JOHN SHIELDS

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 Slavery in Greater Detail                                               December 21, 2012

 

“I am well into my middle age, educated and interested in history. But until I stood in the auction room of Ryan’s Old Slave Mart in Charleston, SC this morning, I never fully appreciated the baseness of slavery and the immoral self-deception of those who practiced it.”

 I wrote the above words in April, 2011, while in Charleston to see my son and mark the 150th anniversary of the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War. My handwritten first draft about my visit to the Old Slave Mart was buried beneath other drafts on other topics until a pre-holiday housecleaning turned it up. It’s now December, 2012. The new Steven Spielberg film Lincoln has been inspiring a national dialogue on Lincoln’s political rationale and moral suasion in getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed, abolishing slavery. And Quentin Tarantino’s new film Django Unchained will open next week, depicting the harsh, degrading treatment slaves received in the antebellum South.

The timing is right, then, for finishing what I started. It’s a recounting of what I learned and had not known about slavery. ...

 

A trip to Charleston, South Carolina on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States compels a visit to Fort Sumter. The fort sits strategically at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, 3.3 miles offshore. For 24 hours on April 12, 1861, Confederate batteries bombarded the fort – the first shots fired in a war that would claim over 600,000 American lives. Sumter’s is a fascinating story of military maneuvering and Northern and Southern political intrigue, whose course was determined by powerful and wealthy white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.  It is a stark symbol of a fractured Union. 

In contrast stands a modest structure on Chalmers Street, near the Charleston market, where already-enslaved African Americans were bought and sold. Barely distinguishable from the surrounding buildings, it is, from the outside at least, something entirely more prosaic, more understated than the cannon-laden mass of concrete out there in the harbor.

I am well into my middle age, educated and interested in history. But until I stood in the auction room of Ryan’s Old Slave Mart this morning, I had never fully comprehended the baseness of slavery and the immoral self-deception of those who practiced it.

The mart is a museum now, the last of some forty auction sites in Charleston that made the city one of the wealthiest in America in the 1800s. At one point prior to the Civil War, nine of the top ten wealthiest Americans were South Carolina slave owners. In fact, several of the state’s most prominent citizens, including a governor, attained that prominence, in part, as active slave traders. 

Once inside, you learn that slave laws were passed declaring slavery “hereditary and perpetual.” You learn that, after walking 25 miles a day from the upper slave states of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina chained together in a long line, slaves were prettied up for sale, as we might a used car we’re trying to sell. As this living train neared Charleston, the slaves were made to dance about in order to limber joints stiffened from having been bound for weeks. They were given fresh clothing and fed more substantial meals than any other time on their long trek. Their bodies were oiled, grey hairs plucked, and hair dyed black to make them appear younger and healthier than they were. A trafficker’s version of turning back the odometer?  

To limit the slave trade’s visibility and minimize the effects of bad press, the city of Charleston had ordered the trading indoors and away from the open market area. There, inside Ryan’s Mart, each man, woman, and child slave stepped onto a platform, where they were assessed by the buyers. Next to their solitary first names was written a brief description of the type of work they were best suited for:  

Ben, prime field hand

Sarah, kitchen

Young Tackey, rice worker  

In today’s dollars, a slave sold for anywhere between $28,000 and $38,000.  

Some slaves were skilled in carpentry or metal work. They were sent to toil each day at the trades’ businesses, while their salaries went directly to their owners. 

The auction platform was also the place where families were split up, often never to see each other again. Desperate to avoid that fate, slaves begged and bargained with their traders and with their prospective owners, sometimes threatening suicide.  

Slave youngsters received schooling and religion, where they were told that they were born to be slaves and that God wanted them to serve their masters faithfully.  

Punishment for unruly behavior was administered either by the slave owner himself or by local officials. A “correction” might cost the owner $25, with an additional charge for putting salt on the wounds. To prevent runaways, pouches filled with beans were attached to a slave’s clothing so that attempts to escape could be heard. The slaves countered this by applying mud to the pouches to silence them. Some slaves who were captured trying to escape were burned at the stake. 

South Carolina’s entire economy was based on slavery. The state’s “low country” topography was conducive to rice growing, so the first slaves brought there from Africa were skilled in rice cultivation. Later it was cotton, and cotton again with the invention of the cotton engine, or “gin.” Eli Whitney’s machine, which facilitated seed removal, enabled a slave to increase his production from just one bale of cotton a day to fifty. (Hearing this, I recall being taught in school as a child the efficiencies and the historical significance of Eli Whitney’s invention, with no acknowledgement of its brutal, human cost.)   

It’s easy to see how threatening the North’s anti-slavery sentiments must have felt to those who governed South Carolina. The obvious moral solution – paid labor – would have, in their minds, led to the collapse of their economy. 

This, then, was the state of affairs at the policy and human levels when the first cannon and mortar shells exploded on Fort Sumter. Today at the Old Slave Mart, any naivete I may have possessed about the institution of slavery in America was itself exploded.

  

©2012 John Shields

 

 

Second Thoughts on the Second Amendment      December 22, 2012

(orig. published New Hope Gazette January 5, 2008)

 

Just before Christmas, an article with the perfect title “Clause and Effect” appeared in the New York Times on the subject of the Second Amendment. More specifically, on its commas.

 

I may not be a Constitution scholar, but I am a sucker for articles on punctuation.

 

As you may know, interpretation of the signers’ true intent hinges to a large extent on the commas and their placement (unless you’re a redneck who won’t acknowledge that the first half of the amendment even exists). There are three of them (commas, not rednecks) in the official version in the National Archives:

 

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

 

I’ve always taken the reference to the militia as providing a context for the main clause. I suppose that makes me an opponent of those who use the amendment to justify gun ownership. As the author of the piece pointed out – and that’s piece as in “essay,” not “heater” – there’s a distinction between a “collective” right and an individual’s right.

 

Some have even argued that the commas indicate that what the Founders really meant to say was “A well regulated Militia … shall not be infringed.” That’s a stretch, although, given those commas, you could make the case for it from a strictly grammatical standpoint.

 

At the other extreme, a pro-gun group called the Second Amendment Foundation uses the amendment as a header on its homepage, with the comma following “keep and bear Arms” conveniently removed. That’s taking liberties – literally.

 

As a former language arts teacher, I’m tickled to see our Constitution providing a robust demonstration of the power of punctuation. Personally, I don’t think the first or the last comma should even be there. They probably wouldn’t be, either, if the amendment were written in today’s lust-for-speed environment, with its increasing aversion to commas.

 

But they are and it wasn’t, and the Supreme Court promises to have something to say on the subject later in the year.

 

What may be of interest to you is that, in the process of reflecting on the Times article, I somehow came up with a new and original interpretation of the amendment.

 

Unfortunately, it’s one that strengthens the argument of the pro-gun lobby.

 

That was not my intention, but there you have it.

 

I was so impressed with myself that I wrote a letter to the Times espousing my new and original interpretation, certain they’d publish it. They published the Pentagon Papers back in the day, didn’t they? Now it’s been over a week, and the time frame for hearing back from them has passed.

 

Maybe the holidays have them running a little behind.

 

In the meantime, I’ll share it with you Gazette readers, exactly as I wrote it for Mister Snootypants New York Times:

 

Is it possible the true meaning lies in the words “well regulated?” A militia, by definition, is armed. It’s not so much, then, that the security of the state requires a militia as that the militia be "well regulated." Otherwise, it would certainly have the edge over an unarmed citizenry. (Think military coup. Think Rwanda.) Therefore, as a deterrent, the citizenry is granted the right to bear arms for its own protection against a rogue militia, and for that only.

 

Contrary to the author’s contention that “the amendment is really about protecting militias,” might it not really be about protecting the citizenry from poorly regulated ones?

 

Oooh. That is so good.

 

If you take “well regulated” out of the amendment, it’s saying that, because a militia is necessary for the security of a free state, “the people” (not just “people”) have a right to keep and bear arms. This puts the focus on the militia and the collective right of the people not to be defenseless.

 

“Well regulated” adds another nuance entirely.

 

Or maybe it doesn’t. I haven’t exactly been invited to lecture on it yet.

 

 

©2008 John Shields

 

                                                                                       March 5, 2012  

limbaugh [lim' - baa] n. the sound a sheep makes when anally penetrated by an organ of the far right.

             

 ©2012 John Shields

 

 

You Better Watch Out, Senator                                 February 20, 2012

 

 

One of the more transparent political tricks in the 2006 Pennsylvania race for U.S. Senate was then-incumbent Rick Santorum’s continued belittling reference to challenger Bob Casey, Jr. as “Bobby.”

 

A spokeswoman for Santorum said at the time that the senator was just trying to clarify for voters that his opponent was not the same Bob Casey who had been Pennsylvania’s two-term governor back when his son really was “Bobby.” That Bob Casey would have been 75, had he not expired six years earlier in a “recall” election of sorts.

 

“It’s very important for voters to know the distinction,” said Santorum aide Virginia Davis, as though the difference between dead and alive escapes the average Pennsylvanian.

 

Ironic pause.

 

Now Santorum’s back and running for president, and he should be very careful about trying to make any of his current opponents look small and childlike. You see, I have analyzed his own last name using my extensive knowledge of Latin, and I’ve found that it’s not at all a stretch to describe him in the same way.

 

I want to reassure you that mine is a wholesome and family-friendly approach to the Santorum name. After all, except when he’s expounding on bestiality, what is the former senator if not wholesome and family-friendly? Those looking for something more “R” than “PG” about his name, though, can find it by simply Googling “frothy” or “frothy byproduct.”

 

So let’s begin.

 

For those of you unfamiliar with Latin, “orum” is an ending that indicates possession or ownership. It’s known as the genitive case (that’s genit-ive, Rick), one of five cases in Latin that, along with Roman numerals, illustrate why it’s a dead language.

 

Now that you’ve had a Latin mini-lesson, you can easily break down Rick’s name into its component parts: “-orum” (belonging to) and “Sant-“ (Santa).

 

Santorum. “Belonging to Santa.”

 

And what is it, primarily, that belongs to Santa?

 

“Reindeer, John?”

 

“Sled!”

 

“His cheery attitude!”

 

Good answers, but I’d argue that it’s the elves.  

 

Without the elves and their vaunted toy production, it’s “failure to launch” for everything else.

 

Already, though, I can hear grammar-nazis objecting: “But Santa is singular and -orum is plural. You can’t mix them together.”

 

Or this one: “How do you know Sant- means Santa?”

 

Both are weak arguments. First of all, Santa is Santa for everyone, which makes him, in essence, plural. Even polygamists, one of Rick’s favorite groups, like to call what they do “plural marriage,” yet I only count one husband per household. In much the same way, Santa is Father Christmas to us all.

 

As for the “Who says Sant- means Santa?” crew, they obviously don’t know that, in Latin, back-to-back vowels are often shortened to a single vowel. It’s called elision (a reference to the Elision Fields of classical mythology, I might add.) Otherwise, Rick’s last name would be “Santaorum,” and the only place I know in all of Latin where vowels are allowed to follow one another like that is in that famous children’s sing-along from the fertile valleys of Tusculum (and a Claudius Drusus favorite): “Antiquus MacDonaldus Habuit Agrum” (“e-i-e-i-o”).

 

So again, what belongs to Santa? Elves. Plural. Through some form of permanent indentured servitude, it would appear, but that’s another topic.

 

Therefore, the last name of Pennsylvania’s former junior senator means “one of Santa’s elves.”

 

In the interest of scholarship, though, I will grant it’s possible that Santa is a mis-translation. If so, sant- can only be a variation on sanct-, from which we get the word sanctimonious. Then the senator’s last name would mean “belonging to those who make a show of being morally superior to other people.”

 

Either way, it may not be advisable for Santorum to resume playing games with names. For one, others do it better, but he also risks seeing his own stature shrink to that of Santa’s least favorite public servant – the sanctimonious elf.

 

That would have serious, Deliverance-like implications for him when he’s stumping in the Appalachians. Or stopping in for a cold one in certain bars in Texas.

 

Bringing us full circle to that “other” definition.

 

 

© 2012 John Shields

 

 

 

November 26, 2010

Love in the Time of Thanksgiving: Is It Possible I’ve Found My Soulmate?

  

The following well-intentioned sentiment posted on Facebook comes from an acquaintance who has probably gone into hiding:  

“Happy Thanksgiving – May this week remind us of the need for Gratitude, Family, Faith, and Friends. Too many times we take them for granite.”

That’s all I’ll say about Thanksgiving this year, except that I’m thankful things are finally starting to look up for me romantically. I recently found a very appealing female on the online dating site I’ve been using, PainfullyLongWalksOnTheBeach.com. In her photo, she’s sitting on the edge of a hotel-room bed, big smile, legs crossed, and naked from her navel down.

Her screen name is “Asian Milf,” but “Asian” covers a lot of territory, so to narrow it down, I’m going to say “Oriental.” (I know the term’s no longer acceptable, but there’s a reason Agatha Christie didn’t call it Murder on the Pacific Rim Express.)

As for “Milf,” that’s one I can’t quite nail. I’d like to, but I can’t. Sounds Dutch to me.

I’ve been working on what to say in my first message to my potential soul mate. Here’s what I’ve written so far, and tell me what you think.

Hello, Asian Milf,

I’m a john, er, John, and I was taken by the brevity and directness of both your profile and your outfit.  You set the tone immediately when you declared, “I have a sweet tooth for chocolate – no other flavors need apply.”

That will make it easier for me to decide what to get you for Valentine’s Day.

Some of us on this site tend to list several things we’re “really good at,” but you kept your list to a single item: “Kicking the asses of White boys who insist on pissing me off.”

Can you elaborate on that, A.M.? What do they do to get on your wrong side? Is your wrong side better than your right side? I can assure you that, while I am a White boy myself, I would never dream of testing your self-defense skills by irritating you.

No, you won’t have to worry about any friction with me, Ms. Milf. I’d rather devote more of our dating time to shared pursuits, such as our mutual love of the British Broadcasting Corporation. (I’ve been a fan since back in the Monty Python days.)

This is what attracted me to you, A.M. Your passion for British television is as uncompromising as your chocolate craving. When asked “the six things I could never do without,” most people would reply with the obvious: like “family,” “health,” and “long walks on the beach.” But you wrote,

BBC

BBC

BBC

BBC

BBC

and oh yeah, BBC.

“A gal who knows what she likes is a gal who likes what she knows,” I always say. I have to ask, though, why didn’t you call it “the BBC,” the way most people do? Your way almost reminded me of those three-letter abbreviations you see in personal dating ads. No big deal, though. I know what you meant, and that’s what counts.

What’s your favourite programme? (Did you notice I used the British spelling? Hope that doesn’t piss you off.) I’ll bet it’s “Masterpiece Theatre.” Either that, or “BBC World News.” You seem the cultured, worldly type who likes to keep a breast on things.

Hey, thinking about it – oh, this is embarrassing! – I just realized I may have been completely misreading your list, and what you really mean by BBC is “Big Box of Chocolates.” I didn’t even consider that possibility.

You and your chocolates! You’re insatiable, Asian Milf.

Listen, baby, whether it’s quality TV programming, chocolates, you name it … I’m really interested in meeting you. You’re one of a kind. Most women on this site who complete the statement “Looking for blank” say “guys who like girls.”

Not many say “everybody.”      

 

©2010 John Shields

 

 

In Alaska, It’s How Many Votes Can Yukon?                   November 12, 2010

 

 

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

                            Shakespeare’s Henry VI, (Part 2), Act 4, Scene 2

 

Joe Miller, the Tea Party’s candidate for US Senate from Alaska, is a lawyer. He defeated the incumbent, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, also a lawyer, in the August Republican primary (which was definitely not the august Republican primary).

 

Murkowski, however, did not accept that result, and she put her name on the general election ballot as a write-in candidate. Now, with all votes cast, she, or more accurately, “Write-in Candidate,” is leading Miller by a comfortable margin.

 

The nerve of a grass-roots tactic being employed against a self-styled grass-roots candidate.

