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Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Tin Man Responds To The Parole Board

Will I kill again?

I don't know. A smoker quits cold turkey because his cigarettes are taken and kept for 43 years. After that long you'd think the urge to smoke would vanish. Then one day he's labeled as reformed. They toss a pack of Marlboro's in front of him and say "Be on your way friend." A week goes by. A year goes by. Hell, maybe only a day goes by. Would you be surprised if the reformed smoker unwraps the pack and lights up? He relives the ecstasy of inhaling. Pretty soon there's 20 butts singed butts in the ashtray. The cravings are back.

I was a mannequin in that forest for damn near a hundred years. Think 43 years in a maximum security penitentiary is a lifetime? A HUNDRED YEARS! My rusted body was a cell but my mind was perfectly lucid. Birds perched on my oil can hat and shat in my eyes. Squirrels burrowed through my corroded rivets and hibernated in my gut. The trees mocked me every day. They tossed apples at me like I was a dart board in a dive bar. "Why don't you chop us down," they'd mock. "Comon' tin woodsman, swing that ax." Just look at these goddamn apple dents. The best auto body repairman in the world wouldn't touch me with ten foot butane lighter. Trust me; years of submitting to a fellow convict who had his fun on me with a can opener during laundry duty was nothing compared to being frozen in that god forsaken forest.

I begged internally that my brain would oxidize. I couldn’t be so lucky. But then the orphan came skipping down the yellow brick road, that clumsy scarecrow in tow. She rapped on my chest, the little brat. That shit hurt. Then she greased my joints. My body awakened from a coma. I could move again! She greased my mouth. The taste of fresh air was nearly recognizable. But when my fingers curled around that axe handle the urge to split every damn thing in that forest coursed through me. Just start fuckin' hackin’. But I couldn’t. The orphan’s voice was so soothing. Emotions rushed back. I wanted to hug her for saving me. I wanted to kiss her on the check for freeing me. I was so ecstatic I did a dance, and sang about an urge to love. I even banged my stomach and tooted my oil can hat. I only ever did that on holidays when the kids were around. When the orphan said I could join her and the scarecrow on a journey to a wizard who could grant me a heart, I nearly blew my bolts.

A wizard who could grant me an honest-to-goodness heart? Huh! The world would’ve been better off had I stood between two industrial junkyard magnets that day.

You know most of what happens next. The heart I was promised—the heart I risked my life for when I assaulted a guardsman and stole his wardrobe to sneak into a castle and help murder a witch—was nothing more than a clock. A fucking plastic clock on a chain! I had half the mind to cleave the wizard’s head the second he handed me that hunk of shit. Of course, I acted thankful. If I wanted to wake earlier than the flying monkey crows I’d be fine, but if wanted to love...

I did want to love.

That orphan got a ride from Oz all the way back to the states. On a fucking hot air balloon! Who travels like that? What’s more, she actually tells that blundering scarecrow that she’d miss him most of all. I was standing right fucking there! If the heart were real, it would’ve shattered. The dimwitted lion didn’t catch the subtle kick in the lug nuts.

After the wizard and orphan scrammed and all the merrymaking ceased I was on my own again. I wasn't even offered a carriage ride back to the forest, let alone on a damn balloon. By the way, the horse of a different color is bullshit brown six days a week, but I digress. I walked back to the forest, alone. I'd mention how many hours it took but the damned heart clock stopped ticking. I tossed the fucker into a ravine.

Do you know where I ended up? I walked back to the only place I recognized, where I was frozen all those years. After everything, you'd think I'd finally unleash my frustration by hacking to hell those trees that bullied me. But I didn't. I was so letdown I didn't have the motivation. When you're convinced you're getting a real heart, especially after all I went through, and then you get bamboozled…

I wanted a goddamn heart so bad.

