Saturday, November 29, 2008

Excessive traffic lights drive man to drink

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is making a sassy liar out of me. I’ve spent the past 15 years or so bragging that I live in Youngstown, Pa., a town with “one stop light, five liquor licenses.”

I love just how much information those six words convey about Youngstown, pop. 937. It says we’re small town America. Just one stop light. No traffic. No congestion. Just folks.

But there’s much more to that part of it. This is the birthplace and residence of Arnold Palmer. He could live anyplace on the planet, but he still chooses to live in tiny Youngstown for about seven months of the year (he flees for Florida in the winter and we don’t hold that climatic wisdom against him).

And it was here that Fred Rogers was born and kept a home until his 2003 death. He modeled his endearing and enduring children’s show after nearby Latrobe where he attended school.

Small towns all over America are the birthplaces of other cultural and historical giants, leading to the popular local jibe, “A lot of smart young men and women have come from here and the smarter they were, the younger they were when they left.”

But we’re not leaving Youngstown, and that’s where the part about the five liquor licenses comes in.

Crowded around our charming little stop light is an authentic and satisfying Mexican restaurant (BYOB), and two fine taverns, Falbo’s Rainbow Inn and the Tin Lizzy, which features not one but three distinct bars. The main floor has a great townie bar on one side and Chef Dato’s upscale restaurant on the other. Upstairs is a posh martini bar with an outdoor deck, and rathskeller has fireplaces, exposed stone walls, a long oak trunk bar top, and a pool table that still provokes the occasional brawl among those disposed to such feistiness. Yep, the Tin Lizzy has it all.

In addition, there’s a great volunteer fireman’s social club and the historic Latrobe Country Club’s just 1/2 mile up Arnold Palmer Drive.

So I’m taking some liberties with the five liquor licenses part, but you get the point. We’re a convivial people. There’s also has a quaint little market and a tiny art gallery. It’s a great spot to call home.

Now PennDOT, in defiance of all logic and fiscal sanity, is going to force me to declare Youngstown a place with “eight stop lights and five liquor licenses,” a ratio that could describe any number of Utah towns filled with equal portions of backsliding Mormons and their teatotaling brethren, for heaven’s sake.

During a still ongoing construction project, workers are installing two confounding stop lights, a total of eight, for each avenue of on-coming traffic in a place where one really proud stop sign would suffice. Understand, there are no turning lanes of funky turns. It’s just cars heading to the four points on the compass.

That means a total of eight stop lights atop four stout poles when one four-sided stop light has been doing the job.

Can anyone calculate the expense? Let’s say each light costs $200 and each pole $1,000. That’s a $5,600 total that is, I’ll wager, on the conservative side of cost.

Maybe a four-sided sign strung between already existing utility poles would cost about $500.

And it’s the felonious assault on common sense that really gets to me.

Who needs to stare at two stop lights to get the message? Maybe if drivers had eyes on the sides of their heads like cattle, I could understand. But there’s no real point in cluttering up the intersection with two lights per lane. Plus the four poles add new sidewalk hazards whenever one our town drunks wobbles off on foot.

Is this sort of unnecessary duplication is being done all over Pennsylvania? All over America? Just how much money is being wasted?

Everyone says we’re about to enter an era where logic will be restored and excess is banished. I hope that’s the case.

And it just galls me that if the gods had to monkey around with Youngstown’s delightful little ratio, they couldn’t have seen fit to enhance the liquor license side of the equation.

You see, reflexively disdaining all forms of abundance would be unnecessarily excessive.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

National No-Pray Week

Is it time to give God a break? I thought so in about 2004 when I was convinced the world was going to hell. I wrote this story about my proposed National No-Pray Week and submitted it with high hopes to various publications of prestige and infamy.

None bit.

So I dumped it for a while in my on-line orphanage for unloved and unwanted stories on The Ophanage still exists because I’m still writing many stories that have yet to find a good home.

I’d submit this again and again over the years around Thanksgiving to no avail. Still, I think it’s a provocative point so I’m foisting it on what is for me the ultimate orphanage, this godforsaken blog.

Check it out:

One of the banes of returning from vacation is the e-valanche of electronic messages in our in-boxes. We are besieged with pleas, queries and so many pornographic advertisements that many truly worthwhile e-mails get deleted without even a cursory glance.

Think you have it bad? Imagine how God must feel. Heaven knows, we are a prayerful society. Americans of many faiths pack the places of worship at least once a week and pray to God that He will heal us, enrich us, and ease the myriad suffering in our world of woe. And many of us issue fervent prayers at meals and bedtime asking for the same things.

That’s not all. Startled students mutter silent prayers for divine recollection during pop quizzes, patients pray the golf-mad doctor’s not too distracted by his afternoon tee time to perform lifesaving surgery, and drunks in bars pray He will help steer the car to safety and surreptitiously past the DUI road blocks.

And, yes, like beauty contestants, we all pray for world peace. This holiday season weekend will again be one of God’s busiest and I can imagine Him with the sullen scowl of the poor overworked souls down at the post office the week before Christmas.
Where has it gotten us? It seems, once again, to the brink of destruction. People all over the world are being slaughtered, usually in God’s name. In nearly every major conflict, God is the mutual justification for a holy hell that’s erupting around the world.

Clearly, God has turned a deaf ear to our massive and constant prayers for world peace. In fact, it seems God’s gaming interests take priority over matters of hateful life and violent death. Many lottery winners thank God, believing He was behind the lucky jackpot sequence and that powers from above divinely selected them to -- hallelujah -- win the Powerball. Same goes for championship athletes who assure us God answered their prayers for righteous victory on the gridiron or ballfield.

“Go Angels!”

I go to worship God at a small church in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The late Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, grew up near my Latrobe, Pennsylvania, home. My church is the same one attended by the young Arnold Palmer. As one could surmise by the nature of these two beloved icons, it is a humble and unpretentious place.