 

Consequently, Miller is lawyering to erase Murkowski’s lead. He has demanded that the state count for her only those ballots with her full or last name spelled correctly. (The voting commission has already declared that votes for “Lisa M” will not count.) He is even challenging ballots that say “Murkowski, Lisa.”

 

One trusts that he’s applying the same standards of orthographic precision to his own name, on the odd chance that “Miller” appears on any of those ballots. Not that he’s taking any risk in doing so; “Miller” is the sixth most common name in America, according to the 2000 census. And of the names ahead of it (Smith, Johnson, Williams, Brown, and Jones), which one has beer bottles reinforcing its spelling?

 

Although there is floor wax and lectric shave.

 

If Miller’s name were Blogojevich – or Onorato, even – you wonder if maybe he wouldn’t be so insistent about spelling accuracy. I used to know a guy named Touzel. He was on the list of funny customer names when I worked at Sears in college. Imagine the problems that name would cause for write-in voters. Toozel, Toozle,Tuzle, Twozil, and Tuezzel for starters.

 

Meanwhile, it’s not some piddling little percentage of the vote we’re talking about here. The Wall Street Journal reports that a whopping 41% of the votes cast in the election were write-ins. So thank you, Sen. Muircalski, for adding to the workload. And thank you, Joe Miller, for … adding to the workload.

 

(An aside: No matter how many permutations of her name Alaska’s voters manage to come up with, let’s not paint Myrrhkowski as a victim here. Leesa ran and lost, despite the water-pistol caliber of her opponent. Didn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald lay down the rules when he said, “There are no second acts in American lives?” The only thing that makes her end-around marginally palatable is that it deprives Sarah Palin of another gloating Tweet.)

 

Ms. Mercowlsky, by the way, became a US Senator the old fashioned way: Her father, who was governor at the time, appointed her. Joe Miller, on the other hand, had his own gubernatorial connections: He was endorsed for the Senate by someone who decided to quit halfway through her term.

 

Like the polar bear, integrity appears to be an endangered species in our 49th state.

 

In a nation where nobody except the people who run the Scripps Spelling Bee and the insane parents who enter their kids in it seems to give a rat’s you-know-what about spelling, it seems disingenuous for anyone to use it as a tool to disenfranchise voters. Yet that’s what Miller seems willing to do. He wants less government – except when it keeps him from getting to Washington.

 

What should truly trouble all Americans here, though, is that the two states at the opposite corners of our continent and our nation seem to have this thing about examining ballots by hand. In 2000 in Miami-Dade, it was “Is that hanging chad a vote?” Now, in Juneau, it’s “I don’t know … It looks like ‘Lebowski’ to me.”

 

Prompting an unexpected movie sequel from the Coen brothers?

 

 

©2010 John Shields

 

 

  

Issue? I Hardly Know You!                                              October 31, 2010

 

 

The elections are upon us, a sad fact that feels like the consequence of some biblical payback for our transgressions. (“A plague of candidates be upon your house!”)

 

I’d rather a plague of locusts. At least they do something.

 

These past few weeks (one few weeks too many) the politicians – when they’re not inundating us with their robo-calls – have been inundating us with their “literature” (to profane the loftiest definition of the word). You’ve probably noticed that there are certain stylistic devices common to every candidate’s mailings. Since it’s Halloween, let’s review them. They are essentially costumes, after all.

 

1.  Rolled up shirt sleeves (male candidates only). This trope is designed to get voters to believe that the candidate is hard at work getting his hands dirty on their behalf. (A cynic might counter, “But his hands were dirty before he put the shirt on.”) Interestingly, female candidates for public office have so far not produced a similar clothing metaphor for hard work. This may be because, historically, women tended the hearth, though you’d think that rolling up your sleeves at the hearth would be a good way to prevent catching fire. Curious how that never caught on politically.

 

2. Make your opponent look as if she’s in a mug shot or has only days to live. The converse, naturally, is to doctor your candidate’s pictures to give the appearance of a happy, balanced, airbrushed individual at ease with himself and every constituency you can crowd into the ad. If the candidate is a male, give him a wife to stand admiringly by his side. (Kids are good, too, but don’t make the mistake one Arizona politician did of substituting his nieces for the kids he didn’t have.) If female, well, it's probably not wise to to show a husband standing admiringly by her side, because chances are he'd be looking down, not up, at her. Male or female, whatever you do, don’t include a same-sex partner.

 

3.  Opponent’s face in shadow against an ominous background. We all know that shadows stand for evil, secretiveness and lack of sunshine. On the off chance that a voter might actually sympathize with the opponent because of her “only-has-days-to-live” look, to the point of voting for her, this device is guaranteed to prevent such a sentimental defection from the ranks. And it doesn’t hurt that the photo’s in black and white.

4.  Your candidate in color, the opponent in black and white. Focus groups of stupid people have concluded that the person in the black-and-white photo looks less trustworthy, so politicians and their ad makers extrapolate that stupidity onto the rest of us and hope it sticks. Perhaps all three groups should revisit Walker Evans’ black-and-white photographs capturing the dignity of Depression Era sharecroppers. 

 

5.  Show your candidate wearing a hardhat or signing something. It doesn’t matter what he’s signing. It could be mortgage foreclosure papers, a check from a corporate donor, or a note to his mistress. What’s important is that, to the voter, it looks like he’s signing a bill. Note: the candidate should never be portrayed signing something while wearing a hardhat. Desk work, unlike implying you’re as tough as a construction worker, does not require a hardhat.

 

And finally …

 

6.  Do not – repeat, DO NOT – indicate which party the candidate belongs to. At least not in a font size larger than 2, and always in black on a black background. This is the political kiss of death. American flags, fine. Quotes taken out of context, fine. Witch cauldrons, maybe. But party affiliation? Don’t mention it. You want the candidate to win, right?  

 

©2010 John Shields

 

New York Doll                                                                     September 1, 2010

 

 

This story’s about Noell.

 

Noell is one of two dogs that belong to my sons Nick and John. The other is Jazz, whose dog-ear-biting propensities I extolled in a recent column. Both are pit bulls, a breed about which little positive is said or written.

 

For that reason alone, I’m proud of my boys for seeing past the (too often justified) negative image and taking a chance on discovering how incredibly affectionate these dogs can be. They love to be in contact with humans (“Yeah, with their teeth,” some of you are thinking; well, don’t be cynical and hear me out.) They will lick your face endlessly and will sleep with you if you let them.

 

Sounds like me.

 

Both Noell and Jazz are rescue dogs. Noell was 4 when Nick adopted her two years ago, after his first rescued pit bull, Rupert, adopted when Nick was a student at Pitt, did not survive surgery for an obstructed intestine.  

 

Her story, as told to Nick, is that she had suffered not so much from abuse as from indifference. The distinction is perhaps only a matter of degree, or semantics. Never allowed indoors by one of her owners, she has on her underbelly a permanent patch of rough, darkened, frostbitten-looking skin from sleeping on pavement. She was found lying in the street in New York City, her leg broken after being hit by a car. No one claimed her.

 

Noell is engaging and she welcomes affection, yet her earlier circumstances have clearly affected her demeanor. She appears to slip at times into what looks almost like melancholy, her doleful eyes and bearing reflecting the residual effects of an animal that’s been ground down

 

I learned something else about her this week.

 

She’s staying with me while Nick’s on vacation – I watch the dogs so I’ll get paid back in grandchildren – and I’m head-over-heels in love with this gentle creature. Yesterday, after walking her, I thought she might enjoy that most basic of canine aerobic activities: Fetch. I picked up a piece of branch about a foot and a half long and flung it across my yard.

 

Noell didn’t budge.

 

Okay, maybe she’s not used to this game, I thought. So I did what any human participant in Fetch would do: I carried the stick over to her so she could examine it, expecting she’d piece together what she was supposed to do and off she’d go, fetching, or some approximation of it.

 

But this was not what Noell did. Instead, as I approached her with the stick, her left eye, the one closest to me, closed protectively and her whole body flinched and tensed, shrinking from some anticipated pain.

 

I knew immediately that “indifference” wasn’t all this beautiful animal had been subjected to.

 

Seeing her cower like that changed everything between us. Before, I was merely entertaining her, getting to know her, but now, in what felt like a form of conversion, I was driven to give her all the love and physical contact that I could in the time she was with me. Pure compassion enveloped me, which is one of the blessings of growing older.

 

It’s something we can’t explain. Some call it God’s will: two lonely, rejected pit bulls, one in Pittsburgh, the other in New York City, and a young man who had the heart and the courage to assume responsibility for their care. Their destinies were intertwined. The heartbreak of Rupert’s untimely death released the latch on a shelter door, where poor Noell was caged … and transformed her life.

 

 

©2010 John Shields

 

 

 

Gift of Life September 4, 2010                                                 September 6, 2010

                                               

 

Personal cause for celebration, gratitude, and reflection … September 4, 2010 was the 20th anniversary of my kidney transplant!

 

Over the years I’ve tried to be judicious in using my status as an organ transplant recipient as column material. No one wants to hear about another’s misfortune. What few pieces I wrote, I wrote mainly to make people aware of the human side of the issue, that for every recipient there is a donor, and two families whose fates intersect in a powerful way.

 

I’m not a proselytizer, not the Glenn Beck of organ donation, but I did feel that, used sparingly, a column was a great vehicle for making a large number of folks aware of the need for organ and tissue donors.

 

I reiterate that urgent need.

 

Without my transplant, literally a “gift of life,” it’s unlikely any columns would have been written, unlikely I would’ve had the stamina, let alone the opportunity, to raise my three children. Unlikely I’d be here writing this.

 

Life, for my family, would have been … who knows what it would have been? … but certainly a different life … likely with a different father and husband.

 

Before my transplant, I was failing, tethered to a machine each night for ten hours, with the toxins in my system causing restless legs, little appetite, and a constant metallic taste in my mouth. Even with monthly injections to help me manufacture red blood cells, I was severely anemic. I was in graduate school as a fulltime student who could barely stay awake or articulate a thought, so clouded was my mind. And we had brought a third child into the world only four months earlier, maybe the greatest leap of faith either I or my wife had ever made.

 

Dialysis is no cure; all it does is get your critical blood values out of the kill zone. Yet only three days after my transplant, my creatinine levels (a key measure of kidney function) had dropped from a near-fatal 14 to a near-normal-range 1.6. Today it’s a perfect 1.0, as it’s been for, well, twenty years.

 

It is indeed a milestone anniversary for me. Many organ transplant recipients are not so fortunate. They reject their grafts, or the transplanted organ ceases to become viable after only five or six years, necessitating another transplant.  

 

When I was down at the Gift of Life program not long ago to volunteer as a speaker, we recipients went around the room at the orientation telling how long ago we’d received our transplants.

 

“Three months.”

 

“Two years.”

 

“On my second one after six years.”

 

Then it came to me. “Goin’ on twenty years.”

 

I felt like Muhammad Ali … on a less global scale, of course. They were bowing to me, applauding me, I think because I filled them with hope. Moments like that help define one’s calling in life.

 

While providence has certainly played a role in my longevity, it would be wrong to underestimate three other important factors: my fitness and general good health prior to the onset of my illness; my compliance as a patient; and the rare, perfect antigen match I had with my donor, who gave me one hell of a kidney. The last may be the most important of all, because I have not experienced a single rejection episode.

 

Because of that, I periodically negotiate (unsuccessfully) with my kidney doctors to come off or at least reduce the immune suppression medications I must take daily. They’re not without their side effects: more body hair, longer recovery time from illness, and susceptibility to skin cancer, broken bones, and weakened connective tissue.

 

All of which I’ve experienced these past twenty years, but a small price (actually quite a bit more than a small price) to pay considering the alternative.

 

On September 4, 1990, I received a call at 3:15 a.m. It was the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania calling with some information for me and a question: “We have a kidney for you. Would you like to have it?”  

 

What an existential moment, where there’s no asking for a little more time to think about it, where an answer – your answer – is required and the consequences of that answer … that choice … are so monumental.

 

You’d think such a decision would be a no-brainer, but having managed tolerably on dialysis for a year and a half, I had adapted to a lower standard regarding quality of life. Fortunately, I realized there at three in the morning that I hadn’t endured the hardships of the previous five years only to say “no” at crunch time to the best hope I’d ever have for a “normal” life again.

 

“Yes. Yes I would.”

 

Ten days later I returned home, walking gingerly but with a new kidney. A new life. My wife and her family had taped a “Welcome home, John!” sign above the garage. It was decorated with drawings of kidneys and several glued-on dried kidney beans – the work of my children.

 

They were ages 5, 3, and 4 months.

 

 

©2010 John Shields

 

My "Jazz"-ercise Workout                                                      June 28, 2010

 

My youngest son’s dog Jazz is a 2-year-old rescued pit bull full of love and affection and bits of ears from other dogs that have looked sideways at her. Today we are out walking together.

 

One surefire way to get a head count of the dogs in your neighborhood that are allowed to be off-leash is to walk a dog capable of separating them from their ears. Invariably, the free-rangers will head straight for the animal at the end of your leash, the Mike-Tyson-with-tags you so don’t want them to sniff.

 

For example, here comes “Kelly,” who looks to have a little pit bull in her herself. Kelly has bounded off her front porch to learn more about Jazz.

 

I wish she’d direct her inquiries to me.  

 

I would tell Kelly how Jazz recently had an incident with my oldest son’s dog Noell. A female-on-female thing. Noell had to have surgery next morning to save her ear, and Jazz had to be quarantined for ten days, which basically means, as the county health department worker cheerily told me, “Oh, sure, you can walk her, but keep her on a tight leash.”

 

Their altercation was over a male – me. Both dogs were staying at my house – long story – and they were so happy to see me when I came in one night that they were competing for my attention like two teenage girls at the lifeguard stand. That changed in a flash when they went all feral on each other. 

 

With that as background, let’s return to Kelly, who is showing no signs of listening to her owner’s cries of “Here, Kelly. C’mon, Kelly.” The Cautious Me thinks better of letting them meet. I lift Jazz by her harness, a truly magnificent invention, and position myself between her and the rapidly closing Kelly, just as I had with Jazz and Noell on the Night of the Long Fangs. Will I never learn?

 

Kelly, meanwhile, reminds me of the Irishman returning home to his ill-natured wife after a night at the pub, unlocking the door and not knowing “what he was letting himself in for.” Every advance of her eager, friendly paws ratchets up my stress level. I’m calling out urgently in the direction of the owner’s voice, whom I can’t even see, “Please control your dog!” Just when it appears that nothing is going to get Kelly to turn back, her owner’s command registers and she returns to her porch. The street beneath my feet is drenched in sweat.  

 

“She won’t hurt you. She’s harmless,” Kelly’s owner’s voice assures me.

 

“It’s not your dog I’m worried about,” I respond, as it suddenly dawns on this person how close Kelly may have just come to reconstructive surgery.

 

“Thank you,” is her heartfelt answer to me, the beneficent, nerve-rattled dog walker.

 

Not twenty yards further into our walk, another leash-less canine crosses the street in front of us. This one looks old. I do not want to learn if Jazz does better with old dogs, so we do a quick 180 past Kelly again before Jazz even realizes a senior citizen was in her path.

 

At the end of the next block there’s an energetic border collie – Is there any other kind? – playing with her owner along the side of their house. I would like to be thinking, “How cute,” but instead it’s “Get a @!%#-ing leash on her, will ya!” as my diastolic bumps up another ten points. I steal past with Jazz, like a scouting party behind enemy lines, praying that we escape her attention. The last thing we need is to be herded.

 

Until you’re a dog owner, even an acting one like me, you don’t realize how many of them live in your neighborhood, leashed or not leashed. Not to worry, though. A dog must be walked, and that creates a scent, which draws the attention of every mutt and purebred along the route. The barking frenzy that follows makes dog counting an easy task.

 

For instance, I now know that there are 27 dogs along my one-mile route. With all due respect to cat lovers, your feline pets simply do not provide this sort of good demographic information.

 

But as for the idiots who think that, just because their dogs are benign, there’s no need to keep them on a leash, I suggest they rethink that approach … unless they’re looking for a reason to rename their pet “Van Gogh.”

