Writer, Humorist,
Stunt Double



Hawking Goes Weightless by John Shields | March 7, 2007

According to news reports, Stephen Hawking, the renowned British cosmetician ... cosmologist ... will experience weightlessness next month on a zero-gravity flight out of Cape Canaveral.

Who's Lionized Barry More? by John Shields | June 27, 2007

If you want to see silly human behavior in action, put a bunch of newspaper columnists in a room with a bar and invite Dave Barry to mingle with them.

Altar Egos? by John Shields | April 5, 2005

"He was born in 1920 ... a man of toughness and tenderness."

Where Never Is Heard a Disparaging Word by John Shields | April 8, 2007

I don’t know Maira Kalman personally, but her biography states that she’s an established illustrator, designer, and author who’s done several covers for The New Yorker, whereas I can’t even get a headshot in the New Hope Gazette so who am I to even bring this up?

Clues Blues by John Shields | September 12, 2007

I’ve been studying the recent Osama bin Laden video myself for clues to his whereabouts. Here’s what my technical analysis has turned up:




Adventures of Thin Man

According to news reports, Stephen Hawking, the renowned British cosmetician ... cosmologist ... will experience weightlessness next month on a zero-gravity flight out of Cape Canaveral.

I don’t see where this is newsworthy. He hasn’t weighed anything for years.

For those of you unfamiliar with Professor Hawking and his exploits, he has not registered a positive number on his bathroom scale since the late 1960s, when he was a graduate student at Cambridge. His affliction with Lou Gehrig’s disease coupled with all that heavy thinking about quantum theory and black holes caused him to gradually wither away to nothing but a handful of neutrinos that his scale is not sensitive enough to register.

Now occasionally, Hawking will indulge in a “Big Bang” chicken cheese steak, with the works. (I say “indulge” and not “eat” because he’s unable to eat, so he “digests” food by envisioning the molecular structure of each ingredient.) You’d think a couple of Big Bangs consumed this way would put a pound or two back on the old frame, but thanks to the Law of Conservation of Energy, even his slightest ruminating over the Black Hole Information Paradox burns them right off.

A lesson for you Bowflex® owners out there.

But I’m getting off track with all this focus on Hawking’s weight, when it’s his “excellent adventure” that’s remarkable.

Those who sign on for the aforementioned flight, sometimes referred to as the “vomit comet,” typically return to earth about $3,500 lighter. Hawking, however, will be riding for free, thanks to Zero Gravity, the company that provides this service. The company’s president – and no, his nickname is not “Zero Gravitas” – wants Hawking to have the opportunity, given his many contributions in the field of cosmology.

Flying Hawking, said the man who makes his living hawking flying, would be “truly an honor.”

But really, what is Hawking’s presence costing Zero Gravity anyway? Since he’s already weightless, fuel consumption isn’t affected. And I doubt he’ll be in his wheelchair. You wouldn’t want that baby floating about the cabin, buzzing the other passengers.

I’ve been teasing about Professor Hawking’s weight because he is as widely recognized for his frail, slight frame as he is for his stature as a world-renowned theoretical physicist. But his relative mass, or lack thereof, is secondary to the man’s intellectual achievements, especially in the context of being shackled with a crippling disease. So it’s ridiculous of me to even bring it up.

How light, then, is Stephen Hawking? Well, if he were seated on one end of a seesaw (a big “if”) and a bag containing Albert Einstein’s hair were placed on the opposite end of the seesaw, Hawking would levitate about nine inches, according to Einstein’s special theory of relativity and Hawking’s playground nanny.

(It’s always helpful to translate complex scientific principles into simple pictures that people can understand.)

ESPN will be covering the April lift-off. Knowing they won’t generate viewership by focusing on Hawking’s weight, the network is marketing the event as an eagerly anticipated clash between the zero-G of space and the weight of Hawking’s ideas.

