Friday, February 27, 2009

Chris is a modest guy: Strongly disagree

It would be rude to ask people to fill out comment cards on our behavior so I’m doing one on myself.

I just got back from a splendid trip to Amelia Island, Florida, where I endured the usual barrage of comment cards from restaurants, hotels, car services and golf courses. I don’t mind. I fill them all out.

My answers are probably not very helpful because I tend to say only nice things, but I’m on a sort of vacation, I’m in a good mood, my access to fine liquor is unhindered. What’s not to like?

Agree strongly Agree Not applicable Disagree Disagree strongly
-- Agree strongly --

That’s generally the form of the questions I was asked and I’ll stick with that format for my self-evaluation about how I performed as a guest on a golf press trip where I was the only guy out of 14 women.

• Chris is a good listener
Agree strongly Agree Not applicable Disagree Disagree strongly

-- Agree --

I knew going in that nothing good could result from any instance when I opened my mouth. If it was talking, something stupid might come out. If I was eating, something disgusting might fall out or dangle off of my mustache while other diners stared gape-mouthed at my barnyard table manners.

So I did more listening than talking. Besides, I work all by myself and spend hours honestly talking to myself as I pace the office in a restless quest for insight. They say great men like MacArthur and Churchill did this too in advance of momentous decisions.

I wonder if they wrestled with questions like, “Should I have a beer for lunch with my fish sandwich or just sip some iced tea?”

• Chris has a handsome beard
Agree strongly Agree Not applicable Disagree Disagree strongly

-- Disagree strongly --

For those of you new to the blog -- and I was tickled to learn this now includes a handful of friendly babes with whom I went to high school -- I’ve spent the last eight weeks growing a full beard to look as unsightly as possible for my recent Pennsylvania driver’s license photo.

I trimmed it up before I left and fancied I looked dashing. And, perhaps, for that moment it did. But by the time I’d landed in Jacksonville, it again looked like I was masquerading as Ted Kaczynski. It is a terrible beard, a detriment to my appearance and its days are numbered.

Still, if I ever get pulled over, a cop will see my menacing ID, take a look at my fresh, smiling face and likely conclude I’ve turned my life around since the date the picture was taken. He might give me a break, so the beard’s served its purpose.

• Chris is a nice dresser
Agree strongly Agree Not applicable Disagree Disagree strongly

-- Agree --

Up until five years ago, I always dressed like a guy who at any minute could spring off a bar stool and go gut a deer -- and that included church clothes. But about five years ago I decided on social occasions I was always going to be one of the better dressed gents in the room. And I am.

I believe women appreciate this and other gentlemen respect it. It’s worth the money and the effort to make a good first impression and I’m certain I would have if it wasn’t for the hideous facial tumbleweed.

• Chris is a tightwad who mistreats the staff
Agree strongly Agree Not applicable Disagree Disagree strongly

-- Disagree strongly --

I believe it’s impossible to overtip the underpaid. I was disappointed that a 20 percent gratuity service charged was tacked onto every bill -- not because I begrudge the amount, but because I always try and exceed 20 percent. I want them to know I appreciate the friendliness they extend to me when I’m sure they’d rather be home playing with the kids than out pouring me booze and pretending they think I’m funny.

So when I throw in a couple of extra bucks on top of the hidden fee, they must conclude I’m an idiot who can’t read a simple receipt.

•Chris never drinks to excess

Agree strongly Agree Not applicable Disagree Disagree strongly

-- Agree strongly --
I’d never do that. It would be irresponsible of me and a slap in the face of any host kind enough to invite me on their trip. Always drink responsibly.

• Chris is never sarcastic
Agree strongly Agree Not applicable Disagree Disagree strongly
-- Disagree strongly --

Sometimes sarcasm is an easy shortcut when the truth could embarrass anyone kind enough to have hosted you on a fun trip.

• Chris has a modest, unassuming manner without any overbearing ego
Agree strongly Agree Not applicable Disagree Disagree strongly

-- Disagree strongly --

My massive ego, one I acknowledge is constructed without even skimpy foundational accomplishment, perplexes even me. I can’t explain why despite so much contrary evidence, I still think I’m smart, think I’m a great writer, an outstanding family man and am just drop-dead gorgeous. I think it must be a necessary self-defense mechanism that comes from toiling in a livelihood that is imbued with so much cruel and daily rejection.

I blame the runaway ego for not having any success or real income. God must realize that if He permitted me even marginal achievement, I’d be simply impossible to be around. Constant failure keeps me in check.

• Chris thinks asking his wife and daughters to fill out one of these helpful comment cards about him is a good idea
Agree strongly Agree Not applicable Disagree Disagree strongly

-- Disagree strongly --

Any detriments to lugging around a massive ego pale in comparison to the psychological harms I’d bear if I ever had to hear my wife and daughters comment on the areas where they think Daddy might deserve some constructive criticism.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Travel writer hits the road

Despite the toilet economy, there are still plenty of resorts that’ll pay to zoom travel writers like me around the planet for free. They do so in the hopes that we’ll write about them, a magazine or newspaper will run our stories and that people who worry about making their next mortgage payment will unholster their credit cards and dash off to the destination based solely on our words.