Our pastor doesn’t have a powerful television pulpit. He’s never led us in hateful prayers or asked God to tinker with the tickers of any ailing U.S. Supreme Court Justices whose constitutional philosophies differ from his. And I adore him. His every deed exudes a joyful foundation of love that makes me happy knowing Pastor Dave von Schlichten’s life is dedicated to saving my miserable soul.

I asked Pastor Dave if he thought maybe God could use a break.

“No, I don’t think God needs any kind of break,” he said. “His strength is infinite and He truly wants to have a personal relationship with each of us. Rest assured, we’re not bothering Him.”

One friend told me that prayer is actually holding the world together, that if we suddenly stopped praying, everything would get worse.

Could it?

If we stopped praying and the earth began to rupture and the oceans commenced to boiling, then believers would certainly burst into simultaneous, heartfelt prayer along the lines of: “Father, forgive us; for we know not what we’re doing.”

That, at least, ought to sound familiar to Him. It was among the last words Jesus Christ uttered before ascending to glory.

Given that result, it’s certainly worth a try.

For God’s sake, it’s high time we try something new. I’m proposing a “National No-Pray Week” where we close the churches and cease any and all prayers to God Almighty. And, no, that doesn’t mean you can substitute any pagan idols. Don’t stop believing in God. Just quit bugging Him.

Who knows? He might enjoy the leisure. He might reward us by eliminating world hunger or at least giving us a carefree week without extreme weather conditions. We just don’t know. But we have to try. No one can argue that 2,000 years of steadfast prayers have made the world a better, more peaceful place.

On the contrary, even with all that prayer, it still seems now more than ever that the whole wicked world is -- God help us -- going straight to hell.

If we don’t try something new, I fear none of us has a prayer.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Give me a break? Still not my turn

I try and think of this guy whenever I think I could really use a break -- and I think about that all the time.

Really, I thought this would all be a lot easier by now. I thought my novel would be published. I thought it would be a success and I thought I’d have to work and fret a lot less than I do.

Yet, fret and toil I do. To be more accurate, I fret that I’m not toiling enough. I don’t mind work. I love to do what I call “work,” which is talking to people and typing about what they have to say, and talking and typing isn’t real work. No one’s shouting at me. No one’s firing cannon balls in my direction. I’m not far removed from my dear loved ones or under constant threat of capricious violence.

That means my “work” is vastly different from the most unlucky able bodied blokes in perhaps the history of the sad, beleaguered working class. Those would be the press ganged sailors forced to serve in His Majesty’s Royal Navy during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The term press gang stems from roving bands of officers who’d prowl the English ports and pubs in search of men it could “impress” into endless or terminal service on behalf of the King. They did this by often brutal means. If the ship was departing by daybreak and they didn’t have sufficient crew, they were permitted to in effect kidnap any otherwise free man who looked like he could bail water, pull a rope or do menial chores on board a ship that could be sailing clear around the world.

I’ve always been fascinated by this aspect of maritime history. It amazes me that at one time men just like me could be sitting in a comfortable pub after a hard day’s work -- and I’m talking about them, not me -- never expecting their lives could be so cruelly and indelibly altered. Without even a moment to say goodbye to loved ones, they could one day be working as fishmongers or liverymen and the next morning find themselves bound for distant lands they never knew existed.

It would be like a gang of bluebloods storming into my favorite tavern, yanking me from off my bar stool and sending me against my will on a trip to someplace like Pluto. And, knowing my luck, it would happen just as I was reaching for a fresh beer (and, guaranteed, that unsipped beer would likely haunt me to madness as I lay marooned and dying on some deserted asteroid).

Nothing like that’s ever happened to me yet and I don’t expect it ever will. Still, I’m forever complaining about my sad lot in life. Work is often scarce, pay is low and widespread collegial regard seems to forever elude.

I always say I know I’m not working hard enough unless I get at least a rejection letter a day. And I’ve been on track for that since about, oh, 1992. So I don’t think it’s a case of not working hard enough.

The leaves an even worse option, that my stuff just sucks. And those are the thoughts that keep me awake at night.

I used to pray I’d be successful, now I just pray God will slay all my ambitions.

And that’s a pitiful mindset. I know many aspiring writers who think I’ve got it made. And to many I do.

Still, I wonder if I was blind to any of the doors opening before me, if I was arrogant to sage advice and why I can’t seem to get a break.

That’s when I try and gain perspective by thinking of that poor bastard who was in 1707 press ganged to serve under Admiral Cloudesley Shovell on some of the most expensive and powerful war vessels of the early 18th century.

The histories I’ve read said the common sailor became alarmed that in heavy fog and respectfully warned that the ships were in danger of striking a shoal of deadly rocks.

Admiral Shovell was outraged as his impudence. How dare he, an unskilled and unschooled sailor, think he knew more about navigation than many of the King’s most agile seafaring minds?

In one of history’s greatest and most forgotten I-told-you-so’s, the very next day four of the mighty ships struck the same rocks about which the unknown sailor had forewarned. The ships promptly sunk and more than 2,000 men, including the imperious Admiral Shovell, perished beneath the waves.

But the sailor was never given his due. No one begged his forgiveness for not having heeded his dire warnings. Shovell had him immediately hanged without trial for his mutinous speculations.

Give me a break?

I think if I ever do get a real break, I think I’ll try and time travel back to 1707 and give it to that guy.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Fatherly fibber stirs skepticism

It began to dawn on my daughter sometime earlier this year that I haven’t been getting into telephonic shouting matches with President George W. Bush every month or so.

That’s what I’d pretend I was doing every time the Caller ID indicated some pesky telemarketer was calling to go through his or her monotonous spiel.

“Well, if it isn’t President Ding Dong again!” I’d say (I call him Ding Dong because, like a bell, his apparently empty head is still capable of producing loud, jarring noises that reverberate around the globe).

“Seriously, George, I don’t know why you keep calling here when you never take my advice. Now for the last time, if you don’t do something to shore up the housing market, it could trigger financial collapses in the banking and credit industries. Then we’re all in for a hell of a mess while you skip down to Crawford to clear brush and sip nonalcoholic beer. Please, for the good of the country, act now. And stop bothering us during the dinner hour!”

