Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Happy 70th birthday Maj. Frank Burns

Take the day off and do something incompetent and mean-spirited: It’s the 70th birthday of Maj. Frank Burns!

Larry Linville, the man who crafted perhaps the most indelible character in American pop culture, was born on this day in 1939. The five-times married Linville, whose only other claim to fame was, coincidentally, a series of ill-fated romances aboard the fictional “Love Boat,” died April 10, 2000, at the age of 60.

But, to me at least, ferret-faced Frank Burns will live forever.

It’s a measure of the esteem I hold Burns in that when Matt Lauer saluted former Today Show colleague Bryant Gumbel on their shared birthday, I thought of calling up and demanding equal time for Burns.

M*A*S*H remains one of the most endlessly fascinating TV shows in history because no other show has ever ranged the gamut from fall down funny to train wreck terrible. From 1972 through 1983, the show was compelling, sometimes for all the wrong reasons.

Many argue on www.jumptheshark.com about when the show leaped the great white maneater.

Was it when Klinger stopped wearing dresses? When B.J. took over for the incomparable Trapper John? When the insufferable Sidney Friedman became a fixture? Or was it when Col. Blake’s plane nose-dived into the South China Sea, a riveting episode that to this day lands like a punch to the solar plexus.

The show took hits with all those dramatic transformations.

But nothing caused the essence of the original hilarious premise to leak out of the storied series like when they lost Frank Burns.

He was the moralizing prig who cheated on his wife. He was the flag-waving patriot who stole purple hearts from wounded soldiers for his own self-glorification. He was a bumbling doctor who kept getting promoted over worthier physicians.

I’ll never forget the episode when Radar was a budding writer doing an assignment about amusing anecdotes. Burns told a story about growing up in Indiana next door to a little wheel-chair bound boy named Timmy.

With evident glee, Frank tells of how Timmy was happily waving at the Burns family when he lost control of the chair. It plunged down the stairs, across the lawn and crashed the flailing invalid into the Burns family sedan.

He cackles witch-like through out the storytelling as B.J., Hawk and Radar listen in horror. When he concludes, B.J., the designated voice of conscience says, “That must have been awful!”

Frank says: “No, he just scratched the paint a little.”

Then he gets furious when the cheerful buddy-buddy reaction he’d sought results in scorn.

It’s brilliant. It combines a kind of malevolence and mean-spirited pettiness that used to unite the nation.

Today, all our bad guys divide us. You either love Barack Obama or hate him. Same goes for Sarah Palin.

Even deliberately cast evil doers like Montgomery Burns and Tony Soprano have their rooting sections.

That’s why we need more men like Frank Burns in our lives. We need people so bumbling and loathsome that the whole world can point our children to and say, “See that man in the white smock with the stethoscope. He’s pure evil. You don’t want to grow up to be like him. He’s a mean, cheap and selfish stooge from whom no goodness results.”

So today, in honor of the great Frank Burns, I’m going to try and do something incompetent and mean-spirited.

Looking back over this incoherent blog post, I can surmise the incompetent part’s already taken care of.

Now, the hard part. Can I go against my gentle nature and do something deliberately mean-spirited?

I suppose while I’m thinking about it, I could call up Matt Lauer and demand he salute Frank Burns, too, instead of his suck-up buddy Gumbel, the egotisical poser who’s been on the fast track to Nowheresville since leaving the Today Show and whose head is becoming so big he ought to be called Giant Gumball.

Hmmm . . .

Maybe this mean-spirited bit won’t be so difficult after all.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

G-20 Pittsburgh recap

I wish at least some of the world’s most powerful leaders had stopped by my house for breakfast during their historic visit to Pittsburgh. I’d labored over a delicacy that, I swear, can’t be found anywhere else on earth.

I spent about a total of three hours sifting through two big barn boxes of Lucky Charms to separate all the loathsome toasted frosted oats from the succulent marshmallows.

It was tedious and blasted a huge hole in the productive part of my week, but the result was one full box of just the good stuff (and two bags of flavorless toasted oats I’ll probably wind up tossing). Friday was our daughter Josie’s 9th birthday and I wanted to surprise her with a box of nothing but magically delicious charms. She loved it.

I did it because I want her to feel special and because it makes me feel like I’m being a good dad, even as I acknowledge I’m a terrible provider, disciplinarian, and useless when it comes to helping out with things like third grade math homework.

