Monday, December 26, 2016

A Guy Named Chuck

I Thought I Knew a Guy Named Chuck

Occasionally a name appears in the obituaries that triggers a memory, a face looks out that is faintly recalled, a forgotten connection is restored. The deceased may not have played a significant role in your life, yet he or she shared a part of your past. You may not even recognize the photo next to the name. Frequently the family pulls a picture from an album or a dusty frame that shows him "in better days." Yet there is an echo, like a song or a voice, faintly distinguishable but impossible to ignore.

Such a name showed up not long ago in the local papers. Charles "Chuck" Murphy. I knew a guy named Chuck Murphy. Played senior softball with him, years ago. But I didn't recognize the small, square photo. A young military man, he wore what looked like a Navy cap, the dress kind with a bill and, on the front, an anchor, the Navy symbol. This was not the Chuck I knew. This guy was a kid, barely old enough to shave, a smile and a look that held all the promise of a bright future. An American flag headlined the short obituary that began "Beloved husband for 70 years to his soulmate..."
Truth be told, I'm not in the habit of reading the obituaries. I think it's a lousy way to start the day. I don't want any reminders that my name and photo will be in there one day. Hopefully not next Thursday. But sometimes, when I'm standing in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to perk, the water to boil, or the toast to pop up, I'll skim the dearly departed. It's like a treasure hunt where you hope you don't find the treasure.

I read the complete obit, maybe 180 words, including information about the memorial service coming up on the following Sunday. This was Thanksgiving weekend, certainly a time to give thanks for being alive. What I learned about Chuck in those few words made me realize how little I knew about him.

The year I met him was 2000. I had discovered the Senior Softball League at Kirkwood Park. You had to be 65 or older to play. I had barely made the cut. So I tentatively stuck my bat into the sport I had been absent from for many years. In fact, I didn't have a bat. Or a glove. Or the right kind of shoes. I had nothing but curiosity and maybe a modicum of ability. I would be one of the young players. I signed up at the Community Center. Games were to begin in two weeks. My next stop was Sports Authority for a fielder's glove, a can of Neatsfoot oil, and black shoes with plastic cleats. The bat came later, when I discovered that most players brought their own bats.

Of the 30 or 40 guys who showed up two or three days a week for the morning games, one of them struck me as supremely gifted. He hit the ball solidly - to right, left, or up the middle. Anyplace he figured they were playing him too deep or too shallow. He ran the bases with a deceptive speed, often stretching a single into a double, beating out a ground ball on a slow throw from third. But it was his dominance of left field that made the greatest impression on me. He was graceful. In the same way that Joe DiMaggio had been graceful in the Yankees' outfield.  At the crack of the bat, Chuck had a sixth sense where the ball was going. He immediately knew where he had to be, how quickly he needed to move to get there, where to hold his glove to snare the ball. He scooped up line drives, chased down long balls hit between him and the center fielder. No hesitation, no false steps. Just a sureness as beautiful to behold as Joltin' Joe. If you were on the opposing team, the word was "Don't hit it to left."

I knew very little about Chuck beyond his athletic skill. He wanted to win but not at the expense of friendship and fun. One day, someone mentioned to me that Chuck was 81 years old. I was astounded. Eighty-one belonged in the upper tiers of life. On the softball field it achieved even greater importance. Age, they say, is only a number. For Chuck, it was a number to be ignored, not even given consideration.
I didn't talk with Chuck much. No conversations, at least nothing any deeper than the play of the moment.  The only words we exchanged were "Nice catch" or "Good try" or "Way to go." Sincere but expected phrases revealing very little of either one of us.

No, I didn't know Chuck. After reading his obituary, it hit me just how precious an opportunity I had let pass by. In that short column in the paper, I learned that Chuck was a four-sports varsity letterman. That was evident on those summer mornings in the fields of Kirkwood. What wasn't evident was that he had served as a Navy pilot during WWII. That he had won many medals in the Senior Olympics. That he loved jazz. That he travelled extensively.
Right there were two of my favorite areas of interest: the War and Jazz. I wondered, What did he fly? Where was he based? Did he see combat? How did he end up to be a fly-boy in the Navy? Would he be willing to let me do a video of his stories and life? Questions I would never have an answer for.

