Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Predicting This Year's American Idol Using the Scientific Method

All across America, students are at this very moment competing in prestigious science fairs.  Parents have scoured the nation's Walmarts looking for a good deal on tri-fold poster board while their budding Pavlovs and Copernicusses try to come up with a clever title for their project, something like "Pop Goes the Weasel: The Effect of Microwave Ovens on Rodents."

Not to be outdone, I'm going to conduct my own experiment here using nothing but the most proven research methods and scientific processes to draw a completely random conclusion.


Materials: My television, the Internet, a firm grasp of the obvious.

Question: Which of this year's semi-talented singers will earn the most coveted title in Hollywood?

Background Information: For those of you who have been living under a rock or in North Dakota, American Idol is a television program where a panel of judges and the voting audience conspire to foist a modestly talented singer upon the American public.  Over the course of what seems like an eternity, a billion potential Idols are winnowed down to the top twenty-four survivors who then compete on live television where the viewing audience votes for their favorite.  Each week the lowest vote-getter is eliminated until eventually a winner is crowned.  This year, the final ten hopefuls are:

Aaron Kelly: Teenage kid from a broken home who sings about as well as the second best singer in your immediate family. 

Andrew Garcia: Hispanic dude from Southern California who has stolen Drew Carey's glasses for the competition.  Decent singer with a penchant for performing songs made famous by female divas.

Casey James: Surfer-looking guy whose shining moment so far was when Idol judge Kara Dioguardi told him to take off his shirt during his audition.  Entertaining rocker with mad guitar skills.

Crystal Bowersox:  I think she's from Boston, but that might just be because her name reminds me of the Red Sox.  Probably the best singer of the group, but seems to have a bit of an attitude and looks like she's one of the orphans from the show Annie.

Didi Benami:  Blond chick who's not as good-looking as she thinks she is. 

Katie Stevens: High school kid who is constantly being told by the judges, "You had some pitch problems this week."  Translation: She can't friggin' sing.                                                                       
Lee Dewyze: Aside from having the coolest name of all the Idol finalists, he's also the toughest to figure out.  Looks like a rugged biker-type but he's quiet and unassuming, almost shy.  For you football fans, think Tim Tebow.

Michael Lynche: Enormous black guy who looks like he could bench press Cleveland.  His wife had a baby during audition week, making this proud papa a sentimental favorite.

Siobhan Magnus: Quirky but talented, unbelievable vocal range, but not exactly what you'd call mainstream.  By far the most interesting personality in the group.

Tim Urban: Douchebag.

Hypothesis: This year's American Idol will be Lee Dewyze.  I know, it's kind of anti-climactic showing you my prediction this early in the project, but that is the format specified in the Official Federation of Science Fairs and Janitorial Supplies Rule Book (5th Edition).


1.  I have spent countless minutes watching video from previous seasons of American Idol and scouring the Internet for information on this year's performances.  I've watched every episode so far this season except for the week when I had something better to do.  I think it was trimming my toenails.

2.  Using the data I compiled through my extensive research and using the process of elimination as described below, I determined this year's American Idol champion.


1.  From watching previous seasons of Idol, I came to the conclusion that the best singer usually does not win.  There have been exactly two exceptions: Kelly Clarkson and David Cook.  Aside from that, the best singer rarely makes it even as far as the top three as evidenced by the early departures of Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson, among others.  Thus, Crystal Bowersox will not be this year's American Idol.

2.  No one who wears glasses has ever won American Idol.  This does not bode well for Andrew Garcia.

3.  Using the Chicken Little Dorkiness Postulate which states, "The most socially-awkward and dweeby contestant will hang around long enough to be annoying but won't crack the top five," I have determined that Aaron Kelly will not be the last doofus standing.  Incidentally, the Chicken Little Dorkiness Postulate is not to be confused with the equally valid Sanjaya Malakar Theory, which is "When a contestant comes along who is basically a parody of the human race and serves no purpose other than to be an intergalactic laughingstock, people will vote for him just as a joke."

4.  To be an American Idol, one must have a name that is easy to pronounce and not too difficult to spell.  This is supported simply by listing the names of past winners: Kelly, Ruben, Carrie, Fantasia (which would be trickier if not for the Disney movie), Taylor, Jordin, David, and Kris.  Therefore, this year's winner will not be Siobhan Magnus (I think her first name rhymes with "suburban" but I'm not positive).

5.  So far, every American Idol has fit a different profile.  Cute female pop artist, overweight black dude with a big voice, gorgeous country hick, black girl with an attitude, etc., etc.  I'm guessing that the Idol producers will work to ensure continued diversity among winners until they're faced with repeating a profile or crowning a Japanese midget with Tourette's Syndrome.  Anyway, since the "overweight black dude with a big voice" demographic was covered in Season Two by Ruben Studdard, Michael Lynche isn't winning this year.

6.  Guys who get votes based solely on their looks always survive longer than they should, but they never win.  This year there are two guys who fit into this category, Tim Urban and Casey James.  James is actually a good singer and guitarist and he looks like the guy in Nickelback.  Urban, on the other hand, is simply horrible and his big phony smile makes me want to punch him in the face. 

7.  We could just eliminate Katie Stevens using the "different profile" theory presented in step five, as she's simply a less-attractive and less-talented version of Kelly Clarkson.  But I'm choosing to go with the more scientific and intellectual reason she won't win, which is this:  Her singing sucks giant buffalo turds.

8.  It's a fact of life that all semi-attractive blond girls are virtually indistinguishable from one another.  Therefore, it is impossible for one of them to ever stand out in a crowd, which means that Didi Benami will disappear into Idol oblivion long before the finale.

Conclusion:  By process of elimination, Lee Dewyze is your Season Nine American Idol.

Additional Unrelated Observations:

Ellen Degeneres is fantastic.  Her quick-witted humor and good natured banter with the contestants are exactly what was needed to replace the drug-addled and obnoxious Paula Abdul.

Who's idea was it to have Miley Friggin' Cyrus serve as an Idol "mentor"?  Please.  Half the singers on the show are better than she is.  What's she going to tell someone like Crystal Bowersox, "Well, the first thing you need is a rich and famous daddy"?  Who are they going to get next, Britney Spears?


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Saturday, March 27, 2010

What Ever Happened To . . . Little Red Riding Hood?

Jessica Hood was a child of the streets.  They were dirt streets, since she lived in the forest, but these mean streets couldn't have been any meaner if they'd been located in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York City.  From the time she was just a baby, Jessica lived on the periphery of the criminal underworld.  Her father Robin was a local outlaw, burglarizing the homes of the upper class citizens in and around Nottingham County.  Robin Hood claimed he was a benevolent crusader for the underprivileged, simply "robbing from the rich to give to the poor," but that didn't fly with his victims or the local sheriff.  Mr. Hood was finally apprehended in 1983, convicted on 129 counts of burglary, and sentenced to death by hanging.  The sentence was carried out publicly in early 1984.

But back to Jessica.  Devastated by her father's death and unable to get along with her mother Marian who upon being widowed became a raging alcoholic and, to be honest, a bit of a whore, Jessica spent a lot of time at her grandmother's house.  Most mornings, Jessica could be seen pedaling her bicycle through the woods toting a basket of goodies, sporting her trademark crimson bonnet and cape.  This snappy outfit earned her the nickname "Little Red Riding Hood."