Me, I’d be thrilled if more of those people simply started buying more newspapers and magazines.

But I don’t make the rules. I just play by them. In the past month, I fielded offers to travel for free to Galveston, Myrtle Beach, Cabo San Lucas and Dubai. I declined them all. It wouldn’t be fair to the hosts for me to accept the cushy freebies without some likelihood of a pay off, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to deprive my lovely wife and our daughters of four days to bask in my wisdom, my humor and the happy opportunity of having someone around to viciously ridicule for merely being born a boy.

I accepted one to lovely Amelia Island, Florida, because I’m optimistic I can find someone who’ll run the eventual story about the great golf, dining, beaches and playtime.

So I’m sitting here watching the sun come up over the Atlantic and writing a post that I know will infuriate my jealous buddies, puzzle journalists who still fret over dainty things like ethics and dumbfound my wife who still thinks I’m living some kind of scam that’s bound to result in midnight calls requesting costly bail.

I love to travel and meet interesting people.

I flew from Pittsburgh to Jacksonville through Atlanta. The first leg of the trip was with a woman who was terrified of flying. The second with a man who isn’t afraid of anything.

The woman was a sweet grandmother. That conjures up images of blue hair, rocking chairs, knitted doilies and automatic AARP subscriptions. But she was very pretty and must have had the first of her three children when she was a teenager.

I’m not saying she was hot, but if the plane engines happened to suck in a flock of geese I at least would have considered proposing we dash into the rest room for one last sport boink before the plane cratered into the Smokies.

Even landing didn’t stem her fears. A deliberately cruel co-worker told her that she was bound to get lost in Hartsfield. Nonsense, I said. I assured her she could find her way on her own, but my gate was right near hers and I’d be happy to escort.

She was so grateful I felt like I’d earned a Boy Scout badge. It reminded me of another time in Atlanta when I happened upon a confused traveler wearing exotic garb and carrying a bag that said she was from Egypt. She was standing at the base of one of those towering escalators and seemed frozen by an alien technology.

I sensed her fears and offered a reassuring arm. She seized it and off we went. By the end of the long ride, she looked buoyant enough to want to give it another go. It made me feel good at the time knowing I could shepherd an American guest through a scary new experience.

Now I wonder if I was wrong and she was just some village idiot. I mean, really, she flew overseas on a big shiny bird, saw dozens of other travelers get on the escalator without getting chewed to bits and she couldn’t figure it out herself?

I imagine her today working at some Department of Motor Vehicles making life hell for people who have to put up with her bone-headed bureaucracy and wishing a guy like me would have just left her to rot down there at the bottom of the escalator.

The guy next to me on the next leg of the flight was a U.S. Marine and I was thrilled. I always look forward to meeting anyone who’s served and can always count on them being uniformly great guys.

John didn’t let me down. He told me about having served all over the world and in the first Gulf War. He was raising a 16 year old daughter all by himself after his wife got fed up with military life and just up and left with another guy while he was serving. He was an airplane engine mechanic who’d turned down a lucrative job working in Key West at a factory that makes bombs. He said he didn’t want to earn a living manufacturing things that killed strangers.

I told him about my daughters and my so-called job.

He couldn’t have been nicer and kept saying, “Guys like me and you . . .” I was flattered, but wonder if maybe he meant men who at one time had been involved in the biological function of contributing to conceiving daughters.

I can only aspire to be a guy like him.

I bought us a couple of $7 beers and gave the flight attendant $16. She said I’d given her too much. I told her it was a tip. As we were landing, she came back and gave us two more beers.

This trip was going great!

At Amelia Island Plantation, the group meeting confirmed what the itinerary had hinted. I was the only male among 15 writers. I was hoping some guys would be along with whom to golf and joke and do guy things. I love a guy golfing trip. But it was not to be.

But the ladies are all wonderful. They treated me so well at our introductory dinner. They laughed at my jokes, asked insightful questions about my career and seemed pleased that I did things like hold doors, listened attentively and ate with silverware.

It couldn’t have gone better.

This is one of those times when it’s absolutely electrifying being me. Because I know I can pull off being a dashing gentleman for about two hours. I can charm a group of women with my manners and wit over the course of cocktails and dinner.

Then at any minute during any exchange I could say something so reckless, so offensive, that I’ll be the week’s pariah, shunned by more than a dozen women who’ll disdain me as the living, breathing embodiment of their worst suspicions about my beleaguered gender.

I don’t know when it’s going to happen. I don’t know what it’ll be. But it’ll probably be spectacular and it definitely will be asinine.

I’ll keep you posted when it does.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Chimps gone wild in tabloid world

Many sober and sensible journalists advised me never to mention the eight years and 1,000 stories I did as an offbeat feature reporter for National Enquirer. They said the toxic connection would forever doom my professional advancement.

I considered what they said, gave it its due then immediately started stapling my greatest hits from those swashbuckling days to the resumes and queries I was sending out in 2000.

