Friday, October 31, 2008

A blog on bloggin' and other things

• I’ve been doing this blog fairly steadily for six months now and seemed to have settled on a pattern of one every two or three days. Doing 15 a month as I did in June is a bit taxing, but doing fewer than 10 is too skimpy. I’m doing a round-up of items here on the last day of October because it’ll give me 13 for the month. I could do one a day if I did round-ups of little items, but that feels like cheating. I believe someone who considers themselves a writer should be able to dash off a 700-word or so essay every couple of days or so. And besides as you four or five regular readers of this blog know, I’ve got nothing better to do. I’m not kidding.

• I was operating the video cam the other day when it began malfunctioning. Last night the fancy remote for the big HDTV began acting funny. Today, the screen on the iBook I rely on to do most of my work went black (this is being written on my reliable back up iMac while I try and find salvation). But it’s a nasty string of difficulties that has me wondering if I’m in the midst of some sort of curse. I know that’s silly superstition, but just to be on the safe side, I’m not going to change the baby’s dirty diapers for another two months or so.

• Not that it matters to anyone but me, but I’m proud that I’ve done most of these blogs in less than an hour and usually in 30 minutes. Being able to write fast is a gift I’m proud to have. Of course, if I took maybe just a wee bit more time, it would make more sense and I’d be more successful, but I’d have less time to play with the kids and joke around. I have my priorities.

• Halloween is rapidly ascending my long list of least favorite holidays (the only three flawless holidays revolve around eating (Thanksgiving), drinking (St. Patrick’s Day) and joking (April Fool’s Day). I’ve never liked dressing up and never will again. Adults dressing up is another example of adults stealing a holiday from the kids. As for the kids, it’s gotten way too excessive. It’s become a veritable Mardi Gras of teeth-rotting redundancy. Just this week, we’ve had four Halloween celebrations that cut into my bar time and once more cast me in the uncomfortable yet familiar role of bad daddy. Let’s make this clear: Halloween should be for children under 14. It should be one night a year. That night should be on Halloween. And any father who would rather watch a World Series game with his buddies in the local tavern than go trick or treating for the third time isn’t being a bad guy. He’s just being a throwback good guy.

• I thought the Barack Obama infomercial was well crafted. If anyone is still sitting on the fence it should have swayed them to his side. But, really, if anyone is still sitting on the fence four days before this two-year election’s about to end, then partisans from both sides should be able to whip apples and rocks at them until we knock them off. If a McCain partisan knocks them onto the Obama side, the dithering victim’s vote goes to the Arizonan and vice versa.

• I’m eager for the election to come and go, not because of the robo-calls, the political commercials or because there’s always a possibility a shouting match will break out if I wind up in a political conversation with someone as stubborn as myself. No, I’m looking for it to end so I’ll stop rushing home to watch “The View” at 11 a.m. To my everlasting shame, I’ve been hooked ever since the gang started beating up on uptight conservative Elizabeth Hasselbeck. She’s the most obnoxious TV personality since Kathy Lee Gifford. I’m still chagrined Regis never slammed her in the face with a grapefruit. I didn’t like Hasselbeck when she was on Survivor and I don’t like her now. Every time, she opens her mouth, I wish Jeff Probst would walk onto the stage, whack her with an immunity idol and say it was time for her to go, “The tribe has spoken. And they want you to shut the hell up."

• My wife is the bravest woman I know because I’ve seen her defiantly enjoy a glass of wine or two when we were out to dinner and she was heavy with child. She smiled through all the withering scowls of those who are convinced that even a sip of alcohol will scramble the newly formed brains of the fetus. I’d point out that most of our mothers drank and smoked to excess while pregnant with us, but I doubt that would strengthen my argument. But both our daughters turned out fine, and Val enjoyed the meal more. Now, there’s a few studies out that say pregnant woman drinking in moderation doesn’t hurt the child and may, in fact, help its development. Me, I drank like a fiend both times she was pregnant.

• It's come to my attention that some regular readers of this blog -- thanks to each of you! -- have never seen the home page the boys at Apollo Design in Latrobe came up with for me. It's great. Check it out at

• When people ask what it’s like to be working all by myself I tell them it’s like being all alone in a life raft miles from the nearest shore. The only thing worse is when technological problems come up. For me, that’s like being all alone in that life raft and hearing a sudden, urgent hiss. It really sucks and if you don’t find the leak, you’re sunk.

• Besides being a fast writer, another skill of which I’m excessively proud is my ability to know precisely when to quit.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A flatulent discussion about unfair gas prices

Now, let me get this straight. When oil was trading for $140 a barrel about three months ago, the gas prices were averaging $4 a gallon.

Today, oil’s down below half that and gas is about $2.69 a gallon.

Now that oil’s down to half of what it was six months ago, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a gallon of gas would cost an equivalent $2? Can anyone explain that so it’ll make sense to me? It looks like we’ve been getting screwed on both the up and the down.

And can anyone explain why we’re so happy about it? Why people are skipping around with more spring in their step when, if the market and common sense are any indication, we’re still being overcharged by nearly $10 for every fill up?

No, of course you can’t. No one can. Even the best experts, the people we rely on to ensure the engines of commerce run smoothly, have no clue what they’re talking about.

For heaven’s sake, if even a steady, experienced hand like George W. Bush, a man who earned a master’s degree in business from Yale, one of the most elite and prestigious business schools in the world, a man of steely resolve, looks confused and frightened by what’s happening on Wall Street, then what are common simpletons like the rest of us supposed to think?

Okay, bad example. But you get the picture. Economics has been made so deliberately complicated in the pursuit of an easy buck that the system’s broken. No one can understand it.

