly and peacefully depart when Pres. Rodman tells them the only way to do so is to locate all their G spots.

2034 -- Brassiere industry reports a milestone in that, thanks to moon and planetary colonization, it’s now manufacturing more undergarments designed to hold breasts down than lift them up.

2037 -- At the urgent request of late night TV comics, all the most incorrigible prisoners in the solar system are dispatched to a penal colony on Uranus.

2041 -- After years of failures, manufacturers finally perfect a virtual reality sex machine ready for distribution to the eager masses. It allows users to have any kind of sex with anyone they want at anytime they want and for as often and as long as they want.

2069 -- The last of the human race expires never realizing that virtual reality sex, while an entertaining pastime, does nothing to perpetuate the species.

3133 -- Super-intelligent cockroaches speculate humans beings died out from too much sex. The controversial so-called “Big Bang” theory is greeted with scholarly bemusement.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Popsicle toes

She brought the sundae out on a little tray. There were big scoops of strawberry, chocolate, vanilla and an oozy river of creamy caramel. How could I resist? I did what any red-blooded American male would do.

I dunked my big cracked, calloused and stinking feet right in the whole gooey mess and began wiggling my toes.

I was at the cloud-clinging Wintergarden Spa at the Wintergreen Resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a heavenly perch so elevated that you’re actually looking down upon hawks. My spa options included standard sports massage and manicure, but I decided to treat the most abused and maltreated part of my entire body.

I decided to treat the feet. I was there to get my first pedicure, something men rarely did and now are doing in growing numbers, according to Debra Locker of the International SPA Assocation. “Our statistics from 2006 found that 22 percent of men who go to spas do so to get their toes done,” she said.

If that’s true, they’re not doing any bragging about it. Anecdotally, I’ve talked to many men who enjoy spas, but none who’ve confessed to getting a pedicure. Perhaps, it’s because men are hard wired to believe, as I’ve been instructed by my wife that “feet should be smelled not seen.”

She may be prejudiced by near constant exposure to mine. They’re everything I try not to be.

I try and comport myself as a gentleman. I wear nice clothes, exercise and address people with refined manners. But if I am a gentleman, my feet are outlaw bikers. They’re scarred, mean-looking rascals. Tattoo-like bruises mar several stubbed toes and one ragged nail makes the left foot look as if it's walking around brandishing a drawn knife and looking for a fight. If you saw them by themselves strolling down the sidewalk without the rest of me to soften their appearance, you’d cross the street.

But despite their haggard appearance, I’ve always considered them to be a pair of sissies. They whimper barefoot on a freshly mown lawn and practically shriek out loud when subjected to things like hot beach sand or pool-side asphalt.

Lately, however, I’ve been immersing myself in foot literature. There was a great Adam Sternbergh article ( in the April 28 edition of New York Magazine that reads: “You Walk Wrong: It took four million years of evolution to perfect the human foot, but we’re wrecking it with every step we take.”

The article says our mistreatment of our feet leads to back and joint pain that’s become unnecessarily endemic to growing old.

Maybe it's time to give more healthcare priority to the feet. That’s why I opted for the Wintergarden Spa’s $75 Sole Sundae pedicure, “designed for the ice cream lover in all of us. First soak in your favorite flavor of ice cream. Next enjoy a scrub in a refreshing sherbet flavor, followed by a choice of foot mask in chocolate, caramel or marshmallow. Top off this Sundae with Body Icing infused with Shea Butter and vitamins that will leave your appetite wanting more.’

The sundae treatment includes soothing elements that mimic ice cream in texture and scent.

“You can’t eat it, but it always makes me hungry,” said pretty blond pedicurist Ashley Newman as she began to massage my tooties after they’d been soaking for 10 minutes in a warm pool of strawberry-scented water.

It didn’t take long for my feet to fall in love with Ashley. No one had ever treated them the way she did and for the first time I began to understand men for whom the foot is fetishized, and wishing I’d found a woman who felt that way. She rubbed, massaged them with manicured fingers and charmed them when she daintily turned away to cough, rather than risk offending a foot. It was very sweet.

And heavenly. I can’t get my wife to rub my back after I’ve spent an afternoon chopping firewood she’ll use to comfort herself on bitter winter days. There’s no way she’d consider rubbing the ugly feet as a means of giving me physical pleasure. Heck, getting her to rub anything to give me physical pleasure usually takes some gentle persuading, a lit candle and and a nice bottle of cabernet.