Then I’d slam the phone down and resume eating like nothing unusual had happened.

Really, it might seem to even casual observers that President Bush has been for the past eight years soliciting advice from spastic and underemployed jokers like me, but I’ll wager my shouted suggestions to the confused telemarketers are better advice than anything Bush has ever heard from Dick Cheney.

For a while at least, the 8-year-old thought her Daddy was a pretty important fellow, someone sought by famous and important leaders and celebrities around the globe.

She’s heard me have similar strategic conversations with Steeler coaches, Catholic popes and the dreamy young actor who plays Troy in High School Musical (“Kid, I’m telling you the sequel’s gonna be gold. Gold, I tell you! You gotta do it!”)

But now she’s becoming more skeptical of my little games. This pleases me and makes me work even harder to fool her.

I know I shouldn’t do it but I often find it irresistible to tell Josie a really big lie. I try to be forthright with her in nearly every regard, but I think it might be helpful to once in a while tell her whoppers of such audacious blather that she’ll learn to question everything, even the specious wisdoms of fatherly fibber.

Like the time this summer when I told her some scientists believe the entire vast sum of the oceans’ origins stem from dinosaur urine.

We were standing on the sandy shores of the Atlantic at Virginia Beach, the warm foamy waters lapping at our legs.

“I’m not saying I know it’s true, but I have read some respected scientists who say that all this water, for as far as your eyes can see, really comes from vast ancient releases of dinosaur pee.”

And that much was true. I had read it in a prominent national magazine. It was in the late and much-missed Weekly World News (favorite headline: “Baby Born with Wooden Leg!!!”), but it was a national magazine and I had read it.

That points to another supportive lie I still shout in adult arguments: “The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says you can’t print it if it isn’t true!” You’d be surprised by how many arguments that helps me conclusively win, but I digress.

Back at the ocean, Josie’s eyes scanned the horizon and I was happy to see she was engaged in critical thought. She turned to question me, but I was already dashing into the water to dive in head first. I came up with a big mouthful of salt water and fountained it up over my head as she raced to her mother to have her confirm her suspicions that Daddy’s an idiot, a confirmation Mommy’s always ready to invoke.

I think part of it, too, might be so much of what our ancestors held as sacred wisdom has been revealed to be folly.

You know the kind of thing I’m talking about: The world is flat. The earth is the center of the universe. Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.

I think a healthy skepticism is important for a curious child, and I lament so little of it in the adults they look up to for guidance. So much of what passes for conventional wisdom these days is worth little more than a great big steaming bucket of dinosaur pee.

And that’s the truth.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Buried by magazine subscription cards

I have a simmering gripe against the magazine industry that has nothing to do with their cruel rejections, their capricious edits and the dodgy pay systems that have me fantasizing about making nuisance raids on all their posh New York offices to steal things like staplers and coffee machines.

That’d fix ‘em!

Of course, that all goes with the territory for anyone who, as I do, freelances for a living. That is the price we pay for living in what one employed friend of mine derides as “the fool’s paradise.”

But that is not the thrust of today’s complaints. No, my gripe is once again on the selfless behalf of all humanity.

What’s bugging me is the ticker tape parade of biggie-sized confetti that flies out of the new magazines whenever I flip through the pages. It’s those stupid mail subscription cards.

Understand, I have a deeply vested interest in magazines succeeding. I need them to thrive so that they’ll be prosperous enough to hire guys like me to write panic deadline stories then wait up to six months to see the paycheck for a diminished amount that wasn’t on the contract.

So I’m in favor of any steps magazines do to increase readership and revenue.

But it’s a confounding silliness to believe that stuffing your product with these deforesting little annoyances results in any appreciable increase in readers. If they did, then each month, each magazine ought to be increasing its circulation roughly six fold until every person in the world was subscribing multiple times to every magazine.

Let’s start with Wired magazine, the techie magazine devoted to the digital age. In the entirety of the magazine’s 235-page December issue, I found just a handful of stories that didn’t involve something that needed to be plugged in to function. It’s a magazine that clearly seems eager to work itself out of business, or at least the print version of itself.

Yet that same issue included six nearly identical subscription cards for, I guess, their Amish readers who are culturally disinclined to go online to read or subscribe to a magazine that calls itself Wired.

Wouldn’t one strategically placed house ad/subscription card suffice? Of course it would.

But it’s the same with the golf, news, travel, regional, men’s, writer’s and New York magazines to which I subscribe. Note, I’m already a subscriber. They’re preaching to the choir. Maybe each think I have six reading friends for whom I’m going to shell out $20 for three years -- “A 3 Year Savings of $159.64! -- but that’s not going to happen. I don't have that many friends, the ones I have don't read much and, geez, who's got $20 to spare?

Of all the major magazines, the only one I know that’s renounced this wasteful practice is men's adventure magazine Outside's Go, a publication run by visionary and sensible editors who not only understand the cosmic import of this issue but also have had the wisdom to have twice employed me this year. So they’re all earth-loving geniuses. And I’ll bet they all smell nice, too.

I used to collect all the mailers from magazines that owed me money and drop the dictionary-thick sized stack of them in the mail every month or so. This meant they’d have to pay pennies of postage for each one returned blank. I was hoping the practice would bring these publishing titans to their senses.

It never did and I began to take pity on Mother Nature and our humble postal employees for the unwelcome burdens I was spitefully imposing to their already overtaxed systems.

As you can surmise, I’ve always been one of those nasty tack-on-the-chair sort of revenge seekers. I’m not proud of it, but I’m working on it -- and you’d better just stay on my good side.

So now I just toss them in with the recycled newspapers. Once read, the magazines I take to the local hospital for dispersal in all their godforsaken waiting rooms. Here’s another childish habit: if I have a story in one of the magazines I anonymously write “How insightful!” or “Witty observations throughout!” in the margins.

And I usually bookmark the page with a single subscription mailing card.

I’m just trying to be helpful.

