Monday, March 30, 2009

The Power of Advertising

My wife recalled late Sunday afternoon that she had not used her coupon at the pharmacy which allowed her one free roll of paper towels or a cloth bag which could be used again and again in lieu of paper bags at the place and thereby save trees. It was a real choice to make, you could actually decide whether to help the pharmacy save trees or help it kill trees. She was on the verge of blowing off the offer when I told her that I needed soap anyway. To which she replied “good, then you can come with me.”


This particular pharmacy had signs up all the way across their front windows stating that the store had “thousands of items under $4.” Advertizing continues to mystify me. This national company went to another national company and said, “how can we make more money ?” The second national company thought about it and said “We think that you need a series of small orange and black signs spread across your window which says that there are thousands of items in your store for under a dollar.” Then the first national company said, “But we don’t”. So the second company said, “Ok, how about under $2.00 ?” To which the first company said. “what is this, 1978 ?” . Then the second company, not wanting to be embarrassed again, took the bid up to $4.00, “Tell them that you have thousands of items under $4.00.” “But everyone knows that.” said the first company, and why do you think the $4.00 figure will excite anyone ?”  To which the second company said, “Look, you pay us millions of dollars a year for this, trust us.” So up went the signs. Undoubtedly revenues have now skyrocketed as my neighbors have rushed to the drug store knowing that they can buy thousands of things for under $4.00, as well as get a free roll of paper towels and check their blood pressure on the machine in the back of the store. One stop shopping as they used to say.


I went over to the soap aisle and noticed that there a lot less brands of soap than there used to be. I knew what I wanted, “Irish Spring”. Back in the 1970s when Irish Spring was created they had an ad about a Rugby player who said after a game, “I got to shower up.” And then he did, and then came back out to see his winsome lass, and started  bragging about how “manly the soap was”. In between the game and the shower exit, someone on camera had cut a bar of the soap in half with a pocket knife for reasons I never understood. So anyway, when the guy comes out of the shower and says that the soap is manly, his girlfriend says “manly, yes, but I like it too.” In the ad field that’s what’s known as crossover appeal and the ad became famous. So famous that I still think about it and buy the soap .Rayda noticed that you could buy three packages of the soap (which contained three bars a piece) for just $5.00.Times being what they are, we opted for just one package.


My wife picked up a few other items which she would never have purchased except for the promised free paper towels. We then went to the paper towel aisle and found that there were none, towels that is, or at least  none of the kind they were giving away for free. So we went to the front and asked for the environmentally sensitive cloth bag and were looked at buy the cashier with some confusion. The cashier called the manager who informed us that corporate headquarters had never sent the bags. Now this is advertising at its best, luring you into the store with a promise, not fulfilling that promise, and selling you something anyway. I love America.


As we exited the store, Rayda checked the cashier receipt and said that the soap had cost $1.67 ,which was correct, 1/3 of $5.00. “Wait a minute” I said, it had to cost more than that, the sale was three packages for $5.00. If you buy all three, you save money.” “No” she assured me. ” They just want you to buy more soap so they tell you how much three packages cost.” “That’s crazy, that’s not giving you any information at all unless you are unable to multiply. It’s supposed to be a sale.”  I said. To say  that I was nonplussed over the issue would assume that you know the meaning of the word nonplussed.


Rayda continued to defend the sales technique, “No, that’s the sale, three for $5.”  “But that’s not a sale.” I repeated, a sale is where you save money. That was just the answer to a math problem.”  “ Look” she said, “they sell cereal her for $2, but they advertize it as two for $4. “  This was idiotic “Why don’t they just say 10 for $20 ? “ I reasoned, “that way they can really fool people and sell a lot more cereal, or better, 2 for $3.99 which fits their motto of “thousands of items under $4.00 . “ The discussion continued well into the drive home. But I know I’m right about this, why would you  try to sell something that costs $2.00 as 2 for $4.00, unless you were just trying to fool someone ? Who knows ? Why would you send out a coupon for free paper towels or a fee cloth bag and then not have any of the very items that you claimed that you were giving away ? Everything we touched that afternoon had been thought up by an ad agency, the under $4.00 signs, the 3 for $5.00 scam, the free (but illusive) paper towel offer and my memory of the Irish spring ad. Advertizing is the engine that brought our society to its present moment of crisis. It lied to us, sold us things that we did not need and, in general, worked to flim flam us out of most of the money that was in the country. It is one of the shining achievements of our nation. In turn, we passed it on to most of the world as the logical extension of colonialism. It was cheaper to do and more lucrative in the end. It helped addict millions to tobacco, which killed them, helped hook people on alcohol, got them into serious debt . It did not permeate our culture, it was, and is our culture. What would it take to wake us up ?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bloggist All A Twitter

Hapless local bloggist Wade Porter announced today that he has fears that he is the last person in America not to know what Twitter is. Porter, who is indeed described by friends as “totally without hap” only learned of Twitter from a magazine article he read the other day describing Brittney Spears attempts to hire a “Ghost Twitter”. “I don’t even know what it is” Porter said disgustedly, “and Brittney is already hiring people to do it for her.”


Friends have now explained Twitter to Porter as a “sort of blog whereby you can let people know what you are doing in the” real time”.  “As opposed to what ?” he replied, “the fake time ? why don’t people just say “now, “when did all of this ‘real time’ shit start ? So first you kept a diary so that you could report what you did yesterday. Then you moved up to a blog, so that you could report what you did that morning. Now you go on a Twitter so that you can report what you are doing right now ? How can you be doing something right now if you are reporting what you just did ? Twitter is always one step behind you, unless you tell people that you are going to do something in the future, then, it is always a step in front of you. Twitter is a phony, you can accomplish the same thing by test messaging, or better, pick up the damn phone and talk to someone. Then you can tell them exactly what you are doing at the very moment that you are doing it.”


Actually, report’s Porter’s daughter, Porter does not know how to text message and, according to her, could never learn because he does not have the dexterity to tap the tiny keys on a smart phone. “He needs one of those “Doodle Bug” phones for the elderly made into a smart phone” said Stacey. “Then he could have a giant keyboard that he could carry around to text, assuming that we could ever get him to understand the concept.”


“The mystery to me” said Porter, “is why people want to report what they are doing all the time. The time you save in communication is lost because of the time you spend doing everything else….I’m getting ready to take a bite of meat loaf so I tell you. I take a bite and then have to put down my fork so that I can tell you I’m chewing. It would take hours to eat a meal. How does the damn thing work in the shower ?”


Porter’s struggles with Twitter replicate his ongoing struggles with Microsoft’s Word program. Porter’s secretary reports, “He has never been able  to figure out how to get into Word. All he knows how to do is e-mail. He thinks that when he e-mails me some letter he has just finished, that he is sending me a Word document. I just convert it to Word so we can carry on his fantasy of being computer literate. There’s no sense embarrassing him. But there’s no damn way I am going to clean up and send  his Twitter messages, so he better not even be thinking of joining that group.”


All of Porter’s friend believe that the whole Twitter crisis will quickly blow over, once Porter learns that he won’t be able to find Twitter. “I saw him looking for a “Twitter” button on his keyboard the other day” laughed one of his partners. “The guy has not got a clue. He will go back to those Onion Parody Blogs faster than you can Twitter  ‘Brittney has a new CD out’.”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gunga Gulunga

My wife and I were  at a dinner party the other night when someone, for some reason, mentioned the Dalai Lama. This was followed by a woman ( a very gracious and spiritual woman) I know saying in a quiet voice. “I know the Dali Lama, he goes to the place I go to in India to mediate.” No one followed up on this rather startling statement.


All of us name drop from time to time. I had a blog recently about meeting 90 year old Bob Feller. I happened to admit in the blog that I had paid $10 for that privilege and so I take it that few who read the blog were very impressed. But dropping the Lama’s name is different. It is mystical, it is other worldly, spiritualism clings to his name, even if you really don’t know anything about him. It was a bit like saying that “Mother Theresa and I shop at the same Safeway, I talk to her all the time at the meat counter.” It just strikes me as a big deal.