I stood in the exact same spot, in the exact same position. And I waited. I could hear the young lovers merrily skipping down the yellow brick road. Of course, they noticed the poor immobile tin woodsman, and stopped to take a good close gander. The fella' was wearing a letterman sweatshirt. The lass smelled like a strawberry milkshake. I remember it so well. When she leaned in to knock on my chest, I lunged. "Tiiimberrr," I yelled. The next few minutes are a blur. When I came to I was standing over her body, a big fucking hole in her chest. I held her bloody heart in my hand. It was so warm and squishy. Finally, a real heart. Finally, I could love. The boyfriend had fainted. He woke up screaming like a pussy. I pried the ax from her chest and went to work on him too. Twice the heart, twice the love.

Will I kill again?

If you unlock my cell and say "Be on your way friend," my first stop will be at Home Depot to purchase an ax. I'm a woodsman. Then I'll return to the forest and hold that ax. A week will go by. A year will go by. Hell, maybe the rest of my free life will go by. But I already got stained teeth and black lungs, boys. If you release me back into this cruel world, you best pray I resist the urge to light up again.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Baby's First Outing

In my son’s baby scrapbook there’s a blank page with the heading “Baby’s First Outing.”
My wife had given birth to our son Uri 18 months earlier. Along with the joy of being a new parent is equal amounts of dread. For the first 2 weeks of Uri’s life on Earth I constantly had images in my head of all the things that could go wrong: I imagined holding him and getting my foot caught on the corner of a rug and he goes flying out of my arms, or I'm unknowingly feeding him a bottle of rotten formula. So for the first 2 weeks of his life all I did was keep safe and sound in his bassinet and stare down at him.
But after a while things were getting a little dull. Kait and I decided it was time to get out of the house. We decided that baby’s first out would be to…The Monroeville Mall. But for me the allure was that it low risk. We decided I’d drive Kait’s car to the mall. So we dressed Uri in his little dinosaur hoodie with the spikes on the hood, and strapped him into his baby seat, which is built like a Sherman Tank. Off we went. 

I live in Greenfield next to Squirrel Hill. The on-ramp to 376 there is a steep decline to a stop sign where you have to stick your head out the window and look BEHIND you and wait for a gap in the cars passing at 55 mph and then gun it and weave into traffic. On the way to the intersection I'm driving as though I'm taking the driver's test. I'm putting my blinker on a half mile ahead of time and going about 15 mph. Basically, I’m driving like a geezer. I finally get to the ramp. I've managed this ramp probably a thousand times in my life without incident. I stop at the stop sign and look behind me into ongoing traffic and wait until I have a chance to pull out. When I do I gun it. But when I look forward we're careening toward a black minivan that I hadn't noticed was waiting on the ramp ahead of me. In that moment it's not my life that flashes before me, but Uri's. And it's just 2 weeks of lying in a bassinet and being stared at.
The collision wasn’t even a fender bender. But my wife immediately exploded. "My car!" And I said, "The car? What about that baby?" We’d taken so many car rides alone that she’d momentarily forgotten we had a newborn with us. "Uri! I swear if you hurt my baby…rah, rah, rah." She was tearing into me. I had to go out and talk to the driver of the van who was also bitching at me. I apologized and told her I screwed up blah blah blah. Meanwhile cars are beeping and driving around us on the ramp to get onto the highway. Eventually, the minivan drives away and I get back into my car. By this time, Kait is on the phone with the 911 dispatcher. She is taking turns between yelling at me and describing the baby's condition. "He looks okay but I can't tell…If you hurt my baby…Send paramedics…If you hurt my baby…"
I had to pull onto the highway and get off the next exit literally 50 yards away, and we're right back in Greenfield.  Meanwhile Kait is still yelling at me "We're not supposed to move the car because his neck might move. Oh my god Matt if you hurt my baby..."
I pull to the side of a residential street only about 5 blocks from our own house. Kait is still letting me have it and I'm trying to get a look at Uri. So we're waiting along the road and by this time it's getting dark outside. Finally, a cop car pulls up, lights flashing like crazy. I get out and talk to him. My neighbors notice the flashing lights and start coming out onto their porches to check out the scene. The cop is talking into his shoulder and I’m nervous as hell.
After a little longer the paramedics show up, lights flashing like crazy. More of the neighbors come to their windows or walk unto their porches. Kait is still in the back seat. And I'm just standing there on the sidewalk watching and wanting to shrink.
Then a fire truck shows up, lights flashing like crazy. Now, cops, paramedics and fire men are mulling about. This is a neighborhood event now. I honestly half expected the KDKA helicopter to come hovering overhead.
It's pretty dark now and I'm watching the paramedics checking Uri's vitals. They’re putting a stethoscope on his chest and checking his pulse in his neck. The neighborhood audience is watching along with me. The whole time Uri is sleeping. I'll never forget his little face, disappearing and reappearing in all the flashing lights. His little dinosaur spikes are coming and going too. The poor kid had no idea of the commotion around him. And in that moment I never felt smaller. Never. A whole ten days into being a parent and on our FIRST trip out the front door I already thought I managed to give my baby whiplash, or worse. And whole world around me knows I am the one squarely to blame.
I snapped out of my trance when the first cop on the scene started talking to me. "Mr. Bower, your baby seems perfectly fine. Please sign the medical report and we can all go home." So I signed the medical report and the cop gave me a copy. And then the cop said to me, "Hey. When I first got here I mean to ask you about the driver of the other vehicle? The dispatcher said your wife was ready to kill up the other driver." I said "No. She wanted to kill me."
Once everyone dispersed we drove straight home. Once there, I held all 9 pounds of my son in my arms. And for the first time I felt he was safe right where he was.
As a footnote: If you open Uri's scrapbook to the page with the headline "Baby's First Outing", there's isn't a description of a nice night at the Monroeville Mall, there's a copy of a medical report.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