Not Ashley. She was into it.

“My friends are always asking me, ‘How can you rub some of those ugly feet?’ she said. “I tell them I can rub any foot that’s been soaked clean. But you have very nice feet. I can tell you take care of them.”

Beneath the dark chocolate scrub, I could tell the boys were blushing. They were unaccustomed to such flattery.

She also shared some fascinating feet facts. For instance, pregnant women are discouraged from getting vigorous foot massage or reflexology, the practice that believes all the bodily constitutions are legislated through precise nerves in our feet and hands.

“They say touching a pregnant woman’s ankle right . . . here . . .” -- oh! ahhh! “can cause her to go right into labor.”

Nothing so dramatic happened when she touched me there, a reassuring sign for a man who was still a little self-conscious about the procedure.

For me, the foot massage was a heavenly revelation. It was better than any back massage I’d ever gotten. Sure, the back has its burdens, but when you think about it rationally, what part of the body undergoes more daily punishment than the feet?

I confess, too, that the encounter left me feeling playful enough that Ashley and I agreed to another act of intimacy that, try as I might, I couldn’t conceal from my wife and daughters. And then I strode out of there on refreshed feet, still a red-blooded American male confident in his stride and the future of his feet.

A red-blooded American male with five toenails alternately painted Disco Inferno Pink and five colored a boldly cerulean Blue Me Away.

Family vacation: Mile 349

One of the oddities of my existence is how during times of depressed income I can still always count on being at some fabulous resort enjoying the high life for free.

Because I’m a travel writer who’s had work published in numerous newspapers and magazines over the years, I’m often invited to resorts that want guys like me to visit and write about all they have to offer.

I learned about this years ago from a crafty old editor who said he could teach me how I’d never have to pay for another vacation for as long as I lived.

Had I listened throughout my school years as intently as I listened to what he told me next I’d probably right now be some well-off doctor. My tan wouldn’t be nearly as nice and my smile lines not nearly as deep, but I’d be a doctor.

He told me that resort public relations and marketing departments need to satisfy their bosses by showing they’re engaging travel writers who’ll write about their destinations. They’ll gladly host any travel writer for a couple of nights in the hopes that the writer will help publicize the resort with an editorial product.

They teach ethics students in journalism schools that this is a shady exchange, that the story is tainted by the cozy freebie.

Back then, that was one of the many lessons from journalism ethics that I routinely ignored. I immediately had business cards printed up that read, “PALM FEATURES” because I believed it connoted swaying palm trees in luxurious tropical isles.

In fact, it’s Palm Features because my upturned hand was always outstretched for the next freebie. And it was great. I had lots of fun and used many of the unique trips to land stories in prestigious publications that helped build my career. Most of them have policies forbidding stories generated from free trips, but they’re worldly enough to observe a don’t-ask/don’t-tell policy regarding

Today, compared to many travel writers, I consider myself a pillar of ethical conduct. I don’t take free trips unless I can snag an assignment or am fairly confident I can land a story from the trip. That means in just the past six months, I’ve turned down trips to Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean, Dubai and dozens of nifty spots in the U.S.

It’s likely that, had I taken all that was offered, I could have been away for three consecutive months of elegance, free golf and spa, and sweet piles of swag waiting back in the room. And all I’d have had to pay for was parking at the airport.

But I accepted this trip to the Wintergreen Resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains because I’d never heard much about it (I sensed opportunity), and I could use it as a launching pad for a family vacation to Nashville to visit my brother (and to cover another non-travel related assignment), and to visit Santa Claus, Indiana, for stories in a place that for years has been a reliable source of offbeat inspiration.

I thought of all this as the kids bounced on the beds and Valerie and I stepped onto the scenic porch of the free condo on the appropriately named Overlook Drive where we could enjoy a 50-mile view of some of the most spectacular scenery in the eastern U.S.

And as I drank it all in, I felt a flush of self-righteous pride knowing that I could rely on my ethical foundation to ensure I’d do all I could to justify the free accommodations, meals and activities my friendly hosts were graciously offering.

And that I wasn’t stupid enough to worry about dainty things like ethics when I was taking the steps I needed to help me get to that lovely perch.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Family vacation: Mile 257

It was right about Breezewood on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that it dawned on me that my youngest daughter was destined to be either an umpire or an opera singer. She’s the loudest kid on the planet.