Perhaps no one said anything because no one knew what to say (something that has never stopped me before). People who we have talked to about this since have given us lines which should have been used. Rev. Frazier thought that one of us should have looked at her and said “gunga gulunga” or , even better, “so you got that going for you.” Quoting Bill Murray’s Carl Spackler character in “Caddyshack”. My partner Allensworth felt that I should have immediately taken the Lloyd Bentsen tact, “I know the Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama is a friend of mine, you madam are no Dalai Lama.” Any of those would have been wonderful. I guess that I was just too shocked to respond. I was certainly not clever enough to have thought of those lines.


But there we all sat, missing an opportunity to learn from a highly intelligent woman whom we all loved, about one of the revered men of our age. Perhaps we had immediately filtered the statement and for certain reasons had stayed away from it. Perhaps some thought thoughtthat maybe she met him in a receiving line.” That was followed by “Place I mediate in India,hmmm how often does she go ? does Southwest fly there ?”


But why didn't we check ? What if this woman did know the Dalai Lama ? What if she knew him so well that they were,  even now, text message buddies ? What if he had already given her  the key to full understanding for eternal peace of mind ? What if she could just repeat a few anecdotes he had told her ? Wasn’t it worth the one simple statement to her, “Oh, tell us about that.” I mean, what were we possibly talking about that would have been more interesting or fruitful to our lives than to hear almost directly from the Lama ? (like the old song, “I danced with a man, who danced with a girl, who danced with the Prince of Wales.”) Yet no one spoke and she never elaborated.


Maybe it was pure envy. It would be impossible for me to top something like that. I will never mediate in India. I will never go to India. I am not that glamorous. Anything I said would have sounded like that guy in the James Joyce short story whose friend chides him for never traveling out of Ireland. “Well I’ve been to the Isle of Man” he says, knowing as he says it that that is a silly rejoinder. I have never even been to the Isle of Man, although now that I think about it, that is exactly how I could have responded to her. Then perhaps someone there would recall that that the line came from a Joyce short story and he/she and I could have shared a smug “inside joke” type chortle over our literacy,  while the others looked mystified. That would have been great !


Envy has always been a problem for me.


On the other hand, I’m actually pretty good at humble. The prophet Micah said to “Seek Justice, Love mercy and walk humbly with thy God”, I have always gravitated to humbleness. I know that’s only one out of three, but humbleness is a good virtue to have. So I got that going for me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Parable of the Discount Candy Easter Eggs

The blog yesterday brought bobbing up from the depths of my brain another story from my days on Harold Street. This is an odd story. What is odd about it is how it has stayed in my mind for almost two score years, as seemingly unimportant and trivial as it is. I will bet that despite its triviality, my old roommate Gary remembers it too.


Sometime after the Easter of 1972, Gary and I needed a couple of items from the grocery store. There was a Weingarten’s around the block and a couple of streets down. Weingarten’s does not exist anymore, but they were a strong grocery chain in Houston in those days. When we needed a lot of groceries we would drive a car over there, but when we just needed a few things we would usually walk.


This was maybe ten days after Easter and I can’t recall what we were out of that afternoon which prompted the trip. It could not have been bread because we always bought our bread for twenty cents a loaf at the Mrs. Baird’s Day Old Bakery store. Whatever we needed, it was light weight, I remember that for sure. We picked up two or three items at the store and were walking back to the cashier when Gary spied a table of marked down Easter Egg candy. Not just marked down, but the second mark down, they were practically giving the stuff away. My roommate had a legendary sweet tooth. I brought him a bunch of large peanut patties one time and he would munch on them after he went to bed. It, thus, did not surprise me when he began to pick through the Easter sale items, eschewing the yellow marshmallow chickies and bunnies and the chocolate Easter items. He finally settled on a bag of candy Easter eggs which came in many colors in a cellophane bag. The colors were so vivid and phony looking that they were probably made with some dye that has sense been banned.


We paid for our items and they were put into one of the small grocery bags (not the standard size ones), the kind you used to carry a loaf of bread or a quart of milk before they introduced plastic grocery bags, Gary picked up the bag and we began our two and a half block walk home. I don’t remember the first two blocks of the walk as anything but a pleasant stroll on a nice spring day. But as we rounded the last block for home, Gary’s expression began to change.


He looked at me and said, “I’ve carried this bag the whole way, it’s your turn.” Well, technically, and legally he had me dead to rights. Half of the groceries, other than the Easter eggs were mine. We always shared burdens and under the rules of the house ,he was entitle to ask me to carry the bad, had been entitled to so ask for about a block or so. But the request caught me off guard by what seemed to me to be its pettiness. The sack weighed under a pound, he had carried it to within three to four houses of where we lived, it seemed stupid to change carriers at this late date. So I responded in the manner one would have expected me to, if one knew that I had the maturity of about a six year old. “I’m not carrying that damn bag.” I said. I honestly can’t recall if I used the word damn, but I can’t imagine that I would not have modified the noun in some way, shape or form, and damn is about the most pleasant expression I would have used.


“ I have carried the bag all this way, it’s not fair that you have not carried it” he said, trying to hand me the bag. “I’m not carrying it anymore. “he continued. I responded again, “I’m not carrying it, we are practically home.” At this point he saw that I was not going to take the proffered bag and so he let it drop on the sidewalk in front of him.  While this technically changed the issue between us, the argument bore an eerie similarity to the one that had put us in this awkward position. “Pick up the bag” Gary requested. “I’m not picking up the bag” I rejoined, “you dropped it.” He stated This struck me as unfair, “I did not drop it, you tried to hand it to me and I told you that I was not going to take it.”


This could possibly have gone on all day but people in the neighborhood were beginning to take notice. The standoff continued awhile longer until it was clear that neither of us was going to budge,. Upon looking down at the sidewalk we noticed that the colorful candy Easter eggs had fallen out of the bag. The fight began anew. “Pick up those ”….”you pick it up”…they’re your Easter eggs, if you want them you pick them up”….”you are really not going to pick them up, you’d just let them lie there on the sidewalk /”  You get the picture. Gary turned and picked up the grocery items ,but left the Easter eggs lying where they were. I followed him without a glance back. As you might imagine, an argument quite similar to the ones we had just had  soon began.  This time  about going back to pick up the eggs. I will spare you the details.


Day turned to night and no one picked up the Easter eggs. Every time we went outside, we saw them. The first days ants were crawling all over them. Then a day or so later, it rained and the cheap dye  started to run off of the eggs and onto the sidewalk, staining it a nice putrid color of purple. Still, no one picked up the bag of candy. By now  we can, of course,  include the entire neighborhood in this fiasco, most especially the owner of the house (more likely the tenant) who had to see this soon to be disgusting site every time he got into the car he left parked in his driveway. After awhile, the wounds between Gary and I healed and we no longer cared who picked up the eggs. I think it actually began to amuse us that the eggs were still there, a melting mess caused by the most petty of all arguments.


Finally one day, the eggs were gone. I don’t know how long they stayed there, a week or two, until probably some  stray animal dragged them away. The stains and the memories remained. What also remained was the question, why ? Why did we leave the eggs ? and Why do I remember the eggs ?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Stop Me If You Have heard This One

After a little foray into the realms of glory and the streets of gold  late last week, I thought that I might loosen up my thought process by telling one of the many stories I have about the garage apartment I had in college. I was positive that I had written this story before, but I ran a check on all of my blogs for the word “cockroach” and came up empty. This story can’t be told without the use of the word “cockroach”, so perhaps I have told it so many times I just think that I wrote it.


I know that I have written something about my old garage apartment, which was located on Harold Street in the Montrose section of Houston. I lived there with my roommate and great friend Gary Smith for two years. During that time I was  pre-law in college and Gary was  pre-med. The odds against us both completing our courses of study and attaining those professions were astronomically high. Higher for me than Gary. He had been a top student in High School and President of the Student Council. I had finished deep in the third quarter of my graduating class. But the truth of the matter was, I had my doubts that Gary would make it either. I tended to rub off on people.