So feel free to share your ideas on how we, together, can end this wasteful practice. Both constructive and malicious ideas are welcome so don’t be shy if something involves things like tacks on chairs or stink bombs.

It’s all for the greater good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ahoy! At least some Pirates are winning

I nearly leapt out of my seat when I heard a news report about the Pirates beating the Indians. As a long-suffering fan, I’m always shocked whenever I hear the once-great and now-lowly Pittsburgh Pirates are beating anybody.

Their bullpen stinks, they can’t hit and they’re always getting picked off trying to steal second.

But I’d misheard. It’s not an interleague baseball between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cleveland Indians. It’s sailors with the navy of India patrolling for a kind of pirate that is showing much more potency and pop than the major league baseball franchise that is likely to again stink up Pittsburgh next summer.

Everything about the hijacking of the Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star fascinates me and, really, I’m having trouble deciding for whom I should be rooting in this episodic lawlessness on the high seas.

How can I root for human rights violating Saudi Arabia? How can I root for the oil industry that’s spent so much of the past year gleefully screwing us?

As I noted in a previous post (see October’s “A Flatulent Discussion on Unfair Gas Prices”) when oil was trading at $140 a barrel, our local gas was going for $4.00 a gallon. But when it was $70 per barrel, gas was $2.69 a gallon. Simple math says gas should have been $2 a gallon about a month ago. But now it’s at $60 a barrel, we’re still paying $2.19.

(Please accept my apologies for exposing you to all that loathsome math. It was punishing for me, too.)

Of course, as a big fan of the show “Dallas,” I should have seen it coming. In fact, during the four-minute discussion on journalism ethics in the classes I teach, I always cite that great philosopher J.R. Ewing who opines, “Once you get past ethics, the rest is easy.”

So do I root for the pirates? That, too, presents me with issues. I try and play by the rules and be a nice guy -- and don’t ever let anyone tell you nice guys don’t finish last. If I’m not last, I can at least wave to the poor bastard clear at the back of the line.

It would be helpful if someone handed me a program detailing the statistics and motives about this particular team of pirates. I admire their audacity and will firmly commit to their fan base if they turn Robin Hood and start disbursing the $100 million cargo away to a needy constituency that includes struggling freelance writers who write whiny killjoy blogs about tedious things like gas prices that are actually going down.

My great fear is this game will end, much like the infamous 2002 MLB All-Star game, without any winners.

It’s likely the pirates will swap the ship for a nifty ransom that will allow them to go back to some divey port to buy even bigger guns, even faster boats and, avast ye maties, splurge on a three-month binge that’ll have guys like me putting “Become a Somalian Pirate” on our 2009 to-do lists.

The ship is said to contain more than two million barrels of oil. And someone please assure me that “barrel of oil” is simply a quaint and anachronistic description and not the true method of shipment. Because if it is, then crude oil and monkeys the only things still being inefficiently toted about the globe in full barrels.

Most amazing of all is that this enormous responsibility was being handled by just 25 men.

Think about it: the Sirius Star is roughly the same size as the 93,000-ton U.S.S. Enterprise, a 1,223-foot air craft carrier with a crew of 3,000 fighting men and women, and maybe a really tough cook or two.

But just 25 swabbies run the Sirius Star and its precious and potentially hazardous cargo. You’d think the ship owners would invest maybe $50,000 for a team of badass hombres to secure the ship. The whole absurdity of the situation is another strong argument to go solar, at least until crafty pirates figure out a way to hijack the sun.

Either way, I hope the hapless owners of my Pittsburgh Pirates are dispatching a squad of scouts to say ahoy to some of the Somalian Pirates.

I don’t know if their bullpen will be able to hold this lead but, guaranteed, some of these guys are bound to be good at stealing bases.

Monday, November 17, 2008

I’m so #@*%! sorry

It’s come to my attention that a certain number of impressionables are occasionally checking in on this blog and that means I’m going to regretfully have to renege on a previous promise.

When I was sketching out the likely future of these writings, I’d broadly hinted that they would contain lots and lots of profanity. There’d be, I’d said, ribald references, double and triple entendres, and the kind of straight blue profanity you hear in foxholes and on construction sites.

Not now.

I don’t want to risk corrupting any of the youth with language they’ve been warned repeatedly against using by austere authority figures at home, school and in their churches. Corrupting morals in the cyber way is such a tawdry business.

Especially as long as I still reserve the right to enjoy doing so in person. One of the great thrills of corrupting an innocent is seeing an alarmed and electric look steal across their faces when they realize that always being good isn’t always the only option. And one of the easiest ways to do this is to drop an unexpected f-bomb in an inappropriate place like, say, a classroom of higher education.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been asked to teach undergrad and grad journalism students at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. One of the first things I always do -- right after urgently advising them against having anything to do with journalism -- is to announce that the class will include profanity.

I do this because you can see the jolts of increased enthusiasm ripple through their postures. I may only do so two or three times the entire semester, but the announcement gives me a license to swear, sort of making me agent “Double Oh S---!”

I don’t know what it is about forbidden words that makes them so deliciously enticing, but that’s simply the case with so-called swear words and any of the other fruits we forbid. Just try watching the sanitized version of “The Sopranos” on A&E.

I cringe for the franchise whenever I see an enraged Paulie Walnuts about to ventilate some hapless bookie and having the puritanical censors dub in place of a stream of vicious profanity, “You bad stupid man!” before he commits a more ballistic sort of obscenity on the person.

Val and I are enormous fans of Seinfeld-creator Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” It’s loaded with wonderful, over-the-top profanity that always keeps us cackling.

Alas, it’s a topic with which our 8-year-old daughter, the product of two profanity-spewing parents, is beginning to struggle. She’s forever narcing on one or the other of us for saying words she’s apparently heard forbidden in the second grade.

For me, it’s been fun watching her learn about rudimentary profanity from her mother in traffic, her mother at card-gobbling ATMs, her mother running late and her mother whenever her father’s too hungover to do simple household chores like brush his teeth.

