Saturday, June 27, 2009

Dead celebs & the grief tsunami

The passing of Farah Fawcett and Michael Jackson especially reminds me of my persistent grief deficiency. People, both unsung and great, die in droves every day and I for the most part just don’t give a crap.

Of course, like every boy at one time or another, I really and truly loved Farah, or at least her poster. My wife was commenting on how beautiful she was in a day when Hollywood beauty wasn’t so cheap. And it’s a good point.

She had a great smile. A lovely figure, those blue eyes and that fabulous hair. And it was all bestowed by a generous God at birth. The way it ought to be.

I felt bad that she died too young and her last years were a sad struggle, but who said life was fair?

The obits are packed with old grannies who’d probably would have traded their 93 years as homely spinsters with whisk brooms growing out of their facial moles for the one year that Farah had on “Charlie’s Angels.”

So she had her fun. I’m sorry she’s gone but, hey, we all gotta go someday.

But the soul-rending grief over the death of Michael Jackson, about whom nothing was natural, is surprising even the cynics.

Not me, a cynic’s cynic.

I’ve realized since the tragic passing of Princess Diana that many people have so little love in their lives they need to conscript dead celebrities for grief surrogates to allow them to feel those emotions.

Of course, maybe being a cynic gives me an emotional vacancy that I might enjoy if I only knew how to fill it up.

I thought of this after I read this dramatic statement released by Elizabeth Taylor. Check it out:

"My heart…my mind… are broken,” she said. “I loved Michael with all my soul and I can’t imagine life without him.
“We had so much in common and we had such loving fun together. I was packing up my clothes to go to London for his opening when I heard the news. I still can’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. It can’t be so.

“He will live in my heart forever but it’s not enough. My life feels so empty. I don’t think anyone knew how much we loved each other. The purest most giving love I’ve ever known. Oh God! I’m going to miss him. I can’t yet imagine life with out him.

“But I guess with God’s help... I’ll learn. I keep looking at the photo he gave me of himself, which says, 'To my true love Elizabeth, I love you forever.' And, I will love HIM forever.”

I wonder if the apostles grieved Jesus with such emotional virtuosity.

Understand, Michael was not one of her eight husbands -- and I had to check Wikipedia to make sure.

Really, he was just an eccentric friend. I have scores of those. If, say, Frank, died tomorrow (and it wouldn’t be from overwork or stress), my eulogy wouldn’t come close to Taylor’s in its gripping tone.

I’d probably say: “Some people said Frank had a problem holding his liquor. Not true. Frank’s problem was that he could never set his liquor down. I’m going to miss Frank, but there’s a new guy two bar stools down who is auditioning for the role of Frank II so I think we’ll press on just fine.”

And I think we need a little perspective on Jackson’s place in musical history. The guy was a magical dancer. Many of his tunes were catchy. But it wasn’t like he was the King in heaven, and by “King” in heaven I’m of course talking about Elvis Presley.

Still, it’s impossible to deny the affect Jackson had. As CNN anchor Kyra Phillips observed on Friday, “Michael Jackson touched so many people.”

The problem was a lot of them were little boys.

I believe the King in heaven won’t be so willing to overlook such “eccentricities.”

And this time I’m not talking about Elvis.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ashton Kutcher & The Twitter Revolution

After months of soul-searching, I’ve decided I’ll not Twitter until my country is imperiled by enemies within and in dire need of revolution.

I’ll not utilize the popular service until some tyrant bent on imposing his or her extreme views on the country I treasure emerges.

Because I believe Twitter is becoming something sacred. I don’t wish to desecrate it with my 140-character posts about my trips to the grocery store and the suspense over whether I chose paper or plastic. (I chose neither. I always bring my own canvas).

The pace of American and internationally historic events over the past eight months has been breathtaking.

Here in America, we’ve elected our first black president, seen our economy tumble and Uncle Sam go into the car business. And don’t get me started on the travails of “Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

But nothing to me is so staggering as the nascent revolution in Iran. I never thought in my lifetime I’d see indigenous uprisings on the streets of Tehran over something so all-American as angry complaints about the fairness of elections.

I think the depth and breadth of these uprisings has caught even the experts by surprise. This isn’t just restless students and idealogues. It’s doctors, welders, and even renegade clerics.

And, God bless ‘em, it’s been lots and lots of women. To me, that’s huge. Real change in the Middle East will never happen until the women are unshackled and stripped of their burqas -- and I mean that symbolically for starters.

We know this, in part, because things like Twitter are usurping the role of the media that’s been muzzled or booted out of the country.

To me, Twitter has always seemed like the ultimate in media vanity -- and that’s coming from a guy with the audacity to blog about things like his mismatched sox.

And who is the face of Twitter in America? Fittingly for something so frivolous, it is the talentless lunkhead Ashton Kutcher.