It’s one of the reasons why I’m defiantly proud to have earned an F in Economics 101 at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, a place one popular T-shirt declared to be “The Fountain of Knowledge Where We’ve All Come to Drink.”

And drink we did. We drank until we ran out of money. Then we called home for more. And it didn’t stop us from drinking when even that was gone. It was all thanks to a then-groundbreaking new business model.

Yes, those were the days of the magical Blue Key Card. It was the early 1980s before they were so reckless about giving credit cards to drunken unemployed students. That’s where the promoters of Blue Key Card saw their opening.

The Blue Key Card was offered for free to fiscally casual college students around the midwest. It could only be used at bars and restaurants.

So when you ran out of your money and Dad got wise to what you were doing with his, you simply, hallelujah, deployed the Blue Key Card. I still remember the euphoria that would erupt at the bar when me or one of my buddies decided to extend the inebriation by pulling out the BKC and brandishing it at the surly bartender the way gallant King Arthur unsheathed Excalibur in defense of some fair maiden.

“Pour us goblets of your finest brandy, you drink-schlepping scoundrel! Our night has just begun! Bring us your finest meats and cheeses! Tonight we live like noblemen! It’s not costing any of us a dime! And if your mood improves toward our drunken revelries, we might even toss in an extra farthing for you, so step lively!”

Of course, as we knew from bitter experience the next day would bring the inevitable hangover. What we didn’t foresee was the mailman bringing us an inevitable bill. Who knows how many of these transient students simply skipped on the bills before they folded? (I’m still kicking myself for having responsibly paid mine off, damn it.)

That’s when I learned all I ever needed to know about economics. Talk all you want about supply, demand and things like decreasing elasticity. None of it matters. I learned it’s better to pay as you go. The good times will eventually result in a bill, not to mention a skull-popping hangover.

And what happened to the enterprising gang who ran Blue Key Card? You’d think they would have wound up bankrupt and disgraced, but who knows? Perhaps they went on to run mega-billion dollar companies with sterling reputations. You know, places like Enron, Bear Stearns or Freddie Mac.

Which brings us back to the artificially inflated gasoline prices. Just today, Exxon reported a $15 billion quarterly profit.

It’s clear they’re screwing us. I don’t know how they’re getting away with it, but I know this much.

If they keep it up, I’m going to start looking around for a mini-mart that accepts the Blue Key Card.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Exposing myself to high school students

I exposed myself to about 30 high school communications students yesterday. I was there to answer their questions about how I earn my living.

I told them you need to be provocative -- that’s what I tried to do here with that first sentence. So there’s no need to alert the authorities.

Of course, I didn’t expose myself in the criminal manner. But whenever I talk to students or people who sincerely desire to write for a living, a big encouraging part of me gets naked.

I’m usually self-effacing to the point of belittling about what I do for a living. I think that has to do with where I call home. Latrobe isn’t bohemian Chelsea or some dippy art enclave perched on the unstable cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

This is western Pennsylvania, a land populated by good hearted men and women with a reputation for rolling up their sleeves and going to work. They punch clocks in steel mills, on police beats and in the blue collar jobs that invariably lead to sore feet, aching backs and clocks in basement bars that count down the years, months and days until retirement brings relief.

How on earth can I compare what I do for a living with what they do? Even a rare day that’s bottom-line productive means having a pleasant chat with someone, sitting down in my cozy little office, selecting an inspiring iPod playlist for the stereo and then trying to conjure up a compelling tale. And there’s usually some brainstorming juggling involved.

I’m a storyteller. I had it put on my business cards -- Storyteller -- in places where other people put things like accountant, attorney or podiatrist.

So I go out of my way to deprecate how I make my money. In the great scheme of things, it’s like going to work in a sandbox full of bright little Tinker toys. It’s an endless recess.

I always wonder later if it’s right to tell students it’s possible to earn a living -- not necessarily a good one -- by skating through life the way I do. But I’ll never flinch in that situation.

How could I? It’s just so flattering to sit there and have so many bright eyes and raised hands ask you questions about how I got where I am, a place that clearly many of them think they’d like to be.

I was pleased that so many of them had read and seemingly enjoyed many of the offbeat stories from the obscure part of my website I call “The Orphanage,” a section of unpublished stories that are available for love or professional adoption. They wanted to know if the how much heart I put into satirical stories about the possibilities of golf in heaven and how, just maybe, God would be grateful if for just one week nobody prayed for anything.

They wanted to know where my inspiration for fiction and essays comes from. I fumbled around, but told them I really don’t know. If I did, I’d hunt the bastard down and flog the crap out of it for the many days when it spends avoiding me.

It went so well I’m probably going to keep the raft of e-mails from students who went out of their way to thank me and tell me I’m great. I may re-read them on the days when mounting rejections sinisterly try to convince me otherwise.

After the bell rang and I was getting read to leave, one friendly, lanky kid asked if I was famous. I felt like whistling the whole bunch of them back into their seats for a schedule-disrupting discourse on the answer:

“No,” I laughed, “I’m not famous. And I won’t consider myself so until editors and publishers call me and beg for fresh stories. I’m not the kind of writer who wants Spielberg or Eastwood to turn his novel into a movie. I’m the kind of writer that hopes someone -- anyone -- will publish his novel so it won’t sit there like a nagging reminder that it was just a colossal waste of time . So, no, I’m not famous.”

It was the only fib I told the whole day.

Because, truly, I am famous. I’m famous in places like that classroom and anyplace where someone struggling aspires to live solely by his or her wits. I’m famous to people who want to create something out of nothing and get paid, no matter how meager, for the proud little result.

Several of the students have said they were going to start reading this journalistic equivalent of a lemonade-stand for inspiration. And you know what that means.

