Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Red Rubber Ball

The small knife blade pressed against Josh's side. He dropped his briefcase and exhaled a heavy breath that pierced the chilly air. After recovering from a brief blackout, Josh raised his arms without being instructed. Meanwhile, he internally cursed himself for deciding to take a shortcut through the alley rather than simply circumvent the sidewalk under construction on Central Ave.

"Give me your life," said the man in the graying beard, tatty wool cap, and prominent diagonal scar across his left cheek.

"What do you mean?" Josh asked. His feet shuffled atop the storm grate below.

"I mean gimme' your goddamn life." The man grasped Josh's blazer collar with his idle hand. The cell phone bounced about Josh's breast pocket.

Josh reached behind him and wrested his wallet from his back pocket. He opened it and pulled out cash. "Seventeen bucks. That's all I got."

The man snatched the bills and tossed them behind him. "Fuck the money, man. Money ain't nothing. I want what else is in the wallet." The blade pressed harder beneath Josh's kidney.

"What else? What else? Credit cards? My damn library card? What?"

"Got any pictures?"


"Yeah. Pull out your pictures."

Josh struggled to squeeze his finger and thumb behind his driver's license. He yanked out a photograph of himself, his pretty wife, and young son; the family posed in front of a handsome house. It was the kind of photo that's mass produced and inserted in frames in retail stores.

The blade gradually drew from Josh's side. Steam from the attacker's pulsating breaths framed his eyes, which homed in on the photo. "You owe me that, man. You owe me that."

Josh chuckled nervously. "Is this some kind of prank?" The blade pressed harder beneath his kidney again. "Shit. I don't know what you're asking."

The man released his grip on Josh's collar, leaving greasy fingerprints. Then he stuck his finger in his captive's face. "Fifteen years ago you dropped a quarter. That's why you owe everything to me."

A smile crept across Josh's face. "Jesus. You're kidding me. Right? A quarter? Listen. I don't know what you're up to but I could probably just kick you in the balls right now and run. And what is that tiny thing you're threatening me with? A pocket knife? You'd barely wound me. Tell you what. How about you just take the money on the ground and let me be on my way?" He shook his head and chuckled again.

The man began to shudder in frustration and barely contained anger. The blade repeatedly poked Josh's side as though it were telegraphing unintelligible Morse code. "I said fuck the money, man. You ain't listening to me. Twenty one years ago you were walking down Euclid St. I was walking behind you. A quarter fell from your pocket and I picked it up and spent it at Fred's Corner Market."

"Well, it sounds like it's you who owe me money then."

"Shut the hell up." The knife continued to poke. "I bought a rubber ball out of the machine by the counter. A red one. Later that day I was bouncing it down by Bentleyville Creek. It hit a rock and went over the bank and into the water. I went after it but I tripped and fell into the creek. Never learned to swim. I nearly fuckin' drowned. For months afterwards I was afraid to death of water. Was afraid to take a bath. I became the smelly kid. Got called all kinds of shitty names at school. Girls paid me no mind. That got into my head, man. Years later, out on my own, I was never right. Made decisions some might call bad ones." He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "You know, I always hoped that someday you and me would meet in a back alley. What are the chances, huh? Now it comes full circle. If you hadn't of dropped that quarter, I wouldn't have ended up like this. That's how I see it," the man said through gritting teeth.

Josh's eyelids had begun to quiver. His own heavy breaths warmed the bottom of his nose. "What ever happened to the red rubber ball?"

"What the hell does it matter?"

"Please, just tell me what happened to it."

The man sneered. "What do you think? It got away. Floated down the river."

