Friday, January 30, 2009

Predictions for the Super Bowl & Beyond

• I predict the Steelers will win Super Bowl XLIII by a score of XXXIII to X and that Ben Roethlisberger will be the game’s MVP. The QB believes he has something to prove after his terrible performance during the Steelers victory in Super Bowl XL. After Sunday, he’ll be considered the best in the game.

• I predict Bruce Springsteen will sing, in order, “The Promised Land,” “Working on a Dream,” “The Rising,” and “Born to Run,” and that we’ll see neither of his nipples during the performance. And that’s too bad because I’ll bet the Boss has some beauts.

• I predict cars of the future will have no reverse gear and will look like that crazy “Push-me-Pull-you” animal from the movie “Dr. Doolittle.” Drivers will pull head first into a parking space and the seats will all reverse when he or she gets in to leave. The car will have two fronts. It wastes a lot of gas and causes a lot of accidents for people to be doing any driving backwards. And going in reverse is just such a pain in the, well, rear.

• I predict within V years years we’re going to see tabloid reports of a woman who’s had breast implants inserted below her shoulders to encourage her breast-obsessed boyfriend to spend more time slow dancing with her. The love of breasts and dancing are two dominant themes in American culture and this trend will confirm it.

• I predict the Steelers will win the Super Bowl in 2010, giving them three championships for the decade and the right to be crowned team of the decade. True, the New England Patriots will have won three also, but let none of us ever forget, the Patriots cheated.

• I predict one day about six months from now, one of the sleepwalking Republicans in the U.S. Congress is going to wonder aloud if Rush Limbaugh’s back on drugs or if he and all his 176 Congressional colleagues have begun consuming too many of them.

• I predict that sometime in the second quarter of the biggest football game of the year my 8-year-old daughter will complain that we’ve seen enough football and for the good of the family we should turn off the game and watch “Mamma Mia!” for the LXVII time.

• I predict that within VI years, the pompous jackasses who run the NFL will cease using these these ridiculous Roman numerals and none of us will have to puzzle it out that Super Bowl XLIX is simply Super Bowl 49.

• I predict that, even if the Steelers win convincingly, this winter still won’t go as quickly as the one three years ago when the Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks in Detroit. Winter 2005-2006 may go down in history as the greatest winter ever. First it was mild early. Then the Steelers started winning and any time that happens in your city, it cuts winter off at the knees. Then just as we were getting into the most dreadful part of the season, the part when cabin fever has everyone acting like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” Dick Cheney accidentally shot that guy down in Texas and that’s something we all enjoyed. Well, everyone but the guy he shot.

• I predict I will for the rest of my life avoid typing a sometimes pejorative word describing nomadic, scarfe-draped and bejeweled fortune tellers from Eastern Europe because of what happened this week. My last blog entry included the need for the noun that begins with and includes in order the following letters: “g - y - _ - s - i - e - s.” For some reason, the instant after I innocently typed it, my always reliable iBook froze up solid. I walked away and fretted for an hour. It revived, but some of the story disappeared and I’m convinced I was unable to recover its previous zing. I’m not superstitious, but if I ever type that word again it’ll be on a computer belonging to someone I hate.

• I predict you’re going to see a lot more of these idiotic prediction posts from me. They’re just so easy. No one remembers if you get ‘em all wrong, but if the Steelers win 33-10 or some moronic woman runs out and gets boobs on her back, I’ll have incontrovertible proof that I saw it coming.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pop historian ponders The Middle Ages

I’ll be 46 next month. That’s about 24.3 in Mars years and that sounds about right.

When people tell me I’m middle aged, I feel like asking if they can correctly predict that evening’s winning lottery numbers. Calling me or anyone middle aged is a god-like prognostication.

I try and eat healthy and do a bit of no-sweat exercising, but predicting I’ll live to 92 seems like a bold stretch. My father died suddenly at 76, just about right on the money for what the actuarial tables calculated for a man of his generational dispositions.

My maternal grandfather, however, died this past summer at the age of 97 and he enjoyed a sturdy constitution right up to near the end. In fact, he was driving solo up until the age of 95. Sure, most of the safety-conscious residents of DuBois, Pennsylvania, knew he was out driving from 8 to 10 most mornings and stayed secure in their basements until about 10:30, but that doesn’t diminish the feat.

Me, up until just a few Earth years ago, I’ve always felt sort of Martian.

I felt like I was born 12. But soon after that age I started sneaking beers and felt immediately about 16. Then I endured all the adolescent hallmarks of a 16 year old -- no money, awkward around the girls, lived with my parents -- until I was about 24.

And that’s the age I’ve felt for the past 21 years. Really, just like when I was 24, I have no money in my checking account, I’m sort of looking for a job (not really), and figure if things don’t work out here in the real world I can still move back in with Mom who’ll no doubt have to cajole me to shovel her walk in exchange for an advance on that weekend’s beer money.

One of these days I’m going to get around to writing a story questioning when historians will stop pessimistically calling the epoch from 500 BC to 1600 BC, the Middle Ages.

I do lots of unpublished stories like that -- not because I believe anyone’s ever going to pay me to do them. That’ll never happen. I do it because it makes good conversation whenever I’m talking to an attentive 24 year old in a bar or classroom who for some misguided reason mistakenly believes age has earned me wisdom.

But when exactly did they start calling the Middle Ages, the Middle Ages? Are those the middle ages for the planet or the entire human race? By some mathematical interpretations, it could mean the end is nigh.

I don’t believe it. For all we know, the doomsayers could be wrong. Maybe earth is on the verge of a profound renewal where future historians begin referring to what we call the Middle Ages as something like the Puberty Ages.

Back when I was 24 Earth years old, I worked at a Nashville newspaper -- and for the purposes of this story let’s go ahead and call it The Daily Planet -- where I had to be at my desk at 6 a.m. I quit after a couple of years when I became convinced that the only things that got up that early ought to be milked.

During those pitiless pre-dawn mornings when roosters were still snoozing, it was often my job to write about the daily doom befalling numerous central Tennessee men and women. I often wrote about people who were expiring in what people called their middle ages. Their obituaries revealed their middle ages had been two decades previous.

I remember thinking, “Well, it’s a shame that drunken farmer stumbled into that rusty combine. But, hey, the guy was 46. He lived a good full life.”

Now, I’m nearly 46. I’ve lived a good full life.

Yet, I’m hopeful that when the demographers classify me as middle aged, it’ll one day turn out to be true. Despite these hard times, I really enjoy my life, my family, my friends and the odd little things I do to occupy my time while other middle aged men and women are at work fretting about the latest shower of pink slips.

Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll finally start feeling my age. There are some indications of advancing maturity. For instance, I decline all invitations to go out on Mondays because I prefer be home sitting on the couch watching one of our favorite television shows.

Coincidentally, the show is called “24.”

I have absolutely no fear of death. Just as long as it doesn’t have to hurt.

In my dreams, I thrive to be about, oh, 92 when I imagine myself skipping off a sidewalk and getting creamed by a speeding bus I never saw coming. I’m hopeful some 24-year-old news reporter will arrive at the scene and get quotes from startled eye witnesses who’ll swear they saw my soul shoot straight to heaven. And that my soul wasn’t wearing pants.

In the meantime, I’m going to insist that only scarfe-draped fortune tellers call me middle aged, and that your true middle ages -- no matter how old you are today -- remain many happy Martian years from now.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A beef about cow flatulence

I’m alarmed by trends showing a steady increase in vegetarians because I wonder what we’re going to do with all the cows once we’ve all stopped eating meat.

And that’s going to be a real problem because they’d make terrible zoo exhibits. They’re not entertaining like monkeys. They’re not exotic like gorillas. You can’t race them and although I’ve never attempted it I imagine trying to ride one would be like spending time sitting on a stalled school bus.

When you think about it, the only thing a cow’s really good at is devoting its every waking moment to trying to make itself tastier for people like me who enjoy a good steak once in a while.

But while cows are thriving, it seems we meat eaters are being systematically culled from the herd. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in 200 teens now identify themselves as vegetarians.

It’s a lifestyle I admire, but won’t succumb to, which is about how I feel about people who get and go to work everyday. I eat lots of delicious salads, gorge on seafood and try not to eat too much red meat.

But sometimes nothing satisfies like a big juicy steak or cheese burger. I’m a Weber Grill man because I love the ritual involved in cooking the meals. I think it dishonors a really good steak to just slap it on a frying pan or singe it in a broiler.

In high summer Weber men like me devote nearly a full hour of beer-sipping preparation to the eight or so minutes it takes to cook a good steak. When it’s done to medium rare, I summon the family out on to porch. We say a little grace thanking God for the food and always ask that He get some grub for those without. We don’t get all political and specify that He give them healthy things like broccoli or carrots.

Just, we pray, fill up their bellies.

I’ve wondered if I should say a little prayer for the cow that gave its life for us to eat it, but I never do and won’t until someone persuades me we’re praying to a cow God.

One of my favorite philosophical bumper stickers reads, “If God had intended man to be vegetarians, why did He make animals out of meat?” It’s a good question.

I consider myself somewhat of an expert on cows because I frequently travel by train from my western Pennsylvania home through miles of rich farmland to New York.

