Thursday, March 23, 2023

My letter to Grace seeking grace

 This is the letter I wrote to the 10-year-old girl, an aspiring writer, after she gave me the only copy of her 22-page handwritten book to review and I lost it.

I had her father read it first. I thought there was a chance he’d hit me. Instead, he got choked up and shook my hand.

I gotta be honest: I gave a lot of serious thought to trying to lie my way out of this one …

Dear Grace,

When your father  asked if I’d  be willing to read something you’d written, I didn’t hesitate. I’m more than happy to encourage young writers like yourself to pursue the kind of life I’ve been lucky enough to have lived.. I’ve been writing for 40 years and I still tingle with satisfaction knowing I’ve crafted a sentence that people will want to re-read because t made them laugh or think.

He gave me the draft of the book you started — in one night — on Wednesday. On Thursday I did something wise followed by something unbelievably stupid. First the wisdom.

I teach creative writing at Point Park U. I told my students that I’d begun a new book and I began to read them what you’d written. I read them two pages and asked what they thought. One student said it was “imaginative.” One said the writing was “well-paced.” Two said for me to keep reading. They wanted class turned into story time. Then I confessed I’d lied. I told them the writer was the 10-year-old daughter of a Ligonier friend. And they were amazed. One said you must be a prodigy.  I said that’s the perfect word to describe what you’re doing.

Now for the stupid. I don’t know if you can forgive me but I lost what you put so much heart into. I have no excuse. The class is 3 hours long and leads to a sprawl of papers, but I should be more careful with something so precious.  You can be furious with me. I deserve it.

But I’m going to urge you to do something else. I’m going to urge you to take three deep breaths (through the nose!). And do it all over again. The best writers aren’t really writers at all. They’re re-writers. A first draft can be a frolic. Very loose. Almost stream of conscious. I’m not saying yours was, but a rigorous re-write shines with a discipline that demands respect

So you can curse me — I’d start with that — but I recommend you learn from this and add it as another rung on the ladder to success I’m sure you’ll ascend. Lastly, make copies of EVERY THING. It’s a lesson every writer learns. It was just my incompetence that gave you a particularly vivid lesson at an early age.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The perils of parallel parking


(578 words)

I’ve said before that a father teaching a daughter to drive is like a warden teaching an inmate how to escape.

So as of yesterday it was, “One-Adam-12! One-Adam-12! We have an APB for a female 16-year-old known to come to a complete stop even at desolate intersections. Suspect exhibits pathological disdain for having to parallel park.”

That comes from me. Here’s the sum of my parallel parking instructions:

“Accelerate past the vacancy to reduce the temptation to parallel park there. Drive in a relaxed fashion until you find a spacious surface lot with three adjoining spaces. Park in the middle one. Summon Uber and pay $5 or so bucks to drop you off at the front door of your destination.”

This was her second time taking the test. I told her (lied) 72 percent of test takers who fail do so because of a parallel parking failure. 

“Just like you!”

Citing the made-up statistic did nothing to ease her despondency.  I needed to say something wise and insightful. Here, after hours of deliberation, is what I came up with:

“You’ll get ‘em next time, kiddo!”

That’s it. It was like she was 4 and blew a chance to win a silly straw at an Aisle 6 supermarket promotion.

Happily, God is well-aware of my many shortcomings. He (pronoun from Biblical sources) sent me two examples that bestowed perspective and levity that helped deflate her tension.

The first was a timely recollection of an “Austin Powers” clip of him 

trying to execute a 3-point turn. It’s absolutely hilarious. Check it out right here.

The second example caught me by surprise. He’s not someone for whom I’ve ever felt any affinity. He was a bad husband to one of my favorite Hollywood lovelies (Jennifer Garner) and he’s currently imposing his New England mopiness on another (Jennifer Lopez).

Yes, it’s Ben Affleck. I normally wouldn’t pay any attention to Affleck news, but I was having a bad day and the way small-minded men like me feel better about ourselves is reading about people we envy having days that suck. The headline is  “Another Rough Day for Ben Affleck,” by Danielle Cohen in New York magazine. It’s terrific.

So what was the source of the Afflek’s angst? Did he and Garner have families to blend? Did J-Lo ask him to break dance in her next video?

No, the trouble was parallel parking. This is from Cohen’s story.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to parallel park, but it is akin to entering the fifth circle of hell, with the sixth being doing it while people watch. (This magazine’s official stance on parallel parking: “People should be allowed the grace to park alone without being perceived.”) So it only makes sense that Ben Affleck, who recently resumed his reign as the king of despair, was subjected to being not only watched but also filmed while trying to work his way out of a parking crisis.

“On Monday, Affleck found himself in the nightmarish scenario of attempting to wiggle his Mercedes-Benz out of a parking spot in Brentwood. Affleck knows better than anyone that we live in a cruel, cruel world, so of course TMZ managed to secure footage of the entire ordeal.”

We can relate.

I propose we alter the spelling of the hassle to better reflect all that could go wrong in attempting it.

It’s peril-l-ous parking.

Subscribe to my “Use All The Crayons!” newsletter — just $5 month/$50 a year — and get all my best stuff delivered straight to your inbox!

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

RIP Charlie Appleton: a great newspaperman, an even better man


(478 words)

Charlie Appleton, the extraordinary newsman, would have frowned at all the adulatory words being used to mourn the passing of Charlie Appleton, the ordinary family man. 

And just the sight of the word “adulatory” in a scrappy newspaper would have set him off.

He came from the man-bites-dog school of news gathering, but then raised the bar by becoming a de facto dean of the man-bites-dog-then-marries-the-bitch school of journalism.

He had a genius for finding the best, most compelling stories with just a phone and a rolodex of sources he’d painstakingly groomed to trust him implicitly. 