One morning in April of 1986, while en route to Granny's, Little Red Riding Hood was confronted by Oliver James Wolfe, or as he was known in law enforcement circles, The Big Bad Wolfe.  Through an amazing zoological coincidence, Mr. Wolfe was in fact an actual wolf and as such, he approached the sprightly Miss Hood with bad intentions in his heart.  Seeking at minimum to pilfer the girl's basket of goodies, which contained a dozen snickerdoodles, three cake donuts, a two-liter bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper and a strudel, Wolfe bared his teeth and snarled, "Hey, little girl, what's in the basket?"

To which young Jessica replied, "Ah, just some stuff for my grandmother.  I'm in kind of a hurry, though, so if you'll get out of my way, maybe I'll bring you a few cookies if there are any left over, 'kay?"

Wolfe was somewhat taken aback by Jessica's cool demeanor in the face of his intimidation tactics (not to mention her offer of leftover snickerdoodles), so he mumbled something like, "Um, okay, sure.  I'll be waiting over by the lake if you happen to come by later."  Jessica smiled kindly and pedaled off to Granny's.

A short while later, while sitting by the lake skipping stones, Wolfe was struck with a "what the hell just happened here?" moment.  Regaining his sense of entitlement and overwhelming thirst for the kill, he took off down the road and headed for the cottage of Darla Hood, former co-star of The Little Rascals [1] and Jessica Hood's grandmother.

Wolfe managed to arrive at Granny's before Jessica showed up, locked the old woman in the basement [2], threw on a nightgown and cap, and curled up in the bed.  When Jessica arrived, she entered the bedroom and noticed a certain inconsistency in the eyes, ears, and teeth of what she was slowly beginning to realize was an impostor.  A wolf in senior citizen's clothing, if you will.

Jessica managed to escape and contact the Nottingham County Sheriff who, after dragging his feet a bit when he found out the victim was related to his lifelong nemesis Robin Hood, arrested Wolfe on charges of trespassing and kidnapping.  Oliver James Wolfe was convicted and served two years in county prison. [3]

In 2002, at the age of 23, Jessica Hood opened a bakery called "Hood's Goodies" and for a while, her business thrived. She was known for her business savvy and firm control over her employees. As she told Good Housekeeping magazine in 2003, "Quality control and customer service are essential in the goodie industry.  Customers expect fresh, delicious baked goods served with a smile.  Every one of my employees is expected to maintain a high standard of professionalism and if they don't, well, they won't last long.  Just last year I had to fire the head of my pastry department for continually sticking his thumbs in the pies, if you can believe that.  There's just no room for that kind of behavior at Hood's Goodies."

The employee in question, Mr. Jack Horner, could not be reached for comment.

Despite the popularity and financial success of Hood's Goodies, Jessica became the subject of controversy in 2005. On September 23 of that year, the five-year old Dumpty Quintuplets (Bumpty, Frumpty, Lumpty, Mumpty, and Phil) stopped by the bakery to grab a few cupcakes to snack on before school.  Running low on supplies and behind schedule for a birthday cake order, the stressed-out Jessica cracked the five youngsters over the head, disemboweled them, and used their innards as ingredients in the cake batter. In a frenzy, Jessica beat them and whipped them and marked them with a B, and tossed them in the oven with no remorse whatsoever.

The distraught father of the quintuplets, who chooses to remain anonymous, released a statement through the family's attorney:

"My wife and I are devastated by the murder of our five children. What kind of a world do we live in, if kids can't go into a bakery without being scrambled to death? We're asking the citizens of Nottingham County to join us in the fight to protect children everywhere by making a donation to our foundation Five Good Eggs, which we've established in memory of our wonderful quintuplets."

Jessica "Red Riding" Hood was convicted of assault and bakery, and is currently serving a life sentence in Nottingham County Prison. She's occupying cell number B213 which, on a sentimental note, was daddy's old room.

 [1] Okay, Darla Hood died in 1979 at the age of 47, which kills my timeline, but you must admit you didn't see that one coming. 

[2] Some history books claim that Wolfe actually murdered and consumed Red Riding Hood's grandmother, but that account is pure fiction. As Wolfe would testify during the trial (Nottingham County. v. Wolfe, 1988) "I' ain't never ate a human in my life. Pigs, chickens, the occasional sheep?  Hell yeah, that's the food chain and I ain't gonna apologize for it.  But eat a human?  Man, you gotta be kiddin' me."

[3] A few years after his release, Oliver James Wolfe was back in court facing civil charges of destruction of property (Winchester L. Pigg, v. Oliver James Wolfe, 1992).  He lost, and was ordered to pay three million dollars in damages.  Since then, he's turned over a new leaf and is on the straight and narrow.  No one is afraid of him.


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Come Check Out My Sunday Roast Interview

Eddie Bluelights, the author of the outstanding blog "Clouds and Silvery Linings" has, in a moment of discombobulation, decided to interview me for his Sunday Roast feature.  I had a blast answering his questions, and I hope you'll all pop on over there to take a look.

Knucklehead Interview on The Sunday Roast

Meanwhile, I'm working on the latest "What Ever Happened To . . . " feature coming up tomorrow.  Here's the teaser . . . did you know that Little Red Riding Hood is related to one of the Little Rascals?

Okay, now go on over to visit Eddie Bluelights.  I mean it.



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Thursday, March 25, 2010

I'm Here For You, Sandra

Disclaimer:  Despite what you're about to read, there is only one love of my life, and that would of course be my wonderful Theresa.  I can't imagine being happier with anyone, and under no circumstances would I ever leave her for another woman, no matter who that woman would hypothetically be.  Even if this imaginary fantasy babe threw herself upon me, I would only scoff and send her on her way with nary a second glance.  That's just not the kind of man I am because, as I said, Theresa is the only one for me.

All right, now that we've got the "survival instinct" mumbo-jumbo out of the way, Sandra Bullock, if you're reading this, I'm here to mend your broken heart.

I've had a slight crush, and by that I of course mean "delusional obsession," on Sandy ever since I first saw the film Demolition Man.  Honestly, what's not to obsess over?  She's gorgeous, but in a real-life human being way, not the plastic-and-airbrushed-Pamela-Anderson way.  She seems like a sweetheart, kind of like Mary Ann and Ginger all rolled up into one breathtaking package.

And guess what, folks.  Looks like I just might be back in the running for Ms. Bullock's affections.

It seems that Sandra has been yet another casualty of a cheating dirtbag husband, the dastardly Jesse James.  You'd think that she would have been prepared for something like this, given Jesse's sordid history of train robbery, bank heists, and the shooting of innocent bystanders.  Remember the episode of the Brady Bunch where Jesse was Bobby's hero?  Well, Bobby learned his lesson after a terrifying nightmare illustrated just the kind of man Jesse James was.  A mean, dirty killer.

No, seriously, the Jesse James in question (Sandra's white trash husband) has apparently been having an affair with something called, and I'm not making this up, Bombshell McGee.  First of all, what the hell kind of name is that?  It sounds like a nickname that a Marine would be saddled with if he blew his hand off with a grenade.  "Hey, look!  Here comes Bombshell McGee!"