If you’ve never taken Amtrak, you need to understand that there are often hour-long episodes where the locomotive is perfectly still. Sometimes they explain why, often not. During these times of tedium, I read, type on my laptop, chat with my seat mate, doodle on a notebook and wonder what kind of insanity makes me want to travel by train instead of airplane, bus or pack mule, all forms of travel which must be speedier than Amtrak.

And more often than not, I’m stuck staring at the ample backside of a cow. I contemplate its existence. What must it be like to be a cow?

It seems perfectly boring. They just stand there chewing the grass. But who am I to judge? Sometimes the cows look up at me and my fellow passengers and they must think our Amtrak existence is perfectly boring.

I’m always fascinated by stories that relate how cow flatulence is among the leading contributors of methane gas that’s wreaking havoc on our ozone layer. Or is it reeking havoc?

Anyway, one recent study says each cow emits 200 to 400 quarts of methane gas per day, or 50 million metric tons per year (times are tough, but I hope I never get the opportunity to put “cow fart counter” on my resume).

Thus, it’s not a stretch to say meat eaters are on the front line of helping to limit the amount of deadly flatulence in the air, at least those of us who don’t include a big plate of beans on the side.

And what would happen to all the cows if we stopped eating them? The farmers who tend them would let them go free. They’d roam the countryside. They’d wind up clogging the highways and parks. We’d be overrun with cows.

So it’s probably all for the greater good that the natural order is maintained.

The last thing any of us needs is to have a big stupid animal lazing around the property doing nothing but polluting the atmosphere with his big piles of outrageous bullcrap.

That’s my job.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My wife for President

Our 8-year-old daughter wants me to become POTUS because she thinks it would be fun to live in the White House. I agree.

News stories about the Obamas new digs show what a wonderful place it must be to call home, especially if you have children like Malia, 10 , and Sasha, 7, who travel under the endearing Secret Service code names Radiance and Rosebud.

One report this morning told about how the girls will have access to the White House movie theater, the bowling alley, the pool and how the Bush twins urged them to spend play time sliding down the solarium banister.

What most struck our oldest daughter was how acts like the Jonas Brothers would come to visit and perform for things like birthdays or sleep overs. I’m thrilled to have Obama as my president, but if he allows his daughters to even so much as listen to the Jonas Brothers I’m throwing in for Palin and The Plumber in 2012.

So I, too, would love to live in the White House. It’s bound to be a blast.

I just don’t want to be president.

Still, I hate to disappoint my little darling so I’m nominating my wife, Valerie, for president. She’d be great.

On domestic matters, I’m confident she could balance the national budget with just one week’s worth of coupons from any Sunday newspaper. Her feeding our family with so little income and so many coupons always reminds me of what Jesus did with the loaves and the fishes.

Her foreign relations track record on keeping warring parties from spilling blood is worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. I’ve been mired in cold war with her family for more than 15 years while she’s patiently played Kissinger. She’s brokered an uneasy peace that persists despite their belief that I’m a good-for-nothing layabout and my despising them for their honesty.

And, like Obama, she’s a take charge sort. Rather than waiting around interminably for me to get around to painting the bathroom, she said to hell with me. She’ll do it herself. It’s a brilliant strategy because she knows I’ll be shamed into helping out on a job I’d rather do in 10-minute increments over the course of two years rather than in one hectic weekend.

See, she knows how to find work for even the laziest members of our society.

Me, I’d be perfect for the First Gentleman role. I know how to entertain (juggle and recite from memory dozens of filthy limericks) and I know what it takes to throw a really great party. That would be a giant slingshot.

A few years ago I strung up nearly 50-feet of surgical tubing between a high split in a towering backyard apple tree and -- voila! -- giant slingshot! We spent an unforgettable night blasting spray-painted potatoes, pudding balloons and one unfortunate stray cat more than 500 feet across the field at our hillbilly neighbor’s trailer.

I’d be there to greet the Pittsburgh Steelers whenever they won the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh 33, Arizona 10). And I’d tell my pals in the NSC to fog all the lenses on all Bill Belichick’s cheater spy cameras to ensure the only “patriots” who ever win the Super Bowl work for the great Dan Rooney.

One of my ambitions has always been to get high on the White House roof with Willie Nelson. He famously did it when Jimmy Carter invited him for a presidential barbeque. As First Gentleman, I’d do it daily. With Willie. And John Cusack. And Bob Dylan. And, yeah, what the hell, Larry King can come, too.

As an old news reporter, I’d be chummy with the press. I’d meet them in a friendly little tavern nearly every day for Happy Hour. We’d talk about events of the day and I’d give them not-for-attribution bits of gossip about what’s going on in my life and the things I’ve heard (I ritually do this nearly everyday now, but instead of my old buddies from the paper, the reporters would now be guys like Wolf Blitzer and Bob Schieffer).

The point of all this would be to finally be in a position to do something useful for my darling wife. My antics would keep her approval ratings sky high as she’d be popular with regular guys for being so tolerant of me, a regular guy who prefers joking and laughing to things like painting bathrooms.

She’d get points from female voters who’ll sympathize with a sister who had the misfortune of marrying badly.

Of course, it wouldn’t be all fun and games for me. I’d be responsible for hiring nannies and the guys whose job it would be to keep all 31 White House bathrooms in fresh coats of paint.

Val’s going to have her hands full.

Just slightly less so than she does now.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural oath goof and right wing crazies

I’m going to spend the day listening to far right radio to hear if any hosts or callers think the Obama/Roberts inaugural oath goof is a potentially disqualifying technicality.

Some casual news readers may not know it, but there was a flurry of bona fide lawsuits, a couple of which actually wound their way to the Supreme Court, that still disputed Obama’s citizenship. They said his election should be nullified because they incorrectly believe he doesn’t have an authentic Hawaiian birth certificate.

Many commentators shook their heads in collective amazement. How desperate can these people be, they wondered.

Of course, it didn’t surprise me at all.

I’ve been a front line soldier against the lunatic right since shortly after Linda Tripp started shopping for electronic spy gear in preparation for girly chats with Monica Lewinsky.

Then came Ken Starr and the impeachment of Bill Clinton. I’d been a comparative moderate before that, but the foaming-mouthed hatred of Clinton turned me into a knee-jerk liberal whose knee jerks most liberally anytime it’s near a conservative’s crotch.

That’s why it’s not going to be easy for me to, as our new president so graciously requests, put down my rhetorical weapons and come in out of the jungle. Some of us -- right and left -- are so used to partisan combat that we’ll probably bivouac deep in the woods the way some never-say-die Japanese soldiers did decades after World War II ended and Sony and Toyota began was winning victories the Nippon Army never could.

Really, I’m eager to try. I’d much rather argue about sports or movies than the bitter tribal feuds that stem from political passions. And with Obama’s approval ratings in the high 70s, it’ll be easy to dismiss any haters as irredeemable crazies or mere lunk-headed racists.

Their reaction in the days to come will be revealing.

Truly, the inauguration slip was a fascinating gaffe between two super intelligent and poised men. It shows even polished public speakers can crumble when the pressure's on.

I believe Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, is an outstanding Supreme Court justice. He meets the one litmus test Bush skipped when he tabbed starry-eyed flunkey Harriet Miers.

The man is smart. That’s all I want from my top judges, no matter their party backgrounds. I disagree with most everything Antonin Scalia writes, but it’s always reasoned.

That’s why I’m eager to read more about how Roberts goofed administering the oath to Obama. It was the first time Roberts ever conducted the ceremony and the first time any Supreme Court justice administered the 35-word oath to a senator who’d voted against his confirmation.

To me, the most amazing aspect was, with all he has to think about, Obama precisely knew the oath and knew to pause and prompt Roberts that he was stumbling.

Had it been most anyone else in the world it, we would have simply aped whatever Roberts was saying, and it would have turned into the scene from “Animal House” when Delta pledge master Hoover, playing the Roberts part, awkwardly says, “I, state your name . . .”

And the dimwit pledges numbly reply, “I, state your name . . .”

It didn’t matter. They all became Delta pledges. Beneath the slapstick humor, the movie is at its heart a morality tale about how the carefree Deltas triumph over the uptight, holier-than-thou Alphas who think they are so superior they can dictate how the rest of the world should behave.

For those who’ve never seen the movie the whole way through, the dippy Deltas go on to fulfilling and mostly distinguished careers. Heck, one of them even becomes a U.S. Senator.

As for the hated Alphas, well, they’re probably spending today dialing into right wing talk shows to nitpick about constitutional minutia.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Jump the Query Shark!

I disagreed whenever my late father used to tell me I had a real talent for writing. It’s a character defect, I’d argue.

A talent is something that leads to lucrative fulfillment and widespread affirmation. A character defect is something that impedes those things.

Those with real talent enjoy robust professional obligations. Those with character defects squander hour after hour in lonely self-indulgent pursuits with no perceptible results.

Kind of like those of us who regularly blog.

I used to consider this blog the journalistic equivalent of a lemonade stand. Then one day it dawned on me that even stupid kids don’t give the lemonade away for free.

I always tell my students that I know I’m not working hard enough unless I receive at least a rejection letter a day. If that’s the proper measure, then I’ve been working my tail off since 1992 and have been on a real roll since September.

It has me once again wondering if it isn’t time to do something less yoked by near-constant rejection and more likely to lead to actual income. Something like, you know, sell lemonade by the glass.