Josh began to slowly move his arm upward. The man pressed the shaking knife harder on Josh's side, but Josh was not affected. Josh reached underneath his dress shirt and pulled out a red rubber ball -- a hole drilled in the center -- that hung from a gold chain. The man's eyes widen. The blade eased off Josh's side. "That quarter was meant for the pay phone to call my mother," Josh said, rolling the ball between his fingers. "I was going to tell her I love her, and say goodbye. I didn't bother asking anyone for another quarter. Instead, I walked alone down by the creek. I was going to do it there. But first I prayed for a sign, for anything, to make me change my mind. And this red rubber ball came floating down the creek." He released the ball and it bounced off his sternum. "My middle name is Red."

A growl emanated from the man's throat as he jammed his knife against Josh's neck. The knife, however small, now seemed as threatening as a sword -- a wrist flick away from severing an artery. Josh closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose as the blade pierced the top layer of skin. A drop of blood seeped down to Josh's collar. The man began to shake profusely, nervous yet excited about retribution. He bent his legs and leaned in closer as the blade rattled in his hand, more and more as he prepared to leverage his total strength into a death swipe. The cell phone in Josh's breast pocket buzzed. The man gasped and dropped the knife, which fell through the storm grade below.

Josh's mother was calling to tell him she loved him too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Raised on Boring Workaholic Athletes Who Happen to be Super White

The field correspondent from ABC’s Good Morning America asked 10-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I saw my reflection in the lens of the hulking television camera bearing down from above; I had a burly moustache and spit chaw, while clad in mid-80’s Phillies home pinstripes. All I needed was about twelve more years developing glove-wizardry while harnessing the hand-eye coordination and colossal raw power to lead the National League in home runs eight times and earn an NL MVP nod three times. 

"I want to play third base for the Philadelphia Phillies," I answered.

I wanted to be Mike Schmidt because I grew up emulating Mike Schmidt. I grew up emulating Mike Schmidt because he was my father’s favorite baseball player. He was my father’s favorite baseball player because he was the best player on his favorite team. He also embodied the default benchmarks that typified my father’s favorite athletes: he was boring and a workaholic who “played the game right.” 

Why was Good Morning America interviewing me? I was chosen as South Williamsport Area Grade School’s “Whiz Kid of the Year” and was invited to the White House to meet Ronald Reagan with other northern Pennsylvania “whiz kids”. Psyche! My Little League team was coached by a gentleman named Fred Heaps, who had been coaching Newberry Little League teams for nearly 40 years at that point. His most notable achievement was leading a local team to the Little League World Series in 1969. More importantly, he was known for doing kindhearted things like buying baseball gloves for kids who couldn’t afford them, or reminding his teams that he loved them, win or lose. What I remember most about him was how he preached “fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals,” and giving me a quarter for answering “Tony Gwynn” when he asked who was the purest hitter in the major leagues. ABC put together a piece on Fred Heaps, which aired during the MLB All-Star break in 1988. Coach Heaps passed away two years later, during my final year as a little leaguer.

Goddamn, I miss little league.

I read Mike Schmidt’s autobiography Clearing the Bases: Juiced Players, Monster Salaries, Sham Records, and a Hall of Famer's Search for the Soul of Baseball (ahem) a few years ago. Schmidt lays bare the lack of fun that accompanied his 18 years with the Phillies, from ’72-’89. Essentially, Schmidt put such incredible pressure on himself to be an elite player that he had tremendous difficulty squeezing enjoyment from playing the game. To the detriment of all life’s simple pleasures, his priority was training his body, and developing the mindset, to consistently be at peak potential. The theater of baseball was for the birds. Schmidt didn’t insult the pitcher, or the game, by brazenly flipping the bat after crushing a ball that would clearly sail high over the left-center fence, as Yasiel Puig does today. He didn’t take an hour and a half to leisurely trot around the bases after a home run, as David Ortiz has trademarked. He wasn’t known for childish off-field antics prompting observers to say, “oh well, that’s just Schmidt being Schmidt,” such as whenever Manny Ramirez pulled a boner and the world muttered a collective, and exhausted, “ugh, that’s just Manny being Manny.” (For purposes of supporting the premise, I’m excluding rumors that Mike Schmidt used cocaine during his playing days, or the time he was a guest Phillies color commentator and sprang an off-handed joke about beating his wife. Schmidt’s career has never been typified by drug rumors or “Manny Moments” so I think it’s okay to omit such from the conversation.)

