Wednesday, October 31, 2012

An apology, FEMA & true acts of God

Coastal storm clean-up begins in earnest today. That’s when multi-millionaire homeowners who preach Tea Party self-sufficiency beseech FEMA for immediate aid.

I posted that yesterday on both Twitter and Facebook to more than two dozen supportive salutes.

Then, speaking of FEMA, disaster struck.

A dear old friend of mine sent me a note saying I’d hurt her feelings.

And, honest, to me that is a disaster. I’ve really tried over the last year to be less reflexively nasty, less divisive and more even-handed in regards to our political differences.

This woman, a friend I’ve known since the 4th grade, is immersed in the New Jersey catastrophe. She is friends with people who lost everything.

Instead of my political cheap shot, she asked if I could instead ask readers to say some prayers for those who’ve lost so much.

“Yes, even the Tea Party needs FEMA,” she wrote. “And isn’t it great we live in a country that will send help regardless of your political affiliations? Some of the these people may be millionaires with their own opinions, but that doesn’t make them bad and/or wrong and unworthy of our support in the midst of such horrible devastation.”


Sometimes I just can't help it. Wit, as we’re about to see, is sometimes hard to holster.

But she is absolutely correct.

That makes what I’m about to write so tricky.

Because I am right, too.

This is a legitimate political issue. There are people who believe in extreme self-sufficiency. They home school their children. They grow their own food. They protect themselves with their own artillery. They mock those of us who believe government can play a beneficial role in bettering our lives.

They are like Grover Norquist, a Tea Party icon famous for saying, “I’m not in favor of abolishing government. I just want to the shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.”

The mindset appalls me. 

I believe, as my friend does, that we all need one another, and that we are imbued with an innate eagerness to help one another where ever the need is greatest.

Right now, that’s right in her neighborhood.

I like to think if we were neighbors, I’d be there this instant with my chainsaw and all my most reassuring hugs. 

That’s the very best part of America and I believe that’s what beats in all our hearts. It’s a shame it takes tragedy for it to emerge above our pettiness.

Maybe I’m just sensitive to criticism of FEMA, my very favorite federal agency. I more than most any man knows just how resourceful FEMA can be in dealing with acts of God.

It was August 2001, a date that will forever ring with relevance for the horror it precedes.

They were simpler times. FEMA was considered vital to national welfare for its ability to deal with hurricanes, floods, etc. and other so-called “acts of God.”

I was then as now particular about word usage. Calling things like storms acts of God troubled me. They weren’t acts of God, they were weather.

My literal reading of the Book of Exodus, 7-10, gave me a Biblical understanding of true acts of God. The book describes the many ways the Almighty smote the Egyptians for their pagan defiance.

We’re talking plagues of frogs, locusts, gnats and all the water turned into blood, that latter being a real doozy.

How would FEMA deal with those disasters? I pitched the idea to editors at Maxim and they gave it an editorial amen. So I approached FEMA.

Understand, the story wouldn’t work unless someone connected with the agency gave me bureaucratic answers to how the federal government would respond to these biblical precedents.

Of course, FEMA reps didn’t return my calls. Who could blame them? Even those of us who consider the federal government useful understand it shoots itself in the foot anytime it tries to show it has a sense of humor.

Luckily, the longest serving FEMA director in agency history was under no such restraint. In fact, his name is Witt.

He’s James Lee Witt, for seven years Bill Clinton’s FEMA director and had been on-site at 356 federally declared disaster areas.

And, boy, did Witt live up to his name. He instinctively knew what we were seeking.

How would FEMA respond to a plague of frogs?

“The first thing I’d do,” he said, “is contact the animal rights group to ensure none of them were on the endangered species lists -- wouldn’t want to get ensnared in a lawsuit. Then I’d get the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Commission to have a huge frog roundup. And then, me being an Arkansas boy, we’d have a dandy barbecue. I have some great recipes for frog legs.”

He said insect plagues would involve calls to the Centers for Disease Control and the EPA to determine potential infections and which pesticides could be safely sprayed in populated areas. FEMA reps would be deployed to offer low-interest loans under the Farmer’s Disaster Relief Program.