I’m wagering she’ll remember the charmed breakfast and think, gee, dad was a great man.

I’m serious. That’s the way I think.

Pity my poor wife.

Other thoughts:

• Today’s protesters are a bitter disappointment to those of us who watch the news hoping to enjoy some coherent anarchy. After three days of nearly non-stop reports about their actions and demands, I’m still unsure what the hell they were protesting.

If you can’t wrap your mission around a tuneful march (“Hell, no, we won’t go!” or “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids didja kill today!”) you might as well just stay home and tap out pointless tweets about your petty furies.

I’m a happily married heterosexual, but if a flamboyantly dressed column of poodle walkers marched past my house shouting, “We’re here! We’re queer! Out of the closets and into the street!” I’d turn off the football game and get in line because it’s just such a snappy slogan.

• Of course, the Andy Warhol Museum made a big splash for hosting Michelle Obama and the rest of the spouses. Pittsburgh likes to show off the museum because they think the connection to a guy who left the city about 40 years before he died and never returned somehow makes us a kind of hip that surprises visitors.

It does not. What makes us hip are bars like the Rosa Villa that used to be right across the street. Before it closed in 2006, the Rosa Villa was a notorious mob hangout decorated with black and white pictures of bloodied boxers. Jimmy, the bartender, used to box, too, and spent his advanced years tossing haymaker insults at customers and providing a bright contrast to the hipper shades floating in and out of the museum dedicated to America’s least talented artist.

I once asked Jimmy if he’d ever set foot in the Warhol.

“Just once,” he said. “I had to tell some guy to move his f#@*ing car.”

• Had I been a more sensible sort, I never would have quit newspapering back in 1992. I’d have a stable job and routine work. That means I would have spent my weekend swamped with G-20 assignments.

I don’t have benefits, a paycheck or, heck, really much of anything to do these days, but I watched the news reporters in their coverage frenzy and am convinced I made the right decision that daily work of that sort just wasn’t for me.

I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed my daughter’s birthday party weekend to spend it dodging tear gas with smelly strangers.

• As you just read, I am critical of the protesters because of their incoherency. To be fair, I have no idea about the tangible results the leaders of the free world achieved here the last two days either. Not a clue.

• Pittsburgh’s lucky to have such a staunch supporter in President Obama. He’s clearly taken with the city and its people. He brought many of the most important people here to enjoy the city.

Next week, as they do every year, 10 of my friends from New York City are coming to Pittsburgh to watch a Steeler game and revel in the city’s bars and offbeat activities.

Guaranteed, we’re going to have more fun than anyone from the any of the G-20 delegations, all without the benefit of a cushy expense account.

• I for years have been trying to convince Pittsburghers to refer to the Warhol as the A-hol Museum.

It hasn’t caught on, but I remain hopeful it will.

• I bust with pride that Pittsburgh got to host such a high-profile international event. It’s a magnificent city with stunning views and friendly people who know how to work hard and play hard.

If you’ve never been, please come and see for yourself. And be sure to stop by for a big bowl of Lucky Charms like the kind you’ve only dreamed about.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Help the economy: free Plaxico!

For the good of the economy and the preservation of common sense, we need to urge immediate freedom for walking stimulus package Plaxico Burress.

I resent how news events keep forcing me to become more and more liberal. Really, by now I ought to be a moralizing conservative who is so socially uptight that the sticks up my butt have sticks up their butts.

But news that wide receiver Burress, 32, is going to prison for two years agitates the Abbie Hoffman in me.

Two years in prison? For shooting yourself? Sure, the errant bullet that struck his thigh could have killed an innocent stranger, but it happened in a New York nightclub pulsing with bubble-headed hipsters and, really, would we have missed just another one of those?

I’m not going to argue about celebrities and their need for lethal protection, trouble magnet athletes going to places they should not, and the arbitrary enforcement of chaotic gun laws.

Instead I’m going to focus on what it means to society to incarcerate Burress, who in 2005 signed a $25 million contract to play football for the New York Giants, until 2011.

For starters, the only people who are sadder than us like-minded devotees of judicial sensibilities are people who make things like $20,000 Chinchilla coats.

As a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, I’m more than a little familiar with the man and his extravagant tastes.

He was the Steelers first pick in the 2000 draft and played here through 2004. The fans weren’t quite sure what to make of him because -- and this is bound to sound prejudiced -- he looked to us like he walked around in a happy atmosphere of latent marijuana smoke.