The apartment where we lived was over a garage which stood (precariously) behind a two story duplex. The bottom floor of the duplex was rented at  a discount to a gay hairdresser named Larry who was a friend of the Landlord ,also named Larry. Larry acted as Larry’s agent for all things involving the apartment ,including collecting the $85 a month rent. Gay Larry, which we will only call him to distinguish him from Landlord Larry, had a standard reply to every complaint. “He won’t fix it”. And Gay Larry was right, Landlord Larry never fixed anything. The lower floor of the duplex was taken by an elderly couple named Dallas and Lucille Mann. Dallas was a one legged security guard who worked all night. Lucille was a waitress at “Phil’s”, our favorite greasy spoon. Lucille sort of liked us, Gay Larry tolerated us and Dallas hated us with every fiber of his being because we liked to play loud rock in the daytime when he was trying to sleep. He would sometimes pull into the garage directly under our bedroom upon returning from work at about 5:00 a.m..He did  with his radio blaring in order to extract a certain measure of revenge against us. In this I would say he was successful.


My roommate Gary was taking an American History class which he had not been able to place out of (I had). This was a bad thing because it had a tremendous amount of reading and kept him from studying the things he really needed to excel in, such as Biology and Chemistry. Early in the semester he got bogged down in a famous book called “the Puritan Dilemma” by a well known historian named Edmund Morgan. I read the book years later and while I made it through, I can vouch that it would have been just about unreadable for a college student, or anyone else, at any time of life, who still had  anything better to do with his time.


Gary had started the book on numerous occasions (it was not very long) but always had lost interest when I proposed a game of pool or ping pong or pinball or dinner or really just about anything. The next night he would be back at his desk (Gary read while squatting on a chair in front of his desk) trying again and I would interrupt him again. I later learned that I  was what is known as an enabler. One night in late October or early November, just as it was getting a little cooler ,I was lying on our couch studying and Gary had assumed the position with his book. After a respectable amount of time, I heard Gary begin to mutter about the hero of the book, a particularly tight assed Puritan by the name of John Winthrop. Gary had developed a particular loathing for Winthrop and seemed to almost hold him personally accountable for the assignment of the book. “Oh he was just so pious.” I heard him say. “just so pious”. This lead me to start chuckling and trying to decide what Gary and I would do that evening so that he could avoid the assignment. As I was beginning to muse over that, I turned around to look at Gary and narrowly missed being hit in the face by a flying copy of the “Puritan Dilemma”. The book flew past the couch into the kitchen/dinning area where it missed its intended target, a cockroach.


Let me digress. Our apartment was about fifty years old. It was surrounded by trees and brush and directly over a garage which was full of rotting timbers and  had probably not been cleaned since the Hoover administration. I am not saying that Gary and I were slobs, but our particular method of cleaning up the dishes never varied, once a week, as regular as clockwork. For the other six days we were surrounded by plates and pans of dried out food and crumbs all over the floor. The bathroom ? I’ll get to the bathroom later. It was the kind of place that used to fool 18th century scientists into thinking that there was such a thing as spontaneous generation. The place was lousy with cockroaches. The garage underneath was the cockroach capitol of Houston, Texas. It is amazing how low and disgusting  a state college boys can survive in if they have enough alcohol and hallucinogenic.


The cockroach, being such a common site in our household, did not inspire the revulsion that you often see in homes with more modern ideas of hygiene, To me, the cockroach was like the glare that came through the window every morning. It irritated you, but you adjusted, you certainly never thought of doing anything about it. That is why it was so surprising that night when Gary screamed out that he’d had it with cockroaches and that we were going to take care of every cockroach in the place, or words to that effect, the term “fucking” was thrown in as an adjective approximately every third word or so. What Gary had in mind was the total eradication of the cockroach from the apartment (as Churchill once said “sooner hold back the avalanche”) and he meant to  do it that night.


First he went to the kitchen and brought back plastic containers that his mother used to send us chili and spaghetti sauce and Brunswick stew (Gary’s mother provided the only variance from our normal dinner of beans, pot pies, grilled cheese or cookies). He also brought with him a large plastic spoon and  a spatula. He then retreated to the bedroom and emerged with his large plastic camping flashlight. He  handed me a container and a spoon and muttered, “let’s go”. I followed Gary outside and down the stairs, finally into the garage. Upon entering the garage he lit his flashlight, aiming it at the floor near the side wall. Hundreds of cockroaches scampered for darkness as Gary yelled “get ‘em”. Now bear in mind, this is about 11:00 p.m. and most of the neighborhood is asleep. We scampered around the garage using our kitchen implements to push or “herd” cockroaches into the plastic containers. The “Great Cockroach Roundup” as it came to be known yielded dozens and dozens of cockroaches, meaning that the apartment was probably only populated now by 100,000 or so. Looking back on it, it was like taking a spoonful of sand out of the Sahara Desert, but we were happy with the haul.


Up the stairs we went ,trying to figure out just how to intern the roaches. We finally hit upon the plan of disassembling our cement block book shelf and setting up a little temporary Guantanamo where the little buggers could stew for awhile. After all the excitement we went to bed.


Now one of the problems with cockroaches is that they are pretty adept at slipping out of tight spots. By morning, the more intelligent cockroaches had made a clean break and were even now somewhere in the house, plotting their revenge. At some points in time, even Gary and I went to class, and we decided that this would be one of them. We left the last dozen or so rather hapless roaches behind the stone walls, which in this case a prison made.


I had a job in college that kept me from getting home until about 7:00 every night. When I came in that night I looked down into the cockroach Alcatraz, or the “rock” as we liked to call it, and cockroaches saw I none. The house was mostly dark, with an eerie light showing from our bedroom. As I walked toward the light, I heard strange noises which sounded like the underwater talking that you hear toward the end of “Yellow Submarine” right before Ringo begins to “live the life of ease”.  “Captain, Captain” I clearly heard, followed by other nautical terms. I walked thought the unlit bedroom toward the dim light of the bathroom where I beheld a sight I never expect to see again, primarily because I had never expected to see it in the first place. Floating battleships, some of them on fire were circling the bathtub, cockroaches were running around the decks of the ships looking for ways out while fire continued to rain from the sky.


Perhaps I better explain. Gary and I used to go to a toy store around the block, back in the days when there were independent toy stores. I had purchased one of those inflatable clowns that you punch and then it rocks back up for you to punch again. Very useful tool, wish I had one now. Gary used to buy model ships. He was a lot more patent and dexterous than I was (still is). Gary had put two or three of these model together and we had floated them in the bathtub before. The fire came from a thing called a “zing” or a “zoot” or something like that. This was a series of plastic sheets, like the type they used to wrap shirts in or still seal food in (saran wrap). The sheets would be tied together and pinned to the ceiling where they would tangle down over the tub. When you lit them, the flame burned upwards causing the plastic to melt  drops off fire to fly down. The really neat part of it was that they made a sound , “zooot”. All in all it was a quite satisfying thing to watch when the lights were out and you had a head fill of mushrooms. Played hell on the tub though. There were only certain places in our tub that you could stand during a shower . whereby you could avoid burned plastic sticking to the tub. Baths, of course, were out of the question.


Gary had set this scene up and thrown the last remaining cockroaches onto ships. The cockroaches were trying to avoid the fire, but did not want to jump in the water. It was a very realistic view of what it would be like to be on a ship that had taken a torpedo and blown up. Realistic, if  ships were a foot long and were manned by cockroach sailors that is. I stood fascinated. The flames “zooting down” smoke coming from the burnt plastic ship decks, and the scurry of cockroaches. The only thing missing was Bernstein’s “Victory at Sea” score. As the ships began to melt, cockroaches began to climb from one ship to another. They eventually made it to the side of the tub and out the bathroom to freedom. The two ships burned out with the loss of no hands. It was a seafaring miracle.