He was the first person to offer his friendship when in 1985 I started working at the Nashville Banner. We became very good friends.

If it sounds like I’m bragging, let me clarify.

Charlie was like Arnold Palmer. I used to brag I was friends with Palmer until it dawned on me that Palmer was friends with everyone.

It was the same with Charlie, the only reporter I knew that had his own catch phrase.

“… and in a bizarre twist …” 

He’d be talking in confidential tones before saying a courteous goodbye.Then he’d set the phone down and turn to the editor and share the facts of what at first would seem to be a routine crime story until, “… and in a bizarre twist …”

That’s when everyone in the newsroomleaned in to learn the bizarre twist. 

I remember one time the bizarre twist was a mother marrying her son — I remember it being in one of Tennessee’s less cosmopolitan zip codes. Strange, but true.

It’s always noteworthy when a senior newsperson dies to see his or her juniors compete to see who can compose the most reverential eulogy.

I’ve already read many fine tributes to this great man by so many dear old friends that I don’t feel compelled to add.

I will, instead, offer another sentiment that comes first to my mind when I think of  dear old Charlie.


See, Charlie is solely responsible for getting me the job with National Enquirer, the notorious tabloid that brought me in to chase the amazing tales I go back to time and time again when I know people are counting on me to be interesting.

I remember interviewing at The Enquirer’s Lantana, Florida, offices prepared for a day-long grilling over my resourcefulness, my tenacity, my ethics …

Kidding! They cared not about ethics — as long as you didn’t have any. I’d fit right in.

For me, there’d be no interview.

“Oh, the job is yours, if you want it,” she said. “Charlie Appleton vouched for you and that’s all we need to hear.”

So I’m thankful that Charlie recognized in me a kindred spirit for telling stories.

And coincidentally, for being a decent human being who will be loved and missed by one and all.

In a bizarre twist that’s what I aspire to one day  become as well.

Subscribe to my “Use All The Crayons!” newsletter — just $5 month/$50 a year — and get all my best stuff delivered straight to your inbox!

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

February Tweets of the Month


• Legendary escape artist Harry Houdini could extricate himself from a straight jacket in just 4 minutes and 9 seconds. I have to imagine escaping from an LBGTQIA jacket would be much more time consuming.

• Restitution is the act of restoring ownership of something that was illegally taken. The act of restoring something that was illegally taken but doing it with island rhythms and bales of ganga is rastatution.

• How will you react if the next time some F-16 guns down a high-tech, high altitude spy balloon investigators find it leads to some rich kid with a really, really long string.

• Teaching college level anesthesiology must be a real challenge. How do you determine if a student snoozing is a lazy goofball or a real go-getter determined to truly absorb that day’s lesson?

• He has influence, a prestigious job, opportunities. In many ways he's a true role model. So what am I supposed to say when an impressionable youth comes up to me and says, "I wanna be just like George Santos." I look at his life and I look at mine and wonder, man, where did I go so wrong? I used to regret I didn't work harder. Now, I regret I didn't spend more mirror time working on my poker face.

• Middle Easterners put aside ancient differences to aid Syrian/Turkish earthquake victims, proving once again the only thing capable of bringing the world together is the world coming apart.

• For a human face to convey the same look of pure elation a dog gets when he sticks his head out the car window, I believe you'd have to time travel back to Eden and the first time Eve wondered what kind of reaction she'd get if she kissed Adam someplace besides the lips.

• I apologize for feeling the need to be so divisive here on Facebook, a forum only intellectually belligerent use for anything but food porn & cat videos, but it’s been 16 years it must be said: Just what the hell was David Chase thinking?

• Told students one of the best ways to unleash creative thinking is to immerse yourself in absurdity. The premise was discussed and I soon congratulated them on recognizing the absurdity abundant in their lives. Yes, they all parents who thought they knew all the answers.

• The very idea of writing for a living is  so inherently wussie, I at least once a week like to shout loud commands peppered with meaningless jargon -- "Tango! Alpha! Charlie! -- to confuse Tin Lizzy drinkers into thinking some real serious shit is going on up here.

• Tragic about the Florida woman, 85, killed by gator. It's all some people are talking about. I wonder what they're saying in the gator community. "I was just last week warnin' Roscoe nothin' good would come from chasin' them cougars.”

• Beleaguered Buffalo is expected to get hit with another 2 feet of snow. The population of the Greater Buffalo metro region is 889,217. If I were mayor of Buffalo I’d order every able-bodied adult to obtain at least two cigarette lighters and stand outside with both arms upraised.  The goal would be to convert every snowflake into raindrops before they hit ground.

• I hope one day I get summoned to the witness stand of some big, high-profile trial just so I can squander an hour or two of the court’s time trying to insist there has to be a little wiggle room in that bit about swearing on the Bible to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I mean, c’mon. They can’t be serious. Can they?

• Tonight I intend to alert my students they have a historic opportunity to surpass The Greatest Generation in achievement. After all, The Greatest Generation saved the world from fascism. Today’s college students will battle climate change, cynicism, pandemic, fundamentalism and a dozen or so other isms. So today’s students won’t just be saving the mankind from fascism. They’ll be saving mankind from mankind.

• In an effort to make myself appear more hip, more cosmopolitan, I'm thinking of telling associates I'm "based in LA," which is a mere five letters from factual. Home is LA-trobe. I'm not deceitful, but guys like me just don't have time for second syllables.

• I'd like to have one night a month where we go out to dinner with another couple with the incentive that whomever talks the most pays. The social pressure to yap and be witty would vanish. We'd learn subtle new ways to communicate. Restaurants would be more peaceful. But in the end, the idea is self-defeating. The very notion of a no-talking dinner would give everyone something to really talk about.