Mike Schmidt the baseball player was exciting. He hit majestic home runs. He was a wizard with the glove as a third basemen. He was one of those generational players who had the capacity to pull off something dramatic or extraordinary at any moment during a game. But Mike Schmidt the personality was boring. And my father loved him. Schmidt was Dad's kind of player. If Mike Schmidt the personality was the equivalent of a career, that career would probably be -- banker. My old man was a banker for the vast majority of his working life. And he was a damn good banker, too. He was promoted to VP of Sun Bank during that glorious ’01 fiscal season. In fact, one could argue that my father was the Mike Schmidt, or at least a Mike Schmidt, of the north central Pennsylvania banking industry; he never brashly flipped his suitcase or trotted a victory lap around the stanchions in the lobby for, ah, any reason that would cause a banker to celebrate. Well, he certainly was no Reggie Jackson. Reggie “Mr. October” Jackson was that flashy post-season world-beater who said things like “I didn’t come to New York (to become a Yankee) to be a star. I brought the star with me,” and “The only reason I don’t like playing in the World Series is I can’t watch myself play.” Sure, Jackson was a terrific player, but what sickening bravado! He should’ve just shut up and played the game, I tell ya'. He was a “turkey,” as Dad was/is prone to calling strutting athletes like Jackson. On the other hand, one of Mike Schmidt’s notable quotes was “Anytime you think you have the game conquered, the game will turn around and punch you right in the nose.” Now that’s modesty, boy. That’s the mindset of a guy who plays the game right. Now where’s my damn briefcase and penny loafers; I gotta’ get to the office and crush a barrel-load of paperwork.

The Phillies' third basemen retired in 1989. About this time people began to notice that I was somewhat rangy for my age. Of course, no expression of my height was without the obligatory “You should play basketball.” So I did, honing what skills I had at the local playground. I also became a fan of the NBA. I hitched my fandom on to my father’s favorite basketball player, Larry Bird. Larry Bird was about as boring a basketball player as could be. I mean, he was exciting, in that he was dominant on the court. But he was boring in the sense that he didn’t finish fast breaks with a tomahawk jam, or hop on the scorers’ table and strike a triumphant pose, or spit catchphrases after the game. Bird? He finished fast breaks by laying the ball off the glass, energized fans by burying turn-around mid-range jumpers, and treated the media like invading bacteria. In fact, the single existing clip of him dunking the ball has appeared ad nauseum on Larry Bird highlight reels. As a matter of fact, his most notable highlight was an otherwise lackluster steal of an inbounds pass; And… now there's a steal by Bird, underneath to DJ and lays it down... What a play by Bird. Oh my God. This place is crazy.

Larry Bird was born in the tiny farm community of French Lick, Indiana. His youth was dedicated to back-breaking manual labor, and, as far as Bird knew, would always be. Even when he accepted a scholarship to Indiana University -- one of the most decorated collegiate basketball programs in the county -- he bailed out when life at a big-time university proved too overwhelming. He later enrolled in the less prestigious Indiana State University basketball program, where he single-handedly took the Sycamores to the NCAA national championship game in '79. Even when Bird's father committed suicide, he was resolute -- kick ass on the court and remain discreet off of it. THIS GUY, my friends, was not only born to win NBA championships, but also to be one of my father's favorite athletes. 

Larry Bird's greatest foil on the court was -- no drumroll needed -- Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Bird and Johnson met in the aforementioned NCAA championship game, and again in the NBA championships 3 times. But the comparison delves so much deeper. Their nicknames alone are clue enough that a discerning mind would recognize which player my father would idolize. 

"Magic": Flashy. Gaudy. "Look at me, everyone."
"The Hick From French Lick": See word "Hick."