There are reasons why the cockroach was here before we crawled out of the primal ooze. The same reason that they will be here when our race is nothing but a collection of dusty old statutes and decaying buildings. The cockroach is our genetic superior. The cockroach can adapt to anything. We can watch and marvel at how he does it, but have no chance of repeating his success. I will never forgot the lesson I learned that night. The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Often it is to the adaptable and the cunning. In any fight, I’d put my money on the cockroach.





Friday, March 20, 2009

Crouching At Your Door

..if you do not do well,

Sin crouches at your door

And his desire is for you

But you must rule over him.  God to Cain, Genesis 4:7



God and I look at sin in two different ways. By the way, if you are a betting man, you might want to put your money on the creator of all, but I will at least give you the benefit of my views. God looks at sin as something external (here we will tread pretty lightly on the concept of original sin since God never said anything about that at all). God told Cain that sin was something external, not that it was personified like a mad dog crouching at the door, that was just a divine metaphor, but that it was not a natural state of human behavior, that it was an evil that sought to impose itself on the human will and could be controlled.


As I may have written before, I don’t believe in sin. I believe that selfishness (which people call sin) is the basic nature of the human and that without selfishness, the human race cannot survive. What religion (or philosophy) does is raise the consciousness of the human to show how our natural predispositions need to be overcome, because even if selfishness is natural and beneficial (a baby crying because it wants to eat) it will go too far and turn on others destroying them and the actor in the process. As you can see, God and I do have an agreement on the need for control. I’m sure that God appreciates my vote of confidence.


When I feel angry, as I have of late, it is easy, and conscious cleansing, to see this anger as something crouching at the door, and not my natural selfishness needing to be gotten under control. Anger is not always from selfishness, but it usually is. The Christian churches like to characterize Jesus cleansing the temple as righteous indignation, because they don’t want to admit that Jesus was angry and therefore selfish and therefore (as they would see it) sinful. Maybe he was,  righteously indignant that is , but I have always thought that his methods were unnecessarily provocative and somewhat  over the top. Even if he was righteously indignant, did he have the right to make a “whip of chords” and turn over the tables of merchants who, after all, were probably outside the Temple itself and were performing a necessary service, even if some thought they were overcharging ? What about that whip of chords ? I believe that scripture is silent as to its use, but most whips are used for, well, whipping. That is not really consistent with what Jesus stood for, it is impossible to imagine Gandhi doing this. I think that we have to characterize Jesus as being guilty of not properly controlling his anger, being selfish, or at the very least overreacting, which is the same thing. Still, Jesus spent a few years of his life doing very dramatic things for their effect on others, getting himself crucified being one of them. Perhaps he felt that this was the only way to really call attention to a problem. Like walking on water, chord whipping is dramatic.


But how does one control these rages of selfish behavior which from time to time rear their ugly heads onto the plane of decency that we have been able to slowly construct over the years of our lives ? Who can say ? All religion and mental health therapy is really aimed at that, the control of the selfish impulses. From Moses to Freud and all of those before, after and in between those two, we have spent an awful lot of time struggling for answers. Some refer to this as the “perfection” of the human race and most believe that, as a race, we can’t get there from here. I don’t know. What I do know is that God’s way of explaining sin to Cain is  very preferable to my way. It is a lot easier to fight evil than your own self interests, even if they are distorted.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cat as a Deadly Weapon

The New York Post this morning has a story about Kenley Collins, a young woman who was on the television show “Project Runway”, not to be confused with “America’s Next Top Model”. Collins  was charged with assault with a deadly weapon against her (now) former fiance. The deadly weapon was a cat. Collins owns two cats and Police have so far been unable to determine which of the two,Sandra or Arlo, was used as the potential deadly weapon. Now why would this particular story make the front page of one of the best circulated newspapers in the United States ? Well, it is because headline writers at the Post wanted to emblazon “Pussy Whipped ! “ across the front page. This was an opportunity that probably would not come again in our lifetimes. I have never heard of a cat being used as a weapon. Interestingly, Collins is not being charged with cruelty to animals because, as was explained by  New York animal control officials, the cat was not hurt.

Is that really the standard for cruelty to animals in New York ? You can use them to bash the face of a fiancé as long as the animal itself suffers no injuries.


But this is not a blog about animal cruelty or fiancé beating, or even the idiocy of television shows like “Project Runway”. No, this blog is another in my long series of tributes to the nations tabloids. It was brought on by my wife providing me with a link to a wonderful news service which displays newspapers from all over the world, just as you get them on your driveway. There’s the front page, you see the headlines and the pictures, you enlarge the stories you want to read, then you click on the upper corner of page one and it turns to page two. Or, you can look over to the side of your screen and see the thumbnails of every page in the newspaper and turn to the section or page you want to read. It is a remarkably satisfying experience and, at the end, you don’t have any black smudges on your fingers, unless your keyboard is dirty.


Newspapers are dying, one by one, and that’s too bad. I like newspapers. But can’t they continue to exist like this ? Won’t most people appreciate the opportunity to read a newspaper in (almost) the old fashioned way. Won’t people still want to wake up to a blaring headline of “Pussy Whipped ! “ in the New York Post, New York Daily News, Boston Guardian or Chicago Sun Times ?  Yellow journalism was invented right here in America and, like any other great American institution, such as  the Liberty Bell or Plymouth Rock, should be preserved for future generations. This new site not only preserves the New York Post, but gives millions of children who have never heard of the paper, a chance to see stories like “Pussy Whipped” on a daily basis. Do you think that once these newspapers are gone, CNN Online is going to tell us that story, or any of the other hundreds of wonderful stories which make it worthwhile to read a newspaper, nay, to get up in the morning. Of course not, we are going to be denied the joys of following Kenley Collins stories, “It was just a breakup gone bad” unless we tune into that wretched  E channel where you have to watch the most loathsome person on planet Earth, Ryan Secrest to get the story. That’s not journalism, that’s just sensationalism.


Whether this site can save the newspaper is certainly open to question. But I have no doubt that it can save the tabloid, the real journalism in this country. We can then bequeath to our children the full legacy of the First Amendment and honor those giants of the early twentieth century who gave us a truly American art form, and, incidentally, plunged us into the Spanish –America War. May the memory of William Randolph Hearst and his contemporaries live forever. May the New York Post headline writers carry on for us until the end of time.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

St. Patrick and the Irish Porters

Here we are on St. Patrick’s day. My father was fond of telling me that our family came from Ireland, and so it did. But the family is not what most people think of as Irish. Our family was a family of Scots whom the King of England had moved to Ireland to try to Anglicize it back in the 15- 1600s. My estimate is that my family was in Ireland for less than 100 years before they moved onto what I’m sure they thought were greener pastures in the United States. In other words, my color on St. Patrick’s Day should be Orange, the color of the Northern Irish and their great benefactor, William of Orange.


As I have been unable to find my family name among the great landholders from Scotland who took away Irish property, the odds are good that they came along, with their fellow plebes and laborers, with one of the families that received the large land grants. There was a Porter, one of my direct ancestors, at the siege of Derry, later Londonderry, and it was either he, but more likely his son, who hopped a boat for Pennsylvania. Incomplete records on the internet indicate that the fellow who left Ireland was in some type of trouble and had to, more or less, sneak out. This would coincide with a lot of things that I know about my family.


Once here in the United States, the family made its way down to North Carolina, apparently to take advantage of some land which Indians had just been run off of. The individual who made that trek ended up in some trouble and partial records show that his son served a term in jail for him (there’s a civilized practice that is not allowed anymore). From North Carolina, the clan moved onto Tennesse,once again taking up acreage recently occupied by the native inhabitants. The pattern continued into Alabama, the United States Army having liberated some Indians from land down there. As near as I can tell, the first Porter to live on land that he actually had a right (of some kind) to was my Great Great Grandfather who pulled up stakes from Alabama and moved to Texas during the days of the Rebublic.Up until then, by my calculations, Porters had been living off of stolen land, more or less continuously, for at least 250 years, on two different continents, and despite this low overhead, had  still been unable to make anything of themselves.