And jazz. What kind of jazz did he like? Who were his favorite artists? Did he like big bands, or small groups? Did he ever see Benny Goodman or Louis Armstrong in person? Where did he go to hear jazz? Could we go out together some night to hear jazz? I was too late. The sounds had faded.

I loved the last sentence of his obit, a strange place to find poetry. It said, "He was a man of his generation: honest, kind, generous, ethical and responsible."
Those seem to be qualities more rare these days, attributes that should be imbedded in our DNA if we are to succeed as a nation and a race.

I am now 81 years old. I still play softball. I sometimes stand where Chuck stood. But not with the grace and talent of Chuck. I'm sure no one looks at me with awe. But that's not the point. Here's the point. We know so little of the people we think we know. We don't take the time or trouble to learn more. Only at their passing do we realize what we have truly lost, what rich and interesting lives are no longer available to us to absorb, to fascinate, to make us revel in the full wonder of what life can mean to us. And to others.

So what do we do?  Maybe all it takes is a word, a question, a shift of focus from yourself to that someone else. Perhaps it's as simple as listening for that small detail in someone's life, like a partially open door that leads you into an incredible room where you finally see what that person is all about, where their life journey has taken them. Quite possibly, you may find one or two items in there that compels you to know more about them. In fact, you might just meet one of the most interesting people you've ever known. You will have enhanced your world. Then you won't have to read about what you missed.

(I took this photo of Chuck in 2001, when I was photographing many of the softball players for an exhibit at the Kirkwood Community Center. It remains one of my favorite portraits.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