Two years ago she enlivened the Thanksgiving Day table by matter-of-factly announcing “The f-word rhymes with Chuck.” My white-haired mother’s reaction was as compelling as anything ever produced for “The Waltons.”

But I didn’t flinch. I’ve told her many times there are no bad words. There are only bad times to say some words like, for instance, right after the Thanksgiving meal blessing. Still, it dismays me to see our societal revulsion of some of these great, colorful words is so formidable that she is being coerced into thinking that some words are too powerful, too awful to ever be uttered.

To that I ask the universal question (but will paraphrase in keeping with my pledge to sanitize this forum), what the heck?

A perfectly timed blast of profanity is always a welcome addition to any otherwise stoic conversation. It frees up the minds. It expands the boundaries and bestows a sort of democratic camaraderie that brings noblemen and peasants to the same level.

For my part, I will continue to shout profanities from the rooftops, in the classrooms, on the golf courses, from atop my bar stool and anyplace where a single well-timed profanity might jar free men and women everywhere into realizing that we all lose when language is shackled to a caste system of good or evil.

Because the judicious use of profanity doesn’t denigrate man, it ennobles him.

I swear.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

ZIPpity-do-duh: A postal money maker

For the sake of mental convenience, I’m thinking of packing up the family, all our stuff and moving the whole shebang to Newton Falls, Ohio.

That way I could age into eventual muddle-mindedness in the town that has perhaps the easiest zip code to remember in the entire United States.

Yep, welcome to Newton Falls, pop. 4,892, zip 44444. I don’t think the town, about about 30 minutes west of the dormant smokestacks of Youngstown, gets the acclaim it deserves.

I’m in the midst of a comprehensive study about zip codes for pin heads. It’ll be two years ago in February that we moved one mile from near Latrobe, Pa. 15696, to postally proper Latrobe, Pa. 15650, and I still occasionally find my password-cluttered mind stumbling over the difference. It has me wishing I lived someplace where my zip had some zing.

Some place like, say, Schenectady, N.Y. 12345. Of course then I’d forever have to be spelling Schenectady and that would never do.

We are a numerically obsessed nation that shells out precious dollars for vanity license plates and fret whenever the fickle phone company threatens to bump us from our familiar urban area codes to something less comforting.

For the good of the nation, it’s time we extend that obsession to the humble zip code. I think it’s time the government begin selling zip codes to communities that stand to profit from the postal panache.

Why, for instance, is Las Vegas 89123 -- a lousy hand of a fold ‘em number if ever there ever was one -- when it could contribute $1 million to the national cause by paying for the unused 77777? Just think how much publicity it would get from the news if it paid for those lucky numbers, instead of having the ones randomly assigned by faceless bureaucrats at the U.S.P.O.

(Trivial Aside: The father of the zip code is a postal employee named Robert Moon, who submitted the proposal for a “Zone Improvement Plan” back in 1944.)

It’s a sure money maker and many cities and towns could have contests trying to claim one of the many unused numbers still available. And there are plenty of them. The post office only uses 43,000 out of the 100,000 possible 5-digit combinations.

Many of the good and obvious ones are still gathering dust on the postal shelf. For instance, 44444 in Newton Falls is the only five-of-a-kind zipper in circulation.

According to my research, the lowest number in the system is Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, with 00601, which begs the questions: What happened to the first 600? Did someone think we’d someday annex Cuba and might need 00001 through 00600? The nosebleed award goes to Yukutat, Alaska, with 99589.

Bond, Colorado, appears to be perfectly insignificant to the rest of the world, but how much publicity could it gain if someone with a puckish sense of humor bestowed them the perfectly obvious 00007? Today reporters from all over the country would be descending on Bond to write reviews that would appear under headlines like “Bond on Bond,” or “Licensed to Deliver, Bond 00007.”

Same goes for Salem, Massachusetts, which labors under the clumsy postal designation 01970. Why not cash in on their witch-hunting history and brand the local post office with the mark of the postal beast, 00666?

My wife Val speculates stratospheric bidding between Houston and Cape Kennedy would launch over who most deserves the available countdown zip of 54321?

Little Rest, Massachusetts looks like a line of binary code with 01010 and is the lowest aggregate total of any zip code because there is no reverse 10101 in the system and nothing with four zeros and a single 1.

I could retire to Sunrise, Florida, with its full house zip code of 33322. That’d be easy to remember.

(Trivial Aside #2: Sunrise is a planned retirement community that was originally named Sunset. But developers quickly found out that creaky retirees don’t like being reminded that the sun is setting on their lives so they nominally swapped the astronomical actions and sales grew robust. Sometimes perception is everything).

How much would Philadelphia pay to liberate 01776 from North Sudbury, Mass? Philly is the birthplace of the greatest nation in the world. 01776 would be a constant mail reminder of that proud history. Why surrender it to North Sudbury which gave the nation what? Geographic balance to South Sudbury?

For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the phone number of a man who left a thriving dentistry practice to become a shepherd (long live National Enquirer!). I asked him the best way to get in touch for a story and he told me, “Just dial GOD-PISS.” That’s what his number, 463-7477, spelled. I would think something similar could be done with zip codes.

New York could claim the unused 27753 (APPLE), coffee mecca Seattle could splurge on BEANS (23267) and the beer makers in Milwaukee would doubtless bubble with enthusiasm at the opportunity to snatch SUDSY (78379) from Riviera, Texas.

(Trivial Aside #3: Trivial Aside would be a dandy name for this blog if I ever get tired of 8Days2Amish. In fact, it practically nails the sum accomplishments of what I’ve been doing my entire life).

These kinds of trivial matters fascinate and distract me. Apparently, it is a zip code of enthusiasm I share with few others. I’ve pitched this story to numerous magazines over the past year or so. Would you like to know how much interest I’ve gotten from discerning editors?

You guessed it.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The perfect cell phone doesn't let you talk

Somewhere along the way I became one of those guys that old friends use as a touchstone for an epoch.