“That’s loans, not grants,” he clarified. “Of course, the loan interest rates would be very reasonable.”

I was intrigued how FEMA would respond if some modern Moses with a chip on his shoulder turned all the water into -- ick -- blood.

“Ooh, that’s a toughie. I guess I’d order the deployment of water buffalos and reverse osmosis machines so your morning grooming wouldn’t be a real bloodbath. And as the aquatic life would be unable to survive in rivers of blood, we’d need the EPA to prevent the spread of contamination. I’d rely on the Army Corps of Engineers for guidance, but if they were stumped, I’d beseech a higher power.

“And I don’t mean Dick Cheney.”

As you can see, the man is fantastic. It was already on the way to becoming one of my favorite stories.

What cinched it was his eagerness to use a line I fed him about an outrageous scenario.  That happens in these sorts of stories. I had a this dandy line and he could choose to use it or not, depending on his sense of humor.

Happily, he did and here’s how the story ended, in a scenario that oddly echos today’s headlines.

“What would FEMA do if a 500-foot lizard emerged from the Atlantic and started crashing through Manhattan?

“‘That wouldn’t be an act of God,' he said. 'That would be an act of Godzilla and would fall under the auspices of the Department of Defense.'”

Told you Witt was hard to holster.

Related . . .

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Breast facts, by the book

We’ll deal with Hurricane Sandy tomorrow, but today let’s touch upon a topic aimed at giving those in distress some snuggling comfort.

We’re talking breasts.

“Funbags. Boobsters. Chumbawumbas. Dingle bobbers. Dairy pillows. Jellybonkers. Num nums.”

Those aren’t my words.

Those are the first words from the great new Florence Williams book called -- Ta! Da! -- “Breasts: a natural and unnatural history.”

Or should I say, “Ta! Tas!” 

I was in the library looking to stock up on books in case a tree branch knocked the power out. As is my wont, I was looking for war history books but went first to peruse the new releases.

Instead of bombs, I seized “Breasts.”

How could I resist?

The title grabs you even as you want to grab it right back. The cover art features two voluptuous clover-covered mountains -- Chia Tits! -- with a lush, dimpled cleavage running down the middle. It’s suggestive without being salacious.

I opened the book to read that first paragraph. I was hooked. It’s maybe the best opening paragraph in American literature and sure beats the pants off, “Call me Ishmael.”

Of course, as an author of so many failed book proposals I gazed upon “Breasts” with a critical eye. Authors craft what the industry calls an “elevator pitch,” a 30-second summation of why publishers should buy the book.

I thought of all mine and why next to hers mine failed and hers did not. My conclusion? I didn’t think to say, “My book is called ‘Breasts’ and it is about breasts.”


I’m being silly, of course, but “Breasts” is not -- and I’m wrestling with whether or not to refer to a single book called “Breasts” in the singular or the plural. I don’t think I’ve ever said “breasts is” in my life, but there’s just the one book so I think my old English teacher would approve.

It’s funny, I checked out “Breasts” with just two days left in Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a topic I’ve derided in regards to unseemly NFL pandering. I contend the pinkening of October is more about selling football jerseys than doing any real good, like donating a portion of the proceeds to the Breast Cancer Society.

See, I’m already well aware of breast cancer. My mother lost both her breasts to cancer in 1983.

And like most American men I’m hyper aware of breasts themselves. They’re everywhere.

And, get this, they’re getting bigger and bigger; the average breast size has grown from B to C cup, and lingerie manufacturers are now offering cup sizes like H and KK. Any bigger and industry standards will cease referring to them as cups sizes and will instead adopt bucket measurements.

I thought I knew a lot about breasts. I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I picked up “Breasts.”

For instance:

• Breast milk contains substances similar to cannabis, which explains the dreamy look that descends on the faces of breast-feeding babies. I’m surprised I’ve never noticed babies flashing things like peace signs.

• Breast milk sold on the internet is worth more than 262 times that of the price of oil.

• Wonderbra sales in the U.S. top $70 million each year. 

• The designer of the first popular breast prosthesis was none other than Ruth Handler, herself a breast cancer survivor more famous for being the inventor of the Barbie doll.

