Writer, Humorist,
Stunt Double



Balms Away by John Shields | December 14, 2006

Confusion on the toiletries front.

Take My Epidermis by John Shields | May 10, 2006

It’s gotten to the point where, if I’m not having surgery, it feels as if something’s missing in my life.

My Lawless Province Getaway by John Shields | September 26, 2006

That’s why I’ve put my deposit down on two Club Ahmed weeks in Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s “lawless provinces.”

Being Santa's Helper Has Its UPS and Downs by John Shields | December 25, 2005

There is precedent, then, for writers making fools of themselves, as I did last week, when I signed on as a seasonal driver helper for UPS.

FedEx's Secret Weapon by John Shields | December 20, 2006

Last week, I got a call from UPS asking me if I’d re-up as a driver’s helper for the busy Christmas season. This is like America asking Donald Rumsfeld back as Secretary of Defense.




Balms Away


Monday, Dec. 4th

Dear diary,

Confusion on the toiletries front.

Ran out of my Nivea for Men Mild Balm after-shave. Went to CVS for more. Got there and remembered Nivea but couldn’t remember what degree of balm I had.

There’s a word for that sort of behavior: frequent.

“Cooling Balm?” No. That had menthol. I haven’t liked menthol since I tried Kools when I was 12.

“Replenishing Balm” for normal to dry skin? That might be it.

Wait a sec. Here’s Replenishing Balm with a dispenser built into the cap for the same price. What to do, diary?

Professor Buck, Econ 401, always said, “Make your decisions at the margin.”

Would the dispenser be more convenient than twisting the cap off and on every day? Yes, but what if it was messy? What if it dripped? What if it clogged? What if I bought it and all these things happened? Then I’m stuck until I run out again.

And what if Replenishing Balm isn’t the kind I had at home? Should I risk buying it? Then what? Return it when it turns out not to be? Now we’re talking gas and wear and tear. Or just keep it even though I might not like it as much as the other balm, the one I can’t remember? Then I’m settling for less, and I’d be reminded of it every morning. Like that stop sign I pass every day, the one I got caught rolling ten years ago.

I could use it liberally every time I shave, but that would get me in the habit of using it liberally every time I shave – just what Nivea wants me to do. I will not be manipulated that way, diary.

Do I really need a dispenser for after-shave? I decide I don’t. I play it safe and buy the Replenishing Balm with the regular cap. Now I’m happy with myself. I drive home.

It’s the wrong balm.

Tuesday, Dec. 5th

Dear diary,

Before I go on, diary, I have to change your name to “journal.” People have been asking questions. Sorry.

A routine morning. Showered with my Sensory Fusion Body Wash, then lathered up my whiskers with Gillette Fusion HydraGel and shaved them off with my Fusion razor. (While shaving, thought about how hard it would be to shave the Hydra. Nine moving heads. That’s six more than a Norelco.)

Followed this with a liberal splash of Nivea Replenishing Balm.

Got dressed then grabbed my usual morning meal: toast and a glass of V8 Fusion. Brushed my teeth with Mentadent Peppermint Fusion toothpaste and headed out.

Hopped into my Ford Fusion for the morning commute and turned on my usual: 108.3 FM, the jazz-fusion station.

Quiet day at the office, but lunch was a treat, journal. Ate at the Seoul Delhi, my favorite new fusion cuisine restaurant. The menu is Indian-Korean-African American-Jewish. I had the kimchi with a side of cornbread and collard greens served kosher on a bed of nails. Almost as delicious as the Southwest-Cuban fusion dishes at Havana Gila.

Wednesday, Dec. 6th

Dear journal,

Will not be replenishing the Replenishing Balm. Not sure what, exactly, it replenished. Decided not to wait until I used it up. Wrote “MILD BALM” on my palm so I wouldn’t forget it again and went shopping for it. Found it at Whisker World in the Imported Organic toiletry section.