For you non-sports fans, this is a not uncommon meteorological phenomenon surrounding young black men from impoverished backgrounds who are gifted enough earn multiple millions in their early 20s.

Upon signing his first contract, Burress endeared himself to me by acting like I would have were I in the same giddy situation. He became a party.

He wore shoulder-to-shoe lenght fur coats, drove flashy chrome-bedecked luxury cars, and dripped with enough gaudy bling to outfit a red carpet full of sparkling Hollywood strumpets.

He was never surly and his teammates loved him.

I was happy for him when he scored the winning touchdown in the final seconds of the 2008 Super Bowl, and sad when he accidentally shot himself in the leg (although I confess the sadness was preceded by an unseemly bout of chuckling at his foolish clumsiness).

And I was very sad when I learned his 2-year-old son, Elijah, would be deprived of his father until 2011, and that his pregnant wife, Tiffany, wouldn’t have the father of her baby with her in the delivery room.

All that for shooting yourself?

He’s in a jail for an accidental crime even his most bitter critics will concede will never happen again.

The law should not deprive a son of his father for two years for an accident. It should not deprive a young mother of her husband’s presence for the majestic birth of their second child.

And it should not deprive luxury furriers of one of their few loyal customers in these times of economic uncertainty.

Here’s what ought to happen. On November 23, the judge should summon Plaxico to his court and say:

“Mr. Burress, the taxpayers of New York have already spent tens of thousands of dollars incarcerating you for 10 weeks. It’s money that could be spent restoring the hours for endangered libraries, putting canned goods on the shelves at food banks or providing flu vaccines for the elderly.

“You've now had a taste of what prison's like. Never forget it. Now, Happy Thanksgiving, I’m going to let you go home today. You’re a free man. But your freedom isn’t going to come cheap.

“In order for you to remain free, you’ll have to prove to this court that you’re spending at least $10,000 a day.

“Your pregnant wife is responsible for half of that. I think $5,000 a day is a fair price for all the worry you’ve caused the delicate miss. Her job is to stimulate the economy by purchasing whatever she wants. If she’s only spent $4,500 by 4 p.m., then she’ll need to call up a florist and have them send $500 worth of posies to a local nursing home or hospital. Florists need to eat, too.

“Your new job starting on Monday will be to become the black Santa. You’re going to have to spend $5,000 a day helping the underprivileged, the people who need shoes, groceries and sweaters when the wind blows. The need, as you’re about to discover, is great and sadly goes unfulfilled for too many.

“Now, go home, enjoy Thanksgiving with your family, and say a prayer of gratitude that you live in a country where the law is not so rigid that it can’t turn to creative solutions where everybody wins.”

Plaxico shot himself, but the judicial system is committing a far greater crime.

It’s slaying common sense.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cosmic muffin seeking Indian blood

Just got back from five days in Albuquerque and came home with a favorite new minority: the Native American Indian.

They’re perfect. They’re historical underdogs. Their religious beliefs have a whimsical bent. And at this moment they are absolutely awash in riches.

What could be better?

I was grateful for an invitation to travel to Albuquerque to learn about the area golf and culture. The deal is they show me a great time and I write about it in hopes that my stories will help rain tourist dollars into the arid desert.

It is one of the enduring oddities of my life that in this these times of wage-earning desolation, many reputable promotional organizations are still eager to zoom guys like me around the world and wine and dine us in sumptuous fashion.

They call me because I have some outstanding credentials from some swank magazines that never fail to blind them to my insistence that I can make myself appear way more successful than I actually am.

Just this month, I’ve turned down invitations to travel to Vancouver, Nairobi, San Diego, Dubai, Cabo and Ireland.

Taking more than one or two a year, I figure, wouldn’t be fair to my long-suffering wife and I’d probably expire from all the excess.

As it is, my body is still detoxifying from gallons of free premium tequila and the reckless mounds of chile peppers that are still wreaking havoc on my dainty intestinal system.

With Albuquerque -- civic motto: “It’s a Trip” -- I’d picked well. Had a blast.

This wasn’t easy for a sensitive guy like me. I’m always stricken with a faint melancholy about going on these elaborate junkets while she stays home and tends to the fort. I surprised her with my confession to this.

“It’s true,” I said. “I always feel sort of guilty about leaving my family here while I’m off to fabulous resorts under the guise of so-called ‘work.’”

How do you deal with those feelings? she asked.