Scroll the career credits of everyone residing in the whack- job Kutcher-Bruce Willis-Demi Moore compound and I can think of just one starring vehicle of theirs out of hundreds that I’d ever watch again (It’s Willis’s “The Sixth Sense” and maybe the only reason I like it is because Willis spends the entire movie with a bullet hole in him).

Yet the trio has enough of a vapid fan base that producers continue to pay them millions to “entertain.” And, clearly, it’s working for Kutcher.

In a high profile race, Kutcher recently beat CNN to become the first Twitter poster to reach one million subscribers. Who these people are that want to hear Kutcher’s wisdoms in 140 characters or fewer, I cannot fathom. But I’ll bet 98 percent of them failed to muster the intellectual stamina necessary to read the second paragraph of the reviews that said “Land of the Lost” was an historic stinker.

Kutcher’s tweets, I’m told, relate the minutia of his fabulous Hollywood life down to the near minute. I don’t know which would be more boring: reading his tweets or being Demi Moore forced by her own poor decisions to spend most of her day watching him type them.

That’s the pretty boy face of Twitter in America.

Contrast that with the woman who is destined to become the face of what’s already being called the Twitter Revolution.

She is Neda Agha-Soltan.

The brutal and deadly efforts to suppress the news about her are being overwhelmed by a technology that until last week I deemed too silly to consider.

No more.

The use of Twitter in a revolution is a majestic sort of democracy that will resonate through history. What’s happening in Iran is humbling to observe. The blood they’re spilling will be used to ink the blueprints of, I’m convinced, a democratic revolution that will sweep the Middle East.

My prayers, hopes and support are with those heroic Twitterers risking death in the streets of Tehran as they drive this stunning revolution. I pray they’ll succeed. I believe they will.

And I give you my word that’ll not do anything so revolting as Twitter until my country really, really needs me.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Weather Man is my superhero

Our 8-year-old was backseat babbling about future occupations when one option startled my innate chauvinism to spring to life.

She said she wanted to be a weather man.

Now, setting aside that in 10 or so years the pharmaceutical conglomerates will probably have sex change pills that will render the gender side of that ambition instantly possible, I corrected her in a sexist kind of way.

“No, honey,” I said. “You want to be a weather girl.”

Actually, she could be a weather girl right now. She can appear cute and cheerful while saying things like, “And a high pressure system is likely to bring precipitation to the western Pennsylvania region by rush hour, so give yourself a little room during the daily beep ‘n’ creep!”

But despite the common usage of the phrase, I’ve never seen a weather girl on TV.

They are weather women. They’re fully developed (often abundantly so), have children, drive motor vehicles and fret about things like how the new hi-def cameras will detail that budding mustache that needs cosmetic harvesting.

But I couldn’t bring myself to tell Josie she wants to be a weather woman.

It sounds too superheroic.

“And coming up after the sports, it’ll be Weather Woman Tiffany Rialto!”

Again, it’s blatant sexism because I do consider weather men to be superheroes. I spend a great deal of my waking hours wondering how I could earn public acclaim and lots of money for doing basically nothing when every Weather Man is already living that dream.

Unlike the anchor, no one accuses Weather Man of having a political agenda. No one scolds Weather Man for being silly -- in fact, it’s part of the job description. And Weather Man never has to inject those awful “ . . . and on a lighter note . . .” transitions when pivoting from a multiple homicide to something fluffy.

Weather Man is the lighter note.

Like much of the country, western Pennsylvania is recovering from a nasty bout of storms and flooding that brought the region to its knees. So the forecast is an important aspect of our lives these days.

And, really, when isn’t it? Most of the local news by now is one big rerun. “Another shooting in the Hill District. This councilman’s crooked. Traffic sucks. More layoffs . . . and now it’s time for the weather!”

No matter the forecast, it’s impossible not to brighten when up when the weather comes on. There’s just something so God-like about a mortal meteorologist who can stand there and boldly predict what the world will be like in five days.

I’ve begun paying more attention to the weather ever since we got our lavish HD 50-inch TV a couple of years ago. Watching the Weather Channel now reminds me of the old Pink Floyd laser shows that used to entertain the burn outs down at Pittsburgh’s old Buhl Planetarium on Friday nights.

The more violent the storm, the more serenity I feel watching the squishy ameboid blobs floating across the screen. I find myself being soothed by the deep reds and purples that have my neighbors running for the lives.

It makes me wish I was one of those guys with nothing better to do than sit around and get stoned bejesus all day watching the Doppler radar dance instead of just one of those guys with nothing better to do.

For years I used to pitch in vain a story idea about how America’s top weather forecasters would predict a flood of Biblical proportions.

The idea was based on the premise that satellite technology is capable of predicting long-range forecasts that will show God’s wrath emerging from on the horizon. Today’s unflappable meteorologists can forecast killer hurricanes, tornados and floods in such measured tones that I find myself thinking, “Hmmm, well, maybe we could squeeze the picnic in between twisters . . .”

