Friday, November 26, 2010

When the World was Old

Years ago, the boy sprawled on the living room floor, rested his chin on his hands and looked up at the television. The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports was on the air and men were urged to look sharp and feel sharp too by baseball players, who were frequently seen shaving on national TV. In those days, ballplayers had to be clean-shaven, because during the Eisenhower administration only bankers and diplomats with graying slicked-back hair on their heads were permitted to grow hair on their faces, but only a pencil-thin moustache and nothing more.

The country was hopelessly naïve in those days, completely unaware of the insidious gay agenda. Not a single eyebrow was raised over commercials in which an incompletely dressed baseball hero stood before a mirror admiring his face, while a bevy of his less talented and incompletely dressed teammates crowded around and admired him too. While the freshly showered star, who had just driven in the winning run, shaved, one of his admirers would say:

“Gee, Hank, you always look so good. How do you do it?”

“Well, Stu, the secret to looking good is getting a close shave every time.”

“Golly, Hank, I try, but my razor never gives me the close, comfortable shave I crave.”

“Well, Stu, I’ve found that the Gillette double-edged razor is the best there is. It keeps me looking sharp, and it never irritates my skin.”

“Wow! That must be one swell razor. I’m going out to get me one.”

“Atta boy,” Hank said as he slapped Stu on the butt.

The question the boy sitting before the TV asked himself was: Why are those guys worried about irritating their faces? The boy had a shoebox full of baseball cards, and every player on those cards had a gnarled, weather-beaten face. During televised games, the announcers sometimes talked about a new player, “he’s just a youngster,” they’d say. But when there was a close-up of the new guy digging in at the plate, he didn’t look like a youngster. He looked like someone who had plied his trade for years under the broiling sun in Altoona, Biloxi, Helena, Yuma and a dozen other uninspiring burgs, chasing ground balls on dusty, rock-strewn infields and going after fly balls in outfields littered with cow pies.

The face of a ballplayer, every ballplayer, in those days was impervious to irritation – their skin was like leather and their whiskers like wire barbs. That image stuck with the boy who sat watching TV.

As he got older and older, the players he saw on TV and in the sports pages got younger and younger. Some of them appeared to need special dispensation to stay out after curfew on game nights. But, the players he remembered from his boyhood had been rough, rugged, gnarled and wizened to a man.

That is until recently when he came upon a review of a biography of Mickey Mantle. The picture on the cover wasn’t of The Mick the boy remembered. Mantle is wearing a Yankee’s cap, but he looks far too young to be a major leaguer. He doesn’t look old enough to need a date for the prom.

And then Ted Sorenson, an advisor to President Kennedy, died. In a picture from his days as

a White House aide, Sorenson looks more like a prissy high school student on a tour than a

member of the Kennedy brain trust.

So, now the boy wonders: have his perceptions changed, or have the photos been retouched?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Book I Didn't Write

In March 1997, I was working at Ash/Craft by day and moonlighting as a stringer for the Star Beacon’s sports department. There is very little work for stringers in March - the basketball and wrestling seasons have ended and the baseball, softball, track and tennis seasons have yet to start - and I was getting antsy.

If the Star Beacon wasn’t going to keep me busy, I needed to find someone who would. I walked to the Harbor Topky Library and cozied up to The Writer’s Market, making note of the publishers who used freelancers to write books – mostly for middle-school libraries - on assigned topics. Then I went home to update my resume, make copies of some clips and compose a cover letter.

The spring sports commenced a few days after I dropped my letters in the mail, and I was a busy writer again. Two weeks later, a staff position opened at the paper. I was hired and the lulls disappeared from my sports-writing schedule. None of the letters to the publishers sparked a response and I soon forgot about them.

But one pleasant afternoon in September 2001, the answering machine was blinking when I got home from Ash/Craft. I listened to the message a couple of times before realizing the caller was asking about the resume I had sent out four years earlier. I returned the call, and the woman asked if I was still interested in writing a book. “Yes I am.” She read off the available topics. There were three, with the common thread being that I knew nothing about any of them.