• Thanks to environmental corruption, the average American breast is at least partly flame retardant and produces breast milk that includes perchlorate, an ingredient in jet fuel. Learning these disturbing facts while breastfeeding her children is what led Williams, an award-winning journalist, to write “Breasts.”

She is to be congratulated for writing what is a very important book that details how human females developed breasts, why they’re so important to our entire existence and why we should all be concerned about the startling environmental factors at play within the breast.

And Williams manages to do it all in a way that’s as engaging and playful as the dear breast itself.

I recommend it to anyone who cares about breasts, women, and our collective future -- and I’m only on page 36.

I hope the book makes Williams a fortune and that she for the sake of ironic promotional reasons spends at least some of the loot on upgrading what she describes as B cups to some real hooters.

Having said all that, I’m not sure I’ll read the whole thing.

As good as it is, I’m the kind of guy who can see myself eventually getting bored with “Breasts” and shocking the librarian by asking where I can find some “Ass.”

Related . . .

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Springsteen show & when music still matters

I confess to spending a good deal of my time at the Bruce Springsteen show in Pittsburgh Saturday wishing I could turn a 50-something man into my 12-year-old daughter.

I’m not sure whether or not she would have enjoyed the 3-hour concert, but I know she would have paid more attention.

And I wouldn’t have felt like pretending spilling a $7 beer on his bald head was an accident.

This I was really close to doing. Seriously.

Every four or five minutes he’d take out his smart phone to check the college football scores. He was in the seat right in front and one to the right of mine so I’d see it every time over his left shoulder. 

It’s a cowardly move, I admit, but being a beer-spill vigilante is the perfect solution to this sort of craven behavior.

I could pretend like I was an idiot and it was an accident. He’d get furious, storm out for at least the duration of “Racing in the Street,” and if my aim was perfect I might gum up his phone.

It’s not like I could tap him on the shoulder and say, “You know, Bruce Springsteen’s 63-years old. You should pay attention because this could be the last time any of us has a chance to see him and because he’s still magnificent.”

And, indeed, he is. I’d say he’s the last of a rare breed, but that would be selling him short. There’s never been anyone like him. I’ve never seen another performer capable of evoking so many emotions.

His 27-song set made me laugh, exalt, cry and care.

It’s something you just can’t get from the final score of the Pitt-Temple game.

I was feeling a bit melancholy during the show because I sense we’re at the end of an era. All the great bands are simultaneously winding down and aren’t being replaced.

Music no longer matters.

The Oct. 6 issue of New York magazine’s cover features this revealing article about the popular band Grizzly Bear (I’ve never heard of them). The cover asks: “Is Rock Stardom Any Way to Make a Living?” and relates how the band just sold out Radio City Music Hall and the band members are all piss poor.

The article said the first half of 2012 was the first time albums older than 18 months outsold new albums. New music isn’t getting played or purchased and part of our culture is dying.

It makes me want to grab people by the collars and tell them we’re losing something precious.

I wonder if the reason I care so much is I spent some formative years in Nashville. I was friends with many talented songwriters who took me to all the best clubs, including the famed Bluebird Cafe, where I’d spend many nights listening to some of Music City’s finest crafting songs that still demand our attention.

I saw management throw people out for even discreet conversation.

I thought of the Bluebird whisper police as the guy at the Springsteen concert kept distracting me by ignoring one of the America’s greatest artists in favor of frequent Top 25 score updates.

There’s an uproar over the Stones charging $700 for tickets, an amount that will attract an elite class of people while excluding so many others.

I’d like to see promoters for their own good institute a policy where fabulously wealthy bands must sell tickets for $100 a pair. The purchasers would sign a pledge to not fiddle with smart phones or behave in ways that distract fellow concert-goers. Further, they must pass a test proving they have a deep knowledge of the artist’s career catalogue and what the appropriate emotion to register when someone like Springsteen plays his Clarence Clemons tribute during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out.” 

They must swear securing a seat for the concert will mean the world to them, that attending is matter of life or death.

And they must promise to give the second ticket to some struggling musician who will perhaps be inspired by what they see and may go home and in six months write the next “Born to Run” to save an industry that is dying before our eyes.

That way we’d be guaranteed to be sitting around people who already know the score without having to check their smart phones.

