Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mindless Meandering

January has nearly run its course, and winter has yet to produce a notable snowstorm in northeast Ohio. Our good fortune might end today. Then again, it might not. It has been snowing for three hours, but to this point the result has been about an inch. Ten minutes ago, the snow had all but stopped, apparently to allow the weather gods to catch their breath. Now they are back at it, and if they can maintain this pace, there might be a foot or more by the time the sun goes down. Not that the sun has shown its face this morning. Still, these overcast winter days are getting longer. Even on the dreariest afternoons, there is lingering daylight in the west at five-thirty.
   And so I sit here, watching it snow and giving thanks for the computer. Except when the computer frustrates me. Like now, for instance. The computer is telling me that, “And so I sit here, watching it snow and giving thanks for the computer” is a fragment and I should consider revising it. I think the fragment is a figment of its imagination. “I” is the subject, “sit” is the verb, and “watching” and “thanking” are gerunds or participles or something. But, if I put a comma between “so” and “I,” the computer is happy. If that’s the case, the error is a comma fault. And if the computer is going to get all smarty-pants with me, it ought to know the difference. Then again, maybe the computer is right, and I spent too much time in English class having impure thoughts about the girl across the aisle from me.
   But the computer is the gateway to the Internet and oceans of information: some useful, some informative, some entertaining and some disturbing.  I was disturbed a moment ago when I put this aside and went to the Prairie Home Companion website. One of the items there was a letter from Melissa Steinmetz, who is working on her Ph.D. at Kent State and having difficulty writing her dissertation. “In other words,” she concludes, “how do you make peace with the omnipresent potential for mediocrity?” Garrison Keillor then dispenses his advice, which includes this gem: “Writing on a computer is an exercise in mediocrity, if you ask me.” I didn’t ask him and went back to this exercise in mediocrity.
   After composing a few sentences, or perhaps they were fragments, my mind wondered again, this time taking me to a book I recently downloaded, Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. When I was a teenager, I went to the high school library one day with intention of borrowing that very book. It was after English class and my mind was full of impure thoughts. One of those thoughts was that the title of Twain’s book was Innocence: A Broad. It has taken nearly fifty years to overcome my disappointment.
   In any event, in a portion of his discussion of Italy, Twain imagines what an Italian man just back from a visit to the United State might tell his friends.  “There is really not much use in being rich, there [in America],” Twain has the man say. “ Not much use as far as the other world is concerned, but much, very much use, as concerns this; because there, if a man be rich, he is very greatly honored, and can become a legislator, a governor, a general, a senator, no matter how ignorant an ass he is …”
   Well over a century later, nothing has changed. But in the last hour the snow has stopped. Maybe for good, maybe not.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Blue Jeans Blues

   “A white male wearing a black puffy coat and dirty blue jeans with a goatee and mustache was seen running out of Kmart and into the woods.”
   Star Beacon, January 4, 2012


   “Why do I listen to her?” Calvin wondered; her being Marla, his girlfriend. She had a hold on him like no woman ever had. Most of the time she was sensible, but she had this thing for clothes. Marla liked men in flashy clothes. Calvin liked it best when his clothes went unnoticed. His goal was to be a standout shoplifter, and no one ever became a standout shoplifter by standing out in a horde of shoppers. All the jeans in his closet were at least two years old and utterly nondescript, indistinguishable from the jeans of millions of other men. He liked knowing that witnesses to his larcenies would be hard pressed to describe his attire.

   “What was he wearing?” the cop might ask.

   “Oh, you know, blue jeans,” the witness would say.

   “Blue jeans, is that all?”

   “No, I think he was wearing a T-shirt, too.”

   “You think?”

   “He wasn’t someone you’d notice. His jeans were faded, and he just faded into the crowd.”

    Calvin had no idea if that’s how police investigations of his crimes proceeded. But he had never been caught, and he saw no reason to change modus operandi, or his pants. Marla, however, wanted a man with pizzazz. When her man walked into a store, she wanted him to be noticed. It was a matter of pride with her, a female thing. Calvin tried to tell her that having a dull wardrobe was a good career move. She wouldn’t hear of it. And Calvin never heard the end of Marla’s carping until he agreed to go with her one day to the big-box store. They went as honest citizens; a thirty-something couple on a shopping expedition. And Calvin was putty in her hands.

   “Let’s go see if we can find some jeans for you,” Marla said as Calvin set a twelve pack of Miller’s Genuine Draft in the cart.

   “Why? There’s nothing wrong my jeans,” he said.

   “Everything is wrong with your jeans,” Marla said.