• Getting all your news through a palm-sized screen you keep in your back pocket means most people will never even get a glimpse at what we used to call The Big Picture.

• If everyone on the planet awakens tomorrow to see in the mirror a third ear had overnight grown on their forehead, will you take it as an Almighty sign we need to start listening to one another or will you drop whatever you’re doing and dash out to buy a third noise-cancelling ear bud?

• Talking to a woman in the bar last week. Told her I was a writer. Said she loves to read. I asked her what genre. "Oh, I love murder mysteries!" she said. I told her everything I've ever written is a murder mystery. And it's true. It's a mystery why none of my books are a commercial success and the realization is killing me.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Bravo Bucs signing McCutcheon! Now sign Bonds & Ted Williams's head


(849 words)

The Pittsburgh Pirates made a bold move when they signed veteran superstar and beloved former Bucco Andrew McCutchen.

I love Cutch. Besides being an outstanding Pirate centerfielder from 2009-’17 and league MVP in ‘13, McCutchen plays the game like a kid. He laughs, he jokes, he cheers his teammates and generally cavorts like he can’t believe he’s getting $5 million a year to play a game.

Frankly, and as much as I adore McCutcheon, I can’t believe it either. I guess it becomes more and more believable every time saps like me plunk down $18 for one can of domestic ballpark brew.

So it’s good to have him back and I applaud owner Bob Nutting for making what is essentially a sentimental move that won’t do much to alter projections of another last place finish.

That’s why I encourage Nutting to make an even bolder move by signing 58-year-old former Buc Barry Bonds, Bonds is a tougher sell because he comes with a lot of baggage — and most of it is filled with steroids, needles and fraudulent prescription orders.

Bonds was a Pirate from ’86 to ’92. He was surly, a clubhouse cancer and earned a reputation for being a playoff choker.

He left Pittsburgh — good riddance! — to become a San Francisco Giant and begin his pursuit of one of the most hallowed records in all sports: Henry Aaron’s all-time home run record of 755..

The 7-time MVP ended his career in 2007 with 762 homers. He spent the next two years trying in vain to persuade even one of the 30 MLB teams to sign him. None did, an indication of just how toxic he’d become — and his toxicity wasn’t metaphorical. It was courtesy of BALCO.

But mighty dingers are not the reason the Bucs should bond with Bonds.

The reasons are humble singles, 65 of ‘em to be exact.

See, Bonds is just 65 base hits away from admittance to one of the few baseball clubs that can’t exclude him out of pique.

Yes, Bonds is just a few dozen hits away from becoming a member of MLB’s hallowed 3,000 hit club. There are just 33 players who’ve achieved the feat. How difficult is getting 3,000?

Only one Yankee’s ever done it, The great Derek Jeter.

Just about everyone loves a story of redemption. Those who do not often revel in mocking the failures of the strivers.

So Bonds returning offers, to the delight of all,  both outcomes. Some will come to cheer, others to jeer.

But all will watch.

He had 167 hits in ’98, back when he was a fit 180 pounds.

Twenty-five years hence, he probably weighs close to 250. It’s likely he not only lost a step, he may even forgotten where he left the shoe.

His every at bat would be must-see TV. He’ll strike out plenty, but imagine if he gets wood on the ball. Him running the 90 feet to first would be a master class of frantic motion.

Now imagine if he tries for two. Or gets caught in a rundown. It would be a highlight reel of hilarious desperation.

And as bold as signing Bonds would be, it would pale in comparison to the greatest PR maneuver in free agent history.

That would be signing Ted Williams, 1918-2002. Those numbers aren’t obscure baseball stats. Those are the vitals denoting the duration of Williams mortal portion. He’s been dead 21 years.

R.B.I? More like R.I.P.

I give you one more number: minus-321 Fahrenheit. That’s the temperature really life sci-fi fans are keeping Williams’s detached head in hopes of one day bringing it back to life.

I don’t know what his first words will be upon reanimation, but I can pretty much guarantee they won’t be, “Where’s the can? I really gotta go!”

So it’ll take many hours of thawing by a warm campfire before one of the greatest hitters of all time to be declared on another hot streak.

His head is in the custody the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona until the time is right to reanimate it.

The Pirates haven’t been to the World Series since 1979.

The time is right now!

Signing Williams, one of the great baseball minds would benefit every level of the Pirate baseball operation — even if it’d be tough to have the Ted head do things like hit batting practice.

It wouldn’t be without precedent for the Pirates, an organization that for years has fielded bunches of stiffs who couldn’t get their heads in the game.

An outfield with Bonds, McCutcheon and the noggin of Williams would be a blow for diversity.

It would be the first time in history any team rostered an outfield of two black dudes and one white head. 

You can be dismissive of my ideas, but my heart’s in the right place. I hope you’ll realize I’m just trying to help the Bucs get ahead.

This is one of the rare circumstances where getting a head will help you do just that.

Subscribe to my “Use All The Crayons!” newsletter — just $5 month/$50 a year — and get all my best stuff delivered straight to your inbox!

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

I'm 60 today. Only as old as I feel?

 (932 words)

I turn 60 today. That’s what my driver’s license says so it must be true. The number is vintage enough to provoke friends into telling me I’m only as old as I feel. 

It’s a charming concept, but I’m old school. 

In fact, I’m so old school I’m willing to concede that any reputable school district starts revving up the bulldozers when ever a building hits 50.

But I was taught to use the word feel to describe touch, not emotion. It’s why whenever a doctor asks me how I feel, I always say, “The same as I always feel, Doc. I feel with my fingers.”

Then I hold my hands up in front of my face, palms out, and make squeezy motions like I’m honking a pair of giant invisible hooters.