However, Magic was the perfect antithesis to Bird. Magic's team was the "Showtime" LA Lakers. Magic's cheesing mug was on billboards and television commercials. Magic bedded nearly as many women as he had amassed career assists. One the other hand, Bird's Boston Celtics mirrored gangly white working class schlubs in both appearance and attitude (yes, Robert Parish did, too). Off the court, Bird's face only appeared in his defender's nightmares. And I'm pretty sure Bird is still a virgin.

Okay, here's the example that perfectly epitomizes Dad's affection for Bird over Magic. While Magic was romancing one woman after another on velvet bedspreads, Bird was putting in his mother's driveway. As a result -- Magic got AIDS, and Bird got a chronic bad back. However, my father respects  Magic. The ex-Laker was, and is, a true professional and a stand-up human being (despite now being part-owner of the blasted LA Dodgers). But whenever Dad is outside on a chilly November morning, building a retaining wall or hauling dead trees, he is Larry "The Hick From French Lick" Bird, but in Dickies work pants and a flannel shirt. 

The other sport my father enjoys is football. His favorite NFL player should be exceedingly easy to guess.  (Dad doesn't pay attention to hockey. His head would explode trying to determine a favorite player because every NHL athlete is either Mike Schmidt or Larry Bird on ice skates, more-or-less. I bet Alexander Ovechkin would be the only guy off the table.) That player is Peyton Manning, duh. Dad has always been a diehard Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts fan, to boot. Peyton Manning is the stereotypical overachiever. His workaholic credentials are legend. In fact, he's such an overachiever that he's ripe for satire -- he shows up to training camp before Valentine's Day; he breastfeeds rookies (in public) until they're mature enough to put on pads on Week One; he's competed in the playoffs with a severed head. 

The Colt's vaunted starting quarterback sat out the 2011 football season due a faulty neck. That year, replacement quarterback Curtis Painter "led" the Colt's to a 2-14 record, ensuring Indianapolis the number one pick in the 2012 NFL draft. The team had since decided to draft a young college quarterback to replace a departing Manning, The two choices were obvious: Standford's la-de-da pocket passer Andrew Luck or Baylor's super-charged field general Robert Griffin III. Both were tremendous talents who had celebrated college careers. Both were also dedicated and hardworking athletes who were, by all accounts, respectful human beings. Dad liked them both. Prior to Draft Day he stated in an email to me "I'd gladly take either Luck or Griffin." Either player seemed fully capable of eventually returning the Colts to the Super Bowl. To Dad, the variables of the quarterback were irrelevant; leading the team to victory was paramount. However, all else being equal, I knew my father preferred Andrew Luck. Why? He was boring. Moreover, Andrew Luck looked and acted as though he were divinely born straight from Peyton Manning's rib. 

During the 2012 NFL season, Luck spearheaded a Colt's offense to an 11-5 record. RG3 did the same at the helm of the Washington Redskins. Both teams made the playoffs. That Thanksgiving, I was watching the afternoon football games at my parents' house with my father when a Subway commercial aired, starring a hamming-it-up Robert Griffin the Third. Dad grimaced and shook his head, and said "See now, that bothers me. This guy is only a rookie and he's doing television commercials." I reminded him that Peyton Manning has literally been in every other friggin' commercial for five years straight. I should've imagined his response; "That's right. But he's already won the Big One." Touche'.

I never grew up to be the baseball player in the camera lens. Sure, I could've grown badass sideburns and stuffed chew under my bottom lip, but I was destine not to be Mike Schmidt. As much as I daydreamed -- even if I'd tried like hell since I was a little leaguer -- I could never have become Reggie Jackon, or Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson, or RG3. I never wanted to be Peyton Manning -- he who sacrificed a puppy to Satan in exchange for a first-round playoff bye, or appeared in enough Starbucks commercials to gain membership into the Screen Actor's Guild.