I’m not throwing out my unused Replenishing Balm, though. No, I’m mixing it with the Mild Balm to make my own special after-shave: Mildly Replenishing Fusion Balm.


©2006 John Shields





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Take My Epidermis ... Please!

People who know me, and those who don’t, on learning I have a kidney transplant, often ask, “How are you doing with it?” My standard answer, because it’s the truth, is “The kidney’s fine. It’s the rest of me that’s falling apart.”

It’s gotten to the point where, if I’m not having surgery, it feels as if something’s missing in my life.

Dermatological issues are my staple. That’s because mutations from the medicine I take to suppress my immune system tend to show up in the body’s faster-reproducing cells, such as skin cells.

I see my dermatologist four times a year, minimum. He and I like to talk baseball, and that’s how we pass the time while he performs a full-body skin check on me.

“I like Utley batting second,” he’ll say, followed by “Hmm.”

After the skin check’s done, the routine goes like this: He tells me he’s found some small, pre-cancerous areas on my face. These are my payoff for a lifetime of sun exposure. And what’s neat is, because of my medication, I get to collect the dividends on them about 20 years sooner than I would’ve normally.

He freezes them with his pressurized spray canister of dry ice.

Pss, pss ... pss, pss, pss, ... psssssss ... pss, pss.

To which I answer, “Ouch, ouch ... ouch, ouch, ouch ... ooouuuch ... ouch, ouch.”

While my wince is still unwincing, he then mentions a mole or area of skin that is suspicious-looking only to him and the office biller.

“I’d like to biopsy that one.”

I could refuse, I suppose, but things that are pre-cancerous in transplant recipients can lose that prefix faster than Tom Cruise can lose his sanity. And if they’re cancerous to begin with, they progress so quickly that this is definitely not the time to show your doctor who’s boss.

Over the years, my skin doc has mined all the easy-to-reach parts of my body. Now he’s moved his “Silence of the Lambs” act to the middle of my back, between the shoulder blades.

After he takes his tissue samples, he sends me home with instructions to clean the wound and apply an antibiotic cream and a bandage twice a day for a week.

This would be a good time to tell you that, when they were handing out the contortionist genes, I went to the line marked “Tin Man” by mistake.

It’s hard enough for me to put a bandage anywhere on my back. Trying to get it on a specific spot while using a mirror is like trying to find Jupiter with a cheap telescope.

I love my son John, but all I care about him at times like this is that he represents an additional pair of hands, unless I can get the emphysemic old lady next door to disconnect from her oxygen tank long enough to play nurse twice a day.

The problem is, John lives with me on alternate weeks, none of which ever falls on the week of my dermatology appointment. I think my wife had that written into the fine print of the divorce settlement.

As for that dry ice treatment ...  About two days later, all those “pss” sounds the little canister made translate into an equal number of red blotches on my face. These then form little scabs. Again, per my divorce agreement, they are timed to appear just before a job interview, or any time a female I’m attracted to is in estrus.

I can’t tell you how overjoyed I am to relive this experience four or five times a year.

Meanwhile, my kidney keeps on humming.

So does my dermatologist.


©2006 John Shields


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My Lawless Province Getaway (Vaccinations Not Necessary)

I was somewhat of a world traveler back in the day. From the familiar – Dublin, Paris, Copenhagen, Istanbul – to the unfamiliar – Erzurum, Mashad, Herat, Benares. I’ve trekked in the Himalayas, snorkeled in the Greek isles, and cruised the fjords in Norway.

There aren’t many places on Earth I have an unfulfilled yearning to visit.

No, when it comes to travel, you’re looking at a jaded man.

If I’m going to hit the open road again, my destination will have to be someplace a little more Exotic. Untamed. Raw. No Cancuns or Montego Bays for this guy. Honolulu may be for you-you but not for me-me.

That’s why I’ve put my deposit down on two Club Ahmed weeks in Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s “lawless provinces.”

The brochure promises that I’ll encounter “al-Qaeda forces and pro-Taliban groups.”

Now we’re talkin’ travel.