Bombshell is (surprise, surprise) a tattoo model and as such, barely qualifies to be a member of the same species as Sandra Bullock let alone a challenger for the poor woman's husband.  But, as a wise man once said, "De gustibus non est disputandum" (Translation: "Don't ask me what he sees in that skanky bitch"), and against all that is logical and decent, Jesse James discarded Sandy for 140 pounds of ink and bacteria.

I have to wonder what was going through Jesse's mind.  I mean, sure, men are by nature idiots and we've been known to make some really shit-brained decisions from time to time.  But screwing around on Sandra Bullock?  Even Charlie Sheen would say, "Damn, that's pretty fucking stupid."  Was Jesse lying in bed one night, all comfy-cozy in their million-dollar mansion, Oscar-winning wife lightly massaging him with cinnamon-scented body lotion when all of a sudden the thought occurred to him, You know, I gotta be able to do better than this?

Well, apparently so.

And to think, in her Golden Globe acceptance speech, Sandra went out of her way to thank this douchebag saying, "I finally know what it's like for someone to have my back."  Yeah, he had it, and then he shoved a knife in it.  Talk about the blind side, where was Michael Oher when you needed him?

I guess it was just a matter of time until Jesse answered the question that was on everyone's mind from the time the two of them got married.  That is, "What the hell does she see in that scuzzball?"

De gustibus non est disputandum, indeed.

So Sandy, darling, I understand that you're going through a rough patch right now.  Getting jilted is never easy, especially in such a public and utterly mind-boggling manner as this.  You've got to be wondering, "How in the world did I lose my husband to a bitch named Bombshell?"  But don't beat yourself up over it.  What you need is a knee-jerk, self-esteem boosting, purely physical rebound fling to get your life back on track.  Reboot the system, so to speak.  All you need is a nice guy willing to let you use him to fulfill your immediate needs, and then disappear without another word.

I'll bring the cinnamon-scented body lotion.


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Monday, March 22, 2010

Coach Fellin's Rules

We knew that Mr. Pizzuti called the low strike. I don't mean the "it's at the knees" low, either, we're talking "I think that hit the friggin' PLATE" low. So when I got rung up on a Glenn Green heater that I could've hit with a seven-iron, I really shouldn't have been surprised.  I also shouldn't have slammed my helmet down in disgust.

I was greeted at the top step of our dugout by Coach Fellin. He was not happy.

"Threw the helmet, huh?" he asked softly.

"Coach, that pitch was LOW!" I responded.


"That ump's a blind buffoon!"  At age ten, I hadn't yet learned the word "douchebag."

"I dunno.  A little near-sighted, maybe."

Since I was the third out, I retrieved my glove from its spot under the bench and started out of the dugout toward my post at third base.

"You won't need the glove, Chris, you're done for the night."

"But COACH!"

"Reds don't throw equipment. Have a seat."

Boy was I upset. I hated being taken out of a game - ever - but especially for something so stupid. After I calmed down, Coach Fellin joined me on the bench."You know, it hurts the team and makes us all look bad when you act like that," he said.  His voice was only a few notches above a whisper, but the look of disappointment in his eyes was far worse than hysterical, spittle-spraying rage will ever be.

"I know, Coach. I'm sorry. It won't happen again," I said, meaning every single word of it.

"Okay then."  He took his usual place on the top step of the dugout, watching the action on the field while I sat stewing at the end of the bench. 

A few minutes later, he came over and sat down next to me. 

"Pretty exciting game tonight, huh? That pitcher they got out there is tough, ain't he?" he asked.

"You're not kidding."

"Especially when the ump's giving him that low strike, right?"

He grabbed the bill of my cap and pulled it down over my eyes as we both chuckled.

And that was it.

Coach Fellin made sure that I knew two things that night. One, that I'd made a mistake and embarrassed myself and the team, and two, that even though I'd messed up, he didn't like me any less. Since we all basically worshipped the guy, his approval meant everything to us.

I played on the Reds for two seasons, 1976 and 1977, and at that point, Coach Fellin had already been at it for a decade. He couldn't have taken this job more seriously if he'd been coaching the New York Yankees. He kept a red three ring binder, dubbed "The Reds Bible", detailing the results, score sheets, and player stats for every season he coached and he made sure we knew the history. Best single season batting average? Kenny Kellerman, .685. Most home runs in a season?  Dickie Myers, 11.

If practice was scheduled for 4:00, we were expected to hit the field at 3:45. This wasn't a problem for me personally, since my dad preached the philosophy "Early is on time, on-time is late" from the time I was, well, born. By holding us to that standard, Coach Fellin squeezed every minute out of our practice sessions. And he made sure that our practices were fun as well as productive. We spent a lot of time working on specific situations, so that when they would come up in a game we wouldn't panic. "Before every pitch, you gotta know what you're gonna do with the ball if it comes to you," he'd say.  Over and over.  Sure he was our coach, but he was a teacher too.

Coach Fellin always emphasized that character and effort were more important than ability.  We were to play hard at all times and treat opponents and umpires with respect.  It sounds corny, but we came to understand that being a winner had less to do with the final score than it did with the attitude and effort we played the game with.

To better illustrate this, I'll need to tell you about Kelly Wilson, the captain of our 1976 squad. He was a 12-year old behemoth who pitched, caught, and occasionally played shortstop. On offense, he absolutely crushed the ball. He hit a couple home runs that season that didn't land till he was in high school.

That's also the year we made it to the league championship, squaring off against the Pirates. In game one of the three game series, Kelly made a decision that exemplified everything that Coach Fellin wanted his Reds players to be. Early in the game, we were ahead by one run. The Pirates had a runner on third with two outs, when their power hitting catcher Danny Zakashefsky hit a sky high foul popup.  Kelly, who was catching for us, tracked the ball as it floated toward the 15-foot high fence and prepared to make the catch. From my position at third base, it appeared to me that the ball skimmed against the fence on the way down before plopping into Kelly's glove. The ruling, of course, is that once the ball hits the fence, it's a dead ball. The umpire, however, didn't see that and called Zakashefsky out.

Without missing a beat, Kelly tossed the ball to the ump and said, "The ball hit the fence, Mr. Wahler."

"Excuse me?" This was a first in Mr. Wahler's umpiring career. A kid arguing AGAINST his own team.

Kelly explained, "The ball hit off the fence on the way down, I didn't catch it clean."

"Uh, okay then, foul ball, count is still 2-2."

Zakashefsky, of course, lined the next pitch into right-center for a game-tying double. When we batted in the bottom of that inning, Kelly came up with the bases loaded and launched a rocket over the scoreboard for a grand slam, giving us a lead that we would never relinquish in a 17-3 victory.

The Baseball Gods have a way of working those things out.

While our Reds team loved to win, and we were 13-4 that year, so we were certainly used to it, Coach Fellin never talked much about winning. As long as our fundamentals were solid, we hustled at all times, and we didn't take any called third strikes - that was the one thing that he didn't tolerate, striking out looking - losing didn't seem to bother him. Of course, since I was just a dumb kid, I don't remember too much about the wins, but I remember every one of the four losses that year. Half of our losses were to the Cardinals, who took two out of three games from us that year. They were led by Pat Weis, a pitcher with a nasty curveball (for an 11-year old) who we couldn't touch. He even gave Kelly problems. So we lost two games to Weis, one to the Pirates, and the other to our arch rivals, the Braves.