 

 

©2010 John Shields

 

Of Greek Philosophers and Jalapenos                                   June 7, 2010

 

 

By my brain’s calendar, it was about a year ago when chipotle first appeared. Maybe it was ten years ago and I’m just that slow. Maybe I was so preoccupied grappling with the meaning of tapas that I missed chipotle’s arrival. Whatever. All I know is one day it wasn’t there and the next it was everywhere.

 

I get thrown off my game when a new word appears whose meaning I’m clueless about. On the one hand, it’s exciting, as if Earth has revealed another of her secrets. On the other hand, it feels like a conspiracy, with me among the conspired against.

 

Time magazine pulls stuff like that. In the middle of an otherwise straightforward expository paragraph the editors insert a word or phrase that stops readers like me in our tracks. A few issues later, there it is again. “Sea change” was an example of this. “Vetted” was another. I had read Time for years without ever running into these words before, so why all of a sudden?

 

And now “chipotle,” though I can’t blame Time for that one.

 

As both a word and an entity, chipotle is an utterly unnecessary addition to my life, its existence immaterial to me except insofar as I can get a column out of it. I’m long past varying my consumption patterns simply because of a new word on the menu. Take “Jagermeister,” for example. I hear it mentioned with enthusiasm and cachet among mostly younger drinkers, but because a Bloody Mary and a gin-and-tonic mark the boundaries of my liquor forays, I couldn’t tell you what a Jagermeister is, only that, when hammered, pronouncing it becomes, in effect, a sobriety test. (“Police report says you called it ‘Gajersteimer,’ son.”)

 

But something else makes chipotle problematic. Sea change and vetted I could at least pronounce. Even jagermeister (when I’m sober) is no phonetic speed bump for me – and I had French in high school. But chipotle …

 

Bottle … Aristotle … chipotle, right?

 

No, not right. And that’s what makes it wrong. It doesn’t sound anything like Aristotle, or coddle, or throttle. But it should. IT SHOULD SOUND LIKE THEM! It should sound like Aristotle, at least, because it’s SPELLED LIKE THAT! After that, our weird English language takes over and lets it sound like those other words, too.

 

Worse, the word has multiple pronunciations. It can either be chi-pot-ly, like “motley,” or chi –poat-ly, like “remotely.” Or, the last syllable can sound like “-lay,” thus doubling the ways we can pronounce it.

 

No word should get off this easy.

 

You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? All these Generation Me people who are growing up with chipotle are going to encounter Aristotle for the first time some day in Philosophy 101 (the ones taking Liberal Arts, anyway), and then those college professors are going to have to actually do some teaching.

 

Well now that I’ve brought up the subject, I guess I should share what I’ve learned about chipotle. It’s a smoke-dried type of jalapeno chili pepper, most of which are produced in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. (That’s chee-who-uh-who-uh, after the grotesque dog of the same name). Because the drying process removes most of the moisture, it takes ten pounds of jalapenos to make one pound of chipotle. (In ancient Greece, Aristoatlay had the brain power of ten ordinary Greeks combined. Unlike jalapenos, however, he was never smoke-dried – except once in Macedonia, punitively, when he erroneously taught his pupil, Alexander the Pre-Great, that Mexico was in Asia Minor.)

 

Our culture craves novelty the way cacti crave the desert and oil companies crave Republicans. When chipotle becomes passé, there will be another chipotle to talk about, to claim status through, to provide our lazy, entertain-me minds and eroding interpersonal skills with another fad to fleetingly engage each other with. A new wrinkle to be out in front on until the next latest thing comes along. 

 

It’s unlikely that that new wrinkle will be Aristotle. But if it is, just ask someone this: What assures the adequacy of our explicandum and the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge if not the analytic character of all implication relations upon which correct deductive inference must be based? 

 

You're right, it was just a rhetorical question.

But it'll burn your tongue better than any hot pepper I’ve tasted.

 

 

 ©2010 John Shields

 

Crying: Past and Present                                                                 June 1, 2010

 

Some of us remember the “crying Indian” TV spot from the early ‘70s. He was the emotional centerpiece of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign to stop people from littering. In the ad, a buckskin-clad Native American is canoeing a pollution-filled stream past factories belching smoke. He comes ashore on a litter-strewn bank and walks to a highway, where a passenger in a passing car throws a bag of trash that lands at his feet. As the camera zeroes in to close-up, we see a single tear roll down his cheek. “People start pollution, people can stop it,” says the voiceover.

 

A single tear, powerful an image though it may be, is inadequate for what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

The numbers defy our ability to comprehend: up to 40 million gallons of crude oil have gushed into the gulf since the April 20 collapse of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. And with no assured fix in sight, there is the very real possibility that the opening into the bowels of the earth will not be sealed until August.

 

The math of this muck is horrifically simple: If 18-40 million gallons have escaped in the 30 days since the catastrophe, then twice again as much – 36-80 million gallons – will have poured into the Gulf waters 60 days from now. That’s assuming its release from beneath the ocean floor continues at the same rate, with no reason to think otherwise. Adding the two time periods together, that’s 54-120 million gallons of crude oil.

 

When I first began thinking about the Gulf oil spill, back before the hard numbers of escaped barrels and gallons began multiplying in their enormity, it was on a speculative, astrophysical scale. Would the spill alter the planet’s mass if all that oil exited the core? And since earth’s mass is part of the orbital equation, what would happen to its orbit, and thus our seasons, and then who knows what? I wasn’t being frivolous, merely inquisitive. A line of thinking I could maybe run by my children to get them thinking as well.

 

Meanwhile, BP executives and scientists were thinking in terms of tire chunks and golf balls. At the same time, you have to wonder what President Obama was thinking after he pretty much reneged on his campaign pledges a few days before the oil rig explosion and gave the go-ahead for more offshore drilling. That decision was of course nullified by the explosion and subsequent ongoing spill, and Obama has since put a moratorium on offshore drilling (a moratorium that a Federal judge, who held shares in a company in partnership with BP that owned the drilling rig in question, has just nullified.)

 

But as the implications of the oil disaster and its devastating after-effects upon the flora and fauna in the Gulf region and beyond became apparent, my cosmic considerations quickly faded. Instead, they shifted to the blowout preventer that couldn’t fail but did. The absurd image of a high-tech company resorting to tire scraps, golf balls and mud to plug the leak. The ongoing updates on BP’s stock price. The spectacle of BP’s CEO spewing his own crude, fouling the truth as readily as his company was fouling the Gulf.

 

I could think of a few more balls they might use to plug the hole. His.

 

The innocent and integral marine and bird life that is being wiped out, altering the ecological landscape perhaps forever . . . The livelihood of our fellow citizens, recipients of a monstrous double whammy between this event and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina . . . The television image of an elderly fisherman, his way of life now gone, telling the camera that all he can do now is sit around and “wait to die”. . .

 

If only the tears of a nation were the ultimate oil dispersant, for surely this tragedy is engendering an endless flow of them.

 

©2010 John Shields

 

Remembering Fess Parker                                                         March 20, 2010

 

 

I’ve only written one or two commemorative column in my six years of doing this, the most recent being after George Carlin died.

 

Last week, though, came the news of Fess Parker’s death at age 85, and he is certainly worthy of a commemorative, since anyone who’s not a Baby Boomer or older probably doesn’t know who he is. But if you are, you do. You surely do.

 

                            Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee

                            Greenest state in the land of the free

                            Raised in the woods ‘til he knew every tree

                            Kilt him a b’ar when he was only 3.

 

                            Day-veee, Daay-vy Crockett

                            King of the wild frontier.

 

That’d be “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” and if you’re a Boomer, every syllable of the lyric and every note of the melody are as stuck to your brain as Davy’s coonskin cap was to Fess’s head.

 

Fess Parker played the role of Davy Crockett in Disney’s hit television episodes of the mid 1950s. As such, he came up against all sorts of ornery critters, most of which were of the human variety. Bullies and braggarts like Bigfoot Mason and Mike Fink, King of the River. Con artists like Thimblerig, the riverboat gambler. And menacing “savages” like Chief Red Stick. Why, he even took on Santa Anna’s army at the Alamo, swinging away at them with Ol’ Betsy, his rifle, after his ammo ran out.

 

The Davy Crockett episodes became a national phenomenon and a merchandising tsunami for Disney. I was part of the wave, with my Davy Crockett lunchbox, my Davy Crockett tee-shirt, my Davy Crockett moccasins, my Davy Crockett rifle and gunpowder horn, and, of course, my Davy Crockett coonskin cap.

 

Of the coonskin cap, I distinctly recall being simultaneously thrilled and disillusioned when I first got my fingers on it. Just owning it, holding it, was joy beyond belief, but how come it wasn’t as thick and … furry as Davy’s?

 

My first lesson in “Let the buyer beware.”

 

In a park a block from my urban row house was a mound of dirt, known to the grownups as “infield mix.” For me, though, it’s high ground, good for scouting the surrounding terrain for game or signs of trouble. My trusty hound dog, Bunny (in reality an American toy terrier), is at my side. With my hand across my forehead, shielding my eyes from the blinding frontier sun, I, Davy Crockett, look westward, toward the Penn Fruit parking lot and Dobbins High School, striking a vigilant pose.

 

This moment was captured in a blurred, black-and-white snapshot taken of me when I was 6. I am adorned in Davy Crockett paraphernalia.

 

The photo had little to do with Fess Parker himself and everything to do with the character he portrayed, but Fess was Davy, a fact we cannot ignore. You could look at him and hear him speak just a few words and know from that kind, reassuring face and the soft, Southern timbre of his voice that here was a good man. So, too, was his Davy Crockett. Unperturbed and resolute. Decent, dry-witted, gentlemanly, loyal and brave.

 

Not bad traits for a young boy to emulate.

 

Goodbye, Fess/Davy. You were huge in my childhood. Granted, how you kilt a b’ar at age 3 struck me as a stretch, and I found other things to do when you went speechifying in Congress. But Bigfoot Mason, the meany, flat out intimidated me, and you disposed of him for me. You put Mike Fink in his place, too.

 

And you were kind. You befriended Busted Luck, the mute Indian, and brought him along with you to the Alamo … uh, for example.

 

And your stint at the Alamo – the tune strumming, the Jim Bowie counseling, and, of course, the aforementioned rifle wielding – good stuff. All that, while working to keep Mexicans from coming over the wall.

 

Some people would vote you back into Congress just for that.

 

After the Crockett success, the Disney Studios wouldn’t loan Parker out for roles that might threaten his frontiersman image, so it’s not surprising that he wound up back on TV, playing Daniel Boone. When his acting career ended, he took to making wine and started the Fess Parker Family Winery and Vineyards in Los Olivos, California.

 

If you’d like, you can buy yourself a coonskin cap there – ‘50s vintage.

 

 

©2010 John Shields

 

How Komodo Dragons Affect the Fishing Industry                   January 31, 2010

 

[Correction:

Last week’s “Ab Crunches for Tabby?” column contained a typo in which “fourteen three” (pounds and ounces) was written as “143” (pounds), thus suggesting that my overweight cat, Deuce, had dropped 127 pounds.

Even the scale on “The Biggest Loser: Feline Division" doesn't go that high.

Domestic cats do not attain weights of 143 pounds. The heftiest top out around 18, though my cousin Otis once got his calico pushing 30 on a diet of morta della and chicken nuggets.

During drought season, Serengeti lions, at 700 pounds, may experience a slimdown of the magnitude attributed to Deuce. (Biologists and English majors refer to it as getting “svelte on the veldt.”)  But those leonine love handles invariably return. That's what wildebeests are for. 

Deuce not being a Serengeti lion, I apologize for any confusion that you may have experienced. A 127-pound weight loss is serious tonnage, even for humans. Please do not try this at home on your own cat or you will create anti-matter. 

Sincerely,

The author]

 

Continuing in the wildlife vein, it’s time once again to see what Harper’s “Findings” page has to tell us about the natural – and unnatural – world we live in. (These are not made up.)

As before, your job is to match the finding with the tersely cogent, cogently terse commentary that accompanies it. Contestants may submit their matches (but no other flammable instruments) to anywheretheydlike.com.   

Great research knows no geographical, or even planetary, boundaries. Nine countries and a galaxy are represented. 

FINDINGS

A. Entomologists tricked Argentine ants into disposing of live pupae by dousing the living antlings with the smell of the dead.

B. An English hedgehog suffering from spinelessness was taken to Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hospital in Buckinghamshire.

C. The center of the Milky Way tastes like raspberries and smells like rum.

D. Kentucky is the saddest state.

E. A professor of clothing at Japan’s Women’s University invented stink-free underwear for astronauts.

F. Italian scientists studying the gas that makes rotten eggs and flatulence stink announced that the substance may work as an impotence drug after they injected it into the excised penises of sex-change patients.

G. In Hawaii, a woman found a $5 bill inside a coconut.

H. An Indonesian fisherman was killed by Komodo dragons when he attempted to collect sugar apples from a dragon-infested forest.

I. A chimpanzee in Sweden was found to be stockpiling weapons to use against humans.

J. Twitter dulls compassion for human suffering.

K. Surgeons in Russia removed a fir sapling from a man’s lungs.

L. Swarms of immortal jellyfish were spreading through the world’s oceans.

M. In western Iran, the growing popularity of taqaandan, a pastime in which the top half of the erect penis is wrenched sharply to one side and “popped,” and which has led to an epidemic of penile fractures, was becoming a public-health concern.

N. Cows with names produce 3.4 percent more milk than nameless cows.  

COMMENTS

1. All this time I thought abject despondency was.

2. Hey, tree svinger! Ja, sticks and stönes may ban break our bönes, but …

3. Let them eat tweets.

4. Starring Vincent Price as Arturo, the antomologist, in “The Premature Burial.”

5. Now that’s a (hono) lulu!

6. The obvious question: Why just astronauts?

7. He was admitted to the Cowardly Lion ward.

8. Serves him right. What’s a fisherman doing in a forest anyway?

9. Wrapped in a creamy, dark-matter chocolate. 

10. And we consider this country a threat?

11. Led by the world-renowned Lois Pasture.

12. Adding to the lore that Italian men – and women? – make the best lovers.

13. Newspaper headline: A Tree Grows in Roosk’s Lung

14. Our only defense? The Jersey Shore.  

ANSWERS: A-4, B-7, C-9, D-1, E-6, F-12, G-5, H-8, I-2, J-3, K-13, L-14, M-10, N-11

  

©2010 John Shields

 

 

Ab Crunches for Tabby?                                                                  January 24, 2010

 

 

My cat is fat. Row-tund. Oh, bese. (the makings of a poem) …

 

He’s now a feline of such girth that, Lord, I hardly know him.

 

Deuce – that’s my cat – wasn’t always fat. He was just big, the way some people are big. “Big-boned” is the expression, right, for humans who aren’t fat but aren’t exactly petite?

 

So let’s concede that my cat is big-boned. At his last visit to the vet, though, he weighed in at 16 pounds, 6 ounces.

 

“Holy catfood! What did he weigh last time?” I asked.

 

“When he was here eight months ago he was fourteen three.”

 

I quick ran the arithmetic. A jump of two pounds and three ounces in two-thirds of a year.

 

Then I ran the algebra. The old “percent change” calculation. A 16 percent increase. That’d be like me going from170 to 197. Over two decades of marriage, maybe, but in eight months? Even Seventh Day Adventists would be calling for my blood work.

 

“How could that be?” I wondered aloud. He’s an indoor-outdoor cat, which in my book means he’s getting daily exercise. Could the occasional meal of field mouse or newly un-nested fledgling account for the size of the creature here before us, a creature that tests the limits of my floor joists with every step he takes? No way. The mouse would have to be Ben to the tenth, and the bird … condor. Minimum.

 

The vet showed me a chart. I felt like the character in Clockwork Orange who was forced to look at disturbing images. “Look at these silhouettes of cats,” she said, “then pick out the one that most looks like Deuce.”