Related . . . 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Keepin' all my crayons sharp

Charcoal and Lampblack: those were the only two colors the company that would grow to be Crayola Crayons produced when it was founded in 1864. And it took good lighting and a discerning eye to differentiate between the two. Today, the children who use Crayola brand products can choose from more than 120 different colors, including Atomic Tangerine, Laser Lemon, and Razzmatazz. What child isn’t glad to be alive in such a vibrant age? The company, which now earns more than $100 million each year, says the average child will wear down more than 730 crayons before he or she turns ten years old.

-- From the introduction to “Use All The Crayons!”

I didn’t realize when I wrote this black and white book it would lead to a lot of time playing with crayons. If I had, I guess I would have written it in about 1992. I’d forgotten how fun playing with crayons can be.

The crayon bit happened by accident. I sent the first signed copies out to Arnold Palmer and the people who helped me secure his endorsement and signed them the way all authors do.

So the first copies are the worst copies. They are signed in pen. They are blah. They might as well have been signed by John Grisham -- and who needs that?

It was boring as hell and it offended my creative sensibilities.

Certainly, I could do better.

So when I took a stack to Second Chapter Books for Laurie McGinnis in Ligonier to sell, I felt an urge to add some dash.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner, but I stopped by Kmart and set down $12.99 for the deluxe bonus box with 96 colors. My plans were to sign each book in a different color crayon.

Well, that still didn’t cut it. I decided to color in the eight little clip art crayons and any enclosed parts of the letters in on the title page. That looked nice, but there was still a big vacancy above the title the cried for coloring.

So I made a circle with a reddish Jazzberry Jam. I used a Periwinkle for the left eye and a Sea Green for the right. The Dandelion crescent turned it into a little crayon smiley face. I added little flairs of color extending out from the circle with little dots orbiting the sphere.

Beside it with a pointer arrow I added the helpful description: “Author Self Portrait.”

My friend Marjorie described it as a “minimalist Picasso.”

In two months I’ve already done more than 400 and no two are exactly alike.

That’s a lot of crayons.

Did you know a crayon box comes with a crayon sharpener?

This will make me sound like the world’s biggest candy ass, but the fingers on my right hand hurt after an hour or so of crayon sharpening. It takes like 25 twists to reclaim a point. The device is very inefficient.

If the book sells well enough the first thing I’m going to do is hire a shapely intern to sharpen my crayons. And that “sharpen my crayons” isn’t a sly reference to sex.

I’m just one of those middle-aged men who likes having a proud point on all his crayons.

I try and use a dozen different crayons for every title page signing. I’m probably the only one who cares, but if I happen to use two shades that are similar I feel bad and have to fight the urge to set that book aside and start over. I worry someone grumpy’s going to say, “The book’s called ‘Use All The Crayons!’ and it’s obvious he used Burnt Sienna twice. That’s just lazy.”

I try and avoid earth tones. So the browns are still in good shape.

But I fear for the purples, reds, blues and greens. They are just so vibrant I wind up using them over and over again. They’ve become all dull and stubby, nearly too short to be of any use -- and we’re still talking crayons here.

The least used? The white. You can’t see it.

The most frequently used? The black. It’s the only color I use for nearly every signing. I for some reason have decided that every nose on the radiant smiley face should be black. The heavy stroke seems to anchor the whole thing. 

And part of me feels it’s an approving nod to affirmative action and will resonate with those who believe in fair hiring practices. In that regard you could say I’m brown-nosing the black.

The sales at Barnes & Noble in Greensburg are exceeding my expectations. I’m closing in on 30 sales in one month. That’s great.

The book started out and remains in the self-improvement section, which is right across from the human sexuality books. If you’re one of those people who judge a book by its cover then you’ll judge mine inferior to soft core porn of the sex books. I confess to lingering on the side of the aisle opposite my book for a pulse-racing browse.

But about a week ago they moved the bulk of my books to Broadway. They now have a display of them prominently featured at the high traffic information island in the center of the store.

The sales staff there have been so friendly and supportive I wish I could give them all a great big hug. But there are unwritten rules and my hug might be misconstrued as a maneuver I picked up from one of the human sexuality books and that could be a problem.