It means I’ll have to strive to be even more ruthlessly honest. I can’t be caught in some rhetorical mischief because it’s likely someone’s going to call me on it and expose me as a fraud.

And I wouldn’t want to get caught with my pants down.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Pokin' along in cars that can't fly

It’s time for auto manufacturing giant GM to chuck its tired 100-year-old game plan and ignite the future by mass producing sleek fleets of flying cars.

I’m sick and tired of opening the newspaper -- and, yes, I recognize the irony of learning about one dying industry by foolheartedly supporting another -- and reading that GM is shedding another 5,000 jobs in some godforsaken blue collar part of what Sarah Palin calls “real America.”

I’ve long argued about the silliness of building an entire industry around the 160-year-old technology that is the internal combustion engine.

Our best computers become obsolete in five years tops. But we still rely on the same earth polluting, fossil fuel consuming technology to propel our lives that was a brandspanking new innovation when James K. Polk was president.

(Pointless aside: Polk, the 11th president, made his name as a lawyer and legislator in Nashville, where I worked for three years in the late 1980s. Whenever I, a real history buff, come across his name I’m reminded of the still existing Polk Motel and think it would be fun to spend an illicit afternoon there just so you could always say you enjoyed a “Poke at the Polk.” Printing something like that on promotional T-shirts would be a cheeky fun way to boost business.)

“But if we all of a sudden stop using the internal combustion engine, industries will crumble,” fret many business experts.

Hallelujah. They are businesses that already failing and they used to say the same thing about steamboats and the railroads. Time marches on.

We need to seize on the best of American innovation and dramatically vault over existing technologies. That means it’s finally time for the flying cars.

I remember a conversation with a buddy who lamented that 2008 is still essentially a horse ‘n’ buggy age.

“Really, there’s been no true, world changing innovations,” he said. “I remember growing up and thinking that by now we’d all be zooming around in jet packs. And I want my jet pack!”

He’s absolutely right. I find it hard to believe that GM engineers aren’t every bit as imaginative and talented as those employed by Apple, the gold standard of American innovation and the reason why there’s never been a better time for those who enjoy vapid distractions to be alive and stumbling mindlessly down sidewalks.

Of course, if we all had flying cars these innocents would be spared the unsightly obliteration that comes from cocooning themselves from realties like on-rushing traffic at the approaching crosswalks.

And a venerable company like GM announcing it was pursuing inexpensive, green and popular flying cars would inspire the nation in a way not seen since the dawn of the U.S. space program. The best young minds in the world would line up to participate.

The enormous federal deficit could be slashed as expensive road building and maintenance projects could be shelved. Who needs asphalt roads when cars are little more than relics of nostalgia?

And, perhaps best of all, the advent of the flying car would help eliminate another ailing industry that ought to be put out of our mutual misery: airlines. I’m convinced that someday soon our children will look back and wonder how we as a people ever allowed ourselves to be treated the way we do simply for having the need to travel.

So bring on the flying cars. It took us fewer than 10 years to put a man on the moon from the day President Kennedy boldly challenged America to strive to do so. Putting a man and his minivan in the air shouldn’t take nearly as difficult.

I expect to have mine in the garage by the year 2015. Then you know what I’m going to do next?

I think I’ll celebrate the achievement by flying my wife down to Nashville for a visit to the ol’ Polk Motel.

She's a bit of a history buff, too.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's a wonder-full life

The hot water was pouring down all over my body as I stood in the shower in deep contemplation about that day’s shampoo.

Should I use a splash of Val’s good stuff? Or should I go with the industrial stuff I use near daily? Or given that I’d be getting my monthly hair cut in about an hour, should I just scrub it with a bar of soap?

So what’d I do?

I grabbed the good stuff and poured out a healthy palm full. I felt honor bound to give the hairs that had served me so well a kind of last meal before I dutifully took them off to their scissored demise.

I wonder how much further along what for lack of a better word I call my “career” would be if I devoted such strategic thinking to my livelihood. I’d doubtless be overscheduled with award dinners and gala parties held on my behalf.

Of course, that would mean I’d be missing multiple reruns of things like M*A*S*H, Seinfeld and Green Acres and I have to wonder if it’d be worth it.

I wonder about a lot of things.

For instance, years ago, I began to wonder about my lazy good-for-nothing left hand. It never did a damn thing.

Sure, I’m right handed, but that didn’t mean the left hand couldn’t, well, lend a hand once in while. I wouldn’t trust it to toss a dart if a pregnant woman was standing within eight feet of the cork, but it could pick up a beer mug once in a while.

Ever since, I’ve made a concerted effort to drink lefthanded, to brush my teeth left handed and operate the computer mouse with the southerly paw. Think about it. It all makes perfect sense.

If you’re brushing your teeth with your right hand exclusively, you’re probably neglecting some of the back teeth on your left side. And if you’re grinding away with the computer mouse with only your right hand, think about what you’re doing to your overall posture -- that upraised right arm jittering all over the place while your left side remains dormant.

I’m convinced that many of the aches and infirmities that afflict the elderly aren’t from some long ago acute injury but rather from the accumulation of daily habits we never bother to change.

So given all my free time devoted to wondering silently about these health issues, I began to proselytize aloud about this sort of wisdom.

It’s a fun pastime to see the expressions on people’s faces when you suggest to them that, really, for their own good and the good of their teeth they should switch hands.

Most people will simply try to ignore you. Some will stare at you like slack-jawed sheep. But once in a while, you can actually make an impression.

That happened with one of my regular bartenders -- and, yes, feel free to wonder what one person needs with more than one bartender. Sure he thought I was crazy to devote even a minute to thinking about it, but putting that aside he saw a kernel of wisdom in the idea.