   “Like what?”

   “Your jeans are boring, just like your beer,” she said. “Dull-as-dishwater blue jeans and MGD. I bet your favorite ice cream is vanilla.”

   “You got a problem with that?”

   “It doesn’t make my heart go pitter-pat,” she said, and the sad, pouty, disappointed spoiled-little-girl look that always turned Calvin to mush spread across her face.

   “I guess it won’t hurt to look,” he said.” But that doesn’t mean I’m going to buy any.”

   “We’ll see.”

   In the men’s department, Calvin went to the rack of discount jeans. As he searched for the jeans most like those he already owned, he realized Marla wasn’t at his side. What a relief. He’d grab a few pairs of ho-hum jeans while she was elsewhere. Good plan, but it didn’t work.

   “Hey, Calvin, look at these,” said Marla, holding three pairs of jeans.

   “What’s so special about them?”

   “You’ve got to see the butt,” she said.

   “The butt?”

   “Look,” she said, unfurling a pair. “Don’t you just love it.”

   Calvin stared at the mustache that spanned the seat of the jeans and the goatee below it.

   “You have to get these.”

   “I can’t wear those,” Calvin said.

   “You’ll look so handsome in them. I’m starting to feel all sexy just thinking about it.”

   “Where do I get butt-sized Groucho glasses to complete the look?”

   “You’re making fun of me,” Marla said. “If you don’t buy these, I’ll never speak to you again.”

   That wasn’t true. If he didn’t buy them, she’d whine nonstop. And she was getting that look again.

   “Please don’t look at me like that,” he said. “I’ll buy them if it will make you happy.”

      “You don’t love me,” she said. “If you loved me, you’d buy them, and you’d wear them. But, obviously, you don’t love me.”   

   “Oh, Marla, I do love you.” Calvin said. “I'll buy the jeans, and then we'll get something to eat.”

   Spending two-hundred dollars for three pairs of jeans he hated didn’t bother Calvin. He wasn’t buying the jeans; he was buying a month’s worth of intimate moments. Besides, he had no intention of wearing them anywhere but at home. He had a closet full of jeans. When he needed to go out, especially when it was time to apply the five-finger discount, he’d slip into something more comfortable and less noticeable.

   Marla worked late Tuesday, and with nothing much to do, Calvin thought it would be a good time to procure a few things. But when he went to dress for the caper, he discovered Marla had taken the liberty of throwing out all his jeans except those with facial hair. After calling Marla all the names he would never call her to her face, Calvin went to Kmart in a pair of mustachioed jeans.

   In the store, Calvin ignored the whispering and giggling his pants provoked. He had wanted to steal a few items from the electronics department, but now he thought it best just to grab some plain blue jeans, which he did. Then, trying hard to appear nonchalant, he made his way toward the exit. It was easier than he thought. People were so distracted by the jeans he was wearing, no one paid attention to the jeans he was carrying, until he got five feet from the door. Then someone yelled, “Grab that guy in the hairy pants!”

   Calvin dashed out the door, through the parking lot and into the woods. Hiding among the trees, he took off the incriminating pants and changed into a pair of the filched pre-faded, pre-washed, replete-with- a-hole- in-the-knee jeans. He threw Marla’s favorite jeans on the ground and strolled nonchalantly back toward the store. He ignored the three cops in the parking lot; they’d be looking for a guy with unshaven jeans.  But as he walked jauntily to his car, Calvin was surprised by a tap on his shoulder.

   “What is it?” he demanded.

   “I want to talk to you.”

   “What’s the problem, officer?”

   “I see you’re wearing new jeans,” the cop said.

   “Nah, I’ve had these for years.”

    “Didn’t you ever wash them?” the cop asked.

   “Sure I did,” Calvin said. “That’s why they’re so faded. I probably wash them too much.”

   “That’s funny. All those washings and the big cardboard tag on the back pocket still looks like new.”


   “You better come with me.”


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

An Ill Wind

My neighbor Bill
To fight the chill
Went to Brazil.
But shivered still
At least until
Up on a hill
With some skill
He built a still.
Drunk to the gill,
His senses nil,
Had a refill
He didn’t spill.
But then got ill
And took a pill,
Flew to Seville
And spread ill will
In a gin mill.
It was a thrill.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Words That Linger

It’s funny how one sentence in a newspaper column can stay with you, haunt you for years and years, long after the paper has been relegated to the bottom of the bird cage. In November 2003, the Star Beacon sports staff was preparing for the high school winter sports season, but doing things a little differently. In previous years, each reporter had been given a list of four or five schools, and he would write stories previewing the girls basketball, boys basketball and wrestling teams from those schools. The beat writer for each sport also wrote an additional story or two: a feature perhaps, and a look at what to expect in his sport during the season about to start.