This occurred to me over the weekend when my pitch letter for my rejection-magnet of a novel was critiqued on the “Query Shark” blogspot. It’s agent Janet Reid’s popular and useful writer’s website that gives professional feedback to wannabe authors like me who’re seeking agents or publishers.

To me it’s like sending your heartfelt best stuff to Simon Cowell on “American Idol.” The feedback can be brutal.

“I don’t know what the hell’s going on here . . . You’ve lost me . . . This is a confusing mess,” are some examples.

Now, I understand that may seem like pretty tame stuff to those of you who work in factories, the military or for all I know cupcake bakeries. Remember, I’ve only had three real jobs my entire life and one of them was at Pizza Hut.

But I know writers are notoriously thin-skinned and have enormous dirigible-sized egos when it comes to our work.

Take me, for example. Every single time I turn in an essay, assignment or book proposal, I become exactly like like Ralphie in the scene from “A Christmas Story” where he turns in his theme. I imagine the editor dancing across the room euphorically singing, “A-plus! Plus! Plus! Plus! Plus!”

It’s never happened and it didn’t happen with Query Shark. Here’s a key paragraph from my query:

“The Last Baby Boomer” is my 209-page novel about the life and death of the last baby boomer, Martin J. McCrae. Because his impending death will symbolically tombstone a generation known for selfish excess, the 117-year-old McCrae agrees to be part of a lottery ghoul pool. Contestants pay $25 to be in a museum suite with him for 15 minutes. If they are present when he expires, they win the multimillion dollar jackpot. One problem: McCrae won't die.”

Gripping stuff, huh? Here’s what she thought:

"Word count, not page numbers. Always . . . Tombstone is not a verb. Not now, not in the future, not ever . . . If the novel is simply waiting for him to die, you'll need something else to hold our interest.”

To which, I find myself stammering in retort, “But . . . but . . . C’mon, just give it a chance! It’s wonderful! It’s funny! It’s poignant! I work for six packs!”

I was most stung by her grave comment that tombstone cannot be used as a verb. For you non-writers out there, “symbolically tombstone” is one of those phrases writers coin with such self-satisfied glee that we immediately begin twirling around the room in our purple smoking jackets whist taking deep soulful snorts from our Tiffany brandy snifters.

Because that’s just what writer’s do

But on this day, there would be no retort. The Query Shark moves on. I’m invited to rewrite the query and to resubmit for consideration. Some of the reader comments were wonderfully kind and supportive and a few even appreciated my controversial use of tombstone as a verb.

I’m deeply grateful to them. May hot cigarette ash never singe their purple smoking jackets!

I’m in one of those professional troughs where I feel like giving up. There’s little hope and even less work. I used to pray that I’d be successful. Now, I have to fight off the urge to pray that God will just slay all my ambitions.

I cannot give in to those defeatist impulses. It’s too late for me to do something sensible like enroll in plumbing school. I will presevever. I will rewrite my query and hope anew that the valuable insights I’ve gained will lead to publishing success.

Besides, any writer would be foolish to let one perhaps offhand remark tombstone an entire career.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hero pilot looks like a hero, bummer

Well, I guess we can all surmise the identity of this month’s US Airways employee of the month. It’s Chesley B. Sullenberger III.

I prefer my heroes to be a little more offbeat. Sullenberger looks exactly like a heroic pilot's supposed to look.

But come to think of it, most every cockpit cowboy I’ve ever had looks just like him, too. They’re tall, handsome. They’re males. And that’s stereotypically generally very reassuring.

In fact, if I boarded and saw a wormy little pilot who looked all jumpy and nervous I’d strap myself in and immediately demand the flight attendant start bringing multiple shots of high-test liquor -- for me and the pilot.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the pilots we see when boarding were all actors hired to reassure passengers that the real pilot wasn’t some nerdy little twitch. And I’d be fine with that.

I’ve long argued airlines should plant on every flight actors dressed as clergy to say heartfelt prayers as we taxi down the runway. I flew with a nun once and she said a wonderful outloud prayer about a safe flight and the requisite bit about forgiveness before takeoff. I was immediately reassured. I knew with her on board, the Big Guy was our copilot.

Plus, I spied an opening in her pitch for manifest forgiveness. I saw it as a sort of license to sin and spent the entirety of the flight boozing and roguishly hitting on the poor flight attendant. It was a great, fun flight.

For me, at least.

A couple of the early news reports about the miraculous flight are intriguing. First, it apparently took just 90 seconds to empty the entire plane, an often painstaking process that usually consumes 10 minutes when the plane lands on terra concreta. That’s why I’m hoping pilots will implement Sullenberger’s urgent, “Brace for impact!” before even the most routine landings. It would speed things up.

Second, I heard a couple of passengers were, of course, gumming up the emergency procedures by retrieving their stuff from the overhead bins.

The knee-jerk reaction is to castigate the self-important bigshots who dawdled over their laptops and whatnot as Hudson River water started splashing against the ankles of the peons back in coach.

But who are we to judge?

Maybe, like me, they were simply tidy passengers. I retrieve even the peanut wrappers rather than leave them for the overworked flight attendants.

I tried to think of what I’d linger to retrieve and came up near blank. I travel light, rarely taking even a laptop with me. I do have a computer bag to make myself appear important, but its contents are usually some magazines, a banana and a Louis L’Amour book from the local library.

I’d probably dig around for the library book, but only because our librarian’s a tyrant.

So, it’s a wonderful and blessed day. We should all feel better about ourselves knowing we share seminal DNA with men and women like Sullenberger, the first responders and the passengers themselves who could easily have turned on one another but didn’t.

Still, I’m a little chagrined when the hero isn’t someone more unexpected. Like the guy we remember from Puerto Rico to Virgin Gorda charter flight a bunch of years ago. He was perfectly oblivious to the world as I contemptuously studied him as they were preparing the rickety little six-seater for take off.

He looked like a guy who rarely bothered to bathe. His hair was a vulture’s nest of scraggly dreadlocks. He swayed as if the Caribbean breezes were blowing exclusively for him. Maybe it was my imagination, but I swear I could see fresh marijuana haze wafting off his tie-dye T-shirt.

I was quietly calculating the odds he’d wind up being my seat mate when he shocked us by hopping up into the cabin and began expertly flipping switches.

Ya, mon, he was da pilot!

I was rooting it was him when I heard a heroic pilot had just saved 155 lives and inspired a nation with his cool-headed actions. I love it when an atypical guy like that just smashes all our stereotypes of what a hero is and how he or she is supposed to look.

I just don’t want to sit next to him.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Black ('n' gold) Power!

I’m hoping the Pittburgh Steelers win the Super Bowl because it’ll further my argument that blacks have been genetically engineered to lead.

Because if the Steelers win Sunday and ultimately on Feb. 1, then on that day two black men will be in charge of two of the most powerful and historic institutions on the entire planet.

Those would be the Pittsburgh Steelers and the United States of America.

Of course, one of those organizations is an internationally beloved powerhouse respected and envied around the globe and the other is the United States, but bear with me.

I spend a lot of coincidental time around bar stool racists who’ve long said blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. They’re always eager to enlighten me, a fellow Caucasian, on issues race.

Blacks are fine as athletes, they say, but are incapable of running things larger than footballs, things like, say, the world’s lone remaining superpower.

But if the Steelers win the Super Bowl, it will be due in large part to the daring and genius of coach Mike Tomlin. When he was hired in the summer of 2007, one of the bar racists bet me $50 Tomlin wouldn’t last two seasons as the Steelers coach.

This was easy money on two fronts. First, the Dan Rooney-run Steelers, unlike other professional sports franchises, are admirably picky about whom they hire and are inversely reluctant to pull the trigger and fire men in whom they believe. Prior to hiring Tomlin, the Steelers have had just two head coaches, mutual legends Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, in the past 38 years.

By comparison, the despicable Dallas Cowboys have had five in just the past 10 years.

Secondly, Tomlin looked like a real winner. The Rooneys, no fools, hired him after passing over two other highly qualified in-house candidates, both of whom are today leading the Arizona Cardinals on their own unlikely quest to meet -- cross your fingers -- the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

Tomlin has an undeniable charisma. Reporters in 2007 immediately noted how he tends to quietly dominate a room with a dignified and commanding composure.

Hell, whenever I see him being interviewed on television, I can feel my posture instantaneously ramrod. He’s the kind of man that makes me think he has secret powers to see through the camera lens and notice which fans are slouching. I don’t want to get on his bad side.

What has Tomlin done in his first two years? Simple. He’s done what no other coach, white or black, has ever done. He’s assembled a better two-season record for a first-time head coach than anyone -- and that includes immortals like Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Tom Landry, Bill Parcells or Bill Belichick who stunk it up in Cleveland -- yea! -- before going on to be a genius (cheater) -- boo! -- in New England.

Tomlin’s making his Super Bowl run just days after former Steeler Tony Dungy, the first black head coach to ever win a Super Bowl, announced to glorious accolades that he was leaving the Indianapolis Colts, the winningest team over the past 10 years, to do vital social work with hopeless young inmates who need shown a better way.

Dungy’s a saint. And a winner. And an African American.

I hope the other black guy who’s had his credentials questioned by ignorant whites does his job as magnificently as Dungy’s done his -- and I’m not talking about Tomlin here.

I’m talking about Barack Obama.

Win or lose, Tomlin already has a big head start on Obama for helping stimulate one key sector of this sad and struggling economy.