“The only way I can,” I said. “I make sure I have an absolute ball. I order my first drink as soon as the flight attendant brings the liquor cart down the aisle and I don’t stop partying until I come spinning down the baggage carousel back home.”

The only thing worse than being unworthy of such lavish hospitality would be to mope about being the lucky recipient of it all.

So I golfed, drank, puffed fine cigars, dined on Southwestern delicacies and spent five days acting like Caligula in a Tommy Bahama shirt.

Happily, so did the other eight or so trip attendees. We were a giddy group.

I’ve been on trips like that where the more ethically refined writers take careful notes, order small portions and primly refuse alcohol because they’re “on duty,” the nerds.

(Note: Aiming stinging insults at my more fastidious colleagues is fair game because, unlike us freelance party boys, they have full-time jobs and can afford professional counseling to recover from the jabs)

Had any of them been at dinner at the famous El Pinto Restaurant & Cantini, they would have asked host Jim Garcia about things like the chemical composition of the shots they were pouring from the $400 bottle of tequila.

Me, I asked how come every time I drank tequila in college I always wound up losing my pants.

Garcia speculated it was because I was drinking too much of it too fast. It happened just the way he said, but there had to be some other reason. Had to be.

Of course, with me the way to judge a land is by the people who settle it. In New Mexico, that meant those who’d abandoned the driven life that leads to so much sobriety and other sociopathic behaviors bedeviling modern man.

“Yep,” one resident said, “we’ve got a greater concentration of cosmic muffins than any place else in the country.”

It was said in a tone meant to disparage, I think, but to me it sounded like I’d found a home.

If a guy with zero income and zero ambition to alter that condition can still opt to live like a king isn’t a cosmic muffin who on earth is?

I was thinking about this as an Navajo Indian serenaded us with a ceremonial flute over a fine dinner at the Corn Maiden restaurant at the splendid Hyatt Regency Tamaya.

He told us Indians (and they aren’t as PC about the word as the rest of us) believe Mother Earth imbues even the lowliest of creatures with some elemental holiness.

The revelation resulted in me nearly wrecking my golf cart the next morning to spare the spirit of dung beetle scurrying across the cart path.

He told us about the historical cruelties my white devil ancestors visited upon his race. It made me sad to think that at one time he and I would have just as soon killed each other as have the friendly conversation we were enjoying.

I doubt it would do much to sooth the restless souls of his vanquished ancestors, but congressional mostly white men have in the past 20 years eased our collective consciences by granting the Native Americans gambling licenses to open the lucrative casinos that dot the landscape.

“The casino money means every child that wants to can go to college for free. All our needs are met.”

I was sold.

I asked what I needed to do to become a member of his tribe, if I need to take a class or endure some sort of ritual hazing.

“There’s nothing you can do. You need to be born into the tribe.”

I wasn’t wanted?

“Perhaps you could try the Hispanics.”

Any minority race flush with casino riches out there looking for a cosmic muffin who’s willing to learn a card trick or two?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Obama & murder-minded far right crazies

I believe Barack Obama should start wearing a stove pipe hat and an ear-to-ear chin strap beard. I believe he should start lookin’ like Lincoln.

I’m hopeful that sartorial little conceit will be sufficient to cause the heads of virulent Obama haters to simultaneously explode.

And wouldn’t that be cool?

Far right Republicans believe they are so superior to the rest of us. They know President Obama is a closet Muslim socialist. They know he was born in Kenya. They know he’s trying to indoctrinate our innocents with his little “Just Say No” speeches to captive classrooms.

All I know is this: When it comes to hatred, they are far superior to me.

I thought I hated George Bush. I hated that he did nothing to reach out to the 50.1 percent of the country that voted for Al Gore in a disputed election. I hated that he chose to run the country by color-coded fear charts after 9/11. And I hated that he goaded the country into a long and costly war for make-believe reasons that still cannot be fathomed.

I now understand I’m a piker when it comes to hatred.

I’ve never seen such a bloodlust loosed on the country where so many people, including many with conservative media megaphones, are cheerleading the craziest, most well-armed people among us to take what they consider patriotic action to save the country.

It’s like America has become Rock Ridge in “Blazing Saddles” with President Obama playing the Cleavon Little character.

They carry guns to his speeches. They wear T-shirts boasting about the need to soak the ground with the blood of tyrants.

God help us.

Now the media are finally getting around to asking out loud, gee, could it be, gadzooks, motivated by racism?