He was the first guy I thought about a couple of months ago after I’d left an appointment to get a new suit tailored. The tailor was doing his mundane measurements when he abruptly stopped.

“Well, I’ll be darned,” he said. “That’s something you don’t see too often.”

Something wrong?

“Not at all. But your arms are exactly the same length. I measured twice to be sure. Most people have right arms that are much longer if they’re right handed, and longer left arms if they’re left handed. Yours are exactly the same length.”

I dashed straight to the bar to tell Keith, who couldn’t have been more effusive in his gushing support.

“Hey, man, it’s paying off! That’s great! Guess what, everybody -- Rodell’s arms are both the same length!”

At least I think he was being supportive. It could have been mocking ridicule. I often confuse the two.

But is it paying off? Am I making a difference? Will it matter years from now when everyone else is walking around lopsided that I am pointing straight up? Am I doing something that will be beneficial to my health or am I just wasting my time thinking about so many possibly trivial matters?

I wonder.

Monday, October 20, 2008

When church is hell

I went to church Sunday for the first time since Satan first possessed my 2-year-old daughter. The last time had been exactly like the chilling scene in “The Omen” from 1976 when devil-spawn Damien screamed as if he was being flayed by invisible whips at the mere site of the holy church.

I used to wonder if it was hubris that made me think our first daughter, Josie, was the perfect child. I wondered if I was one of those obnoxious parents who could find no flaws in a daughter that everyone else secretly thought was spoiled.

But she’d sleep peacefully through the night and would wake up smiling. With her, laughter was a habit. She was cuddly, well-behaved and blessed with a sunny disposition that drew smiles from strangers in places like grocery stores. What’s not to love?

That she is the perfect child led to the obvious egotistical conclusion: That, I, her father, am the perfect father and Val the perfect mother.

I’ve managed to stay awake in church long enough to learn that spiritual correction always follows excess.

It was two years ago in June that God gave us with the heavenly antidote to our foolish pride. Conveniently, we named her Lucinda Grace, a name that easily morphs into Lucy-fer, one of the top a.k.a.s employed by the Prince of Darkness.

I’m talking here like I’m possessed with a Talmudic wisdom in the ways of religion. That’s untrue. It’s an endlessly baffling topic to me. I want to believe in God and try to lead a good life that’ll ensure I’ll get to heaven.

But who really knows what that’ll be like? Some believe it’ll be reincarnation. Others say it’ll be an eternity of sitting around worshipping God, kind of like one of those obscure religious cable channels I breeze right past.

I have a friend who says that if heaven isn’t hottubs full of horny, naked harp-strumming supermodels he’s going to start looking around for the suggestion box.

Josie’s trying to get out of going to Sunday school because she says it’s more boring than staying home and playing in the leaves. And who am I to argue?

I really enjoy going to church, but must confess I spend more time thinking about God when I’m golfing in the sunshine (or deep, deep, in the luscious woods where I shank my drives) than I do in church.

In church I spend a lot of time thinking about screwing the sultry church organist. Now, she’s my wife and it was in that very Lutheran church that we were married so it’s all on the up-and-up, but I could see there might be a gray area in the lusty distractions.

Lucy has a similar sort of problem. She sees her mother sitting up there and wants to go play. She doesn’t understand why I won’t let her march down the aisle, around the pastor preaching in the pulpit and up onto the bench so she can start making a racket by banging the keys the way she does at home when Mommy’s trying to practice.

I respect our church, the people who are there to worship, and our wonderful pastor too much for that. So I drag her the hell out of there, her unholy screams nearly cracking the stained glass depictions of the heavenly saints performing their Biblical miracles.

Yesterday, she made it the whole way through without one Satanic episode. She sat beside me and Josie, colored and made playful babbling sounds that charmed without disrupting. In fact, you could say Lucy-fer was angelic.

Afterward, as they always do, everyone assured me she’s not a problem and that it’s important for children to receive a good religious foundation, the implication being that I’m failing her whenever she’s not there -- and that’s a lot.

I don’t know whether I’m doing the right thing or not. I’m just trying to be a good father and a good member of our little church.

I just know if I wind up in the afterlife and somebody sends me heavenly “Wish You Were Here!” postcard featuring a picture of a hot tub full of horny, naked harp-strumming supermodels, well, there will be hell to pay.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ringo tired of being a Starr?

Ringo Starr posted a bizarre rant indicating he’s done signing autographs in, gadzooks, four days. “I won’t be signing anything mailed after October 20,” he says. “Don’t send it. It’s going to be tossed. I’m warning you with peace and love, I have too much to do. So no more fan mail!”

I saw this in the news and immediately had two thoughts: Ringo Starr’s busy? And he still has fans?

If a Starr like Ringo’s busy it must mean the Hollywood Squares is back on the air. He’s devolved into that kind of celebrity. And he’s not even center square worthy. Save that for someone like Ashton Kutcher or Danny Bonaduce.

Has anyone thought of asking Pete Best what he thought about poor Ringo?

Best was behind the drum kit for two years before Ringo took over. He lost out to Ringo on one of history’s most golden tickets. He could have been a Beatle. In fact, he was a Beatle. But Ringo snaked his way in doing what Ringo did best -- and I don’t mean keeping a tidy beat.

No, he was glib and charming, enough so that John, Paul and George invited him to tag along on their magical mystery tour to fabulous fame and fortune. And poor Pete went on to be the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.

Too busy? I know he doesn’t golf, the time-consuming pastime that I’d devote my entire time to if I was wealthy and the last significant piece of work -- if you can call swinging the drumsticks work -- I’d done had been in 1969.