Things got better once we made it to Texas, the traditional escape venue for debtors and ne’r do wells. Most of us have hung around these parts now for almost exactly 165 years. The longest we have ever stayed in one place since we were in the lowlands of Scotland, which, at the time, was the poorest and most ignorant country in all of Europe. Its agriculture at least a century behind most everyone else. Although they had managed to stumble on a wonderful distilling process for the production of whisky, and that says an awful lot which is positive about a race, no matter how stupid they were.


But it is the Irish, not the Scotch, who have the romance. I even prefer Irish Whiskey to Scotch Whisky and I certainly prefer Corn beef and Cabbage to a big bowl of Thistles. So on this day, I try to pass. After all, my family did come directly from Ireland. It seems to me that I have as much right to celebrate the feast of St. Patrick as anyone else. So I plan on leaving work a “wee bit” early, and having a glass of Jameson’s to toast the ancient saint, whom legend says Christianized the Irish, and drove all of the snakes out of the country as a kind of a bonus. Maybe my family did not come over during the potato famine or suffer the hardship of immediate impressment into the Union Army once they stepped off of the boat but I  like to think that we are as good as those who did. We too should be able to join the great Irish toast of this day and any other day, “Top of the Mornin’ to You”. And to all my friends and brother Irish on this day, Nar lagai Dia do lamh, at least while you are holding a glass of whiskey.

Friday, March 13, 2009

FW: white trash



From: Wade Porter
Sent: Thursday, March 12, 2009 9:16 AM
To: ''
Subject: white trash


I noticed the term white trash in a quote in your story today. How come no one is ever offended by that term ? My belief is that white trash may be the only term that demeans two races. It calls certain white people “trash” being fit only as refuse and to be thrown away. Second, in its original sense, it was used to separate white and black. The implication was that all black people were trash and only a portion of white people, thus you had to designate “trash” as “white” or people would assume that you were talking about a black person. Few phrases can be more hateful and yet there has never been a national revulsion against it and it is used by entertainers in the media all the time. I approve of your use of the word in a quote (as I would any word in a quote, to refer to a word by a single letter is an admission that the word is stronger than the writer, and worse, stronger than the reader) but do not know why journalists don’t condemn the phrase as an “ugly slur”.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

FW: The Toy Cannon or, the Last spring Training Story (honest)



From: Wade Porter
Sent: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 5:27 PM
To: Patient Readers
Subject: The Toy Cannon or, the Last spring Training Story (honest)


I would have never thought that in four days of watching baseball I would have four blog ideas. I would rather have written them out there, but the hotel I stayed in charges a buck a minute for internet service. I have never written a blog which is worth a dollar for the whole thing, so a dollar a minute seemed out of line.


The last game I went to this spring was in Mesa, home of the Chicago Cubs. I hate Cub fans. They are divided into twitty North side type Chicagoans who went to Northwestern and think that being a Cubs fan is just the cutest thing ever. Ordinarily you see them in bars over on Rush Street ,drinking over priced martinis and complaining about Mayor Daley. Come baseball season they are in all the good seats. The other Cub fans are blue collar types, in the bleachers. They are not as bad as the Northsiders because they know something about baseball, but they go out of their way to be obnoxious. In truth, Cub fans are just like Red Sox fans with different accents, except the Sox white collar guys tend to  be authors or poets or Harvard Profs., guys who are too good to make money. I don’t dislike the Red Sox fans at all, but that is probably because the Cubs have been in the same division as my team and so I have a dislike for their team.


The Cubs had a Hall of Fame pitcher named Ferguson Jenkins. Jenkins, known as “Fergie”. He  was the first major league baseball player ever to be arrested on a drug charge. He was busted for transporting cocaine from his native Canada into the United States, whether  for sale and  distribution or for personal use  just to while away the long hours on road trips, I have forgotten. If for sale, it was not a bad plan at all. Most all drugs enter the U.S. from our southern border. Canadians, in general, prefer blended whiskey (Crown when  they can get it)to cocaine and so the idea of a very fine pitcher sneaking cocaine in from Canada would have  seemed outlandish to our border security, which was pretty lax in those days anyway( which I can say  having snuck Cuban cigars in from there myself) ..But the 70s were a fast time, even north of the border.


At any rate, ballplayers, at least good ones are given the same leniency by the public that Auden said that writers were entitled to, no matter what the sin (“Pardon (them) for writing well”)and Fergie was forgiven this indiscretion years ago. You hear a lot of complaints about ballplayers using steroids, but not cocaine, that was never an issue. Fergie now runs a little charity up in Chicago and one of the ways he raises money is to bring in his old ballplayer friends and charge people to meet them. He calls these meet and greets. As we entered the park in Mesa the other day, there was a sign that said Fergie had, that day, brought in his old friend Jimmy Wynn aka The Toy Cannon, for one of these sessions. Wynn was a hero of mine when I was 11 years old and he was playing his first year with the Houston Colt .45s. He was a genuinely fine ballplayer and, because of the prevalence of now favoring certain baseball statistics over others, which were favored years ago, he  is today looked upon as a great ballplayer.


No matter what the era, Jimmy was strong. He was five foot nine and weighed about one seventy, He played in a park that was the hardest park to hit a homerun in in all of baseball. Yet he was a great homerun hitter. If he had played anywhere else, or even in Houston ,after they moved in the fences years later, he would probably be in the Hall of Fame. I saw Jimmy play dozens and dozens of times and there were several things I wanted to discuss with him. So Gaston and I went looking for him. We found him sitting at a table with Fergie Jenkins and no one else around. Jimmy was never a big name in Chicago or, apparently, Mesa.


I stuck out my hand and walked right up to Wynn, saying “Jimmy Wynn, Wade Porter”. He shook my hand and though his reply was understated he did seem glad to see me, or perhaps anyone. I told him all the usual bunk about growing up and watching him play and I told him that I had come to get an autographed picture for my brother who I explained had been with me at the last game ever played at old Colt Stadium. The last baseball game played out of doors in Houston for thirty five years and we had seen him Jimmy Wynn, break up the scoreless tie in the ninth inning with a run scoring single off of the Dodger’s Ron Peranoski, prior to our storming the field in celebration of the win, what did he think of that ? Wynn looked puzzled and I got the distinct  impression that he did not know what I was talking about. How could that be, this was one of the very highlights of the childhood of the Porter brothers, everybody remembered that game. The guy who won it must still hold the memory sacred. His eyes glazed over.


“And Jim” I said, I was there the day in 1973 that you hit the walk off homer against the Giant’s Sudden  Sam McDowell  to win the game for us and propel us into first place, what a thrill.”Jim quietly reflected, a look of doubt in his eye, probably remembering that McDowell had spent most of his time in the American League and wondering just who this lunatic in front of him was. Finally he responded, “That was in the dome wasn’t it ?” Well, of course it was in the Dome, didn’t he recall the scoreboard exploding and the roar of the big Sunday crowd as he rounded the bases, one of the biggest hits in his career. Not so much. “You say your brother’s name is Clay ?”he asked, “what would he like me to write on the picture ?”  “45’s 1 Dodgers 0 I said. He looked confused, but wrote what I asked. I picked up the picture of Jimmy, as he looked at 22 .I admit to being a little disappointed. “Oh” he said, “I want you to be sure to tell Clay I said hello.” “Will do, I replied, thanks for all the thrills !” and I left.


It was another lesson learned. The things that seem so big to you in life are often not even footnotes to the other six billion people on the earth. Even when they are involved in them. Jim Wynn probably played over 1,000 baseball games. He did it to earn a living, not create memories for 11 and 7 year olds, that was a byproduct of what he did, but not the reason for it. Even his best games are probably just looked back on as another day at the office. Something that happened to him in  1964 or 1972 does not mean a whole lot to him today. Also, Jim can’t really understand. For years he was a hero. He probably forgot what it was like to be the hero worshiper. Today he is neither, just a mortal trying to make a living and to help out an old friend like Fergie Jenkins.