The main tourist attraction there, naturally, is Osama bin Laden. I’d be disappointed if I didn’t see him, having flown halfway around the world. But when you’re traveling in the off-peak season, as I’ll be, that’s the risk you take.

The Club Ahmed travel rep tells me, though, that there’s a decent chance of spotting Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is Osama’s roommate and a bit more the social butterfly than his lanky companion. He and Osama can sometimes be seen together knocking a few down at the Khyber Pass Lounge on the main drag in Razmak, where, according to the locals, they’re an unbeatable shuffleboard team.

Look, I’m a realist. I’m not getting my hopes up about running into either of them. There’s an autographed photo of the two of them signing the guest book at the front desk of the hotel where I’ll be staying in Darpa Khel. That may be the closest I’ll come to actually seeing them.

You never want to build your trip to a foreign country around one tourist attraction anyway, because things happen. You might be sick that day, or the weather might be bad. If I see bin Laden, fine. If not, there’s lots else to do in Waziristan.

One of the main tourist attractions for male travelers like me is the chance to head my very own Waziri household. It’s an extremely conservative area, Waziristan. Women are carefully guarded, and every household must be headed by a male figure. There’s this “Who Wears the Pants?” package, with options ranging from 24 hours all the way up to heading a household for the entire month of Ramadan. The few guys who have done it say that the one-month experience is “unforgettable.”

Buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan, is also immensely popular in Waziristan. That’s the game in which two teams on horseback compete to gain possession of a headless goat carcass. They can spend days riding back and forth across a large plain, battling over the carcass like a swarm of six-year-old soccer players until one team succeeds in dropping what’s left of it into the scoring area. All the while, lawless spectators are wagering and shouting Waziri cheers such as “Push ‘em back, shove ‘em back, way back to Rawalpindi!” and “Hold that ram!”

The annual al-Qaeda vs. Taliban Buzkashi match is considered a must-see sporting event, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get a ticket at midfield on longitude line 71ºE, which happens to be the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The game’s fiercely competitive nature results in both the al-Qaeda and the Taliban squads crossing back and forth between countries frequently in the course of the match, so I’ll see a lot of the action.

Afterward, I’m going to try for a picture of me posing with some of the al-Qaeda players. (The Taliban are opposed to cameras and won’t allow them inside their locker room.)

Then, time permitting, I’ll take a day trip over to Kabul, riding with the locals on one of those colorfully festooned Afghani buses. I’ll add to the color by wearing my Yankees baseball cap, the one that announces to everyone, “Look at me. I’m an American!”

A dynamite ending to a getaway adventure.


©2006 John Shields

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Being Santa’s Helper Has Its UPS and Downs

The late George Plimpton gained fame by trying out various occupations for which he was ill-suited and then writing about his experience. Professional football, boxing, and trapeze-flying, among others. Among contemporary writers, David Sedaris, perhaps ideally suited, made his name recounting his travails as an elf at Macy’s Santa display.

There is precedent, then, for writers making fools of themselves, as I did last week, when I signed on as a seasonal driver helper for UPS.

The job description said, “This a very physical outdoor position working in all weather conditions and variable temperatures with continual walking and lifting of packages that typically weigh 25-35 lbs. and may weigh up to 70 lbs.”

How bad could it be?

“We can give you work right on up to December 23rd,” said Rob, my coordinator for the area where I’d be delivering packages.

“Great,” I answered. I could do anything for two weeks.

The next day, it snowed.

The following day, the temperature was five degrees outside when I got out of bed, and it had climbed all the way to 12 by the time I left to rendezvous with my driver. Tom was a seasoned, by-the-book guy who was filling in for another driver that day. We made 95 stops. He was somewhat unfamiliar with the route and I was completely unfamiliar with the route, so we spent a lot of time looking for addresses.

Tom showed me how to use the electronic, real-time tracking board the drivers use for scanning packages and obtaining signatures, but, basically, my job was to run packages from the truck to the house and then run back to the truck.