He may not golf, but I know a rich and famous guy who does. He’s Arnold Palmer. You want his autograph? Just ask. Ever since he became famous -- about 10 years before Richard Starkey became Ringo Starr -- he’s felt a gentlemanly obligation to devote about an hour every day to carefully signing autographs.

If you or someone you know wants his autographed picture, just send a note requesting one to him at PO Box 52, Youngstown, Pa. 15696. He’ll even pay for the return postage. Or if that’s too much trouble, just e-mail me and I’ll forward your note. Really, you ought to do it for a friend or loved one this Christmas. They’ll get a real kick out of it. The man’s a classic.

I asked Doc Giffin, Palmer’s affable assistant for 40 years, if Mr. Palmer, the CEO of an enormous business empire, is too busy to sign autographs. “Not at all. He still gets about 20 to 25 requests every day and he signs and returns every one of them.”

Palmer considers it a privilege to sign autographs for the people who’ve so ardently supported him for more than 50 years of fame that rivals and in many cases exceeds Ringo’s. And check it out ( It’s immaculate. Surgeons who leave scars on supermodels aren’t as careful with scalpels as he is with a pen.

Palmer’s bragged that his name is nearly worthless on eBay because of the glut of autographs and pieces of memorabilia he’s signed.

I’m guessing Ringo Starr doesn’t have a Doc Giffin working for him. If he did, he would have told him something like, “Look, you’re a Beatle, but you’ll never be more than the fourth most popular Beatle out of four -- and that includes the two who’ve already died. In fact, most people consider you like the Beatle mascot. They want to meet the others. You, they’d like to dangle from their rearview mirrors.

“You’re lucky you’re rich and famous because, let’s face it, you never had the talent to make it on your own. Now, it’s not going to kill you to take maybe two hours a week to sign your name for people who’ve given you your magnificent homes around the world, your lavish lifestyle and your still-georgous Bond-girl wife.

“Now go back to your tanning bed, your cricket matches or whatever the hell else it is you do in your supposedly busy life. And here, sign this: it’s my bill for $5,000. Consider it a bargain for all the ridicule I’m saving you for not putting up that silly message.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A convivial man stricken with "beer sickness"

I had to explain what a hangover was to Josie on Saturday and I felt marginally proud that I’ve been able to conceal them from her for eight years.

During those eight years I’ve had hundreds of punishing bouts with that self-inflicted misery. I used to think that one day the hangover would be nothing but a nasty memory for me, that I’d mature or stagnate to a point where I didn’t feel like staying out too late, laughing too loud or drinking too much.

It’s hasn’t happened yet and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to.

I’m among the last of the relentless and unapologetically convivial people on the planet. Rare is the day or night that I don’t want to spend at least a portion of my time sipping beers or bourbons and yapping about the events of the day with jolly friends or alert strangers.

“The only reason I write stories is because nobody will pay me to lean against a bar and mumble them.” That’s what the great Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote and it’s something I’ve always embraced.

Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and many of our greatest American writers were robust drinkers, too. Of course, the only thing I have in common with those historically accomplished giants is a fondness for cigars and spirits, but to the I.R.S. we’re all lumped in together as “writers” so the association, however diminishing it is to them, must stand.

Writing is a lonely business. You’re all by yourself. There’s no team. No cubicle chatter. No chummy camaraderie.

But to be a writer you need access to lively people and stories. And you get that at most any neighborhood tavern. The one I go to -- the one that’s strategically located directly below my office -- is a stew of mill workers, cops, tradesmen, lawyers, accountants, heroic veterans, Republicans, Democrats and a motley mix of deadbeats, racists and incoherent drunks who’ll test the skills of even the most polished debater.

So I like to go there for what you could call for professional reasons. Bar time provides a cerebral sort of mingling I couldn’t get if I worked above, say, a coffee shop or a place that sells shoes. Of course, there is the collateral risk that once in a while I wind up drunk, all in the line of duty.

That’s what happened Friday night on a day that started with an ambition-squashing afternoon of televised October baseball. It’s very difficult for any normally convivial person to stay up in his or her office when many of his or her buddies are downstairs quaffing beer and watching playoff baseball.

And it’s way too difficult for someone like me.

So, there I was at 4 p.m. drinking my first beer and philosophically closing the books on another work week of subpar productivity.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Val and I had planned to meet friends -- convivial folks all -- at a local restaurant. I followed the afternoon beers with cocktail bourbon, followed that with cabernet and followed that with still more Tennessee whiskey.

Had I found room for a splash or two of Ouzo or some other cordial, I’d have hit the liquid equivalent of all four major food groups.

And if you’ve ever been a convivial person, you know what happened Saturday morning. It was a hangover or as Val explained to Josie, “Daddy has the beer sickness.”

Josie jumped back as if she thought “beer sickness” could jump from me to her. So I told her all about the convivial person’s curse known as the hangover.

“Is it catchy?” she asked.

I told her no, but I’m really not so sure. I know there are many days when I wake up with beer sickness that many of my convivial buddies wake up suffering from the same symptoms. Who knows? Maybe it is contagious.

“Will you ever get another one?” she asked.

I ran through in my head the remaining schedule for the baseball playoffs. “Probably next Thursday morning,” I said.

I am, after all, a convivial person, one who is conscientious about his professional conduct.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Religious Wrong and the bravest man in America

The last time a crowd of otherwise law-abiding citizens transformed themselves into bloodthirsty mobs the way supporters of McCain-Palin do was at the trial that led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Now, I’m not saying McCain is Pontius Pilot or that Barack Obama is Christ, but when the crazy hyperbole gets flying it’s hard to resist joining in on the fun.