I’d like to hear how a guy like Al Roker, my favorite, would use today's technology to forecast torrential rains of 40 day and 40 nights. How would he deliver the news? Would he predict doom? Advise mass ark building?

I believe he’d be sufficiently grave and then say, “But take heart, things should start turning around on the 41st day when we’re predicting patchy sunshine with warming temperatures. So don’t forget to pack some sunscreen!”

These are tough times.

Thank God we have Weather Man to show us the silver linings.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wheeee!-gers enjoy sweet freedom

At one time or another I’ve harbored boyhood ambitions of becoming a cowboy, an astronaut or, gee, a successful freelance writer. All these years later, I’m still hoping maybe one of those dreams will come true.

But this week a brand new ambition has begun to flourish.

I want to be a wrongly imprisoned Uighur.

It’s pronounced WHEEEE!-ger, a joyful sound that makes it even more appealing. It’s going to be difficult for the duration of this post to not just spell it like it sounds. Just once more -- WHEEEE-ger!

Uighurs are members of a downtrodden Turkish ethnic group from China’s Xinjiang province. In the summer of 2001 thousands of them claimed religious persecution and fled their homeland for Afghanistan. A score of them where they were swept up by Pakistani security forces, shackled, hooded, labeled enemy combatants and bundled off of to Guantanamo Bay.

Understand, until about four days I ago I didn’t even know such a thing as wrongly imprisoned Uighurs even existed -- and maybe I should harbor an ambition to become a more informed news reader.

Sure, I’ve always believed that an unhealthy percentage of our prisoners at Guantanamo didn’t belong there. Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were ratted out by unscrupulous bounty hunters and others were rounded up with the rest of the usual suspects.

And I know this will lead to some to label me a squishy liberal, but I felt bad for them. I’m sure our jails and death rows are full of innocents who got stuck with mopes for attorneys or politically ambitious district attorneys.

My wife and I are big fans of the classic 1960s TV show “The Fugitive,” starring David Janssen. Most people are familiar with the story from the 1993 Hollywood remake starring Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimball and Tommy Lee Jones as the obsessed Lt. Philip Gerard.

It’s powerful storytelling because its hero is an innocent man who’s been gobbled up in the maw of an indifferent power structure more interested in tidy endings than actual justice.

An even more compelling parallel is Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne in 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” one of my top five all-time favorite movies. The movie closes with Morgan Freeman as Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, paroled from a life sentence after nearly five decades, seen strolling up the beach to to embrace the escapee Dufresne.

I can’t watch that moving scene without thinking, man, I wish I could be there for that party.

That’s why I felt such a vicarious thrill when just four of the Uighurs after seven years in Guantanamo were released to, of all places, the tropical paradise of Bermuda (thirteen of their countrymen remain marooned at Guantanamo).

The freed men’s translator, Rushan Abbas, told NPR: “They’re doing great. They’re going out shopping, enjoying restaurants, going out for ice cream, swimming and fishing. They’d never seen the ocean before Guantanamo and never been in it before Bermuda. They’re really enjoying that. Everyone’s treating them very well.”

Imagine the wonder if all.

I try and think of all I’d have missed if you’d have wiped out my life since 2001.

I’d have missed nearly the entirety of my eldest daughter’s wonderful life, the conception of my second daughter, two Steeler Super Bowl championships, a Penguins Stanley Cup victory, the death of my father, blissful evenings with my lovely wife, golf with my friends, tender moments with Mom, the introduction of the iPod and the two great Simon Pegg movies, “Hot Fuzz” and “Shawn of the Dead.”

Maybe even more important, I’d have missed the daily delights even those of us for whom earning a living is a constant struggle can wring out of this world. No joy. No jokes. Just a longing for liberty.

On the upside, I’d have missed the near entirety of George W. Bush’s presidency, so it’s sort of a wash.

Going from Guantanamo to Bermuda must be exactly like going from the woes of this world to heaven, albeit a heaven where rastafarian bartenders charge $8 for warm bottles of Red Stripe beer.

I can’t help but wonder if this godforsaken world is our Guantanamo. That some day some overseeing authority will liberate all the sick, the poor, the deprived, the heartbroken and those longing for justice from this mortal incarceration to a paradise where all our earthly cares will be forgotten.

And I hope all the Red Stripes are part of the all-inclusive.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pro tennis needs some streakers

Something happened last week that caused me to do something I haven’t done in more than 20 years: I watched more than 30 seconds of tennis.

I can’t pinpoint when televised tennis became too boring for me to endure. I have great memories of being glued to the set watching Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe competing for Wimbledon titles. That was back when my TV broadcast about a dozen channels and seven of them contained some form of meaningful entertainment.