The full color clips were of me getting sledge hammered while laying on a bed of nails, gaining 20 pounds in one week on the eat-like-Elvis diet, and spending a day wearing a kilt ala Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” to see if women found it sexy (my disappointment that they didn’t was mitigated by the joy I got out of mooning wise guys who ridiculed me for my skirt).

I figured the unusual package would inoculate me against the kind of stick-in-the-mud editors I’d want to avoid in the first place, and it would ratchet up interest from editors looking for reporters with unconventional backgrounds.

I wanted to prove a guy could emerge from a scandalous tabloid background and eventually succeed writing cerebral essays and prosaic features for prestigious publications.

And, of course, I was right. Those clips led directly to nice long runs with some top magazines that gave me the clips I needed to get some at bats in the big leagues.

But I’ve spent much of the last week feeling nostalgic for those days because of the story that’s dominated the national news all week, and you know I don’t mean the billion-dollar bailouts flying around Washington like so much confetti.

Of course, I’m talking about Travis the chimp that went ape. Or as the tabloid New York Post calls him, “Furious George!!!”

It reminded me of the dozens of stories I did about people making ill-advised decisions involving living with various creatures beyond the realm of what’s commonly considered domesticated.

There was Joe Taft who in 1997 shared his home with 24 tigers and lions -- “Indiana Man Thinks Killer Cats are Grrrreaattt!!!”

He ran an exotic feline rescue center from his rural home. “I’ve had as many as nine big cats in my house at once,” he told me. “The come and go as they please. The big tiger sits in my recliner and watches TV. She likes National Geographic Explorer and Bugs Bunny.”

I remember complimenting him on raising well-rounded maneaters.

There were stories about 24-foot pythons, alligators, giraffes and elephants and the difficulties and messes that went along with sharing your property with animals that usually reside in zoos or jungles.

I don’t remember ever doing a story about a woman sharing a home with a chimp because I’m certain the demanding Enquirer editors would have dismissed it as too routine, although the lover-like relationship between Travis and his nut job owner might have earned a nod on a slow week.

But it’s hard for outsiders to appreciate how sensational a story had to be to earn an assignment.

Case in point: I remember one time seeing a story about an armless woman who cooked, kept house and drove a vehicle with her feet -- all outstanding elements. But the item that caught my eye was that she also worked as a secretary. I turned in the lead that started out, “Armless woman types 50 words a minute -- with her feet!”

I still recall the rush I’d get when I’d see a story as compelling as that one. I thought it couldn’t miss and was crestfallen when the editor told me not to bother. How come, I wanted to know?

“Fifty words a minute? That’s not that much.”

Whenever I teach a class, I always mention my Enquirer experience and stress that aspiring writers should get into writing, not for any perceived glory that comes with writing for high-profile magazines, but for the pure joy of telling a great story.

So now I spend my days sitting around writing scattered essays about things like how to become more patient and compiling a growing stack of terse rejection letters for books that may never be published.

I’m just about where I wanted to be nine years ago when I set my goal to become a respected writer who works for prestigious magazines.

And I watch the news about Furious George and can only come up with one nagging question:

What the hell was I thinking?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Why I'll always give to the homeless

I could see the driver behind me shaking his head in a slow scold as I lowered the power window to hand the homeless guy a $5.

I was crawling through traffic in my Saturn Vue. The guy behind was turtleing along in an Escalade. The homeless guy was freezing his bony ass off begging alongside a Pittsburgh parkway. Guaranteed, either of our vehicles would have seemed like The Ritz to the bearded bum.

Had the situation been different, I might have enjoyed a philosophical discussion with Escalade about the virtues of giving to homeless people. It’s rare I come to any argument by way of the moral high ground, and I’ve heard and vanquished all the arguments against giving.

Tell me he’s just going to spend it on booze and I’ll ask if you’d prefer he run out and buy a new tie. Chances are good I’ll spend the same five on beers with buddies, too.

Say I’d be better off giving the money to a homeless shelter and I’ll say I do that, too.

Argue that studies show I may be perpetuating his homelessness with my handouts and I’ll point out anecdotes that refute those studies.

For the past few years whenever I’m likely to encounter a homeless person, I always lunch someplace where I can order tasty takeout wrapped to go for the first homeless person I see. This is particularly gratifying if I’m hungry for one of Pittsburgh’s famous Primanti’s cheese steak sandwiches.

It’s a tremendous treat (meat, slaw and fries on Italian bread) for those of us who have access to three hot meals a day. But giving one to a homeless person always reminds me of giving Christmas presents to 2 year olds. They can’t comprehend the why of the situation. They’re just overjoyed by the gesture.

The Bible says the ideal is to treat every homeless person as if they were Jesus Christ, Himself.

Well, for the love of God, that’s unrealistic. Am I supposed to flop down there on the sidewalk with him, hold my nose and -- Amen! -- wait for him start preaching? Should I take him home and give him tubby time after my daughters are done?

I suppose I could crucify him, but that’d likely to lead to controversy.

