Monday, October 17, 2016

The Fearful, Haunted Road to My House

Warning: This is not for the faint of heart. There are dangerous creatures that lurk within this post. Proceed at your own risk.

Okay, Halloween is almost upon us. In most neighborhoods that means a scattering of kids knocking at your door, showing off their marvelous, creative costumes, and then proceeding with a "knock knock" joke or a "Why did the whatever do whatever?" line of questioning.

I've got it much better than that, thanks to my neighbor Leon. He treats Halloween as seriously as most people treat Christmas - with a display of assorted monsters, ghosts, witches.... just about every twisted being you can think of - except politicians. (Some things are just too horrible to behold.)

All the photos you see here show the result of Leon's efforts. As you turn off Ballas Road, about a mile south of West County Shopping Center (Sorry, no clown masks for sale this year), you enter the Hue Vista neighborhood via Rayner Road. And that's where the traffic slows. For the little ones in the back seat, and mom and/or dad as well, to see what evil lurks in the heart of Hue Vista.

Leon, I believe, started this about eight years ago. That's when I knew for sure I had a neighbor who was my kinda guy. You see, Halloween is possibly my favorite holiday. I overcame an embarrassing childhood centered around this holiday to fully come to terms with the possibilities of pretending to be something you're not: a gangster, a gorilla, a pirate, a raggedy-ass Superman (cape dragging the ground), even a silent film comedian with derby and cane. (no, not FDR). 

About my childhood: My mother dressed me as a girl one year. I went door to door, trick or treating, playing a tune on the piano for my act, ("Country Gardens"???) and hearing a lot of "Oh, what a darling little girl you make." I survived that. I think. I gave up wearing dresses in high school, but couldn't give up the nylons. Still can't. But I digress.

The other childhood misfortune was a costume party at the temple where we belonged. I went all out to become Al Capone. Hat, cigar, pillow stuffing in my black suit, big ring on my pinky, a "gat" in my pocket. She took me into the temple for the party that evening - and, surprise: I was the only one in costume. Yes it was a party. No, it wasn't costumes. Halloween was still a week away.

But I recovered. Jump forward many decades, I'm married, have two kids, live in Westwood Forest, and I knock myself out decorating our house with spooky stuff on Halloween, putting a Hi-Fi speaker in the bushes with spooky 
sounds, chains, howls, werewolves, growls, commercials for used car dealers. That was yesterday.

Today it's the Fearful, Haunted Road designed by Leon. And I love it. This last photo is what I put up at our house this year. Not much. A $9.99 scarecrow from Home Depot, and a very old rubber mask wearing one of my Rooster ties. Like I said, not much, but it makes me feel good. Now if only someone brings me a Mounds bar. Or a Midnight Milky Way. Even a Three Musketeers. I'll consider the night a success.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Behold the Mighty Toothpick

It’s a slender stick of wood, about two and a half inches long, thin enough to slip between your teeth and dislodge a morsel of meat or a crust of bread. Yes, how well you know the toothpick.

     But you may not be familiar with its power to transform. I discovered it one day recently when I was driving to Home Depot. As I sat at a red light, a long line in front of me, I was  into my usual bored, impatient mode. The car radio, connected to my antique iPod, was playing an old Billy Joel tune about the lights going out on Broadway. I dug around in the coin tray. Maybe I’d find an interesting receipt or forgotten note, anything to fill the waiting time.
     That’s when I found the tooth pick. An old one. No telling how long it had been there. It didn’t matter. Here was a much-needed diversion. I put the toothpick in my mouth, rolled it around a little with my tongue, then clenched it between my molars. Lightning! I was transformed. I segued from an old guy on a boring chore to a tiger on the prowl, a gunslinger on the streets of Laredo. A Man on a Mission. Renewed confidence surged through my veins. the years dropped away, frailty gave way to muscle and sinew. I was ready to rumble, all because of that wooden sliver.
     I switched the toothpick from one side of my mouth to the other. My tongue moved it to various angles - up, down, forward. My eyes became steel gray beads of intimidation. I turned off the radio. Billy Joel singing about New York didn’t with with my new persona.
     The light changed. I tore through the intersection, my hands relaxed on the steering wheel but ready to snap into action instantaneously. I was King of the Road, my six-year-old Honda Insight now a new F-150 Ford pickup. 
     The Power of the Pick.

How often have you seen a character in a movie with a toothpick? Usually it’s a bad guy, mulling over administering a foreclosure, another ten lashes, a nod to the hangman. However a toothpick also works for the good guys. Gregory Peck. Matthew McConaughey.  Paul Newman in “Hud” or “Cool Hand Luke.” I’m not sure if he even had a toothpick, but he could have. That confident smile that says, “You can’t keep me down.” Maybe Robert Redford as Sundance? Possible. I hope so.