These days I have an array of about 800 channels with 775 stations that are utterly useless to me. Twenty-five out of 800 shows TV’s batting average is appalling, but the number of options for silly diversion has increased more than three fold as humanity marches on.

Of course, my interest in the French Open had nothing to do with actual tennis. By the happiest of coincidences I flipped on NBC just in time to see a man creep out of the stands and onto the court.

A spectator on the field of play is one of the most riveting moments in the wide world of sports. It enlivens every event and often it involves nudity.

I thrill to watch what happens when some of the most finely conditioned athletes on the planet go head-to-head with some of their most drunken and misguided fans.

I remember two years ago when James Harrison, the nasty linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, splattered a drunken Cleveland Browns fan in a hit that for pure viciousness surpassed many of the ones he’s tattooed on opposing quarterbacks.

I’ve seen it happen on baseball diamonds, hockey rinks and will never forget the spectacle that resulted when, on a dare, an inebriated NASCAR fan leapt from the stands and, by God, stole the pace car for a joy ride around the banked oval. The guy made one full lap before foolishly stopping the car, climbing out and raising his hands in friendly surrender.

The ensuing beating he took convinced me that if I’m ever so foolhardy as to act on the same dare that it would be less painful to go straight into the wall at 180 mph rather than turn myself over to the mercy of NASCAR-loving rednecks.

That’s why I was so happy to have tuned in at just the moment the fan climbed onto the court.
It’s a good thing the culprit didn’t have any sinister intentions because neither Federer nor the lumpy security detachment reacted with any urgency.

It gave me a welcome jolt of reality TV while I’m waiting for “John & Kate plus 8” to show up again. But like much of tennis, it left me unfulfilled. There was no message. No humor. No creativity.

And no nudity. And that’s pivotal to making these sort of intrusions really interesting.

The merrymakers at the British Open understand this. That’s the fabled golf tournament where the winner is awarded the Claret Jug and fans are often treated to jugs of an all together different sort.

I was assigned to do a study of the history of streaking at the event back in 2001. The streakers generally fall into two categories: “Drunken Dare Takers” and “Creative Professional Streakers,” which is a category of one.

Typical of the first is Yvonne Robb, a self-proclaimed “professional lap dancer” who while giddy on alcohol doffed her duds and dashed onto the green to introduce herself to the then-single and eminently eligible Tiger Woods. Her attorney later told the court, “The drink getting the better she took the dare and was off,” (and so were her clothes, he forget to lawyerly add. “I understand the player smiled and said, ‘Thank you.’”

Put the great Mark Roberts under the professional category. A veteran of more than 250 high profile streaks (Olympics, World Cup), he maintains a professional standard: He refuses to let his fans down anytime his pants are.

At the 1995 British Open he made his run just as golfer John Daly was celebrating victory. Buck naked and barefoot, he carried a set of plastic toy clubs strapped over his shoulder.

On his back someone had written -- I’m assuming he had an accomplice -- “19th Hole” and an arrow that wasn’t pointing to a nearby pub. Someone photoshopped a dimpled golf ball over the only shot I was able to find, but it’s still worth a giggle.

I was thinking of all this today as -- here’s another coincidence -- I took our 8-year-old to her first tennis lesson.

It involved 60 minutes of that sweet tedium that happens whenever you watch about about two dozen 8 year olds trying to master something many 50 year olds never have.

I could see on the faces of the other parents that many were bored out of their minds. I wondered momentarily if it would give them a happy thrill if I took off my clothes and ran across the court.

But I wouldn’t dream of embarrassing my daughter like that.

Plus, I’m fairly certain the reaction of the waist high, racket-wielding children wouldn’t be nearly as passive as Federer’s was.

Justifiably, there would be no love for me -- and I mean that in both the on- and off-court scoring sense.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Real champions and imaginary friends

I was talking to a good friend of mine the other day when he asked an erudite question about this blog.

“Say, how come when the Pittsburgh Steelers were on their way to winning their sixth Super Bowl, you wrote six blog entries that either mentioned or celebrated the Steelers, but you’ve never once devoted a post to the Penguins,” he said. “It seems like an oversight on someone who usually has his finger so expertly on the public pulse.”

It’s a good question.

(Blog note: Anytime a truly feckless writer wants to sneak in a comment about something he or she wants to address without compelling reason, the writer invents a “friend” to simulate actual reader interest. In truth, the most erudite question any friend of mine’s ever asked has been, “Are you ever gonna pay me back that $20 bucks I loaned you?” So the entirety of the following conversation is made up.)

No sporting event focuses the nation or a city’s attention like a Super Bowl run. To become champions, you have to win four (or three with a wildcard bye) pivotal games culminating in the biggest event in professional sports. To win a hockey championship takes winning 16 games out of a possible 28. It’s a two-month grind. If I wrote about hockey as often as I’d thought about hockey, I’d alienate readers who stop by for other worldly insights.