If Kirk from high school wants to know what happened to Bill and Doug from elementary school, he calls me and I tell him. If George wants to find out happened to Jack from college, he gets in touch with me and I tell him. If Lance from our old newspaper days wants to find out if I’m ever going to pay him the $200 I owe him, well, I see his name on the caller ID and pretend I’m not home.

And I consider it a privilege that so many old friends reach out to me across the fading decades to find out what happened to old gang. Everyone of those old friends means the world to me, and that includes the ones I’m forever dodging after they foolishly decided to lend me money.

I don’t understand why people don’t keep in touch. The laughter of loved ones and good friends has been what my old songwriter friend Quinn calls “the soundtrack to my life.” Why wall off anyone from any part of your life that brought you even a speck of joy?

Plus, the restless gossip in me wants to keep tabs on who’s been evicted, who got divorced, who went gay, who made parole and who, not to belabor the point, might be doing well enough to still agree to loan me money.

I mention all this because I’m starting to look for a new cell phone and none of them has the single most crucial function a guy like me needs.

I want a phone that cuts off after 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

See, being the guy everyone gets in touch with can be a time consuming affair. Just yesterday, a chatty friend I hadn’t talked to since high school called and we talked for 30 minutes. I was thrilled to hear from him, but I just can’t stand talking on the phone. At some point every phone conversation begins to degenerate into an awkward lag that no one polite knows how to end.

For me the perfect phone call lasts fewer than 10 seconds and the entire thrust is coordinating to meet at a friendly tavern. I’ve had this exact conversation thousands of times with my buddy Paul back when there could be confusion about which bar we’d be besieging for that evening’s happy hour.

Me: “Hello?”

Paul: “Out tonight?”

Me: “Yep.”

Paul: “Pond or Bill’s?”

Me: “Pond”

Paul: “Cool. See ya there.”

Since then I began working above the Pond and our eight second conversations have been shaved in half. And it’s perfect.

Then I can see him, share some beers, we can talks sports, politics or what we told our wives we’d be doing that night instead of going to the bar again. We can revel in each other’s company in ways you’ll never be able to duplicate over a phone call.

The convenience of the internet and cheap phone conversation has ruined the charm of distance. It has me becoming reluctant to call old friends up because I don’t want to wind up engaging them in a long conversation when really all I want them to know is that I think about them fondly and often.

That’s why I want a phone function that after just 2 1/2 minutes breaks in and says, “Chris is sorry but the real reason he called was just to tell you that he misses you and thinks often of the great times you’ve had together. If you’re ever in town, he hopes you’ll give him a 10-second phone call to let him know where he can meet you for a friendly evening of cold beer and warm recollections. And, although he’s too uptight to say it himself, he wants you to know he loves you and wishes you nothing but the best of everything. Goodbye!”

A phone with that function would sell millions because it would save everyone time, money and those awkward moments when we’re both sure the other wants to say goodbye, but doesn’t know how to do so gracefully.

In fact, think how much better everything would be if you applied that logic to other everyday exchanges that tend to go on and on and on. Everything should have a fixed time so it didn’t just keep going and going and going. You could apply it to every situation in life that just became too excruciating with an endless series of unnecessary extensions --

“Chris wants to thank you for having read this far. He truly wishes he could have figured out a more artful way to end this post, but this will have to suffice. He hopes you have a really great day and, although he’s too uptight to say this himself, he wants you to know he loves you. Goodbye!”

Monday, November 10, 2008

A night with all the groan-ups

This weekend was yet another reminder that I’m just not cut out for the parent thing. Sure, I’m good about spending time with the kids, the love, the discipline and the misguided instruction that will likely lead to years of psychotherapy for the both of them.

It’s giving up my time to spend it with other parents that forever grates on me. Saturday was a case in point. It was the annual cheerleader and midget football combined banquet. After eight weeks or so, cheerleading had come to a merciful close and there was a grand ball for about 250 cheerleaders, midget football players and their kin. And that meant mingling.

Understand, I have an innate love for my fellow man -- right up until the instant I have to mingle with a single one of them. But that’s a big unwelcome part of parenting for me.

I’ll never understand why I need to be chummy with people with whom all I really have in common is the coincidentally timed conception of our offspring. Plus, I’m suspect of any parent who gets their children involved in activities that involve adult supervision, the sole shining exception being my darling wife (yep, she found out I’m blogging and is vigilantly monitoring 8Days2Amish for perceived slights).

The first disappointment came when I saw dozens of immaculately uniformed U.S. Marines of all ages crowding around the upstairs bar to celebrate the proud 233rd birthday of the Corps. I was calculating the odds of what would happen if I walked in and bought a round of drinks in exchange for the simple privilege of eavesdropping on their stories.

Instead, I was steered down stairs to a spacious facility that made Chuck E. Cheese seem like an ICU waiting room. In desperation, I looked for an open bar. None. It was cruelly booze-free.

It was going to be one of those excruciating functions that made me wish I’d years ago had taken up smoking. That would at least allow me a handy escape hatch to partake in the kinship of the cancer prone, the brotherhood of the butts. At least smoking parents have something in common, albeit a death wish.

Then the gods must have sensed my unease and took pity. Instead of a table full of adults, Val, I and the girls were assigned to table with four 10-year-old boys and two girls of about the same age. Here were people with whom I could commune.

“Who wants to have a spitball fight!” I screamed.

“Yea!” they yelled.

It’s more important to me be cool and feel accepted at a table full of preadolescents than it is for me to earn the said same from their parents. So I tried to ingratiate myself by telling them that I, too, was a football player and a good one. Maybe they’d heard of me.

“What’s your name?”

“Terry Bradshaw.”

It was a scheme destined to fail. They all knew Bradshaw, my eyes were doing that shifty thing they always do when I tell a real whopper and, worst of all, my daughter lashed out with venomous scorn, “He is NOT Terry Bradshaw!”

The failure of that lie meant I wouldn’t dare go up and try and fool the Marines into thinking I was one of them. And let’s be honest, I’d have trouble impersonating a Cub Scout.