So today I felt myself up — and down! I spent the morning grabbing, caressing and stroking myself from head to toe. Chest! Abs! Hips! Loins! The works.

I’m not ashamed to admit, I got into it.

I was feeling myself so thoroughly, so lovingly, I nearly missed lunch. But it was worth it because I now have an index that will convey my feelings.

Let’s start at the bottom.

My right foot feels about 50, but the left foot is like the paw of an 85-year-old carpenter who keeps dropping his hammer on his slippered tootsies. I had corrective foot surgery in April 2021 and it’s never healed. I blame the podiatrist.

How any guy who devotes his life to healthy toes can become all thumbs is just perplexing.

It doesn’t get much better as you ascend the shins. But in a reversal, it’s the right knee that’s defective.

After about two years of painful hobbling, I finally found temporary remedy. An orthopedic drained about what looked like 16 ounces of old beer from the knee.

I didn’t think to ask, but I wonder if it was, indeed, old beer that got lost on the way to the bladder. Drinking beer has often left me in a confused state. It stands to reason beer could confuse itself.

So the left knee is fine (50), but the right knee feels about 75. Combined, I’ve lost all my manly swagger. 

But I see an upside. I envision a day when I medal at some amateur games that involve dysfunctional walking and progressive Guinness guzzling at landmark Irish pubs.

I’m calling it the O’Limp-ic Games!

I know. A reasonable 60-year-old brain would never have labored  to get to that lame — lame! — punchline, but it seems like I have the mind of a 12 year old.

Thus, I don’t fear dementia. My fear is no one will be able to distinguish between typical symptoms and just me bein’ me.

My torso is a mixed bag. Pecs are respectable. I lift about 30 minutes a day so they’d better be. I’ll put them at 42.

But I’m nothing near having 6-pack abs. More like a party keg. I remember my father opining that any man who’s over 40 and doesn’t have a beer belly looks deformed. In deference to Dad, let’s say 48.

I take excessive and likely unwarranted pride in my ass. It feels nice and firm. Let’s give it a 24.

It’s peculiar, I know, to be so vain about something I never really get a good look at. I’m glad that God in His infinite wisdom didn’t put my behind in the front of me or else I’d spend too much mirror time admiring the shape.

The butt’s stood by me while I’ve sat on it.

It just dawned on me that I have only one good, intact limb. The feet and legs have staggered disabilities that detract from their utility. 

But I do have one good arm. It’s the righty and with it I and it can do it all. It signs books, brushes teeth, throws snowballs at jittery neighbors and takes the helm in every activity that requires some dexterity.

Yes, my right arm is my right hand, man. My functionality will take a real hit should the right arm/hand become like the lazy, good-for-nearly nothin’ lefty. 

But in a surprise, I’m giving the left hand a 2. Because 2 is an accurate reflection of the dexterity of the limb. It’s about the same as the left arm of a right-handed  2 year old. Sure, it can clear nasal debris from crusty nostril, but it won’t be waving the baton in front of any orchestras.

Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering, “Say, Chris, how’s about the ol’ pecker?”

Well, I’m a contrarian in these tell-all days. I choose not to reveal statistics, anecdotes or the number of times my partner has dumped a celebratory bucket of Gatoraid over my head. I do this because I’ve been with the same woman for 30 years and I’m aware that if I use this forum to share personal intimacies, my pecker will be feeling something the rest of my body never does.


So for the pecker I file a WD for Withdrawal, fitting, too, because that was one of the precarious contraceptive methods we relied on prior to pharmaceutical safeguards.

Final tally: 388 years divided by 9 anatomical categories:

By that calculation I’m  43.1 years old. Sounds about right

There. I took an emotional issue and exposed it to cold hard reason.

I feel better.

Subscribe to my “Use All The Crayons!” newsletter — just $5 month/$50 a year — and get all my best stuff delivered straight to your inbox!

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Happy Valentine's Day to me and my Parkinson's!


(757 words)

I hadn’t been on a blind date in more than 30 years. I wasn’t seeking companionship. I wasn’t needy or desperate. My life was fulfilling. And then there was this:

I was married. Had a couple of kids. A dog. The whole nine yards (and, no, none of the nine yards was mowed, raked nor landscaped, but that’s another story).

Clearly, on Valentine’s Day 2018, I wasn’t expecting to be fixed up with a companion who’d from our introduction dominate my thoughts with my nearly every breath.

But that’s what happened five years ago next Tuesday when a gallingly insensitive tech called to brusquely inform me that I had Parkinson’s Disease. She told me my new mate is incurable and hinted my ability to feed myself was about to come to an end. 

But we were right away hitched. There would be no ring ceremony. No Fanfare. Northing in the paper. No Facebook posts. But our devotions became mutual. Despite the lack of formality, there was no getting out of it. 

It’s like we shook on it.

Well, I shook a bit. But that’s just what Parkinson’s Disease can do to you. 

It’s peculiar to me that I don’t write more about the thing I think about the most,  practically round-the clock. I’d never want to depress anyone.

And I won’t do that now, I promise.

But five years is a take-stock anniversary and on Valentine’s Day it’ll be five years since I was informed I am one of the roughly 60,000 adults diagnosed with PD each year. Average age of diagnosis is 60. I was 55 (I turn 60 — 60! — on the 15th).

So how am I doing?

Pretty damn good. I’m learning there are much worse things you can get than Parkinson’s (and, yippee, I’m still eligible for all them, too, btw).

Apparently, I look great. That’s what many people tell me. “Man,” they say, “you look great.”

I’ve taken to deflecting the superficial praise by saying, “Oh, you should have seen me in the 8th grade!”

It’s true. I was a very handsome child. Winning smile. Roguish charm.