 

If I were honest with myself, I would’ve selected the body ball with whiskers at the far end of the scale, but I couldn’t face the shame of recognition, so I chose the one just before it – the beach ball. The difference between the two was negligible: each had a body wildly disproportionate to its head size and a pronounced, dangling “fat pad” on its underbelly.

 

“Oh, so that’s what that is,” I marveled. I’d always assumed that soft, pouchy area on Deuce’s belly was a side effect of neutering. You know, lost muscle tone. That sort of thing.

 

Since her goal in this exercise was to get me to acknowledge Deuce’s fatness, the vet diplomatically concurred with my choice of the beach ball – I’m sure she sees this behavior all the time – and then she introduced me to a cat-food concept heretofore alien to me: calories.

 

Flashing some brand literature, she showed me how the cat food I’d been feeding Deuce had 462 calories per cup and gave me some low-cal alternatives to choose from. I settled on Science Diet Light at 312 calories per cup, reasoning that Stephen Hawking is a scientist and he doesn’t seem to have a fat pad.

 

That day, I embarked on the alliterative “Deuce’s Diet” and fed him the recommended daily six ounces. Five diligent weeks and two bags of Science Diet Light later, I took him back to the vet for a second weigh-in.

 

He had lost three ounces. Three @#$&! ounces.

 

“Are you playing with him?” the vet asked me.

 

“I tease him about his fat pad, if that’s what you mean.”

 

“No. I mean string, feathers, cat toys. Make him chase you through the house.”

 

I draw the line at string. Oh, occasionally, from my desk chair, I’ll dangle my shoelace. If the cat happens to be passing by, he may take a swipe at it. So, yes, Doctor animal doctor, I do play with my cat.

 

I could defend my integrity all I wanted, but Deuce’s weight gain and seeming inability to lose it remained perplexing. That’s when my newly heightened awareness of cat calories came in handy.

 

For the past few years I’ve given Deuce some cuisine variety every couple of weeks by substituting a bag of Temptations ® treats for that day’s portion of cat food. At three ounces, it’s half the weight of his regular food. This time, for the first time, I read the label. Would you expect that something half the weight would contain 13 times the mass and not be called plutonium? Neither would I, but there it was: 4,000 calories.

 

The equivalent of two weeks’ meals in a day. Every two weeks.

 

So the puzzle’s been solved, and we’ve since both signed on to a less sedentary lifestyle. Deuce is appreciative of his new regimen, I think. I found a feathery, boa-like toy at the pet store that has him pouncing like he was a kitten again. That and a length of silver Christmas ribbon are his speed bag and stationary bike. He gets his cardio chasing me through the house.  

 

As for Temptations treats, maybe Stephen Hawking should try them. They come in fish flavors as well as meat, and he can afford to put on a pound or two.

 

 

©2010 John Shields

 

Hash Marks, Yes; Stretch Marks, Never                December 2, 2009                                                                 

 

I’m trying to get my arms around the new Lingerie Football League – and any of the women who play in it. My last attraction to women in a league of their own was at a movie theater.  Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna and Geena Davis were flashing some serious leather, better than the Dominatrix League even. It aroused me no end. But that’s because I’m a baseball fan.

 

Our local LFL franchise is the Philadelphia Passion, and isn’t that a great name for a sports team, you’re thinking, until you see teams in the league with names like Seduction, Temptation and Caliente and begin to get the picture.

 

The Tampa Breeze and the Seattle Mist, two other Lingerie League entries, seem to have missed that it’s not about the weather.   

 

This is a soft-porn league, after all, and the backers are hoping that the kind of spectator who pays to watch two women mud wrestle will pay even more to watch 14 of them block and tackle.

 

Not that they have experience blocking and tackling. In fact, none of the girls had prior football experience before signing with the Passion. But so what? Did Edison work for G.E. before he invented the light bulb?

 

The league’s inaugural season runs 20 weeks, from September 4 to January 29. That coincides with the NFL’s season almost to the day, excluding the Super Bowl. So far, it doesn‘t look as if there’s going to be an LFL Super Bowl, though. This may have to do with the four-game schedule the girls play. In a 20-week season, that’s a game every five weeks. Not much of a grind, except in a certain sense.

 

If they ever do hold their own Super Bowl, they’ll need a different name for it anyway.

 

Super Cup, maybe.

 

Ticket prices for the Passion’s upcoming battle with the Tampa Breeze on December 11 range from $15 to $105. They are adult only. The $105 seats are first-row lower level, so close to the action that you could get yourself an inadvertent lap dance on a basic out pattern.

 

But let’s talk about the uniforms for a second, starting with the eye black that every player wears. God, that’s so hot!

 

An LFL player’s uniform is – what’s the word I’m looking for that means “even the Hubbell telescope couldn’t locate it?” – scanty. In a nod to safety, it includes a set of shoulder pads and a hockey helmet. No hip pads, however. Although bodies often hit the ground in lingerie football – taut, sensuous bodies writhing in flesh-pressed piles, I might add – protective hip pads would detract from the visual element of booty shorts clinging seductively to expressive pelvises.

 

And that’s a problem.

 

So is the one the Lingerie Football League designers ran into with the players’ uniform numbers. Athletes in team sports become identified with the number on the back of their jerseys – Michael Jordan and 23, for example. But what’s a pole-dancer-turned-QB to do when her jersey is a plunging, ribbon-accented sports bra covered by shoulder pads?

 

The designers – God bless ‘em – solved that one by putting players’ numbers on their right butt cheeks.

 

Right now, I’m admiring that inspired move here at my local sports bra … bar … as I watch the Seduction and Temptation go at it on pay-per-view. The uniform numbers are smaller on the butt than they’d be on the back of a jersey, so spectators have to work a little harder to read them. (Precisely.) But the off-center design leaves the left cheek unadorned, in all its pristine, curvaceous loveli … sorry.

 

The Passion are 1-1 so far, with the season more than half over. If they can manage to avoid injuries, hip pointers in particular, they can finish 3-1, and that just might be enough to give Philadelphia the football championship it deserves.

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

 

“Float” Sounds Too Nice                                      November 8, 2009

 

 

My Norton antivirus subscription expires on 11/29, so why did I just receive an email from them advising me that my automatic renewal would take effect on 11/14 (as if you don’t know the answer)?

 

And what automatic renewal?

 

Despite the fact that a year’s gone by and my recall is proportionately less sharp, I know myself well enough that I would never authorize a merchant to automatically renew any service I might buy from them.

 

What … to let them get away with charging me for a new year two weeks before the current year has expired?

 

It’s a float, pure and simple, and the way it’s played is I subsidize – and amplify – the interest they earn by giving them my money two weeks before I have to. (The credit card company is probably in on this.) In return, what do I get back from Norton? Nothing that I didn’t already pay for when I purchased a full year’s service on 11/29 of last year.

 

Aaarrrghh! Few things in life piss me off more than big companies playing the little guy for a fool. And always in the guise of giving us something special. In this case, protection and piece of mind.

 

One of their other tricks: When a product has nothing further to offer us quality-wise, its manufacturer will seek to maximize profit by getting us to buy bigger quantities, or versions, of it. They win because they’ll always charge us more than what it costs them to go bigger. In this regard, Big Gulp sodas and McMansion houses have a lot in common. Thanks to economies of scale, lower unit costs to the producer mean bigger profit margins. And so what if we don’t really need that extra eight ounces of soda or the additional 2000 square feet of living space. Marketing will ensure that we come to like it, feel it necessary to our lives, feel we’re getting our money’s worth.

 

Meanwhile, the manufacturer, or the builder, will be, ever so imperceptibly, phasing out the smaller product offerings until, one day, they’ll be gone entirely – as will our ability to choose smaller over larger. We’ll have, without even noticing it, been shepherded up to a higher price point.

 

In the computer/software world, companies like Symantec (the maker of my Norton antivirus program) simply stop supporting older, less expensive versions of their products, thus forcing us to buy up.

 

This is how capitalism and the market work. I just wish they’d be honest about it.

 

The first thing I did with my Norton email was locate the link that would allow me to turn off the automatic renewal. Finding it wasn’t easy, because the font size for that is very small and there was lots of distracting text in its general vicinity. Distracting text is a corporation’s way of dissuading us from acting on our indignation.

 

When I finally unearthed the page that would allow me to opt-out of automatic renewal (another sales ploy: making opting in the default), Norton was ready for me. They hit me with some scare tactics. You know … how I was leaving my computer vulnerable to hacker assaults if I dared set my account to manual renewal. Thankfully, I like living life on the edge, and I didn’t let those implied threats deter me from being captain of my own ship.

 

So between now and 11/29, I’m flying on manual. Norton has already expressed its disapproval via a jarring RED WINDOW on my screen advising me that between now and the 29th I am taking enormous risks. This despite the fact that I’m protected by their antivirus program until then. That is, I’d better be. I wouldn’t put it past them to create a little “incident” to prod me back to where they want me to be: scared and compliant. Like where the pharmaceutical industry wants me to be. And the insurance industry wants me to be. And the …

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

 

 

LOL Can Have Another Meaning                                     October 26, 2009

 

 

Today, my oldest son and I almost Lost Our Lives on I-95 in North Carolina.

 

What impressed me most about our near-accident, if “impressed” is the right word, was how quietly and in such seeming slow motion it unfolded, given that we were traveling at almost 75 miles per hour at the time.

 

It’s hard to say how close Nick and I came to being car fatalities, but veering across two lanes of interstate sideways at high speed puts us in the running. Suffice to say: that we didn’t flip over and/or get struck by another vehicle was miraculous.

 

We were heading home to Philadelphia after visiting my other son, John, a student at College of Charleston, in South Carolina. Nick had taken over the driving after I’d done the first leg of the 12-hour drive. I awoke from napping to find him cruising along in the left lane behind a Budget® rental truck. He told me it had been a tough driving stretch because of the frustrating behavior of some of the other vehicles in front of him – the Budget truck in particular.

 

One of the problems with erratic drivers is that they cause congestion where there needn’t be. It’s not as though Nick was on the rental truck’s tail, but when I awoke I noticed that he and the rest of the traffic were more bunched than one would expect on an early Sunday afternoon in rural North Carolina.

 

Nick had no sooner expressed his frustration when, as if on cue, the rental truck suddenly went into action. It swerved to the left to avoid a large, red-and-white-striped object sitting in the middle of our lane. No telling what it was or how or when it had gotten there, but it was big – about 4x4 feet – and substantial.

 

We were headed right for it.

 

It was only the truck's swerving that allowed us to see it. Bearing down on it at 70 mph or better, Nick braked and steered left, our tires chattering against the warning ridges on the side of the road that tell sleepy drivers if they’ve drifted across the lane marker and onto the shoulder.

 

Antilock brakes are designed to let you steer while braking. Maybe it was the warning ridges, but the rear of our car began to swing out as Nick tried to reclaim the left lane, and we just missed striking the concrete barrier that divides the highway. We continued swerving until, tires squealing, we crossed the passing lane we’d been in and were now sideways to the right lane by about 90 degrees and counting. At this point, I began to prepare for the possibility that we were going to roll.

 

Nick and I both remained outwardly calm, though, with him focused on regaining control of the car and me encouraging him, “That’s it. Nick. Take it easy. Easy.” The terrain along the right lane was grassy and it sloped about 25 feet to a gully. Fortunately, there was no guardrail. Somehow Nick got the car onto the grass while keeping us upright and before another car could hit us. We rolled down the embankment and came to a stop at the gully.

 

We, and the car, had escaped undamaged.

 

An SUV pulled over to see if we were okay. We nodded. A couple of forwards-and-reverses to get the car pointed in the right direction and we were able to drive back up the hill and onto the highway. We never looked back.

 

Though we were in the relative, temporary safety of the car’s interior while the moment was unfolding, I’ve changed enough flat tires on vulnerable highway shoulders to know what forces were at work outside the vehicle. It was frightening to feel so out of control at such speed. The scene out the front window kept changing as we spun across the two lanes, and I expected to see a car behind us unable to stop in time and providing the coup de grace for our demise. But that never happened. And though we can never say with certainty that one action is connected to another, I was thankful that wisdom had trumped frugality when I put on four new tires the week before.

 

Nick and I didn’t talk much about our experience until we had reached the familiar roads close to home and had decompressed. We both acknowledged how close we’d come to losing our lives (nothing to lol about there) and how lucky we were that potentially catastrophic events that could have easily happened to us – the median strip, a multi-car collision – didn’t.

 

“It wasn’t our time” and “There’s still work to be done” have taken on the mantle of cliché, but the underpinning of cliché is truth, and the truth is we are both still here, my son and I, and the hope is it’s for a reason.

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

(Author’s note: “I” is a writer’s bane and best friend, and the only times I can justify its frequent presence in my own work is when I feel I’ve made it a stand-in for “we.” That disclaimer aside, here is another “I” story, counterbalanced, I hope, by the strong presence of an “it.)

 

A Friend for All Seasons Is Gone                                October 5, 2009

 

 

Everybody remembers Wilson, right? The volleyball that became Tom Hanks’ buddy in the film Cast Away. Hanks’ marooned character, Chuck Noland, discovered it when it washed ashore after the crash of his FedEx cargo plane. The ball was a Wilson® brand, so that’s what Noland, in his growing need for social interaction of any kind, named it.

 

I suspect we all have a Wilson in our lives, some inanimate object that, for whatever reason, comes to mean the world to us. A first car. A baseball glove. A waffle maker, who knows? What differentiates an object like Wilson from these other examples, though, is its role in keeping us alive. Without Wilson, Chuck Noland doesn’t survive.

 

My “Wilson” is my weekly pill organizer, the compartmentalized rectangular prism of a pal that’s been with me for close to twenty years, almost from the day I had to begin taking daily immune-suppressive medication for my kidney transplant.

 

Faced with a slew of assorted pills, I learned early on that uncapping and re-capping a mob of medicine bottles daily wasn’t the most efficient use of my time. I’d known about these things called “pill organizers,” or “pill reminders,” because I’d bought one for my father a few years earlier. Dad suffered from dementia, epilepsy and depression – DED, you could say – and it was only after my mom passed away that I began to learn the full extent of both his mental state and his pill regimen. I figured the organizer would help him keep the latter aspect of his life, at least, together.

 

His, like mine, was the seven-day type, but more complex in its design than mine, being a twice-a-day organizer. Its flip-open lids ensured that the evening pills could only be accessed after the morning ones had been taken. But there was nothing preventing someone, i.e., Dad, from taking the evening doses immediately after swallowing the morning’s, or the next day’s on the same day as the current day’s.

 

I learned this first hand when he took a header onto the asphalt while getting off a bus,  and an emergency room blood test found him to be toxically overdosed on Dilantin, an epilepsy medicine.

 

Dad died a few months after that episode. Among his personal belongings that I kept was his pill organizer. An ironic attachment, as it turned out, because a year later I was diagnosed with the early symptoms of kidney failure, condemning me, too, to a lifetime of pill organizing.

 

Pill holders are for old people, right? But there I was with one of my very own. Mine was my sturdy companion for a third of my life, longer than any pet I’ve had and almost as long as my marriage. It sat passively on the kitchen countertop (like “the money you could be saving with GEICO”), simplifying my life and marking my days as a transplant recipient with the same daily regularity as my razor and toothbrush, only with far greater urgency.

 

I confess I took its presence for granted more often than not.

 

And then one day it was gone. Uncharacteristically, I had failed to keep track of it on a trip away from home, and when I was unpacking upon my return, I saw that it had not returned with me. No dramatic drifting away on the current of a lonesome ocean, like Wilson. Just a mundane, left-behind oversight.

 

Unlike the Hanks character in the movie, I never gave my blue, plastic little guy a name. Like him, though, I mourned this inanimate helpmate’s passing. I prepared the following brief eulogy for a memorial service attended only by me:

 

“My pill organizer was an object of few words. Stolid, yes. Phlegmatic, undoubtedly. But always there for me when I needed it. It took life one day at a time – S, M, T, W, T, F, S – and never felt compelled to make more of any day than it already was. “Th” or “Sa,” for example. Sure, it flipped its lid once a day, that I’ll concede, but not of its own accord and, hey, don’t we all?”