He’s taken fifty bucks out of one dumb racist sucker’s pocket and shoved it into mine.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Brad Pitt-y Party

Brad Pitt is immersed in a fresh round of interviews complaining about how difficult it is being Brad Pitt.

This strikes me like carpenters complaining about nails or florists becoming disgruntled over the sight of yet another bloomin’ rose.

I just don’t get it. He makes movies and that may involve hidden tedium unseen by me, but essentially movie producers pay him millions to be Brad Pitt. They want him to look dashing, be charming and strike poses that make women swoon. If he’s not up to it then perhaps Pitt should quit being Pitt. Really, I can’t imagine the acting side of it’s all that tough.

In every grinding interview he goes to great pains to assert how important it is to spend time with his enormous family and I don’t doubt him. Tribe time’s important to me, too. But I have so few occupational burdens our oldest daughter often gets exasperated enough to beg me to go out with my buddies so I didn’t intrude on her girlie games with Mommy.

I pretend I’m wounded and grimly shuffle out the door like a repentant killer being dragged down Death Row for a court-ordered doom date with Ol’ Sparky (see, Pitt’s not the only one who can act).

He just released a well-received movie that clocks in at nearly three hours. I’m not familiar with movie production, but I can imagine filming took more than a few months away from Angelina, those eight or so kids and the hypo-allergenic squads of hand sanitizer-wielding nannies and other associated house help.

Maybe he should stop making movies. We could all do without him. There are hundreds of pretty young boys waiting tables in Hollywood who could, guaranteed, do what he does just as well without all the whining.

His biggest problem, it seems, are the paparazzi. He doesn’t want people taking his picture. Or pictures of his family. Or his now-oppressive wife who just a few years ago was so outrageously exhibitionist she made Madonna seem demure. (Billy Bob Thornton probably cracks open a beer and giggles with relief every time Angelina and Brad adopt another orphan).

But he knew when he was striving to be famous and when he chose to date and marry equally famous and whiny women that the ticket-buying public would want to see pictures of him smiling, digging around in his nose and tripping on his way out of limousines. The rules haven’t changed.

Him complaining about paparazzi is like me complaining about commas. I don’t like commas. I wish we could get rid of them. I ruthlessly delete them every chance I get.

Sometimes I secretly play childish cat-and-mouse games with commas by using ridiculously long and structurally untenable run-on sentences that go on and on but in the end the winking little punctuation points usually assert themselves and bring order to grammatical chaos by doing their nimble if annoying little jobs, by golly.

I bring this all up because over the weekend Valerie and I dropped the kids off with grandma and enjoyed some sweetheart time. We considered Pitt’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” but at three hours it was too much time away from the kids so we chose Clint Eastwood and “Gran Torino.” It was outstanding. Go see it.

“That man can do no wrong,” Val said. “We’re so lucky he’s still around, still looking great and still making these wonderful movies.”

She’s right. Eastwood’s a bigger and more enduring star than Pitt could ever hope to be, but he’s never complained about the burdens of being famous. He, like Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, and the late and much-missed Paul Newman all gave us fantastic and relevant work that’ll be enjoyed forever. And none of them has ever made the job description “movie star” seem equivalent to ones like “bus driver” or “trash hauler.”

On the contrary, they seem to enjoy it for the pleasure the rest of us suspect it must be. Eastwood’s never been reclusive, hosts a PGA golf tournament and once served as Carmel’s mayor. Redford does important environmental work and unselfishly nurtures generations of aspiring filmmakers, and Newman’s warmth and philanthropy are as monumental as his movies.

Nicholson? Well, his dissolute personal life is as audaciously entertaining as anything he’s ever filmed so no one cares that he’s never devoted even a second to adopting underprivileged orphans or making charity salad dressings.

I remember a few years ago when Nicholson got into some petty open-container trouble for inviting paparazzi into a NYC liquor store where he was hooch shopping and offering them a swig with a make-peace toast to the good life.

Maybe I should try that with commas.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Life and Death of Joe Pittsburgh, 1927-2004

Few are the monuments we construct to the most monumental people in our lives. My father died five years ago today.

So I’m taking the easy way out -- twice in one week! -- today and posting the Pittsburgh Magazine story I did about him in 2004. Editors there flattered me by headlining the piece, “The Life and Death of Joe Pittsburgh.”

I could think of no finer monument to the man who was so well loved by so many. He loved Pittsburgh and for editors of the city’s namesake magazine to think he epitomized it so well would have left him euphoric, a not uncommon condition for a joyful man.

Spend your life calling a man like him Dad and everyday forever more is Father’s Day.

The Life and Death of Joe Pittsburgh

Four weeks before he was found dead on the cushioned comfort of his living room couch, I became convinced my father was going to die a violent, potentially lucrative death. The thought filled me with titillating shivers of shame.

He died as he'd lived, right on the razor's edge of insolvency. He had $219 in his savings account; $312 in checking. He left his loved ones not a dime of life insurance. The red pin on the fuel gauge of his leased Dodge Neon was hard on empty.

His idea of an extravagant gift was paying for his own funeral, a gesture rendered less poignant when the funeral director told us he'd not even paid enough to settle the cost of his desired cremation. The surprise news left his grieving sons the choice of coming up with the money for visitation and cremation or having a do-it-yourself immolation somewhere fitting, say, perhaps a Pittsburgh Steeler tailgate party. He was a beer-lover who would have enjoyed the raucous send-off, but my brother Eric and I decided it would spark a scandal from the people who didn't know him the way we did, so we started signing the papers. Today, we're each paying off more than $4,700 in funeral expenses for the man who'd for years assured us our grief would be assuaged by his prescient benevolence. Paul Russell Rodell, the only man I know who'd voted for Richard M. Nixon for president three times, died wrong again.

A brutal, newsworthy death could have changed all that. Twice in the month prior to his death, he'd told me harrowing stories of how he'd narrowly avoided a violent end and I began to steel myself for the phone call that would inform me of his sudden demise.

He'd been tooling down a one-way street near his Scott Township home when he came within scant feet of a head-on collision with a menacing teenager. The youth stormed out of his Chevy Blazer and berated my slight, gentle father with profane threats. "He seemed high on something," Dad said. "I really thought he was going to kill me." Dad was driving down the wrong way of a one-way street, one he'd driven correctly thousands of times. This time he'd simply forgotten.

Even worse was the cruel December day when we'd scheduled a pre-holiday meal with him and Mom. The bitter weather led him to cancel. He didn't want his guests driving in such conditions. Yet, later that day, he called to tell me the need for an essential item forced him to venture out in the treacherous elements, a mission that nearly cost him his life.

He told me he'd braved the bitter snows and taken a trolley downtown. He'd walked tentatively on weakened, arthritic knees down steep, unshoveled and icy sidewalks to retrieve the single item he'd felt compelled to obtain.

"The way down convinced me I'd made a terrible mistake, but there was no turning back," he said, his voice still quaking with fearful recollection. "I got off the trolley on the way home and was looking down at my feet so I wouldn't fall and break a hip. But I was so careful about watching my feet, I wasn't watching where I was going. I walked right onto the tracks and nearly got run down by the trolley. The driver was shaking his fist at me and yelling to watch where I was going. Made me feel like a stupid old man."

His sad acknowledgment made me wish I could have been there to give him a reassuring hug. But what was so important that he had to leave the house on this fearsome day?

"I had to get some batteries for my nose hair trimmer."

Instead of a lawsuit-inspiring death resulting from a fatal clash with a deep-pocket defendant, Dad died quietly alone at home. They told us it was an aortic embolism. He'd awakened the night before with a sharp pain in his lower back. He thought it was a pulled muscle. Later he began dry heaving, blaming a corresponding telltale symptom on spoiled buttermilk. He spent his last day on earth with Rachel, his wife of 45 years, and his beloved granddaughter, Josie, 3, watching "Finding Nemo," not a bad story to go out on, and certainly better than if it had been a year ago when his last mortal movie would have starred a big, purple dinosaur and treacly songs about washing your hands. My Mom had left him for the 40 minutes it took to return Josie to her mother. When she got back, Dad was dead. To our everlasting surprise, we were all about to learn how much fun the death of a father could be.

My brother Eric, his first-born son, flew home from Nashville. We wept and talked about how Dad feared growing old and becoming a burden to his family, a fear we shared for selfish reasons. My mother wondered if she'd been too ignorant of his warning signs -- neither of which, incidentally, was on the refrigerator article headlined: "The Nine Warning Signs You Should Never Ignore." Eric and I concluded that his death was entirely in character with his life. In fact, we reasoned that, had one been present, a medical professional might have warned, "Look, this is serious. You should go to the emergency room where they will conduct tests, draw blood and subject your aging and battered body to numerous indignities. Sure, you can stay here, but you might be dead before nightfall. So what's it going to be?" We agreed Dad would have said, "Hand me the remote."

Paul Rodell was a blood descendant of Homer Simpson. He was born September 4, 1927, in East Liverpool, Ohio, a town that still commemorates its decades-old heyday as the world's leading manufacturer of ceramic door knobs. He was the son of Ethel May Simpson Rodell and the grandson of a man named, by God, Homer Simpson. His father was Archibald Rodell, who died in a Pittsburgh veteran's hospital in 1938 as a latent result of being gassed by the Kaiser's henchmen in World War I. He spent the last years of his life gazing longingly from the windows of a sterile tuberculosis ward and writing achingly beautiful poetry about the 10-year-old boy waving up from the lawn on the other side of the glass. We've long wondered how the poignant death of his own father shaped his life, and any profound conclusions have thus far eluded us. All we know is how he lived.