But in the end it does not  matter. It is your memory which is important. I can still see my brother happily stomping on the infield at old Colt Stadium, staying and staying  until the lights were turned off and our father had to leave his car to come look for us, probably regretting dropping us off on our own, a couple of true irresponsibles. We heard a little about that as we walked back to the car. Dad never liked being kept waiting, but he always put up with it and let us return. The next time we returned, it was to a stadium with a roof on it, the one of its kind and the first of its kind. Even the name of the team changed from that of a cowboy’s gun to a celebration of Astronauts and Houston’s place in the space race. You can draw a bright line in the history of Houston between the city in September of 1964 and April of 1965, and Clay and I were there to see the sun set on the old town. I’m sorry for Jimmy if he does not remember it. He may be sorry for me that I remember it too well. But I am right about this one.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Myths and Memories Play Peoria

Saturday last I was sitting in my seat in Peoria, Arizona watching a game between San Diego and Oakland. The stadium announcer cut through the between inning chatter to announce that Julia Ruth Stevens was sitting in the “accessible” section (formerly known as the handicapped section) behind row 106. That happened to be the row next to ours. I did not understand the significance of this until the announcer continued by saying that Julia Ruth Stevens is the daughter of Babe Ruth. I looked over with interest and saw (what I learned later to be) a ninety year old woman sitting in a wheel chair. Somewhat to my surprise she stood up and waved at the crowd. Also , somewhat to my surprise, I noticed that 90 year old Julia Ruth Stevens is a beautiful woman, in wonderful shape, with a graceful face and reddish hair.


I had seen Mrs. Stevens before, on television, throwing out the first ball at the last game at Yankee stadium (the house that Ruth built) just a few months ago. I found out that she lives in the Phoenix area. What she was doing at the ballgame, I don’t know. Given the lack of fanfare, other than the announcement about her attendance, I assumed that she just wanted to see a ballgame. Although I understand her to be legally blind, she watched the game, and every pitch, at least  until friend Broyles and I left an inning early from the one sided contest (Oakland scored 17 runs).


Mrs. Stevens is the daughter of Ruth’s second wife, the actress Claire Hodgeson. She was nine years old at the time those two married  was adopted by Ruth. Ruth had one natural daughter of his own who, according to her web site, is still living. Ruth’s first wife had perished in a fire during the couple’s separation. Ruth would have been 26 when her adopted father died of cancer in 1946.


As my friend Broyles said, “she’s always been Babe Ruth’s daughter. “ Yes she has been. What must that be like, to have your own identity so subsumed by a parent ? In Mrs. Steven’s case, it has advantages, and probably not many distractions. During the game, a few people came over to introduce themselves, get autographs and have their picture taken with her. I admit that I snapped a picture of her from a distance. Why ?


The human species is insecure. They so want to be identified with greatness of any sort that they will seek a signature from an adopted daughter of a man who has been dead for almost 63 years. Not one person in that park, other than Mrs. Stevens, had ever seen Babe Ruth play baseball. All they knew was that he was the most famous athlete in America who ever lived. Note that  I said “in America” the American boxer Muhammad Ali is better known worldwide. I am not criticizing anyone for this adulation of Mrs. Stevens. I am very sad that I did not go introduce myself to her. I would have liked to have met her, but I did not know if she wanted to be bothered.


What has her life been like ? Is she introduced to everyone as “the daughter of babe Ruth   ?” Did she ever feel like screaming,” I am Julia Stevens, I have had my own life and it has been wonderful, ask me about my life, talk to me, not my ghost of a father, long gone.” ? She must have. Yet, most of the time she was probably thankful for the doors it opened and the free tickets it got her. She has probably never paid for a ticket in her life.


Still, I always feel sorry for the children of celebrities. The son of John Quincy Adams comes to mind. George Washington Adams. Can you imagine ? It is not bad enough that your dad was President of the United States, that your grandfather was President of the United States, but they have to go and name you after the most admired man who ever lived in this country, George Washington. A man that both his father and grandfather knew and admired. Think he ever felt pressure to perform ? Perhaps that is why he died a hopeless alcoholic. No one in the world could live up to those kinds of expectations.


Mrs. Stevens was lucky in one respect, no one ever expected her to play Major League baseball, but her whole life has a kind of side show aspect to it. Step right up and see the bearded lady, the three headed dog, have your picture taken with the tallest man in the world. She is a curiosity, and curiosities often have a hard time  being human. Perhaps not Mrs. Stevens, but if not, she has overcome a lot. I hope that she is her own self and that the vicarious adulation people feel for her dead father has not interfered too much with her long life. I actually suspect that it has not, she certainly let the stadium management know that she would be at the game. Oh, and one other thing, she wore a stylish baseball warm up jacket with a number three and the name “Ruth” on the back. That may tell the story on its own.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rapid Robert

On Christmas Day in 1960, I received a present that I had not asked for. It was a large soft covered book with a drawn picture, highly colorized, of a baseball player immediately after he has finished his swing. The book was called “Big Time Baseball” and I read it from cover to cover many times in the years to come. At the age of seven, I had played baseball for one year and had not yet discovered that baseball had a history. If it had not, I would have paid no attention to the sport for the rest of my life because ,to say I was a mediocre player is to insult that fine old word “mediocre”(which means moderately ordinary).The history of the sport kept me interested in the game and kept me playing for another seven years.


The book contained a section on the World Series. One of the stories was about Bob Feller’s famous start in game one of the 1948 series. Feller was a superstar of the highest degree in the 30s and 40s. No pitcher today comes near the awe he inspired. The last one who came close was Roger Clemens whose memory is now mixed up with the steroid era of the sport. Feller began pitching in the American League at 17  in the 30s and pitched up until 1956. His record is not what it would be because several years of his career were lost to World War II.  The career was still spectacular and when I started watching baseball, he held many strike out records and was the only player ever to pitch three no hitters, a record broken by Sandy Koufax and later shattered by Nolan Ryan.


But Feller had the misfortune to play in the same league as the New York Yankees and so his often very good team, the Indians of Cleveland   did not reach the World Series until he was past the time of his true greatness, in 1948. But even then, he was an outstanding pitcher and started the first game of the series that year against Johnny Sain of the old Boston Braves (and the “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain “ ditty). Feller pitched a whale of a game, giving up only two hits. Sain gave up only four. The score was tied until the bottom of the eighth when Phil Masi, a journeyman catcher was sent in as a pinch runner for  the Braves. He was sacrificed to second and had a long lead off of that base when Feller wheeled and threw to Lou Boudreau on a pickoff move which appeared to all but one person in the ballpark to catch Masi off the bag at second. Unfortunately for Feller and his teammates, the one person who disagreed was a man named Bill Stewart who happened to be the umpire at second base that day. Stewart called Masi safe and despite protests from Indian shortstop/manager Lou Boudreau, the call has stood forever. ‘Pictures” allegedly show that Masi was out, although I have never seen one. The only picture I ever saw of the play was on the opposite page of the story in my Big Time Baseball book. That picture shows Masi on second and Boudreau holding up his glove as if he has cleanly tagged Masi out. It also shows a look of marked irritation on Boudreau’s face which I can only presume presaged an explosion. The picture shows something else. It shows an umpire of that era, squatting and looking at second, his arms spread and palms down in the universal sign of “safe”.


The next batter was Tommy Holmes, who hit a single, scoring Masi  for the first run. The only one of the game. Feller was defeated and would never win a World Series game. That was the poignant point of the story I read forty eight years ago. That’s exactly how the story ended, and how I always remembered it. “Bob Feller never did win a World Series game.”