Nobody on the planet comes unhinged like the Religious Wrong. You’d think the disastrous Bush presidency would at least leave them open-minded to having someone they wrongly suspect to be a closet Muslim might be worth a try, but no. And again I’m left to wonder why a group that so vocally declares to have found one Messiah is always so restlessly seeking another.

Clearly, they haven’t found him in McCain, whose campaign is in the midst of what will be regarded as a historic meltdown. By any measure, this is one of the worst campaigns we’ve seen in the past 30 years. Just today, one of the leading conservative voices in the country (i.e. “enormous horse’s ass”) Bill Kristol urged McCain to fire his entire staff and start again.

With 22 days before the election! Yeah, great time to start all over in a campaign that’s been going on for two years.

The John McCain I’ve always admired finally resurrected himself last week when he proved he’s the second bravest man in America. He did this by standing up to his own frothing supporters to tell them that, contrary to what Palin’s been telling them, that Barack Obama’s a decent family, a proud American and that, no, we have nothing to fear with him as our president.

For this he was booed.

And now, for him, it’s too late. This election’s over. It’s destined to be won by the bravest man in America.

That’s Barack Obama.

Unlike McCain, he’s never had to duck a bullet, never gone into combat or had to crash land behind enemy lines.

But what he’s doing today is braver than anything any veteran’s done in those fearsome circumstances.

He’s standing near naked before crowds of 20,000 to 80,000 people knowing that there’s a well-armed and hate-filled fraction of America that wants him dead. We all know of bitter racists, deranged religious zealots, and Right Wing crazies -- sometimes all three in one -- and we know some of them have lethal potential.

They shout “Kill him!,” “Traitor!” and “Off with his head!” at rallies. Just today, the chairman of the Virginia GOP, Jeffrey Frederick, said he was no different than Osama bin Laden. Think that won’t egg on some deranged believer to begin diabolical plots in the belief that they’re patriotically acting with God on their side?

John Wilkes Booth, an actor with the equivalent popularity that Brad Pitt enjoys today, pulled the trigger behind Abraham Lincoln’s ear and brazenly jumped on the Ford Theater stage knowing he'd be recognized and believing he’d be hailed as a hero.

I can’t fathom the bravery of a father of two young daughters who’ll go out and stand on a stage knowing that his opposition is saying he’s dangerous, that he’s chummy with Al-Quaeda, and that their most primal fears about dark-skinned men with exotic names are more than justified.

I hope Obama wins in landslide. Then I hope he gets into the White House and plants himself so deeply into the secure bunker so that no one can hurt him or his family.

And then I hope he begins to do many great things.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Dad cheers for daughter to be a quitter

Here's something worth cheering: Me after sinking a birdie putt at Whistling Straits, 10-3-2008. Now, onto to today's cheerleader post . . .

When my daughter told me she didn’t want to go to cheerleader practice tonight because she “just didn’t feel like it,” I had to restrain myself from picking up her blue & silver pompons and shouting:

“Yea! Yea! No cheerleader practice tonight! Yea! Quit! Quit! Quit! Go kid! Leeettttt’s quit!”

I don’t know when cheerleading became a sport unto itself, but if I’d have been paying attention when it was happening I would have done everything I could to stop it.

Now parents go to the games to cheer the cheerleaders who are cheering the midget football games about which they know absolutely nothing. When one father asked his cheerleader daughter what she thought about the game, the perky 8 year old replied, “What game?”

The cheerleaders of my youth still shimmer in my hormonal memories. They were teenage girls on the bubble of womanhood. They were voluptuous. They had lucious hair. They wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.

Yet, they always lurked in my mind. I’d stare at them in biology class. I’d be thinking about them and their tight sweaters when unbidden thoughts began distracting me in algebra. I’d be delivering newspapers on my route and scheming about how I could get even one of them to notice me.

In short, as a boy in the rocky throes of puberty, I thought about them much the same way middle-aged actor Charlie Sheen apparently still does.

Now my daughter’s play acting at being one and the whole thing’s sort of disquieting. They suggestively prance around like little Jon Benet Ramseys and do provocative cheers that nearly shock the ears off my sweet white-haired mother.

The father in me is bothered by any adult-supervised activity that seems to promote any acceleration in the decline of innocence. Do they really need meddling parents monitoring their practices, careful to note any slights or taunts? And, yes, the adolescent in me is appalled that girls who are years away from their first training bras are allowed on the primal pedestals once reserved for the fair girls who were the first objects of my dawning desires.

There’s a low-grade sort of insanity involved in any school activity in which parents become engaged. We try to teach them our rules, imbue them with our ambitions and impose our rigid structures on naturally playful children who get distracted by things like frogs and bursting dandelions.

That’s why if Josie came up to me and said, “Daddy, I want to quit,” I wouldn’t try to talk her out of it. That’s the antithesis of everything they teach you in Fatherhood 101. You’re supposed to teach your children to never quit. Stick it out. Put your shoulders to the grindstone and press on.

Such teachings would be utterly hypocritical of me. Every time I’ve ever quit anything -- a tepid relationship, a boring job, a movie that got dull -- my life got immediately better.

Whenever the going got tough, I got golfing. And, surprisingly, it’s all worked out rather well.

Val says Josie enjoys cheerleading and she clearly does. And she is adorable. And unlike the cool, aloof cheerleaders of my youth, she loves me unabashedly. We hold hands as we walk to practice. We laugh and joke and just have a splendid time.

She’s given me many of the most joyful moments of my entire life.

Maybe my problem is that I finally have a cheerleader and I just can’t stand the thought that she’s out there cheering for anyone but me, as pathetic a fatherly thought as could be considered and one that provokes a raft of psychological pitfalls.

It could give a deep thinker an opportunity to wrestle for hours with big questions about lost youth, advancing mortality and the bittersweet residue of lusts unfulfilled.