The letters R.I.P. applied to our father long before his January 12 death. Paul Rodell was Really Into Parties. After the initial cloudburst of tears, my mother asked Eric if he wanted anything to drink. He asked for a beer. "Well," she fretted, "I'll see if we have any."

"Mom, he's only been dead for four hours." The death of our father had turned my brother into a wise-cracking Bob Hope. His straight-faced one liners at the funeral would provoke awkward bursts of laughter from people who'd come prepared only to weep. I will gratefully remember the funeral as Dad's last, best party. In the background, Frank Sinatra's "My Way" played over and over, as he'd requested. Many of the walls were festooned with pictures of Dad on the golf course wearing the kaleidoscopic kind of attention-grabbing pants melon-smashing prop comics consider tasteless. And the rooms rang with stories and laughter. One guest later wrote, "Paul's was the first 'feel-good' funeral I ever attended."

Mysterious forces would contribute their own shares of hilarity. When the funeral director asked Eric to confirm our father's occupation for the death notice, the director declared the wrong profession. Eric spelled it out: "O-P-T-I-C-I-A-N, the poorly paid guy who fixes your crooked glasses." He spelled it again and had the guy repeat it letter for letter. Sure enough, when the news ran in the local paper the next day, it read, "Paul Rodell, a local obstetrician for 40 years in the Pittsburgh area . . ."

"You think you know a guy," Eric said. Another woman was heard to remark near the open casket, "Paul was a great guy, but I'm glad he delivered my glasses, and not my babies." Of course, the error meant the $75 death notice would be free, news my brother put squarely into perspective during the eulogy.

"We all remember the recent passing of Green Bay Packer Brett Favre's dad," he said. "The death launched a remarkable run that took Favre and his team deep into the NFL playoffs. Many people believe the spirit of his father watching from heaven had a guiding hand in the upset victories . . . Brett Favre's dad dies and he leads his son to playoff glory on the gridiron. Our Dad died and he fooled with the newspaper so his sons wouldn't have to pay for the $75 death notice. I'm sure he went to heaven thinking, 'Now my work is done here.'"

Dad would have enjoyed being an obstetrician, and he would have made a good one. You may not think about it, but someone is the best at every job, no matter how minor or seemingly inconsequential. Somewhere there is a man pushing a broom or a woman scrubbing a bathroom stall and they're doing it as cheerfully and ably as a maestro conducting a magnificent symphony. There is more human dignity to exalt in the execution of those humble duties than that exhibited by any number of pampered professional athletes who are paid millions to perform before throngs of screaming fans. Dad was the greatest optician who ever lived. If they ever construct a Mt. Rushmore for opticians, Paul Rodell will be immortalized in granite between . . . between . . . between, well, three other opticians. It's a skill many people can master, but he was the best because he took the time to pleasantly converse with everyone who stepped up to his stool complaining of nerdy glasses sliding down their noses. His customers walked away with the confident strut of "Top Gun" Tom Cruise in his Ray-Bans heading for the cockpit of his fighter jet.

"I was in another room and never got to see him work, but all the patients would come in and say, 'Where did you find that wonderful man?'" said his last boss, Dr. Daniel J. Nadler. "They'd go on and on about what a great guy he was. I'd hear little things like someone said they were leaving for vacation and Paul went out of his way to drive the glasses up to their homes so they could have them before they'd leave. He was just a wonderfully kind man."

At the funeral we met many of the strangers with whom he was with when none of us could ever find him. We were always losing him. We'd be waiting for him on the first tee and we'd find him chatting amiably with the old man in the pro shop. We'd be waiting to leave the restaurant and we'd find him out back talking baseball with the busboy. He could go into a mini-mart to pay for gas and come out 10 minutes later with the phone numbers of two new friends with whom he was going to swap history books, something we learned he'd been doing with William Johnson, the CEO of H.J. Heinz Co. We learned, too, at the funeral that Steeler Hall of Famer Jack Ham was saddened by the passing of our father. They'd become chums over a period of friendly eyeglass appointments. George Miles, the man who signs my checks for Pittsburgh Magazine, called to say he was so sorry that smiling man is gone forever.

The revelations of distraught strangers explained a lot of the missing times when he'd disappear down a black hole leaving his loved ones to search high and low for the chatty man in the garish pants.

He was always suggesting to me, the family writer, article-worthy subjects he'd meet in unlikely places. "You should meet this guy," he'd say. "He'd be great for Reader's Digest and the column about the most unforgettable character you've ever met." He'd never understand that he, my own father, was the most unforgettable character I'd ever met.

I finally sat down to write about him last fall. The article was headlined, "Sins of Our Fathers" and ran in a national golf magazine. It was about how he'd raised his sons to cheat at golf and other endearing aspects of his generally low character. My wife dropped it off to him the day he died. Our last conversation was me telling him it was in there and what it was about. He was thrilled. He loved attention.

We don't think he ever got to read it. Maybe he did, but we'll never know. I don't think so. He would have called. My brother said it would have been funny if he'd have been found with an agonized look of betrayal on his face and the article torn in jagged shreds at his feet. I'm glad it didn't happen that way.

I once got into an argument with some very good friends, men who fiercely loved my father, about whether or not I respected him. Of course not, I said. He has too many character flaws. He tells petty lies, disdains work, lacks ambition, and has never considered growing up.

(I later realized I'd described myself exactly. And during the eulogy, my brother read from a list of New Year's resolutions the old man had written just 11 days prior to his passing. Under the heading "Spiritual Goals," he'd written, "Read Bible, Pray, Attend Church." Under "Mental Goals," he penned just two words: "Grow Up." He was 76 years old.)

"How could you not respect your own father?" one thundered at me. That's when I told them about the time he put the house up for sale and moved his entire family and belongings to North Carolina for two weeks. I was 6 years old and still remember the heaving sobs and full faucet tears I produced as we drove away from the only home I'd ever known. He'd met an eye doctor on a golf course and the gentleman told him he was starting a promising optical shop in Pinehurst, N.C., a place renown not coincidentally for great golf. Dad asked if he needed an able optician, and just like that we were Dixie bound.

He enrolled his sons in an alien school district where children talked with funny accents and looked at me like Scotty'd just beamed me down from a Romulan galaxy. It is among my most painful and vivid childhood memories. Two weeks later, he surprised us with another indelibly vivid action. I remember him barging into the classroom right in the middle of the teacher's lesson and saying, "C'mon, son, we're going home to Pittsburgh." And away we went.

The capricious move almost led to a divorce from our Mom and started us down the path of financial calamity from which, I guess, we never fully recovered. Years later as adult responsibilities began to dawn on me, I asked Dad about why we left North Carolina just two weeks after the momentous and costly move.

"I asked the boss where I could find a cold beer after work," Dad recalled sheepishly. "He said if he knew I was a beer drinker he never would have hired me. I said if I knew he felt that way about beer drinkers I never would have taken the job."

That won me the argument about whether or not I ought to respect my father. But to me that was way beside the point. So many of our family relationships are cluttered by the judgmental reproach of each other's minor human failings. You can respect an armed police officer or an angry dog inside a low fence, but you don't need to respect or admire a father to love him.

You need only to love him. I knew that long before our Dad died. His death did serve to forever inform us he'd lived a wonderful life, touched hundreds of people and will be missed and celebrated as long as men and women tell stories about good-hearted people who live lives untouched by fame or fortune. I asked Eric how he thought Dad would have been different if he'd have somehow lucked into a profession, say obstetrics, that would have rewarded him with the affluence he craved and never attained. Eric thought about this for a moment before saying, "He would have been a lot more fun."

One well-meaning Christian, as Christians are wont to do during these passionate times, used the passing of our father to evangelize about how precious and tenuous our lives are, and how important it is to live this life fully in anticipation of the next one. Had he, she wanted to know, made his peace with God?

I paraphrased Henry David Thoreau, who was asked that same question on his death bed. Thoreau's sublime response: "I was not aware we'd quarreled."

She persisted. It's not enough for someone to be good and kind to get into heaven. A person needs to be saved. Was your father saved?

"He was too busy helping others to ever worry about saving himself."

She shook her head sadly, I'm sure convinced that right then, even as we were grieving over his open casket, my father's soul was being exposed to the very torments of hell. "Well," she said. "I am sorry you lost your father."

Wrong again. We didn't lose him. In fact, for the first time ever we all know exactly where he is. He's in heaven, right where he's always belonged.

He's the one with the exquisitely groomed nose hairs.

Friday, January 9, 2009

TV-holics prepare for bender

My wife and I are the worst kinds of insufferable snobs who are always telling people at parties we never watch much TV. For some reason, this makes us feel culturally superior or at least equal to the people who lie back they never do either.

It’s all hooey, of course. We watch all the time. Not only do we watch, but we take it all so seriously that we’ve gotten into vicious public shouting spats in highbrow restaurants about whether Jack Bauer’s brutal tactics will unnecessarily cost fictional lives. She screams that national security gives Jack moral sanction to conduct interrogations that involve lopping off the fingers of enemy combatants and I scream that she doesn’t know Jack about Jack.