“Excellent point. As a Pittsburger who’s experienced both championships now a combined nine times, are you saying you prefer the Super Bowl victory?”

Absolutely not. There’s nothing like winning a Stanley Cup. It’s exhausting. It’s every other night or so for two grueling months. The emotional investment of the hockey fan is enormous. There are times when you’re down 3-1 going into the final period of a do-or-die game. And there is an immense euphoria that comes with winning that game. But then two nights later you are back on the road facing another elimination game. To Penguins won two Game 7s on the road to win the cup. That might be unprecedented.

“Are you going to attend the champion’s parade on Monday?”

As a matter of fact, I will. I’m having the folks at Mac transfer info from my old to my new computer so I’ll use the downtime to revel in the city festivities.

“You’re a handsome gentleman, but you look a little tired these days. Feeling alright?”

It’s the hockey, my complimentary friend. I watch some games at home, but I enjoy being out among the people for the competition. For the past two months, I’ve been out at the bars or at parties with buddies to watch the games. It takes a toll even for those of us who aren't lacing up the skates.

“If you don’t mind me saying, you look like you certainly could play hockey. You’re very fit.”

How kind of you to say so. In fact, I grew up playing hockey. It was our sport. My brother and I were on the traveling teams from Pittsburgh. We played all over the northeast and into parts of Canada where we got beat by future professionals by scores of 33-1. But growing up playing hockey was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. A boy on ice is never in hot water, or so they say.

“Ever play with anyone famous?”

I shared the ice with the sons of many famous Penguins like Vic Hatfield, Lowell McDonald and Duane Rupp. But I was tight with the great Ron Hextall who went on to become a famous professional goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers.

“My goodness, you certainly have enjoyed an amazing hockey history. I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done to enlighten me about hockey, the Stanley Cup, and just how handsome, fit and fabulous you really are.”

Well, my friend, it’s been my pleasure. You’ve asked me some really great questions. Mind if I ask you one?

“Why, certainly, my wise and visually appealing friend.”

Can you loan me $20?

“Not a chance. I may be imaginary, but I’m not stupid.”

Friday, June 12, 2009

Introducing my new computer!

Is this best sentence I’ve ever written?

Does it shimmer before your eyes? Is it grammatically flawless? Does it possess a stylistic elegance that makes you want to read on and on and on?

Because, by God and Steve Jobs, it had better. I just dinged my Discover card for $1700.79 for a computer that I’ll use mostly the way my dear mother used an old Royal typewriter when she worked nearly 40 years ago as a receptionist for a local coal company.

I don’t use my computer for games, to edit or view movies or even for indulging in the American pastime of downloading cheap porn while the boss is sexually harassing his shapely secretary.

No, all I want is the computer equivalent of a mule. I want a working class animal that’ll allow me to hammer out story after story and zip them onto the internet where they’ll either soar or sink.

Yet yesterday I cheerfully agreed to purchase a computer that in the proper hands could probably be used to safely land a Space Shuttle. It can let be a rock star, movie director, financial wizard and inhabit a host of other roles I’d fail at all on my own.

I wish I was immune to the euphoric jolt we get from spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need, but it cannot be denied. As the friendly salesman was showing me the touchpad tricks and the hidden camera functions I found myself being drawn to the fabulous MacBook Pro when I’m sure I could probably get by with one of the $400 netbook’s that are sweeping the tech world.

And all the while as I’m being distracted by the unnecessary ornaments they’ve dangled off my sturdy little tree, somebody’s grandmother is sipping coffee on her porch and scratching out a story on a dog-eared yellow legal pad

She laughs when her grandchildren urge her to get a computer. She doesn’t need a computer, she says, to tell her stories.

Who are you rooting for in this David vs. Goliath match? Me and my MacBook or the old babe and her trusty little pencil?

Of course, you’re rooting for her. Who wouldn’t?

I always tell students who pay thousands of dollars to learn from me about how to be a writer (talk about your misspent fortunes) that the writing profession is the only one where rank amateurs can outperform reliable veterans.

You could study diligently at the best schools, glean insights from accomplished writers and that little old grandmother could wake up one morning and be struck with an inspiration to write a great book.

And she could do it.

There are mountains of practical obstacles that prevent her from even considering being a doctor, a lawyer or, really, a school crossing guard. But if she wants to become the world’s greatest writer, all she needs is a compelling idea, a lively voice and a sharp pencil.

One of the first e-mails I received on my new computer was from a prestigious agent who’d previously asked to review the full manuscript of my novel. This was the kind of news that had me doing a mental jigs all day as I imagined him sitting there laughing and weeping at all the right parts.

But he did not. His rejection was cushioned with much flattery, but it is a rejection none-the-less. He believes a key element of the book is unnecessary and distracts from the main premise.

He is wrong.