 

May it continue providing its invaluable service to some prescription-challenged soul in Charleston or Danbury, or wherever I left it.

 

Of course, pill organization remains mandated for me, so I got on with my life and bought a replacement. Twenty years later, and the only design advance I can discern is larger daily compartments. We can debate whether that represents a true “advance.” What is not debatable is that I’ve lost a true pal.

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

Bringing out the Kid and Me                                    September 17, 2009

 

Author’s note:

 

If you were watching the Phillies game last night, you may have been lucky enough to see the most charming, hilarious play of the season – and it didn’t happen on the field.

 

Jayson Werth, the Phillies’ right fielder, fouled off a pitch, sending it soaring toward the upper decks behind home plate. A fan sitting in the first row of the 300 level reached over the rail and caught the ball as it was descending toward the seats below. It was a very impressive grab.

 

He turned to receive high-fives from a couple of guys in the rows behind him then pumped his fists in the air before high-fiving his little daughter, who looked to be barely 3 years old.

 

He gave the ball to her, an act every dad longs to do but few actually get to do. She took it from him … and unhesitatingly threw it back over the rail.

 

The dad’s hands, only seconds earlier raised in triumph, had just settled down when they shot back up in a pleading, “What are you doing?!” gesture as he saw his prize catch go flying. To his credit, and without missing a beat, he immediately wrapped his little girl in his arms and smothered her with love.

 

It was a beautiful moment that reminded me of the time long ago when another young dad I know caught a foul ball. Here’s an excerpt about it from an essay I wrote called “Bringing out the Kid and Me.”

 

 

In a stadium filled with forty-five thousand pairs of hands, all ardently hoping that theirs will be the terminus for a ball’s final journey from the pitcher’s mound, consider the odds of a cowhide sphere five inches in diameter being launched or diverted by a swung bat from its intended destination in the catcher’s mitt into your waiting clutches.  Simply put, no one I know, and no one they know, has ever caught a ball at a major league baseball game. 

 

I’ve never caught one, though I do have three baseballs from the days of my youth when the Phillies played their home games on the lush green sod of Connie Mack Stadium.  One was given me when I was hospitalized with nephritis in third grade.  It was signed by every member of the 1958 Phillies, a collector’s item of dubious merit.  Another I “caught” during batting practice by virtue of being the only human being within a football field of its landing place.  During this period in my life, the Phils were losing a hundred-plus games with dismaying regularity.  Consequently, the stands (except for the times when Willie Mays or the Dodgers were in town) looked much the same on game nights as they did when the team was away. The third sailed over the right field fence at Connie Mack and onto 20th Street, where I lived, so late in the evening that my only competition for it was a cat.  These were balls I could walk to and pick up with the casualness of one who has spotted an interesting shell on a deserted beach.

 

Yet here in our new, late-inning seats, directly behind my two-year-old son Nick and me, were four women from the hometown of today’s opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals – and one of them had actually caught a foul ball earlier in the game. 

 

“Hmmm,” I reflected.  “This necessitates a re-evaluation of our recent seat selection.” 

 

In baseball’s variation of the “lightning never strikes twice” school, did her success mean that this particular section of the stadium had exhausted its allotment of chances for this game?  Or, were we in the proverbial “hot spot?”  My intellect told me it didn’t matter where we sat, but the scriptwriter in me said, “This is the place,” and since my son seemed quite pleased with the accommodations, there we stayed. 

 

In the interest of preparedness, I put sodas, binoculars, and lunch remnants under the seats.  While following the game, I envisioned foul balls of various trajectories arcing precisely into my hands.

 

Meanwhile, the lucky Cardinals fan was graciously displaying her prize for the benefit of those around her.  I asked her to show Nick the ball.  This was a mistake, for he took it to mean that catching a foul ball or a home run was a given.  Sensing that he was about an inning away from a crushing, empty-handed disappointment, I tried to prepare him for the inevitable with a parental tutorial on statistical probability.  We were quibbling over whether the odds were four trillion or four skillion to one when it happened. 

 

A foul ball sailed off the bat of Phillies’ second baseman Juan Samuel.  It rose toward us but was heading for the next highest tier of seats.  I tracked the flight of the ball for Nick, who was seated on my lap.  It appeared destined to land in the swarm of groping hands visible above the guard rail, but instead it caromed off the concrete and angled down toward us and the ladies from St. Louis.

 

I sprang to my feet, pivoted, and stretched toward the oncoming ball, barging my way through the four women and thoroughly unmindful of the human cargo that, until a second ago, had been resting on my thighs. 

 

The ball hit my left hand squarely, but its velocity and the jostling of like-minded arms caused it to escape my encircling fingers.  It fell -- right into the seat of the woman who’d already defied the odds by catching one ball and who was now on the verge of achieving the unheard of by snagging a second!

 

But I never lost sight of the baseball after it left my fingers.  I thrust my arm down into the wedge formed by her upturned seat and the back of the chair and, sure enough, there it was.  I held the ball aloft for a brief, exhilarating moment in that spontaneous and universal gesture indigenous to newly-inducted members of the Home Run and Foul Ball Catchers Club of America.

 

And then I remembered my son.

 

Nicholas was sitting on the ground -- benumbed, scared, and crying -- right where I’d dumped him.  I cradled him and held the ball to his face like smelling salts, but to no therapeutic effect.  Was he cut?  Bruised?  These thoughts never entered my mind, as if the ball healed all.  It was only when one of the St. Louis women offered me a tissue that my cloud of euphoria lifted.

 

Nick’s tears soon dried as he recovered from his sudden loss of altitude.  I gave him the ball.  He began working a pocket with it into his Toys “R” Us glove.  The owner of the earlier foul ball to land in that section said, “If I had caught that ball, I would’ve given it to your boy.” 

 

I believe she would have.  But what good’s getting one that way? 

 

Nick wanted to hold the ball and I said okay.  Within seconds he dropped it.  It started to bounce away.  I grabbed it.  “I’ll hold it,” I said.  

 

My tone of voice reminded me that the fear of losing a possession blunts the thrill of having it and that it’s perhaps better, therefore, to live in a state of acquisition fervently craved but perpetually unrealized -- that is, to be a Chicago Cubs fan -- than to be burdened with possession and its attendant neuroses -- to wit, an Atlanta Braves fan.

 

Thus enlightened, I gave the ball back to Nick, all the while, however, rehearsing the imaginary conversation with imaginary strangers:  “This?  Oh, we bought it at the souvenir stand.”

 

Nick preferred real conversation with real strangers.  “See the baseball I caught?  See?”  Their eyes lit up.  Covetous, sweaty fingers (I was certain) twitched.  I took the ball back and didn’t let him hold it again until we were in our car.  With the doors locked.

 

 

It’s brand new and white, with that patina of major league authenticity.  The stamp says, in pedestrian upper case letters, OFFICIAL BALL NATIONAL LEAGUE, and beneath the “Rawlings Co.” trademark, in very small letters, is the word “Haiti.”  Who but a pitcher would’ve suspected it was voodoo behind all those home runs?

 

I gave the ball to Nick to keep.  It’s one of those acts every dad aches to perform.  Only, now I have a problem.  He wants to treat it the same way he treats his other balls -- and all his toys, for that matter.  Rigorously.  He wants to roll it, hit it with a bat (imagine that), kick it, even write on it.  He asks me if it’ll “scrunch.”  I want him to enshrine it.  I want him to pass it on wistfully to his son some day.  I tell him I’ll take it away if he doesn’t start treating it special. 

Something about that doesn’t feel right to me, but there’s no product recall on spoken words.

 

I failed to procure for Nick any of the items on his shopping list that day, though I’ve made a mental note to keep on the lookout for a chest detector.  Instead, I caught him a foul ball. 

 

I think I caught me one, too.

 

Tonight, Nick’s sleeping with it in his bed.  He’s begun to call it his “‘portant baseball.”

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

 

Why Healthcare Reform: “The No-Fault Gas Cap”          Sept 10, 2009     

 

I severed my thumb tendon last month twisting my gas cap. It could’ve as well been the volume knob on my alarm clock or the water temperature control in my shower. You get the feeling, in hindsight, that it wasn’t going to take much. The tendon was primed and ready to rip.

 

It spent four years rubbing against the titanium plate a hand surgeon had screwed into my wrist, part of a general motif at the time called “getting screwed by my wife.” The plate was there to heal a bone that broke after hitting my head on a ceiling joist, staggering backward, and tripping on a dumbbell in the basement of the house I’d have never been in in the first place if she hadn’t filed for divorce.

 

Alright, I’ll give her the dumbbell.

 

Thanks to my gas cap, or fate, or the high divorce rate, I was unable to flex my thumb – a videogamer’s worst nightmare. (Not that I’m one; I use it as an example to illustrate for you the difference between “flex” and “extend.”)

 

After the tendon injury, I did what any American in an HMO would do: I called for a doctor appointment and a referral. But because the injury was car-related (in much the same way as I’m related to a Ryan Howard home run because I happened to be at the game that night), I had to go through my auto insurance. This made no sense, but I couldn’t persuade the voice on the other end of the line, who kept referring to it as my “auto accident,” that a gas cap was not in the same category as, say, hitting a tree.

 

My car insurance covered me for up to $5,000, or about the cost of my hospital gown and name bracelet. The surgery to remove the plate and repair the tendon wound up costing $25,000, meaning I had to tap into my HMO insurance anyway.

 

When I showed up at the rehab facility, sling-bound and wading in Percocet, to schedule my post-op occupational therapy, they wouldn’t accept my HMO insurance. “We don’t participate with _______,” they told me. (Think Vesuvius’s Sicilian cousin.)

 

They would accept my car insurance though, or would have, had the gurney ride to the O.R. not put me over the top.

 

Seems I’m capitated (think “indentured servant”) to the rehab facility in the hospital where I had my surgery. So that’s where I have to go. But … after being cut open in three places, I require a certified hand specialist.

 

The hospital rehab doesn’t have a certified hand specialist.

 

After all, it’s just a hospital.

 

Another facility closer to my home, though, does accept my HMO insurance, and it has a certified hand specialist on staff.

 

It might as well be in Fargo, ND.

 

To go there, I have to ask my primary-care physician to write to the HMO and request an “out of capitation” referral, which, of course, they’ll probably deny.

 

Meanwhile, the car insurance that I absolutely had to go through is now completely out of the picture – until my next payment is due. That’s when I’ll learn my rates have gone up because I was “at fault” in an accident involving my gas cap.

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

 

I’ll Find My Own Way, Thank You                         September 3, 2009

 

 

I’m a semi-Luddite about GPS. Not particularly opposed to Global Positioning Systems. Just prefer finding my way the old-fashioned way: road maps.

 

When I was traveling around the world in my twenties, I came to rely on my maps the way our ancestors relied on the stars back when you could see them. Not only rely on but cherish.  Whether it was a map of the London Underground or the trekking route from Pokhara to the Annapurnas in Nepal, somewhere in my basement boxes I still have them, though I’d need a map to find them.

 

Even now, if I’m the navigator (an increasingly rare role post-GPS), I’ll continue browsing a road map long after I’ve conveyed the correct route to the driver.

 

Thus I was amused in a vindicated way when I saw a spot on ABC’s Nightline about GPS’s less publicized navigational accomplishments:

 

  • In Seattle, a 12-foot-high bus transporting a girl’s softball team was routed under a 9-foot-high bridge, ripping the top off the bus and injuring passengers.
  •  A Swedish couple heading for the isle of Capri punched in “Carpi” and wound up 400 miles north in an industrial town by that name.
  •  A truck in England got stuck in thick brush for three nights until the tow truck could arrive.
  •  A group of 26 friends in Utah caravanning in separate cars to the Grand Canyon were directed over nearly impassable roads until finally running out of gas at the edge of a steep cliff.

 Leaving common sense aside for the moment, as the above drivers evidently did … I don’t realistically believe these four examples are going to reverse the GPS trend. It’s clear that millions would now rather reach for their dashboards than their glove compartments when they need directions. But, as with any new technology, it’s worthwhile asking before we purchase it, “What am I giving up?” and not simply “What am I gaining?”

 

Using a road map is an acquired skill, as I’ve learned from the bonehead navigation my kids demonstrated when they first got their driver’s licenses. It’s a craft that has to be refined over time, because the obvious route is not always the best one.

 

My offspring will attest to that. They witnessed me escape absolute gridlock on an interstate once, where everyone was in “Park,” by squirming and backing our van across two lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic to an exit 30 yards behind us. It put us on an alternate road where we were the only car for 25 miles.

 

All because I studied the roadmap.

 

Now I ask: Would a sweet-voice GPS instruct me to back across two lanes of highway and 90 feet of shoulder to beat a traffic jam?

 

So for the present, I’ll continue my slacker ways when it comes to buying a GPS … thing … for my car. Maybe when it can tell me to look for the white clapboard house with the green shutters and the red SUV parked in the driveway … that is, give me something aesthetic, paint me a picture … then maybe I’ll be a consumer. But right now, GPS is just another means of ceding away some brain function. Between drugs and anesthesia, I’ve given away enough of my brain cells over the years. I’m not ready to voluntarily surrender more of them.

 

 

© 2009 John Shields

 

Was I Even There?                                                   August 16, 2009

 

 

In 1989, the 20th anniversary of the “Woodstock Music and Art Fair,” as it was formally called, I wrote the following brief piece about my attendance there in that momentous summer of 1969:

                           

When I tell people the only band I saw perform at Woodstock was Quill, they look at me as though I've confused the event with a writers' convention.

 

"Quill? Woodstock?" I see the bafflement in their faces as they try in vain to process this intriguing oxymoron.

 

I once knew a blue-collar city kid who, on visiting a Chinatown restaurant for the first time, ordered the only dish his wallet, imagination, and plebeian tastes would allow--a bowl of white rice. As the waiters swirled around him delivering their trays of sizzling sub gum go ba and Peking duck to drooling patrons, I asked him, "So how do you like Chinese food?" 

 

His answer: "It wouldn't be bad if it had some butter.”

 

Some of us, when we do so, miss the boat in a monumental way.

 

I missed mine by assuming I could rendezvous with some friends once I got to Woodstock. A group of us arrived on Friday afternoon and we spent most of the next twenty-four hours watching the endless parade of bodies drift past our tent, expecting that surely our friends would be in the next group coming by. We had no true sense of the enormity of the crowd, nor did we realize that the road along which we were camping was not the only entrance to the festival.

 

We also assumed that we could stock up on food once we got there. History tells us this was a major miscalculation. Consequently, we had enough pot to last us till Christmas but our scant supply of baloney and cookies ran out by Saturday morning. 

 

Late Saturday afternoon, after a night of torrential rain, one of our group made us an offer our waterlogged bodies could hardly refuse. "Pack up now," he proposed, "and I'll buy you all dinner at the first restaurant we find."

 

Had we done better than Quill up to this point we might've chosen to stay. We might've actually heard some of those bands they say played at Woodstock. But we hadn't, so we didn't. We accepted his offer.

 

Leaving Woodstock behind was like leaving earth's gravity for the exhilarating weightlessness of space. Well clear of the crowd, we bathed in a cool stream and savored the finest diner food of our lives at a roadside refectory called the Red Apple Rest.

 

Hindsight – and the film – told me we made the wrong decision, but, hell, even rock-and-roll can't drown out a growling belly.

 

 

Now, on the 40th anniversary of that event, and with diminishing probabilities that I’ll be here for the 50th, I’d like to modify my original testimony.

 

My claim that the only band we saw was Quill was somewhat disingenuous.

 

I recently Googled “Woodstock” and found a Wikipedia link that listed the performers who played there, the order in which they appeared, and even their set lists. Quill was the opening act on Saturday morning, the second day of the festival, and one or two of our group ventured up to the concert area that morning from the relative dryness of our tent.

 

When they returned a short time later, they told the rest of us that they’d seen a band called Quill. We adopted their concert experience as our own when it became obvious that in saying we saw only Quill at Woodstock, we’d have a great story to tell the folks back home.

 

It’s a story that has only gotten better with the telling over the years. But in fact, most of our group didn’t even see Quill, let alone any other acts.