Fast forward to 2009, Goodyear, Arizona. I am returning to my seat at the stadium, the spring  training grounds of the Cleveland Indians and I look to my left at an elderly  gentleman sitting behind a table, wearing an Indians hat. It is “Rapid Robert” Feller. Feller is now 90 and makes an excellent living by signing his name on various items for whatever amount the market will bear. At a spring training game in Goodyear, Arizona, the market will bear $10 a signature and, if you want, Bob will throw in one of three or four different 8x10 glossies of himself in his prime. My mind retreats back in Christmas of 1960 and that story and that picture of the disdainful disbelief on the face of Lou Boudreau.


My seat is directly in back of where Feller is seated and I watched him sign items for seven innings. By my estimate he signed somewhere between 800 and 1,000 items which, even for the math challenged author, adds up to a nice sum. I am told by a seatmate that Feller appears every day of the spring games which means that his annual  trip to Arizona (and before that Florida) probably grosses between $75,000 and $100,000. Not bad for a vacation.


I was in awe of one thing. Feller is in incredible shape. He can still throw a baseball like it is meant to be thrown, having to hold  back for the kids he throws signed balls to, so that their dads can remind them one day that they once played catch with Bob Feller.About the 7th inning, the line disappeared for a few moments and Feller walked over to the concession stand to  buy himself an order of ballpark nachos with one of the ten dollar bills he had recently taken from a fan. I could write an entire blog about the hideousness of ballpark nachos, but this story has gone on too long already. At any rate, as  Feller returns to his seat , my memories get the best of me. I leave my aisle and walk over the Feller, my Indian hat in hand for him to sign and two five dollar bills. As I handed the hat to him I said “There’s one thing I always wanted to ask you….” Feller looked me straight in the eye. “Was Holmes out in 1948 ? “ I asked, forgetting that it was Masi and not Holmes on second base. “No !” came the strong reply. I was taken aback. Surely he had misheard me. “Holmes got the hit, Masi was on second base.” “Was HE out ? “ I repeat. “He was out by two feet.” Then Bob’s mind races back to 1948, something it has to do every time someone over 50 asks him this question, which is probably every day of his life. “It was a timing play.” Here he brings his hands  together in the “set position”. “The shortstop broke to the bag and I turned and threw.” “And he was out ?” I repeated for the third time. “He was out by two feet.” Confirmed Feller. “Years later” he went on, “the umpire, Stewart, admitted to me that he had been asleep on the play.” Then he continued, “You know that play did not cost me a win, just a tie.” I thanked Bob and left, ten dollars lighter, but immeasurably richer.


It was not until I got back to my seat that I began to think about his last statement. It was an interesting thought. “Don’t feel sorry for me” he was saying. To do so would change the story. The Indians that day could not score a run. That was the story, Johnny Sain and his four hit shutout was the story. The pitchers duel was the story. If the call had been made correctly the game might still be going and Feller might still not have been a winner. In one short sentence Feller had done three things, forgiven Stewart, honored Sain and told me that I had nothing to feel sorry for him about. It was true economy of language.


My signed hat now sits in my study, but it represents something different than I thought that it would. It represents  the generosity of a man who is not known for such an attribute. But that’s how I will always remember Bob Feller.



Monday, March 09, 2009

Transylvanian check in

“The Hun is at the gate” Rudyard Kipling, “For All We Have and Are”



When you name your son Attila, you in some way determine the course of his life. Not only have you named him after a Hun, you have named him after the most renowned and evil Hun that the world has ever known. A name that is often mentioned in the same phrase as Adolf Hitler. A name that is used in everyday conversation to define the unruly and brutal. My friend Rick Reed once told his surgeon that he had the bedside manner of Attila the Hun. That was not meant to be confused with, say, Florence  Nightingale. Thus I was surprised to see that the young man who checked me into my hotel in Scottsdale last Thursday had a name badge that said “Attila”. As if this was not strange enough, under his name, in the spot the hotel reserves for the place the employee is from, was boldly printed “Transylvania”. Attila from Transylvania. I can be excused for wondering if someone at the hotel was pulling my leg (or about to bite my neck).


Yet, sure enough, the young man was really from Transylvania and said that he was going to move back there (presumably in a secret coffin) sometime in June. I did not ask him if his real name was Attila, for all I know, Attila is the  “Robert” of Transylvania. I can’t recall count Dracula’s first name and don’t recall if Stoker had any Attila’s in that novel. I also did not ask him how he could work in the daytime  without burning up and dying.


The kidding this fellow must have put up with. How many people went into their long dormant Bella Lugosi imitation when asking for their room ? or when calling the front desk and hearing, “This is Attila” heard the response, “yes, this is Adolf”  Or maybe not. Maybe I am the only one who noticed anything odd about it. . .. I have run into this kind of thing before.


In March of 1986, friend Broyles and I had taken off to watch some spring baseball in Florida. We did so without making any hotel reservations, which is roughly like stepping off of the plane in mid winter in Gander, Newfoundland without a jacket. Something I have also done. After watching a ball game we began a series of visits to motels looking for a room. Turns out that college kids go to south Florida every year for spring break. Who knew ? So every motel is booked sold and it appears that we are going to have to sleep in our rented Lincoln Towncar which Budget was running a $39.00 a day special on. It was a lot for a car in those days, but pretty cheap for lodging. We finally found a motel in Bradenton, Florida that would take us in. No questions asked, which after talking to a dozen similar places within a radius of twenty five miles seemed odd. The desk fellow was nice enough. Then I looked down and saw his name on his badge. “Jihad”, which even in 1986 I knew was Arabic for “Holy War”.


If you are going to tend the desk in a hotel in southern Florida, Jihad is probably not the best name to use. It tends to be off putting to the Jewish aunt who has just come in from Long Island. But there he was, Jihad, and he threw me a key. Gaston went off to his room and I went off to mine upstairs.


As I opened the door I noticed that someone had left the television on and then as I took a step inside, I  immediately noticed who that someone was . “Hey, hey” was his greeting, uttered in the congenial manner of someone who is about to be mugged. I stared onto the bed, there, holding the remote, was a short stocky man, about 45, wearing an undershirt and boxers. He also had the longest sideburns it is possible for a human being to have without getting into a definitional dispute over where sideburns end and beards begin. As if to make sure that I was not hard of hearing, he repeated the only phrase I was to ever hear him utter, Hey, hey” perhaps this time a bit more emphatically.


Say what they will about me, I know when I am not wanted. I closed the door, walked down the stairs and into the lobby and said straight out, “Jihad, there is a man in his underwear lying on the bed you have rented me.” Jihad did not look up, kept facing the counter which separated guest from employee and finally shrugged. Now this is not an expression, Jihad shrugged (which by the way would make a hell of a title for a book). His shoulders went up, his right one a bit earlier than hid left one, and then came down. He turned back to the wall and grabbed another key and threw it on the counter. Never looking at me. Suddenly I understood why I had been able to book a room. It was a variation on the old joke, “I can’t be overdrawn, I still have some checks left”. As long as Jihad had keys, he felt that he had rooms. It was simply a matter matching a spare room to a patient guest.


I finally did get a room, and I never saw Jihad again. He was gone the next day, although he must have done me some kindness or service because in my journal of that trip I refer to him as a “Boswell”. Attila was no Boswell, with a name like that he could not be. But he was nice enough and I’m sorry that he is moving back to Transylvania. I doubt that our paths will ever cross again, at least this side of the grave. But I will carry around a pocket mirror just in case.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Why I Need Spring Training

I was checking for my confirmation number for my hotel in Scottsdale when I ran across this e-mail to my friend Gaston Broyles from last January 20. Gaston had put me in charge of getting rooms for our trip. Does this e-mail suggest a need for anger management therapy ?


“They said that the $129 rate was no good in March and I told them that their e-mail was a   a god damned bait and switch and may have implied that it was probably fraud under the Federal statute. After due consideration, they offered us the $129 rate for two rooms for our three days in Arizona. They wanted $200 a night for the rooms in March, the thieves. I don’t understand why everything in life has to be so damned hard. I had to e-mail them their own e-mail showing the discount because they had never heard of it. By the way, keep this confirmation number or they will try to screw us when we get there….”


I am hoping to be better upon my return.