Still, today I’m going to load that manuscript into its cushy new home and give that son of a bitch a vigorous work out till its muscles shine with sweat. I’ll give it a massage, a shower, put a nice shirt on it -- I’m telling you this computer can do it all -- and send it out to another dozen agents.

And somewhere a little old grandmother will stick a stamp on an envelope addressed to that same prestigious agent who may one day give her the good news that for now continues to elude me.

Well, cinch up your bloomers granny because here I come.

I’m taking my manuscript and my stories and am going to run you down with 2 gigs of 1066 MegaHerz DDR3 SDRAM, a 160 gig hard drive, a 13.3-inch LED backlit display with 1280 x 800 pixels all driven by a sassy 2.26 Intel Core Duo processor.

Together we’re going to grind you and your stubby little pencil into sawdust.

Don’t feel bad for the old girl.

I’m sure my spiffy new MacBook has a feature that can mend the bones of broken grannies.

I think I’ll stop writing for now and spend the rest of the day toying with how to use it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Tech problems interrupt lauded blog . . . This one!

I've always said that being a freelancer is like being in a rubber raft adrift in the ocean with no shore in sight.

And that being a freelancer with computer problems is like being in that rubber raft when you begin to hear an urgent hiss.

Well, the hiss started buzzing in my ears early this morning when I was trying to conclude a perhaps ill-advised blog post about my thoughts about what would happen if I went streaking in order to liven up the sweet tedium of my 8-year-old daughter's first tennis lesson.

In hindsight, it could have been a career-ending post. And what would I do without all the mighty perks that go with writing a freebie blog.

I tell you what I'd do: I'd be hugely bummed.

Starting a pointless blog from scratch and seeing it grow a feisty little audience is huge fun. Just this week, my friends over at flattered me by saying my June 2 post about expense accounting the national spelling bee was a home page "Best Of ..." Redroom. They called the post "hilarious."

That's heady stuff. Redroom is crowded with great, witty and accomplished writers. Having them among my readers improves my posture. So the pressure was on to come up with something dazzling and provocative.

Thus, the idea of streaking at my daughter's tennis lesson. I really thought the thing was coming together when that urgent hiss began.

So I'm writing this on my white-haired mother's computer while Mac techs diagnose whether they can save my beloved 5-year-old iBook. I'm pessimistic.

I might have to, egads, pull out the credit card and purchase a shiny new Mac. The impulse is strong, but the finances are weak. I'll need to resolve the discrepancy in the next day or two.

In the meantime, I'm left with the choice of dashing off something haphazard -- here you go -- or digging back in the archives for something I believe can improve our environment, free us from the tyranny of foreign oil and unshackle us from sitting like morons at red lights when the only traffic is tumbleweeds.

This ran last July 4, previous to when I'd been invited to start sharing my blogs at RedRoom.

So check out this encore presentation of "Go Green! Run All The Reds!"

And if you're on board with me and the blog, well, grab a bucket and start bailing. I can use all the help I can get.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither am I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’re merely suggestions.

Friday, June 5, 2009

"I love you, men!"

I don’t remember exactly when my brother and I started concluding nearly all our phone calls with “I love you,” but it’s become a natural declaration.

Because I do love him. Since the sandbox, he’s always been a sort of hero to me. He’s one of those great big brothers that never minded when I tagged along. I remember being the bat boy for his sandlot championship baseball team.

When he left home to attend Ohio University, he shepherded me along on getaway weekends where I had the kind of fun that ensured I’d go there, too. It was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

After I graduated from OU, I went to visit him in Nashville where he was working and I landed a job at the newspaper there. We became roommates. I’ll never forget the two of us sitting on the little back porch drinking beers and watching the big jets glide in over Old Hickory Lake.

I think after our father died in 2004, we began to appreciate a special closeness having been sons to a man so fun and rare.

None of that’s really surprising. Sure, many siblings war throughout their lives and cause wicked tension at the family get-togethers, but the reverse is also true. Many enjoy the warm closeness that Eric and I have always felt.

What’s unusual is that I’m beginning to feel strange urgings to tell other male friends that, yes, I love them, too.

Not in the way I love my brother, but I have many close male friends, three in particular, that I love deeply and I’m struggling with how to share this forbidden emotion.

Like most guys, I am emotionally repressed in how I deal with my dear male friends. I certainly feel a deep love for them but I wrestle with how I should express those feelings.

I was thinking of this while I was listening to Kieran Kane’s lovely rendition of the Louie Armstrong classic, “What a Wonderful World.”

I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘How do you do?’
What they’re really saying is, ‘I love you . . .’

Why is it so wrong for me to tell my male friends that I love them? Barack Obama is taking steps to bridge the historic gulfs between Christian and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian. Can’t I, for the love of God, unshackle the societal constraints and convey what goes on in my heart to the men that matter most to me?