The fights will start all over again Sunday with the long-awaited return of Bauer and “24.” That will kick off a run of must-see viewing for us that will likely lead to reduced productivity, sleepless nights and months of neglect for the poor kiddos who’ll exist solely on the dubious sustenance of Pop Tarts, Cheetos and Fresca.

Within the next month or so, our nights will be filled with “American Idol,” “Lost,” “24,” and “Survivor.” Sure, they all fall in the lowbrow category, but they all look like “Masterpiece Theater” compared to my very favorite show of all time.

That would be the magnificent “3rd Rock from the Sun.”

You can stuff M*A*S*H in Major Frank Burns’s rat-infested foot locker. Take the gang from Seinfeld and have them spend a Twilight-Zone sort of eternity looking for lost cars in endless parking garages.

Sure, those are great shows, but there’s never been a funnier, more laugh-out-loud hilarious show than “3rd Rock,” which is currently making the evening rounds on TV Land starting at 11 p.m. EST.

The absurd premise is based on four aliens -- Tom, Dick, Harry and Sally Solomon -- who take human form and come to earth to study our habits. They end up in Rutherford, Ohio, where Dr. Dick Solomon, played by John Lithgow, teaches incomprehensible physics to dimbulb students and craves earthly delights with his office mate, Dr. Mary Albright, played by the wonderful Jane Curtin.

The cast is uniformly excellent, but the peerless Lithgow steals the show.

The so-called great actors of the day leave me utterly cold. To me, acting normal isn’t acting. I sit mere barstools away from six guys who on any given day can out-surly the acclaimed Sean Penn. These guys act like they hate their jobs, their ex-wives, the man we elected president and anyone who cheers for the Chargers to beat the Steelers on Sunday (I’m right there with them on that last one).

If they ever give an Oscar for chronic misery, I have a barful of nominees ready for the red carpet, a unwelcome stroll they’ll reflexively say they hate.

But my pulse races anytime I see truly great overacting. And there’s never been more over-the-top overacting than that which is done by the incomparable Lithgow, in my opinion the greatest overactor ever.

The episode where Dick Solomon takes over as the relentlessly pompous director of the high school version of Romeo & Juliet should be required viewing in acting schools that have been churning out generation after generation of robotic actors who’ve been brainwashed into thinking guys like Moe, Larry and Curly are lowbrow.

Watch for it. That particular episode is called “Romeo, Juliet & A Dick.”

That’s another thing. What must have been intended to be a great subversive inside joke is now splashed all over the screen anytime a viewer checks out the program guide. Nearly every episode includes the name Dick in the title.

Some examples: “Father Knows Dick;” “Will Work For Dick;” “Eleven Angry Men and a Dick;” “I Brake For Dick;” “I Enjoy Being a Dick;” “Angry Dick,” and the monumentally relevant, “These Dicks They Are A Changin’.”

For those of you raised by sensitive sorts in cloistered environments, each of these titles is intentionally freighted with a double meaning. And to lowbrows like me, each is uproariously funny.

I doubt the brilliant producers of the show ever imagined the viewers would see the actual titles flashed up on the screen of a station watched by children, but youthful innocence has a short shelf life these days.

So, no, we don’t watch much TV. Just the shows mentioned above supplemented with near-nightly viewings of “3rd Rock.” I purchased the entire six-season run (1996-02) when it came out on DVD three years ago. It is one of my most cherished possessions.

Val loves it, too, but she takes exception when I say the “Romeo, Juliet & A Dick” episode is the best. She prefers “Dick ‘The Mouth’ Solomon” where Tommy and Sally fall under the sway of a guido they mistakenly believe to be a vicious mob hitman. She insists it’s the funniest “3rd Rock” ever.

On this point, we disagree.

You should see the gape-jawed stares we get in highbrow restaurants when I scream at her that she doesn’t know Jack about Dick.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Your photo ID needs more menace

I want my Pennsylvania driver’s license photo to be as repulsive as most celebrity mug shots.

That’s why I was thrilled last week to receive notice that I had four full weeks to get a new picture taken before my license expires. That’s plenty of time for my performance art to bear its rotten fruit.

I’m already on Day 5 of what will be a month-long project to make myself as photographically menacing as indecency permits. I won’t shave. I won’t groom and I’ll practice the kind of sullen glare that makes approaching police officers unholster their weapons. Once I’m done you’ll practically see the cartoon stink lines shooting off my picture.

This is the logical reverse of the way most people prepare for their photo ID snapshots. They primp, they floss and, ugh, they smile coyly at the camera like it’s a glamour shot destined for an illicit lover’s boudoir.

But friends and loved ones rarely get even a peek. In fact, the only people who’re ever likely to see this picture are trigger-happy police officers, surly clerks or the despotic airport minions who hold our timely lives in their hands.

And it makes zero sense to robotically possess and produce a beaming piece of laminated sunshine whenever the trouble starts to brew.

Think about it: The only time you ever need to show your driver’s license is when someone thinks you’re up to no good. You’re either driving erratically, your check is suspect or accountability is required to prevent some awful airline crime. These are times of inherent tension. One wrong move and you could be arrested, embarrassed or detained.

In each of these instances, it’s likely you’ll be appearing several grades below the perky attractiveness exhibited in your photo ID.

The only time a smiling license makes sense is when a lottery official needs to verify your winnings and when was the last time you or anyone you know had that kind of luck?

So it makes sense to scowl. I’ve been doing this for the past 20 years now and you’d be amazed at the number of times my criminal looking photo has contrarily gotten me out of trouble.

Because in my life I am generally friendly and presentable. I smile at strangers, usually dress nicely and maintain a pleasant and unthreatening manner. I’m the exact opposite of the guy pictured on my ID, which is the very first thing officers see before they even look at the real you.

I’ll never forget the double and triple takes I got a bunch of years ago when an officer pulled me over late one night on my way home from the tavern. His alert eyes widened at my picture. He tugged at his holster.

His flashlight illuminated a picture of a dangerous hooligan with a scraggly four-week growth. The man in the picture had bloodshot eyes. His cheek bore a fresh pink scratch. His ungroomed nose hairs Rapunzeled down in front of his lips like scrub straps dancing in a car wash.

It was my masterpiece.

Me, I smiled at him like I was a favorite nephew. I’m convinced he saw me, the criminal picture and subliminally concluded I was once fully corrupt and had now turned my life completely around. Maybe church or a good woman had set me straight. Maybe I was now a productive member of society who’d been out for a nostalgic night of billiards with the old gang down at the neighborhood pub.

Of course, none of that was true, but who among us wants to erect obstacles in front of someone striving to improve? Certainly not this officer.

Not only did the guy let me go, he practically blew me a kiss. And that’s not uncommon. Airline counter personnel are even more receptive to my Pygmalion transformation. We joke, laugh and I usually get a sweeter seat assignment.

The only time it’s ever failed me was back in about 1988 when I was arrested -- I swear I was innocent -- for drunk and disorderly conduct. I later argued in vain before a magistrate that I’d been drunk and disorderly for the entirety of the 1980s so the arrest was arbitrary enough to warrant dismissal.

That was a long time ago. I’ve learned since then. I’m older, wiser, more mature. I’m a sober and composed member of a society cheerfully intent on working for the greater good. I’m the kind of guy who helps little old ladies across the street and lost kittens down from trees.

It’s just that for the next four weeks I won't look anything like it.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pvt. Cheney's War

Jesus teaches we should love everybody, but I see Dick Cheney and I still can’t pull it off. Cheney’s been saying goodbye lately and it always reminds me about what I detest in the man. He’s an arrogant bully. He’s a war monger who enjoyed five deferments to dodge duty in Vietnam. He’s a dour and intolerant moralist with gay offspring and two DUIs under his belt.

Still, I believe in Jesus and His teachings so last year I tried to imagine a side of Cheney that would explain it all. I wrote the following story about how a spy nicknamed “Curveball” sold Cheney on the war in Iraq (true) and how a pot-smoking pacifist named “Screwball” was there with him when he went to fight it (preposterous fantasy).

I pitched the story all around and it went no where. Still, It thought it was a fun comic-book sort of piece that never got the attention it deserved. But what the hell do I know? It’s currently residing in “The Orphanage” section of and on the story page at

But anytime I’m asked to speak to students, one of them invariably charms me by saying something flattering about my story of Pvt. Cheney’s War.

Anyway, I’m running it here as we bid Cheney adieu and I can look forward to the day he dies where I’ll enjoy a good smoke, a sip of bourbon and do a toast to the heroic shadow Cheney I’d like to believe is in there someplace.

Here’s the story. It’s about 3,400 words long so any readers game enough had better start guzzling some coffee.

“Curveball” sold Cheney on Iraq War; “Screwball” was there when he went to fight it

Thoughtful students of military history consider it one of the all-time great “what-ifs:” What if Dick Cheney had, instead of seeking and receiving five Vietnam draft deferments, volunteered to fight and used all his apparent courage, wiles and soldierly savvy to battle in the rice paddies and jungles of Southeast Asia?

This isn’t mere speculative horse play like, “What if Adolph Hitler had developed the first atom bomb?” No, because we all know what would have happened had Cheney fought.

Clearly, Cheney would have kicked ass. He single-handedly could have whipped enemy armies into submission. Entire cultures would have shifted and words like Woodstock and Watergate would never have acquired their touchstone historical significance.