So I do what I can. I hand the guy a few bucks, look him right in the eye and say, “You hang in there, man.”

I have a slightly different perspective on giving to the homeless than most people for the simple reason that I know what it’s like to be homeless.

It was for a story about 10 years ago. I had to a day on a busy Pittsburgh sidewalk with a “Will Work for Food” sign. I spent a couple of weeks gruffing up, put on my filthiest duds and -- thinking I might as well have a little fun with it -- stationed myself right off the bus stop where my dear white-haired Mom used to go to work.

I’ll save that part of the story for another time. I will say Mom came through with some change, some motherly warnings about other territorial panhandlers, but ultimately no offer to let me move back home.

In all, I got a measly $23 over about 10 hours of sidewalk begging. What stayed with me is how utterly worthless people made me feel. I was polite. Friendly. I spent that whole stifling August day trying to make earnest eye contact with every passerby. Few did. Sure, it was a gag, but I couldn’t believe how few people would even acknowledge the presence of a fellow human being in struggling circumstances.

I suppose that day launched my trajectory of becoming a compassionate liberal who snorts at people who fail to understand the vast gulf between that mindset and the masquerade some call compassionate conservatism.

Now, the flip side of the story: I spent the next day in the exact same spot, same get-up, but this time with a sign that read, “Why Lie? Need Beer Money. Let’s Party!!!”

Strangers high-fived me. I had one cab driver stop, leave his vehicle and give me $5 while his smiling fare waved a thumb’s up from the back seat. All told, I made $89.75 in just five hours.

I don’t know why I dream of making lots of money because if I did, I’m fairly certain I’d give it all away.

Even in this time of uncertainty and struggle, I’ve got more than so many unfortunates ever will. And I could lose all I have and it wouldn’t matter one bit. I’m confident I’ll never endure hunger or want.

You see, I still have that sign.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Designated Steroid User

Major League Baseball’s immersing itself in another hand-wringing episode over steroids and I’m once again left chagrined that my influence is so miniscule.

In fact, since the dog died, I can’t think of a single carbon-based entity that bends at all any of my wise suggestions.

My kids think I’m nuts. My wife tunes me out. My friends, even the drunks, don’t pay my ideas any attention.

Can you believe it?

And, of course, neither does Major League Baseball. That’s a pity because four years ago I offered a sensible compromise solution to the torturous problem of performance enhancing drugs laying waste to long cherished records.

Here it is:

Every Major League Baseball team gets a designated steroid user. As a purist, I’ve always loathed the designated hitter rule. That abomination could be banished and replaced with one player who is sanctioned to take as many performance-enhancing drugs as he can handle without collapsing in the batter’s box from heart failure.

There would be no need to asterisk sacred baseball records because baseball would have created an entirely new category: most home runs by a steroid user.

This would have the added benefit letting the medical community carefully study what happens when players ingest the sort of steroid overdoses that turn lab rats into a tiny Clydesdales.

I saw Barry Bonds play hundreds of games in Pittsburgh back when he was drug-free. The most remarkable change in him, to me, wasn’t the overall body size, but how much larger his head has grown. One book says his hat size grew from 7 1/8 to 7 1/2, a spurt that added an inch in circumferance to his noggin.

Sign him up as a designated steroids user and study the results. Who know? Maybe with prolonged use, maybe his brain will get bigger and bigger, too. Think of the possibilities:

“And in today’s news, Barry Bonds was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize bringing surprising peace to warring parties in the Middle East and between Yankee and Red Sox fans in the American League East.”

Commissioner Bud Selig’s even talking about going over the record book from the past 15 years, in effect wiping away some of my greatest memories from hundreds of games I’ve attended.

If that’s the case, I’m going to have to come up with a whole new non-steroid hightlight reel from those once golden years to replace the counterfeits. So here it is:

• April 8, 1991 -- Fuss bucket property owners erected a 10-foot chainlink fence between Three Rivers Stadium and Zagnuts bar. Our options included walking nearly 100 yards out of the way (unacceptable), waiting for an enterprising fan to shear a hole in the fence (might take hours), or scale the fence after already consuming too many ballpark beers. Three of us made it, but my big buddy Paul snagged his pants on a spur and ripped a hole that went clear from ass to ankle. He begged us to take him home so he could change. We did. Six hours and about four bars later.

• May 20, 1991 -- Many devoted baseball fans go their entire lives without ever snagging a foul ball. I caught one about two hours after my friends ridiculed me for giving $5 to a homeless man whose sign said “God Will Bless You For Your Donation.” My blessing ricocheted off a facade and came like a laser right between my eyes. I was holding a beer right handed and deftly caught the sizzler with my left. Didn’t spill a drop. The stadium erupted in cheers. Catching just one foul ball is one of the great tiny joys in life.

• Sept. 30, 1992 -- I used my newspaper press pass to gain free admission for me and three buddies into a playoff game. Then I took our four tickets, scalped them for an indecent profit and used the same press pass to get back in again for free. The ethics of this chicanery are, I admit, shameful. But so is charging me and my thirsty buddies up to $7.50 for a glass of beer so I have no regrets.