 

Fact is, I did get to the Friday evening concert. The only performer I was interested in seeing that night was the late, great Tim Hardin. After working my way from the tent to the music area in the dark without a flashlight, I arrived in time to hear him perform the last song of his two-song set, “If I Were a Carpenter.”

 

Ravi Shankar was next up. (I am relying on Wikipedia, not my memory, to tell me so.) Having no interest in ragas at that point in my life, I went back to the tent. I do recall hearing Joan Baez later that night in the distance singing “Joe Hill.”  I did not much care about Joe Hill either.

 

The Saturday night lineup we forsook by pulling out late Saturday afternoon included the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who and the Jefferson Airplane. You stupid assholes, I can hear you saying. But here’s the interesting thing: At the time, it didn’t really matter much to us. We weren’t rock band followers. The music we were listening to most often that summer was Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and stuff by Donovan and Judy Collins.

 

We were folk-rockers. The stuttering Who and psychedelic bands like the Dead and the Airplane were barely on the radar.

 

The other key factor in our decision to leave Woodstock was that we had a shore house in Ocean City, NJ that summer. Weighing our options – mud and starvation on this hand, body surfing and beer on the other – made the Jersey shore look the best it’s ever looked. After that promised meal at the Red Apple Rest, we drove straight to Ocean City.

 

Janis who?

 

A final note: It is possible that this clarification is no more accurate than the first. I just discovered that a buddy who in my mind had been there in the tent and the muck right along with us, wasn’t.

 

July 19, 2009

(Here's a reprint of a piece that appeared in the New Hope Gazette in October 2005. It was written around the time religious fundamentalists were pushing "intelligent design," not that it has anything to do with either.)

Not in My Backyard

 

 

Being an admirer of successful niche businesses in a depressingly corporatized world, I have to hand it to Poopie Scoopers-R-US. I was filling my tank at a Wawa the other day when I saw their flyer pasted above the pump.

 

Tired of cleaning up your dog’s droppings?

 

Personally, it was the stomach contents I had trouble with. But I’ve yet to see a flyer offering that brand of cleanup. If my dog is any barometer, there’s an untapped market for the Poopie Scoopers of the world if they’re brave enough to tackle the upper as well as the lower end of Marmaduke’s digestive tract.

 

Tired? I suppose every pet owner tires now and then of cleaning up his pet’s droppings. The question is: Is it worth $15 a week to shed yet another activity that used to fall under the category called ”Daily Living?”

 

Poopie Scoopers-R-US would like us to answer that in the affirmative. Their web site argues that “Demographics and social trends point to an accelerating demand for personal services for busy professionals and executives, single parent households, and people who simply have better things to do than scoop up after dogs.”

 

Let’s see, we already pay people to groom them and walk them, not to mention feed and play with them while we go away. If we abdicate our poop cleanup responsibilities, too, what are we left with?

 

Virtual Dog?

 

Does that then make us virtual dog owners?

 

Hey, we all have ‘better things to do than scoop up after dogs.” That’s not the point.

 

The point is, what’s going to be left of living if we farm it all out? It’s as if the natural world has ceased to be integral to our lives. Already, someone else cuts our grass, mulches our beds, cleans our gutters, rakes our leaves, shovels our snow, cleans our houses, and prepares our meals. Meanwhile, we work and commute ungodly hours to earn enough money to pay for these services.

 

Sorry, Poopie Scoopers R-US, but I found my solution years ago to the discredited task of picking up after my dog: dry dog food and a half-acre yard. When I combined those ingredients with Mother Nature’s formidable decomposing agents – wind, rain, and riding-mower tires – I could avoid canine stool harvesting altogether. And that freed me up to devote my time instead to laundry. Specifically, all those bath towels, hoodies, and tee shirts that had landed in (or never left) my kids’ hampers since the last week’s wash.

 

There’s nothing quite so deflating as noticing that the handful of darks you just transferred from the bottom of the hamper into the rising waters of the washing machine appears to have already been folded. It’s like discovering an error on a spreadsheet: Calls the whole hamper into question.

 

If only I’d had someone back then to come in and handle the absurd task of re-laundering my kids’ clean clothes for me. After all, I had better things to do. Like coming up with something for dinner. But with no entrepreneurs to answer my own “accelerating demand for personal services,” I was left to my own devices. Deliciously, those devices included the power to shrink hoodies to the size of dog warmers.

 

Agitation-R-Me

 

So who knows? Maybe we should work more hours to pay for not having to do the work that keeps us from working more hours. We’re evolving creatures, aren’t we? On the other hand, maybe this complex behavior is evidence of some intelligent design.

 

I said maybe this complex behavior is evidence of some intelligent design ...

 

 

©2005 John Shields

You Might Say the Economy’s in the Toilet               June 12, 2009

 

 

I’m emerging from an extended writing hiatus. When you’re busy stemming the global economic downturn, as I was, something has to hiate. And without a weekly column deadline to keep me honest, I soon discovered what that something was.

 

Still, I’m not going to second-guess or berate myself. The world needed me for awhile there to help turn the tide, and I answered the call. Stepped up to the plate. Put my money where my … well, partly where my toilet was. As you’ll see.

 

To rescue the planet, I took a three-pronged approach – as I do with everything in life.

 

I. Defuse the Housing Market Crisis

 

After the paper I wrote for folded, my cash flow needed help. (Not to impute a connection; they weren’t paying me anyway.) With the housing market’s looking even worse, I volunteered a chunk of my depleted assets and refinanced my mortgage.  Like a good laxative, the points and fees I paid helped loosen the nationwide credit blockage by providing the mortgage industry with an infusion of what I call “Shields Dollars” (seven thousand of them). The ripples were felt throughout the credit world … not least by me: I shaved my monthly mortgage payment by $360.

 

With the cash I saved on the one-month grace period before my first new-mortgage payment was due, I turned my attention to Prong No. Two:

 

II. Bolster the Global Economy

 

I purchased a high-definition television.

 

In my OCD search for the right model – am I alone in that regard? – I encountered hordes of twisted, hi-def TV owners with nothing better to do than blog, in fine detail, the virtues of their “Sammys” and “Pannys,” as they dubbed their Samsung and Panasonic television sets.

 

(Disclaimer for the mortgage company that recently loaned me $180,000 and would welcome any and all reassurances that I’m a stable person: There is no inanimate object in my home that I call by an anthropomorphic diminutive. My sofa is not “Sophie,” and my microwave isn’t “Mickey.”)

 

I finally settled on a 40-inch Sony. For the $1,053 I contributed to the world’s economic recovery, I received handwritten thank-you notes from Japan and China (the manufacturer of Sonny’s TV stand) and free shipping from the Brazilian firm Amazon.

 

But I sensed that, still, I hadn’t done enough. Then one day …

 

I was merely trying to remove the acrylic knob on my bathroom faucet so I could get at some long-standing soap scum. (I had run out of soap.) The rusted screw holding the knob in place wasn’t turning – and isn’t there a Henry James how-to book on that very topic? Desperate, I pried the knob a bit too forcefully – the forcefully a construction worker might impart on a two-by-four with a crowbar. And, su-u-ure … then it came off easily enough.

 

It just wouldn’t go back on, as things in shards are wont to do.

 

Having just demolished the piece that controlled the water temperature, I knew I’d crossed a lavatorial Rubicon. It was either replace the faucet or redo the entire bathroom. There was no middle ground.

 

My bathroom, you see, was the kind of space depressives seek out when they want the proper ambience for hanging themselves. An intriguing décor concept, it hid dirt by being a dirty-looking room.

 

The walls were covered floor to ceiling with circa-1968 linoleum – I’ll say that again: linoleum – that complemented the brown bathtub. Probably to liven things up, the vanity top was scalloped – a popular look, perhaps, in the days when a scalloped-shaped sink screamed “quasi-affluence!” or “You’re at the seashore,” but as out of place as a beached horseshoe crab here in land-locked Montgomery County. And the faux-woodgrain medicine cabinet? So what that the mirror measured 12x14 inches and cut my reflection off at my unibrow? The built-in fluorescent light never went out. There was that. I’ll give it that.

 

In fact, except for the toilet, every fixture and surface area of my salle de bain was either urine- or stool-colored. (Okay, diluted urine. I’d have ripped out brownish-gold a long time ago, but “Diluted Urine” was at least a neutral.) A great atmosphere if you wanted to think of yourself as a worthless, voided substance.

 

The toilet was an old 3.2-gallon Mansfield, a performance giant for which “clog” meant a wooden-soled shoe, nothing more. But performance aside, no amount of whitening agent was going to erase the rust-induced rivulets of discoloration etched down the sides of the bowl. Along with the fake-parquet vinyl floor, they were another restatement of the room’s UPS theme: Let brown do it.

 

That I spent four years debating whether to remodel such a room speaks to my overall stability, I think.

 

Shattered knob and stripped screw in hand, I mulled over my options. Merely installing a shiny new faucet didn’t strike me as providing sufficient anti-depressive counterweight to the preponderance of … let’s call them “earth tones.” But I couldn’t face the prospect of a full remodeling project. So for the next three months I used a pair of needle-nose pliers to make my hot and cold temperature selections. Guests, unless they were content with whatever water temperature awaited them as they hovered unsuspectingly over the mollusk-themed basin, had to learn this new use for pliers just as I had. I almost went so far as to hang the pliers from a nail on the wall just above the faucet, but I knew that if I legitimized their function that way we’d all eventually adapt and I’d never redo the bathroom.

 

What got me over the hump was a friend offering his help with the demo. (That’s shop talk for “demolition.”) Together, we ripped out the wall linoleum, the sheetrock underneath it, the tub, the toilet, the vanity, the old insulation, and two layers of glued-down vinyl sheet flooring.

 

Cause of death on our respective certificates will read “Asbestos Poisoning.”

 

Thus did I move on to Prong Three of my economic superhero duties.

 

III. Tackle Domestic Unemployment

 

For the work I couldn’t do, namely, all the skilled parts, I retained the services of professional tradesmen, giving much needed work to the plumber, the electrician, the drywaller, and the floor installer. They, in turn, went out and refinanced their own mortgages and bought high-definition televisions, allowing at least four loan officers and TV salesmen to remodel their bathrooms.

 

As for me, neither of my knees bends anymore, but I saved a lot of money (or, as Elmer Fudd would say, “a wad of money”) doing as much of the labor as I could. In the process, I improved the nation’s savings rate – something that was not on my original agenda, but who’s counting?

 

A fortunate side effect not to be overlooked: Thanks to paint and my keen interior design sense, there is now far less brown in my immediate environs, and that will make me less blue.

 

For the world, this is a good thing.

 

 

 (C)2009  John Shields

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

Update                                                                          March 30, 2009

 

Wow! The power of deadlines. Since the demise of my newspaper, the New Hope Gazette, the only writing deadlines I've had have been self-imposed. And I'm afraid I haven't been too diligent in meeting them.

Not to go too hard on myself, though. In the interim, I refinanced my mortgage, gutted my bathroom, and recovered my son's car from my daughter's ex-boyfriend, who took "loan" to mean "own." (And that's being kind. "Thief" wouldn't be far from the truth.)

So I've been productive; just not in the writing way. Thus this little update to grease the skids for a return to my old, disciplined approach. For those of you who may visit this page for a read now and then and have maybe been wondering what's become of my creative output, this is what's been going on. I value your readership and look forward to being back on track real soon.

Thanks for your patience.

John

When I Heard the News, I Was …                             February 23, 2009

 

 

The National Association of Newspaper Columnists should start a newsletter/website feature called “Fly, Paper” as a creative response to the cold reality that we’re dropping like flies, stuck in a slow demise. Those of us who have been pink slipped or otherwise cut adrift from our columns would submit anecdotes about “the unkindest cut of all.” NSNC readers would then vote for their favorite each issue. The winner receives a cash prize valued at 980,000,000 Zimbabwe dollars, or about the price your local daily used to go for before it disappeared.

 

There’s a converse to this concept. We can call it “I’m Still Standing.” Those contestants submit their stories as to how/why they’ve dodged the bullet thus far. For example, how the Angel of Death(less Prose) passed over their desks that month while the new kid at the desk facing the men’s room had to surrender his first born, a compelling piece on last month’s Parks & Rec board meeting. The contest runs until only one of us remains standing, who then simply falls down without winning anything.

 

Here’s my own entry to get this baby started:

 

When I Heard the News, I Was …

 

 I learned my newspaper, the New Hope Gazette, had been killed off while I was at a creditors’ meeting, trying to collect from a magazine publisher who owed me $2,000.

 

Does that qualify as Lifetime Achievement: Insult to Injury category?

 

I was getting $40 for my weekly column until February, 2008, when the near-bankrupt parent company, Journal Register, stopped budgeting for columnists. After that, it was either write my farewell piece or write for free. I chose the latter, a decision that offends the all-columnists-are-devalued-when-you-write-for-free school of paid columnists, I realize.

                                                           

Meanwhile, though, my bruised self-esteem was being partly salved by the regular gig I had as a freelancer for chi-chi Bucks Magazine in affluent, artsy Bucks County, PA.

 

Or so I thought.

 

I wrote for them from September 2007 to June 2008 and never saw a penny of the $2,000 I was owed for the seven features I contributed.

 

Two weeks ago, I sat with three other scowling creditors, listening to the magazine’s publisher try to explain to the bankruptcy trustee why he couldn’t pay us or his other 89 creditors. His debt was $1.2 million, and 0.17% of it belonged to me, dammit.

 

Afterward, the four of us were swapping creditor stories (next to divorce and sports-parent stories, the angriest kind). I mentioned that I write for the New Hope Gazette. That’s when one of the two attorneys in the group, a complete stranger until five minutes earlier, said, “It’s too bad what happened to the Gazette. Dan, the editor, is a friend of mine.”

 

I thought for a second about what he’d just said. One of those slowly unfolding, brow-furrowing awarenesses that something wasn’t right.

 

“Whadya mean ’what happened to the Gazette’?” And that’s how I learned the newspaper I’d written for weekly for nearly five years had died.

 

“This was the final issue,” the attorney told me. “Big banner announcement across the front page.” 

 

Turns out Dan, my editor, had been forced to clear his desk in such haste after the death sentence was handed out that he didn’t have time to pull my email address from his work computer.

 

An editor, scrutinized and scrambling to meet a wholly unfamiliar kind of deadline … such an ignoble end to a noble newspaper.

 

 

Undeterred, John will continue to post his weekly humor column to his website, ThatJohnShields.com.

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

(Headline: Newspaper Crisis Strikes Close to Home

Yesterday I learned that the paper for which I write, the New Hope Gazette, had expired. I didn't get the news from the management of the Intercounty New Group of papers. That would've been too civil. No, I got it from a lawyer whom I've never met before, when we got talking after a creditors' meeting.

What was I doing at a creditors' meeting? The same thing he was: trying to collect on unpaid debts owed by an unscrupulous magazine publisher, his being a loan owed his bank and mine being writer's fees for published work.

So, not the best of days. I didn't get a penny from the slimeball debtor we were there to unmask and I learned my paper had died.

Just last week I'd mailed in my 250th column. The run ends, then, at 251. The column below, entitled The Next Great American Spectacle?, is my final one for the Gazette. I will, though, continue adding a new column weekly here on my website while I figure out Plan B.

On to the next great adventure!)

                             --JS

The Next Great American Spectacle?                            January 25, 2009                                                                         

  

Herb is 73, and there’s nothing he enjoys more these days than getting Stanley, his fellow retiree, in an inescapable guillotine choke. Herb has nothing against Stan personally, something he delights in reminding him as the headlock pinches the blood flow to Stan’s brain. If Stan doesn’t tap out soon and submit, in a few moments he’ll be unconscious, but not before wondering how the heck Herb managed to slip out of the arm bar he had him in a minute ago.

 

America, welcome to the next great Baby Boomer recreational activity: Mixed Martial AARPs.

 

(Or, as the ring announcer might say, “L … L … Let’s get ready to crumble.”)