Why, of course it is.

I believe the crazies who hate him, fear him -- and they should. They fear him because if he succeeds he will leave an indelible and inspiring example to generations of children, white and black, who will vote in ways that will forever banish the far right to the redneck backwoods of national politics.

It’s understandable. If Republicans had maybe a single charismatic and eloquent minority candidate for national office capable of reaching out to all voters, I’d feel the same way.

Of course, for that to happen, the Republicans will first need to find a maybe a single minority voter to support the ticket.

If I was a mainstream Republican, I’d be dismayed that my party has lurched so far and so violently to the right.

But that is where the dark, bitter soul of the once Grand Ol’ Party today resides. It is the racist face of a party of hatred that convinces people like me that a majority of their supporters would be thrilled to see our minority president dead.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through life consumed by such blind hatred. It must be dismal.

I wish I could help them. I wish I could tell them that politics is a pendulum. I wish I could convince them that the doomsday scenarios that conservatives going back to American movement founder Gen. Benedict Arnold clear through government-hater Tim McVeigh have been dead wrong.

But I don’t have the eloquence or platform to perform that feat.

So I’d just like to promote things that’ll help their heads explode.

I think dressing Obama like Lincoln would do it. Of course, dressing like Pat Sajak might do it, too.

Simple provocations ("He’s comin’ for your guns then he’s comin’ for your women!") ought to be enough to raise the blood pressure of these haters to self-lethal levels.

We could convene groups of fair-minded citizens to determine which of the worst of the far right crazies should be marked for full and final treatment.

At last, a true death panel I can support.

Monday, September 14, 2009

When taverns usurp church: a bartender retires

I don’t know what this says about me as a person, but I have more soulful revelations in taverns than I ever do in church. Happened again Saturday.

That was last call for Angelo Cammarata, the man who is arguably the world’s most historic bartender.

Says who?

Says me and the Guinness Book of World Records.

Guinness declared the 95-year-old Cammarata the world’s longest serving bartender way back in 1987.

Ang poured his first beer at his father’s grocery store when he was 19. It was the stroke of midnight on April 7, 1933, the exact instant that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told a thirsty America that -- hallelujah -- killjoy Prohibition was over and so were the days of Cammaratas selling groceries. His father saw the future and it was sudsy.

Ang's been pouring them ever since. There may be older bartenders, but none who’ve tended longer. He’s known no other job.

The streak came to an end Saturday. Cammarata’s in the West View neighborhood near Pittsburgh, is closing for health reasons.

Not his.

His 59-year-old son John suffered a heart attack last year and can no longer keep up with the demands. The family sold the bar.

I wrote about Ang in 1999 for National Enquirer. This man born in 1915 (he remembers seeing disabled Civil War veterans in military parades) holds a sort of world record for me, too, as my most evergreen story. Every year he kept persevering, I’d pitch him to someone else, eventually landing his story in Playboy, Men’s Health and a handful of other publications.

Ang was the final exam in 2006 when I taught a non-fiction writing class at Point Park University.

I wanted to see if the students had learned to detect a magnificent story where none appeared to exist.

Tell a group of 20-somethings that they’re final grade will be based on a two-hour full-class question-and-answer session with a 92-year-old man and three-quarters of them will look like they want to heave their holstered cell phones at your head. Most of us will make little more than polite conversation with someone that aged.

Not when a final grade’s on the line.

I sat and listened to 15-minutes of perfunctory questions about where he lived (“West View, north of Pittsburgh”) and what he did for a living (“I’m a bartender”), before one exasperated student blurted out impatiently, “Just what makes you so special?”

That’s when the place began to fill with magic.

He told us about what it’s like to be married to the same woman, Mary, for 70 years (and that sounds like a record, too), that beer once cost a nickel, that he’s sympathetic to today’s kids, and that Negro League legend and Cammarata customer Josh Gibson was a pretty cool dude.

He told us about the simple joy of making a new friend, that he considers himself living proof that second-hand smoke dangers are overrated and that he believes he’s the luckiest man in the world.

Afterwards, we all went to his bar and he poured us beers. If nothing else, at least some of those students will look up from text messaging and wonder about the life experiences of that unassuming stranger at the bus stop.

CBS news reporter, Steve Hartman was there. He’s does the Evening News slice of life pieces and that wonderful “Everybody Has A Story” segment. I’ve always admired his work and was thrilled to see he’d nosed his way to one of my favorite subjects.