So we made the best of it. The dinner with the kids was fun -- they gave me all their unwanted olives from their salads -- we talked to a few friendly parents and Josie said, “Dad, can we go home now?” about five slim minutes before I was about to secretly offer her $10 to tell Mommy she wanted to go home.

Still, there was one episode with one parent that I’ll not soon forget. Billy, one of my table buddies, truly appalled me when he told me his favorite team was the Dallas Cowboys, a team the real Bradshaw used treat like a government mule. When his father came up to scold him about not eating his salad, I interrupted to narc, “Hey, do you know you’re raising a Cowboy fan?”

He glared at me like I’d blurted out his kid was stupid (and Cowboy fandom does bring the issue to the table). Didn’t say a word. He should have just smiled at my stupid little joke and just smugly sauntered back to the table with the rest of the grown-ups. But he had to be a jerk.

It was an insult I could not let stand.

So before we left, I bet Billy he didn’t have the guts to go upstairs and not come back until he persuaded one of the old Marines to buy him a beer.

Sure, it probably could have gotten the kid in trouble with his sourpuss father but -- who knows? -- it might have led to a proud career for the young Cowboy fan.

The Marines are always looking for a few good men willing to risk it all on a dangerous mission.

Friday, November 7, 2008

I'm an America-hating liberal

I’ve been reluctant to write about the election results, but it’s so momentous I just can’t help myself. Of course, I’ll leave the heavy lifting to deeper thinkers and get right down to business with the points the paid pundits always overlook.

• I’ve been getting to see what I looked like eight years ago after George W. Bush was elected. A Republican bar buddy of mine was moaning that he was convinced the world was about to end. I tried to console him by saying, “Look, I know just how you feel. In 2000, I was sitting right where you are and telling everyone who’d listen that the election of George W. Bush would result in financial ruin, a divided nation and that the only good thing about him as president was at least he'd be too stupid to instigate some costly overseas folly that would unnecessarily cause bloodshed and near catastrophic loss of national prestige.” Then I laughed maniacally.

• To me the most fascinating person to emerge from the election wasn’t Sarah Palin, but her soon-to-be son-in-law, 18-year-old Levi Johnson. He’s soon to become a father and part of one of what will be the second most scrutinized family in the Northern Hemisphere. My biggest concern when I was 18 was crafting a fake ID that might pass as legit in a dimly lit bar. I’m predicting he’ll be the breakout star of the Palin reality show I bet is already being discussed.

• I can admit I wasn’t really mature enough to be a married father until I was 40. By that time I’d been married for seven years and had been a father for three.

• At least twice a week, my wife still gives me looks I decode as meaning, “When the hell are you ever going to grow up?” It’s bound to happen one of these days.

• I was talking music with some old buddies last spring and we were all discussing our favorites. Names like Dylan, The Stones, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, The Replacements and Todd Snider were mentioned. All cool. Then one of the guys started gushing about the band America, the 70s hitmakers of “Horse with No Name,” and others too vapid and tedious to recall. We all looked at him like he was insane. Ever since then, every time I hear Rev. Jeremiah Wright preaching the sermon that includes the rant, “Goddamn America!” I wonder if he’s referring to that offensively mainstream pop band. I believe there’s a chance he is and that would really help put the whole thing in a new perspective.

• I wonder if there’s any YouTube tapes of Rev. Wright saying things like, “and goddamn Gordon Lightfoot, too!”

• I was a big Bill Clinton fan because when he spoke he really made me believe in him. The difference with Obama and just about everyone else I’ve ever heard is that he makes me believe in us. He makes me believe we’re capable of doing great things. I think he’s wrong about me, but I’m good company when the rest of you come into the bar to tell me about the great things you’ve done and that’s fine with me.

• George Bush is, maybe for the first time, looking positively presidential in the gracious way he’s recognizing the historic portent of the Obama election and how he’s committed to ensuring a seamless transition. It figures, the only time I’d have anything good to say about Bush is the way he’s leaving office. Still, every time I hear his approval rating is around 24, I have to wonder if it’s 24 percent or just 24 people.

• McCain’s concession speech was moving, but am I the only guy who finds it jarring to hear him get weepy about what a fine gentleman Obama is and what a splendid president he’ll make after he’s spent the past six months telling us he’s a dangerous America-hating Marxist whose only government experience comes in building bombs to toss at the Pentagon?

• The funniest line I heard through the whole campaign was from a black woman who was being interviewed on CNN who said the best thing wasn’t just that a black man was going to be president, but that he had this whole beautiful, intact family as role models. “We haven’t had a whole, intact black family to look up to since The Huxtables and they weren’t even real.” She wasn’t trying to be funny.

• My plumber’s a nice, quiet guy. He comes in, we exchange pleasantries, he fixes the leaks and then hands me a bill that always leaves me wondering if it isn’t too late for me to go to plumbing school. But if he ever comes in and starts talking about things like the capital gains tax or NAFTA, I’m going to snatch a wrench from his belt and beat the ever living daylights out of him.

• The Republicans can have Joe the Plumber, I’m glad we have Bruce the Strummer. Springsteen’s never done anything in his life that’s made me anything but busting with pride to be an American fan of his. It’s a lucky privilege for all of us to be on the planet at the same time he’s up and about.

• I don’t care if the Republicans spend the next 40 years wandering lost in the wilderness, and if they think the country’s going to rally around them based on the combined wisdoms of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin that’s exactly where they’re going to wind up.

• “. . . and goddamn Captain & Tennille!”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It's all about hope, a non-election story

It’s happening again and, I swear like I’ve done a thousand times before, this is the last time it’s going to happen.

This is the last time I’m going to let some prospective employer or publisher toy with my hopes about a brighter future or a short-term gain.

We’ve heard a lot of shimmering talk about hope in the presidential campaign, but this isn’t about politics. This is personal.

This is the kind of evergreen hope that blossoms when somebody finds either my website or some other professional venue and apparently decides I’m ripe for diabolical manipulating.