Then — boom! — like that it all  went away. In one of my life’s more profound cruelties I think my charm went away almost the exact instant I began getting erections.

But now that I have PD, I am once again looking good. The state of my sex drive does not matter in regards to our primary topic. Lusty ambitions aside, I’ll never be able to screw Parkinson’s the way Parkinson’s is going to screw me.

Or maybe not.

My neurologist — and that I even have a neurologist of my very own chagrins — says I’m beating Parkinson’s. Those are her exact words.

“You’re beating Parkinson’s,” she says.

I tell her I feel like I’m distracting it. I feel like I’m on a trap door with a rusty hinge. I could at any moment tumble into the abyss.

Guess what? We’re on the same trap door! Life, my friend, is a precarious crap shoot.

I said when I was diagnosed my goal was to appear symptom-free for so long all my friends will begin to think I made it up just because I crave attention.

So far, so good. I’m beginning to understand PD is very individualized. I don’t want to say mine is mild but, clearly, I’m on a healthy plateau. She says exercise and a positive attitude are shared characteristics among those who keep synptoms at bay..

I exercise for about an hour every day. Or let’s just say I’m physically in a Planet Fitness for an hour a day. I’m only actually moving weights or my body around for about 40 minutes a day. That’s enough.

And apparently I have the perfect mindset to combat a progressive neurological disorder. For now. One fall, one prolonged and out-of-control tremor, and I could sour overnight.

It dawned on me not too long ago that my defining characteristics are that I have the heart of a pound puppy and the brain of a free range chicken. 

It’s been a hindrance when it comes to providing for my family but a blessing when it comes to perspective.

See, I still consider myself a very lucky man. My symptoms are difficult to detect, I remain hopeful about the future and I still take delight in all the little things that enrich even an under-achieving life like mine.

And, man, I really look great.

Subscribe to my “Use All The Crayons!” newsletter — just $5 month/$50 a year — and get all my best stuff delivered straight to your inbox!

Monday, January 30, 2023

Hear ye! Hear ye! Tweets of the Month!

• In my on-going efforts to test the boundaries of the so-called "No Judgement Zone," I'll today show up to exercise at the Planet Fitness wearing just my Speedo.

• For better or worse, I fear the way we become acquainted continues to coarsen. We used to withhold judgement. Now we scour the internet for failings. We used to wait to get to know you better. Now, we're in a hurry to know you worse.

• Yes, I'm becoming more sentimental about the past. I don't apologize. I'd rather have my memories than your bucket list. There's too much focus on what's next, not enough on what is or what was. I pity those who remember only the future.

• Every human body ought to come with its own automatic sound machine that plays white noise/ocean sounds/etc to cover the inadvertent moans, clicks, pops, farts, etc. an aging human body makes when it attempts to accomplish something athletic -- like rising from a chair.

• I predict within 2 years smart phone technology will be able to forecast within a degree or two the weather we'll have right up until the day we die. Then it'll get really interesting when smart phone technology will within a day or two predict the day we do die.

• On-line daters should be wary of suitors who claim to be puppeteers whose interests include kites, yoyos, light bondage and then declare they’re seeking a relationship with no strings attached.

• I wonder how much time Mick Jagger spends looking in the mirror and being amazed he still looks exactly like Mick Jagger.

• You can convert a home. You invert a fraction. You can subvert a good idea. You can transvert a landscape, and you can pervert an innocence wholesome and pure. Question: How come I’ve never seen, felt, heard, smelled or been invited to enjoy an illicit little vert. What is a vert? It can do so much yet it remains to me cloaked in mystery. Its humility may nevert be surpassed.

• Referring to men & women whose exercise goal is to strip their frames of any excess weight as body "builders" is fraudulent. They're not body builders. Now, me, I've spent the last few years adding enough closet space to my posterior it's surprising the township's not after me to staple a permit to my ass. Now, THAT's body building

• That catbird means an advantageous position matters far less to me than the potential hybrid that results the day we mingle their DNA. Do you want as a house pet a cat that can fly or a bird that snoozes the day away cozied up on your lap? I'd go with the flying feline. And while we're at it, what would the titmouse look like if it looked like its component names?

• This is the time of year when I always begin to wonder if the nation of Turkey has a national bird. Could it be that obvious? Of course I'm the same guy who thinks a 3rd world African nation must have great take-out food just because the country's name is TO-GO.

• News that Buffalo is getting walloped with 5-feet of snow has me thinking that Buffalo should be renamed Uninhabitable. Even buffalo can't live in Buffalo. 

• I know to some patriots the charge itself is practically seditious, but the Founding Fathers got it all wrong when they called the place where the legislative branch does business the "House of Representatives." It would make more sense to call it, "The Big Room of Morally Shady Mostly White Men Whose Positions Bend According to the Latest Campaign Contributions.”

• ”These kids today do nothing all day but stare at their stupid phones," say in unison the cranky old men who do nothing all day but stare at Fox News.


• Doctor suggests I not drink my Wild Turkey straight, so I now drink bourbon & water. I drink water from 7 am to 5 pm. I drink bourbon from 5:01 to 10 pm.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

From 2004: "Joe Hardy: The Billionaire who's Bound to Die Broke"

Pittsburgh Magazine in 2004 asked to write a cover story about Joe Hardy, founder of 84 Lumber and Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. Flawed and controversial, I remember him as one of my favorite interviews ever. He died yesterday, his 100th birthday.