The early line out of Vegas has space at 3-to-1. Oddsmakers on Vega, though, are making Hawking the prohibitive favorite.


©2007 John Shields




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Who’s Lionized Barry More?

If you want to see silly human behavior in action, put a bunch of newspaper columnists in a room with a bar and invite Dave Barry to mingle with them.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dave Barry – and, hard to believe, there are a few of you out there – he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from the Miami Herald who is to humor columnists as Moby Dick is to the general whale population.

Dave was a featured speaker at this year’s annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The conference was held in my home town, Philadelphia, which meant I could attend and still find time to vacuum.

It opened with a reception at the Pen & Pencil Club, the oldest, continuously operating press club in America except for Gold’s Gym. I was an early arriver, so I had Benjamin Franklin to myself for awhile. (Around here, Ben always makes an appearance at conventions like these.)

It’s neat meeting someone famous. I gave Ben my autograph and let him pose for a picture with me before steering him in the direction of other famous people.

The room had filled by now and things were going pretty much as you’d expect: drinking and mingling, minking and dringling. All of a sudden, I noticed Dave Barry had arrived.

I wasn’t sure it was him at first. It was pretty early in the evening for a celebrity to arrive, though I’d gotten there around four. Dave must’ve heard about the complimentary buffet too.

(Here’s a little secret about Dave Barry: He’s a Heineken drinker. At least we can infer as much from the five I bought him throughout the evening. He didn’t buy me a drink, but I think that was only because he couldn’t get close enough to the bar to order me one.)

As word spread that Dave Barry was in the room, people began exhibiting the oddest behavior. Patting themselves to make sure they’d brought their digital cameras with them, they began disengaging from whomever they were talking with at the moment to glance urgently in Dave’s direction, who, by this time, was pretending to ignore the columnist from the Springfield Star Ledger clinging to his right thigh.

One by one, they began making their way across the room to him, often abandoning their conversational partner in mid-sen....

Soon, a line had formed behind the prostrated Star Ledger columnist. The first in line was prodding the columnist on the floor to hurry up and finish his adulation.

“Whadya think we have? All night?”

Meanwhile a female columnist from the Sarasota Post Menopause had feigned tripping over the Thigh Clinger so that she could fall into Dave’s arms. This ploy didn’t succeed because Dave was busy at the time receiving the first two Heinekens I’d bought him and didn’t have a free hand. She fell into the arms of Ben Franklin instead, who’d mistakenly taken Dave for the famous general interest columnist from the Erie Morning Sun.

I’d brought my own digital camera in case something snapworthy came up. This seemed a good time, so I whispered to Dave that I’d be more than happy to pose for a picture with him later, after things had quieted down. His frozen smile told me he was grateful for the offer.

A columnist from the Dubuque Tribune Daily Advocate Times volunteered to take a picture of Dave and me with my camera, which she did, and it came out nicely. Dave is seen leaning toward me in an effort to close the four-foot gap between us, but I think, overall, it works.

It was big of her to offer to take our picture, I opined to a fellow from the St. Paul Epistle. I said that I thought she’d been at times picayune.

“No,” he corrected me. “She’s been with the Tribune her whole career.”

©2007 John Shields

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Altar Egos (?)

(Author’s note: This piece was originally written on April 3, 2005, the day after Pope John Paul II died.)

He was born in 1920 and died this week at age 84.  A man of toughness and tenderness.  Possessed of a single-minded vision, he set out to transform his world, and he succeeded.

Some ridiculed him at times as hopelessly out of sync with the prevailing, hip, youth-oriented culture of modern society.  Yet young and old alike loved him.  From the day he first appeared on the scene, this spirited elder was more than just a celebrity – he was a true media star.  A force to be reckoned with. 

His name and face were known to millions.  There was a directness about him that appealed to the common man, an endearing, distinctive voice and manner that made people believe, ”I can trust this man.”  And they responded to his call.