I told him my favorite Camm quote came after I asked him to pinpoint the best years of his life. Camm’s response: “For me, it was the years from when I was 40 to about 75. Those were just really great years.”

I’m truly blessed to have him call me a friend.

He went out of his way to introduce me to his family and all the friendly customers who consider him part of theirs.

He made me feel like a big shot.

That this gentleman always duplicated that sort of lavish treatment with each and every customer does nothing to diminish the honor.

I didn’t go to church the next day. Not that I was hungover. Far from it.

I didn’t go because I believe those two hours in that bar equalled a lifetime’s worth of proper religious education.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Brace yourself: Jay's better than Dave

I’m about to write a paragraph that has the potential to alienate the three or four readers who look to this little corner of the internet for cutting edge direction.

Here goes:

I can’t wait for Jay Leno’s return. I missed him. I think he’s funny. I’ll take him over David Letterman any day of the week.

Now, for those of you who haven’t already deserted me for more hip commentary, let me explain:

At the end of a long day of work and tending to family responsibilities, I enjoy a little laughter.

(I put that bit about “ . . . after a long day of work/family responsibilities . . .” in there specifically for my long-suffering wife, who’s entitled to a little laughter herself.)

Maybe there was a time in my life where I demanded comedy challenge me with cutting edge intellect, but I doubt it.

I don’t need comedy to be complex or layered. I just need it to be funny.

Laughter with me is a more reflexive function than even when some doctor strikes me on the knee with that odd little hatchet-shaped hammer with the earth-toned rubber triangle.

I don’t want to know why I laugh. I just want to laugh.

Jay’s jokes make me do that. I laugh out loud when he tells them.

Or maybe with late night comics, it comes down to one of the least funny disciplines known to man. Maybe it comes down to simple math.

Dave’s monologue is stingy. He’ll do maybe 10 jokes to start the show. He wraps them around bug-eyed facial expressions meant, I guess, to punctuate the jokes. The jokes are funny. Dave isn’t.

In the 12 or so minutes it takes Dave to tell 10 jokes, Jay will fire off about 30 and -- this is key -- they make me laugh.

I guess in the eyes of the uniform opinion of our nation’s top coastal-based television critics that makes me the kind of bib-overall wearing, Mid-West rube who supports things like farm subsidies.

His most ardent fans say they revel in Dave’s attitude and I’ll give them that. He’s got plenty of ‘tude. Unfortunately, it’s the kind Clint Eastwood’s character displays in the fine film, “Gran Torino.” I turn Dave’s show on and I think he’s going to ask me and my wife to get off his lawn.

I don’t know whether this beloved and wildly successful man still has unfulfilled ambitions about his standing in relation to Johnny Carson, but he doesn’t look like he enjoys his job. At this point, he looks impatient to conclude his show and, in fact, his career.

If Jay’s ratings tank -- they won’t -- he looks like he’d go door-to-door telling jokes for canned food donations. It makes me feel comfortable watching someone having so much genuine fun at what they’re doing.

To be fair, I need to give you some examples of what else I think is funny and what I think is not.

Ben Stiller in “Meet The Parents” (just the original) is very funny. Ben Stiller in “Something About Mary” is not.

Old newspaper columns by Mike Royko are still funny. Ones by Dave Barry are not.

The Coen brothers movie, “The Big Lebowsky” and “Raising Arizona” are funny. The Coen brothers movies “Burn After Reading” and “Barton Fink” are not.

I love Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” because so much happens that's so damn funny. That's why I remain confounded by Heller’s “Something Happened” because it’s not funny and nothing did.

Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Chris Rock and Mike Myers from the early 1990s were hilarious and hands down the funniest cast in SNL history. Despite occasional flashes of brilliance (Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin), Will Farrell and the vast majority of the rest of the roster aren’t at all funny and make me happy I fall asleep before they crank up their noisy tedium.

We live in times so divisive we are compelled to choose between things like late night talk show hosts. I don’t know why I can’t enjoy both Jay and Dave, two gifted comics who stand head and shoulders above the myriad pretenders to their thrones (excluding the funny Craig Ferguson). But since I have to pick, there you go.

Oh, and one more thing.

One of the blogs I posted in the last month was really funny.

This wasn’t.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Happy Birthday Arnold Palmer!