Notice I did not say “walk fast.”

After a couple hours of this, I was building up an appetite. “What time do we break for lunch, Tom?” I asked.

He offered me a Fig Newton bar.

There was ice everywhere. To avoid slipping, or at least to cushion the fall, I would often bound across the snow-covered front lawn to make my delivery at the front door. I’d give a few loud knocks on the door before retracing my steps back to the truck.

By the time I got home that night, my knuckles looked like breasts.

But I didn’t fall once, and I finished my day tired and sore, but ready for more.

Day Two: Same temperature, same driver, different route. The plan: We’ll do the businesses first and save the residential neighborhood for the end of the day. Sounds like a good idea to me.

About midday, I take my first fall on some ice, landing on my left side. I check my left wrist to make sure the titanium plate holding my radius together is still doing its job. I check my neck to make sure I haven’t herniated any new disks. I look back at the truck. Tom has not seen me go down, so I don’t even mention it when I climb back in. Instead, I strike up a conversation about workers’ compensation for seasonal help.

UPS regulations require that seat belts be used at all times while driving. Twisting left to pull mine on, twisting right to take it off, pulling the door open, pushing the door closed ... multiply that by the number of stops and I begin thinking that falling out of the truck would be less painful.

Shortly after my fall on the ice, I’m running through the snow on one particularly long front lawn when my boot simply rips in two. The bottom detaches from the top from my heel all the way to the ball of my foot.

I still have three more hours of deliveries to make.

We arrive at the residential neighborhood. I’m now running through snow on a shoe that has no instep support.

To me, “neighborhood” means people living in relatively close proximity to one another. The houses in this “neighborhood” have driveways the length of the George Washington Bridge. Several of them could support a triple chairlift.

In many instances, leaving the package by the garage is my path of least resistance, since the path from the driveway to the front door is unshoveled. But Tom is of the “right way” school of parcel service, so I deliver to the front door. With my throbbing knuckles from yesterday’s deliveries pleading, “Please don’t knock,” I try instead to send happy thoughts to the homeowners that their packages have arrived.

From a standpoint of time and footing, my best bet is to avoid the driveway and pavement and instead take the grueling hypotenuse from the truck to the front door – via the snow-covered lawn. I notice I am not bounding today as lightly as the day before. My boot is gobbling snow like Pac-Man. And I’m beginning to question the cardiological wisdom of leaving the neighborhood for last.

This is when my knee, the one without the cartilage, begins asking me, “What were you thinking when you filled out that W-4?”

The residential neighborhood might well have been called “Bataan.” Near the end, I make a hundred-yard mistake: I deliver to the wrong house.

Next morning, when the UPS coordinator calls, I tell him, “I cannot do snow today. My boot tore apart yesterday, and I simply will not run across lawns.”

“Today’s the big day, John,” he tells me.

With seven more business days until Christmas, I’m wondering what makes this day the big day?

I am paired with Don, a driver in Sellersville. I bring a spare pair of shoes but wind up not needing them because most of my deliveries are to modest residences of human scale with shoveled paths. We make 160 stops but, surprisingly, I’m feeling okay. At the larger properties, my driver is reasonable about the garage vs. front door issue, and I don’t fall once. It has been a good day. That evening, I tell my son that I think I’m over the hump in adjusting to the physical demands.

Next morning, however, I’m assigned to Dave, whose route is mostly businesses. His truck is packed to the gills, and it’s three hours before we can clear the aisle of boxes and create a path to the rear door. We’re off-loading large numbers of heavy boxes and bulk items. Delivering to a bakery, I bounce off the concrete when I trip on a step.

Later, I ask Dave, who’s been driving for 15 years, “Dave, how long does it take for your body to acclimate to all the running and lifting?” (I omit “falling.”)

“It never does,” he says. “I’m sore every day.”

Oh, boy.

It’s dusk, and a fresh snow is falling as we prepare to deliver to a development of townhouses. The homes are wonderfully close to the street and to each other. This is fortuitous, because by now I am barely ambulatory.