And, boy, am I. Like most freelance writers, I thought by now I’d have it down. I’ve seemed to figure out a way to put the words in an order that make sense, I meet deadlines and, hallelujah, ever since spellchecker I’m a vuritable savannt as far as proper spelling, at least when I remember to initiate the dang thing.

So it would make sense that by now in my career I’d have some peaceful stability, that work would be rolling in and I’d go to bed secure that each morning I’d have something to do besides standing around with three shiny bowling pins and trying to sharpen my juggling skills.

But that’s not the way it is. I still wake up most every morning unemployed and spend the day scrambling, often in vain, to find something lucrative and interesting to do.

That’s why my hopes get so high whenever anyone out of the blue calls with what they cleverly disguise as good news.

At one point over the summer, I had three book offers -- one about an art gallery, two about golf -- that looked like they’d carry me through the year with steady work.

Each time, the prospective employer has promised steady work and has gone so far as to talk dollars, an indication that they mean business. And each time, the proposals have evaporated like the dawn mists (one of the golf proposal remains on life support).

Understand, these aren’t my projects. I didn’t brainstorm the seeds and coax them into sunshine. I didn’t labor over the nitty gritty. That’s what made it all so sweet. It was like money and work falling from the sky and landing on the front porch.

And that’s why it’s so cruel to have them yanked away. It’s happened over the years with corporate gigs, agents and publishers for my rejection-magnet of a novel, radio guest opportunities, and for various features and contributing writer gigs at prestigious or otherwise fun magazines.

And then in early October came what portended to be one of the most fun of all. I got an e-mail from Tim Peterman, president of J. Peterman, the Lexington, Kentucky, based purveyor of rare clothing and accessories.

Now, as anyone who’s ever stumbled onto “Seinfeld” knows, J. Peterman is an enormous cult figure. The real J. Peterman was so deftly caricatured that the name alone is a tickle bone touchstone for an entire generation of people who, like me, fancy themselves as hip.

Tim Peterman’s e-mail tossed the requisite flattery my way and said he was looking for writers to contribute to the site’s travel section.

Of course, that set my Hope Express rolling down the tracks. I imagined I’d have stable and fun corporate work that would lead to delightful cocktail party chatter and, sadly, I’m beginning to realize that’s what every one of my ambitions for the past 20 years has been aimed (and it shows).

I e-mailed right back confirming my interest

But then came the inevitable letdown. He never wrote back. I called for a brief chat to confirm he’d gotten my e-mail (he had). I followed up with weekly e-mails that became increasingly desperate stabs at attention-grabbing wit.

And now it seems like it’s over or as the fictional Peterman wistfully tells Elaine about a vanished lover, “It was not to be.”

So next time anyone like Peterman calls to gush about my writing and how, gee, we’d love to have you work for us because you’re clearly the kind of guy we’d like on our team, I’ll simply say:

“Well, I’m certainly flattered. It’s all sounds so great. And you seem like a swell guy, too. So I’ll be happy to consider any offer you have as soon as you send me my standard $70 D.H.F.”

And what’s the D.H.F?

It’s the Dashed Hope Fee. It’s the stipend I’m going to charge prospective employers to compensate for the crestfallen emotions sure to follow if the offers bellyup.

It’s $70 because it would allow me to take my wife for a nice pasta dinner at one of our favorite restaurant’s, Rizzo’s Malabar Inn ( in tiny Crabtree, Pennsylvania -- and please give a moment of thought to what the world would be like if crabs did grow on trees. There’d certainly be some succulent upsides, but I wouldn’t let the kids wear sandals in the woods anymore.

That amount’s not going to break any big company -- heck that’s a typical expense account lunch for many of the big shots -- and it would be plenty to enjoy a fine meal at Rizzo’s where I can tell my wife about the good news and speculate over a fine cabernet about how long it’ll take before the news turns sour and I’m again left to scramble for work and fresh hope.

And that sum includes enough for a 20 percent tip for the single mom waitress because I’m convinced that when she goes home at night to soak her aching feet, she says her prayers for guys like me who believe it’s impossible to overtip the overworked and underpaid.

If the service is superior as usual, I might even throw in an extra $5. But I don’t make a habit of that and would certainly never hint to her that it’s coming.

I wouldn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Vote for Barack Obama

So you’re one of those open-minded readers who takes the time to check out why a total stranger thinks you should vote one way or another? Well, let me begin by thanking you for allowing me to briefly be one of those editorial writers pompous enough to assume people actually care what he thinks.

I waited in line for two hours in 40-degree weather last week to hear Barack Obama speak to about 18,000 people at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. I’m guessing being underdressed in that long line for so long will be what I remember far longer than anything eloquent Obama said, and there was plenty of that.

But I was struck by the number of black people there.

That’s the kind of a line a Karl Rove could take out of context and use to convince western Pennsylvania racists that we have something to fear from any large gathering of black people.

No, the black people weren’t striking me in the violent sense. They were striking because their euphoria was palpable, as was an anxiety that this dream could be yanked away by Republican chicanery (I’m right there with them on that one).

I saw one elderly black man who couldn’t get the smile off his face or keep the tears from welling in his eyes. My stereotypical assumptions about him were that he’d been mistreated many times in his life simply for being born black. He may have spent his entire life trying to dodge a prison sentence or ghetto bullets.

But never once did he think he’d live long enough to see a black man who could earn the widespread enthusiasm and votes to get elected to the White House.

Then I saw the young black girls who were laughing and playful. Now, they can grow up believing that maybe they, too, will have a chance to be president.

To me, the most moving statement ever written about race in America was fittingly penned, not on some college campus, but in a jail in 1963 by a man who’d been beaten and sent there for working to see blacks were given their simple constitutional right to vote.

“... you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and you see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct and answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’”

That was Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I read it in Taylor Branch’s 1988 book, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. And it struck me . Like a ton of bricks. Still does.

So I’m voting for Barack Obama and I hope you do, too.

You can vote for him for his economic plan, because you believe his health care proposals will help the country or any of the other matters that have been debated so endlessly over the last two years.

Or you can do it for the reason I am.

I believe it’s a truly affirmative action.