Think about it. If Cheney the politician ever deployed to soldierly pursuits the same tactics, drive and martial bearing he’s used as George W. Bush’s vice-president, we would have witnessed the sort of warrior whose career would have reshaped national histories. The name Cheney would today rank up there with Napoleon and Patton.

How do we know this?

Because, after exhaustive research and carefully leaked intelligence, it can now be revealed that Dick Cheney, the uber-soldier, has finally answered the call. An unimpeachable source reveals why Cheney’s been spotted dozing off during cabinet meetings. You’d be tired too if you were as active as Cheney’s been.

The source is code named “Screwball.”

This is his story.

SCREWBALL: “I was protesting at an Army recruitment center in 2003 when this dark SUV pulled up and this unassuming man gets out and looked me right in the eye. I lowered my “NO BLOOD FOR OIL!” sign and said, “Aren’t you . . ?” He put one finger over his lips and gave a sly grin. I never figured this rumpled old man I’d spent so many hours deriding as an out-of-touch bumbler could be so instantly electrifying. His eyes burned with a sense of mission and purpose. He walked to the door of the recruitment center and pulled it open. He turned around and froze me with that crooked, disarming smile I’d come to know so well over the next 30 months of hell and camaraderie. ‘You comin’?’ he asked. I still don’t know what made me do it, but I set my sign in the trash can and followed him inside. It would be too much to call the pull he exerted as messianic, but my snooping landlady had found out about the pot farm in the basement and I’d be leaving town the next day one way or another. I figured, ‘What the hell?’”

Screwball said “the old man” and he went through an accelerated basic training regimen that left a legacy of legends. His first night there he beat the camp arm wrestling champ with his left hand, and the runner-up with his right. Then he simultaneously slammed them both. When a hulking drill instructor ridiculed the idea of 65-year-old man running five kilometers with a 40-pound pack on his back, Cheney picked up the 240-pound drill instructor up, threw him over his back, and ran 10 clicks with the sergeant screaming the whole way. The daily exertions tested his pacemaker so he asked that a Jeep and some jumper cables be kept handy. When the device gave out, night or day, Cheney would run to the Jeep, grab the jumper cables and give himself a 300-volt pick-me-up.

“I’ll never forget the sight of him glowing out there on that obstacle course at midnight, ‘Working off the wattage,’ he called it,” Screwball said. “But, for me, the best was sitting around the campfire, exhausted, when he’d pull out that beat up old guitar of his and play Bob Dylan protest songs. When one grunt asked him if he thought playing these pacifist old hippie songs wasn’t sort of unpatriotic, Cheney just smiled and said, ‘The constitution we’re fighting to defend guarantees Mr. Dylan the same right to compose his sentiments as it does me to sing them off-key.’ I remember looking around that circle when he was singing, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and thinking ‘There are sides to this man no one’s ever seen.’ But it wasn’t all serious. Cheney was nicknamed ‘The Blue Darter’ because no one had ever seen anyone light farts the way he could. Talk about your WMD!

“One night after he’d put the guitar away and we were just sitting there sipping our beers, I asked why he was doing all this and how on earth he’d planned on keeping it secret. He just sort of sighed and said, ‘I figured to win the Global War on Terror, my country needed men like me out there on the front lines. Then he gave this world-weary little smile and said, “And, son, secrets are what I do best.’ Little did I know how honest he was being.”

Within mere months of their deployment, Pvt. Cheney and Screwball had become relied upon by commanders to complete the high-risk missions that made battle-hardened veterans compose their final thoughts and pin them to their pillows in case they didn’t make it back. It was after one of these that Cheney unwittingly insinuated himself into the Abu Ghraib scandal.

“We’d been in a pitched battle with this nasty little nest of Ramadi insurgents,” Screwball said. “They’d wounded two of our men, including our translator. We were pinned down, getting low on ammo, and Cheney thought it was time to bluff. I tell you, the man could make a nice living playing poker. He gave himself a quick jolt from the Jeep then stood up. Miraculously, the hail of hellfire fell silent as he emerged from behind the barricades. Stone-faced and in flawless Arabic, he yelled, ‘Now, you men don’t want to die and I don’t want to kill you. I’m coming up and we’re going to talk about how we can resolve this without any more bloodshed.’

“It was the bravest thing I ever saw. His pacemaker was detonating IEDs with every resolute step, but he never flinched. Something about his stride and his gaze told the insurgents they were about to deal with a man of honor. One of them set down his rifle and came out. Soon, he gestured for the other men to come out, and one-by-one 15 of them did, including one young boy, a noncombatant, who just wanted to hand some sweets to this brave American who’d single-handedly ended the gunfire on his street so he could go back to his studies. Touched, Cheney pulled a balloon from his vest, inflated it with one mighty gust and with the quick efficiency of a crisp salute, he twisted it into a little purple poodle for the grateful youth.

“One of our guys rushed to secure their wrists behind their back, but Cheney held up a hand and said, ‘That won’t be necessary. I’ve assured these men they’ll be taken into custody and given a fair hearing. Some will certainly be detained, but I think most will be allowed to return to their families after hearing a rather persuasive pitch from an impartial Iraqi police recruiter. I understand there’s a justice center nearby. I’ve asked one of them to drive us there. The place is called Abu Ghraib. I read about it during months of thoughtful study I gave before, with heavy heart, I decided war was our only option. Abu Ghraib’s a place where that misguided tyrant Saddam Hussein used to actually torture prisoners. Now, the Coalition of the Willing is taking what Abu Ghraib meant and standing it on its head.’”

The men arrived at the prison and Cheney turned them in for routine processing. Cheney took the opportunity to shave off a two-week growth of snow white beard that, combined with his usual mirthful demeanor, had led the men to affectionately start calling him “Santa Claus” and with a playful tease, “St. Dickolas.”

The shorn beard wouldn’t be the only dramatic alteration in Cheney’s appearance. A crimson tint flushed across his face as he entered the interrogation room. “His” prisoners were naked and stacked in a human pyramid.

“I want to know who ordered this!” he hollered. “This is not they way the United States of America treats its prisoners. If Donald Rumsfeld ever hears about this, he’ll be furious!”

He ordered all the guards to gather and then turned to assist the naked prisoners as they awkwardly regrouped. In quiet Arabic, he repeatedly apologized as he led the men to the officer’s lounge where he handed each a bath towel, along with a solemn vow assuring that he personally would see that their dignity would be respected henceforth. To a young soldier, he said, “Get these men a hot meal, some new clothes and give them this.”

It was a dog-eared copy of the Koran.

“But, sir --”

“Yes, it’s my Koran, and no I don’t want it back. I want you to have it, soldier, after they’ve finished with it. I think it’ll help shed some light on the misunderstandings we’re having over our differences between our two great religions. I won’t be needing it as I’ve committed most of it to memory. I suggest you do the same. Now, can I count on you, son, to give these men a fresh perspective on what it means to be an American prisoner?”

“Yes, sir! Sir!”

“I know I can.”

With that Cheney, turned and walked ramrod straight to address the guards. He began in a quiet voice.

“I don’t know how long this abuse has been going on, but I know this: It ends here,” his finger tapped the table with each word for emphasis. “You have to understand that what happens here could affect our men and women who are subsequently held captive. It’s as simple as the Golden Rule. You shouldn’t consider yourselves jailers. Rather you should think of yourselves as ambassadors for freedom. If you want to build a naked pyramid, lead by example. The prisoners may see you, shall we say, letting your guard down, and want to join in the fun.”

With this little joke, Cheney deftly broke the tension. He asked if anyone had any questions. One soldier tentatively raised her hand and Cheney gave her a nod.

“Sir, pictures have been taken. Pictures of the prisoners in compromising positions. Lots of them. Should we have them destroyed?”

Cheney slowly shook his head with weary resignation. He turned to the chalkboard and began writing. “This is the number of Seymour Hersh. He’s a respected journalist at The New Yorker magazine. Anyone with pictures of these degrading actions should call Mr. Hersh and let him decide how to handle this story. Remember, nothing sanitizes like a free press.”

Cheney walked out the door and was surprised to see his “captives” waiting to greet him. “They wanted to thank him,” Screwball said. “They all shook his hand. One of them asked if they could have a picture taken with him. He laughed and said he didn’t think that was a good idea. But they looked so disappointed. We were running late already for our next mission, but he told me to have a seat. He went to his pack and pulled out a pad, a pencil and a collapsible easel. He began to scribble furiously, looking back and forth between the men and the paper. He was done in a jiffy. When he showed it, the whole room erupted in laughter. He’d drawn a pyramid with him and all the prisoners. It was from the rear perspective with all the men smiling and looking over their shoulders. It was this big stack of olive-shaded rear ends and one big ol’ white one at the top. In the picture, each of the men were looking back over their shoulders and the faces were incredibly detailed. And right at the top, Dick had drawn himself. He tore it out, handed it over and left the room to cheers.”

Cheney’s warning about Abu Ghraib backlash proved tragically prophetic when he and Screwball’s luck ran out during a high-risk dead end mission south of Fallujah.

“The day started out like any other, with us waking up to the smells and sounds of Dick starting the day. No matter what had happened during the previous night, Cheney was always up first to make coffee, help with breakfast, and spend the quiet time composing the dirty, personalized limericks he used to recite from memory about men in the unit. No one escaped his friendly needling. We’d drag ourselves out of bed, bone-tired, and the site of him standing there in his apron with that little bemused smirk on his face, so tickled with himself that he’d managed to find another multi-syllabic rhyme for the F-word, would always perk us right up. Anybody who saw his daily regimen in Iraq would never begrudge him a couple quick winks during cabinet meetings back in Washington.”