He began his own mission in rural surroundings, tending to the rejected, the outcast of his flock.  He gave them such loving devotion that they went on to become productive, valued contributors to the greater societal good – feeding the hungry, sustaining the less fortunate through hard times.

Some criticized him because his message suggested that his flock was superior somehow, and admittedly, he did little to suggest that others were equal in the pecking order. Yet he was ecumenical, cognizant of the common origins – and common destiny – that his flock shared with others.

Though conservative by nature, he was not stodgy.  He embraced change.  He kept abreast.  In a world that loves to knock its heroes down, he had pluck.

He knew that life on earth for the members of his flock was all too brief, a fleeting moment in nature’s – or the makers’ – grand scheme, and so he did all that he could to stimulate their growth.  As members of one big house, they were alike, yet each unique.  You could count them, and count on them.  And that was his consistent message to whoever made up his audience.

As his reign grew longer, others with more free-ranging ideas began to question his methods, indeed his values.  They pulled away to form their own groups in the belief that there were other, less institutional ways than his by which to nourish and nurture the flock.  On a personal note, I recall one time running afoul of one of those clucks and wanting to wring his neck. 

His legacy will endure.  His name will remain a fixture in households for years to come.  Not a day will go by that some family somewhere won’t sit around the dinner table saying grace and feel his presence right there at the table. 

It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.  Take flight to your heavenly henhouse, Frank Perdue. You’ve earned those wings. 

(Frank died two days before the Pope. They were born in May, 1920 – nine days apart.)


©2005 John Shields


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Where Never Is Heard a Disparaging Word

I don’t know Maira Kalman personally, but her biography states that she’s an established illustrator, designer, and author who’s done several covers for The New Yorker, whereas I can’t even get a headshot in the New Hope Gazette so who am I to even bring this up?

For the past year, Ms. Kalman has been doing a monthly “column” online for the New York Times, each consisting of about 20 illustrations and her accompanying thematic reflections. Her current effort, we’re told, is her last before taking a little break.

At the bottom of this scrolling work of art, readers (viewers?) are invited to leave comments.

Regrettably, many accepted.

Come Sunday I, your faithful reader, will dress up quite formally, go sit in a proper Parisian café and nibble on bouchées à la Reine. And, as in the name of these delights, I will salute my Queen (that’s you) of artistic pursuit. (Comment by Lia)

Time stands still when reading your column and one has a chance to breath in and out slooowly, travel inward and become teary eyed with the sweetness of an opened heart/mind. Thank you for being. (Comment by Pema)

Never leave your hotel or return without chocolate cake!
Never fail to smile at people who are missing teeth!
Never forget those little space/times rubbings of separate ecosystems!
(Comment by Bob)

A few more like these and I go into “attack dog” mode.

I happened to catch Kalman’s latest effort when it was hot off the cyber presses and had as yet received only a dozen or so comments. Finding her work – let alone her admirers’ comments – too precious and cloying for my own tastes (though I like her illustrations), I left my own comment.

Granted, it had some sting, like when I asked if I was supposed to know who Pina Bausch is and is she related to Pina Grigio. But I really did strive to be articulate and worthy of the Times.

A message appeared telling me, ”Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

Moderation, as in softening any rough edges, filtering obscenities or personal attacks, things like that. Nothing I was guilty of – except possibly when I suggested that Pema and Bob, commenters 2 and 3 respectively, were audience plants.

By next morning, the number of posted comments had increased from 14 to 183.

Mine wasn’t among them.

I skimmed the lot of them and found there wasn’t a negative comment in the bunch! “What are the odds of that?” I thought.

That thought became the opening sentence of my second comment.

This time around, I wrote that c’mon, no artist is universally admired and that a little “constructive contrarianism” ought to be welcomed, not censored. What artist worth her salt wouldn’t agree? I told Maira that I didn’t like her propensity for dropping obscure cultural references like Pina Bausch and “coulibiacs” and for making statements like “There is no better start to a party than a puff pastry.”