Our games against the Braves were the only times that we saw a slight waver in Coach Fellin's otherwise unflappable demeanor. This was because the Braves coach was essentially the Anti-Fellin.  He looked like Boris Badenov ("Vee must catch zee moose and squirrel") and had all the charm and compassion of the evil Cobra Kai sensei from The Karate Kid ("The enemy deserves no mercy").  The Braves catcher, the coach's son Boris Jr., would heckle opposing batters, often tossing dirt at them as the pitch was en route to the plate.  Braves pitchers were encouraged to brush hitters back (translation: scare the piss out of them with head-high fastballs) or even flat-out drill them in the ribcage.

The Evil Coach Boris had this raspy, high-pitched voice that seemed to carry for miles and probably gave league umpires nightmares.  "Whaddaya mean 'strike'?  Dat ball was two feet offa da plate!"   And his wrath wasn't just reserved for the grown-ups, either.  Legend had it that he once made a 10-year old pitcher cry right on the mound by implying that the kid's talents were better suited for a tutu and ballet slippers.  So anyway, based on the inherent "good vs. evil" rivalry between the coaches, our games against the Braves rose to a higher intensity level.

At a key moment in one of such battle, I was on second base and our first baseman Eric Radell was at the plate. Eric rapped a base hit to right, and I was waved around third. There was going to be a play at the plate, and Boris Jr. was ready for it. He had the plate blocked, so I knew that sliding would be useless. I just put my head down (and, okay, MAYBE I got the elbow up a tad high at, perhaps, jaw level) and Boris Jr. and I conducted an impromptu physics experiment, testing the hypothesis, "CAN two objects occupy the same space?"

Scientific conclusion: Nope.

We went down in a heap and as the ball rolled to the backstop, I was called safe.  I jumped to my feet, to the congratulations of my teammates. Boris Jr., however stayed down. APPARENTLY, my completely accidental elbow to the jaw had temporarily rattled his cage. At that point, Boris Sr. came running out of the dugout eyes bulging, arms flailing, screaming bloody murder.

"Dat's a dirty play right dere!  He took out my catcher on purpose!  You gotta call him out!"

The umpire, obviously remembering the previous inning when Boris had made a very derogatory and highly improbable suggestion about his parentage, replied, "Clean play, Coach!  Your guy was blocking the plate!  Runner's safe!"

Coach Fellin's reaction, on the other hand, was priceless.  By now I'm sure you'd guess that Coach Fellin would never in a million years have condoned barreling into an opponent to win a game, nor would he have taught us to allow our elbows to connect, completely by accident, with another player's face. That wasn't his style at all. However, as I got back to the dugout we made eye contact and Coach Fellin, very subtly, winked.

Steven A. Fellin, Sr. passed away in 2003. From what I understand, he'd continued coaching the Reds right up until the time of his death, and upon that sad occasion, Middlesex (NJ) Little League Field was renamed Steve Fellin Field. A plaque in his honor is proudly displayed on the clubhouse wall.

Decades after the fact, I've realized all that Coach Fellin taught me.  Sportsmanship, sure.  The value of hard work and perseverance, definitely.  He also taught us about organization, punctuality, and the importance of maintaining one's dignity and positive attitude.  Lessons that apply to every situation we'll ever have to deal with.

And all we thought we were learning about was baseball.


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Friday, March 19, 2010

What the Hell is a Flugalume?

I opened the birthday card my kids gave me, and I found three tickets.  Where were they taking me, I wondered, a hockey game?  The Bon Jovi concert (I hoped)?  Taking a closer look, I saw the words "Spelling Bee" printed on the tickets.

Confused, but not wanting to seem ungrateful, I said, "Thanks.  So, um, we're going to a spelling bee?"  I was imagining a fun-filled evening of ten year-old poindexters rattling off the spelling of words like "succedaneum," "pococurante," and "appoggiatura."

"Well, sort of," replied my 14 year-old daughter Lindsay.

We headed to the La Mirada Theater, about a 50-mile drive.  On the way, my son Ryan said, "We should try to get there early.  The doors open at 6:00."  This was my first clue that something was up.  Ryan is never on time for anything, let alone early.  We got there at about 5:45.  While standing in line, I noticed that the marquee read "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."  That's odd.  La Mirada isn't in Putnam County, it's in Orange County.  I don't think there's even a Putnam County in California.

It turns out that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a popular Broadway musical.  Too bad.  I was actually starting to look forward to seeing nerdy little kids butcher the word "onomatopoeia".

The doors opened, and when we entered the theater an official La Mirada Community Theater representative approached me and said, "Hi!  My name's Jill.  How would you like to participate in tonight's performance?"

I looked at the kids.  They were giggling.  "This is why you wanted to get here early, isn't it?" I asked.

"Uh huh!"

"Okay, Jill," I said, "what do I have to do?"

"Basically, you'll be one of the spelling bee contestants," she said.  "The script calls for four audience members, and you just do what the cast members tell you.  It's really easy, and a lot of fun."

As you may have already assumed, I'm not what you would call "shy".  So I said, sure, why not?

"Great!  Come with me."

Ryan and Lindsay went to our seats in the front row, while Jill escorted me and three other lucky volunteers backstage for our instructions.  "Okay, here's what's going to happen," she said.  "Early in the show, the spelling bee host is going to say that they're four spellers short, and then she'll call you up by name.  You go up on stage, taking the stairs on the right, and from then on you just follow the lead of the cast members.  They'll help guide you through it."

"So what about the spelling part," asked Jennifer, a real estate agent from Huntington Beach.

"I was just getting to that," said Jill.  "When it's your turn, the vice principal will call you to the microphone and give you your word.  If you remember nothing else I'm telling you, remember this: When he gives you the word, ask first for the definition and then ask him to use it in a sentence.  That's very important.  Also, don't feel like you have to act.  Just be yourselves, and really do try to spell the words right.  The script will take care of the rest."

"What if one of us wins?" I asked.  Hey, I'm a competitive guy, and a fairly decent speller.  I figured I might have a shot at this.

"You're not going to win," said Jill.

"How can you be so sure?"

"Trust me.  A cast member wins.  It's in the script."

Hah!  I'll show her, I thought.

The show started and the spelling bee host called us up on stage.  She gave us each a number to wear around our neck (I was number 25) and a cast member showed us to our seats on the benches with the other spellers.  In character, the actors sized up the late entrants and engaged us in a bit of small talk.  Then a musical number broke out.  A character named Marcy Park, a student at a parochial school called Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows, took me by the arm and led me to center stage.  Encouraged by the rest of the cast, my three comrades and I shimmied, shook, did the Macarena, and jumped up and down repeatedly.  In the front row, meanwhile, Ryan and Lindsay have laughed themselves to tears.

Then came my turn to spell.  "Our next contestant is Chris . . . "

Naturally, part of the fun of this, at least for the rest of the audience, was for the cast to make fun of the lucky volunteers.  The vice principal led with the obvious.  A bald joke.

"You might remember Chris from last year's third grade production of The King and I."