Joe Hardy: The Billionaire Who's Bound to Die Broke
Pittsburgh Magazine
By Chris Rodell

It's become fashionable for cheeky reporters to ambush aging celebrities with impudent questions about their Viagra usage. Recent targets include Larry King (yes); Englebert Humperdink (yes); Walter Cronkite (no comment); and Hugh Hefner (take a wild guess). When a Golf Magazine reporter put the question to the venerable Arnold Palmer (no), outraged readers responded with angry letters. So, no, Joe Hardy, casually dressed in gold shorts and a blue 84 Lumber Pennsylvania Classic sports shirt, will not be subjected to such intimate questioning. It would be unseemly to ask the founder of 84 Lumber, right now slouched so luxuriously in a plush leather chair he looks as if he might magically morph into a spare cushion, if he does or does not use Viagra.

Especially when there is abundant biological evidence that Joe Hardy is Viagra.

It's true. Pulses race when Hardy enters a room. Palms begin to sweat. Limp, slouching postures improve. Men become more, and there's no better word for it, erect. Same goes for the gals.

"He has an undeniable presence," says Uniontown businessman Steve Neubauer. "The man has charisma that just lights up a room. People are drawn to him."

That's what happens when a gregarious 81-year-old billionaire loudly and publicly announces he is on a mission to die broke. "Absolutely," he says. "I do want to die broke. For the remainder of my life, I want to enjoy and participate in the giving of money to help improve people's lives."

It's true, you can't take it with you. In Hardy's case, that's heaven's loss. He's is in the mahogany paneled Cigar Bar off the opulent lobby at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Farmington. He looks so expansively relaxed there's a concern he might slide off the leather and contentedly answer questions in a supine position. While the rest of his body is in serene repose, he has the animated face and dancing eyebrows of a mad scientist and, in a way, that's exactly what he is. Who but a mad scientist could turn lumber into gold? He began conducting that lucrative alchemy in 1952 when he opted out of the successful family jewelry business to found the colossal building supply company that in 2003 did about $2.5 billion in sales.

He is larger than life, larger even than the comparatively svelte statue of himself that looks out over the 2,500 idyllic acres of Fayette County he began buying in 1987 when he purchased the old Rockwell estate and 400 acres in 1986 for $3.1 million. Today, Nemacolin is one of America's premier resort destinations, annually serving more than 300,000 guests spending $50 million each year. Travel + Leisure listed it in its World Best awards, and this month Joe and his daughter and protege Maggie Hardy Magerko unveiled Falling Rock, a 42-room, $55 million lodge that surpasses even the resort's ultra-posh Chateau LaFayette. Room-per-elegant-room, it is among the most expensive hotels ever built in North America and Hardy is determined it be regarded as among the finest.

"This will be our crown jewel," he says.

It is the latest bauble in a string of jaw-dropping extravagances that include the magisterial Woodlands Spa; a shooting academy; an equestrian center; a 20-mile Hummer driving experience course; an adventure center that features paintball, rock climbing, archery and a mid-air obstacle rope course; a ski center; and since 1995, Mystic Rock, the Pete Dye golf course that is the site of the P.G.A.'s 84 Lumber Pennsylvania Classic on September 20-26.

"Some people come back once a year just to see what else the jackass has done," Hardy says.

And the jackass has been doing plenty. It's been seven months since the GOP candidate was sworn in as a full-time Fayette County Commissioner, a $40,173-a-year job he spent $566,000 to win -- ("At least," he says, "people know I'm not in it to steal!") -- and he has been spending time and his fortune lavishing Fayette, one of Pennsylvania's poorest counties, and downtown Uniontown with ideas, cheer and in excess of $5 million from his own pocket. He's given money to improve store fronts, he's donated property-brightening works of art, and he's looking to purchase nuisance bars just so he can serve up a truly last call for troublesome taverns. He's taken squads of public servants and concerned citizens around the country on his Lear jet to learn first-hand what other progressive communities are doing to succeed. He's doing it all without any apparent selfish motivation. "I want to help people," he says simply.

Still, some still believe Hardy is a Kanamit masquerading as a Republican. Fans of the "Twilight Zone" will remember Kanamits as the bulb-headed aliens who landed their flying saucers in the United Nations parking lot and emerged with promises to end all earthly conflict and hunger. Like Hardy, the Kanamits contended they'd arrived out of the blue simply "To Serve Man," the deciphered title of a popular Kanamitian book. But the true horror of their mission was revealed when "To Serve Man" was translated to be, yikes, a cookbook.

There is no evidence that Hardy is out to consume any plump, tender Fayette County residents and none, colleagues say, that he is anything but whole-heartedly altruistic. Maybe that's what, sadly, makes him such an extra-terrestrial sort of curiosity. We're not used to seeing someone with the means and the ambitious will to help improve the lives of his fellow man, although it shouldn't be an alien situation to Fayette Countians familiar with the generous legacy of the late philanthropist Robert Eberly Sr., a man Hardy cites as an inspirational mentor. When Eberly, 85, died in May, Hardy told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the reason he ran for office "was to put in place some of the things (Eberly) dreamed of."

Minority Democratic commission colleague Vincent Vicites says he thinks Hardy "has the very best of intentions. In part directly because of Joe Hardy, I see a real difference in attitude. A feeling of pride is coming back to Fayette County. He thinks no goal is unattainable and that kind of positive attitude by a man who has achieved so much is infectious."

Still, there is lingering suspicion among hardcore cynics like plumber James Zahron, a frequent critic on the letters-to-the-editor pages of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. "Joe Hardy's not helping anyone but himself," Zahron says. "Everything he's doing is for his own personal benefit. He's got the power, the money and he wants to show everyone he can do whatever he wants. He's a very arrogant man."

Herald-Standard managing editor Mark O'Keefe says the newspaper, too, was professionally skeptical of Hardy's unexpected run for office. "A lot of people in town were questioning his motives," O'Keefe says. "No one could understand why a man of his age and lifestyle would want to get involved in local politics. He said he wants to give back to the community and there's been no indication of any ulterior motive to the contrary. And the man has a way of winning people over. People are very excited that he does seem to be committed."