• June 20, 1993 -- We saw Barry Bond’s future ex-wife, the lovely Sun Bonds and Barry’s children, buying nachos at a Three Rivers concession stand with a microscopic portion of the $20 million or so Bonds was earning to play baseball. She fumbled a quarter and two dimes that fell into the filth at her feet. We watched in amazement as she ordered one of the kids to dig through the slop to get the change. Paul said, “Now be sure to give that to your Daddy.”

• May 17, 1994 -- I caught another foul ball.

• July 7, 1997 -- We heckled N.Y. Mets ballplayers and Dwight Gooden, Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman with such profane vigor that the trio of felonious bums actually looked up from the dugout, pointed and laughed at us. I don’t remember a single thing I said, but it was the only time in my life when I’ve understood the religious phenomenon of people speaking in tongues.

• August 26, 1999 -- I snagged my third foul ball.

• Sept. 24, 2003 -- I met my father for a Pirate game at Atria’s, a great bar in PNC Park, the Pirates shiny new stadium. We shook hands and made small talk with Steeler great Franco Harris who was in the bar being a friendly legend. After that I figured out a way to sneak into the new ballpark that we’d thought was impregnable to ticket cheats like me and my dad. It was the last ballgame I ever saw with Dad. There’s something about sneaking in that makes a $7.50 beer taste better.

And I can’t forget to mention Sept. 28, 2000. It was three days after the birth of our daughter, Josie, and the second to last ball game in the history of Three Rivers Stadium (yep, I attended the last one, too). My wife was furious.

My brother Ronald said, “I can’t believe you went to a baseball game three days after your first child was born.” I rationalized it by saying, “Hey, it was souvenir snowglobe night.”

He understood.

I’m staring at that lovely little snowglobe on my desk as I finish up this post. It means a lot to me.

Sure, it doesn’t consider any of my suggestions, but it’s never sassed me, either.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Folicular follies

I don’t think I’ve ever typed or said the word “folicular” before just now. I’m not even sure it’s a word, but if it isn’t it ought to be because it’s just so fun to say. I’m going to try and include it at least four more times in the following 700 words or so.

I suppose it’s enjoyable because it includes fun sounds like “folly” and “lick you” which conjures all sorts of fun things from lovers to lollipops.

I read a great quote last year from a professional golfer named Rory Sabbatini. He said, “Lick the lollipop of mediocrity once and you’ll suck it forever.” I keep trying to remember to use it, but as of yet have been unable to shoehorn it into any story or conversation.

Folicular (that’s twice) matters have been on my mind lots these days because I’ve never been hairier. I’m on the sixth week of a quest to look as beastly as possible for my new photo for my Pennsylvania driver’s license set to expire this week.

It’s always been my belief that the more menacing your ID mug shot appears, the greater the chances are you’ll get out of any speeding tickets or other unwanted run- ins with John Law. The theory being that if you appear more wholesome in person than the surly you does on your ID, the suspicious officer is likely to conclude you’re endeavoring to become a better person than you were when the disheveled shot was taken and he might give you a break.

Six weeks shows commitment but I hope to devote the majority of 2012 to the project before the the new one expires in 2013.

Still, this result is already being admired by family and friends who’ve been remarking on it as I get more and more hairy. My mother recoils when I drop off the kids. My impatient wife keeps asking if I’m ever going to shave again. My favorite was from a buddy who struggled to place whom I was starting to resemble.

“I know!” he said in a “eureka!” moment of recognition. “It’s Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.”

Perfect. It’s exactly the look I’m after. And, really, if you get past T.K.’s homicidal tendencies, there are many similarities. We both live in isolated homesteads. We both think technology’s moving along too quickly and we both write long-winded, typo-laden manifestos that are largely ignored by a general public that regards us as wackos.

For anyone, any change in our personal appearances naturally draws us to the mirror and I’ve spent a lot of time gazing in mine over the past six weeks. They say the eyes we’re born with remain the same size throughout our lives, but our ears and nose grow a little bit every day. I’ve spent so much time staring in the mirror I think I’ve begun detecting movement.

But it was folicular (that’s three) alterations that drew most of my attention. The beard at the chin is gray, but not uniformly so. It seems almost striped and thus appears skunk-like.

Draw your own conclusions.

But what is most fascinating to me is the one stout gray hair that is rising from just above my forehead like a unicorn’s horn. It’s twice as long as the other brown hairs, more coarse and robust, kind of like a towering redwood in a forest of sycamore.

I suppose there’s a Vesuvius of gray just beneath my scalp and it’s erupting through that one mother pore.

I’ll probably shave the beard in the next few weeks and look forward to 2012 when I’ll grow a facial tumbleweed that’ll sprawl across my next driver’s license.

I haven’t decided what I’ll do with that one gray hair, but I’m leaning toward preserving it.

It has proven itself too exceptional to be severed. It has not licked the lollipop of folicular mediocrity.

That’s four foliculars and I almost got to use the entirety of that great Sabbatini lollipop quote.