     There’s a great toothpick scene in “Rain Man.” Dustin Hoffman asks for a toothpick, the waitress opens a box and drops them on the floor. Dustin counts them, in his head, quickly, comes up with 246. Tom Cruise asks how many in the box. The waitress says “250.” He says “Close.” Dustin repeats, “246.” As they walk away, the waitress says, “There’s still four in the box.” And Dustin puts one in his mouth. The Granddaddy of all toothpick scenes I think. 
     This whole thing probably started out as an oral hygiene device. But it has assumed more meaning than that, from “Boy, that was a good meal” to “I’d love a cigarette but I quit.” The toothpick is a personality statement, a sign, clear as day, that says, “I know things; I’m extremely capable and sure of myself. Don’t mess with me.”
     Now I keep a stash of toothpicks in my Honda. Whenever I feel a little unsure of myself, I reach for one. All it takes is that comforting feeling of the wood between my teeth, the tip just peeking out between my lips. A quick maneuver from the right side to the left, a slight smile to the world and I am unconquerable.
     Maybe that’s the next Superhero. Toothpick Man. No cape, no ring, no metal claws or iron wardrobe. Just a slender sliver clenched between the teeth. Maybe this Halloween I’ll go to a costume party as Toothpick Man, see if anybody recognizes the new Me. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Out of Sight, Out of Pocket: Frank Lloyd Wright's Folly

When you spend a pile of money on something, like a beautiful deck, a dazzling piece of custom jewelry or a sleek, new Mercedes convertible,
you feel good about it. Sure, it sets you back a little, maybe a lot. But you can take great pleasure and pride in it, a sense of satisfaction. An added bonus might be when neighbors or friends say, “Looks great,” or “Way to go.” It’s always gratifying to be admired for your good taste. Bottom line, though, is how good that purchase makes you feel.
We had our driveway sealed last year. No big deal, just a lot of thick, black stuff spread around. But every morning for a couple of weeks I’d look out from our kitchen window and think, “Wow, my driveway really looks great.”  Then tire tracks, dead leaves, and bird droppings took their toll and I stopped looking.
Not all major expenses, however, bring a similar sense of satisfaction. Not even close. The best they seem to offer is to lower your stress level. I’m talking about a furnace and a roof. These are both rather large expenses. “Investments” they’re called, partially to make you feel wise. We had a new furnace installed about four years ago. The original furnace was almost 25 years old. It rattled, strained, made strange noises in the dead of winter. As January temperatures dropped below 30 degrees, my fear factor would rise. “Maybe it’ll quit working in the middle of the night and I’ll freeze to death.” Not a comforting thought as you try to fall asleep.
Our new furnace is quietly efficient. I don’t know how that translates into B.T.U.’s, but I no longer worry about dire forecasts of “morning lows near zero.” We even bought a new thermostat to assure that efficiency. At least that’s what the furnace guy told me. However, when I have friends over, I don’t feel the need to take them down to the basement to see my new Trane. After all, you can expect only so much enthusiasm from friends.

My new roof is a more recent “investment.” Our house is a one-story, mid-century contemporary home with a flat roof. It was designed by an architect who studied at Frank Lloyd Wright’s institute in Scottsdale. Unfortunately he incorporated one of Wright’s trademarks: the flat roof. Not a great concept for the thunderstorm belt. (A word to the wise: Don’t buy a flat-roof house unless it’s in Death Valley.)

I had reached the point where I dreaded a forecast of heavy rain. When I was a kid, I’d like to sit by the window in my room and read Batman and Captain Marvel comics while listening to the rain. That was then. Now I looked at dark clouds in the west with foreboding. During a storm, I’d walk around the house, stare at the ceiling for damp spots, drips and stains. I’d listen to the rain pound the skylights and wonder where the water was going. With all the storms we had in August, I lived in a constant state of anxiety. 
The fear was well founded. Two years ago we developed a leak in our bathroom ceiling. Sometimes the dripping wouldn’t show up until two days after the rain. We had roofers put on a patch, seal the skylights, clean the drains. Nothing worked. I began to think the house was cursed. Our roof looked like a crazy quilt.