But even organizations that should be unabashed Hardy boosters seem conflicted by the billionaire's presence -- and presents. When Pittsburgh Magazine contacted the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce to ask them some softball questions about Hardy's impact on the community, an awkward silence ensued from a building that thrills to knock softball questions over the fences. Uncomfortable seconds passed before an almost rehearsed statement came haltingly through the telephone ear piece: "We have to treat all our members equally. There will be no one available for comment on this matter. Goodbye." Click.

Huh? It's like Indiana becoming mum about Jimmy Stewart. Not talk about Joe Hardy? Love him or hate him, he celebrates life with a gusto that should never result in speechlessness. He self-deprecatingly counsels remaining skeptics to "be practical . . . Gee, maybe you won't have an idiot like me come around for another 50 years. Take advantage of it."

It's common sense from an uncommon man, someone who once called a local reporter to thank him for comparing him in print to Jed Clampett. A son of Joseph and Kathryn Hardy, Hardy is the result of what he calls his jeweler father's "genteel pseudo-aristocracy" and his domineering mother's plain-spoken drive. "She was born on the wrong side of the tracks and had something to prove and she was going to prove it through her sons. If I was hanging around with someone she didn't like, she'd say, 'Why are you spending time with someone like that? You're someone special. You're going to amount to something.' Boy, she was tough."

In the early 1950s, Hardy was the most productive of 50 salespersons for Hardy & Hayes, the Tiffany's of Pittsburgh. The business had been founded by his paternal grandfather (his maternal grandfather was a union bricklayer, and the sympathetic mix, he says, has helped him throughout life relate to both the rowdy and the refined).

But he was dissatisfied working for someone else, even family, and at the suggestion of boyhood friend Ed Ryan of Ryan Homes, Hardy and his two brothers, Norman and Bob, ventured into the materials supply business and in 1952 opening Green Hills Lumber in McMurray. Four years later the trio purchased a tract of land in the tiny Washington County town of Eighty-Four. Hardy liked the sound of the name and, thus, 84 Lumber was born.

During this time, he was still working zestfully and maniacally to please his mother, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing -- sometimes doing both on spectacular levels.

"I remember this one time I was going to a store opening in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I asked her if she wanted to go. She said, 'Can you give me 15 minutes?' What a gal! I'd just bought this new Mustang and she didn't like it. Thought it was too flashy. But she got in and we drove out there and I worked my tail off from Monday through Saturday. I was just shot. I said, 'Mom, I gotta have a couple of beers.' We were driving home through Ohio and I got pulled over. Next thing I know, they take us both to jail. She's in one cell and I'm in the other and I spent the whole night listening to her, 'I told you you never should have bought that Muskrat!'"

Hardy made headlines when he was arrested June 1, 2001, at 12:33 a.m. after Rostraver Township Police observed his vehicle veer off the road. His blood-alcohol level was .14 when the legal limit was .10. Court observers recall he was so dapperly dressed that, had he been wearing a monocle, he would have been a dead ringer for the Monopoly Man. He agreed to participate in the state's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, serve one-year's probation, a 30-day suspension of his driver's license, undergo an 18-hour highway safety driving program and pay $1,027 in court costs, fines and restitution. He'd been driving an $89,500 Mercedes-Benz SL-500, a luxurious vehicle every bit as conspicuous as a ragtop Muskrat.

It will be his mother he says he'll be thinking about at the unveiling of Falling Rock. The ceremonies will bring a host of fresh gushing from travel magazines that sell readers worldwide on the splendid joys of Nemacolin, a place many native Pittsburghers still seem to bestow with an Oz-like mystique.

"There are still a lot of people in Pittsburgh who still don't know much about Nemacolin," says resort spokesman Jeff Nobers. "Many people think it's just a spa. Or they think it's just golf. Or that it's a place that you have to be an overnight guest of to enjoy when that's not true. This is a spectacular place to come for just a day to enjoy a fine meal, one of the activities, or just walk around. People need to know what a wonderful recreational asset this is for western Pennsylvania."

The only thing better than visiting Nemacolin is taking someone who's never been. There are centuries-old European palaces that aren't the elegant equivalent of the main lobby of the Chateau Lafayette. Nine splendid chandeliers illuminate plushly upholstered furniture, fine works of art, and tasseled curtains hanging inside beveled floor-to-ceiling windows. A winding hallway takes guests past Lautrec, past more spotlit works of art by internationally renown artists, and eventually to the Heritage Court boutique shopping area. In between is the Golden Trout Restaurant, nearly one dozen dining halls, meeting areas and tiny, open serenity rooms with Tiffany lamps, fish-filled fountains, checkerboards, sprawling plants and inviting chairs and sofas.

Beyond the Heritage Court, just a short stroll from the modern-day Mr. Clampett's cee-ment pond with its swim-up bar (Paradise Pool) is the world's largest free-standing indoor aquarium. At the bottom is a solid gold bar that looks ample enough to make a nice down payment on a professional sports franchise. So why doesn't Hardy liberate the pirate's treasure and spend it on some other Pirates that baseball fans are aching to treasure?

"Oh, no, I'm not interested," he says. "The Penguins either. If anything, I'd buy the Steelers. But I'm busy enough without a professional sports franchise to look after."

Besides being busy with Nemacolin and Fayette County, Hardy devotes an hour of each day calling friends and acquaintances around the world to wish them happy birthday, happy anniversary or simply to chat. He's a great-grandfather who just a few years ago was changing the diapers of his own children. He and the late Dorothy Pierce Hardy raised five children and enjoyed a 50-year-marriage when Joe Hardy initiated a process that in July 1995 landed the old lumber salesman on the pages of the nation's scandal sheets right beside the celebrity doings of Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and other Hollywood luminaries.