Plus in the time it’s taken me to write this manifesto, my beard has grown microscopically. So have my ears and nose.

The way things have been going for me lately, I’ll count this as a fairly productive morning.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Feeling the wrong kind of frisky

I popped out of bed this morning and saw a forecast that included five days of high temperatures in the 40s, 50s and the low 60s.

That means I’ve triumphed over another western Pennsylvania winter. Stick a fork in it. This one’s over. Sure, more biting weather may storm in, but it won’t endure. The most miserable season is behind and the loveliest one beckons.

This man-sized winter was a worthy foe. It included heavier than usual snowfalls, myriad school delays and a bitter stretch of subzero temperatures that threatened to turn my blood to the consistency of Slurpee sludge.

So now it’s time for a reckoning, a detailing of all there is to love and to loathe from the season when Mother Nature lays down and dies.

Wanna guess which list will be longer?

• Love -- Cuddling in front of the fireplace. There is no summer equivalent to the feeling of going from one extreme to the other like there is in going from an extended time freezing outside to coming in to loved ones and hot chocolate in front of cozy fire.

• Love -- Mouth-shagging snow flakes while waiting for the school bus with our tiny gigglers.

• Love -- Watching the morning news after a big snow fall and seeing them scroll through the school delays until finally-- yeah! -- Greater Latrobe is closed! Sure, I know it doesn’t apply to the parents who work, but out of euphoric kinship with the students I always, what the hell, take the day off, too.

• Love -- The onset of spring makes me feel like a wrongly convicted man who’s just been paroled. Every breath, scent and sight is more vivid and wonderful.

Now the flip side . . .

• Loathe -- Arresting myself. At any given time in winter, I could be wearing garments that include 10 pockets (four outer coat, two inner jacket, four pants). I’m a man of routine. I keep my wallet and my car keys in the same place throughout the year. But in winter, the pocket sprawl means my essentials become nomadic and I lose track of their whereabouts. I’ll stand there and pat myself down like I’m doing some kind of Arctic macarena. Whenever I go into the whole frisky routine, I always feel like reading myself my Miranda Rights.

• Loathe -- The freakish weather phenomenon that means no matter what direction I sweep fresh inches of snow from the windshield, the sum of it blows back and deposits itself on the one inch of exposed skin on the back of my neck. It doesn’t matter how I alter my position, my sweep or the direction of the wind. It never fails to avalanche onto the exposed skin. It’s fascinating and if a cheerful meteorologist ever tries to explain it to me, I’ll strangle him on the spot.

• Loathe -- Migratory accessories. I have about three coats depending on the weather’s severity, but I only have two sets of gloves. I’m always having to do a mental check on which gloves I need for the conditions and am always worried that I’ve either lost some gloves or left them behind.

• Loathe -- Taking inventory of all my stuff. The other day I took the baby on a long shopping trip to the grocery store. I dropped her off at the store nursery and doggedly tore into the long list. When I finished, I had to run through another mental checklist to make sure I had all my winter gear. Hat, gloves, scarf, etc. When I’d satisfied myself it was all there, I began pushing the cart out to the parking lot and had the bags all packed before I realized I’d left the kid behind in the store’s care center. But I did have the gloves.

• Loathe -- Treacherous walking conditions. I love to stroll, but winter conditions restrict that soul-restoring activity. Worse, thoughtless property owners make it dangerous. I took a nasty spill three weeks ago that still has my left wrist aching, all because some jerk was too lazy to bother shoveling the snow. The only reason I haven’t contacted a lawyer is because it happened in my very own driveway and I know the lazy homeowner isn’t worth suing.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Purity police muddy Phelps's waters

I want to assure readers of this blog, which now includes at least two guys named Ronald, that I have no plans to drug test them. This blog will unconditionally continue to welcome both the sober and the so totally baked that they’re still giggling over the above picture of The Dude.

I’m doing this, in part, because I’m hoping to lure swimming legend Michael Phelps to jump on in. The water here’s fine.

Had Phelps, 23, been a reader earlier this summer, he wouldn’t be feeling compelled to bow and scrape before the nation’s purity police after a party goer snapped a picture of him snorkeling a bong and then sold the photo to dastardly editors at a British tabloid.

Who knew some pot smokers could be so lacking in scruples?

To me the absence of numerous other pictures indicates he took a single hit merely to be sociable. I see nothing wrong with that.

Of course, I’m on record as believing that those of us who work in places that don’t drug test have a social responsibility to test drugs on behalf of those who cannot, so judge for yourself.

Now USA Swimming has suspended him for three months and Kellogg’s is dropping its sponsorship. Both are ridiculous overreactions to a minor infringement that can almost be considered quaint in light of some of our other coke-sniffin’, spouse-abusin’, rootin’ tootin’, homey shootin’ felons who still earn millions playing professional sports for teams like the Dallas Cowboys.

It’s impossible for me to fathom the dedication it took for Phelps to get to the level he reached in Beijing. He trained every single day for five straight years. The result was an Olympic performance none of us will ever forget.