What’s it mean to a guy like me?

Time to quit!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Debate analysis you won't see on TV

• Apropos of nothing, here's a picture of me and the Bronze Fonz statue in Milwaukee. Now, onto the debate analysis.

• I was surprised to see McCain’s a lefty when it comes to handwriting. I’m sure some obscure expert’s done an analysis saying some of our best/worst presidents have been lefthanders. That won’t factor into whether or not I’ll vote for him, but I just hope he’s never sits down to my right if we ever wind up together in the same cafeteria.

• Commentators immediately began focusing on the candidates’ body language. Not me. I was drawn to the body language of the captive audience. They sat mostly immobile for the first 30 minutes, but there was a monumental amount of background fidgeting during the home stretch. There were toe tappers, knee bouncers, thumb twiddlers and an entire corp of nap-jerking yawn stiflers throughout. I’d wagered with my wife that bald guy with the blue shirt in the back row was going to fall asleep. I lost.

• I believe if the country could survive eight years of the idiot Bush, it can survive anything. I’m all in for Obama, but last night left me feeling a surge of optimism knowing that one way or the other we’re going to have a president who at least knows how to pronounce simple words like “nuclear.”

• It was annoying how often grumpy Tom Brokaw kept reminding everyone that the participants had gone seconds over their agreed upon time. Neither seemed that long winded to me, and he kept cutting them off just as true debate seemed about to emerge. I’ve been to parties with nagging clock watchers like him. It’s no fun.

• I understand the rules that say the audience shouldn’t applaud, but I think it would add to the debates if they were all instructed to yell and holler any time either of the candidates said a secret word like say, “bailout,” “Main Street” or “Petraeus.” They always had secret words on Pee Wee’s Playhouse and it was always riotous good fun. Try it around your own house someday.

• Do you think people in the audience had to raise their hands and get the go ahead nod from Brokaw if they had to go to the bathroom?

• I like it when candidates -- and both of them did this -- pronounce the names “Pock-e-stan” and “Tolly-bon” instead of “Packistan” or “Toweliban.” It makes the evil doers seem less intimidating, like they are populated by Oompa Loompas, albeit ones with murderous dispositions.

• I give huge credit to the audience members for being able to stand up and ask either of the candidates a question knowing that there were maybe 60 million people watching and that many of them were like me and my wife. We didn’t listen to a word they said, but made disparaging remarks about their hair, their eyeglass frames or the way they were dressed. I wish I wasn’t like that.

• In this day of microscopic spy gizmos, did the microphones really need to be so big and clunky? They looked the amplifier anchor Roger Daltry swung around during The Who’s 1969 performance at Woodstock.

• If either of the candidates had dropped their microphone, it’s all we would have remembered. I was hoping one of them would.

• I respect John McCain’s service and think he’d have made a dandy president in 2000 when George Bush dirty tricked it out of him. But he’s starting to remind me of Grandpa Simpson.

• I was glad to see neither of them had suspicious bulges between their shoulder blades the way Bush did against John Kerry in 2004 (simply Google “Bush, bulge, debate”). To me, it’s one of the great underreported stories of the Bush era. Well, that and the reasons for going to war in Iraq.

• One of the greatest lines in debate history came when Lloyd Bensen left Dan Quayle sputtering after he’d blasted him with his great line, “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You’re no Jack Kennedy.” When I was doing a golf book about hole in ones, Quayle was one of the few politicians or celebrities to call me back for a chat about their ace history. We talked about golf and luck for 30 casual minutes. He was cool to me. I wonder if Jack Kennedy would have been. Who knows? When it comes to golf chat, maybe Jack Kennedy was no Dan Quayle.

• They say that 10 percent or so of the electorate is still undecided. Who are these marshmallow heads? I say we nullify their votes and get all the partisans who are stubbornly Obama together with the people who are stubbornly McCain and just let them duke it out.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Wisconsin by a foot

Every time I begin thinking the ear is the ugliest part of the human body I get a glimpse of my barefeet and am reminded the ears will always be runner ups. The terrible daily pounding taken by the feet shows. It’s hands-down the ugliest part of the body.

I think I saw the ugliest feet in my life last week on my way to Wisconsin. It was on a connecting flight from Atlanta to Milwaukee. I had the middle seat. Aisle seat seemed like a crabby guy who resented that I had to squeeze past him to the middle. That’s why I was glad window seat seemed so friendly.

The guy had a really nice smile under what looked like a Santa starter beard. I figured we’d be talking sports before take off. But that was before a truly offensive sort of take off occurred.

As the plane began to taxi, he reached down and took off his blue croks. Now, any man wearing blue croks is showing terrible judgment, but what he did next had me looking around for a parachute and the nearest emergency exit.

He reached down, slipped off the silly blue croks and crossed his leg so that his horrible barefoot was practically resting on my leg. I recoiled as if a leper had plopped down on my lap. The heel was cracked and calloused. With the slightest bit of turbulence it would have ripped multiple holes in my nice khakis. The yellow toenails resembled witches’ teeth.

Amazingly, the middle and window seats on the other side of the aisle were vacant. In violation of every FAA rule and under the scowls of the bitter and overworked flight attendants, I dove over two startled aisle passengers as if I was escaping a live grenade.

It may have been the ugliest human body part I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it was coincidence, but I’ve had trouble sleeping ever since.

Maybe the gods figured they owed me after that because I had a wonderful time in Wisconsin. They treated me and two other golf writers like kings. I played five of the golf-rich state’s best courses (Erin Hills, Whistling Straits, The Bog, Wild Rock and Grand Geneva). The dining was superb.