7 Questions for the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Season

Despite a wildly successful 2013 campaign that treated Bucco Nation to the first winning season—and playoff appearance—in twenty years, questions still abound two weeks prior to Opening Day. The Pittsburgh Pirates seemed poised for a legitimate postseason push again this summer. But sometimes a can of corn turns out to be a bucket of shit, with the handles on the inside.

1.      Was the entire 2013 a “wag the dog” scenario?
In other words, was the entire 2013 season staged? Were fans treated to a fake winning season to divert attention from owner Bob Nutting’s frugality, or the horrendous breakdowns in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012? Were spectators at PNC Park watching holograms of ball players, and wins scripted by writers? Was Root Sports telecasting a kind-of WWE event, or “sports entertainment”? Does Andrew McCutchen actually exist, or is he just the concocted protagonist in a sick fantasy conjured by the puppeteers in the luxury suites? Are these questions being asked facetiously? Sadly, no.

2.      Who will be the first baseman on Opening Day?
Despite GM Neil Huntington not acquiring a bona fide first basemen in the offseason, the general consensus is that the team does, in fact, need a warm body to fill the position. Unfortunately, a platoon of an uninspiring Gaby Sanchez and pseudo-prospect Adam Lambo seems a lackluster solution. But still, a living, breathing human being should be in the general vicinity of the bag when the Bucs are in the field. Rumor has it that management is toying with the notion of cutting first base from the payroll altogether, and paying the batboy minimum wage to retrieve errant throws from the dugout. The notion would make Dick Groat roll in his grave, and Dick Groat aint’ even dead yet. Hey! Wait a minute…

3.      Will the defensive shift hurt or help the outfield?
Jose Tabata has gained weight steadily since his rookie year. The right fielder has suggested to manager Clint Hurdle that the outfield should shift so dramatically to the left, regardless of the batter’s spray chart, that the new alignment would virtually position Tabata seven feet from the Nathan’s Hot Dog stand. Okay, the word “virtually” was typed in jest; Tabata will be housing weiner dogs rather than taking bad routes to fly balls.

4.      Will Burnett sign with the Pirates?
This question is posed by the same people who think Obama wasn’t born in the US, or that the US government used remote control planes to crash into the Twin Towers, or that flash-in-the-pan pitcher Jeff Locke is ticketed for an All-Star career.  Face it people.  Burnett signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. His contract looks just as legit as Obama’s birth certificate, which means there is a 50-50 chance that Burnett has not signed with the Philadelphia Phillies.

5.      Will Pedro Alvarez strike out 2,794,704,087 times in 2014?
That number seems high, but if you include spring season at-bats, I think we’re in the ballpark. 