I opted for “The People of Central Asia,” because it was barely three weeks after 9/11, and I thought that Central Asia included Afghanistan. I soon found out that Afghanistan is not considered part of the region, although a number of other Stans are. Unfortunately, that was all I found out. Reading about the peoples of Central Asia proved to be wonderfully soporific after a day at Ash/Craft and an evening at the Star Beacon. In a week or two, the thrill of being asked to write the book was displaced by the certain knowledge that the project was destined to end in embarrassment and failure. I called the editor and told her it wasn’t going to work.

That fall, working a reduced schedule at the paper to give myself time for researching and writing was out of the question. I needed the steady income of two real jobs. Debbie and I had been divorced in June, so there was child support and a pile of credit card debt. There was also an October Surprise that year: my furnace died.

The disappointment lingers. But these days, I often think it was all for the best. It was a worrisome and hectic time. And yet, in the spring of 2003, almost as soon as the credit cards were paid off and I was able to relax a little, my legs began to clamor for attention. Funny things had been going on with my legs for several years, but only once in a while and never for more than a few minutes at a time. Now the funny things were more frequent, lasting longer, and intruding on my life, which they had never done before. I can’t help but think the circumstances that kept me too busy to write that book also kept the progression of my Multiple Sclerosis on hold for eighteen months.

Instamatic Jealousy

Baby pictures; I’m the first born,

There are so many more of me.

My sibs all fume with jealous scorn.

Four albums full that I adorn –

Pictures of me and not those three.

Baby pictures, I’m the first born;

I’m on Dad’s shoulder, they’re forlorn,

And there I sit upon Mom’s knee.

My sibs all fume with jealous scorn.

Barb says, “Your bare butt; that’s just porn!!

Is there not but one shot of me?”

Baby pictures; I’m the first born.

Ed’s become a whining thorn.

Jim asks, “Was I an absentee?”

My sibs all fume with jealous scorn.

There’s no need to blow my own horn,

The Kodak made a star of me.

Baby pictures, I’m the first born,

My sibs all fume with jealous scorn.

Thoughts from the Gutter

A few years ago, live fish were seen flopping around on the streets of Manna, India, which quite some distance from the Indian Ocean. They were carried there by a waterspout. This is the story of one of those fish.

Well, Mother was right. Here I am, flopping around along the side of the road in Manna, India. She always said if I didn’t straighten up, I’d land in the gutter some day.How was I to know? I’m a fish. Until today, I’d spent all of my short, uneventful life in the Indian Ocean. Have you ever seen a gutter in the Indian Ocean? Neither have I.

This morning, I was feeling jaunty and looking mighty dapper, if I do say so myself, as I set out for the spawning grounds. It would have been my first time, but then I was scooped up by a waterspout. Lifted from the ocean and carried gloriously aloft, I thought at first it was the intoxication of love. Alas, it was but a fleeting thrill, and this day, that was to be given over to youthful, lusty, masculine desires, came to an ignominious end when I fell from the sky.

Dorothy was swept away to Munchkinland; I wind up in Manna. I wish I had landed along the Yellow Brick Road. I can see it now; a yippy, furry creature would rouse me with its cold nose. A moment later, I’d hear a girl screaming.

“Toto! Leave that nice fish alone,” she’d say. “He’s so cute.”

She’d kneel down and gently lift me from the gutter. A tear would drop from my eye. She’d kiss me and tickle my dorsal fin. I’d try, but I wouldn’t be able to force a smile.

“Why are you so sad?” she’d ask.

I’d tell her I was hundreds of miles from the ocean, and that I didn’t have any way to get back. She’d tell me we were just a few miles from the Emerald City.

“It’s an easy walk,” she’d say. “And there’s regular bus service from there to the beach. You’ll be home by the weekend.”

With that, I’d break into song:

“It’s ever so sad a story

When you are born piscatory

And haven’t got two legs.