That Sinking Feeling, or Bad Day at Blackwell

This story lies somewhere between comedy and tragedy. Depends on your sense of humor and your outlook on life. For me, it was closer to tragedy, bordering on horror, taking me dangerously close to outrage and even vengeance. But you decide.
     It began innocently on a Friday morning in mid-October. Mary Lee and I and Lexi, our ever present Golden Retriever, piled into my 2010 Honda Insight. I mention the car by name because it's an important player in this story. The weather was unusually fine for this time of year, maybe even a touch warm, an excellent day for a nature hike. So we headed to Washington State Park, about an hour away. We arrived about one o'clock, found a trail head, and hiked for almost an hour. We were the only ones on the trail, which ran along a small creek through the woods. It was fairly easy walking, so calling it a hike is a bit of an exaggeration. We were the only ones on that trail, a peaceful escape from traffic and internet, bringing me closer to the very essence of our being, a connection to the wondrous forces of nature, a glimpse into the eternal, and all with my iPhone  off. 
     We returned to the car, headed out the park onto Highway 21. A service station sat just a couple hundred yards up the road. We both decided it'd be a good idea of use their "facilities" before heading home. That bottled water kind of goes right through you. So I headed up 21 follow this closely if you will. There were two driveways into the station. I pulled into the first one. In retrospect, my life would have changed if I had chosen the second driveway. But I chose the first. The building with the rest rooms, the dollar hot dogs, the racks of candy and stale donuts - really some of the worst products our culture has developed - that building was at the other end of the service station area. A line of pumps stood between me and the building. A rope barrier was strung between a couple of the pumps. Nothing to do with me, I thought. So instead of pulling back onto 21 and heading up to the second driveway, I went straight ahead, intending to drive around the pumps. 
     Have you ever had the feeling that something has just gone drastically wrong? That you've made some kind of error but aren't quite sure what it is? Have you ever had a sick feeling deep in the pit of your stomach that you've just taken the wrong fork in life's road? Then you know how I felt when I drove straight ahead into a pit of freshly poured concrete. This wasn't just a patch, where your tires might get a little grimy. No, this was more like driving into quicksand. Not that I've ever driven into quicksand, but now I know how it feels. This was deep.
     My car began to sink into this large section of concrete. I tried to back up. Immediately. No traction. I tried the recommended rocking motion we've all learned to get out of  snow. No traction. And sinking deeper. I looked around. There had been no markings to indicate work in progress.  No rope, barricade, construction cone, sign. Several guys in their Ford F-150's and Dodge Rams at the pumps stood there pumping, smiling and enjoying the show. I could read their minds.  "Look at that old fart stuck in concrete." "Bet he can't get out." "I feel kinda sorry for the dog." 
     Finally two guys came over, worker types in jeans, boots, tees, tattoos, stood in front of my car, shook their heads. 
     "Can you help me?" I shouted out my car window. I wasn't about to open the door and step into the muck.
     "Ain't no way to get you out without a tow truck. And there ain't no tow truck here."
     "Then push me out." 
     "No way we can get a car to push you out," said the other one.
     I pointed frantically to the front of my car. "Then maybe you can get in there and push me out."
     They looked at each other, shook their heads, and stepped into the goo up over their boots, pushed me, hard, harder, as I spun the wheels, flinging more and more concrete up into the underside of my beautiful Insight. Finally I was on solid concrete. I got out of the car and said, rather pissed at this point, "Why the hell didn't you put up some signs or ropes or something?"
     "We wasn't through yet," said the first guy. 
     I looked at my car, wet gray concrete covering the wheels, bumper, the entire bottom of the car dripping with that stuff.  
     And that's when my brain shut down. What I should have done at that moment was take out my iPhone and take pictures. Take a video of the area without any signs, of the guy who had pushed me now frantically smoothing the concrete over before it dried, to make it look nice again. I should have called the cops or state police or whoever the hell is responsible for law enforcement in Blackwell, Missouri (that's where the station is located, I discovered later on). I should have talked to the owner, gotten names of witnesses, taken their pictures. I should have, I should have, I should have. That was my mantra as I tried to fall asleep the whole week.
    But I didn't.
    "You better get over to a car wash," said one of the guys in the concrete boots. "Before that gets hard." He had already started scraping off his boots. 
     "A car wash," I thought. Yeah, I'd better get to one. Then everything'll be okay.
     So, not compiling any evidence of the crime that had just taken place, we hit the road, headed towards DeSoto, Missouri, found a car wash. The do-it-yourself kind, where you hold a sprayer, put money into a machine, dial if you want soap or polish or just water or whatever. For the next twenty minutes I sprayed the car. Huge slabs of wet concrete slid off. I crawled partway under the car, sprayed underneath. And that was a forceful spray. Four minutes worth for only two bucks. I spent eight bucks. Got off all the concrete I could.  
     Then we hit the highway, headed back home. "I think we're okay," I tried to tell myself, but not believing it. Especially with the car feeling suggish. Ten minutes later the car began to vibrate when I hit 50 mph. It was a long, torturous ride home, never getting any smoother. And every mile of the way I knew I was doing more and more damage to the car. I could feel that ugly mixture grinding its way deeper and deeper into my Honda's soul. 
     Finally, after what seemed like hours creeping along the highway, we arrived home. I spent another half hour with the garden hose, sprayed more gray chunky goo from under the car. All the while thinking, I should have, I should have. I called the service station near me, told him what happened. They were just closing up. "Bring it over Monday morning," he said. "We'll knock that concrete out of there." That gave me a bit of a lift to carry me through the weekend.
     Come Monday morning, it was on the lift at the station. "Wow," said the guy. "Never seen anything like that before. I can't do anything." He gave me the address of a car repair place that maybe could do something. They couldn't. The guy at that place looked at the car, bent over, said, "I don't know. It'll take a lot of work." I asked how much, rough idea. "Oh, four, five thousand. Don't hold me to it, though."
     I didn't. I drove home with a heavy heart, an upset stomach, an approaching migraine, and a sadness brought on by the certainty that my Insight was running its last miles. It was. By the end of the week, the insurance company, reading the report from one of their car repair shops, gave me the bad news. It had been totaled. Repairs, if possible, were estimated at $6000 and climbing. Which meant I could take their payment - 75% of market value - and they'd have the car carted off for scrap. Or I could take a little less payment, keep the car and take care of the repairs. The guy at the repair shop said, "It'll never be right. That estimate will go higher. We wouldn't know until we take everything apart."