6.      Is the Pirate Parrot responsible for the recent string of heroine deaths in the Pittsburgh region?
Connoisseurs of both baseball and opiates recall that the Pittsburgh drug trials of the 1980’s brought media attention and shame to several high-profile baseball players who were outed as drug abusers. Humorously enough, the Pirate Parrot was the pusherman. I’m not necessarily suggesting that the famed mascot has returned to his former illegal habits. However, the sharp uptick in heroine use on the streets combined with several eye witness accounts of a white powdery substance on the Parrot’s beak, a TMZ video of the Parrot sunbathing with 15 scantily-clad Swiss models on his newly purchased schooner, and the recent announcement that the popular hotdog gun has been re-titled the smack gun—which the Parrot will use to fire several ounces of “pure” to lucky fans during the 3rd inning break—really makes you wonder.

7.      Will the Pirates have another winning season?
If by “winning” you mean having scored more runs than the opposing team at the conclusion of 9 innings of play, and having accomplished that feat more than 82 times. And by “season” you mean season. Then yes, the 2014 Pirates are playoff bound again. Let's Go Bucs!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

An Idol Unto Yourself

Trying to snatch a bird with bare hands is a fool's errant. I tried repeatedly as a kid. I'd spot a swooping swallow and run toward it full throttle in hopes of plucking it mid-air. God that was stupid. As I aged my methods evolved. I'd stand in a field and hold a granola bar above my head. I figured if I stood still as a scarecrow a bird would eventually investigate the bait, and I'd grasp my prey as it pecked on a salty nut. No dice, duh. Finally, I employed the ol' box propped up with a stick attached to a string contraption. I almost ensnared a blue jay once. He narrowly escaped. I was so dang close.

A therapist observing my fruitless efforts would surely conclude that I was a boy destined to chase unobtainable dreams. He'd write on his tablet "Hopeless. He'll reach for the stars—first on tip toes, and then he'll try a ladder, then a cherry picker, then a spaceship... Silly boy." The margins of the notepad would inevitably be cluttered with doodles of stick figures and spirals drawn by a bored mind.

Just another silly boy?  

I did catch a bird. One day a robin with a gimp leg hobbled about the front yard. I simply strolled up to the defenseless birdie and cupped its enfeebled body with my relatively massive adolescent hands. Here was a creature gifted with the boundless capability of flight nestled in my palms. I could've squashed it like a meat-filled ravioli. Instead, I simply released the poor thing into the nearby woods (where it likely suffered an agonizing death from starvation, but that's not the point).

This silly boy had accidently caught his dream.

He also learned a valuable lesson that has aided him deep into adulthood: Struggling tirelessly to catch a dream is a fool's errand, indeed. Instead, stay alert for the moment a crippled version of your dream staggers within reach, and then pounce at your leisure. Was I ever seriously going to become a star third basemen for the Philadelphia Phillies, as I imagined as a Little Leaguer? No. But I can create and control a badass ball player on MLB's The Show who the automated fans will adore. How about a future astronaut who floats around the cosmos like Buzz Aldrin? Hah. However, the Union County Fair has one of those puke-inducing spinning zero-gravity rides. Hope to become the President of the United States? Sorry, bud. Nonetheless, there's scant competition if your aim is to be elected the inaugural president of the Stephen Baldwin Fan Club.

Go ahead and chase dreams if the rubber stamp movie heroes or billboard song choruses seduce you. Eventually your legs will fatigue and you'll crumple alongside High Hopes Highway. Stay there. When the muscles atrophy the brain soars. Dopamine chugs between receptors like a freight train. Real life happens between the white line and the guard rail, anyway. Here is where laughter doesn't fade into mile markers passed, the spinning celestial plane sets the beat to a rhythmless dance, and a baby tossed straight up in the air can be caught when he returns to Earth a man in your likeness. And if a maimed bird limps into your personal space, you’re an idol unto yourself.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Grand Canyon State of Mindlessness