What would happen if instead of our standard buddy-buddy sign off -- “Hey, man, you take it easy . . . Go Pens!” -- I took a different approach? What if instead of that breezy Happy Hour send off, I looked soulfully into Frank’s cappuccino-colored eyes and said, “Frank, I love you . . . Go Pens!”

I know exactly what would happen. Frank’s bushy mustache would start to twitch the way it does when the bartender says he’s shut off. Why, he’d would be outraged. He doesn’t want my love, (even though I suspect he’s always loved me, too). An awkward silence would descend on the bar. I’d be an instant pariah. Then all the cruel Brokeback Mountain jokes would start.

It’s a strange fact of life in my still-redneck corner of the world that I could lose a friend because I dared to reveal how much he means to me.

It’s not like I’m going to leave my wife and two kids for Frank. But guys like us are so emotionally remote that we have difficult time acknowledging the genuine love we feel for -- and this is even difficult to type -- our “boy” friends.

Not anymore.

As of today, I’ll no longer deny the urges that are becoming too momentous to ignore.

I’m going to freely expose myself to the risks that will come with saying without reserve, “Hey, I love you,” to other men.

I’m going to start right here by telling the whole world of my earnest feelings for three darling buddies who’ve always touched me deepest in my soul.

Here goes . . .

I love you, Moe!

I love you, Larry!

And I love you, Curly!

That wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.

Nyuk. Nyuk.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cock-a-doodle-DON'T! The rooster crows . . . and crows

I haven’t enjoyed a really good night’s sleep since I first became ambitious about girls and having reckless fun far from the confines of the crib.

For many, many years my lack of sleep could be blamed on unwise decisions regarding liquor consumption and late night diversions.

Lately, those interests have diminished. I’m usually tucked away at 11 p.m. in time for the 110th viewing of a Seinfeld episode I first watched in 1996. After that, I close my eyes ever hopeful the next sound I hear will be Al Roker alerting me about what’s happening in our neck of the woods.

The full slumber never happens and I blame the rooster.

Understand, the rooster is not some metaphor for sleep deprivation. It’s not some spectral dream creature stalking me through the twilight. It’s a flesh and feather creature that nests just down the winding road from our home.

The rooster is my neighbor.

I hear it most every morning now at 4:30 a.m. Whomever coined the reveille onomatopoeia for this alarm clock bird never heard my neighbor. If they did it would be spelled -- oooock-a-oooodle-woo-wooooooooooo!

Or maybe my neighbor bird just has a speech impediment.

Either way, in farm vernacular, that bird’s a real cock.

If I lived in the city, I would understand the sound of gunfire is part of the background ambiance. Same goes for rooster crows if I lived in farm country. But we live amid a sparse cluster of homes in the mountain woods.

The rooster is owned by a dour German immigrant who apparently enjoys fresh eggs. Maybe a half a dozen chickens are clucking around the place. It’s jarring because the home is spiffy and looks sort of like the one Mike and Carol Brady raised their brood. And did The Brady Bunch ever do a rooster episode? It sounds like it might make for funny situational comedy.

Just not when it’s happening to you.

Each trumpet blast -- it’s piercing clear even through closed windows and about 500 feet of woods -- lasts about 12 seconds. Then there’s a peaceful lull of about 45 seconds where you can delude yourself into hoping maybe a pack of sleep-deprived coyotes are ripping the bird apart with their powerful jaws.

But that prayer goes unanswered. The shrill siren without fail returns and continues for hours to come. My wife and kids can sleep through it. But once I’m awake I start thinking about the meaning of life, how I could earn maybe a dollar, and why sometimes my tee shots rainbow to the right while others pull dead left.

My mind is just too restless to achieve sleep more than once a day. So I go to the couch and read or watch TV.

We even hear its raucous call in the afternoons. It made me wonder if it, too, is so sleep deprived that it can no longer function like a normal rooster. Really, 4:30 a.m. strikes me as awfully early for even a rooster.

I told a friend about it. He said, “Well, I once saw a chicken play tic-tac-toe at a county fair, but I doubt even one that won most of its games could adjust to the concept of daylight savings time.”

He was making a joke at my expense.

I’ve read all the nagging studies that say we’d all function better if we could get 8-10 hours of sleep each night.

That seems excessive. I think I’d be in tip top mental condition with about six hours a night. Ten hours of sleep isn’t going to make me any smarter. Don’t blame the potter for the inferior quality of the clay.

I suppose I could storm down there one day and confront the old German about the offending bird or make an example of the offending fowl by showing him how one neighbor keeps the peace in the rustic woods.

But I’m not that kind of guy. I don’t have that kind of angry nerve.

When it comes to those kinds of situations, I’m basically a common chicken.