Some admiring jokers started www.chucknorrisfacts.com to put a farcical spin on the B-movie actor’s fantasy exploits. Example: “When Chuck Norris does a push up, he isn’t elevating himself, he’s pushing the earth down.”

It’s a hilarious bit of make believe.

In 2005, I was asked to do the daily timeline project on www.ArnoldPalmer.com and can now conclude what should be obvious to any fair-minded observer. And that is this:

The real Arnold Palmer makes even the make-believe Chuck Norris look like a candy-assed sissy.

Today is Palmer’s 80th birthday.

He declined an invitation to an interesting party this evening where some of his friends were going to salute him just for being such a great guy.

“I wish I could attend,” he told reporters, “but I’ve got some other things planned and I’ll be pretty busy that night. Sorry, I just can’t be there.”

The event? The opening night kickoff of the 2009 NFL season at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers wanted to honor Palmer on one of the biggest nights of the year. They wanted to have more than 65,000 fans cheer him, watch video highlights of his career, and listen to heady praise of his lavish philanthropy.

But he has something better to do.

There’s an astounding humility in that polite little no thanks. I’m guessing he’s going have a small party with friends at Latrobe Country Club, but how many of our celebrities could resist the opportunity to have their already-massive egos stoked by having a crowd of that size blow kisses at them?

All America should feel better about itself today knowing we produced a man like Palmer and that he continues to thrive and inspire.

Unlike Norris, who’s becoming more famous for popping off on far right causes that embarrass even mainstream conservatives, facts about Palmer are, well, facts.

I know this because for two years it was my job to go through more than 50 years of newspaper and magazine clippings about Palmer and note what he did each and every day of his life.

As of today, the Timeline has more than 1,200 noteworthy items.

As everyone knows, he is one of the greatest golfers who’s ever lived. But a charming alchemy of small-town grit, old-fashioned good manners and heaven-sent good fortune have made his a life unique in American history. Many presidents may admire Sandy Koufax or Cal Ripken, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever invite them to the White House to play catch.

But it’s different with golfers. And it’s different still with Palmer. That helps explain why former President Dwight D. Eisenhower showed up at Palmer’s house to surprise him on his 37th birthday on this day in 1966, and why Bill Clinton told biographers in 2000 that one of the greatest perks of being POTUS is the “opportunity to play golf with Arnold Palmer.”

An accomplished pilot who still flies his own jet, Palmer set an aviation world record on May 19, 1976, when he circumnavigated the globe in a Lear 36 in less than 58 hours.

Kirk Douglas said in 1970 that no one -- not Sinatra, John Wayne or Ronald Reagan -- has more charisma than Palmer.

He has a popular drink, The Arnold Palmer (half lemonade/half iced tea), named after him and the concoction is recognized by hip Manhattan waitresses who have no idea who Arnold Palmer is. In addition to the drink, two entire hospitals, a national golf museum, a regional airport, a PGA golf tournament, fancy club rooms and charity initiatives and scholarships too numerous to tally bear the name Arnold Palmer.

John Paul Newport of the Wall Street Journal wrote this week, “Lasting popularity of Palmer’s magnitude simply cannot be explained.”

It’s a safe bet that today Palmer will celebrate his birthday by playing some golf, laughing with some children, hugging loved ones, joking with buddies, being bold and doing something to help someone needy.

Let’s all try and join him in doing just some of the same. It’s life the way it ought to be lived.

All, but you, Chuck Norris.

You can just sit home in the dark and maybe dream about what it would be like to be a real man.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Future town halls to determine weather

Today’s raucous town halls about health care will seem tame in 15 years when states convene to determine what sort of climate they want within their own borders.

And I believe that’s what the future holds. Today, our brightest minds are meeting to work on solving our most pressing problem: global warming.

I’m one of those types of pacifists that wants to strangle strangers whenever I hear them make Al Gore jokes during cool summers or mild winters.

I’m more persuaded by the veteran Space Shuttle astronaut who recently remarked that from space our world looks a lot less white -- and he wasn’t addressing demographic trends involving border jumping Mexicans.

He’d been in space about 10 years ago and marveled at the vivid colors of our gigantic marble floating through the cosmos.

There were blues, greens and, draped atop our majestic mountain peaks, blankets of pure white.

Now he says the whites no longer dominate the world in ways that should concern even those who are sensitive to things like racial balance.

The anecdotal evidence that keeps piling up convinces me. I saw a news report about a new picture book that contrasts images of iconic mountain tops like the Matterhorn from today with 50 years ago.