 

Haven’t heard of Mixed Martial AARPs yet? You will someday. Take my word.

 

Just about every other sport has its “senior division.” Seniors play golf and tennis. They bowl and swim, play bocce ball, basketball and softball. They row. They probably even luge and surf. Why not mixed martial arts?

 

“Wait a minute, Shields,” you’re thinking. You’ve not displayed a Yoda of interest in martial arts since the day you began writing this column, so what’s going on?

 

Let me give you the run-up.

 

Three Decembers ago, our son Nick, then a college sophomore and acknowledged video gamer, told us he’d like the soon-to-be-released Nintendo Wii for Christmas.

 

“It’s going to rule the market,” he told me after I reminded him that, by all accounts, Nintendo at the time was toast.

 

Of course the Wii went on to do just what Nick said it would, and the minute I rolled my first frame of its interactive bowling game with him that Christmas, I knew it was going to be a generational crossover hit, something my son had foreseen months earlier. From then on, I knew not to question his judgment about cultural developments of which I knew nothing.

 

Flush with I-told-you-so success, Nick must’ve felt himself on a mission, because soon afterward he asked me to watch something on cable TV called “Pride Fighting.”

 

A documentary about lions?

 

Some weird twist on GLBT self-expression?

 

It was neither. Instead, it looked something like professional wrestling, that is to say, buff guys and pre-ordained outcomes.

 

Only it wasn’t.

 

The spectacle we were watching is called “K-1.” It’s a combat sport played out in a ring, like pro wrestling, but that’s where the similarity ends. K-1 combines techniques from karate, tae kwondo, ju jitsu, and something called Muay Thai, the national sport of Thailand. (You were thinking maybe prostitution?) Add kickboxing and regular boxing and there you have it: mixed martial arts, or MMA.

 

I know: I thought Muay Thai was a mixed drink, too. But it’s a martial art that allows the use of elbows and knees for striking.

 

(In Mixed Martial AARPs, they would be for support.)

 

The object of K-1 tournaments is to determine the best stand-up fighter in the world, and, from the looks of things, that meant the fighter still standing up when it was over. Watching what these guys were doing to each other made “brutal” sound like a champagne review. Yet Nick assured me that this three-round sport is far less punishing than regular boxing because there are so many fewer head blows.

 

That may be, but what about that last elbow to the Adam’s apple?

 

(Mixed Martial AARPs acknowledges that the pointy elbows of many of its combatants’ pose a health risk. Therefore, any elbow that breaks either the skin or the artificial voice box of an opponent will result in a mandatory 2-point deduction, under the 10-point must system.)

 

At first, I thought Pride fighting was just another tawdry concoction to keep cable going 24 / 7. But after watching a few bouts, I began to appreciate the multi-faceted athleticism these fighters possessed.

 

So there I was one Saturday night, alone in my living room … watching an MMA match on – ready for this? – network television. The event attracted 4.56 million viewers, according to CBS, making it the top-rated show for males ages 18-34, beating out every major league baseball playoff and college football game that week.

 

Nick, you called it again.

 

As I was watching Seth Petruzelli knock out Kimbo Slice (the latter looking like an indigenous Australian nightclub bouncer), the wheels began to turn. This could be a new boom. A Boomer boom. Sure, there’d be neurologic and orthopedic waivers to be signed and spandex modifications to be made. But what an upside! …

 

Stanley, meanwhile, has slipped Herb’s guillotine choke after Herb’s arthritis suddenly acted up and he couldn’t remember where he was, and now Stan’s inflicting the old ground-and-pound on his septuagenarian adversary and … there it is! … Herb taps out! Herb has tapped out! We have a submission, and it’s not a screenplay! It’s …

… M-I-X-E-D … M-A-R-T-I-A-L … A-A-R-P-S …!

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

250 + ?0                                                                           January 12, 2009

 

 

Happy Birthday to me / Happy Birthday to me

It’s 12:02 in the morning …

So Happy Birthday to me.

                                         

Today I’m celebrating two milestones in one: my 250th column for the New Hope Gazette and one of those traumatic “decade” birthdays, the kind that end in zero and are SIGNIFICANT.

 

As John McCain probably put it somewhere along the campaign trail, “My friends, (or possibly, “Sarah,”) age is a relative thing.” Not that I’m anywhere near McCain’s age … or his relative. Simply that we all need to be reminded of that now and then, especially those of us who are already twenty years past the age we were certain we’d never live past when it was twenty years in the future.

 

Here's a little simple algebra: If you add the age I’m celebrating today to the number of columns I’ve written, and go back in time that many years, the following events will tell you what year you’re in and from there you can figure out how old I am:

 

  • Its Chinese calendar equivalent is 戊寅年十二月初一日(not to be confused with the Burmese calendar year 1061).
  • 350 rebellious Streltsi were executed in Moscow.
  • The window tax, part of the Act of Making Good the Deficiency of the Clipped Money, was in its fourth year.

 If these obvious clues aren’t enough for you, it’s the year when Brown’s “A Collection of Miscellany Poems, Letters, etc.” was published and the citizens of Rotterdam went on strike over the high price of butter.

 

You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m reluctant to reveal exactly which birthday I’m celebrating. While I definitely don’t feel – and am told by all that I don’t look – my age, there’s no getting around that it is my age, and it’s older than I’d like it to be.

 

Only once before, in the 250 times I’ve been honored to share my thoughts with you on these pages, did I talk about my age. That was a few years ago, after I answered the questions on “RealAge.com” and found that my kidney disease and subsequent transplant made my “real” age 19 years greater than my chronological age.

 

You can see why I didn’t bring it up much after that.

 

One of the by-products of the age I attained when the clock struck midnight is the creeping realization that, thanks to career choices and the deterioration of my natural powers, there are things in life that I’m never going to be, even if I wanted to. In no particular order, here are some I can name with near-absolute certainty:

 

  • Pope
  • NFL interior lineman
  • Chief of Police (large metropolitan city)
  • Regis Philbin’s fill-in
  • Snowboarder
  • War correspondent
  • Olympian (either season)
  • Surgeon
  • Clarinetist
  • Darts champ
  • KYW 1060 announcer
  • Gigolo
  • Cirque du Soleil acrobat
  • Nature survivalist

 I say “with near-absolute certainty” because gigolo remains a possibility.

 

(Humor me.)

 

However, there remain a few callings whose flames of possibility haven’t been entirely extinguished. That short list would include:

 

  • Tavern owner
  • Prophet
  • Spy
  • Monk (maybe too late for abbot, though)
  • Guest on “Charlie Rose”
  • Transplant Olympian
  • Philanthropist (if you’ve been reading along, highly unlikely)
  • Famous, uncompromising author

 At present, I’m none of those, but I do qualify for “ambulatory empty nester” and “good dad.” Therefore I’ll count my blessings as I sit here with my glass of wine and sing:

 

“Happy ?0th-plus-250th dear Johhhnn,

 Happy ?0th-plus-250th  toooo … meeee.”

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It                January 4, 2009

 

 

Michael Newdow is in the news, and not because his last name so perfectly sums up the sorry state of our economy. No, Mr. Newdow is a California atheist, and let me say upfront that I feel his pain, what with Saint Francis, the angels, and the holy sacrament (a.k.a. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento) on him from all sides.

 

Mr. Newdow’s current notoriety stems from his lawsuit to remove the phrase “So help me God” from the presidential oath of office prior to Barack Obama being sworn in as president on January 20. His grounds? That government references to God or religion are unconstitutional.

 

Before we go dismissing Mr. N. as a non-Bible-toting kook, did you know that “So help me God” has never been an official part of the presidential oath of office?

 

How do I know this? Well, I have a New Oxford American Dictionary, and in the back of it, sandwiched between “The History of English” and the list of Inductees to the Baseball, Football, Basketball, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, is the Constitution of the United States. The presidential oath can be found in Article II, section 1, clause 8 (so help me God.)

 

The phrase in question is conspicuously absent from the oath, which ends with the words …”preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

 

The story goes that George Washington appended “so help me God” to his oath when he was sworn in as the country’s first president, but statements from eyewitnesses fail to mention this. According to Wikipedia, “the earliest known source indicating Washington added ‘so help me God’ is attributed to Washington Irving, aged six at the time of the inauguration, and first appears 65 years after the event.”

 

The first president who was noted by contemporaries as doing so, according to boston1775.blogspot.com, was Chester A. Arthur, who did not have a formal inauguration, but succeeded to office after James A. Garfield's death. Wikipedia, however, attributes the first contemporary account of its usage to Lincoln’s second inaugural in 1865. Since FDR, all recent presidents have used the phrase.

 

One would think that Newdow would find a receptive audience for his suit among those who favor a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Problem is, that same audience tends to also have a warm spot in its collective heart for God. For them, the political expediency of being on the right side of that issue, by which I mean the “right” side, trumps strict constitutional interpretation any day.

 

Ironically, in this case, Newdow’s strongest support would likely come from those on the left who are opposed to strict interpretation but who also resent others telling them what they should believe.

 

Then there’s the question, what exactly does the phrase mean?

 

My cursory research online revealed that others have asked the same question. An interpretation I favor is that the phrase is a stilted variation of “So God help me.” In other words, “I promise to do all these things the oath is asking me to do, and I’m going to need God’s help in that regard.” We see this in the courtroom oath, where a witness is asked if he/she will “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

 

Others feel it’s a warning that, if you do not abide by your oath, may God help you handle the eternal consequences.

 

The phrase has acquired yet a third meaning: “I am not lying.” (“So help me God, I did not take your twenty-dollar bill that was on the table.”)

 

How any phrase is articulated can make all the difference. Many years ago on PBS, I saw Sam Waterston give a riveting performance as Abraham Lincoln, delivering the Gettysburg Address. Until then, I knew only one way to speak the famous closing lines, and that was by emphasizing the prepositions: “… government of the people, by the people, for the people …” It was the way we were taught it in school. But Waterston-as-Lincoln gave me a whole new appreciation for the words when he said “… government of the people, by the people, for the people …”

 

All due respect to Mr. Newdow, but if I’m Barack Obama on January 20th, with the broken America he’s being asked to fix, I’m going to follow Waterston’s lead and nuance the conclusion of my oath of office with something befitting the presidential pickle I’ve gotten myself in. Something along the lines of “Soooo …  HELP ME, GOD!”

 

 

©2009 John Shields

 

 

Bare Trees?                                                           December 21, 2008

 

 

Men and women may differ in several respects, but when it comes to the Christmas decorations, we are of one mind.

 

“Are you nuts?” you say. “I want the tree up the day after Thanksgiving. He’s happy with Christmas Eve.”

 

Yes, yes, I know all about those kinds of holiday differences. But where we’re alike is in our annual efforts to refine the process, have it go a little more efficiently than the year before. I mean in all aspects of the job, from putting up the decorations up to putting them away.

 

We all have a least-favorite holiday decorating task and mine is the outside lights. There’s a reason why they sell for $1.49 a set. They light when I test them in my living room, but not three hours later, after I’ve draped and swirled and re-swirled them onto my bushes. And no matter how neatly I store them, they’re the Gordian Knot next year when it’s time to put them on again.

 

Thus, when I didn’t get them up this year on the last mild day before the cold weather hit, I had a choice to make. Should I allow them to make me more miserable than they already do by putting them up in sub-freezing weather, or should I simply not put them up at all?

 

I probably would have ended the ritual four years ago after my wife and I separated, but I wanted to maintain the appearance, at least, of continuity for my three kids. (And, truth be told, for me.) That’s also why I held onto several of the tree ornaments, even though the painful irony each represented cut like the shards of a shattered Christmas ball.

 

It’s not easy cutting the cord on an established ritual. It reminds us that the years of our lives are moving along and there are experiences we’ll never recapture. But as I thought about it, I realized that, while the colored lights on the shrubbery may be a nice touch, only my window candles, one per window, were essential. And, along with a few wreaths, all I really needed. I love the warmth and simplicity they suggest, and besides, it’s hard to tangle a single candle.

 

What a feeling of liberation to break from the past. So much so that, having decided to retire the outside lights, I turned my thoughts to the tree ornaments.

 

This was trickier business. Tree trimming is, after all, synonymous with Christmas, and to even fleetingly entertain the idea of skipping it felt … sacrilegious.

 

That’s why I have to thank my good friend Susan.

 

Susan and her husband Mike host the mother of all Christmas/Hanukkah parties each year. It began as a small gathering of friends for tree trimming. Now, with so many people descending upon their house for the abundant food and drink and conversation, the trimming ritual has become a vestige. And contrary to what you’d think, this is exactly the way Susan likes it.

 

I learned this last night at this year’s party. A handful of us, including Susan’s sister Carol, were socializing by the fire, away from the press of humanity and the dessert table. The mood was contented, and as we were chatting, Carol began almost absent-mindedly yet methodically trimming the tree. Not that her initiative inspired any of us to join her, but that was okay. She was in her own world and good for her, I thought.

 

And a lovely job she did, eventually trimming the entire tree. How effortless she made it seem. Later, though, after Carol had gone, Susan came into the room.

 

“What happened to the tree?” she asked, as if someone had vandalized it.

 

When we told her that her sister had decorated it, she expressed her chagrin.

 

“Aww. Now I’ll have all that work to do taking them down and putting them away.”

 

Music to my ears.

 

“I’m really glad to hear you say that,” I told her, as visions of a lights-only Christmas tree danced in my head. “You don’t know what you’ve done for me.”

 

A tree with no ornaments? Why shouldn’t I? Ornaments should be hung in joy, not melancholy. Not while wondering what did it all mean if it was going to turn out like this.

 

But a fresh evergreen, with a measured sprinkling of lights for the stars ... Ah, the hope. Ah, the possibilities. Ah, the easy cleanup.

 

 

Wishing you a warm and simple holiday season, the discovery of new efficiencies of your own, and peace in trying times.

 

 

©2008 John Shields

 

 

 

(Once again, a week behind in posting, and the stock of the parent company has taken a big hit: from $0.009/share all the way down to $0.005. That makes the term "penny stock" sound opulent.

It's hard to avoid bad news in the publishing industry these days. Bucks Magazine, for whom I penned seven articles, declared bankruptcy this week. I might feel sorry for the magazine if they hadn't stiffed me out of $2,400 in payments and legal fees. They completely ignored my requests for payment and the small claim suit I was forced to file. Not that I'm the vindictive type, but the publisher's name is Andrew Cantor and he, or his magazine -- same difference -- owes his creditors -- all 95 of them -- almost $640,000.

Well, more on this later. It may even inject new life and purpose into my moribund blog..)

                                                  -JS

 

My Standard Deviation                                        December 14, 2008

 

 

In my informal polling over the years, I’ve discovered that deviated septa are more common than you’d think – and I don’t mean our regional transit system. Although . . .

 

For those of you who are either undeviated or unfamiliar with the term, a septum (plural septa) is “a partition between two chambers.” (Another term for it is “dissepiment,” which I’ve never heard of in my life, but to complain about a “deviated dissepiment” is to invite accusations of elitism and calls from general contractors.)

 

In people who breathe – and, for a finite time, in those who have stopped – the septum is the dividing wall between the nasal passages. When the septum is deviated, it is not straight. There’s a very specific term for this: “crooked.”

 

This is my situation, and it’s not a very appealing one because it affects the amount of oxygen one can inhale through the nares.

 

(Author’s note: I apologize for the vocabulary-building direction this piece is taking.)

 

To reiterate, and just so we’re all clear on this before forging ahead: My deviated dissepiment is compromising the quantity of oxygen available to me through my nares.

 

And you know what that means.

 

We’ll get back to septa and their role in deviation in a minute. But first, a favorite adage from the sports world: “It’s a game of inches,” or its variation, “It’s a game of inches, {male first name}.”

 

It’s an expression that’s used to illustrate that the difference between victory and defeat, success and failure, Pike’s Peak and Pike’s Penultimate Step is often a matter of miniscule distances. Horses win “by a nose.” Batters are safe or out on a “bang-bang play.”

 

The world of medicine, both real and the TV kind, has taken the phrase and made it its own.