He left his wife and took up with Debbie Maley, a coal miner's daughter and a 19-year-old secretary at the original 84 Lumber store when she and Hardy met. She was six years younger than Joe and Dorothy Hardys's youngest child.

"Angry Wife Refuses Tycoon's $200 Million Divorce Offer -- She Wants More Because He Left Her For a Younger Woman," screamed the National Enquirer. The tabloid reported that the then 24-year-old Maley was pregnant with Hardy's child and that an outraged Dorothy was going to make him pay. Locals joked that -- "Timmberrr!!!" -- 84 Lumber was going to be re-named 42 Lumber. Terms of the 1997 divorce were never disclosed.

"Dorothy was a lovely person," he says of his first wife, who died in December 2002 at the age of 79. "She was normal. She wanted a normal life. I'd be here and she'd be in Florida and I'd say, 'I'm so lonely,' and she'd say, 'You know where I am.' She was a lovely person. She raised five great kids. I was the cracked one. I'm still the raging bull that has to keep moving."

He kept moving past his second wife, too. The pair split in 2001 in a divorce that appears more amicable than many rocky marriages. It was a smiling and bejeweled Debbie, today 32, on his arm June 26 during the 14th annual Royal Reception, and Hardy dotes on Paige, 9, and Taylor, 8, two children who, incidentally, were conceived several years before Bob Dole showed up in television ads touting Viagra.

Some have said his efforts as commissioner and his philanthropy only serve to pave the way for him to raise the profile and profits of Nemacolin, an argument that can best be dismissed with a Socratic "So what?"

Nemacolin pays millions in property taxes and employs 1,000 Fayette County taxpayers as Hummer driving instructors, wine stewards, butlers and masseurs, many of whom are sons and daughters of retired coal miners who thrill that their descendants can earn their comparatively soft livings with horizon-expanding opportunities in such palatial environs.

Hardy says one of the best things you can teach a child is to enjoy their work. It's a maxim he's apparently applied to his employees. A fun game to play at Nemacolin is to simply ask any employee, "What's your best Joe Hardy story?" The responses are amusing and uniformly affectionate, and often include sidebar praise for Maggie, who shares her father's gift of having both the Midas and the common touch.

Commissioner Vicites dismisses as ludicrous any criticism that a thriving Nemacolin means only good things for Joe Hardy. "Nemacolin is a tremendous asset for Fayette County that keeps getting better and better."

Vicites points out that Fayette County is the only contiguous western Pennsylvania county without a direct major highway linking it to Pittsburgh. When the Mon-Fayette Expressway is completed, places like Uniontown will become bedroom communities in one of the most scenic counties in the state, one with abundant recreational activities that more affluent counties could never hope to duplicate. "Fayette County has tremendous potential," Vicites says, "and that potential could soon be realized."

Steve Neubauer, 43, has owned the melodically sounding Neubauer's Flowers at 3 Gallatin Avenue in Uniontown for 22 years. He's seen Uniontown take a growth cycle not unlike a rare perennial. It appeared on the verge of death, but now seems about to blossom after a long period of dormancy.

"The joke in town is that you'd better not stand still too long on Main Street or you're going to get sand-blasted or power-washed," Neubauer says. In that same period of time, he's seen his fragrant business grow, ironically, like a weed. In 1982, he employed six people. Today, he signs paychecks for 60. He's been Nemacolin's house florist since 1998 and he's the man Hardy comes to see when he wants to fertilize Uniontown with some of his own greenery.

"He called one cold Saturday in January and asked if I could take a drive with him," Neubauer recalls. "I said sure. We were driving around town looking at the store fronts and he says, 'How would you like to help me spend $1 million?' My first thought was he'd picked up the wrong guy. But his platform for county commissioner was to clean up and revitalize downtown Uniontown and he's serious about it. I think Joe Hardy is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. It's a very, very exciting time."

The bronze statue of Joe Hardy overlooking Nemacolin has "Nothing Is Impossible" in relief on its base. The likeness succeeds in capturing his sweeping optimism, his exuberant warmth and the Pied Piper pull of an American dreamer whose largesse and life will inspire long after he's gone. It fails only in its slim attempt to capture the man's generous dimensions.

Hardy laughs at the discrepancy. "Yeah, the statue looks like a 200-pound man I ought to be. I'm up to about 260."

Sure, no one's going to live forever, but if anyone ever does you might want to wager it'll be Joe Hardy. He's serene when seated, but when he's conducting a tour of Falling Rock he exudes so much bubbly charm and vigor you wonder if his blood is carbonated. The Mt. Lebanon High School lineman, class of 1941, races up four flights of stairs without limp or complaint. Can he live forever?

"I tell ya, I really hope to live to be 84," he grins in anticipation. "Boy, that's going to be a party. What fun we're going to have fun with that."

Joe Hardy, whose resort uses Fernando Bertolo's "Fat Bird" as its charming and chubby logo, has become the rarest of birds himself: he's a billionaire you can root for, a self-made man who earned a spectacular fortune in 2-by-4s but somehow escaped ever becoming chairman of the bored.

You want him to live to be 84 just so you can hear about the audacious party Hardy. You want him to spend his millions enriching the lives and dreams of people who want to believe someone like Hardy is in their corner, even as one palm-up hand is extended while the other is scratching their befuddled heads. You want him to earn another fortune and then sit back and watch him blow it all in six giddy months. You want him to live past 100 and father triplets to supermodels at the age of 104.

Sure, you can still resent that you're comparatively poor, but if someone has to be fabulously wealthy, rejoice, by God, that it is Joe Hardy.