They kept the car. I took the payment. I drove a rental for a week, a Chevy SUV, twice as big as my late, great Honda. I'm in the market for a car now. A used car. Here's what I'm thinking. Maybe this concrete episode was a sign. My first car was a convertible. A 1956 Chevy Bel Air. All my other cars that followed were convertibles: '60 Corvette, '65 Olds Jetstar, '72 Dodge Dart (one of the worst cars I ever owned), kept the Olds for a long time, then an '88 Mazda RX-7. I kept that until 2004. And have been without a convertible since then.
     So the answer is obvious. It might be time for a convertible. Maybe something good has yet to come from that unfortunate day in Blackwell, Missouri. Great name for a town, right? Blackwell. I don't plan to return anytime soon. Unless I find a really good deal on a used convertible there. Like a '60 Corvette for under five thousand dollars. 

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.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Pay Attention

The ancient Roman poet Ovid listed Four Ages of Man: Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron. From where I sit, it looks like we are now living in the Age of Distraction. Admittedly not a metal but an important component of our society. We have available to us an endless array of devices that feed us information, entertainment, and the only means of keeping in touch with our kids.

No, I’m not going to bore you with my views on social media. Even though much of it isn’t social. What’s on my mind today is Conversation. The old-fashioned kind, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. With no distractions. 

Here’s what brought this to mind. Recently my wife and I had Sunday brunch with another couple at a local restaurant. I emphasize “restaurant” because it was not a “sports bar.” However, this restaurant was festooned with TV screens. On the walls, hanging from the ceiling. The other couple are long-time friends. They’re trying to sell their house after 35 years accumulation of stuff. (He has over a thousand movies on videotape, which he wants to keep.) She, on the other hand, is not a pack-rat. So there was much to discuss and resolve.

As we sat there, I found my eyes drifting over to one of the many Hi-Def monitors. A football game was on. I didn’t know who was playing. I really didn’t care. But there were large, helmeted men in colorful outfits knocking each other to the ground and stomping on them. How can you not watch that? I bounced in and out of the conversation. I struggled to maintain eye contact. My attention kept shifting back to one of the screens, hoping to catch a long pass or a remarkable run or even the cheerleaders cheering.   Before I knew it, brunch was over, and we never did resolve what to do with his videotapes. 

There  must be a new category of Interior Designer for restaurants. Call it Strategic Screen Placement Director. First prerequisite: Put a screen in every line of sight. So wherever the customer sits, they can still catch all the action. The “Post-Installation” phase of this service is also critical. Selecting which screens carry baseball, hockey, figure skating, the Final Four, the Triple Crown, the Masters, Wimbledon. And how about that delightful sport called Extreme Boxing? The “no rules” version, where guys use their feet, their fists, their heads, even their teeth and bad breath as weapons of pain. It reminds me of the “Mad Max” movies.

I understand the concept of a Sports Bar. You need lots of screens for that. But why does a restaurant think we need continuous entertainment? My favorite Chinese restaurant installed a really huge screen last year. It rivals the Galaxy IMAX. You can see it from everywhere, even the parking lot. What little atmosphere they had is gone. As I enjoy my egg foo young or curry shrimp, I find myself hanging on “the next play,” hoping they sink the putt or slash a single to right. You’d think they could at least show scenes of a Yangtze River Cruise, a hike along The Great Wall, even Ching-He Huang on the Cooking Channel.

I miss the fine art of uninterrupted conversation, of minimum distraction from your food and your partner. If not a lost art, then one that is quickly disappearing. Of course I’m talking about most mid-level and below restaurants, the kind I usually patronize. Your upscale joints may have one screen in the bar. Probably not, if they’re really upscale (aka expensive). The only distraction may be the bill.

Next time you go out, take this test. No pencil or paper required. Simply focus on the menu, the waiter, the food, the beverage of choice, and - most importantly - the person seated across from you. Whether you’re talking or listening, make every effort to maintain eye contact. You can do it, but it won’t be easy. Especially if the bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth. 

(Originally published in County Living Magazine, Winter/Early Spring, 2016)