And suspending him from countless hours of grinding swimming makes no sense. If anything his sponsors should threaten to drop him if he doesn’t automatically resume spending countless hours of grinding swimming.

Heck, if America were at all serious about winning the so-called war on drugs, it would sentence anyone caught selling or using the stuff to work out with Phelps.

Now with the suspension, he’ll miss a March event and will be behind schedule for the July world championships in Rome. If he is to compete, it will be a grueling uphill swim, not unlike what a salmon must go through to spawn.

Of course, the salmon has a carnal motivation for all that work. Phelps does not.

That’s why six months ago I laid out a clear and wise path for Phelps to follow. I said he needed to sink his remaining swimming ambitions and become Arthur Bach.

Arthur was the Dudley Moore character in the title role of the 1981 movie of the same name. He played a happy, wealthy drunk who left $1,000 tips, was kind to and revered by his staff of flunkies and drivers, and generally laughed through life as though he were being tickled by a giant invisible feather.

As I correctly foresaw, further competitive swimming and trying to live up to his image would only dim Phelps’s luster.

I still maintain the thing for him to do is take the $10 million in sponsorships he’s already reaped and use it to build a huge mansion near the Inner Harbor at his Baltimore hometown, a great place to party. The house should feature an enormous and lavish pool with waterslides, a lazy river and an open invitation to all the inner city and neighborhood kids to stop by anytime they’d want. An adults-only section could feature the world’s largest swim-up Hooters.

He’d be the king of Baltimore (happily dethroning weirdo filmmaker John Waters). He’d be revered for his good nature. We’d all feel a little better about ourselves every time he’d make the news for some charitable act. And he could enjoy it all with the kind of endless buzz that made Arthur such a wonderful character.

It’s too bad he didn’t hear about my idea before he decided to try and live up to all the unrealistic expectations. Because now he’s trapped.

He’s forever at the mercy of those uptight stick-in-the-muds and their narrow 1950s definitions of how our heroes should behave.

I wish we could take the whole bunch and retroactively drug test them to see if they’ve ever taken a social hit on a bong or ever dabbled in recreational drugs.

I’ll bet we’d find they need to take lots more.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Jump hugs with dangerous drunks

While late night comics were ridiculing Pittsburgh for excessively celebrating its Super Bowl victory, I was trying to correct a conviction I hadn’t done enough.

Two days before the Steelers won the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh City Schools announced it would delay the start of Monday’s education by two hours to allow its students and staffers time to sleep it off.

Many commentators howled this set a terrible example for hungover Pittsburgh students and showed just how out of touch the city is from conventional priorities, as if pandering to the sports obsessed in America could ever backfire.

I thought it was brilliant and believe in a few months we’re going to start to see an influx of families who’ve moved their children to Pittsburgh just so they could sufficiently recover from future Super Bowl victories. Call them Steeler sleeper cells.

Me, I popped out of bed reveille ready at 6 a.m., dashed out to get the newspaper and immediately began reading it at an eighth grade level.

I’d spent the entire day with Valerie and our two girls, 8 and 2. During the course of 12 hours of available Super Bowl coverage, I consumed four beers.

I love watching the game with the girls. I don’t mind explaining basic football terminology. I don't even mind it when on a crucial third and long the 2-year-old crawls into my lap and insists I read to her Dr. Seuss’s “The Things I Think I Think.”

But there’s a part of me I’ve nurtured through decades of zero responsibility and dubious judgment that misses watching the biggest game of the year out with the boys. That part of me would like to jaw about complex strategy, football history and unleash wanton profanities at the brain-dead refs.

The essence of the event doesn’t change. I’m still watching the same game, but if one of the boys wants to crawl up on my lap and cuddle during a crucial play, well, I can take it on a case-by-case basis.

That’s the part of me I decided to briefly indulge on Monday evening.

Jack’s Bar on Pittsburgh’s South Side is open 365 days a year and is one of the city's most raucous taverns. It has a great jukebox and a lively clientele of inebrients who bring boozy spice to every conversation.

The bar was packed with Steeler fans. Every stool was occupied except for clear down at the end where five vacant seats stood between relative civilization and menace.

He was an older man, maybe 70. He was shouting profanity at one poor guy who looked too timid to get up and run.

And when I say profanity I do mean singular. He didn’t use a barnyard array. It was exclusively the word I’d heard an off-color country singer in another bar long ago refer to as “The Universal Adjective (“I lost my f-ing job, I lost my f-ing wife, the universal adjective is f-ing up my life...).

Finally, the mousy guy got up and skittered away. That meant I still had a five-stool Maginot Line between me and the old lout. I was about done with my first beer. I could have downed it and left, but I have a rule about always drinking at least two beers in any bar. Drink just one and you look like a tourist or prey.

Drinking two always friendlies up the bartender and the regulars who recognize you as someone who means business and not one of those one-beer dorks.

It automatically looked like the two-beer rule was a mistake, because the guy turned right to me and sneered, “What the hell are you doing in here?”