Now we have a new roof. But I can’t see it. Unless I climb a ladder or fly over in a helicopter. It is, for most purposes, invisible. And expensive. For the price of the roof, Mary Lee and I could have spent 2 weeks in Italy, plus I could be driving a new convertible (not a Mercedes, though). I’m convinced Wright had a sweetheart deal with roofing contractors. But at least now I can relax when the forecast calls for thunderstorms. I can watch dark clouds roll this way without feeling doomed. But I may never break the habit of looking at the ceiling.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

True Story from Long Island

I received an interesting response to my "softball" post" from a friend who lives in NYC, also has a place on Water Island (part of  or near Long Island). His name is Tom Anthony. He was one of the country's top music writers/producers back in the day, still writes music and lyrics today. In this case, back in my advertising days, I hired him to write a new music theme for Budweiser. He came through with a remarkable piece of music that carried Bud for several years. The line was "You make America Work, and this Bud's for you." He also used to play a mean trumpet; probably doesn't have the lip today but still has the soul. 

Here are his comments about his career in softball. Read it and weep.

"To begin, I was probably the worst ballplayer around back in the day. But I remember one game of softball.  It was on the beach in a place called Bayberry Dunes, about three miles away from Water Island. There was an ad biz copywriter on the other team named Ron Salzberg, who was more than amazing, given that he was left-handed and played second base.  That's hard enough on any field, but in the sand? Anyway, I hit a lucky pitch into the ocean, and he chased it and tried to throw me out while standing up to his backside in the water.  He never forgot it and swore to get even.

A couple of years later, he called me in to do the music for the Doublemint Gum "Single Most Favorite Double" campaign.  He introduced me to everyone in the place as "Homer."  I didn't argue.  But I didn’t complain either.  We won two Clios.

If I tried to run those bases now, I'd still be halfway to first, but probably on my face in the sand."

Here are some pics from the vault, of Tom from a visit Mary Lee and I had with him many years ago, when we were both still "in the biz." That beautiful woman with him is his wife Stephanie, artist and singer. Remind me sometime to tell you about the remarkable lobster dinner we had at his place on Water Island. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Late Innings

Up until a month ago, I believed I still cut an awesome figure on the softball field. 
I moved swiftly around the bases, getting from home to first in under 10 seconds, scooting down to second, stopping to catch my breath, faking towards third, then stepping safely back to second. 

In the field, I scooped up grounders (some of them pretty hot), chased down long flies (they seemed long anyway), even pitched a full eight innings on many occasion. This was, to be honest, Senior Slow Pitch Softball. Minimum age: 55. But age is only a number, right? I was a force to be reckoned with. My DeMarini bat, Nike spikes (plastic and blunt, but still they are spikes), Mizuno fielder's glove well oiled and broken in. Even a batting glove, just like the pro's wear. Yep, time is only a figment of the inactive imagination.

There are senior games on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Kind of an open gathering. You show up, sign up 
on a batting order/position board. So each time you play with different guys. Lots of fun, no pressure, and most of the guys are 65 or older. There are a lot of excellent players here, and they're all there to have fun. I play only once a week, sometimes twice. Here's a link to info on it. Kirkwood Senior Softball

The other game is more competitive. It's for 55 and over and it's a league. Once a week, on Tuesdays. This is more serious softball, with some incredibly good players, guys who have won gold medals or ribbons or trophies for winning competitions. Even though I wasn't up to that caliber, I had this invincible belief I could still carry my fair share, or whatever the proper sports analogy would be. My trophy case is empty, my chest bereft of ribbons. I got a gold medal once for winning a game, but that was only because the other guys didn't show up with a full team. Forfeit, actually. Still, a medal is a medal.

Then I got a wake-up call. Four weeks ago. The timing on this was remarkable.  I was leaving for my Tuesday league game, and I had this gnawing feeling that I wasn't playing quite up to my usual self expectations. It wasn't as much fun as it used to be. Some balls were getting by me that I used to snag. There were fewer and fewer "attaboys" and "way to go." I told Mary Lee, as I was leaving for the games (we play doubleheaders in this league), "I'm thinking I will quit after the games today." And I meant it. She was supportive, said whatever I wanted to do, but I knew she was glad, and her words as I hustled out to my car were, "Don't get hurt." Always her parting admonition. And I always say, "Don't worry. I won't." How's that for a dumb response?

I played the first game. Not a lot of fun but we won and I was okay. I called her. "Hey, the first game is over. I didn't get hurt." Then we started the second game. Late in the game, I covered second base on a grounder to the third baseman. The runner on second broke for third, the third baseman looked at him, started to throw the ball to me. The runner headed back to second. The throw came, I caught it, the runner hit me, full frontal. I held the ball, the runner was out...but something had slipped or bent in my rib cage. It hurt. I said something to the runner about his being too demonstrative (not my exact words). I finished the game, even slashed a single to right in my last at bat. (Yes, slashed!!). 