I don’t feel too bad about it. The woods, at least where I live, are full of those.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Expense accounting the national spelling bee

As many Americans watched last week’s National Spelling Bee and wondered how children could correctly spell so many polysyllabic words and why most of those that do look like Mumbai extras from “Slumdog Millionaire,” I had more altruistic thoughts.

I wondered how the hundreds of children whose lives I altered for the better are doing today. I wondered how many of them have gone on to to be doctors, educators or noble philanthropists. I wondered if any of them remember me in their prayers.

You see the annual National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., has for more than 20 years been a hallmark event in my life. It’s an annual commemoration of two weeks in consecutive years when I did more good on behalf of my fellow man than the sum entirety my misspent life.

It was my first experience with an expense account and I learned something illuminating about myself.

I’m a hell of a lot of fun with someone else’s money.

I was a rookie reporter at the now-defunct Nashville Banner, and there’s a perhaps coincidental pattern of places that can be described as now-defunct that once entrusted me with the company loot.

I vividly remember the top editor approaching me while I feigned industriousness by carrying on a pretend phone interview into a dead receiver. I said a polite goodbye to the imaginary subject, set the phone down and looked up. Yes, boss?

“The guy who’s covered the National Spelling Bee for the past 10 years is sick of it. We want you to fly to Washington, chaperone our entrant and write stories about the bee,” he said.

The Banner building had no windows. One editor described days there as similar to being on board a submarine during a long voyage beneath the Arctic circle. I was always thrilled to get outside and enjoy the sweet Tennessee sunshine. That’s why I was so crushed by the boss’s offer.

I’m sorry, I said, but I just can’t afford to fly to Washington and stay in a hotel myself, let alone pay for some poindexter spelling champ.

“Idiot,” he said, “the paper pays for everything. You’ll have an expense account.”

It was a watershed moment in my life. As I’ve truthfully said many times, my idea of a splurge at the time was pizza with pepperoni and sausage. To think that I was going to be let loose in a glamorous city with ample bags of someone else’s money was like some kindly bandit had cut me in on the spree following the bank holdup, an analogy you’ll see is rather apt.

I remember checking into the Capital Hilton and finding a fully stocked bar brimming with dozens of top shelf little bottles of hootch.

Eureka! I thought. I shoveled them all into my suitcase, figuring housekeeping would assume I was a thirsty guy and would re-stock the next morning and we’d begin repeating the procedure for the next five days. And that’s exactly what happened. I didn’t know that each tiny bottle carried a $3 to $5 fee.

With a crisp$20 and bright smile, I became best friends with Pierre the hotel concierge. Over the course of the week, I had a dozen or so conversations with Pierre and every one of them included some form of the line, “Say, Pierre, where can I find the best (lobster, steak, cigars) in town.”

My father was vicariously thrilled with my experience. He called to advise me to attend the Kennedy Center premier of The Caine Mutiny Court Marshall starring Charleton Heston Henry Fonda. Pierre expertly secured me one of the scarce tickets. And this was cool -- President Reagan and wife Nancy were there, too!

My balcony seat was directly above Reagan’s box. I’ll never forget the moment he entered. More than four thousand people rose, turned toward me and began wildly applauding. From my perspective, it looked like they were looking right at me.

I felt so overcome with warmth, I couldn’t help myself. I waved and took a little bow.

Really, after four days on the expense account, word could have gotten around and they may have been applauding for me and not Reagan. As a representative of the Banner, I felt it would have reflected poorly on the institution if I was a cheap tipper, even if the pious old prick who owned the place was a notorious cheapskate.

All the while, I filed a bunch of fun stories about our contestant to cover my rear. It was one of those rare and wonderful occasions where I could be professional for about two hours each afternoon and still get away with being excessive fun for the remainder of the sleepless days and nights spent enriching hardworking bartenders and wait staff at various posh establishments.

As good as the stories were, nothing endeared me to the Banner staff more than word about my stupendous party expenditures.

The color drained from my editor’s face when I handed him the total.

“It’s breathtaking,” he said.

It was the first time anything I’d ever done had been compared with words used to describe to the Grand Canyon.

Oh, it’s not that bad, I said.

“It cost less to cover the Super Bowl!”

After that, they wouldn’t let me out of the building to cover a barn fire. It looked like my spelling bee run would end at one.

Then three weeks before the next year’s bee, the girl who’d been designated to go abruptly quit.

I sat down at my computer and instantly composed what was the best thing I’ve ever written in my life. It may have been the best thing anyone’s ever written.

Because I convinced them to risk the company solvency to let me go again. I didn’t do it because I enjoyed living the high life on the company teat. I didn’t do it because I was hankering lobster at Harvey’s or prime rib at The Palm.

I did it because Pierre’d sent me a Christmas card saying his son was going to need braces.

We’re numb to stories of idealists who leave heartland homes and go to Washington and become jaded cogs in the corrupt system.

I’m a guy who can always say he went to Washington and made a real difference.