I didn’t flinch. “I’m here to drink some beers with some friendly Steeler fans.”

“Well, I’m a Steeler fan,” he said.

“You a friendly one?”

“I can be,” he said a tad defensively.

That little exchange brought him one stool nearer.

Turns out he was a friendly Steeler fan. The guy went way back and knew beloved Steeler patriarch Art Rooney Sr. He told some great football stories. One stool later he told me about his kids, his grandkids and how joyful it is to share with them what he called “jump hugs.” That's when the kids run clear down from one end of the house and explode into his arms.

He was a professional window washer who by the time he was sitting on the stool right next to me told me about the harrowing tragedy 30 years ago when he nearly got blown off a city skyscraper and about the one poor guy who did.

I left after four beers and had to resist the urge to run clear from the other side of Jack’s and give the guy a great big jump hug before I split.

I learned something that day when the Steeler Super Bowl victory shortchanged city students two hours of their precious education.

I learned never to sit five stools away from drunken old Steeler fans.

Any more than two and you’re just wasting time.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A confetti shower of Steelers/Springsteen/Groundhog Day thoughts

• My mother is from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Every year she makes Groundhog cookies for family and friends. I want to stress: Groundhog cookies are not made from critters.

• If you’re a Democratic-leaning fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as I certainly am, the last six months has brought wave after wave of good news. The Steelers began the season playing compelling football against what was statistically the toughest schedule in the NFL. This coincided with a riveting presidential campaign. Then Steeler owner Dan Rooney, a lifelong Republican, endorsed Barack Obama and Obama won. Then Obama, a lifelong Chicago Bears fan, endorsed the Steelers and they won. The only thing that could make today any better is if the Groundhog pops up and in flawless English announces a radical economic recovery plan that confounds experts who all agree it will correct the economy in four weeks -- and that spring is on the way.

• The opening ceremonies for the game were among the most moving I’ve ever scene. Jennifer Hudson sang the national anthem with touching poise. And it was a stroke of genius to bring out the heroic crew from the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River. I tingle every time I’m reminded of that day.

• Did I miss it, or was there not one single monkey commercial during the game? I’d run out and buy truckloads of a feminine hygiene products if a funny monkey subliminally suggested I should.

• I acknowledge my priorities are way off kilter when I admit that I’m now having trouble ranking which was better news: the Hudson heroics that saved the lives of 155 souls or the Steelers sixth Super Bowl victory.

• One of the great things about being a Steeler fan is how generally well regarded we are in media and anecdotally around the country. I was in Wisconsin doing a golf travel story this fall and met a friendly gang of golfers who warmly embraced me simply because I told them I was from the Steel City. The one guy threw his arm around me and said he’d never met anyone from Pittsburgh who wasn’t a really great guy. I pointed to my giant glass of bourbon and ice and told him he’d never met me after three of these. I hope I didn’t do anything to ruin the guy’s perfect record.

• Bruce Springsteen’s halftime show was fantastic. It rocked, it was hilarious and showed all the joyful exuberance that makes him such an enduring classic. At one point he ran across the stage and slid crotch-first right into a heavy camera. If the 59-year-old rocker would have gotten up wobbly and ashen-faced from that stunt, it would have been the funniest thing any of us had ever seen. But the Boss was unfazed. Perhaps he’d borrowed a cup from one of the locker rooms.

• Springsteen is one of the coolest guys on the planet, but he’s not even the coolest guy in his own band. That would be Little Steven Van Zant. Not only does he play guitar in the E Street Band, he also played Silvio Dante for the entire run of the “The Sopranos.” I always imagine James Gandolfini coming up to him on the set and slyly asking, “So what’s Springsteen really like?” And Springsteen coming up to him back stage and wondering, “So what’s Gandolfini really like?”

• The color commentators for NBC’s main desk with Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth couldn’t have been more colorless. Tony Dungy (great man), Mike Holmgren (lumpy bore) and Matt Millen (failed idiot) had me wishing my fancy remote came with a snooze alarm every time they opened their mouths. God help me, it actually had me wishing for some of the ESPN or Fox sports gang buffoonery.

• I’d written earlier about how if the Steelers win, two of the most powerful and envied institutions on the planet -- the U.S. and The Pittsburgh Steelers -- would be led by charismatic black men and how I planned to taunt racists I know with the thought that blacks must be genetically predisposed to lead. For the first time in my life, I’m looking forward to running into some racists today.

• One of these days I’m going to learn how to do that little hot link thingy instead of vaguely referring to past posts. It probably won’t be this week.

• I’ll stop whatever I’m doing anytime the Bob Dylan/ commercial comes on TV, but I’ll never choose Pepsi over Coke.

• I’d predicted that the Steelers would win 33-10 and that after the game everyone would be talking about Ben Roethlisberger being among the best in the game. I was half right.

• That thing about me wondering if those Milwaukee guys not liking me after those three big bourbons? Nonsense. Those guys loved me. I’m always a lot of fun after three bourbons. Heck, I think I’m going to have three big bourbons for breakfast this morning and just see what the day brings.