That night my chest hurt. I think I had re-injured a broken rib from this past February. I called Jim, the team manager, and told him I quit. He was sympathetic, even angry that the guy had run into me. Jim has his own problems, struggling with COPD. So ended my higher level of competition on the diamond. I wasn't able to play softball or tennis or bike ride for almost four weeks.

Last Friday, I returned to the field for the older and slower game. The "pitcher" line on the sign-up sheet was blank. I put my name down. I like to pitch. Which I did. Close game. Got into the late innings, we were up by one run. Other team down to their last couple of outs. Hard hitter up there. A younger guy, under 70. Had hit a long-ball home run previous at bat. I lofted one of my hard-to-hit spinning bloopers towards the plate. He took a swing, connected, and less than a nanosecond later the ball was headed at me at about 300 mph. I didn't think. Went to pure reflex. Put up my glove, next to my heart, and the ball went into the glove. I don't think I even remember what happened after that. We won the game and, thanks to remarkable luck, I wasn't dead or headed to the ER.

I decided that afternoon I would not pitch anymore. I will play only where I can get out of the way of hard-hit balls or fast-moving runners. I will not put myself in harm's way. I will not depend on luck to keep me vertical. Like Stan the Man, Sugar Ray, Michael Jordan, I know when time is moving on. No, it's not time to quit. Just time to listen to my wife. "Be careful. Don't get hurt."

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Missouri in the Middle

It started with a trip my wife and I took to Marceline, Missouri in May. That's about 3 hours northwest of St. Louis. The Disney Museum is located here, alongside a railroad track. I had recently read a biography of Walt Disney, and Marceline figured prominently in his development. He grew up on a farm there, at a time when the town was a major stopping and refueling spot for the Sante Fe Railroad. 

He honed his imagination, moved to Kansas City to discover a mouse, then to Hollywood and the rest is history. But before he left Marceline, while in grade school, he carved his initials in his desk. It's in the museum, along with a treasure trove of letters, sketches; family, personal and school items.

After 4 hours in Marceline, we headed south to Independence and spent the next day at the magnificent Harry Truman Library. The building is beautifully designed, complete with roses around the entrance. If you think politics is ugly today, know that Harry had his share. You could spend a complete day here if you cared to. One of the things I remember about Harry is that, after he left office, he never accepted any money for speaking engagements. He refused to use the Office of the President for personal gain. 

Jump forward three weeks now, to the third floor outdoor balcony of the Lewis and Clark Restaurant in historic St. Charles. That’s where I had the good fortune to have lunch with distinguished author and adventurer John Robinson, whose column appears regularly in County Living magazine; and the publisher of County Living, Todd Abrams. Sometime between the arrival of my Arnold Palmer and my pulled pork daily special, a fascinating subject came up: The unique position Missouri holds in America. It’s a combination of the yin and yang of America, along with a diverse crop of men and women who had roots here, either by birth or residency. Putting it together, I realized we live at the cultural, historic and geographic crossroads of America.

Let’s start with St. Louis and Kansas City, a contrast separated by more than the width of the State.  St. Louis belongs to the East. Traditional, established, seasoned, energetic yet cautious. The Arch may be the Gateway to the West, but Kansas City is actually The West. Rugged, contemporary, confident, dotted with daring architecture and visionary endeavors.
The contrast continues with the Civil War. The Blue and Gray not only battled here, but divided the State in sentiment and struggle. Sure, we voted to stay with the Union, but a large contingent of rebel-minded folks cheered for Robert E. Lee. We’re a Northern state, we’re a Southern state. It depends where you get off the train.

Missouri is also home to the many faces of Nature: tornadoes, blizzards, bitter cold, sweltering heat; graceful Springs and colorful Autumns; streams, lakes, and rivers (the nation’s 3 greatest rivers meet here: the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio);  flatlands and low mountains and gentle hills; and a plethora of wildlife. (I’ve always wanted to use “plethora” in a column).

Now to mention some distinguished Missourians. This is where Mr. Robinson jumped in enthusiastically. I already told you about Truman and Disney. When it comes to literary lions, John began adding names such as Twain, T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, Eugene Field and Mort Walker (writer AND cartoonist!). Key military leaders dating back to the Civil War include Grant, Sherman, Sterling Price, Pershing, and Omar Bradley. 

Let’s talk shopping. J. C. Penney was born on a farm in Caldwell County. There is no truth to the story that his first words were “Attention, J. C. Penney shoppers.” Harlow Shapleigh, an astronomer, was born on a farm in Nashville, Missouri, and a student at U. of Missouri. He correctly estimated the size of the Milky Way galaxy. And that was without any help from Google.