And isn’t that a honkin’ great name for a mountain? Matter-Horn. Toot! Toot!

Sure, it could be seasonal deviations, but there’s a lot less snow in places where snow used to be abundant.

I believe we’re finally waking up to a problem that threatens our very existence. Government, industry and the geniuses they hire are working together to reduce green house gases.

I’m confident they will succeed and by the year 2025, global warming will be stabilized. Mankind will have scored a glorious victory.

My fear is the inevitable over-reach that happens anytime man becomes arrogant with achievement.

Entrepreneurs will modify the science and -- voila! -- soon individual states will be allowed to manipulate the climate any way they want, according to the wishes of will of the voters.

Florida will decide to regulate its climate so it’s the comfortable 88-degree high/62-degree low all us snowbirds expect when we wing off to the Sunshine State.

More than 1/3 of the population in places like Vermont and Colorado rely on winter recreation for employment. They’ll be able to turn dials in the state capitals that mean frosty conditions will prevail from Labor Day through Memorial Day, when climatic adjustments will lead to thaws and immediate transitions to summer fun.

Scarred by decades of devastating fires, Californians will go against their sunny dispositions and dial up soaking rains every two weeks

Where things will get interesting are in places like Illinois, Michigan and here in Pennsylvania. These are the places where we bitterly bitch about winter, but enjoy the change of seasons.

Fall and spring are splendid. Summer needs no adjusting. I hate winter, but do enjoy some seasonal snowfall.
If I can, I’ll vote to ensure a white Christmas and will vote for heavy snows on just 10 weekends of the year, those being whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers play a home game on outdoor Heinz Field. I love watching the great Steelers play in the snow.

But what about cranky old-timers?

Heck in 2025, I’ll be a cranky old timer.

Will some yammering kid start shouting at me that she wants to be a Winter X-Game snowboard champ and thinks Pennsylvania should be smothered in year-round snow? I could see us getting into a town hall shouting match that will make the news when I bite the tip of her sassy finger off with my false teeth.

It’s bound to be an interesting and historic time.

Of course, it’ll all be rendered moot when in 2035 scientists begin to offer iPhone applications that allow individualized weather systems.

That way the weather we’re wanting can follow us all around like meteorological mood rings.

And, no matter what the weather, that’s promises to be really cool.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Speed reading as unwanted as speed sex

I have about the same interest in learning speed reading as I do in learning speed sex.

If I’m doing something I enjoy, I want to extend the pleasure. I like it when the baseball game goes into extra innings, when the leisurely director’s cut is included in the DVD and that soothing fall weekend when we all get an extra hour of sleep.

I don’t know what the rush is when it comes to reading. I’ve read the reports that you can increase volume without diminishing comprehension, but I never want to read like I’m racing.

Time spent reading is like a stealth vacation. I want to savor every sentence. I don’t want to gulp a glorious book. I want to sip it.

Alas, I no longer have the time to read the way I always wish I could.

Ever since we’ve had children, I read like I’m cheating on a diet. I sneak a bite here and there when I think no one is looking.

It seems like I’m doing something criminal if my wife or one of the girls walks in during the daylight hours and I’m sitting in the easy chair, feet back with my nose pointed at the interior spine of a really fat book.

Of course, we spend about an hour each night reading aloud to our girls, ages 8 and 3, and that’s a joy. I hope we’re nurturing in them the same joy for reading our parents did in us. But reading Dr. Seuss’s “The Things I Think I Think” with a cartoonishly animated voice isn’t the same as settling into a book like David Halberstam’s lively 801-page book, “The Fifties.”

And after we’ve tucked the kids in we’re both too whipped to do much reading so we usually just zone out to something like a 1994 Seinfeld episode we’ve both seen a combined 324 times.

As for romance, speedy or otherwise, that’s another casualty of trying to do our very best raising our little rascals.

It is, indeed, one of life’s great ironies that the ultimate result of having sex becomes one of the greatest impediments to ever having it again.

Like many couple we want it all. We yearn to be outstanding parents with many gleeful evening hours of quality time with our darlings. We want to indulge our intellects with cerebral readings and we want to maintain an enthusiastic and vigorous love life.

We often make the mistake of trying to do all three in order and on the same night with predictable results.

We get engrossed in our books and, dang it, the moment is gone. We’re too tired for intimacy.

Hmmm . . .

Maybe there’s something to that speed reading thing after all.