That fall, however, the beat writer was assigned to do it all in his sport. Instead of previewing several teams in each sport, I, as the girls basketball beat writer, would write eighteen preview stories – one for each of the girls basketball teams then in our coverage area – along with some accompanying articles. And so, on the day the girls basketball preview appeared, my bylines were the dandelions of the sports section. “By Tom Harris” was everywhere; it was ubiquitous; it was unavoidable. It was stunning, at least in my humble opinion. 

But by the end of the day, my opinion wasn’t all that was humble. After basking in the warm glow of my name, I hied myself to the website of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a column by sportswriter Gene Collier, who wrote that day about Lisa Guerrero, then the sideline reporter on Monday Night Football. Her work had been widely criticized, and Collier was coming to her defense – sort of. Citing pearls of wisdom dropped by former players and coaches in the broadcast booth – Joe Theisman, for instance, once told viewers, “You’ve got to score to put points on the board in this league.” – Collier concluded Guerrero was not only better looking than her male colleagues, she was also as bright or brighter.

The column was perceptive and entertaining, as Collier’s columns always are, but would have been quickly forgotten had it not been for one sentence. “As Coach Cower loves to say, ‘There’s a fine line in this business between occasional insight and incessant, vacuous yammering,” Collier wrote. 

Surely, no one would ever mistake my twenty bylines that day for “incessant, vacuous yammering.” Would they? And this blog; there’s no yammering here, incessant or otherwise. Is there? Nah. Of course not.

A Crossword, A Glass of Wine and Mom

Her days were numbered then, but you’d never know it from the picture. Two months earlier, in January 2005, Mom’s doctors had discovered a spot on her lung. Because she was eighty-one and weakened from her battle with emphysema, the doctors felt a biopsy would be too risky. They told Dad and my sister Barbara that Mom could expect to live another year or so. Barb shared the news with her brothers and suggested we might want to take our vacations in San Antonio that year.

I headed for Texas at Easter. It was both disheartening and inspiring to watch Mom go through her morning routine. It was a lengthy process. She got up at seven, had breakfast, inhaled several potions to make breathing easier, washed, put on her face, and got dressed. If she worked steadily, which she always did, she was ready to go out by eleven-thirty or noon. Everything was a struggle. She wasn’t always able to keep the frustration below the surface, but she never let it get in her way. She kept plodding, slowed but not stopped by her condition.

On Good Friday, a woman from hospice visited Mom. She explained the hospice program and completed the necessary forms to get Mom on the roster. There were advantages to hospice. For one thing, the drugs she needed for the condition that was expected to do her in would be free. But Mom wondered. She would be on the hospice rolls for six months; what if her subscription expired before she did? If her condition didn’t improve, the woman said, her doctor would inform hospice that her demise from respiratory problems was still thought to be imminent, and she would be eligible for hospice services for another six months. It was an eerie conversation.

Dad held up well through it all. How much of that was due to his inner strength and lifelong “keep on keeping on” attitude, and how much was due to encroaching dementia is hard to say. But he still loved to walk, and he still loved donuts. And the bakery he preferred was a mile and a half up the road. 

“Tom, let’s walk up to the bakery,” he said one morning. I couldn’t say no, and I couldn’t help but worry. By that spring, I didn’t have to walk very far before my legs began to tingle, grow numb and get heavy. For several years, these had been niggling, once-in-a-great-while problems that if they occurred at all came on after a good deal of exertion. But now they were getting more frequent and harder to ignore, although I managed to for several more months. Still, I didn’t want to give Mom and Dad anything more to worry about.  Dad’s pace had slowed, however, and I was able to keep up with him. If he noticed my gait getting funkier and funkier as we walked, he didn’t mention it.

Easter dinner was at Barb and Rob’s. By then we had done our catching-up and discussed all the important matters. San Antonio is a long way from suburban Pittsburgh, where I grew up, but I was home that afternoon. We joked and remembered, lobbed cushioned barbs at each other and enjoyed being ourselves and being together. I was sitting across from Mom at the kitchen table when Barb said, “Mom, smile.” She did, a great, gleaming, happy smile, and Barb snapped the picture. The smile is so big you hardly notice the oxygen tube that runs to her nose, and the twinkle in her eye is enhanced by the reflection of the flash on her glasses. On the table, the San Antonio Express-News is opened to the crossword puzzle and off to the side there is a glass of wine. 