The Pain of Recession

CNN is running an interactive story about people who are having to pawn off their precious items in this economic downturn. They are urging readers to send pictures of their heirlooms, or former heirlooms and tell their story. How uplifting. I looked at a couple and got the general idea. The general idea is that CNN thinks that they can get more hits on their web site if they can get people to suffer online, person to person. Why have someone report on personal tragedy when you can get the tragedy stricken persons themselves to write the story, and send pictures ?

I suppose when the Bird Flu Pandemic hits ,CNN will encourage readers to send in pictures of dead family members and tell their stories of the plague.


I don’t have anything that I can sell in a recession. I have a large number of fifty year old baseball cards that have a value on paper, but I have always maintained that baseball cards, unlike gold, are not something that will translate into cash in an economic downturn. They only have value when times are good and people are spending money on frivolities. Things like baseball cards and comic books are frivolities. They were when I purchased them 50 years ago and age has not changed them. While not frivolities, you are going to see a dramatic crash in the price of great art, actually, all art. Most artists don’t sell well after the Dow has been cut in half. The biggest frivolity of all, throwing your money down the bottomless hole in in Las Vegas, which  is turning out not to be recession proof,is a good example of what peopleare giving up. I have not checked on lotteries and scratch off games. Those may well hold up. They are inexpensive ways to dream, and people dream a lot while waiting in breadlines.


The biggest frivolity I have is the half of the square footage in my house which I do not use. Our handy man has returned from South Carolina and so is lodging in our garage apartment (for free) but when he clears out, maybe I can start renting out the extra space. Rayda and I could  move into the garage apartment and rent out the bedrooms in the house. The other areas could be common rooms. I could probably pay the mortgage with a scheme like that and maybe meet some interesting people. People are coming to the realization that large houses really do not make any sense, but maybe you can use them to make money. I really think that the concept of the old fashion rooming house is coming back. Think of all the great movies that took place in a rooming house. My friend Bennett and I were just talking about “Stage Door” last night. What a great bunch of gals roomed in that house. Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ginger Rogers. It was one big party. Rayda may  not want to rent exclusively to beautiful young actresses, but we can probably work something out. Think of all the blog material. I have always wanted to be a sort of father/ confessor to a large group of young women. I have practiced with my own daughter for almost 19 years and think that I am ready for new assignments. We can all grow during this down turn. We need to keep that in mind, money is not the only reward in life.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Where are the Scissors ?

I am refinancing our house. I say “ I” and not “we” because I told my wife that I would do the whole thing. This is what is known as a self preservation technique. My wife loves me, I am pretty sure, but certain things drive her over the edge. Refinancing promised to be one of them. I got a whiff of that this morning.


Against my better judgment, I had sent an e-mail home to myself listing some things the bank needs. Then I got home and realized that I do not know where any of them are kept . I was going to snoop around for them, but Rayda saw the list this morning before I could snoop  and demanded to know why I had not pulled the material last night. “I don’t know where it is ” I admitted. “Why don’t you know where it is ?” she rejoined. That is a question she only asks when she is particularly ticked off. Usually when I ask her where the scissors are she just says “You have lived in this house for twelve years and the scissors have always been in the same place..” Then she shows them to me. I feel a little guilty, but at least I get the scissors. The question “why don’t you know where they are ?” is a question for the ages. The question, “ Why does an all loving God allow evil in the world ?” pales in complexity compared to it. You notice that in the Book of Job, no one ever dared ask the question, “Why don’t you know where the scissors are ?” Not even God ,when he was pushing Job around asking him things like ‘Where were you when I divided the seas ? “ ever dared ask him “Why don’t you know where the scissors are ?” There’s a reason for that. It is because God did not know where the scissors were either.. To be fair, Mrs. Job was dead by the time the questions started getting asked in that book, so the question (and any search for the scissors) would have been futile.


Why don’t I know where the scissors are ? or the large plastic bags ? or where I am supposed to store the plastic measuring spoons when I unload the dishwasher ? Why is it that only males, usually husbands, have this problem ?

Whatever cause it is probably connected to the part of the brain which makes it impossible for us  to remember to pick our shoes up off the living room floor before we go to bed. We just seem to lack an aptitude for certain things that, prior to the advent of feminism, went unnoticed. Prior to about 1972, men still did not know where the scissors were, but women had not had their consciousness raised to the point where the realized that this was an insult to their sex. Some women even liked it, on T.V. the housewives were always saying “Heavens, what would you do without me ?” Well, I wouldn’t be cutting any paper, that’s for sure.


We have to face it. Not knowing where the scissors are is the last vestige of sexism in American society (that and paying women only 60% of what a man gets paid for the same job in the work place, but de minimis non curat lex).Men don’t know where the scissors are because they don’t want to know where they are. Because for thousands of years they have not had to know where the scissors are, and they resent this extra burden being added to their already burdened lives. Their fathers did not have to know where the scissors were, their grandfathers did not have to know, what in the world did this generation of men  do to have this problem dumped on them ?


So that is your answer, pure and simple. It is a resentment issue. As the species evolves and children are raised in a more egalitarian family hierarchy, those boy  children will learn where the scissors are. The problem is on its way to resolution now. It will be solved in less than a century (assuming that scissors as a product last that long, which is doubtful). So my view is that everyone should just relax. Think of the husband who asks where the scissors are as a charming anachronism of the past. Like a quaint horse and buggy clip clopping down your street. Sure, the buggy slows down traffic, and the horse’s defecation next to your driveway is unpleasant, but it is a quaint reminder of a simpler day, soon to be forgotten. Let’s all just enjoy it.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

One More Spring in Arizona

“I left old friend and now I’m back again

Please say you missed me since I went away”    Garrison Keillor, “One More Spring in Minnesota”



The Cactus League has returned to Phoenix. Each year, like the Firebird  of its namesake, the desert town in the Valley of the Sun arises out of the ashes of winter, and baseball, the purest of all sports, is resurrected on its playing fields. No phrase this side of “amen” commands more joy than the simple cry of “Play Ball !” There is no smell in the universe which is more welcoming than the orange blossoms of Arizona as they mix with the truly spiritual sound of bats cracking against balls, hurled by young men at 95 miles per hour from a hill exactly sixty feet and six inches away.


When I first came to Phoenix in 1988 I was thirty five years old. I had lived half a lifetime, but had never felt the gentle breeze off of the Sonoran Desert and did not know that the Arizona spring was greater than any other spring, anywhere. But I know it now. I have known it for 21 years. Yet each time I return, I thank God for letting me feel it one more time. Each year, when I leave after four days, I know a little of the sadness of Adam and Eve as they headed out, east of Eden. But unlike Adam and Eve, I have been able to return , absolute proof (as if any was needed) that God is a baseball fan.


Every year when I go to Arizona, people ask me what teams I like to see. The truth is that I don’t care. I can’t remember, three weeks after I saw the games, which teams I saw. But I can still feel the sun, I can see the palm trees swaying against the blue sky and hear the chatter of 7500 people, all sitting in my general vicinity, speaking with the greatest  happiness about a baseball game that does not matter. A game that is not recorded, whose specifics will probably never be mentioned again. Spring Training baseball is not a competition, it is a  sport of the spirit. It is the closest  approximation America has ever reached toward the mystery  of Zen. It is the only time that you can truly “be the game”. It is the place where the mind can finally grasp all that is important in sport, and deny and shut out all that is ugly. A place devoid of “winners” and “losers” and all of the baggage those terms entail for the human species. What is important in the spring is the movement on a pitch, not whether it crosses the plate, the swing of the bat, not whether it makes contact and the beauty of the slide, whether or not the runner is safe.


Yes, it is spiritual, for those who seek it. I learned long ago that many do not seek it. For them, it is a meaningless three hours at a small ball park in some out of the way Phoenix suburb. That’s O.K. too, Thoreau was right, not everyone hears the tune of the same drummer. But for those of us who do, the trip back to the desert can refresh us as little else can. Less than 100 hours now before I’m there. It is well with my soul.