Audience laughter.

"Also, he is the only member of his fourth grade class with facial hair."

"Thanks," I mumbled.

"Okay, Chris, your word is atheist."  Cool.  I was pretty sure I knew that one, but I didn't forget my instructions.

"Could I have the definition, please?"

"Atheist: A person who does not believe in religion or in the existence of God."

"Could you use it in a sentence?"

"Of course.  Since Mary is an atheist, it doesn't bother her when her classmates yell 'Go to hell, Mary, go to hell!'"

I spelled it correctly, and returned to my seat to the thunderous applause of the crowd.  Ryan gave me a quick thumbs-up.  The rest of round one included the following:

"Martin, Your word is Mexican."

"Can I have the definition?"

"A person who comes from Mexico, and in American slang, also from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Argentina, or East Los Angeles."

"Jennifer, your word is kinikkinnick."

"Can I have the definition, please?"

"A pipe used by the Indians to smoke marijuana and opiates."

"Can I have that in a sentence?"

"Puffing on his kinikkinnick, Chief Running Nose said, 'And this is where I'll put the craps tables.'"

"Your word is cow."

"Can I have the definition?"  Laughter from the audience.  I mean, come on now.

"Sure.  It's . . . a COW."

"Can you use it in a sentence?"

"Spell the word 'COW'."

Okay, so after a few rounds and a couple more musical numbers, I was the only audience member remaining on stage, having successfully spelled "jihad" and "auctioneer." 

Chip Tolentino, one of the real characters, was eliminated in a particularly awkward fashion. While waiting his turn, Chip noticed an attractive woman in the audience and puberty immediately kicked in.  Desperately trying to hide his arousal, he screwed up his word and was escorted off stage by Mitch Mahoney, the "Comfort Counselor."

And it was my turn again.

"Chris, your word is flugalume."

Flugalume?  What the hell is a flugalume?  I was in trouble.  "Uh, can I have the definition, please?"

"Unknown.  The word has never appeared in print, and there is only one known citation of its use in verbal discourse."

"I don't suppose you remember that sentence, do you?"

"Absolutely.  Caught by surprise, the gentleman called out 'flu-gal-oooo-hooooome!'"

"Uh, F-L-U-," I guessed, wildly, "G-A-L . . . U-M-E."

The vice principal looked at the host, confused.  He looked back at me and said, "Uh, yes, that's correct."

"You're kidding me."

As I walked back to my seat one of the other contestants, a politically-aware over-achiever named Logainne Schwartzengrubenaire, said, "Good job!  I didn't even know that one."

I was immediately called back to the microphone by the vice principal.  "Well, you must think a lot of yourself by now, don't you?"

"Uh, not really."

"O.K, Smartypants . . ."

"Smartypants.  S-M-A-R-T-Y-P-A-N-T-S."

Laughter from the audience, mild embarrassment on the faces of Ryan and Lindsay.

"Nice try," said the vice principal.  "Your real word is xenophileology."

"Z - "

DING!  The bell rang, signifying an incorrect spelling.  I was out.  But before I could leave the stage, good ol' Mitch Mahoney came over to comfort me.   He handed me a juice box and put his arm around me.  I started to walk off stage, but Mitch wasn't about to let me off the hook that easily.  It seems that there's a whole production number built around the last audience member's elimination.  Mitch broke into song:

"Oh, Chris . . . you will be missed.
But now go with dignity.
You've been the best looking dude we've had all day,
And a smart dude as well . . . "

The rest of the cast danced around me, singing backup to Mitch.  Suffice it to say, this was not the most comfortable moment of my life.

When I finally made it back to my seat the kids were in hysterics.  We enjoyed the rest of the show, especially Chip Tolentino's show-stopping number entitled "My Unfortunate Erection".  Afterward, several people came up to me and told me that I did very well.  Someone asked if I was a "plant" and I assured her that, no, I was completely winging it.

On the drive home, still pumped up from the performance, I kept going on about how amazed I was that I'd spelled "flugalume" right.

And that's when Ryan burst my bubble.

You see, Ryan's currently rehearsing for a different production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee playing the role of the vice principal, so he knows the script inside and out.  That's how he knew about the audience participation to begin with, which is why he insisted on getting to the theater early.

"Um, Dad, I hate to break this to you, but that's all in the script."

"What do you mean?"

"Yeah, in the script it says that as long as the audience member spells anything that could possibly be pronounced 'flugalume', they get it right."

"You mean I spelled it wrong?"

"Not exactly."

"What do you mean, not exactly?  How's it really spelled?"

"Flugalume isn't a word, Dad."

Well shit.

Note: The picture at the top of this post is the cast of the La Mirada Theater's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", the actual actors we saw that evening.  Mitch Mahoney is on the far right, and Chip Tolentino is the Boy Scout.


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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Art of Camping in the Rain

I was hanging out with my father not too long ago, reminiscing about some of the vacations we took when I was a kid, and I happened to mention a couple of our camping trips.  "You know, Dad," I said, "those trips to Bryce Canyon and Mesa Verde were great.  I remember them as being a lot of fun."

"What are you talking about?" he asked.  "You hated camping, always griping about the weather, the bugs, setting up the tent . . . "

I'm sure he's right, but now that I'm older, I've really come to appreciate the chilly nights in the wilderness, eating cold Dinty Moore beef stew, burning marshmallows on an open fire, and spraying each other with industrial-strength OFF! to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

Ah, memories.

We did a lot of camping at local state parks in Jersey, Voorhees and Hacklebarney in particular, but it was our two-week summer trips that provided the memories that have lasted a lifetime.  Here are a few of my favorites.


As the sun broke through the clouds that fine Utah morning, my eight year-old brother Eric and I were sitting at the picnic table doing Mad Libs.

"Okay, I need an adjective," I said.


"That's a noun.  An adjective's a describing word, like 'big' or 'little'."


"Well, that's just an example, you can pick a funnier one if you want."


"Okay, good."  I wrote it down in the Mad Libs book.  As I was writing, Eric reached into the Dunkin' Donuts box that had been left on the table overnight.  He grabbed a jelly-filled (his favorite), and took a bite.  As he chewed, I noticed a strange expression creep across his face, a combination of confusion and panic.  He looked at me, then down at the donut he was holding.

That's when it hit him.

Crawling out of the jelly hole came a swarm of tiny red fire ants.  In the meantime, their semi-chewed comrades scurried around inside my brother's mouth looking for an escape route, which Eric provided for them in the form of horrified gagging, spitting, and puking.

"Okay," I said, "Now I need a plural noun."


As you may remember from a story of mine involving the game Simon, my father is not a bluffer.  He did not make idle threats.  When he said, "If I have to come up there one more time, someone's not going to be sitting down for a week," we knew he meant business and we shut the hell up and went to sleep.  So anyway, one summer we were camping at Mesa Verde National Park, and Mom and Dad decided to take us across the campground to listen to an Indian guide tell stories by the fire.  Eric, however, wasn't all that excited about going so he basically whined the whole way.  Before long, Dad said, "Eric, if you don't quit complaining I'm going to pull the van over and you can walk back to the campsite."

Well, Eric didn't quit complaining.