I'm not upset that I never achieved my childhood dreams. Nevertheless, I do possess the capacity to build a retaining wall or haul dead trees. Hell, I suppose I could even lay a driveway if I really, really want to. In the minds of some, completing such chores is the everyman's version of winning the Big One.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Thunk Tank 3

Oh, it’s you again! I was just sitting here by the fireplace, lounging in this silk bathroom and puffing on this gaudy pipe. Here are a few random thoughts…

--Stacked on the magazine racks are copies of a Time Magazine special edition celebrating Prince George’s—the royal baby's— first birthday. Time Magazines special editions should be reserved for transformative figures like Maya Angelou, and life-changing events like 9/11. But a baby!? A baby makes no conscious decisions. Babies should be relatively boring to everyone but their parents—even royal babies. Babies do not deserve to be covered, or exploited, by Time Magazine. They deserve binkies and clean diapers; that's about it. And what's with the outdated notion of a "royal" family anyway? Can we please mature as a society and starting calling them what they are…those blasted Windsors down the street.

--Right now, somewhere on Earth, one kid is starving to death in a hut made of plywood and particle board, while another kid is programming the rec room DVR to record Man Vs. Food. A 5-year-old is choosing between begging for a handful of rice or stealing stale bread from the corner market, while a grown man is being paid handsomely to do battle against a 3 pound bacon double cheeseburger on a Kaiser roll.

I guess some are blessed while others are lessed.

--The give-a-penny take-a-penny jar is a fine idea on which to base a financial system, in theory. The problem is, somebody needs to give a penny first and expect nothing in return. Otherwise, the jar will be perpetually empty.

--Why do so many conservatives take such issue with progressivism? Do they not realize the United States of America itself is a result of arguably the greatest progressive experiment in the history of mankind, spearheaded by enormously progressive thinkers?

No progressivism=no America=no place to flaunt your handguns in a Denny's.

-On the Dr. Oz program the other day (don't ask) a so-called medium was so-called talking to the so-called dead and relaying the so-called messages to living family members in the audience. If you believe that ghosts are whispering vague details about themselves to the few with the gifted ability to listen, you probably search for The Sixth Sense in the documentary section. Mediums are clearly shysters using age-old tricks. Regardless, they're on network TV at 6:00pm on a Tuesday, manipulating the fragile emotions of desperate widowers and grieving daughters, and whatnot. How can rational networks executives, not to mention Dr. Oz, allow this? The antics perpetrated by mediums are exceedingly cruel, and shouldn't be gloried. Dr. Oz has plenty of reasons to be ashamed, and this is chief among them, unless, of course, he is delusional too. Who made this man a doctor?

--Rush Limbaugh is like a terrorist. If people talk about him, he wins. Shhh.

--The crisis at the border is disturbing, indeed. Those demanding that the children be deported back to war-town drug countries are, by-in-large conservatives, who are, by-in-large, the WWJD contingency. Would Jesus herd fearful 12-year-olds into cargo planes and unceremoniously dump them back into a netherworld in which 1 in 5 will be murdered by the henchman of drug lords. Probably not. But then again, maybe Jesus requires the proper paperwork.

--If religious indoctrination of children ceased tonight, tomorrow's world require far less missile defense systems.

Frankly, a person shouldn't be allowed to explore religious options until he's old enough to drink.

--Too often, political talking heads and opinion writers refer to "the Republics" doing this and that, or "the Democrats" believing this and that. Almost always, not all members of one political party agree with every other member of the same political party on any particular issue. This kind of generalizing has become too pervasive, and it's lazy. Even one of my favorite celebrity personalities, Bill Maher, will say something like, "Those crazy Republicans always blah, blah, blah." Not ALL of them. Name names. I believe that this political generalizing in the media only causes prejudices in less discerning minds. How do you think the asinine term "libtards" was born?

--Politically speaking, I prefer to consider each individual issue holistically and then 
choose a position, instead of tagging myself as Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, thus choosing a blanket position on all issues. 