Screwball said the mission was given to Private Cheney after a group of Army Rangers deemed it “too risky.” Cheney was a private, true, but the commanding officers all deferred to him, not because he was vice president, but because he’d earned it their respect with cool-headed battlefield heroics. Cheney had no fear of death. Screwball said contingency plans had been made that if were ever KIAd, his body would be transferred to a private ranch in Texas where an unfortunate hunting “accident” would be arranged. Attorney Harry Whittington had patriotically volunteered to be shot in the face by Cheney in 2006 to add eventual plausibility to just such a scenario.

That day’s mission had the distinct possibility of setting those macabre plans in motion.

Cheney and Screwball were to infiltrate a guard unit at a Fallujah mosque where he was supposed to snip some beard hairs off an influential cleric for DNA testing to verify whether or not he was, as intelligence maintained, the illegitimate love child of Henry Kissinger and Golda Meir, a revelation that had the potential of tilting the Middle East on its head.

“Lots of guys said it was nuts, a suicide mission, but Cheney hushed the room when he said, ‘The men and women who came up with this intelligence are clear-headed professionals. They wouldn’t mislead us on something as relevant as this. And if they tell us something is so, we should take them at their word. Where would this country be if it questioned the veracity of its intelligence communities?’” Screwball recalled him saying.

“I was nervous as all get-out that day and Cheney -- the guy’s so sensitive -- picked right up on it,” Screwball said. “Right before we reached the drop zone, he raised a gentle hand to give my cheek a fatherly pat. He told me everything was going to be fine and that we had the angels on our side. Then, his expression changed to one of cockeyed curiosity. He reached up behind my ear and pulled out a silver dollar. The ol’ son of a gun was always practicing his sleight of hand magic. I tucked the dollar in my vest pocket and then followed him out of the plane and into the darkness and the danger.”

For a mission so fraught with peril, everything went eerily smoothly until, according to classified documents, Cheney pulled out some scissors and approached the sleeping cleric in his bed. “I was watching the door,” Screwball said. “Cheney reached out and tugged at the cleric’s beard to cut a swath off for testing. Just then the holy man shifted in the bed and the tug on his beard woke him. He looked up in Cheney’s eyes and, as if in a dream, smiled peacefully. Cheney smiled back. So the cleric reached up and gave Cheney’s beard a playful tug. Of course, the cleric instantly recognized him the second the sham beard came off. His eyes practically shot out of his head and he started screaming ‘Cheney! Cheney! It is Cheney!’”

Screwball said a swarm of guards raced in, grabbed Cheney, and began firing in his direction. Two shots struck him in the chest. When the smoke had cleared, the cleric leaned over to taunt Cheney. “See, we have killed your friend.” Cheney smiled and said, “I don’t think so.” He bent down toward the supine Screwball and felt in his chest. He pulled out a twice-dented silver dollar.

“He winked at me and said, ‘I told you the angels would be watching out for us.’”

The men and their gear were taken for what they were told would be “enhanced interrogation” methods. They were strapped to cold metal tables in a cinder block room illuminated by a single bulb swaying from the ceiling.

“But there would be no interrogation,” Screwball said. “There was only torture. I lay there helpless as they put a burlap sack over Cheney’s head. They told him he’d be free to go if he’d renounce the imperialist war and the man they called, ‘The donkey Bush.’ He knew what was coming. That’s when I was sure Dick Cheney wasn’t leaving that room alive.”

The prisoner’s head was tilted backwards off the table. A hose was brought in, hooked up, turned on and adjusted. Screwball felt a chill as a rope of cold water splashed up on his bare leg.

“Anybody who says waterboarding isn’t torture should have to watch it being done to someone they love the way I love Dick Cheney. It tore at my heart. It went on for what seemed an eternity. They just kept pouring the cold water on his face over and over. If I could have broken free from my bonds, I’d have killed those four men with my bare hands. Then through his gurgling, we could hear him forming words.”

Was he ready to talk? His interrogator pulled off the burlap sack and asked, “What are you saying?”

“His face was blue and he murmured some barely audible words. His interrogator leaned in and snapped at him to speak up. It was a whisper too low for me and the other men to hear. But a profound change had come over this vicious man’s face. He stood up, shook his head, and said, ‘He’s saying, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’”

Screwball said the man said he’d heard those words before. Who’d said them, he demanded.

“Jesus Christ,” Cheney coughed.

The men gasped. After some consultation, Cheney and Screwball were released, but not before Cheney reached into a heavy sack Screwball had seen him lugging all over Iraq through the most hazardous situations.

“I thought it was medicine, maps, munitions, you know, stuff vital to him and our missions. Maybe important V.P. stuff. Turns out I was wrong. What he’d been lugging all over Iraq was stacks of the Holy Bible. He handed one to each of the Iraqis. They took them and immediately began to embark on what can only be described as a journey of philosophical awakening. Then, before we left the room, he handed one to me.”

That’s the story of Pvt. Richard Cheney’s recent exploits in Iraq.

Screwball took his Bible home to an undisclosed location. He says he reads it every night in his basement amidst the lush jungle of hydroponic marijuana plants he grows under rows of illegally rigged heat lamps. He said he hasn’t seen Cheney in months, but is still amused to find filthy limericks text messaged to him on a regular basis. A damaged silver dollar dangles from a chain around his neck, a talisman of truthfulness, he swears.

Cheney’s office refused to confirm the account and said the vice president, being otherwise occupied, would be unavailable for comment on the Screwball story.

Friday, January 2, 2009

No resolutions for Mr. Perfect

After a careful round of calculating self-analysis, I’ve concluded there’s no need for me to resolve anything to improve in 2009. I’m already an outstanding family man, friend, employee and all-around great guy.

I cherish most of my prime vices -- bourbon, cigars, beer, sloth -- and nurture them like a farmer who loves a garden full of weeds. So those are off-limits.

But here are some popular resolution topics and why I don’t need any amendments:

• Fatherhood -- I don’t know of any fathers who spend as much time with their children as I do with mine. Of course, in their defense, most of those fathers have real jobs with real deadlines and whip-cracking bosses. But if one of my daughters wants me to help her build a snowman I just call my buddies at the bar and tell them I’m going to be 20 minutes late for Happy Hour. Resolve to be a better father? How could I?

• Husband -- My shortcomings in this arena as perceived by one expert witness -- my wife -- are that I’m lazy, can’t repair common household malfunctions, refuse to pick up a paint brush, don’t care about how the house/lawn looks, blah, blah, blah. I’d like to offer rebuttals to these hurtful truths, but years ago I resolved to be peerlessly honest so guilty I must plead. Still, I once overheard her telling our oldest daughter that the secret to happiness was finding a man who could make you laugh. That certainly didn’t lead me to pick up any paint brushes -- there’s nothing funny about a paint brush. But I did resolve to do more entertaining juggling in front of her and to always do it naked.

• Be a better employee -- I’m always struck by the scene in “A Christmas Story” where Ralphie turns in his theme and imagines the teacher dancing across the room exhalting “A-plus! Plus! Plus! Plus!” as his euphoric fellow students carry him around in triumph. That’s exactly what I imagine is going on in the editorial offices at magazines seconds after I’ve hit the send button on some assigned or spec piece. Sadly, the best I can hope for is two weeks later the editor writing back to say “I like the lead, but the rest is a mess. Do the whole thing over and have it to me by the weekend.” Still, I always maintain the most tender feelings for those first drafts. I can only hope all those editors uniformly resolve to go easier on the Latrobe guy next time he turns in something he’s convinced is genius.

• Spirituality -- I pray constantly. Of course, I’m praying that I’ll hit the lottery, that the cop behind the speed gun is napping and that the people to whom I owe great sums of money will be transferred to Bangalore, India. I once came up with what I thought was a great line regarding spirituality: “I used to pray for money and got nothing. Now I pray for wisdom and need nothing.” I pray daily it’s a line I’ll one day actually embrace. Still, I think the line qualifies me as being plenty spiritual so to hell with that sort of resolution.

• Be less egotistical: The only reason I spend so much time telling myself I’m so great is because so many publishers and editors spend so much time telling me how much I stink. If I didn’t have this enormous, runaway fortress of an ego, I’d probably be forced to admit I’m a failure, chuck my writing ambitions and get at a job that might yield actual income. I’m not about to do that.

I suppose I could resolve to be less transparent when confronted with something I believe is absurdly preposterous -- like rolling my eyes when my wife suggests I take time out from watching the 12-hour John Wayne marathon to do something like clean the bathtub.

Her insistence that my eye rolling drives her crazy has made me more attuned to others who do it to me. Like when I mentioned to family and friends that I am once again making no resolutions because I am unable to detect any personal flaws that need correcting.

Typical was the gushing praise I got from friends who said things like, “Ohhh, sure! You’re perfect just the way you are! How could any resolutions possibly improve on the you we all love so much? Yeah, you’re the best! The best!”

Maybe I should resolve to strengthen my abilities to self-analyze because I detected several of these supporters extravagantly rolling their eyes as they offered this warm praise.

Or maybe, as a first step, I should just resolve to learn to differentiate between praise and sarcasm.