As advertised, Dad pulled the van over to the side of the road and waited, presumably for Eric to say something like, "I'm sorry, dear father, I will never again express my reluctance to join the family for a fun-filled evening of Indian stories."

But that's not what happened.  What happened was, Eric decided to call Dad's bluff.  When the van came to a stop, Eric simply opened the sliding door, hopped out, and headed back to the campsite.  Actually, he was going the wrong way, but that became a moot point almost immediately.

I don't know how he did it, but in one fluid motion, Dad shut off the engine, climbed out of the driver's seat, circled the van, removed his belt, and served Eric a healthy portion of attitude adjustment.

We then proceeded to the campfire and listened to the Indians' fascinating legends.  Most of us sat on wooden benches, but Eric decided he'd rather stand.


This was the year my youngest brother Bobby had really long, curly blond hair.  My Dad got so tired of people saying, "What a cute little girl you have," that he actually spelled out the words I AM A BOY in black electrical tape on the back of Bobby's jacket.  A haircut might've been more practical, but I wasn't going to tell my Dad that.

SUMMER, 1978

Our campsite that year was beautiful, lots of trees and it was set right on a lake.  We spent a lot of time fishing, mostly catching and releasing the same five sunfish.  One of those stupid bastards had about thirty-five holes in his upper lip.  But there was one fish, who we dubbed "Tuffy", that wouldn't go for the bait.  We tried everything; worms, bread, Kraft American Cheese.  Eventually, Eric was able to catch him by snagging the hook in his gills.

SUMMER, 1975

The trip up to Nova Scotia was by far the most memorable of our family camping expeditions, and by "memorable" I of course mean "left deep scars that will probably never heal."  To begin with, it rained every day.  Now, most of the time when someone makes a statement like that, what they really mean is "it rained an awful lot."  It's an exaggeration, like when you say, "Diane is such a slut she nailed every guy in Kappa Gamma Phi," you just mean she's a whore who slept with a lot of guys, not literally everyone.  But rest assured, when I say "it rained every day," I mean that it rained every single fucking day.  For two weeks.

Rainy weather and camping don't really mix well.  You can't build a fire, and the muddy terrain leaves the tent stakes clinging desperately for some sort of stability.  It's too wet to do anything fun other than sit around in the tent playing checkers and doing more Mad Libs which gets really damn old after, oh, three hours.

There were other problems.  Somewhere in a town called (and I'm not making this up) Pugwash, we had car problems.  So Dad took me on a "side excursion" to the Pugwash Pep Boys  to pick up a couple air shocks.  We watched in amusement as Dad installed the new shocks in the pouring rain.  I think that was also the night my parents finally said "the hell with it" and booked us a room at a motel, which was really a series of cabins.  Here's some irony for you -- the cabins did not have running water.

Finally, around Day 12, the rain stopped for a couple hours and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.  Naturally, my brothers and I begged our parents to let us go swimming in the lake.  My mom started to talk us out of it (the temperature was in the low 50's), but after we bitched and whined for fifteen minutes, my dad said something like, "ah, the hell with it, let 'em go in."

So we put on our swim trunks and waded in.  It was when I got in up to my knees that I realized that the water was about 33 degrees.  I immediately walked back to the gravelly beach, and it felt like my ankles were broken.  My brothers didn't last any longer.  My dad, however, was convinced that his sons were just a bunch of wimps, so he said something like, "you guys are just a bunch of wimps" and ran into the water.

Here's the beauty of the situation.  Since Dad had just called us wimps, he couldn't just dart back out of the water, although the look on his face indicated that he wanted to do just that.  He declared, "It's r-r-r-r-realy not s-s-s-s-so bad once y-y-you get used t-t-t-to it."

I've never seen my mom look so smug.

So Dad toughed it out for a couple minutes, and just before hypothermia set in he came ashore, having acquired a bright pink hue.  He quickly toweled off and wrapped himself in a warm blanket.

It immediately started raining again.


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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dodge THIS, You Bastards

Suppose you wake up one morning and, as always, you head to the kitchen and pour yourself a heaping bowl of Cap'n Crunch cereal.  When you open your refrigerator, much to your chagrin, you realize that one of your roommates has polished off the last of the milk.  To remedy the situation, you get in your car and drive to the local Piggly Wiggly, grab a half-gallon of lowfat and take it to the express lane.  Instead of scanning the carton, though, the checker looks at you and says, "I'm sorry, I can't sell you this milk."

"Excuse me?" you say, in complete and utter befuddlement.

"You can't buy this milk as an individual item," says the checker with a smug little smirk on her face, "it's our new policy.  Lots of people are buying milk these days, so in order to get this half-gallon, you'll also have to buy a can of Spam, two boxes of Twinkies, a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, a twelve-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper, and three pounds of ground beef."

You politely tell the checker what she can do with the half gallon of milk, and storm out of the Piggly Wiggly more frustrated than a three-legged dog with jock itch.

Or how about this?  It's June, and you've decided to take your family on a nice vacation to Orlando, Florida to spend a joyous week throwing away your hard-earned money at the Disney World Resorts.  The wife is excited, your kids have nominated you for Awesomely Cool Dad of the Century, and you're feeling pretty damn good about life as we know it.  But when you visit your local travel agent to purchase your plane tickets, you receive a dastardly surprise.  It seems that the airlines are unwilling to sell you plane tickets to Orlando.  That is, unless you also book flights to Cleveland, Boise, Austin, Boston, and Flint.

"I'm sorry," explains the travel agent, "but since Orlando is such a popular tourist destination, we've decided that in order to purchase these tickets, you have to book additional flights as well.  Have a nice day!"

Pretty ridiculous scenarios, right?  You're probably asking yourself, "Okay, what's his point?  Grocery stores don't make anyone buy Spam, and airlines certainly aren't going to force anyone to fly to Cleveland.  What's going on here, really?"

Well, let me tell you what in the name of Tommy Friggin' Lasorda is going on here, really.

This season, as part of Major League Baseball's Interleague schedule, my beloved New York Yankees will be flying out here to Los Angeles to spend a relaxing weekend beating the crap out of the Dodgers.  Knowing this, last Christmas my kids bought me four Dodger Stadium ticket vouchers, coupons that can be exchanged for actual tickets once they go on sale.  The kids' intent, of course, was for me to use these vouchers to get tickets for one of the Yankee games.

So the tickets go on sale, and I log on to to purchase four seats at the Dodgers-Yankees game on June 25.  Do you know what I found out?  If you guessed "the Dodgers have blacked out that entire weekend so these tickets may not be purchased with ticket vouchers," you are correct.  Isn't that awesome?

But wait.  The fun is just beginning.

Not to be thwarted quite so easily, I decide to simply buy tickets to one of the Yankee games, and use the vouchers for a game later in the season.  Baseball is baseball, so we'll get tickets to, say, a Dodgers-Cubs game and root for the Dodgers to get their asses beat.  In the meantime, I'll shell out a few bucks to see the Yankees.