So instead last week I brought them a big tray of cookies from Dainty Pastry, our local bakery, which I’m sure they appreciated more than than a big, grabby hug.

They told me this week they just ordered 19 more copies. That’s very good news. Word of mouth is really propelling the book. Thank you, my friends, for making that happen.

That means I’ll be up there this week spending about an hour or so in the cafe decorating books in ways that far beneath literary titans like Hemingway and Steinbeck. That means lots and lots of crayon sharpening.

I shrink not from the task.

A man like me always has a good sharp crayon at the ready.

And if something malfunctions I understand they have little Robin’s Egg Blue pills available for that sort of thing.

Related . . .

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Getting all kill crazy over parking spaces

I have my 12-year-old convinced I never park in the same spot at the Giant Eagle. I go there nearly every day for the salad bar or something from the deli.

I told her about how I try and park in a different region every time because I believe it keeps my mind as fresh as the salad bar. See, if I park in roughly the same spot then I will out of rote habit walk zombie-like to that spot every time, the way they do in the zombie ant farms.

But if I’m parking in vastly different spots I need to engage my mind to recall the location.

Yes, there’s no cease fire in my war on boredom.

One place you’ll never find me parking is the sweet spot. I favor the outer regions because they allow me a little exercise.

I graciously pass by the good empty spots so they can be claimed by little old ladies and the competitive sorts who regard getting a really good spot the way the rest of us regard winning a scratch off.

So that’s a lot of thinking that goes into another otherwise simple maneuver.

Now, after Sunday morning, I have another rule layered on top of all these.

Never, never, never park within 20 spaces of the 2011 Navy Blue Ford Explorer with the New York Yankees decal on the back window.

Doing so could get you killed.

Saw it almost happen to a little old lady.

I was getting some groceries when I heard the first shouted profanity, which I’ll sanitize in case you care to read this story aloud to your kids at bedtime.

“What the ‘heck’? You just slammed your ‘heckin’’ door into my car! You stupid ‘heck!’”

It was Sunday about 10 a.m., a time when other people are shouting things like “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” So it drew my attention.

The offending motorist was a little old lady about 60; her shopping mate was about 80. I assume it was her mother. Together they probably weighed about 170 pounds and looked less fierce than the stupid terrier/squirrel mix my daughters brought home in 2010.

The offended motorist weighed about 210 and looked like he could have just emerged ready for battle from the Philadelphia Phillies bullpen. A Yankee decal on his shiny car, he was wearing shorts, a Phillies cap, a Phillies jacket and -- honest -- some Phillies cleats.  

If he was returning from a church service, I’m guessing they have a very relaxed dress code.

I could tell by his uniform, his decal and his reaction to an accidental door ding that this was a man with rage issues. Both the big dollar Phillies and the Yankees underperformed this year and that can be hard on diehard fans.

I mean diehard fans who follow teams other than the Pittsburgh Pirates. After 20 years of losing baseball, we Buc fans no longer get angry. We just stay sad.

He lit into this woman with an unholy fury. He got right in her face -- he had to sort of stoop -- and berated her with the kind of language Lt. Col. Slade used in “Scent of a Woman” when Charlie Simms suggested the blind old warrior set the gun down.

It was one of those electric moments where I’m wondering what my role in this is meant to be.

It was a Sunday morning in western Pennsylvania so it’s safe to assume at least two of the three were packing heat.

This is not idle conjecture.

Just last Friday, a 30-year-old Iraq War veteran shot and killed a 55-year-old truck driver over a parking spot at a Pittsburgh-area grocery store.

People’s nerves are raw.

Good thing we’re all armed to the teeth.

The woman, God bless her, was giving as good as she got, sans the profanity. 

“Haven’t you ever made made a mistake? It was an accident! Why are you acting like this?”

She got in the car trembling, I’m sure, as he menaced her from two feet away.

At this point, I’m feeling a need to do something, even as I had a carefree Sunday of football and playoff baseball in store. Becoming collateral damage wasn’t part of the plan.

But I drove up the aisle and rolled down my window. He was standing there astride her rear bumper.

“Are you okay, man?” I asked.