The next morning, UPS tells me they’re going to pair me with Dave again because we worked so well together.

Meanwhile, I can’t walk from one side of my nightstand to the other.

It’s time to throw in the towel.

Unfortunately, I cannot throw the towel.

Would you mind throwing the towel for me? Please. I’ve been Santa’s helper long enough.


©2005 John Shields

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FedEx’s Secret Weapon

Last week, I got a call from UPS asking me if I’d re-up as a driver’s helper for the busy Christmas season.

This is like America asking Donald Rumsfeld back as Secretary of Defense.

Not that I wasn’t hard-working and earnest. It was just that, with my middle-aged knees and Medicare eligibility, I wasn’t the right man for the job.

You may recall my four days of hell as a seasonal UPS driver’s helper a year ago. It was manual labor’s version of David Sedaris’s Christmas gig as an elf at Macy’s. Only, he lasted longer, got lunch breaks, and was probably a perfect fit for the job.

After I handed back my official UPS brown jacket and slacks to personnel with a contrite but embarrassing “No mas,” I felt that I’d let down the entire organization. That my absence would sabotage delivery schedules from here to San Francisco. That drivers would tape my picture on their sun visors, hoping to spot me crossing the street in front of their trucks. “Didja hear about the wuss that bailed on Charlie?” they’d be saying.

Apparently, UPS didn’t see it that way.

The voice on the line practically caroled the invitation to me to come back to my old job. For UPS’s sake, I was hoping its stockholders weren’t aware this was happening.

My initial impulse was to say are you crazy? It’s a year later and I’m still hobbling. But then I figured if UPS wants me again, they must really be desperate. Maybe I can leverage that desperation to my advantage. You know, get a few on-the-job concessions.

So I decided to see what kind of deal I could make for myself. I began with a request for a morning cup of hot latte waiting for me when I boarded the truck. Consider it done, they said.

 "I refuse to climb over packages again," I said. Last year, the truck was so crammed with packages from floor to ceiling that it took the first five hours just to create a path from the cab to the rear door. I insisted the aisle be clear from the start, with the added guarantee that I would not be required to offload sets of tires or, for that matter, any package heavier than a Nintendo Wii.

UPS said they’d make the driver do those things, while I sat up front sipping my latte.

Next I put limits on the size of driveways I’d have to traverse. Any longer than 30 feet or with a slope greater than ten degrees, the driver had to transport me to the garage door. I was surprised when they yielded on that point.

The absence of a lunchbreak last year was a personal hardship. Sorry, but peanut butter crackers between stops doesn’t cut it for this driver’s helper. This year, UPS has agreed that, if I consent to return, my driver will drop me off at the nearest Taco Bell and come back for me 45 minutes later (a compromise we reached when I couldn’t get them to agree on a full hour).

For most of the year, packages are on-loaded so that the address sequence generally conforms to the driver’s route. But during the holidays, with seasonal help hired to handle the volume, the loading process gets a little more unreliable and chaotic.

Not on my truck, I insisted. I wanted every item loaded in the correct sequence. “And remember what we agreed about keeping the center aisle clear.”

“We’ll see what we can do, Mr. Shields.”

“That’s not good enough,” I replied.

They teleconferenced with the CEO, Mike Eskew. Not a problem, Mike assured me.

Last Christmas season, I had to drive several miles each morning to a designated location and meet my driver there.

“Pick me up at my door,” I insisted.

We had to iron out some details about whether I’d report on days when it snowed or the temperature fell below 50 degrees (I wouldn’t) and about my refusal to wear those unflattering brown shorts. Oh, and about that mechanical lift I wanted installed so I could get on and off the truck more easily.

In the end, I got everything I asked for. I start back this Friday, the 22nd. Then I’m off for the weekend, and the next day is Christmas, which is a holiday. UPS told me they wouldn’t need me after that. Good thing, too. I’ll need a break by then.


©2006 John Shields


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