I praised her illustrations again, sincerely, but that didn’t help. My second comment failed to make the cut, too.

“Leave (only positive) comments,” the invitation should have read. This wasn’t a forum for artistic feedback. This was a forum for jaw-dropping idol worship and bad writing.

OH DEAR! Fret, fret, fret…. Ah, at least I love summer as much as I love your monthly posting, so perhaps it won’t be so bad for me that you are taking a break. I LOVE that you are having a book! To have a book is a wonderful thing. You are a wonderful thing! Ah, there are so many wonderful things… summer and books and you! (Comment by Lee)

Excuse me while I make a trip to the toilet.

Undaunted, I tried a different approach. Since I’d used my true name twice, I figured the moderation machine might recognize it a third time, so I left a comment under the pseudonym “Jessie L.” and used my son’s teen-flavored email address:

            Wow, your stuff is really good, Mira. (Comment by Jessie L.)

I’m in, at 190.

I shall celebrate with a puff pastry.


©2007 John Shields

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Clues Blues

“The particulars of the technical analysis are not something we’re going to reveal.”
White House Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend, on the intelligence community’s scrutinizing of the most recent Osama bin Laden videotape.

I’ve been studying the recent Osama bin Laden video myself for clues to his whereabouts. Here’s what my technical analysis has turned up:

First, those who suspect he’s in the lawless provinces of Pakistan are mistaken. Notice the v-pattern that is formed by his tan robe against his white shirt. That tells me we should be looking for him in Vermont or Virginia. And we certainly shouldn’t forget the Virgin Islands. He isn’t.

The brown background in the video is also especially revealing. One’s natural first reaction is to think, “UPS,” but that’s just a clever misdirection on bin Laden’s part. Besides, he’d have to wear shorts in the summertime and you gotta have the legs for that.
No, Brown University. That’s where we ought to be looking. Think about it:
Where is Brown located? In Providence, Rhode Island. And what is “Providence” another word for? “God.” Or, just maybe ... Allah.

So, one possibility is that bin Laden is hiding in the dorm room of a student named Virginia, or maybe Ella, on the campus of Brown University.

His newly-dyed black beard bears examination as well. It could be an allusion to the famous pirate, Blackbeard, another guy who was hard to catch. If so, we might redirect our search to the West Indies, specifically Nassau in the Bahamas, where Blackbeard had his headquarters. (The lawless-province parallel is striking.)

You can’t rule out Ireland, either. Why? Because when you look at Osama’s black beard and the tan robe he’s wearing, they’re suggestive of the Black and Tans, who tormented the Irish in the early 1920s, much the way al-Qaeda torments us today.

Note to self: check and see if there’s a room number “1920” in the freshman dorm at Brown.

I don’t know what to make of the white headpiece bin Laden’s wearing. I want to say “Seabees,” but he’s landlocked. Between the black beard and the white turban, though, I’m thinking maybe a piano factory. Have we searched Steinway yet? Osama’s a tall guy, so spinets and baby grands are out. That would leave concert grands.

What else is in black and white? Well, everything’s there in black and white, but then he wouldn’t be hiding, would he?

Wait. Old movies. Casablanca? Possibly. We should check there. Yes, especially there because, “casa blanca” means “white house” and Osama is nothing if not an ironic humorist.

My technical analysis concludes with an investigation into why the spelling of his first name has changed. All of a sudden, it’s “Usama.” Some headline writers and commentators have even taken to referring to him as “UBL.”

It’s probably Obama who pushed for “Usama.”

Why not call him “Binny?” B-b-b-Binny and the jet-black beard.

But wait. An aha! moment. I’m looking at that “Usama bin Laden’ name more closely. If we view it as a code, might it not be saying “U.S.A. May be in L.A. ‘den?” That’s it! I think I found him. Round up all the movie extras, especially the ones with fake-looking black beards.

... Then there’s the intelligence community’s technical analysis. ...


©2007 John Shields


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