 

“If the bullet had been a quarter-inch to the left, he’d be a dead man by now.”

 

“Half a centimeter closer and she’s paralyzed for life.”

 

In my case it’s “If your septum were just a little less deviated, we wouldn’t be talking about surgery.” Not that I need surgery. But I often wonder what it’d be like to give my right lung a fighting chance in life.

 

And then there’s the matter of colds.

 

Immune-suppressed people like me quake at the thought of a cold, and these past few days have been the tail end of … no, not a cold … week three of a cold. That’s around the time when the dearth of drying, healing air to my right bronchi begins to catch the attention of the local bacteria, who are anxious to please their bigger, more powerful, lung-dwelling neighbors, the Pneumonias.

 

Sometimes I can fight through their brown-nosing with a bagful of Claritin-D. But with colds like this one, that and all the Tylenol Severe Cold in the world aren’t going to be enough. No, colds like this one call for …… the Breathe Right strips. Their patented spring mechanism opens my right air passage j...u...s...t   e...n…o...u...g...h for air to get through. I can’t tell you how wonderful and novel this feels.

 

Times like this, I walk around or sleep with a Breath Right strip on 24/7. Eventually, the ends pull loose from my nose, and it looks as though a little, neutral-colored butterfly has alighted there. That’s when I have to stick on a new one to minimize the public ridicule. I wish the Breathe Right people would correct that shortcoming, but if they did, what would that do for business?

 

I feel so good right now with my new Breathe Right strip on. Sure, I get the occasional comment. “Hey, Vinnie. Look at Mister Linebacker here.” Or “You call that a nose job?” But it’s worth it.

 

Soon, though, I’ll have to go it alone again. One of these days, the last strip will come off, a sign that I’m out of the woods – or out of strips. And even though I won’t have people sticking their business in my nose anymore, I’ll still be sad. Hypoxia will do that to you.

 

So should I have surgery for something I’ve lived with most of my life? I hesitate, but then I hear the voices. One’s coming from a broadcasting booth, the other from an operating room.

 

“It’s a game of inches, Harry,” says the one.

 

“Another three millimeters and it’s a new life,” says the other.

 

©2008 John Shields

 

 

 

What’s in a Name and What Name’s In                         December 7, 2008

 

 

So we got our firstborn child’s name from a Ouija board. What, you’ve never done that?

 

It’s the truth. We were skiing in Vermont, a bunch of us. Someone in the group brought a Ouija board.

 

Okay, it was us.

 

We were all back in the cabin chilling, which at that time in history was called “relaxing.” Chilling was what took place on the slopes earlier in the day.

 

A couple of people started playing with the Ouija board, and if you’ve never tried it, it is uncanny the responses it can produce. (Ask Linda Blair.) They were having fun and soliciting questions to ask from the rest of the group, which by now included Captain Howdy.

 

Well, you know how those things go, especially when there are girrls there. (Guys would just ask the Ouija, “Does Brian like Julie’s rack?” and be rolling on the floor whether it answered yes or no.)

 

“Let’s ask it what John and Kris are going to name their baby!”

 

We played along and laid our fingers lightly on the pointer thingy. Darned if it didn’t spell – without hesitation – “N-I-C-H-O-L-A-S.”

 

We’d considered a bunch of boys’ names. That wasn’t one of them. But we liked it, and when we read that it meant “victory of the people,” we liked it even more, because the people rarely win in this stacked deck we call life.

 

And that’s how Nick was named.

 

I share this (essentially) true story with you as intro to my main topic – kids’ names.

While looking up the meaning of a name earlier this week (which one is unimportant but if you must know, it was Heidi), I found a website called www.babynamesworld.parentsconnect.com, a name that’s longer than many babies. Let me tell you: this is one heck of a database. It’s even larger than one of those “begat” sections in the Bible.

 

Its neatest feature charts the popularity rank of any name, going back to 1880. You could spend weeks exploring.

 

Of course, I had to look up my kids’ names to see how badly we blew it with our various baby-naming methodologies. Turns out we did fine, though the same couldn’t be said for my ex’s parents in naming her.

 

“Nicholas,” until recently, was neither dud nor stud. Between 1880 and 1970, it rose and fell between 175th and 123rd. From then on, however, it grew steadily more popular. It was 20th the year Captain Howdy told us what to name the baby, then it hit its high-water mark, 6th, in 1995. It held that rank for the next six years but has since fallen back to 20th as of 2007.

 

The name “Chloe” meant “blooming” back when we chose it over “Clare.” The website translates it as “young shoot,” and I think that more accurately describes our daughter’s sometimes impetuous, and tempestuous, nature. Not a popular name in 1880 (947), but by 1925, after all those doughboys had returned from France ooh-la-la, it had risen to #326. By 1942 it had plummeted all the way to #971, but by 1987, when we named her, it was ranked 439th. (“Clare” was an undistinguished 724 the same year.) Since then, "Chloe" ’s been ever upward, cracking double digits in 1998 for the first time and currently at #16. Good choice, Mom and Dad. Way to be out in front of that wave.

 

Our youngest, John, has my name. “John” is one of those names that makes the case that there was more tradition, more stability in name selection back then, compared with today. It’s the Greg Maddux of boys’ names: always at or near the top. A name you can count on. Between1880 and 1924 it was ranked first every year. From 1925 to 1971 it was either 2nd, 3rd, or 4th. Over the past 35 years it has dropped in popularity, but only to 19th in 2007.

 

Contrast that with the short cycles we’ve witnessed over the past 20 years. The era of the “J” names – Jason, Jared, Justin, Jordan – has quickly given way to the Tuckers and Tylers, and I sense we’re beyond even those now. (For a sidesplitting, definitive skewering of this trend, look on YouTube for George Carlin’s routine on “guys named Todd.”)

 

Maybe it’s time for a Kristine revival. Between 1941 and 1951 – WWII, the atomic age, Korea – “Kristine,” with its religious flavor, rose from #946 all the way to #172. It was 284 when my in-laws named her, and it did well again during the Vietnam era, reaching a high of 104 in 1966. Last year, though, it was 996. Ouch. Even Iraq hasn’t seemed to help.

 

Anyway, I had fun exploring this stuff and fun writing about it. If you go to the website, I’m sure you will, too.

 

Actually, let me ask the Ouija if you will or not.

 

©2008 John Shields

 

 

(I was so in thrall there after the Phillies won the World Series that I forgot I had a website to maintain. Two columns came and went. Actually only one. The other never appeared at its intended destination, the New Hope Gazette, because some fairly sedate but accurate comments I made about the current state of newspapers ruffled some feathers at corporate, so they gonged it. I suppose I can understand their reluctance to have their condition further exposed -- and by one of their own no less. It's like my mother-in-law (whom I adore), who'll never let you see her without her makeup applied and hair just so.

But thanks to the Internet, you can read that piece just after the one you're looking at now. I'm warning you about it ahead of time: "Common Sense" and "The Gettysburg Address" have nothing to look over their shoulders about.)

                                  - JS

 

K, Too?                                                                           November 30, 2008

 

 

Can you remember the day you created your first user name? It was a painless transaction – if your name was Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

 

Mine wasn’t. Even though it was only the “George Steinbrenner Ab Workout” web page I was visiting, or some comparably unvisited site, my name was already taken. So was the combination of my first name and middle initial. First and middle initials flopped, too. 

 

I was too principled to stick a numeral in there, and my confirmation name, Francis, never even occurred to me – which is the way it works with confirmation names. So I tried the initial of my wife’s name: “k.” (We were still happily married back then.)

 

In connubial conjunction with the initial of my name (which for security reasons I’ve misled you to believe is “John”), that did the trick. And isn’t that how it should be between a husband and a wife – working together for a common goal?

 

Thus was born my user name. But you know how it goes. A few more websites and one day you think, “Maybe I should vary it a bit.” That’s when we begin to need “the list,” because we are naively certain we’re going to remember those variations. And when all we had to remember were our brokerage, our bank, and eBay, we did.

 

But soon, the screens on our desktops and laptops were teeming with names like Monster, Medco, MySpace. Geico, GoDaddy, and Gmail.

 

My list? After it reached a dozen sites, I found that my faith in my ability to remember the correct passwords and user-names couldn't have been more misplaced than if I'd misplaced the list itself. So I compiled them into one neat, typewritten page. But, as we have all discovered, there’s no end to the list. Currently, I have at least another two dozen websites and their secret words scrawled by hand on the page.

My children’s birth certificates are less precious to me than this page.

 

Some people are so paranoid about concealing their user-name-and-password list that they conceal it beyond recall. Not me. I need mine visible, and it is – right on the bulletin board behind me, along with various words of wisdom I pin up there to keep me grounded. I’d have to say my favorite of those are by Samuel Beckett -- he of Godot -- whom I’m shooting to look like when I’m 70. If you know his face, you’ll understand why:

 

“Yes, in my life, since we must call it so, there were three things, the inability to speak, the inability to be silent, and solitude, that’s what I’ve had to make the best of.”

 

You can’t pare it down much finer than that.

Along those lines, something unexpected happened to me one day. I got divorced – no small thanks to Beckett’s “three things.” To heal, I found it important to make a clean break over time with anything that reminded me of what had once been. It was a long process, but I finally undocked myself, save for one niggling detail: a certain lower-case “k.”

 

I swivel my chair to look at my list. It now holds over fifty websites that require me to enter my user name to change my user name.

 

Hmmm.

 

On second thought, I don’t care how miserable my memories, or how haunting the ghosts of the past. For the 'k", I may have to make an exception.

 

  

©2008 John Shields

 

 

 

Plus Ça Change …                                                    November 23, 2008

 

 

The lesson of history, from empires to automobiles, is that even the most firmly entrenched systems give way to something new. While typing on my laptop earlier today, I thought back to the days when I used a typewriter for that function. A Brother electric, which my parents bought me for Christmas one year to replace the old manual one I’d had since sophomore year of high school. Two years later, though, I bought my first computer – Leading Edge was the brand – and not long after that it was “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” for the typewriter.

 

I remember my in-laws giving their daughter and me a super-8 movie camera for Christmas, shortly after our wedding. Their own had been the cutting-edge technology in its time for capturing their children’s moments on tape. But video cameras – camcorders – were already on the market, rendering that super-8 obsolete before it even left the box it came in.

 

There was no disputing the superiority of the word processor over the typewriter. No pages to line up, no ribbons to change, no White-Out to buy. And, man, did those letters of the alphabet go flying onto the screen. Still, I hung on to my typewriter for a few more years, because I knew that once I stopped, I’d be stopping for good. I wasn’t ready to accept that.

 

The latest established entity to find itself in the death throes is the newspaper industry. A few weeks ago, the highly respected Christian Science Monitor announced it was discontinuing its home deliveries in favor of a 100% online operation. It was the first major US paper to make that move. Meanwhile, I was reflecting on my own reading habits and realizing that I was experiencing similar diminishing returns with my home delivery of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Once I began getting my news and analysis online, I noticed I wasn’t reading much beyond the sports section of the paper. Basically, it was traveling right from my curb to the recycling bin, unsavored and unread.

 

Last week, I made the move and cancelled my subscription. Partly for the reason I just mentioned, but also to pare back on the non-essentials in a tight economy. I felt guilty, though, and sad, like the sad my father felt when the Evening Bulletin went out of business.

 

The local community papers haven’t avoided the maelstrom that’s swept the newspaper industry. You may have read in last week’s New Hope Gazette that Journal Register Company, the Gazette’s parent company, has retained a newspaper merger-and-acquisition firm to “manage the process of seeking buyers for certain of its daily and weekly newspaper publications.”

 

This does not surprise me. For several months now, I and other columnists whose work appears in JRC-owned publications like the Gazette have been writing for free. Prior to that, I’d been receiving a decent stipend per column and had actually received a fairly generous merit raise along the way. But in February we were told that the columnists budget had been cut to zero and that they, the higher-ups, would certainly understand if we jumped ship (my phrase, not theirs).

 

Despite the hit to my bottom line, I opted to continue writing, because I love doing it and because a column has its own intrinsic value and a cachet that is not easily discarded.

 

This practice of not paying writers didn’t begin with the decline of newspapers, but that surely exacerbated it and gave it some cover. And it’s not exclusive to newspapers, as I’ve learned firsthand. I’m currently seeking to recover a significant amount owed me by a regional periodical for writing services I performed for them last year and this.

 

We’ve come a long way, technologically speaking, from the typewriter days of old. But, contrary to my opening thesis statement, when it comes to writers, some things never change. 

 

©2008 John Shields

 

                                                                                                               

As Elections and Baseball Come to an End …              November 2, 2008

 

I.

 

By the time you read this, the presidential election will have been decided. Assuming, that is, that we’re not mired in voting irregularities between now and Flag Day. Before it wraps up, though, I have a nit or two to pick with the so-called “pundits” and talking heads.

 

First, how did “divissive” become pundit-land’s accepted pronunciation of
“divisive?” If it were only the 25-and-under pundits (an oxymoron) mispronouncing the word, I could chalk it up to the phonetics education they never received. But even “old heads” like Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews are saying it.

 

“Divisive” is pronounced with a long “i” in the second syllable, as in “di-vice-ive.” It is not pronounced “divissive,” and most dictionaries do not list that pronunciation as an option. I’d never heard it spoken that way until this presidential campaign. It is annoying. Stop it!

 

One would expect a pundit (from the Hindi “pandit” meaning “teacher” or “learned one”) to possess a reasonably high degree of knowledge or expertise, especially with regard to language. Isn’t language, after all, the very vehicle for the pundrit’s punditry?

 

Therefore, one more thing. To the many non-pundits – and even some pundits themselves – who insist on referring to them as “pundints”: This, too, needs to stop.

 

II.

 

Things the World Series taught me …

 

1.  The Internet may someday be the death of print media, but you can’t top the tactile pleasure of a real, live newspaper in your hands at moments when history is made. How else to explain the speed at which newspapers flew out of stores as fast as they were delivered the day after the Phillies won the World Series?

 

People want to savor every word written about the event. But beyond that, the newspaper satisfies the readers’ need to preserve and commemorate it for their children’s, or just plain nostalgia’s, sake.

 

Can you imagine preserving a bookmarked page on a Web browser for thirty years?

 

2.  If anyone needed further convincing as to the inferiority of the American League’s designated hitter rule (the DH), the three-inning resumption of Game 5 on Wednesday night is your proof. (My friend Tom refers to that fifth and deciding game of the Series as “Games 5a and 5b.”)

 

Having to choose whether to hit for the pitcher or let him bat is the strategic essence and beauty of National League ball. In a close game, the manager must decide: Do I remove an effective pitcher for the chance to score a run, or leave him in the game? The very outcome of Game 5 may have hinged on the Rays’ manager Joe Maddon’s decision to keep his pitcher, P.J. Howell, in the game rather than pinch-hitting for him. Not only did Maddon sacrifice an out by doing so, he also saw Howell give up the double to Pat Burrell that proved to be the winning run. 

 

Had the game been played with a DH at the Rays’ home field under American League rules, it’s not even a consideration.

 

3.  Teams sometimes name themselves after real or mythological creatures that possess traits they’d like to be identified with. The brute strength of a bear, for instance. The sheer dominance of a giant. Somewhere in my memory vault, I knew that the name “Phillies” was a combination of “Philly” and “filly.” Is it only coincidence that the two losingest franchises in Major League Baseball – the Chicago Cubs and our Phillies – are named after cute, cuddly baby bears and young female horses? Even the clubs that named themselves after men’s hosiery have fared better.

 

In 2007, Rags to Riches became the first filly to win the Belmont in 102 years. You have to wonder: in choosing “filly” as their animal totem, were the Phillies’ owners satisfied with just wordplay?

 

Back in the ‘50s or so, the ball club should’ve changed its name to “Great Whites.” You’d have had your bloodthirsty killer instinct (an admirable trait for devouring Mets) and a perfect name for a team that was last in the majors to integrate.

 

 ©2008 John Shields

      

We miss you, Rupert.

 

                                    Rupe on my sofa (2007)

 

 

                                             Rupert and Nick

 

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Bucks County, PA
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