SB1062 permits the "exercise of religion." The second article of SB1062, which currently sits on Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's desk awaiting a signature, defines the "exercise of religion" as the "practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief , whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief."
I'm surprised the obvious gets scant mention: SB1062 literally allows any citizen legal justification of ANY CRIME. I understand the law is meant to primarily allow businesses and wedding photographers to withhold services from the LGBT community, but one could argue that ANY act is motivated by a genuinely held religious belief.
Basically, SB1062 allows fundamentalist Christians--clearly who the law is meant to appease--legal justification to own slaves (Exodus 21), kill those who work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31), kill non-virgins who marry (Deuteronomy 22), kill children of sinners (Ezekiel 9), among a slew of other travesties. For instance, a jealous husband harboring bloodlust could repeatedly stab his wife's secret lover, provided the victim had ever mowed his lawn on a Sunday. The defendant's savvy attorney could highlight Exodus 31 and declare that his devout client was merely serving god's commandment.
Legal chaos awaits.
If Arizona adopts SB1062, the Grand Canyon state must also adopt the golden rule--treat others as you would like to be treated--as the official state religion.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Divine Blesssing or Dumb Luck: The Matilda Dilemma

"Lucky" is the secular word for "blessed."

According to, and to believers I'm sure, to be blessed means to be "favored divinely or by a supreme being". But to be lucky simply means you won the coin flip.

Luck is largely predictable. If a blindfolded pedestrian crosses a busy highway during rush hour and manages to arrive at the other side safely he should consider himself damn lucky. However, if said pedestrian has a death wish and tries the same feat a second time the law of percentages dictates he will very likely be crushed by a passing sedan. The pedestrian isn't unlucky, necessarily, just ignorant. Now, if that same blindfolded pedestrian attempts to cross a backwoods country road at 3am and is lambasted by a cement truck, he would be damn unlucky.

Determining what distinguishes a blessingspecifically what distinguishes a blessing from sheer luck requires more than applied mathematics. For example: Let's consider the fabricated case of Matilda. Matilda is a single mother struggling to raise three children. She works full time as a secretary for an accounting firm and somehow manages a part-time graveyard shift stocking shelves at Kmart. She struggles to put food on the table, pay her rent, pay her heating bill, buy birthday gifts for her children, etc. You know the story. Also, Matilda is a theist (believes god can intervene in earthly affairs).

One Thursday while Matilda is on a smoke break (she smokes because she is stressed) she notices a scratch-off lottery ticket adrift in the wind. She plucks it midair, scratches it with her sole quarter and identifies three matching pictures of burlap sacks imprinted with dollar signs. She's a winner!

Is Matilda lucky or blessed (or think she's blessed)to have unwittingly stumbled upon a winning lottery ticket? I think the answer depends on the size of the prize. If she wins one dollar, she's lucky, but minimally so. Same deal if she wins five dollars. But any prize of ten dollars or more buys bread and milk. Matilda feels genuinely lucky. $50? This could be the luckiest day of her life. $100? Matilda will retell the story of the lucky winning lottery ticket at water coolers and Thanksgivings for years. $200? $450? Hot shit! Matilda is one luc-kay gal! Or, is she blessed?

At what dollar amount, exactly, does Matilda's dumb luck become an honest-to-goodness "god shined on me today" blessing? We know Matilda's living/life situation. But degree matters: Is she relatively happy? Has she been simply "in a rut" these last few years, or is she completely desperate? Are the utilities in arrears? Rent? Have loan sharks ordered jack-booted thugs to feed her to a wood chipper because she defaulted on a back alley deal? Other variables are at play too: Are the kitchen cabinets or fridge bare? Is Christmas coming up? Did Matilda recently pray, "God, give me a break or I'm going to feed myself to the wood chipper?"

Most likely Matilda's answer to this dilemma will be a knee-jerk reaction; she'll know if she's lucky or blessed the instant her brain registers the dollar amount of her lottery winnings.