Her wail, which has been ceaseless for the past 30 minutes, sounds like one of those two-toned Cadillac car horns that’s loud enough to startle a passing freight train into turning its head. I’ve heard Hollywood screen sirens capable of impressive screams, but I’ve never seen or heard anyone who can scream uninterrupted for 30 breathless seconds in two different octaves.

At a lesser, more distant volume, it might be a pleasant sound, sort of like what Daryl Hall & John Oates achieved during the crescendo note in their fine 1973 song, “She’s Gone.” But unlike Hall & Oates, Lucinda’s just one tiny person, she’s not even 2 years old and she’s straining against the bondage of her car seat just 36 inches behind my ears.

We’re at the 257th mile of an eight-state, seven-day, family vacation that I’ve calculated will include more than 28 hours in the car traveling more than 1,500 miles.

Circumstances worked out that I could couple a family vacation and two or three assignments with an invitation to visit the Wintergreen Resort in the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, my brother and his family in Nashville and the town of Santa Claus, Indiana.

I’m not going to whine about the rigors of a family vacation when this is something we will all enjoy and, to me, involves actually wage-earning assignments and other potential stories.

But it is a lot of togetherness and at times, I’m sure, we’ll all be sick of one another.

I’m reminded about the time last summer when my wife, Valerie, and our daughters, Lucinda and The Outlaw Josie Rodell, 7, drove away from the house I’d have to myself for four long days.

The two girls were teary-eyed about missing their Daddy. Mommy looked anxious and as I waved goodbye I remember thinking, “How can it be that three people I love so much can make me so happy by leaving?”

Right now, I’m just hoping Lucinda will opt for umpire. I love baseball and would enjoy hearing her shriek, “You’rrrre oouuuuttttt!!!” from, say, the upper deck in right field about 450 feet away from home plate.

I might grow to love opera, especially if my beloved daughter was the one belting out Madam Butterfly, The Barber of Seville or anything else I remember them doing on Gilligan’s Island or Bugs Bunny.

But I try and put those thoughts out of my head and focus on the motivation that keeps me driving. on and on and on: In five more hours, I’ll be sitting on a scenic porch at a fabulous resort, sipping some bourbon on ice and ignoring my wife’s gentle warnings about drinking too much on an empty stomach.

Don't show me the Benjamins

The onslaught of $4 per gallon gas has led to a surprising development in my wallet that has nothing to do with less money.

It’s all about the Benjamins.

Because I have less money, I’m surprised to find myself carrying around more $100 bills.

It just cost me $57.75 to fill up my 2007 Saturn Vue. I remember the first time earlier this year that it cost me more than $50 to fill up my tank and thinking, “Gee, it wasn’t that long ago that dropping a $50 was a near guarantee I’d be getting laid that night.”

And, of course, I meant with my darling wife. But it was true. That used to be dinner, a movie and the kind of snuggling me and the boys used to dream about peeking through Playboys back in the woods behind the high school.

Now, that same $50 will get me back and forth to the office with a couple of trips to Lowes, the grocery store and to the pizza joint that no longer delivers because it surrendered to exorbitant gas prices.

It used to be my fast cash ATM option was $120. Now, I need to see an actual teller and take out maybe $300. That’s way too many $20s for them to bother so they’re often doling out $50s and, for me, the most kingly of currency, the $100 bill. This week’s vacation so it meant a deluge of the big boys.

With $20s, I’m casual. It’s the perfect currency for a guy with my simple needs. I go out for drinks, set a $20 on the bar and forget about it for the night (my local tavern’s even cheaper than me). It’s enough for a night of corner bar reverie with a bit left over so I won’t have to hear the underpaid bartender bitch so much next time about high gas prices.

Paying anything with a hundred, too, induces stress. Some places don’t accept them. The guy behind me sees it and begins resenting me because he mistakenly thinks I’m a well-off big shot. It’s a hassle for the clerk cause they have to get that little counterfeit-detecting pen out and see if I printed this up in my basement.

It makes every situation more tense. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure one of these days I’ll become absolutely frantic in the belief that I’ve lost one of these foldable monthly utility payments. It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve been known to misplace a $20 here or there. I usually find it or can track down where it went. Usually.

But it’ll ruin my week when that happens with a $100 or a $50 and it’s bound to. I have to be more careful.

High gas prices are forcing me to be more responsible.

I don’t like it one damn bit.