On the last day under perfect blue skies amidst spangled autumn trees, I played golf with two great guys at The Bog, a magnificent Arnold Palmer course where they welcomed me, a Latrobe resident on assignment to Palmer’s Kingdom magazine, as if I were Palmer himself.

I told my golf partners all about my week and the fine dining and confided I was looking forward to hearty staples like hamburgers and good pizza.

They gave me directions to a place called Sobelman’s behind an obstacle course of construction in a grungy warehouse district of downtown Milwaukee. The place was packed with friendly Brewer fans who were getting ready for the home playoff game against the Phillies.

The friendly owner seemed aghast that I’d been sitting at his bar, unattended for maybe two minutes (I’ve been a regular at places where I’d need to shave between servings so two minutes was nothing to me). He immediately poured me a free beer, the first of three, and I began calculating how my life would change if I moved my family to Milwaukee just to be close to a bar this cool.

The Bloody Mary’s were like salads with vodka dressing. Each pole vault sized-stalk of celery was pinned with a shrimp, a pearl onion, a cherry tomato, an asparagus spear, a jalapeno pepper, a chunk of cheddar and a delicious little dinner sausage. It’s the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever had. Nothing else even comes close.

And the burger was up there, too (the best is still Tessaro’s in Bloomfield near Pittsburgh), but this was outstanding. It had four cheeses, bacon, jalapeno peppers and mustard.

I liked Milwaukee a lot. Friendly people, great bars and restaurants, petty parks and I got to take my picture with the "Bronze Fonz"(give it a Google).

I’m going to try and get around to writing about all that stuff when I finish up my assignment. But the story I’m most looking forward to writing is based on what I saw at the Kohler Design Museum in the world's most posh factory town.

The museum features all the sinks, showers, tubs and faucets that have helped the Kohler family build a bathroom and kitchen empire and lavishly funded the fabulous town and golf resort that is the magnificent centerpiece of the golf boom taking over the state.

But what struck me was the 50-foot wall of commodes in the rear (go ahead and make your own jokes) of the museum. It towers over the space like a troupe of Chinese acrobats stacking porcelain chairs. They rise majestically from floor to ceiling, hundreds of them. If it were possible to flush them simultaneously, it would rival the storied Bellagio water show in Las Vegas.

Truly, in Kohler, the throne itself is king.

My love of stories like this has really held my career back. To succeed, I’m sure I should focus on all the splendors I enjoyed. I should concentrate on the sumptuous dining, the excellent golf, the friendly people and the splendid scenery.

But, no, I intend to forge ahead and write about the great wall of potties.

There’s never been a more perfect metaphor for why my turbulent career’s often in the crapper.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Walton's reruns help prepare for Great Depression II

I’ve been preparing for the coming economic siege by rewatching old episodes of “The Waltons.” We grew up watching the show about how a big close family struggled through the Great Depression.

They didn’t take fancy trips, dine on lobster, upgrade their iPods every couple of years, or enjoy any of the extravagant silliness that’s made the last 20 years so much superfluous fun.

I like that John Boy, a writer, never considered himself some sort of artist. He considered himself a tradesman, someone who’ll get better and better at his craft if he keeps working at it.

I liked that he wrote for the sheer joy of it even when there was no money around. I remember one episode he did a piece of writing for a down-on-his luck country editor and the guy paid him by giving him a live chicken.

I’ve never been paid with a chicken yet, but I’m open to bartering. I like to think of this blog the way John Boy thought of his writing. I do it because I love to write. For me, it’s great fun.

I happen to be writing this while I’m absolutely ensconced in luxury. I’m currently staying at the fabulous Delafield Hotel near Milwaukee. It’s one of those places so nice I’m having trouble figuring out how to turn on simple things like lights. The bathroom is nicer than some spas I’ve been to. It has a whale-sized bathtub with subsurface jacuzzi jets. The shower with six different functions, including rain shower and multiple body jets, one of which keeps goosing me in places where even the most intimate lovers rarely venture.

They’re treating me so nice I haven’t even thought of stealing things like towels and drapes like I usually do from a nice hotel.

This is one of those oh-so-sweet press junkets that are always tempting to someone as casual about journalism ethics as I am. Yesterday, I played Erin Hills and tomorrow I’m off for the stunning Whistling Straits. They’ve plied me with rivers of fine liquor, free golf and the kind of meals that would have had cranky old Grandma Walton huffing about fancy people dining like royalty when working men and women were surviving on scraps and apples.

But I’m here with a clean conscious because I have a bona fide assignment to write about Wisconsin golf and tourism for Kingdom Magazine. I take one of these trips for every 50 I’m offered. Taking more than that would be unfair to my family, it’s uncertain I could get stories published about the destination, and years of watching the Waltons has taught me not to be a pig about such things.

I’m thinking, too, that this might just be this travel writer’s swan song. It looks like we’re in for some damn hard times ahead. People aren’t going to be traveling to swanky resorts for a while.. That means swanky resorts aren’t going to be buying advertisements in golf and travel magazines. That means golf and travel magazines won’t be hiring guys like me to write stories.

Too bad for me.

I once asked my grandfather, who recently died at the age of, yikes, 97, what the Great Depression was like. “You know,” he said, “it wasn’t really all that bad. We had a lot less stuff, but people really helped each other out. It wasn’t too tough.”

That should be reassuring to anyone who listens to the doom sayers who grimly predict we’re in for another Great Depression.

Me, I’ll have some nice memories of my trips to places like this. I’ll scramble to find work, but that’s always been the case with me and many other freelance writers.

On the upside, it’ll give me plenty of time to attend to this little blog, something I enjoy doing. And thanks to those of you who take the time to read it and have told friends to do the same.

It doesn’t earn a dime, but I’m hoping maybe someday a grateful reader will send me a free chicken.