For the sake of argument I'll assume Matilda is: happy but not fulfilled, current on rent/utilities but living paycheck to pay check, raising three solid C students, not being stalked by hit men but might be being stalked by the weirdo mail clerk Chauncey who graciously offers the uneaten half of his tuna melt sandwich daily, etc. I'd peg the dollar amount at which a winning lottery ticket transitions from lucky to blessing at $500. If Matilda's situation were more hopeless, I'd drop my estimate as low as $50. If she were in a more desirable living situation I'd go as high as $5,000.00, or more. But on average, I believe that if Matilda happened upon a $500 winning lottery ticket she'd exclaim "Thank you Lord for the blessing."

The wild card factor in the equation is the free ticket prize. Matilda might consider herself marginally lucky for finding a lottery ticket that awards her a second chance at a cash prize, but feel bummed if said free ticket is a loser (or if the original ticket is a loser). Ultimately that scenario is a wash, if not a disappointment. But what if Matilda gets crushed by a meteorite while walking to the 711 to claim her free ticket?  That would make her extremely unlucky (or un-blessed perhaps—more on that later) regardless if the next lottery ticket on the roll is a ten million dollar winner. But if the meteorite lands three feet behind her (which is either extreme luck or blessing in-and-of itself) and the cashier rips off that ten million dollar ticket and hands it to Matilda, no theist would hesitate to claim that Matilda has experienced a blessing of the highest order.  

Believers in blessings need to congregate at a weekend retreat and determine a workable formula in which one can plug in the variables and deduce whether or not an incident is due to luck, or god's intervention.

Consider again if the result of the formula is a negative? What if Matilda's apartment burns down while she's scratching the film on a surprise ticket? If finding a one million dollar winning ticket and returning to an intact apartment equals a blessing, than surely finding a losing ticket and returning to a destroyed apartment equals an un-blessing. God raised Matilda's hopes by delivering a lottery ticket, but dashed Matilda's hopes when only two burlap bags imprinted with dollar signs revealed themselves. Plus, god burnt down Matilda's house. Unlucky? No. Unblessed.

Remember the science adage: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I think this should apply to the determination of blessings. If a positive incident is proclaimed to be a blessing, an incident "equally negative" should be proclaimed to be an un-blessing. (The same calculation should be applied to luck, albeit the dramatic takeaway is lacking.)  

If Matilda were not a theist, every incident--regardless of its likelihood--would be a measure of luck. Doesn’t that simply the equation immeasurably? And didn't your 5th grade math teacher always stress the importance of simplification?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Misjudging the Limits of Imagination

Too many people completely misjudge the limits of imagination. One overused phrase that bothers me is "Man, you can't make that stuff up." Normally this ridiculous observation is shared whenever a human interest story involving a far-fetched twist is highlighted by television news. Here's an actual news headline: GOOD SAMARITAN FINDS MISSING WEDDING RING IN BAG OF NURTOMAX DOG FOOD. 
If that unlikely story of the unwitting consumer finding the wedding ring buried in a bag of dry dog food was aired on the news (it probably was), somebody watchingif not the news anchor himselfwould inevitably declare, "Man, you can't make that stuff up."
YES. Yes, you CAN make that stuff up.
Crazier than the wedding ring/dog food story, right? Guess what? I made that stuff up.

The same lack of confidence in the left hemisphere of the human brain is on display many times during pivotal moments of high stakes sporting events. When Eli Manning marched the underdog New York Giants down field for the winning drive against the seeming invincible New England Patriots in Super Bowl 42, I guarantee some nitwit said "Man, even Hollywood couldn't come up with an ending like that."
Comon'. Dr. Stranglelove!? There Will Be Blood!? Even Rocky 5, for what it's worth.
I'm not a Hollywood screenwriter but let's say I scripted the following: Eli Manning's throwing arm is dismembered in a freak on-field blimp crash midway through the fourth quarter, but his shoulder is retrofitted with a makeshift robotic football-throwing cannon during the commercial break before he orchestrates the game-winning drive. The ensuing Gatorade bath enchants Tom Coughlin with wizard-like powers, so he waves his playbook and conjures a portal to Narnia.
You might be willing to admit that my fabricated ending was more unlikely than Manning hitting Plaxico Burress on a fade route for the go-ahead score.
Come to think of it, a successful fade route is highly unlikely.