The famous Betty Grable pin-up
Speaking of Google, I used it to find “Famous Missourians.” Here are a few favorites of mine I pass along - some familiar, some not. Josephine Baker, Susan Blow, Dale Carnegie (I should have read his book years ago), Walter Cronkite, George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Hart Benton, Edwin Hubble, Dred Scott, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Buck O’Neill, Stan Musial, Emmett Kelly, and, finally, three of my favorites - Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, and Robert Heinlein. I have a weakness for blondes and sci-fi authors. 

I’ve left out a lot of familiar names and influential people, especially politicians. Here’s what you can do to broaden your horizon, not that anything is wrong with your horizon. Google your way through the State’s history; take a trip to a small town; buy one of John Robinson’s entertaining and informative books; John Robinson's Book Or send me a check for $20 to further my literary career. (Just kidding about that last item.)

On behalf of John, Todd and myself: Welcome to Missouri.

(Note: This column is in the current Summer issue of County Living Magazine.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Welcome to the Dog Days of Spring

It’s all in their eyes. They know when Spring has arrived, that the gray days of snow and ice and slippery slopes are past. I can tell they know, because of the way they look at me. This is non-verbal communication at its most advanced. 

Sadie and Lexi, my golden retrievers, have this way of talking to me. They silently compel me to think in terms of “walk” and “ride” and “hike” and “get the tennis balls and let’s go outside.” Dogs, I’m convinced, have some sort of sixth sense, a cosmic canine calendar.

As a side note, they also have an internal clock, which tells them when it’s 10 p.m. and time for their walk. I can be watching TV, “live” or recorded or DVD - doesn’t matter - and they will stroll over, sit in front of me and stare. I try to explain, “There’s only ten minutes left in ‘Game of Thrones’; I can’t stop now.” They don’t care. They always get their way.

When you have a dog, any kind of dog, Spring takes on an added dimension. It’s physical, it’s mental, it’s extremely social. Dogs have a way of urging you to make friends with other dog owners. It never fails. I like to take Sadie and Lexi for walks in Queeny Park or Weldon Spring State Park. Invariably I’ll meet people also enjoying the fine weather, leash in one hand, poop bag in the other. We’ll stop and talk. “How old is he?” “Where did you get her?” “Does that kind of dog shed?” “Does he always drool like that?” And so it goes.Yes, these meetings also happen in winter, but the exchanges then are brief and to the point: “Pretty dog,” “Enjoy your walk,” and you’re gone.

I tend to evaluate people on two basic attributes: if they have a sense of humor, and whether they have a dog. Either one works for me, with the dog thing taking preference. Well, mostly. If it’s a little dog that yaps the entire time we’re talking, I tend to be in a hurry to move on. Don’t be offended if you own a vocally demonstrative dog. “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.” I think Plato said that. He probably owned a quiet, philosophical dog.

But I’ll tell you who my real heroes are. It’s those men and women who own rescue dogs. These are dedicated people who not only understand how special dogs are, they take the next step. They save these dogs, to hike and play another day. As I stand there talking to them, my two breeder-bought goldens next to me, and they tell me “This is a rescue dog,” they suddenly take on an elevated status in my eyes. They took the risk of adopting a dog often with unknown origins, sketchy background, questionable treatment and health, and committed their time and energy - and, often, expenses - for an indeterminate number of years. Somewhere, in a dog park or at the Dog Museum in Queeny, there should be a statue in honor of The Rescue Dog Owner. 

True story. On a mild day in late March, I took Sadie and Lexi for a hike in Weldon Spring State Park. Afterwards I felt like having a cold beer. So we headed for Defiance - to the biker bar where 94 makes a hard cut left and right. 

As I stood outside with a bottle of Busch in hand, surrounded by manly men and cool chicks, feeling a little out of place, a rather large fellow and his good-looking babe approached me. He was probably in his mid-forties, muscular, short beard, tattooed arms, owner of a Harley. Oh-oh, I thought. He knows I’m not a biker and don’t belong here, even though I was striking my most manly pose, leaning against the railing like Brando did in “The Wild One”, steely glint in my eyes which, unfortunately, were hidden behind my RayBans. I nodded at the two of them. “Good lookin’ dogs,” he said. “So sweet,” she said. My dogs’ tails wagged furiously. Twenty minutes later we were still talking. He and his girlfriend told me about their dogs, five of them, all rescued from a variety of situations. All of them loved. Lesson learned: You can’t judge a book etc. 

There’s a lot more I could say on the subject, but it’s a pretty day, the dogs are looking at me, and you know what that means. Happy Spring.