I notice that there's a special banner on the Dodgers website, advertising the series with the Yankees.  The slogan is "L.A. vs. N.Y.  Watch the Dodgers Receive a Horsehide Enema" or something like that.  I click on the banner, figuring that this will take me to the page where I can buy tickets.  But that is not the case at all.  It takes me to a page with the following message:


Yeah, that's right, if I want to see the Yankees, I have to buy tickets for at least thirteen other Dodgers games, with the lowest possible option being $126 per mini-plan. For that price, you get seats that are located in El Segundo which, for those of you unfamiliar with So Cal geography, is pretty Goddamn far from Dodger Stadium.

Knowing me, I'll probably end up biting the bullet and become the Dodgers' little bitch, either buying tickets at a ridiculously marked up scalper's rate or getting a mini-plan and selling off the non-Yankee games.

Anyone interested in two seats in El Segundo for the Dodgers and Pirates?


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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nice Pass, Lady!

I recently attended a UCLA women's basketball game, and what an experience it was.  Now, I know what you're thinking.  "Watch this, he's about to mock women's sports and make some asinine claim that girls playing a boys' game is just a watered-down version of real sports.  He'll probably make some jokes like 'she throws like a girl' or 'it's tough to make a layup when you're carrying a purse' or 'she's great at driving to the basket, she just can't park.'  Then he'll probably make some sexist remark like, 'women should stick to things they're good at like ice skating, gymnastics, and popping out babies.'  But you're wrong.  I'm not going to say any of those things, and here's why.

1. These women are very athletic, and their basketball skills are impressive.
2. I firmly believe that women are capable of accomplishing anything that men can.
3. The UCLA center, Moniquee Alexander, is six feet, six inches tall and could undoubtedly snap me in half like a pretzel stick.

In a lot of ways, I found women's basketball to be more entertaining than the men's game.  First of all, no one can dunk, so there's more focus on crisp passing and hitting the open shots.  I was quite surprised by the level of play, to be perfectly honest.  And the girls, sorry, LADIES seemed to be having a hell of a lot of fun.  Well, aside from that one elbow to the back that led to a quick shoving match, but that stuff happens.

It occurs to me at this point that you must be wondering, "What the hell was he doing at a women's basketball game in the first place?"  It's a fair question.  It's not like I have a rooting interest, alumni loyalty, or a really, really pathetic gambling addiction.  No, the truth is that my daughter plays high school basketball and we thought this would be a good way to see what the "next level" is all about.  It worked, she was very inspired.

Another surprise was that the women's basketball team actually has a cheerleading squad.  It was a little strange, to be honest.  Somehow, "Rebecca, Rebecca, she's sweet and bright, if she can't do it, Nina might!" doesn't have quite the same, I dunno, pizzazz.  Oh, and two of the cheerleaders are guys.  Seriously, on the college campus food chain, could you rank lower than male cheerleaders for women's basketball?  These dudes get probably get picked on by the physics majors and the second-string orchestra.  Then again, they spent most of the game looking up the skirts of the female cheerleaders, so perhaps they know something I don't.

Oh, and it was Breast Cancer Awareness day, which is why everyone was wearing pink which means the guy cheerleaders didn't have to change a thing.  As part of the post-game activities, there was a reception where the players signed autographs and talked to the fans.  As you can see, I got to say hello to Moniquee Alexander.

Like I said, she could snap me in half like a pretzel stick.


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Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Kansas City Death Weenie

To most of the Kauffman Stadium crowd, the evening of September 8, 2009 seemed like just another night at the ballpark; families spending time together, the weather pleasant, the hometown Kansas City Royals taking their usual beating.  John Coomer was just like the thousands of other fans in attendance that night, with one notable difference: He was the only one about to get blasted in the face with a hot dog.

The perpetrator of this heinous weenie-assault was a six-foot tall, crown-wearing lion named Sluggerrr, a violent psychopath masquerading as the Royals mascot.  Just after the seventh inning stretch, Sluggerrrr shouldered his high-powered Heckler and Koch Hot Dog Bazooka and launched round after round into the mezzanine.  Children screamed and spectators fled, as bun-shrapnel and condiments rained down upon them.  Discarding his empty weapon, Sluggerrr then armed himself with a sack of foil-wrapped franks and began hurling them at the fans like grenades.  He strutted atop the Royals dugout, seeking out victims, and that's when the fickle foam finger of fate pointed in John Coomer's direction.  Sluggerrr went into his windup and arrogantly flung the weiner behind his back.  The razzle-dazzle caught Coomer off-guard and, unable to defend himself, he took the foot-long Farmer John jumbo frank right in the eye.

Coomer was rushed to the Kansas City Medical Center, where surgeons worked frantically to repair his damaged eye and reheat the hot dog.  Surgeons work long shifts and frequently have to skip meals, so one could hardly blame them for taking a quick snack break.  After undergoing two medical procedures, Coomer was released from the hospital, but he is reportedly suffering from a variety of side effects.

"Mr. Coomer's retina was detached and, as a result, cataracts have formed," says his attorney.  "His vision may never be fully restored.  You ever get relish in your eye?  Stings.  Also, he has vowed never to eat another hot dog as long as he lives.  Nothing takes the joy out of the hot dog-eating experience like having one crash into your eye socket."

The most damning testimony of all has come from Royals season-ticket holder Ray Broome.  "I've been coming to Royals games for years, and this is the most disturbing thing I've seen since the George Brett Hemorrhoid Incident of 1980," said Broome.  "Sluggerrr is a friggin' menace who's been assaulting fans for years.  First it was his T-Shirt Slingshot, now the Hot Dog Bazooka.  There's no doubt in my mind that Sluggerrr drilled that guy on purpose, I saw it with my own eyes.  He just whipped the weenie behind his back, and it nailed Mr. Coomer in the face.  Ketchup splattered everywhere, it was gruesome.  They need to put Sluggerrr away, it's just a matter of time before he kills someone."

Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists have speculated that Sluggerrr may not have been acting alone.  A witness who was sitting in the left field bleachers that night hinted at the existence of a second bunman who was firing hot dogs from the visitors' bullpen.  Known only as "the man in the Reds jacket," this witness claims to have seen a puff of mustard from behind the outfield wall right before Coomer was hit by the hot dog.

Sluggerrr's statements to police have only confused the matter.  "Yeah, I was throwing hot dogs into the crowd, that's my job.  I mean, who doesn't want a free hot dog, right?  I just fling 'em into the crowd,  I don't see where they all end up.  Maybe I threw the dog that hit him, maybe I didn't.  It was a crazy night, man, weiners were flying all over the place."

Kansas City manager Trey Hillman supported the mascot's statement, saying  "Look, if Sluggerrr actually nailed that guy, it must've been an accident.  I've been with the Royals for some time now, and if I've learned anything it's that no one in our organization is capable of throwing strikes.  Hell, if Sluggerrr could intentionally hit something, he wouldn't be the mascot.  I'd put him in the starting lineup."

The criminal investigation continues, however, Coomer's attorney told the media that the civil case his client filed against the Kansas City Royals organization has been resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.  Terms of the settlement are undisclosed but neighbors report a shiny new vehicle in the Coomer driveway.


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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dear Mr. Sunshine, Issue 1: Flight Delays

As a new feature here on Knucklehead! our correspondent Mr. Sunshine (yeah, it's still me) will be helping our readers deal with the frustrations present in everyday life.  If there's something driving you absolutely insane, drop him a line at, and he will help you see things in a more positive light.