One Sunday evening about a month later, Mom had to fight for every breath, and hospice was notified. That Tuesday, Barb called with the news that she had died. 

The picture of the smiling woman doing the crossword puzzle and having a glass of wine is on the wall in the bedroom. It’s the way I remember Mom. It’s the way she would want to be remembered.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

And God Said Unto Herb

God and Herb the Archangel were walking through Heaven’s Gate Park, a pleasant little corner of utopia.
   “This park might be my best idea ever,” God said.
   “How can that be?” Herb asked. “All your ideas are perfect, and there are no degrees of perfection. Something is either perfect, or it’s not. And you, my man, are incapable of an imperfect idea.”
   “You know, Herb, you’ve got to stop hanging around those old English professors,” God said. “Besides, I’m God, and if I want to say this is the best perfect idea I ever had, I’ll say it.”
   “OK, OK. So why’s this park the best perfect idea you ever had?”
   “It’s twenty-five miles from the Pearly Gates,” God said.
   “I don’t have to put up with Pete’s whining. All he does is complain about people who bring their lawyers along, and he whines about having to listen to all the whining of the people who don’t make it in. He says it makes his job hell. If he wants hell, I can arrange it.”
   “I don’t blame him,” Herb said. “To put up with that stuff you’d need the patience of Job.”
   “Well, he’s no Job. But he’s got a job, and I wish he’d stop complaining about it. He can be replaced, and I know just the guy to replace him with.”
   “Who’s that?”
   “That might not be so bad,” Herb said. “I mean, it’s either listening to the damned complain, or listening to you whine. And with them, at least there’s a chance they’ll be wrong. It gets to be a drag having to listen to a know-it-all who knows it all.”
   “Shut up, Herb”
   “Little testy, aren’t we,” Herb said. “Something got you upset?”
   “Yeah,” God said. “Tim Tebow.”
   “Tim Tebow?”
   “That’s what I said. You deaf or something?”
   “No, I’m not deaf,” Herb said. “It’s just that I don’t understand how you could be upset with Tim Tebow.”
   “I’m God; you’re an angel. You’re not supposed to understand what upsets me. Or what pleases me, for that matter.”
   “This doesn’t have anything to do with you being a Steelers fan, does it?” Herb asked.
   “OK, I’m a Steelers fan,” God said. “All the best people are. But that’s not the problem. The problem is I’m tired of all these athletes making a big deal of thanking me when things go their way.”
   “Geez,” Herb said. “When are they supposed to thank you?”
   “If they’re going thank me when they are the heroes, they should also thank me when they screw up.”
   “When they screw up?”
   “Why when they screw up?”
   “You spend Sunday afternoons watching football,” God said. “And you’ve watched thousands of post-game interviews of the players who scored the winning touchdowns. What does the hero always say?”
   “He says, ‘I want to thank God for giving me this opportunity.’”
   “Exactly,” God said. “But what do the same players say when they fumble two yards short of goal line?”
   “They grouse,” Herb said. “And blame the officials for not making a call.”
   “You have been paying attention,” God said. “But if I put the hero on the field and gave him the opportunity to score, who put the goat out there?”
   “You did.”
   “Then he should thank me, too,” God said.
   “He’s making a million or two a year, for one thing.”
   “That’s true, I guess,” Herb said. “But why should he give thanks for screwing up.”
   “Because he had the same opportunity to win the game as the hero.”
   “If you weren’t so perfect, I’d think you were weird,” Herb said.
   “I can’t be ‘so perfect,’” God said. “I’m either perfect or I’m not. Isn’t that what you said?”
   Herb shrugged and said, “I suppose.”
   “Look at this way,” God said. “If I spend Sundays making heroes of some players and goats of others, that’s going to keep me pretty busy, isn’t it?”
   “Sure it would.”
   “And besides football, there’s baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer and countless other sports. If I’m helping all the athletes who claim I’m helping them, there must be a lot of things I ought to do that I don’t do because there isn’t enough time. Pretty soon, Tebow and all those other guys are going to create an image problem for me.”
   “If you had a choice, which you don’t,” God said. “Would you want a God who helps Tim Tebow win football games, or a God who helps families without health insurance get it, who helps starving people get food, and who helps the families in Afghanistan stay out from under the bombs falling from drones?”
   “I get your point,” Herb said. “When you think about it, these athletes are all saying, ‘God likes me more than you.’”
   “You got it. Besides, if I had had anything to do with it, the Steelers would have won.”
   “We can’t have everything,” Herb said.
   “I could. But that’s a topic for another time.”

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...