I like to think my question had a soothing affect on him because he said in a voice that sounded like relief, “Yeah, I’m okay.”

Maybe he was realizing how close he’d come to crossing a very frightening line.

“You take it easy, okay?”

“Yeah, I will.”

I hope so. I suspect he may have some mental health issues. No one should get kill crazy over an accidental little door ding.

And to think at the start of this story you thought I was the one acting nutty in the parking lot.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Save health care: cure hypochondria!

Concrete evidence is emerging to support my theory that our national health care crisis will vanish the instant we cure hypochondria, the irrational conviction that one is destined to become ill.

Hypochondria is not to be confused with typochondria, the irrational conviction that one is destined to become embarrassed by a malfunctioning spell checker.

Monday’s Washington Post said so-called “‘super-utilizers’ place a huge and costly burden on the medical system.”

What exactly is a super-uilizer?

“Super-utilizers are people who overuse emergency departments and hospital in-patient services, making more visits in a month than some people make in a lifetime.”

My mother’s had an unhealthy thread of hypochondria running through her health concerns, most of which I believe would disappear if she learned how to fast-forward through the commercials.

She sees, as we all do, ubiquitous pharmaceutical commercials asking if we’re feeling stressed, irritable, if our joints ache and if we’re having trouble sleeping.

The commercials tell her these are symptoms of various garden-variety afflictions.

I tell her not to believe the commercials. Those aren’t symptoms of illness.

They are symptoms of life.

The commercials have us all believing we should be living painfree lives clear through our golden years. But even rich people get sick and die. And if it’s going to happen to even them then what chance do the rest of us poor schlepps have?

And the doctors have a vested interest in ensuring people keep thinking they’re sick.

They conduct batteries of expensive tests designed to cover every complaining patient eventuality when the only thing they’re really interested in covering is their own soft butts.

That’s why I think one of the greatest physical attributes, one with which I’m blessed, is a really high pain tolerance. Some are born with it. Others, like me, acquire it through years of overcoming things like chronic hangovers.

If I stub a toe or feel an acute abdominal pain, my first reaction is to address the throbbing with something like, “Ha! You call that pain? That’s nothing! You should have felt it the morning after my Greek buddy’s wedding and all that guzzling of Mythos beer and flaming shots of Ouzo.”

I understand it’s a failing, but I extend this unsympathetic behavior to sick loved ones.

I remember one time my wife was belly-aching over what she described as the worst pain she’d ever endured.

“Pain?” I said. “You want pain? Try waking up Monday morning after a binge-drinking reunion weekend with me and the boys back at Ohio University in Athens.”

Big mistake. Her belly-aching was the result of a truly aching belly. She was in the delivery room about to give birth to our first child. Man, did she get pissed.

Note to first-time expectant fathers: Never include in your pre-natal pep talks moral boosters about how your wife should quit whining and just tough it out. A woman in the throes of labor can do or say things that’ll make you wince without ever lifting finger.

I know many strong men who pride themselves on their pain tolerance, but only one who revels in it.

He’s Frank, a guy I met at the kid’s afternoon bus stop. Normally I try and avoid conversation with bus stop parents because it takes small talk and busts it clear down to molecular levels.

Not with Frank. He not only overcomes pain from things like tooth aches, he performs self-dentistry.

If you’re ever with him at the bus stop ask him to show you the tooth he removed, sanded and glued back in place.

Yes, glued.

“The thing was just killing me,” he said. “Now, I wasn’t about to miss a day of work to sit around in some sissy dentist office for something I can do right here in my own garage.”

He told me in glorious detail how he took some pliers and yanked that sucker right out. After the bleeding stopped, he examined the ivory and the vacant spot behind his lower lip.

“It had this jagged edge. I knew if I could file that off I could take some boat glue and put it right back in place.”

And that’s just what he did. He was justifiably proud of his work. I think if we hadn’t been out there in front of all those kids he’d have invited me to stick my finger in his mouth to test the tooth’s stability.

Imagine how much we could reduce health care costs if everyone in the country reacted to pain like Frank.

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t even go that far. But I’m willing to do my part.

Next time my mom complains about feeling sick I’m taking her straight to Frank’s garage.

Related . . .