Tim Waites from Phoenix, Arizona writes:

Dear Mr. Sunshine,

I'm an Informational Technology consultant, so my job requires a lot of travel.  Over the past few years, I've noticed that the airline system has gone straight to hell.  I make it a point to get to the airport two hours before my scheduled departure so I can check in and pass through security, but inevitably my flight gets delayed and I wind up sitting around the airport for five or six hours.  In fact, just a couple weeks ago I had to fly from Phoenix to Des Moines to attend a seminar entitled "Byte Me: How the Internet Screws Up Society."  Well, instead of leaving at 4:00 as scheduled, my flight didn't depart until after midnight.   Is there anything travelers can do to deal with these frequent delays?

Tim Waites

Dear Tim,

Instead of focusing on the inconvenience of delayed flights, which are beyond your control, make the most of the extra time that your airline has so thoughtfully provided.  There are many exciting activities that you can organize on short notice.

First, though, you'll need to determine just how much time you'll have to fill.  If you're booked on a reasonably reliable airline, say Southwest, your flight will probably be delayed for less than an hour.  If you're flying Delta, plan for sixty to ninety minutes.  Of course, if you're one of the unfortunate souls who still flies American Airlines, you may as well break out the sleeping bags, popcorn and DVDs and get ready for a good old-fashioned slumber party.

If you're into gambling, you might consider appointing yourself your gate's "bookie" and take bets on your eventual departure time.  I'd suggest one of the two following formats.  The simplest would be to have all the passengers on your flight kick in five bucks and pick a departure time.  The person closest to the actual time (without going over) wins the entire pot.  Or you could establish what's known as an "over/under".  As the bookie, you predict a departure time, say, 5:35 PM.  Bettors would then place wagers on whether the flight would leave before or after the set time.  Some lucky passenger could end up winning a hundred bucks or so, which could pay for an in-flight drink or two.

Another fun activity would be an airport scavenger hunt.  Put together a list of items, divide your flightmates into teams of four to six, and see who could complete their list first.  There are lots of interesting items to be found in the terminal.  You might include: a child's shoe, a broken luggage tag, the flight number of a plane that's actually leaving on time, a photo of someone sleeping and/or passed out, someone else's boarding pass, one of the X-ray trays from the security checkpoint, a pilot's hat.  You're only limited by your imagination.

If your travel plans include changing planes at another airport, with your delay there's a really good chance that you're going to miss your connection or at least cut it close.  If you can find someone on your flight that's making the same connection, how about holding an "Airport Steeplechase" from your arrival gate to your departure gate?  This will be especially exciting in airports like Dallas-Fort Worth where the terminals are in different ZIP codes and you have to use their impossibly convoluted monorail system.  Plowing through your fellow travelers, sprinting up escalators, and dealing with last-minute gate changes will turn potential stress into the heart-pumping thrill of athletic competition.   

You see, Tim, flight delays are only a nuisance if you allow them to be.  Sure, you could sit around the airport drinking ten-dollar beers and listening to kids whine to their parents, but why put yourself through all that?  If you tap into your creativity and spirit of adventure, those extra hours until departure will just fly by.

Happy traveling!

Your friend,
Mr. Sunshine


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Monday, March 1, 2010

Charlotte, Wilbur, and a Room Full of Big Kids

I don't remember learning how to read.  I just remember reading, from the time I was very young.  My mom tells me that I was reading the box scores in the sports section when I was four.  I read everything I could get my hands on; Highlights Magazine, picture books, the back of the Cap'n Crunch box.

By the time I was in first grade, I could read anything my teacher Miss Betham put in front of me.  Green Eggs and Ham?  No problem.  Tikki Tikki Tembo?  Piece of cake.  Eventually, she had to borrow books from the teachers in other grades, just to keep me from getting bored.  It wasn't long before I was reading the same books as the fifth graders were, classics like Stuart Little, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and A Cricket in Times Square.

One afternoon, Miss Betham decided to march me over to one of the fifth grade classrooms and have me read a couple chapters from Charlotte's Web out loud to the older kids.  I didn't want to do it.  Wasn't it enough that I'd read it to my own first grade reading group, better known as the "Eagles"?  That's what she called the high group of readers, "Eagles".  It's a well-known policy among elementary school teachers not to name your reading groups the "high" group, "middle" group, and "low" group.  Self-esteem issues, you understand.  I think Miss Betham missed the point, though, because naming our groups "Eagles," "Bluejays" and "Fat-Headed Dodos" pretty much sent the same message.  So anyway, there I was in the fifth grade classroom, reading Charlotte's Web.

I was nervous.  I didn't even like getting up in front of my own classmates, and they were my friends.  The fifth graders were big kids, they were scary.  So I just started reading the story, blocking out the unfamiliar surroundings.

". . . and right spang in the middle of the web were the words 'Some Pig.'  The words were woven right into the web.  They were actually part of the web, Edith.  I know, because I have been down there and seen them.  It says, 'Some Pig,' just as clear as can be.  There can be no mistake about it.  A miracle has happened and a sign has occurred here on earth, right on our farm, and we have no ordinary pig."

 As I read the story, the fifth grade teacher walked over to Miss Betham, who was standing right next to me, and started whispering about how she wished her own students could read with such expression and enthusiasm.  Bolstered by the compliments, I continued with the story . . .

Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web.  He breathed the morning air into his lungs.  Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly.  When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word TERRIFIC.  Another miracle.

I was worried that the fifth graders would just tease me, or not pay attention to me at all.  But to my surprise, they were actually paying attention and enjoying the story.  I still felt out of place, but instead of worrying about being a "little show-off," I got into the story even further changing my voice to match the different characters.  Templeton had a wise-guy voice, Charlotte sounded high-pitched and girlie.  Hey, at age six, my mimicry skills were still in the developmental stage.  I was no longer just reading, I was performing.

"Jump in the air!" cried Charlotte.
Wilbur galloped back.  His skin shone.  His tail had a fine, tight curl in it.
"Keep your knees straight and touch the ground with your ears!" called Charlotte.
Wilbur obeyed.
"Do a back flip with a half twist in it!" cried Charlotte.
Wilbur went over backwards, writhing and twisting as he went.
"O.K., Wilbur," said Charlotte.  "You can go back to sleep.  O.K., Templeton, the soap ad will do, I guess.  I'm not sure Wilbur's action is exactly radiant, but it's interesting."
"Actually," said Wilbur, "I feel radiant."

Miss Betham stopped me at the end of the chapter, and the fifth graders actually applauded.  I was somewhat embarrassed, but for the first time I realized that reading was a skill that didn't come easily to everyone.  I couldn't have put it in these terms back then, but I think part of the reason Miss Betham had me read to the older kids was to teach me to appreciate books and not take reading for granted.

And thanks to her, I've loved reading ever since, the only exception being all those "required reading" novels that teachers throw at you in high school.  I hated The Scarlet Letter, had no interest in Gatsby, and cheated off Dan Richardson to get through the tests on Beowulf.  Aside from that, however, books have always been part of my life, and a constant source of entertainment.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to the latest John Sandford novel.


In case you haven't noticed, I did a wee bit of tweaking on the blog here, adding "tabs" at the top.  Check out the FAQ's and other info when you get the chance.  Thanks!


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