The following is a bunch of religious stuff that bothers me. Caution: I'm going to belabor the point.
--Faith, by definition, is belief or trust in something that lacks logical proof, or despite evidence to the contrary. Do you realize some US lawmakers dictate policy via faith!? If I told you I had faith that a loose leaf notebook could halt a SCUD missile you'd shrug me off. That is, until I became an elected official and contracted Dunder Mifflin to build a coastline defense shield. 
How did Occam's Razor get so dull?

--A pastor on the radio said that God has a plan for all babies (the pastor noted that God especially has a plan for Christian babies. Go figure!) and He knows what the future holds. (Some babies are born with heroin addictions or faulty livers or, ah dead, but whatever.) If God has a plan for all babies
—thus He has a plan for EVERYONE—then free will doesn't exist. If free will doesn't exist, than the whole premise of God's judgment is void. However, if free will does exist—meaning that God doesn't interfere with mankind—then why bother praying.

--And enough nonsense about God only giving a person tribulations that he can handle. Is that what they tell the orphans in the burn unit?  

--A friend's Facebook post recently claimed that Christianity is a religion of peace, but Islam is a religion of violence. Apparently, this particular Christian has never read the Bible. Perhaps Muslims simply have the courage to follow through with the crazy nonsense their god Allah directs. Read the Bible, especially the Old Testament. I have. The Christian god advocates or decrees activity that would arouse a spirited thumbs up from Allah. (I bet those two drink at the same bar. Imagine Jehovah and Allah, tipsily swaying shoulder to shoulder and wailing Piano Man in a smokey pool room, or puckering their lips for high-angled selfies.)

Okay. Enough funny business. Grab your snatch whackers Christian foot soldiers, and start murdering those who work on the Sabbath, as God suggests. Or make sure rape victims marry their rapists, as God instructed. And keep slaves. Surely, you will rewarded in Heaven.

--When the God who tells Earthlings "Thou Shall Not Kill" is the same God who murders the entire Earth in a flood (recounted just a few pages into His autobiography), explanations are needed.

Consider this, many children are read First Bible Stories at bedtime. Right there on page two is the Noah's Ark story. That's literally one of the first stories a child learns, the most widespread mass murder in the history of the world, perpetrated by He who watches you sleep.

And what's more, page one is the Adam and Eve story. One of God's first bits of dialogue goes something like "don't eat of the tree of knowledge." Right of the bat, the divine judge, jury and executioner is warning the reader not to question anything in the following pages, or face eternal punishment. Heeelllooo.

The (what should be) obvious...

--You don’t need religion to be a good person. Regardless to whom you pray before bedtime, you shouldn't be loving, or giving, or sympathetic only to impress a feckless god.

However, many people are various sorts of assholes—Muslim or Christian or whatever—because the same feckless god clearly and concisely instructs (or at least strongly suggests) them to be.

ISIS; Hamas; Westboro Baptist Church; Al Qaeda; Michelle Bachmann..."Imagine no religion."

--The Pope is the one-man royal family of Catholicism. Sure, he rides around in a bullet-proof phone booth on wheels, lives in the penthouse (or, ah, "guest room") of a snow globe, and requests that you collapse to your knees and smooch the gaudy ring on his finger because he's a living god on Earth and all, yet…he's soooooo humble.

--Speaking of…Pope John Paul II is a saint now. Apparently, medical experts have verified that he orchestrated two miracles (conveniently, the exact number of verifiable miracles needed to become a saint) during his residency as pope. Now, either Pope John Paul actually conjured his papal powers to manipulate physics and broach the fabric of the cosmos to, what, heal a leper or something? Or, the so-called experts fudged the numbers to allow for sainthood? Which is more likely?
"Congratulations John Paul, you performed juuust enough miracles to become a saint…two."

If, in a lifetime of attempting to perform miracles, all you can pull-off are a measly two, maybe pope-hood just isn't in the cards.