I could sashay and amble,

I’d go in the woods and ramble,

If I only had two legs.”

“Oh, you poor thing,” the girl would say. “You can’t walk, can you?”

“Well, duh. I am a fish.”

“I’m sorry. I’m from Kansas, and we don’t have many fish there,” she’d say. “But if you are curious about corn, just ask. Say, Toto and I are on our way to Oz to see the Wizard. He’s a very great and powerful wizard, and I’m sure he could give you legs if you ask him.”

I’d agree, of course. And eventually, after a great many adventures, the little girl would click her heels, and I’d finish my life as a goldfish, swimming around a bowl in the parlor of a forlorn farmhouse in a desolate corner of Kansas where everything is in black-and-white. But I wouldn’t die in the gutter, and that would make Mother so proud.

Words Remembered

Words in a newspaper are transitory things. They are, almost without exception, little noted nor long remembered.

The words are read at the breakfast table or at odd moments during the day, after which the paper is gathered up and put in the wastebasket or given new life as birdcage carpeting.

The words penned by those of us in the press box occasionally enjoy a longer life. Proud parents sometimes clip our articles from the paper and stick them in a scrapbook, from which they will emerge several decades hence when the former teenage athlete tries to stave off geezerdom by reliving the past. That those words survive, it should be noted, has nothing to do with our abilities and everything to do with our good fortune to have been assigned to cover the game in which the geezer-to-be rushed for 175 yards and four touchdowns.

There are times, though, when the words in a newspaper jump from the page into a less-than-stellar mind and refuse to leave. For instance, seven years ago, in November 2003, I was the Star Beacon’s girls basketball beat writer and busily talking to coaches, gathering information and writing preview stories on the upcoming season. One day late in the month, perhaps the Friday after Thanksgiving, all those stories appeared and the day’s paper was awash in my byline.

Reading the paper with my name in bold print scattered throughout, was like stopping in at the ego station and saying, “Fill it up, Mac.” Well, it was until later in the day when I read Gene Collier’s column on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Web site. His topic was Lisa Guerrero, who was the sideline reporter on Monday Night Football and the subject of some criticism at the time because she said dumb things now and then.

Collier’s take on the matter was, Guerrero’s male counterparts occasionally said dumb things, too. He offered several quotes as evidence, including Joe Theisman’s observation: “You got to score to put points on the board in this league.” But Guerrero had the advantage, Collier said, of being more pleasant to look at.

The words from Collier’s column that have haunted me lo these many years are: “As Coach Cowher loves to say, ‘there’s a fine line in this business’ between occasional insight and incessant vacuous yammering.” I read those words and was suddenly aware that having 19 or 20 bylines in a single edition of the paper might be construed as incessant. As far as vacuous yammering, perhaps I slipped into that mode once or twice, but that was all. Or so I told myself.

For a long time afterward, I worried day and night over which side of the fine line I came down on. Only in recent years, after going from staff writer to freelance writer, have I been able to find peace. After all, I reasoned, I don’t write enough these days to be incessant, and the latest research has shown that small doses of vacuous yammering pose no danger to the otherwise healthy reader.

With the dark cloud of incessant, vacuous yammering lifted, I was able to go out with my head held high again. But that ended Sunday as I read the Plain Dealer, which included a story by the Washington Post’s Anne E. Kornblut, that began thusly: “If anyone had a excuse for wanting to vanish in January 2009, it was George W. Bush, his approval ratings in the 30s, his hair graying, his legacy of two long wars and a fractious tenure wiped away by the election of a charismatic young president promising to fix all the messes left behind.”

Graying hair? Low approval ratings, two wars and a fractious tenure, I can understand. But graying hair? All that time I spent struggling with my propensity for incessant, vacuous yammering, and now Kornblut tells me about the shame that is my hair.

I want to vanish.

This appeared in the Star Beacon, November 12, 2010.

To Bed, Perchance to Sleep

According to an article on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's website, a person with MS is up to three times more likely to exper...